Tuesday, July 19, 2011

A Refueling Stop

(The Mighty Mad Dog departs Anchorage.)

I forget at times how really extraordinary my job is.

Not often, though, as I think I'm possessed of a rather childlike fascination with things; even now after 17 years in this profession (plus another four as a private pilot) it still puts me in a bit of a flutter to hurl down the runway and take off. That's true in any airplane, but in one the size of an MD-11 you feel like you're cheating somehow, performing a bit of magic.

Today we blasted off out of Kentucky about five in the morning and headed off across the Atlantic for Germany (from whence, in my cozy room at the Maritim in Köln, I type these words). The nature of international airline flying is that one is typically engaged for a fairly lengthy period of time--say, two weeks--followed by a similar amount of time off. Ergo, the first departure of a trip usually follows a stretch of days off, and so there's a touch of newness and reacquaintance as you start the trip. It's also the case that in a big transport jet there's a great deal of automation and the airplane is flown on autopilot virtually all the time. And so takeoff and landing are about the only times one actually takes the controls and physically flies the airplane--a moment of connection to the fundamental skills one learned years ago, now applied to a huge, hydraulically-powered industrial machine.

(Our Front Office)

(An aside: this degree of automation prevails for some very good reasons. A jet cockpit is a very complex place--each airplane is its own universe, really--and at the speeds we travel things happen very quickly. Job One is to anticipate what challenges and duties lie directly ahead and, as we say, "stay ahead of the airplane." The pilot's job has evolved from earlier days where the duties were centered around basic stick-and-rudder skills; those days are long gone (though those skills are still called upon at times). What is needed now is for both flight crew to be focused on what is coming up, on where the airplane is going, and on communication with ATC and looking for other traffic. Of course the person flying has as her / his primary job keeping an eye on the airplane, but the automation frees both pilots from an intense second-to-second concentration on the actual flight path of the airplane and allows at least some attention for bigger-picture things.)

So this first takeoff is always an eye-opener, partly because it still seems nigh-unto impossible to me 1) that anything of this size and weighing 630,000 lbs can be finessed off the ground and skyward at 500 mph; and 2) that I get paid to be the person doing the finessing. Today's was a middle-weight takeoff, about 550,000 lbs, but our takeoff power is modulated downward (to save wear and tear) so that we have what we need and the rest is held in reserve. A big jet needs a lot of runway, and the red lights which mark the end of the 11,000' of tarmac are rushing toward you at a pretty alarming rate by the time you have enough speed to lift off. But it's all a question of numbers, and at the appropriate speed one pulls back on the yoke and the big bird tilts gently backward and leaves the ground. That just doesn't get old. A tug on the gear handle and everything that's making noise out in the windstream is sucked up into the fuselage and blessed silence (with a growing white noise background) prevails. Even stranger than having all that mass climbing into the atmosphere is for it to be happening with very little sound (that we can hear up front).

I thought about all this today as I was maneuvering out of Louisville and on towards the enroute portion of our flight plan. The controller issues us headings and altitudes and airspeeds, and I get to muscle the airplane around manually for a while. Like driving a car, but much, much cooler. There's something kind of surreal about moving my little foot-wide control yoke a couple inches and having almost 300 tons of airplane (hurling along at nearly the speed of sound) tilt and bank precariously in response to my commands. But we're soon enough up at cruising altitude where by regulation the autopilot must be engaged, and both of us are focused on the North Atlantic crossing which is shortly to come. I've been flying a lot of Asia and Pacific routes in the last couple years, and the 10-hour legs in and out of Australia make the three hours or so that one is over water crossing the Atlantic seem rather brief. But as land approaches to the East, it's all stuff I'd love to parachute down and look over. To the North as we cross, Greenland and Iceland (just beyond sight, depending on the routing assigned), then over Ireland and England (just South of London), across the English Channel, over Belgium--France just to the South, Netherlands just to the North, and into Germany (we talk first to London Control, then Brest, then Brussels, then Maastricht and on to Cologne Director). There's too much cloud cover to see much today, but the little glimpses show a land without a grid, a landscape which betrays the ancient origins of the civilizations. Everything was laid out here in a time before surveying.

(The English Channel at its narrowest point. England in the foreground, Belgium and France on the other side. The Chunnel is somewhere below.)

And as quickly as that (well, minus the two hours I spent snoozing in the bunk) we're touching down in probably the most civilized place I've been to. We gather our things and descend the stairs to the waiting crew bus, the airplane ticking and clicking on the ramp as the metal cools after another eight hours on the clock. Another crew awaits, and the airplane will be shortly emptied and refilled and headed onward--back to the US, Eastward to Poland and China, Southeast to Dubai, maybe someplace totally different.

Yeah, it's still a major geek-out. What an immense privilege to be able to do this.


Jon said...

It always sounds like fun and I dont think it would get boring in the least. I imagine that some routes are better than others, but as you have said, just being able to do the flying would be fun! Plus it makes for a great bunch of pictures and a travelogue later! The pictures never get old.

wunelle said...

I was just sitting here going through pictures. I now have so many that it's getting a bit silly to even try to find things. I need to do some basic organizing!

We're hoping for some great pictures from Greece coming up!

Vancouver Voyeur said...

It would be terribly exciting if I weren't so afraid of flying. It just seems to defy some natural law that something that heavy should be flying. It would be nice to visit countries all over the world though. My partner and I are thinking of heading back to Europe in the next year or two. We're thinking of visiting France and Switzerland this next time around. Any recommendations on must see places or restaurants? She's a major foodie. Also, I went looking for your review of _The Given Day_ and it told me your journal blog no longer existed.