2/21/10

Easy

We were traveling across the high meadows of air traffic control...somewhere above thirty thousand feet and somewhere above Illinois. Riding high, in the jumpseat of a Trans World Airlines B707, I leaned forward to listen in as Captain Parks related a few of the many experiences he'd had flying through Chicago O'Hare. His new First Officer (FO) listened attentively to the tales of terrible weather, taxiways trammeled with airplanes and testy controllers. Being a fairly new guy myself, I was completely absorbed by the narrative. Parks was nearing the end of a long career with TWA and had seen it all; good times and bad. Impeccably groomed, he filled the left seat with supreme confidence and the smiling serenity of a Buddha.

The sky below was dotted with cumulus clouds but I could make out Lake Michigan's shoreline off in the distance. We wouldn't be dropping in on Chicago today though. I was on the final leg of a two-day familiarization (FAM) trip and anxious to get home. The Center frequency was fairly busy but none of their calls were for us. Still, the Captain paused his conversation whenever he heard a controller's voice. Several flights, complaining of rough rides, were requesting different altitudes. Others asked for more direct routings. The air was filled with voices. Airplanes were climbing, descending and turning all around us, yet the sky outside our windows appeared nearly empty. Footprints lay ahead; a pair of contrails stretched across the horizon but were now being blown apart by the winds. Whoever had left those prints was long gone.

Hours passed pleasantly as each successive frequency change brought that Boeing closer to our destination. The FO tuned in Big Time's arrival ATIS. Hometown weather didn't sound so good. Scattered thunderstorms, indefinite ceilings, rain showers and a rock bottom RVR number were forcing all traffic onto the only approach with sufficiently low minimums. From our vantage point, the world was bright blue in every direction but down. Unfortunately, 'down' was where we were headed."This is good!" said Captain Parks enthusiastically. He turned to the FO and said: "I want you to take us into Big Time. Its going to be interesting - a good experience!" I was turning that word "interesting" over in my head when he spoke again. "Think you're ready?" The FO replied "Yes sir!" and the deal was closed. Somewhere, about a hundred miles or so from Big Time, control of the Boeing changed hands.

We had been issued a couple of descent clearances and were now cruising very close to most of the cloud tops. Some, to the right of our flightpath, stood considerably higher. The Center controller gave us another descent clearance and a crossing restriction at the outer fix. The airplane dipped down toward the clouds and was immediately engulfed. I was in the middle of wondering why the crossing restriction was several thousand feet higher than normal when the controller called again with holding instructions and an EFC. That question answered; we were switched over to Big Time Approach.

The frequency sounded busy. When we tuned in, the controller was reeling off a flurry of instructions to several other aircraft. Captain Parks waited a few moments then made his initial call. A minute later we were over the holding fix and starting a left turn. The air outside was opaque as heavy rain raked the windshield. It was only 5:00 p.m. but we toured the holding pattern in near total darkness. Someone, a couple flights below us, reported turbulence. No more high meadows of air traffic control. We were now in the trenches.

After about 20 minutes, we got a vector out of the holding pattern. Now it was showtime for the FO. After a few more vectors, two descent clearances and a speed reduction, we were turned over to the Final Controller on a downwind heading. It was a rough ride - like racing across a parking lot strewn with speed bumps. The rain seemed to be intensifying. Through it all, Captain Parks watched, listened, or commented quietly while the FO maneuvered the 'seven-oh' onto the approach. Squirming uneasily in the jump seat, I was more than a little apprehensive - not just over the idea of premature ground contact but also the clear possibility of a missed approach. That would mean a diversion to their alternate and no home cooking for me tonight. We started down the glideslope; sinking deeper and deeper into dark and turbulent surroundings. The FO held onto the aircraft tightly. Captain Parks looked on, unruffled by it all, and merely said "Easy...easy."

Watching Parks and his FO reminded me of every OJT session I'd ever had as a radar trainee. My instructors had a myriad of ways to express their concern over a developing situation. Some would spring out of their seats, pointing to a particular target or two and say "You'd better do something!" Some would simply gesture and say "Are you watching that?" Then there were those who'd look on quietly as I systematically squandered my available options. Finally, they'd say "Let me have it for a minute." My heavy hand of inexperience gave way to the journeyman's finesse and, a few transmissions later, they'd have the whole mess cleared up without breaking a sweat. Easy.

A few miles ahead of us, someone announced to the tower they were starting a missed approach. "Roger, fly runway heading, climb and maintain five thousand." My hope of seeing home that evening plummeted. The FO kept scanning his instruments and glimpsing out the front window as we jounced along the final. We were nearing the minimum descent altitude. I stared intently ahead into the roiling rain and fog, looking for a break. Seconds later, the sequenced flashers appeared. Parks smiled as the 707 touched down lightly and rolled into the reverse thrusters. Clearing the runway, Ground Control headed us toward the ramp. Parks reached over and slapped the FO on his shoulder. "Nice work" was all he said. It was all he needed to say. Now the FO was smiling.

It was probably the best FAM flight of my entire career. No fancy airplane, no flirtatious flight attendants, no glamorous destination - just a wise and well seasoned professional passing along some tools of his trade to the next generation. Parks was the kind of guy you don't forget. As I worked my way through the ensuing years of busy and turbulent times I vowed never to forget his words of advice either. "Easy...easy."

And who could ever forget TWA?

© NLA Factor, 2010

8 comments:

Anonymous said...

I've had two jobs where "I'd better get this right" was a big factor: ATC and 911 dispatcher. In both cases, the hurdle was getting past the idea that something might happen that I wouldn't be able to handle. When you're starting out, there's always that nagging "Can I actually DO this?" feeling that, if you CAN actually do it, is eventually replaced by confidence that whatever happens is going to work out fine. The captain knew that - and eventually so will the FO if the captain does a good job. No different with OJTIs and developmentals - the best stress-reducer you can give a new controller is the confidence that they can handle whatever, and it's going to work out fine.

No Longer a Factor said...

Wise words my friend. Experience can't be hurried. It comes at its own pace. Until it arrives, about the best thing you can give a trainee is some confidence in themselves. Once they have that, they can go forward. In time, the experience will catch up.

Thanks for reading and for the comments!

Cheer ~ NLAF

Abu Hoodoo said...

Great story!

BTW I'm the MS Gulf Coast Anonymous but it looks like you've attracted another Anonymous so I'll come out of the closet.

No Longer a Factor said...

Thanks for the comment! I believe the Anonymous clan is related to the Innominates. Nice people but very secretive.

Cheers,
NLAF

Anonymous said...

nice post. thanks.

getjets said...

And who could ever forget TWA?.....
I just love that question.......because the answer is so Obvious.......

getjets said...

Hi Mr. Factor.......!!!!

What a lovely re-read this morning.......
from 2 years ago, a lovely winding road......even in the sky......!!
and I am very pleased to say.........
this post is my Favorite
of all of yours......
Thanks so much......
for it!!!!
MissTWA......keep in touch.......!!!!

No Longer a Factor said...

Thank you Miss TWA! It's one of my favorite posts as well because it reflects one of my most favorite memories. I sometimes wonder if Capt. Park's First Officer (a guy about my age) still remembers that trip and smiles like I do.

Cheers,
-Factor