Thanks, Dad for showing me the way…
I’m not sure of the Captain who taught me to make a PA before departing the gate to “let the folks hear your voice in the event of an evacuation later” —but I never was convinced that there would be any resemblance between the sound of my voice then as compared to my voice actually commanding an evacuation! Nevertheless, for the 18 years, I’ve been a Captain, I’ve tried to remember to make my “pre-departure PA.” I usually say something like, “You picked a great night to fly! …Mostly clear skies…etc…” and generally, I don’t stretch the truth too much. (Gotta go anyway, why worry them?!) On this particular flight, however, I had to tell them the truth that we’d be skirting the edge of Hurricane Florence and there could be some parts of the ride that night that “might get a little bumpy.”
Departing runway 8R at MIA, we launched into a sparkling night sky, turned out to the north, and quickly climbed into the Flight Levels. For most of the flight, it was a clear, gorgeous night to fly. Flying to DCA, we were cruising at 37,000 feet and my talkative (thankfully) First Officer and I had settled into a good conversation solving the worlds’ problems while finishing my airline coffee (black, double bagged) and watching the various cities go by. Truth be told, I prefer to fly my normal routes in the Caribbean and Latin America and I tell those I fly with that “I don’t like to go any further north than 8L at Miami!”
But tonight, in spite of heading North, it was turning out to be a good leg.
This was day three of four in this particular sequence and it had us both north and south and even once west of the Mississippi. A few nights earlier, we had passed by Disney World promptly at 9 PM when the fireworks began! (A great show to see from the air by the way.) This night, however, instead of Atlanta, we were flying to Washington, and at 9 PM we were already 30 more miles to the north and unable to see the fireworks of the man-made kind.
Into Georgia, we began to see some of the effects of Hurricane Florence. The radar began to pick up rain bands out towards the coast towards Charleston and Wilmington and we saw that Raleigh was also getting significant rain. Our route was west of the weather and we avoided most of the effects but began to pick up “choppy air“ the further north we went. I turned the “Fasten Belts” sign on as the ride quickly deteriorated and reminded the folks to “Please remain seated” and that I expected the rough air to continue. Soon, the lights of the ground were being covered by dark clouds and too soon, the tempo of the flight began to increase with instructions from Air Traffic Control to leave our cruise altitude.
The ride got worse as we entered the clouds and began the arrival into DCA. Watching with wonder the winds shift around from a quartering tailwind to crosswind to crosswind on the other side of the airplane, it was obvious that a large storm was affecting the air mass. This was not my first rodeo with a hurricane; having spent almost my entire career in Florida first as a civilian, then as a Coastie, and now as an airline guy – I have seen my share of hurricanes. I respect them and give them plenty of room and marvel at the energy it produces.
DCA was using Runway 1. The winds were reporting 070 at 14 gusting to 24—nothing the good ol’ Boeing couldn’t handle— but landing on that somewhat short runway (by 737 standards anyway) at night with a solid overcast and gusty winds, I knew I wouldn’t be spending much time sightseeing. For me anyway, these are the nights that I like—perhaps it was growing up as the son of an airline pilot, but these kind of nights are what I had envisioned that airline flying was all about…hundreds of people behind the door with lives and dreams and loved ones—all counting on the crew “up front” to safely and professionally care for them.
Breaking out of the overcast, I couldn’t help but think that 52 Years ago, I was in the dark cockpit of an airliner landing on the exact runway that I was to land on that night at DCA. Back then, it was called National Airport and that night, forever seared into my memory, I stood behind the Captain as we landed on what was then Runway 36. You read that correctly; I stood behind the Captain! The co-pilot’s name was Nick, the airplane was a Vickers Viscount (a 4 engine turboprop that was to be the future of air travel—that is until Boeing produced the 707 a short time later,) and the Captain was my dad. My five-year-old frame struggled to see out of the windows and my small head was no match for the airline style “head clamps” that my dad put on my ears to let me listen to the mysterious words that were being spoken. He said he was speaking some of those—but I wasn’t convinced; that didn’t sound anything like my dad!
I was one of four sons and I had been bugging my dad to ride along on one of his trips for my first airplane ride. Thinking that at five I was old enough to go along, Dad asked if I wanted a day flight or night? I wanted a night flight! I have always loved the lights and looked forward to seeing them from the sky. Sporting a “suit” that all “non-revs” would wear in that day, I remember walking through National Airport alongside my Captain dad and my dad looking down to me and saying, “If you want to be an airline pilot, son, you gotta walk fast!”
The whole experience is just a sequence of images: I remember seeing the cars looking like toys down below, a very nice “Stewardess” making sure I was ok. I remember men on board concerned about the “smoke” (later on learning is was air conditioning condensation coming through the floor vents) and me, boldly and LOUDLY, declaring, as their concern kept rising, that “IT’S THE CLOUDS COMING IN!” (Oh, the wisdom of a five-year-old.) I remember being on the ground in Newport News, VA and having a demonstration of dry ice in a cup!
And, I remember too, that the leg back to National was practically empty; and at cruise altitude, while I was looking out of the window, the Stewardess came back to me and said that my Dad wanted to see me in the cockpit. I unbuckled my seatbelt and slid out of my seat and walked forward through the plane following the Stewardess up to where my dad was. The cabin lights were dimmed and the cockpit door was opened to the most amazing sight. The room was dark and all around were dials and lights and controls and noise—and Dad with a smile turned around from the left seat and told me to stand behind his chair and handed me a headset of sorts to put on my head. The Stewardess looked at me with a smile and turned and closed the cockpit door.
I was with the crew “up front.”
Excited and frightened at the same time, I was mostly quiet—completely taken in with what I was seeing and experiencing. I don’t remember asking many questions but I do remember some conversation between all of us and between the two of them.
I was an observer in a sacred place there in the dark—and it would forever change my life.
In what was, in my estimation, too short of time, we were on final to land at DCA. On final approach with the lower deck angle heading to the runway, I saw the most amazing lights I had ever seen! There, in the windshield cutting through the darkness, was the brightest lights in the form of a cross extending from the runway end. Years later in my life I would know those to be the approach lights and their purpose would be fully known…but then, it would be an image I would carry with me for the rest of my life.
And this night, 52 years later, lights, in the form of a cross, extending from the end of Runway 1 filled MY windshield as we approached to land in DCA on a cloudy, gusty night. Adjusting for the right crosswind, we touched down—ok, it was more like an ARRIVAL than a touch, and brought the 70 tons of airplane to a stop and folks behind the door to their destination…because, after all, that’s what Airline Pilots do.
I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately. It’s amazing to consider that a small thing like standing in a dark cockpit with your dad at the controls can so affect a person’s life. How many of us have had a “chance encounter,” a “word aptly spoken,” a mentor who told us that “you can do this”—or maybe an airplane ride that set in motion a dream or a determination to accomplish something that still to this day affects you to the very core?
My life would have been much different I’m sure if my Dad had not brought his kid along for his first airplane ride.
Thanks, Dad, for showing me the way.