NA-ZDOVYE (To Your Health) AKA PECKER MATCHING PLANES
The crew had a two day layover in Amsterdam before Robert Vesco’s assistant called and told me our next flight would be to Athens, without the boss. What he didn’t tell me until after we were on our way to Greece was, “change of plans, stop in Rome.” I wondered why Vesco was not on board. But, I was used to this and the assistant simply said, “We’re picking up Bob and some important dudes and going to Rabat, hush-hush.” He didn’t know the wheeling and dealing I would have to do to make this unscheduled in-flight change from Athens to Rome. But, that’s another story. I BS’d my way through this.
Rome to Rabat is mostly over the Mediterranean, but Rabat is actually on the Atlantic Ocean southwest of Gibraltar. I had hoped that perhaps we could go to Casablanca where Humphrey Bogart said the magic words to Ingrid Bergman in one of my favorite movies. But that was not my destination so I couldn’t share a bit of movie history with my crew. We had to settle forRabat. Bogart was long gone anyway. I was informed the Rome passenger pickup would be swift with confidential security involved. This was nothing new to me or my crew. Hell, sometimes I had visions of “Pink Panther” scripts to work from instead of flight plans. In some of my adventures I’ve even been accused of being a secret CIA operative. I was told, “These guys we’re going to pick up run the goddamned country, Vesco needs them to get to the king because this is one hell of a big deal we’re putting together.” That’s the way he did business, put the top of the pile in your pocket and the rest just follow, even kings. Several things made this a memorable flight. The first was landing at Rabat with all the confusion and excitement. The second was playing host to Ivan and the last was getting out of there in one piece. I’ll save that for the end.
As we approached Moroccan airspace we were instructed to hold outside their airspace and await further clearance. I entered a holding pattern about twenty miles from Rabat and flew in circles. The sky was clear and we could see for a hundred miles. Something must be going on because Rabat is not exactly Chicago or New York when it comes to air traffic flow. I questioned the delay so I could tell the boss. Air traffic just said, “remain in the holding pattern until further advised.” I had no choice, but I wasn’t alone. A Russian Aeroflot jet was above me and he also got holding instructions until further advised. As I made my circuits in the holding pattern we could see the Russian jet above us a couple of thousand feet higher. It was a large jet with four engines mounted on the rear of the fuselage. As we watched it we tried to identify its type. One of my crew said he thought it was a Liyushin-62 (IIYUSHIN-62). A relatively recent long range Russian commercial model similar to our DC-9, but much larger. By way of comparison to aircraft wise readers it could be described as a big, big Lockheed Jetstar. Later on we discovered he was right.
There was a lot of chatter and excitement on the radio frequency. We guessed that there was some kind of military activity taking place in the Moroccan air space and it wasn’t until we landed that we got the story. As we taxied in we noticed that military vehicles and armed soldiers were all over the place. We knew that we were expected because we were directed to a parking spot right in front of the main terminal, and the first one to greet us was an air force officer who came up the steps two at a time and asked me to keep the passengers seated until security had been put in place. Armed soldiers lined the red carpet that had been placed at the foot of the steps leading to the limousines lined up waiting to receive my passengers. After the limos drove off, the officer, an air force colonel, finally calmed down. His stress was obvious. He apologized for any delay we may have experienced and was quick to tell us that an unfortunate incident had just occurred. According to his report rebels attempted a coup and a rogue flight officer had attempted to shoot down the king’s Boeing 727 as it was approaching the airport a few minutes in front of us. I guess he failed because we had followed the 727 on approach and it was still in one piece. We later found out that the rebels actually thought (incorrectly) that their king, Hassan II, could have been a passenger on Vesco’s 707 and WE could have become their target. But, obviously faulty intelligence on the part of the coup proved to be to our advantage and we dodged the bullet.
The short lived junta possibly had at least one air force rebel pilot who knew the difference between a 727 and 707 and was obviously a lousy shot anyway. After the smoke settled we made arrangements to service the Boeing because I knew that my next leg would be back to theU.S. We knew we would be staying inRabatovernight. The colonel was assigned to be our host and treated the crew as if we were royalty advising me that arrangements had been made for rooms for the crew at the best hotel in town and we would have a car and driver at our disposal. Several officials asked to see our aircraft and we gave them a tour. They were impressed and all knew we were in town so our boss could have a private meeting with their boss, the king. As the tour group left the Boeing after their visit I stood at the top of the steps with the colonel as the Aeroflot jet was parked in front of me. He identified it as an IIYUSHIN-62 (Liyushin-62). My alert crewman was correct in identifying the jet when it was above us a half hour earlier. This relatively new model could carry 198 passengers so I called my crew to come witness the shut down of this monster. Something that got our attention very quickly was the unique procedure used before the passengers started to get off from the rear entrance door. A large telescoping stand was extended from the underneath of the fuselage between the four engines. We later learned that this was necessary to keep the aircraft from falling on its ass when loading and unloading passengers or freight because it was statically tail-heavy. And without this hydraulic appendage to prevent tipping backwards on the ground it had to be extended or it would squat like a fat duck with a full belly. Something new to all of us, but the Russians did what had to be done to solve their problem. You might think of it as a telescoping pogo stick stuck under the back of the fuselage that extended with hydraulic pressure. What a cheap fix for an obvious mistake!
Watching the passengers disembark from the Russian jet we were told by the colonel that this was a refueling stop for the aircraft. This was a regular daily flight from Moscow to Havana and Rabat Morocco was its last stop before crossing the ocean to Cuba. The stop-over was usually three hours for servicing the aircraft and giving the passengers time to visit the gift shops and get something to eat before the long flight to Cuba. Now for the big surprise! Standing at the top of the steps, where Captains usually stand at any foreign airport, I saw a group of flight crew from the Russian jet approaching my 707 like a bunch of uniformed tourists visiting Disney World. My host went down the steps to speak with another Moroccan officer leading the Russian flight crew then came up to me and asked, “Captain, they would like permission to come aboard your aircraft.” This request caught me off guard. “Colonel,” I said. “We are not exactly on the best of terms with the Russians. We have what you may know as a cold war between nations.” “I understand,” he said. “But you are both guests of ours and I think it would be appropriate to warm up this cold war with letting them see the famous 707 belonging to Mr. Vesco.” I thought for a moment before I said, “Let me talk with my crew.” “Ivan wants to see Phyllis.” I said to my crew. “How do you feel about playing diplomat?” “Why not?” was the opinion. “Maybe they just want to see a quality aircraft made in America and steal some more of our secrets,” my Chief Flight Engineer said laughing. He spoke several languages but not Russian.
All the Russian females spoke English. The male crew members except for the Captain spoke English. Everything had to be translated for this rotund, red nosed little man dressed in the splendor of a high school drum major. All that was missing from little Ivan was a baton and a whistle around his neck. He had more gold and medals on his uniform than Napoleon at a state dinner. But, he was their leader so I showed him the respect as one Captain to another and he did the same to me. I counted a crew of twelve coming aboard my Boeing, five males and seven females. As they came up the steps they were all directed aft to the luxury of the 707 and it became obvious that they had never seen such opulence before. The tour was led by my chief stewardess and the excitement displayed by the Russian crew was obvious. The Russian females, naturally, showed more excitement than the male crew members. But, that only lasted until I took the male members forward to the flight deck. Then it was their turn to get excited at what they saw. The neatness and organization of the engineer’s station on the Boeing was their first clue to “made in America.” When I motioned to the Captain to sit in my seat and the First officer to sit in the right seat, they both got to appreciate the modern equipment that was state of the art even though I knew it was above their heads in understanding because it was obviously very new to them. After the Russian crew inspected the flight deck the First Officer asked, “Captain, where does the radio operator and navigator sit on this aircraft?” “We don’t have any,” I said. “We only have a Captain, First Officer and Flight Engineer. That’s all that is required because everything is controlled with computers and auto navigation. He quickly spoke to the rest of his crew and they displayed amazement at my explanation. After more than half an hour being host to the Russians the Captain got up and walked back to Vesco’s private office for another peek at what probably caught his eye. I saw his interest earlier. It was the display of Vesco’s liquor cabinet behind his desk. I followed the Captain and when he touched some of the bottles I took a couple of them out of the cabinet and put them on the bar. I knew what caught his attention earlier. I took some glasses out and made an offering gesture to the Russian crew. They looked at each other and then at their Captain. He didn’t hesitate as he opened a bottle of Crown Royal (Vesco’s favorite) and poured himself a hefty tumbler half full. It was obvious he wanted to make a toast so I played diplomat again. I served the rest of the crew and since I was on an over-nite, I joined them as the Captain made a toast in Russian and downed his glass. I had no idea what he said but the First officer said it was a compliment. It must have been one hell of a toast because the Captain topped off his glass again for another toast, then another.
“NA-ZDOVYE,” (To Your Health) Ivan said, pitching down his third drink with one gulp. By the time the Captain finished his toasts he insisted that my crew join him on his aircraft so he could return the courtesy. We accepted and went aboard the Russian jet for a tour. What an experience. The first impression was that this was not a modern Russian jet, it was a damned submarine. The cabin was drab with regular seats for perhaps two hundred passengers. The flight deck was a disaster. It was from another era, not up to modern standards. There was an area where the radio operator was surrounded with WW II equipment. The navigator sat at his table with things I hadn’t seen since the war. The flight engineer’s table looked no better than the work shop in my garage. And the two seats for the Captain and First officer faced an instrument panel from last generation. But, what really caught my attention was the control column. That is the wheel that is used to manage the flight controls. This Russian jet did not have boosted flight controls like the Boeing. It flew like a truck! It had two wheels mounted in front of the captain and First officer. What a joke. One was bigger than the other to give the operator mechanical advantage for different flight modes. About as basic and one can get. Something that impressed them about the Boeing was that we had one control wheel because all our control surfaces are hydraulically boosted. Think of it as an automobile without power steering vs. one with power steering. We had power steering. The Russian jet didn’t. And THIS was the pride of the Russian commercial fleet thirty- five years ago? Since that time Ivan has made great strides in its military aircraft making them competitive with the best in the west. It’s easy to spot the similarity in Russian and American aircraft. They are masters at stealing and copying the best we have but they still come up short on technical matters.
The First officer was an impressive individual. He spoke perfect English and proudly announced that he had a university education and that his Captain was not a party member of high standing because Russian politics was not something he understood. He said his Captain was a peasant who had been a war hero and was given temporary command of this new jet and that he would shortly replace him. That’s their problem but there was another problem that I mentioned. “I noticed that you did not join in the toast,” I said to him. “No,” he replied. “We still have to go to Cuba and I do not drink when I fly.” “Are you guys going to continue today?” I asked. “Yes,” he said. “This is my leg so I don’t care if the Captain snores all the way. I don’t need him.” That got my attention. How would you like to be a passenger on a jet after the crew was drinking and the aircraft commander was in his cups? I know that this is a common practice with many foreign flight crews. They sip the nectar when they want with no FAA monitoring them. Quite a difference between foreign carriers and us. I first learned of this practice living in the Swiss Crew House inGeneva. It’s common with them and absolutely forbidden by us. We have strict law about the time from bottle to throttle. They don’t. Still want to fly on foreign carriers? We watched this Russian jet depart. At least they got in the air and we hoped they would get to their destination with one pilot flying and the other sleeping off a hangover.
The last part of this story deals with my departure the next day. “Let’s go home,” he said, as he called me early in the morning at my hotel.” That meantNewark, a seven and a half hour flight across the Atlantic bucking strong headwinds. I needed a lot of fuel to make this trip but I had to take many things into consideration for this flight. Number one was the temperature at takeoff and the runway length. I asked him when he wanted to leave and he said, “let’s figure beforenoon.” The worst time of day for departure would be from noon on. So, I certainly hoped he wouldn’t be any later because it was the hottest time of the day and this puts the worst burden on the performance of the aircraft…high temperature. The hotter it is the longer it takes to get in the air for many reasons. I had to get to work digging into the performance manuals for the Boeing to come up with the right numbers plus an added Vesco fudge factor because he was usually behind schedule. But, I did this all the time and was familiar with computing the requirements of my aircraft. The runway I had available for my departure toNewarkwas 11,483 feet long. The airport elevation was 276 feet above sea level. Plugging these numbers into my performance requirements for takeoff I settled on a fuel load I needed for the flight. With the reported temperature and wind velocity and direction I felt comfortable with my estimated takeoff weight. I had my flight crew check my numbers and we agreed I was correct. I even added the PanAm Jesus factor for reduced aircraft performance because I operated with the manuals I was trained to use. But, when I started my takeoff I had some doubts for several reasons. Number one. Did we miss something? Number two. Are my engines putting out the power I expected because it’s so damned hot? These are questions a pilot doesn’t have to ask when he is being dispatched by his company. But, being a self-dispatching operator outside the PanAm route structure I didn’t have anyone to blame except myself if things don’t work out even with professional support from my crew. You don’t get a second chance.
He was late, as expected. More than three hours behind his original scheduled departure time and it was now the middle of a hot Morrocan afternoon. And with all the last minute hustle to get everyone and the baggage loaded, we cranked up and taxied out to the departure end of the runway way behind schedule. I was not happy with this. Vesco had no idea how his delay could affect me so I quickly re-did my takeoff computations. “Take off checklist complete,” the First Officer announced as I taxied into takeoff position. I nodded and pushed the power levers full forward, holding the brakes until the Flight Engineer said, “you’ve got your power.” I didn’t hesitate at eighty percent power and then release the brakes to make a routine rolling takeoff, which is always more comfortable to the passengers, I applied full power. I held her in the starting gate until she was shaking her guts out wanting to GO. Releasing the brakes, Phyllis slowly started to move down the long runway roaring like an angry tiger. I heard the thumps as she crossed the tar strips between the runway segments. Something I learned to get familiar with because it is an indication of acceleration during takeoff. It’s a way of timing your progress. Thump, thump, thump, thump, thump I heard as the Boeing slowly went down the runway. The time between thumps was getting closer together but, I thought, “not close enough, she’s really sluggish.” “Eighty knots,” the First Officer called out. That meant I could let go of the nose steering and rely on rudder to stay on the center line. I glanced at the airspeed indicator. The next call out I wanted to hear was “Vee One.” That was the point of no return. If something went wrong before this number, there was enough runway left to abort the takeoff and stop the aircraft before running out of runway. In theory, this is the magic number pre-computed for every takeoff. It is often described as the last decision point where if things aren’t right, you can always stop and come back another day. But, once you hear “Vee One,” there is no decision except…KEEP GOING! Actually meaning you take any problem with you into the air. You are committed. No more options. “Vee One,” the FO called out. But that wasn’t my magic number. I wanted to hear, “Rotate!” That was the speed at which I could ease back on the control column and put Phyllis in a climb attitude so she could get her ass off the hot runway. I saw the end of the runway rapidly approaching with nothing but sand dunes beyond. “Rotate,” he yelled. I pulled her nose up fifteen degrees and silently said, “you whore, don’t let me down.” The crew statement to “rotate” is to position the aircraft attitude so it will leave the ground. When it actually happens is seconds later eating up more of the runway available getting us closer to the sand dunes at the end. This is called Vlof, (lift- off) and is the actual point in the takeoff that the aircraft is airborne. It is not a crew call out, it is a feeling and sound you learn from experience. At a speed of almost 200 mph you’re covering a lot of ground in just a few seconds waiting to actually get off the hot runway. “Positive rate,” the FO said. That’s what I wanted to hear. That meant the heavy jet was actually off the ground and climbing. When I felt the landing gear struts extend, I knew we were off the ground. “Gear Up,” I commanded. I heard the landing gear start to retract with all the right indicator lights blinking and the noises of the gear doors opening to receive the massive landing gear. Unless one is familiar with the performance of any large jet, the minute the landing gear retraction cycle is initiated it takes about eight seconds to complete. During this short time period the added drag of the doors opening and the gear starting to retract actually reduces the climb performance. At our speed we ate up more than twenty-four hundred feet of the remaining runway to get the aircraft into a “clean” configuration. Phyllis probably missed the lights at the end of the runway by a few feet but we were in the air and climbing. And, we didn’t bounce off any sand dunes. Talk about a pucker factor. I puckered. So did my crew, I think. As we continued to gain altitude and airspeed we went through the normal routine of flap retraction and after takeoff checklist items. “Son of a bitch,” I said to my crew. “I don’t want to do that again.” I saw the apprehension on their faces and the nod of agreement as we went about our routine departure duties.
On the way back toNewarkI reviewed all the numbers to see if I had made any mistake in my departure calculations. There were none. My conclusion, no matter how smart we may think we are, someone, or something much smarter than us, still calls the shots. “NA-ZDOVYE,” I said as we climbed on course back to home. “That’s for Phyllis. She never lets us down but she still gets our attention from time to time. So let’s give her a toast, Russian style, when we get home.”
Their thumbs up response was welcomed. We were a tight crew. We did it! Again…