Sully Sullenberger and Ace Abbott

 Captain Sully Sullenberger and Al Morris


By old fashioned pilots
OLD FASHIONED PILOTSThe aviation anecdote that you are about to read will make you appreciate veteran skilled pilots. After the recent Asiana crash at San Francisco, the UPS crash at Birmingham, Alabama, and the Southwest Airlines runway excursion at LaGuardia in New York, it is becoming quite clear that the computer needs a lot of help from the “180 pound non-linear servo-mechanism with untold billions of neural pathways within its cranium.” This also could be defined as a very knowledgeable veteran pilot. As the tweeter with the handle (@video aviation) points out: “The engine is the heart of the airplane but the pilot is its soul.” This wonderful revelation of some brilliant airmanship by an old-head United Airlines Boeing 720 Captain will get you on the edge of your chair. The blood pressure will spike and the pulse will race.The PayoffDedicated to Frank Crismon (1903-1990)by Capt. G. C. Kehmeier (United Airlines, Ret.)

“I ought to make you buy a ticket to ride this airline!”  The chief pilot’s words were scalding.  I had just transferred from San Francisco to Denver.  Frank Crismon, my new boss, was giving me a route check between Denver and Salt Lake City.

“Any man who flies for me will know this route,” he continued.  “‘Fourteen thousand feet will clear Kings Peak’ is not adequate.  You had better know that Kings Peak is exactly 13,498 feet high.  Bitter Creek is not ‘about 7,000 feet.’  It is exactly 7,185 feet, and the identifying code for the beacon is dash dot dash. “I’m putting you on probation for one month, and then I’ll ride with you again.  If you want to work for me, you had better start studying!” Wow!  He wasn’t kidding!  For a month, I pored over sectional charts, auto road maps, Jeppesen approach charts, and topographic quadrangle maps.  I learned the elevation and code for every airway beacon between the West Coast and Chicago.  I learned the frequencies, runway lengths, and approach procedures for every airport.  From city road maps, I plotted the streets that would funnel me to the various runways at each city.

A month later he was on my trip. “What is the length of the north-south runway at Milford?”  “Fifty-one fifty.” “How high is Antelope Island?”  “Sixty-seven hundred feet.” “If your radio fails on an Ogden-Salt Lake approach, what should you do?”  “Make a right turn to 290 degrees and climb to 13,000 feet.””What is the elevation of the Upper Red Butte beacon?”  “Seventy-three hundred.””How high is the Laramie Field?”  “Seventy-two fifty.”

This lasted for the three hours from Denver to Salt Lake City.

“I’m going to turn you loose on your own.  Remember what you have learned.  I don’t want to ever have to scrape you off some hillside with a book on your lap!”

Twenty years later, I was the Captain on a Boeing 720 from San Francisco to Chicago.  We were cruising in the cold, clear air at 37,000 feet. South of Grand Junction a deep low-pressure area fed moist air upslope into Denver, causing snow, low ceilings, and restricted visibility.  The forecast for Chicago’s O’Hare Field was 200 feet and one-half mile, barely minimums. Over the Utah-Colorado border, the backbone of the continent showed white in the noonday sun.  I switched on the intercom and gave the passengers the word. “We are over Grand Junction at the confluence of the Gunnison and Colorado Rivers.  On our right and a little ahead is the Switzerland of America–the rugged San Juan Mountains.  In 14 minutes we will cross the Continental Divide west of Denver.  We will arrive O’Hare at 3:30 Chicago time.”

Over Glenwood Springs, the generator overheat light came on.”Number 2 won’t stay on the bus,” the engineer advised. He placed the essential power selector to number 3.  The power failure light went out for a couple of seconds and then came on again, glowing ominously. “Smoke is coming out of the main power shield,” the engineer yelled. “Hand me the goggles.” The engineer reached behind the observer’s seat, unzipped a small container, and handed the copilot and me each a pair of ski goggles.  The smoke was getting thick. I slipped the oxygen mask that is stored above the left side of the pilot’s seat over my nose and mouth.  By pressing a button on the control wheel, I could talk to the copilot and the engineer through the battery-powered intercom.  By flipping a switch, either of us could talk to the passengers.

“Emergency descent!”  I closed the thrust levers.  The engines that had been purring quietly like a giant vacuum cleaner since San Francisco spooled down to a quiet rumble.  I established a turn to the left and pulled the speed brake lever to extend the flight spoilers. “Gear down.  Advise passengers to fasten seat belts and no smoking.” I held the nose forward, and the mountains along the Continental Divide came up rapidly.  The smoke was thinning.

“Bring cabin altitude to 14,000 feet,” I ordered. At 14,000 feet over Fraser, we leveled and retracted the gear and speed brakes.  The engineer opened the ram air switch and the smoke disappeared.  We removed our goggles and masks. Fuel is vital to the life of a big jet, and electricity is almost as vital.  The artificial horizon and other electronic instruments, with which I navigated and made approaches through the clouds, were now so much tin and brass.  All I had left was the altimeter, the airspeed, and the magnetic compass–simple instruments that guided airplanes 35 years earlier.

“Advise passengers we are making a Denver stop.”

“The last Denver weather was 300 feet with visibility one-half mile in heavy snow.  Wind was northeast at 15 knots with gusts to 20,” the copilot volunteered.

“I know.  I heard it.”  The clouds merged against the mountains above Golden.  Boulder was in the clear.  To the northeast, the stratus clouds were thick like the wool on the back of a Rambouillet buck before shearing. I dropped the nose and we moved over the red sandstone buildings of the University of Colorado.  We headed southeast and picked up the Denver-Boulder turnpike. “We will fly the turnpike to the Broomfield turnoff, then east on Broomfield Road to Colorado Boulevard, then south to 26th Avenue, then east to Runway 8.” The copilot, a San Francisco reserve, gave me a doubtful look.  One doesn’t scud-run to the end of the runway under a 300-foot ceiling in a big jet.

Coming south on Colorado Boulevard, we were down to 100 feet above the highway.  Lose it and I would have to pull up into the clouds and fly the gauges when I had no gauges.  Hang onto it and I would get into Stapleton Field.  I picked up the golf course and started a turn to the left. “Gear down and 30 degrees.”

The copilot moved a lever with a little wheel on it.  He placed the flap lever in the 30-degree slot. I shoved the thrust levers forward.”Don’t let me get less than 150 knots.  I’m outside.” I counted the avenues as they slid underneath. . .30th, 29th, and 28th.  I remembered that there was neither a 31st nor a 27th.  I picked up 26th.  The snow was slanting out of the northeast.  The poplar trees and power lines showed starkly through the storm.  With electrical power gone, we had no windshield heat.  Fortunately, the snow was not sticking. “Let me know when you see a school on your side and hack my time at five-second intervals from the east side of the school yard.”

Ten seconds.

“There it is.  The yard is full of kids.  Starting time now!” Good boy.  Smiley faced Holly.  From the east side of the school yard, I counted Kearney, then Krameria, Leydon, Locust.  Remember the double lane for Monaco Parkway.  Then Magnolia, Niagara, Newport.  Time the speed at 130 knots.  Only eight blocks to the end of the runway.  Oneida, Olive, Pontiac, Poplar.  From Quebec to Syracuse, the cross streets disappear; figure eight seconds.  Keep 26th Avenue under the right side of the nose.

“Full flaps.”

Dead ahead, glowing dimly in the swirling snow, were the three green lights marking the east end of Runway 8. We crossed 20 feet above the center green light and touched down in a crab to the left.  I aligned the nose to the runway with the right rudder, dropped the nose wheel, popped the speed brakes, and brought in reverse thrust.

It took us 10 minutes to find the terminal in the swirling whiteout.  We saw the dim, flashing red light atop the building indicating the field was closed to all traffic. A mechanic materialized out of the snow carrying two wands.  He waved me into the gate. I set the parking brake. “We have ground power,” the engineer advised. “Cut the engines.”The bagpipe skirl of sound spiraled down to silence.

“My hat is off to you, skipper.  I don’t know how you ever found this airport.” “I used to fly for an ornery old chief pilot who made me learn the route,” I replied as I hung up my headset and scratched the top of my head where it itched.

Frank Crismon passed away at his home in Denver on 25 Jan 1990.

Editor’s note:  Professionalism, readiness, and knowledge can never be replaced by all the electronic gadgets in the world.  Whether you drive a truck or a C-17, nothing beats knowing your capabilities and those of your machine, and knowing where you are at all times.  It’s hard to come up with options if you don’t know what’s going on.


Our contemporary Captain Crimson is Sully Sullenberger but I think even Sully would admit that landing his Airbus on the Hudson River on a clear calm day was likely easier than landing the Boeing 720 at Denver while dealing with more adversity that one can barely imagine. This great aviation story was shared by one of my ex-pilot Zantop Airways colleague from the early 70s, Ed Gantner, and he was, like many of us during that era, gifted with aviation savvy and ability to think on his feet. His email title was: “We don’t need that damned automation.”

(re-printed by permission)

This blog is prepared by Allen Morris/a.k.a. Ace Abbott, a retired commercial pilot who has morphed into an aviation author, blogger and web talk radio host.  His website, http://therogueaviator.com/ will provide access to his two books, The Rogue Aviator and Dead Tired, as well as this blog and his webtalkradio program (http://webtalkradio.net/

Thanks to my Friend Allen Morris/a.k.a. Ace Abbott, retired commercial pilot, aviation author, blogger and web talk radio host. 



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