Sky Masterson Books “Pilots of the Line” & “Destination Tempest” Both are Available in (ebook format) Amazon Kindle…
These are Two Classics by Sky Masterson
Previously published by Airways Magazine
enjoy and Thanks to Sky Masterson
A wicked specter floats among us as we drone through the night sky. There is a choppiness that inhabits the mountain air lunging for us as we carry our load of wintertime skiers in the four-engined DeHavilland. It has been a year since moving up to this larger turbo-prop airplane, one designed specifically for flying into the mountains, and I think of the number of times I have already flown this route already this year: Boulder, Granby, the Gore Range, over a thousand alluring crevasses for mountain loving beings. The Continental Divide lies forty minutes behind, below the thick stratus layer that tickles the earth and extends to someplace we’ll not see, but the beauty of the Rockies is not my fascination tonight.
Something lurks beyond our realm. I clear my throat and the interruption makes Don, my sturdy copilot, jump. I am not alone in my assessment. I click between eight DC and AC generators—volts, amps, all normal. Engine gauges steady. He looks in the blackness for only a second then focuses abnormally long on his flight gauges. Everything is normal, yet nothing is, and I can’t quite place my finger on it.
Don tunes in the ADF receivers and for the duration of our approach, I will listen to the constant scratchy identifying tone beeping annoyingly in my ears. In the event we should lose the signal for the microwave due to snow piling up on the antennae, we will have our ancient ADF as our only back up to fly the approach through the mountains around Steamboat Springs. The needles creep back and forth in the marginal radio reception in the Rockies, never resting on a particular bearing to the station, and we can really only guess our position by them, which is a hell of a way around granite.
Don flicks the synchrophaser off, the propellers begin their audible waddle, and he gradually pushes the condition levers forward. Our four rumbling propellers whine, like weary Clydesdales, huffing along the wing, protesting the inconsiderate spurring of their ribcages. With each inch of forward movement of the levers, I can feel the increasing drag from the propellers digging in like pie plates… and airspeed lags. I tweak the throttles and the airplane devours the blackness. And we begin the microwave approach just abeam Rabbit Ears Pass.
“Have them run out and brush off the TALAR antennae,” I say, “Don’t want them to do it too soon or the snow will pile up again; too late’s no good, either.”
“Right on it,” Don replies.
Don reaches for the wheel-shaped handle and throws it down while talking on the radio to Steamboat operations. The nose wheel pops out and makes the sound of a baseball bat hitting the hood of a car, as it naturally does, and the wind hisses more loudly at our feet. She sways barely detectably as first the left main gear locks, and in an instant, the right. Three green lights—good.
He obediently takes the card from the holder and mumbles robotically through it. My replies are well rehearsed.
Her nose pitches down as I roll the trim wheel by my right leg a quarter turn. All we have to do now is land.
Below us, snow drifts along the icy Yampa river that wanders through the valley like a discarded Christmas ribbon. Great ranches with rotting barbed wire fences frame the rolling hills in a white patchwork quilt. To the right, the last of the evening skiers have long ago shushed their last mogul on Steamboat Mountain, and I imagine them sitting lazily on fat chairs in the lodge, barely noticing our four Pratt engines plying what they hope is tomorrow’s heavenly powder.
Don is wet behind the ears but boasts a seasoned assuredness in his twenty-four-year-old brain. Had I not known he was a year on the line, I would have guessed him to be an old salt, never needing prodding to stay ahead of the airplane, setting my side up as well as his own, keeping me out of the dirt. Anymore, a year is an eternity in the commuter airline business, yet only time can teach the foibles and idiosyncrasies of flying through mountain air masses and over jagged rocks. One’s hair grays soon, or falls out doing this and his is full and black…but maybe in another year.
I follow the four inch blue and brown attitude indicator, my only reference to the horizon, as we drift down the glide slope. The microwave needles move in micrometers, displaying the steep approach, moving toward a perfect “+.” The instruments jitter with increased sensitivity the nearer we get to Steamboat, and I tap the pedals by my feet ever so gently to keep them centered. I scan the left; I scan the right. Don’s eyes shoot laser beams into his side of the panel.
“Two thousand feet,” he says.
“Set in the missed approach altitude.”
I rub my wet palm on my leg, and then switch hands.
The farther down we go I quash more fear. The snow is deep, the runway is short, the night is dark, and that phantom drifts among us. Blackness is all around. The airspeed quivers, but resumes its grudging slowness. She’s like a truck, so heavy and slow. The wheel is rubber and my seat is full of eggshells. Bank a little left.
“Winds?” I ask.
“Down the runway. A thousand feet to go.”
Speed good; vertical good, too. If we miss the approach, it will be straight ahead and then left off the ADF, back toward Hayden and then BuffaloPass toward home. No need to push the weather.
“Coming up on minimums.”
Engines sound funny.
Attitude perfect. It doesn’t feel right, g-forces, strange.
Needles crisscross, and then diverge as if pulled by magnets.
“Where are you g-?” he says.
In an uncontrolled response, his diaphragm pulls cold air through his partly opened mouth and into his lungs, as if filling them would turn his body into a bouncing beach ball. His gasp never ends, it just starts, and in the course of two seconds, I stop hearing anything.
Most of my instruments—airspeed, altitude, course arrows—suddenly spin fatally, betraying my wholesome attitude indicator. Though it lasted a second, my perplexity is the culmination of a thousand nightmares. It bore into me forever. Why are they doing that?
In that second of deception, our airplane rolls over on her back, and we hit the mountain with a deadly blast.
The party was over. We now received the life of a statistic.
Am I angry? No, there is an eternity for anger. Fear is saved for the living; I am not afraid. I have opened the crypt door and walked through, seen what many great aviators have seen, but few related. I have been discombobulated in a way that no training has ever prepared me for, just like the saying goes: “It’s what’s not trained for that kills you,” and I have never seen this before. The world goes black. The machine ceases to run. There is no sound.
“Do you know what happened?”
The voice broke the silence as if God pierced the heavens, questioning my greatest sin. I look at Don. He is still in one piece, but just as silent as the simulator. I am overwhelmed with bewilderment, for I have never died and had to critique my performance before.
I sit, silent.
“I failed your attitude gyro,” says the simulator training instructor sitting behind us.
Ah, yes, the attitude gyro. That explains why our world looked so perfect right down to the crash. As the gyro imperceptibly spun down, I made unnoticeable corrections believing I was maintaining wings level when it cheated me and rolled us dismally. The attitude gyro, a pilot’s favorite instrument, because it makes us think we can see through clouds, was the only one not working properly, which is why all the others seemed to react strangely in the last moment. I thought it was they who betrayed me, not my favored attitude indicator.
“But there was no red flag, no caution light,” I protest.
“You only have a flag with a power source failure. I just failed the gyro itself. You always had power to it,” says the instructor.
As I look across the instrument panel, I am painfully aware that our particular plane has no standby attitude indicator. A cross check of one would perhaps have saved us on this occasion. Don’s indicator worked fine, though. But with only two attitude indicators, and no system to compare them telling you when one has failed, in a split second decision, whose do you believe? Don was my only source for discrepancy information, other than my own cross panel check. He looked as perplexed and deflated as I.
“Something was wrong in those few seconds. I wasn’t sure whose attitude indicator was wrong, just that something was wrong. It was only a few seconds!” Don sprang up.
“That’s all you had,” the instructor replies.
“Well, that’s bullshit!” I say, “You don’t fail a guy’s attitude indicator so close to the ground like that. The human brain can react only so fast.”
“True,” he says, “life can be unfair.”
I can feel my body temperature begin to rise as a bead of sweat trickles down the back side of my neck and disappears in the mush of my wet back. The simulator seems extremely warm. I am angry. I am angry at myself for my inadequacies as a pilot.
“I wanted to prove a point,” he says. “Every once in a while we come across a scenario that uncovers a fault in our accepted beliefs in operating our airplanes. No airplane is perfect so we must adapt our thinking for every possible known situation that can occur. You must be diligent in recognizing a failure of any instrument at any moment,” he says.
My death is still my main concern.
“So be it,” I say.
“The rest of your ride went just fine. I just wanted to show you this scenario with the extra time we had.”
Thank you, I think, for showing me life’s fragility, for opening my naive eyes to the ugliness of reality. I am still dead and will forever miss the blissful innocence of those who know only what it is to live.
Nightmares are not cruel things, I think. They allow us to experience our greatest fears while we subconsciously control the outcome. Then we wake, our minds being cleansed of evil thoughts as in a confessional, as we clear space for the trickling in of more evilness to inhabit.
The simulator is not a nightmare. It is very real. If I pinch myself in it, it hurts. Thousands of people have gone through great strides to create realism so believable that the men who fly them sweat real perspiration, and hearts beat, at times, exceedingly fast. And the simulator’s worth as a tool is immeasurable in training pilots to react successfully to scenarios that otherwise only dead men know. But with each maneuver, a tiny piece of simulation becomes reality for the pilot. Maybe no real engine has failed under his command, but he has heroically saved the plane from hundreds of catastrophes in his mind via the virtual reality of the simulator. The pilot’s boosted ego is real; his confidence is real. Should he experience a simulated death, it also takes on a magnified eternal life in the deep recesses of his brain.
An airplane is not forgiving. It is not perfect, nor is it ever perfectly operated. It is a big, beautiful animal, one that bites as well as licks and purrs. It is a thing to respect, because mere novices become only statistical fodder, mangled in a joke of pathetic incompetence. A pilot learns through the simulator that an airplane deserves nothing less than supreme respect by never leaving one’s guard down, never trusting that all is well, never trusting that all its needs are met, because they never will be. And, like a phantom in the dark it will take all that he holds dear, not because it is programmed to, but because it is only human to become complacent when all is perceived to be well.
So when I see my beautiful airplane, her wings still firmly attached by their roots to her unblemished body; her engines still strong, unstrewn about Steamboat Springs, I don’t see a mere machine. I don’t see a vehicle devised for the sole purpose of transporting masses to locations over the horizon. I see my teacher when I carelessly forgot to flip a switch, my lover who strokes my fragile ego by allowing me to ease her onto the earth in a driving rain, and sometimes the vehicle of my most prodigious nightmares.
Somewhere Over Iowa
The alarm clock screams in the morning darkness. Alone in her bed, Collette carefully reaches toward the clock, fumbles for the off switch and silences it. She rarely uses the clock to wake anymore. She rarely has reason to get up so early in her later years and is momentarily lost in the blackness of her bedroom. Kassie, her small border collie, shakes the sleep from her own body, jiggling the tags on her collar and begins to pant, wondering why their routine has changed.
Collette turns on her bedside light, sits up, and rubs bony fingers under her momentarily blinded eyes. She puts on a pair of glasses, thinking she isn’t as young as she used to be, and contemplates turning the light off and rolling back under the warm covers of her bed and just sleeping the rest of the morning away as she usually does. But this morning, she cannot sleep. There are few things that happen in her life that make her heart skip as this does, so she rolls her legs off the bed, her knees sparking with arthritis, places her feet on the floor, stretches and yawns. Her flannel nightgown gathers against her body; the bones in her wrists and spine pop and some pain is relieved. The heater kicks on.
“C’mon girl, let’s make some coffee,” she says in a French accent to Kassie, who is game to try anything, especially if it means going to the kitchen earlier than usual. She walks in the dim illumination of her bedside light while pulling on a robe. As she passes a window by the table she notes the number of stars in the night sky and how the nearly full moon illuminates the radiant snow on the ground. She turns on the kitchen light and looks at the clock, which reads ten after four. She still has time.
After pressing the brew button on the coffee maker it begins to gurgle, filling the kitchen with the woody scent of French Roast. As she waits, she takes a seat at the table by the window. Kassie sits patiently by her dog bowl. Her house is the only house on Fourteenth Street, one of only a few houses in Coralville that has a bright light shining in a window so early.
“Okay, just over the CathedralRange there, do you see it?”
“No, Half Dome, the big, gray rock with the steep ledge. That’s all part of it.”
“And just to the right of that, a tiny ribbon of white…right there.”
“YosemiteFalls, I’m pretty sure.”
I lean as far into the windscreen as I can. The Boeing cockpit seems more cramped than usual, especially after sitting in it for nearly five hours, as the snow-covered range of trees and crevasses unfurls beneath us.
“It’s beautiful, isn’t it?”
We are both mesmerized, watching from a viewpoint that few people have from a few thousand feet above. Those on the ground, no matter how far they hike, no matter how high a mountain they climb, could never know the vastness and magnificence of what we are paid to see this fine day. And it is magnificent. Broken layers of cloud emptied into the western slope of the Rocky Mountains. They were part of a snowstorm that sucked the haze from everywhere west of there giving us perfect, unobstructed visibility once crossing west of Grand Junction. Utah was clean and crisp, Nevada, an infinite desert with hundreds of miles between dusty towns—scattered below us under a cobalt blue sky.
Air traffic control directs us back to the northwest, toward little settlements with names like Buck Meadows, Moccasin, and Chinese Camp, and then past the snow-capped crags of the Sierras behind us as we glide over the great Stockton valley.
We see San Francisco nestled on the thumb of a claw of humanity surrounding San FranciscoBay. From fifty miles away we can easily make out the nubs of buildings in the distance, the TransAmerica Pyramid, the wharfs along the Embarcadero. Where the thumb and index finger of the claw merge lies the city of San Jose, Oakland being the index finger itself. Approach Control clears us the “FMS Bridge Visual RNAV approach,” which takes us just north of San Jose, and we pass over the lower bay, make our turn toward the Dumbarton bridge, and ease the throttles back, add some flaps.
The main landing runways aim to the west, 28 Left and Right, and are close together. Not only do we avoid numerous airliners drifting in and out of the three major airports in the Bay area, San Jose, Oakland and SFO, but we must also watch the merging Southwest 737 from our left, also landing at San Francisco. We are for the right side and he for the left.
“I don’t like their new paint job.”
The 737 gradually swells in the captain’s side window, appearing to be on a collision course with us, as we converge toward the runways.
“Do you suppose he sees us?”
“How could he not?”
San Franciscans are used to the sight of a large airplane looming next to them on final to their airport. It is a normal occurrence necessitated by the demand of hundreds of flights through their sky every hour.
“No matter how often we fly in here you never get used to being so close to another airliner. It’s as if we are in formation.”
“I’ve seen looser.”
I fly to the right of our final approach course to 28R just to ensure that we don’t bump each other on the way in. The captain doesn’t seem to mind, though he pretends to read the checklist through the window of the competitor’s plane.
“Okay, slow it up, we’re catching him.”
“Gear, flaps, down, checklist complete.”
We are just behind and to the right of Southwest. The two runways inch toward our noses, he is definitely for the left now, we for the right, still. We buffet slightly in his wake, but nothing significant. The city is just beyond the airport, and I can see the orange, Golden Gate just beyond it. Three container ships churn away to the east and a flock of seagulls make crazed maneuvers just above us as if they had never figured on a jet plane in this neck of the woods. No Kamikaze’s today, thankfully. The water below us seems quite close, green and full of ripples, but our altimeter claims we are just fine, so I believe it anyway. Southwest, leaves a smoky bounce cloud and I suppress a laugh, then it’s my turn as we float over approach lights pricking out of the water. I hold it, hold it, hold it off, and then…it could’ve been worse—full reverse.
The hotel is a short ten-minute van ride from the airport, and though the sun is ablaze overhead, my body vibrates with a fatigue caused by a month of red-eye flights. The bed is inviting. I do what I can to stay awake. I pace, I watch an autopsy on cable, I eat the biggest burrito I ever saw, I make a special telephone call, but by three in the afternoon my face is nuzzled deep between two pillows that smell faintly like dirty feet. The sun inches below the horizon. A far off vacuum cleaner eventually silences.
Too soon I wake, dizzy, thinking I am in my own bed at home as the telephone rings.
“This is your wake-up call. Good morning,” the recording says. In the blackness, my clock reads nine at night. I turn on the light. I get up and look in the mirror.
They don’t call them “red-eyes” for nothing.
I take the elevator to the lobby and flip the room card on the desk. A pretty hotel clerk smiles a “Thank you.”
“Excuse me?” she says.
“You’re a pilot, right?”
I look down at my black jacket with the stripes on the sleeves, wings over my left pectoral, I am also wearing my hat with another set of wings on them too. I can’t imagine appearing to be anyone else, but sometimes to others we pass as forest rangers, policemen and more often than I care to admit, curbside baggage porters.
“I’ve been meaning to ask, how do you see at night, like, in the dark, way up high? Do you have headlights?”
I look around. There are other people standing nearby who can plainly hear her question that seem to lean in close to hear my response, but their heads are turned trying not to make eye contact. Either they appear baffled by the question, as simple as it is, or they genuinely wonder themselves. Of course what benefit would headlights be at 41,000 feet, at night with nothing upon which to reflect?
“Well, we have instruments that tell us where we are. We don’t have headlights per se, but we have landing lights for landing. We see nothing but blackness out of the windows at night most of the time,” I say smoothly.
“Yes,” she says, “I traveled once at night and I know about those instrument thingys, but how do you see way up there without headlights?”
A man chuckles, I look for relief, but find none.
“Van’s here, you don’t want to be late to Detroit tonight, do you?” my captain calls from the revolving door.
“I’ll let you know when I figure out the answer,” I say to her and wink. “See you Wednesday.”
The van ride is quick. My captain didn’t sleep well. I can tell by his silence. One or two of our flight attendants slept.
Late at night there are few lines at security—a good reason to travel then, because the airport is not a bustling place. Souvenir shops are gated and dark. It seems that more maintenance workers empty trash bins and clean floors than the number of people milling about. The floors are sporadically dotted with people curled upon them feigning sleep—maybe waiting for us.
I like this time. I like feeling far from the command of a wakeful world. The airplane is all ours but for a drowsy dispatcher two thousand miles away, perhaps reading a folded newspaper by his side. Forget about any boss, or owner, or president—they are adrift in their own dreamy state. We are awake, coherent and living.
We push and I comment on how much I like Hawaiian Airlines’ new paint job. The woman on the tail is more seductive looking than the previous one, and I wouldn’t mind having one like her myself someday.
“Looks better than Alaska’s, they put the Elephant Woman on their tail,” he says.
They give us the Quiet Two departure.
Very soon we are cleared for take-off and thump down runway 1Right. Aircraft 1272 pulls easily into the air. I love this plane; I feel her power, she’s so very agile. We climb as if flowing through a dream of twinkling lights, blasting in blackness over the bay, and turn to the left. A quieter San Francisco winks past. We bank to the right and look down upon Oakland and are then released eastbound, back toward the Sierras. My partner stares straight ahead. I can’t believe his eyes are still open, but they are. Once the autopilot is on, the plane pretty much takes care of itself, nary a gauge quivers, nary a control moves except in tiny increments to correct for brief puffs.
Solitude and rigid controls only last for an hour until, gradually at first, the throttles mysteriously creep back an inch, and then slowly forward an inch as we pierce ominous mountain wave. At first the wave is light, and the throttles keep a constant airspeed through the up and down drafts by inching forward and aft. But, by Delta Utah (DTA) the autothrottles can’t keep up and the overspeed warning sounds. Throttles come to the aft stop. The downdraft comes, throttles go to the full Max setting, airspeed drags and then catches up gradually.
“Moderate wave tonight,” my captain perks up. He manually adjusts the throttles until the wave subsides a little bit, and then clicks the autothrottles back on. They move eerily by themselves, forward and back, forward and back, for the next hour until we reach Scottsbluff, Nebraska (BFF) and then the throttles contentedly find a happy place and stay put.
I tinker with the flight management computer, play with arrival times, slow our speed to hit my mark just when I hope to. Throttles come back a little once again. We chat about our lives for a while, then the lateness settles in and our eyes sting. We stare ahead. I finger the cold handle in front of my window, cold but the heated windshield is warm, and I begin to get antsy. We have another half hour until I flip my switches on. I can see the waypoint inch nearer on my map display, and am thankful for the stars above and even more for the ones on the ground. There are many more of them on the ground this night, thanks to that cold front that moved through earlier in the day.
“I’ll hit the head now. Would you like anything while I’m up?”
“No thanks,” he says.
I unbuckle, note the time, and leave the cockpit.
The cabin is very dark. Our load is light tonight and almost everybody is asleep. They look dead, some of them with mouths full open in a typical death mask way, I think, because no one would have their face like that unless they were dead, completely unaware of how disturbing they look. The cabin smells of bad breath and humanly excreted gas and all the things that people do unaware while they sleep. I enter the lavatory and relieve myself, and then return to the darkened cockpit. From inside, it seems darker than earlier as my eyes readjust, and I take my seat in front of the controls again.
Soon, I think.
At 4:25, Collette takes another sip of cream-brown coffee and places the cup neatly on a saucer. Through the window, its nine panes dulled by a year of dust, she sees a splatter of dim stars above. Her heart sinks as the kitchen clock ticks past 4:28 and nothing has changed, no stars move, none blink. The sky, in its ever mocking tendency, aims to spoil her morning yet again. Her bed was so warm, so comfortable, so inviting earlier. She wonders if she should have just turned over after shutting off the alarm and drifted off to sleep again. But there she sits fully awake at the kitchen table, as she will stay for the rest of the day. Perhaps there is something good on television, something to get her mind off of the lonely feeling that engulfs her.
Perhaps. Perhaps before succumbing to the TV she can have just a little peek out the front door. But it is so cold outside, so bitter cold. Wearing only slippers and a flannel robe over her flannel nightgown, she opens the front door, stands on the wooden stoop and curses—in ladylike fashion—at the biting cold air that pricks her face. The Iowa night is awash in thousands of stars above, many more than she could see from the kitchen window. Her lower jaw vibrates uncontrollably and her upper chest shivers, and she knows she is crazy standing out on her front stoop so early in the morning, crazy for only a minute and she will go back inside. Kassie claws gently at the front door wanting to come outside and join her.
But then…maybe, can it be? One does move, one tiny little star. It is almost overhead, beyond the mall, more over I-80 in the northern sky than she thinks it should have been. She rubs her right eye and adjusts her glasses. Yes, that can be him.
Slowly she raises her right hand. Once it is to the height of her cheek she gently twiddles her fingers in the direction of the star.
“Good morning, mon bon garçon, my boy,” she whispers.
The dim little light moving across the sky suddenly bursts bright white as every light on the 737 flashes on, as though it had a hundred headlights. She gasps. A delicate smile forms on her quivering lips. For a moment, the chill disappears, and her loneliness is gone. Then the child whom she once held in her arms so long ago, but now rarely sees, floats silently away at the controls of the big jet plane, high into the night.
By Author: Sky Masterson
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