"NewCo 5790, New York Center, say mach number."
Rob glances at me with a "uh oh, here it comes" look and keys the mic. "Mach seven-eight, NewCo 5790."
"NewCo 5790, maintain maximum forward airspeed, you're number one in line for Newark."
I grin as I flip the speed select knob to manual and rotate our selected speed to .81 Mach. Any day you're not holding for 30 minutes to get into Newark is a good day; being asked to go fast is icing on the cake. I open the PERF INIT page on the FMS and type "315/.81" into the cruise and descent speed lines. That's five knots and .01 mach below redline, a bit closer than I'd normally take it, but the air is perfectly smooth today. Actually, everything is going suspiciously smooth. After the last night's exhausting ordeal, I was mentally steeled for more of the same today. Perhaps this is some sort of cosmic apology? Or is the other shoe just waiting to drop?
The day certainly didn't start out perfect. Our crew met in the hotel lobby at 7am, bleary-eyed from the short night. Upon arriving at the airport twenty minutes later, we found our airplane entirely encrusted in thick clear ice, long icicles dangling from the wings and tail. The ground personnel were short-handed because the freezing rain overnight prevented several of their colleagues from making it to work on time. We pushed late and then sat on the ramp for nearly an hour as the deice truck doused the plane in hundreds of gallons of hot glycol, trying in vain to melt through the buildup. The first truck actually ran out of Type I fluid; our intrepid rampers simply switched trucks and kept going. Finally, they pronounced us clean and safe to fly; we started our engines, ran without bleeds or packs for a few minutes to clear out residual glycol, completed our post-deice procedures, and taxied out to Runway 18.
The flight to MSP itself was quick and easy. Our initially assigned altitude of 22,000 feet had some solidly moderate chop, so we went down to 16,000 early, but there was no icing until a thin layer of moderate mixed stuff we briefly sampled on our way through 4000 feet. I started out on an ILS for 12R but spied the airport through light flurries while still over Lake Harriet. We were 40 minutes late but Minneapolis turned the plane quickly and there was no line for the 12L deice pad - which now had six lanes open! The snow was light and warm enough to allow for Type I deicing only; we took off for Newark only eight minutes after pulling onto the pad. Heavy snow was forecast for the rest of the day, but our quick turn was sandwiched into a calm in the storm.
Now, as we check on with New York Approach, we are instructed to turn a heading of 100 after SWEET, a very good omen indeed. Newark is landing north; with heavy traffic you'd get a heading of 040 or 050 to join the wide left downwind somewhere north of Teterboro, and you wouldn't get turned onto base until a good 30 miles south of the airport, all typically flown at 170 knots! On DTW-EWR flights, it's not uncommon to spend more time getting vectored low over New Jersey than the rest of the flight! This time there's not a word about speed; I maintain 315 knots until just above 10,000 feet, then slow to 250 and continue the descent to cross PENNS at 7000 feet. The last several times I'd been into Newark there were winds from the west gusting to 40 knots, making for a positively wild ride down low; today there is nary a ripple. We maintain the 100 heading well after SWEET, getting turned to a short downwind just west of the airport. We pick up our traffic - an ExpressJet ERJ-145 - on a fifteen mile base, call him in sight, and are cleared for the visual. I'm still doing 250 knots, but our traffic is about six miles ahead so I stay fast and tuck up in behind him before slowing to match his speed at two-and-a-half miles in trail. That's just how Newark likes it, but this is the first time they've left speed entirely at my discretion all the way down.
The ERJ pulls off while we're on a one-mile final; my own touchdown is right on the 1000' markers, and we easily make our intended high-speed exit. We never even speak to ground control: tower simply tells us "Sierra, Bravo, Romeo-Charlie to the gate with me." If only Newark were always this easy. This is generally a slow time of the day, but the schedules are also likely pared down for Christmas Eve. The rampers are waiting to park us, the passengers file off the airplane quickly, and in short order my crew is dashing for the exits. We have motivation: nobody wants to spend their long Christmas Eve layover in the dreary Newark crew hotel, so we're heading for the bright lights, big city of Manhattan. To our astonishment, the hotel van pulls up to the curb right as we exit the terminal, and the van driver readily agrees to give us a ride to Newark's Penn Station, which saves us a slow, meandering bus ride. I can't remember the last time things fell into place like this. After last night, it sure feels good!
After the world's quickest uniform-for-civies swap, we pile back into the van, arriving at Penn just in time to catch the next PATH train. A quick transfer at Journal Square, a few minutes more under the Hudson, and barely an hour after landing at Newark, we're walking down Ninth Street en route to some of my favorite East Village haunts: happy hour at Continental, $1 pizza at Two Bros, soaking up the cozy time-stained patina of McSorleys by the ancient pot-bellied stove. Here we share a table with an older English gent whose fantastic tales seem a bit much until my FO surreptitiously googles the name on his iPhone and discovers the fellow is actually being modest.
Having our fill of beer and conversation, we take our leave into the night and hop the Lexington Ave Express to walk through a bone cold and ghostly-empty Central Park, then warm-up in Steve Jobs' Ice Cube, gnaw on lamb kebobs at a street stand on bustling Fifth Avenue, and visit St. Patrick's Cathedral to find it barricaded off, with stern policemen guarding against would-be mass-crashers. "Homebound" at last, we ride the E-Train to its last stop, walk past the still-scandalously-vacant WTC site, and hop on the Jersey-bound PATH. I settle into the molded plastic bench and close my eyes, enjoying the warmth of the heater under my seat and the swaying motion of the train. I'm feeling sleepy and pensive and...grateful, mostly. I'm grateful to have a job when only a year ago I thought I might be unemployed by now. I'm grateful to be doing something I enjoy, and able to afford doing the things I love. I'm grateful for an easy day of flying and a great layover with a friendly crew.
And yet...it occurs to me that the best crew cannot replace the ones you love. It doesn't feel like Christmas Eve with Dawn a thousand miles away. When I get to the hotel, I'll call her and we'll make small chat for a few minutes, each relaying the events of our day without expecting each other to take much interest, until we trail off into awkward silence, missing each other but unable to do anything about it beyond wholly inadequate words. We'll say our goodbyes and hang up lonelier than ever. We're normally pretty good at handling life apart but the holidays are tough. On Christmas Eve, normalcy doesn't seem all that bad to either of us.