Friday, January 20, 2012

War Stories

I spend a lot of time at FL350. A lot of time. NewCo's average stage length is longer than most regional airlines', particularly those that fly turboprops and 35-50 seat jets. For the most part that's a good thing. It means less work, less stress, less unpaid time on the ground. It results in more efficient trips and more days off work. That said, three hours of cruise time can feel very long indeed if you don't have anything to make the time pass by quicker. My company, like most, prohibits reading non-company material. After the NW188 fiasco, laptops and small electronics are verboten as well. With a few noteworthy exceptions, there's not a great deal of sightseeing to be had from six miles above the earth's surface. Reading the AOM (Aircraft Operations Manual) or FOM (Flight Operations Manual) is always an option...but the FAA frowns upon falling asleep in flight! That leaves one sole source of in-flight entertainment: the guy or gal sitting next to you.

The vast majority of Captains and First Officers I've flown with throughout my career were fantastic folks to fly with. I can only think of a few - less than one hand's worth - who I hope to never fly another trip with. There were also some perfectly nice people who weren't very talkative or otherwise stuck to themselves, and that's OK. A lot of the Captains at Horizon were a generation older than me, so we ended up talking about their grandchildren or retirement plans. That was OK too. Most of my FOs at NewCo, however, are around my age; I often find we have a great deal in common to talk about. I've made some great lifelong friends over the course of a 4-day trip.

There's a certain art to inflight conversation. You need to pace yourself, make it last. Your conversations drift from topic to topic, never lingering on any one so long it goes stale. You inevitably talk shop but try not to make it the focus. You gossip a little bit while trying not to sound like a gossip. You gripe a bit while trying not to sound like a bitter prick. You steer clear of controversial subjects until you know your partner well. You try to make sure you're not dominating the conversation. You make mental notes along the way so you don't bore your FO with the same old stories next time you fly together. You try to keep from getting so engrossed you miss radio calls. You keep an eye on the clock, and if you do it right you'll wrap up the conversation neatly right about the time you start preparing for descent.

When I meet an FO for the first time, typical preflight conversation centers around who we flew for last, where we live, how the commute went, how many days we had off. You're busy so you keep it pretty light. After the rush of takeoff and the dance of the initial climb, you tend to push your chair back a bit climbing through 18,000 feet, and you might ask your partner if they're married, for how long, what their spouse does, and whether they have kids. Leveling off in cruise, you might ask who they flew with last, compare notes on your flight attendants for the trip, and trade your most recent airline rumors. Once we've settled in a bit, I'll often ask my FO where they learned to fly. As often as not at NewCo, it's UND. When that's the case we'll reminisce a while, I'll recount how cold it was working the flight line at GFK, we'll figure out who we both knew, I'll badmouth the flying team kids a bit, and they'll tell a hilarious story about drinking with Kent Lovelace at the Down UNDer. If my FO didn't go to UND, I mention almost apologetically that I did, and proceed to gripe about how overpriced and overprotective the program is and how miserable Grand Forks was.

To steer the conversation away from flying for a bit I'll bring up skiing or travel or motorcycles and from there we talk about hobbies, which is usually good for a half hour or so unless my FO has no life outside of work (or more often, no money thanks to atrocious first-year payrates). Most of the time my FOs and I have at least one pasttime in common, and when we don't they usually have some other hobby I find interesting. I've flown with woodworkers, homebrewers, mountain climbers, and one ambitious girl who's run marathons in all 50 states and several countries besides. One FO, now a Captain, is building a Long-EZ in his garage. There are a few other FOs who are still active in general aviation - one of whom ended up doing my tailwheel endorsement in his 1946 Piper Cub, which I still occasionally fly.

The richest vein of cockpit conversation, however, are the war stories. Nearly everyone I fly with had a great deal of experience prior to joining NewCo. In almost all cases there was a previous airline or airlines, and most flight instructed prior to that. Some spent long nights flying decrepit freighters, as I did. Others flew skydivers or towed banners or did ferry work. The common thread running through all this prior experience is that it was generally more fun, more interesting, more challenging, and occasionally more frightening than flying the JungleBus for NewCo. I have rather few war stories from my time at NewCo but I have a ton of them from my time as a flight instructor and freight dog. It's the same for most people I fly with.

I've told most of my war stories from ADP, AEX, Ameriflight, and Horizon here over the years so I won't repeat myself. I will say that most war stories fall in the broad categories of rookie mistakes you made early in your career, students who tried to kill you, airplanes breaking in dramatic fashion, fantastically bad weather (ice and thunderstorms, particularly), and shady employers pressuring you to do really stupid stuff. It's my experience that war stories tend to get refined with each telling and possibly even exaggerated a bit, until you're not quite sure if you're remembering the event itself or the way that you've told it over the years.

A war story might flow naturally out of the conversation, or be sparked by something that happens in flight, or be triggered by a similar story from your partner. Lately I've been doing a lot of flying out west, including regular forays to Southern California. Few of my FOs are familiar with this area of the country so I point out landmarks, which lend themselves to the telling of war stories. There's Big Bear City, where I took an old Warrior on a summer day and had to fly the length of the lake in ground effect to escape the high terrain. There's Mount Baldy, where Daniel Katz mysteriously disappeared with Archer Five Three Whiskey and escaped detection for years despite an intense search until the wreckage was finally spotted in 2008. There's Owens Dry Lake, where I was once helplessly sucked from 6500' to 10500' in under a minute, power-off, in a Piper Lance in the clutch of unusually low wave activity.

Not all war stories took place in flight. More than a few concern particularly epic layovers - sometimes something especially noteworthy that the crew did together, but more often outrageous drunken antics on one or more crewmembers' parts. Nearly everyone has stories about flight attendants that turned out to by psychotic or merely intent on nabbing themselves a pilot regardless of his interest or lack thereof. Most female pilots have stories about seriously awkward advances from creepy old Captains. I don't know if NewCo is more sane/boring than other regionals or if our pilots just self-censor stories that occured here, but the majority of layover war stories seem to come from airlines of the teller's past.

Telling war stories reminds us of where we've been and how far we've come. Even when the circumstances of the story are astonishing or frightening or sad, there's a certain nostalgia to them. They remind us of a time when flying was stimulating, adventurous, and even dangerous - anything but routine. Mind you, the fond memories are almost entirely retrospective. Very few broke, tired young pilots have much good to say about their current situation. They're not looking for a bevy of amusing war stories, they're searching for the quickest way up and out to a better job. The 2002 version of myself would look rather dimly at 2012 Sam complaining about the boredom of Captaining a glass-cockpit jet from coast to coast. It would've sounded like a distant, lovely dream at the time. It's only in retrospect, now that time has dulled the less pleasant aspects in my memory, that I realize what a unique, often interesting life I led back then. And so it is across the industry, and indeed across humankind.