A Pilot’s Place
A dear friend from the past paid me a visit this week. Captain John Rogers and his wife Diane ventured north from their home near San Francisco, to the wilds of Northwest Montana where my wife Chris and I introduced them to the many boat launches in our area. I don’t think they were impressed. John Paul, as he is known by his many friends, was my chief pilot for many years at the American Airlines San Francisco pilot domicile. Once we discovered our mutual love of art we became forever friends.
John Paul possesses talents that have yet to be discovered. He writes, he paints, he builds and he tells great stories, and best of all, he listens. He can have the answer to your question before you fully get it out of your mouth. His mind is so quick you sometimes have to listen for a while to figure out what the subject of the conversation is, so you can hope to then catch up.
On December 20th, 1995, nearly two decades ago, an American Airlines Boeing 757 on a night flight from Miami to Cali, Colombia, crashed into a mountaintop. During descent for landing the pilot typed into the aircraft’s on-board computer, the wrong navigation coordinates. By doing so, he told the autopilot to turn the airliner hard left, flying it straight into a South American mountainside just north of Cali.
My friend John, troubled by this event, wrote the following:
“American Airlines lost an aircraft and many lives on a night approach to Cali, Colombia. Fingers were pointed at all possible responsible parties. As the effluence of guilt spread around, a question was raised in my mind. Why are computers not flying airplanes? It occurred to me that the pilot is the last link, the last link to integrate Science, Machinery and Wisdom. My following note about the Cali accident addresses this question.”
CALI… “A Bowl of Stars”
“A bowl of stars touched the black Pacific and in the darkness struggled to define the horizon. Color-saturated computer images danced across six black screens and described with exacting preciseness the here and now, the plan, the systems. The silence of aerodynamic noise painted a picture of comfort. Connecting continents with a constant stream of scheduled air travel drenched us with the illusion that flight is routine. Flight is not routine.
A rivet was fitted with exactness. Each fluid line was fitted with a check valve and guarded by another, and another. Black screens beneath attentive eyes followed blips. Throttles moved, controls deflected, engines roared. Every participant contributed to the process as the completeness of flight evolved.
On a dark night in South America time became critical. Communication, technology, the human-condition, and failed or missing components lined up in such a way that the pilot became the last to face the challenge, the last check valve. The silence of aerodynamic noise stopped.
Embracing the challenge, reaching for perfection, accepting the pain and the pleasure is the lifeblood of our profession. We are the last check valve.”
Approaching retirement in July of 2001, Captain John Paul Rogers wrote the following poem, which is now printed (inside front cover), of subsequent Captains Retirement Banquet booklets at American Airlines.
There is a place where only pilots meet
A place like no other place
A small place
No chairs for visitors
A place where moonless nights contrast
with morning rays to set the tone
A tone of extremes
Where aerodynamic noise is silent
And catastrophic events breed silence
There is a place where accountability is accepted
Where performance is measured
Where philosophy abounds
And lifetime bonds are formed
There is a place where teamwork
and discipline are supreme
A place where perfection is the expectation
There is a place where only pilots meet
And I will miss it
– Captain John Paul Rogers
American Airlines Retired
We loved our profession, John and I, and shared good times in a cockpit together. I had no idea then how much he would mean to me in these our sunset years. Although we remain in contact, mostly concerning our artistic struggles, we hadn’t seen each other for many years. On his arrival in Montana to visit, after stepping out of his car, I embraced him and much the same as when I first read these writings by John, the tears always manage to well up. Although it was short we had a great visit… I am out on the hunt now for more boat launches to show him, if and when he and Diane return.