“KILLER & SNOWBIRD”
“Oh damn, shit, shit, shit,” I mumbled, as my right knee folded dropping me to the runway surface. My Dog Killer, gun shy she is, squirted for home as fast as I have ever seen her move.
What better place for an airline pilot to live than in an old remodeled airplane hangar. Home sits on a little airport near a border crossing, where you can travel from NW Montana into British Columbia. It has metal siding and a green corrugated roof. As small airports go, this one is low rent; when its air traffic activity is measured it needn’t be put on a map. If over the span of a year we average one take-off and landing a day, it’s been a busy year.
For questionable reasons our local airport authorities don’t take well to our walking a dog on the runway, or as a few locals like to do, roller-skate. They are fearful of our getting hit by the one aircraft that may or may not land that day. Local airport security is regulated by agencies that live and rule from Washington, D.C. whom, no doubt, are afraid of the many terrorists embedded within the herd of Elk that transit our perimeter on a regular basis. A twelve-foot high hurricane fence, topped with no less than three strands of barbed wire, surrounds the field. It reminds me of scenes from Alcatraz. Gunshots heard from the border, near where the US Border Patrol maintains their gun range aren’t unusual.
Our black Lab we call Killer, came to us via the local animal shelter having arrived there via a whole in the border fence. Her rabies tag was from Cranbrook. She is a huge dog, part of her being Great Pyrenees, giving her long legs and a thick furry undercoat. The stray dog brought with her a unique appetite for coyotes. She alone keeps the airport free of the local band; fortunately she hasn’t caught one before they manage an escape under the airport fence. I fear they will lure her into their circle one day. Unable to escape her perpetual look of guilt, Killer’s sad brown eyes reflect a mournful warmth and easiness. She does not possess a mean fiber in her constitution and would lick you to death if given the chance. Each day Killer loves and insists on a morning run down the airport’s runway, a length of forty-two hundred feet with lights and a visual glideslope if needed.
An embarrassing incident, for which I felt a weighty responsibility, forced me home pending an investigation. Walking the runway this morning wasn’t in the plan; I should have been at work today. While enjoying our daily ritual, about midway down the runway, Killer and I hear the crack of gunfire coming from the direction of the border. At the same instant I felt a sharp stinging pain in the back of my right knee. Killer took off running having suffered a lapse in judgment; she forgot momentarily where her daily rations originate.
Hearing gunshots in our area isn’t something we get excited about; we live in Montana. The gunshots and then feeling sharp pain should give one pause; enough so to imagine having been shot. I thought I had; Killer thought so too and wasn’t hanging around for a second opinion. Gathering myself, checking my knee I found no sign of injury and felt no further discomfort; not that I’d know how being shot should feel. I merely tweaked an old knee injury when turning sideways keeping watch on my coyote-crazed dog. After regaining my footing I felt both thankful and relieved to have escaped being shot.
The suspension from work involved my entire crew; both pilots and flight attendants. For all concerned it was too embarrassing an event to make the news so it didn’t. The unlikely crime, not intentional, required a coming together of a rare assortment of circumstances; all of a nature not easily assembled.
Airline on-time performance then, as a product of the times, was a key metric in airline rating systems. Increased competition by new entry airlines disrupted a former stable market in ticket pricing. As airline executives began getting their bonuses in stock options passenger perks suffered. Seat mile costs and short-term gains ruled the day. The boarding agent’s mantra became, “Ladies and gentlemen please take your seats as quickly as possible.” Passengers became numb to being treated like cattle, as cabin doors were slammed shut behind them. Echoing their displeasure occasional bellowing and mooing sounds could be heard. During this era, the only distinction between riding a bus and flying coach was the time spent getting to the destination.
Why and when I became attracted to this industry is an even longer story than the one at hand. It still puzzles me. As a child with many choices of toys; which included a boys standard police car, a fire truck, an airplane; I always chose the latter. Why, I can’t explain. Do crickets fly? Mine did. Inside models built of balsa wood, I placed crickets in the cockpit seat where the pilot was supposed to sit. Tossing them into the air, chasing as they flew; I wanted to see if the little critter survived the inevitable crash-landing. They never appeared injured so I assumed flying was a safe venture. Whether they enjoyed their short flight couldn’t be determined, I felt like they did and liked pretending to be the cricket.
The month of the flying incident, I was paired with Steve “The Buzz” Forte. Steve was lean and wiry with a close trimmed graying head of what used to be red hair. His military squared-away appearance earnestly earned him his nickname. Buzz was one of those guys that could have been an astronaut had he wanted and of whose military experience I was envious. A graduate of the Air Force Academy he had enjoyed a lengthy military career as a pilot. After retiring he was hired by American Airlines where he’d been flying for nearly three years. A great story-teller Buzz always carried with him a pocketful, along with an abundant willingness to share them. There were also some harrowing stories of flying experiences during the Vietnam War. Possessing a unique ability to create his own narrative, it often took him lengthy periods to get to the punch lines. Buzz was a natural entertainer.
The remarkable set of circumstances that set the stage is hard to imagine; I could never have dreamed this one up. Our dilemma began after our morning show time at the Seattle Airport Terminal. Many airlines fly the same types of equipment – those aircraft are built by the same manufacturer. They come off an assembly line, much as a car does, but aren’t issued their own set of ignition keys. In fact, no ignition keys are required. They come with custom brand colors and a few interior equipment differences that aren’t always obvious on the surface. Their identical cockpits are familiar to any set of trained pilots no matter which airline they work for.
Even today, given the heightened security procedures now in place since 9/11, a trained airline pilot with a set of wire cutters, at some remote airport at say two o’clock in the morning, could cut his way through the airport fence and walk onto an aircraft, start it up and take it for a spin around the pattern single handed. Not that anyone would want to do that necessarily.
At most large airports, by design, more airplanes overnight than are gates available, creating the necessity to park extras at remote locations. For example; they can be parked at maintenance facilities, on the ramp or even remote taxiways. Late in the evening or early morning, mechanics, when called upon, will taxi aircraft to their scheduled departure gates. Not untypical of large airports, to accommodate flights at the same time, some gates have long Jet-ways with multiple Jet-bridges at their end. A gate number might have an A, B and a C Jet-bridge. Early morning departures depending on the season are mostly done in darkness. Such was the case on this chilly, snowy, mid-December morning. In the rushed atmosphere of a fast-approaching holiday, and during a low visibility snow storm, an airliner was mistakenly parked at a wrong gate number. The misplaced airplane, covered in ice and snow, became known as, “The Snowbird.”
Our arrival in Seattle, on the last overnight of our schedule, provided a minimum of crew rest with a 6am departure the next morning. This meant we needed to be at the airport an hour earlier. It was still snowing as we arrived. Our cabin crew, landing earlier in Seattle the day before, was overnighting at a different hotel nearer the city. Their arrival, unknown to us, would be delayed because their hotel bus slid off the road on the way to the airport. Another van retrieved them. This quirky accident only highlights some of the dangers flight crews often face having nothing to do with flying an airplane. It is the van ride to and from the airport that is by far more dangerous than the flight itself.
Once at the airport terminal it was routine to first check the monitor for our flight number and its departure gate. Observing ours, AA 440, showed us on schedule departing from our concourse at Gate 17C. Crew flight operations at most airports are usually located at the ramp level beneath the departure gates. Seattle Ops was located upstairs near their administration offices. It was there we obtained our paperwork required for the flight, which included a weather package, a flight plan and release sent from the on-duty Flight Dispatcher at DFW.
It was customary to leave our bags (flight kit and suitcases) behind our gate’s check in zone. After doing so I headed over to the elevator to take me up to operations. Buzz, with his bags in tow, descended into the dark Jetway to power up, preflight and get the aircraft ready to fly. Arriving in operations I received an immediate call from Buzz advising we have a big problem; he found our bird completely covered in ice and snow and it would require a major de-icing. An early morning freezing rain, topped with a couple inches of snow had blanketed the entire aircraft, creating as he referred, “Our Snowbird.”
After arriving in the cockpit and getting settled in, I checked the fuel slip against the flight plan fuel load. It was correct and nothing appeared out of place. The exception was, the ACARS unit was blinking red, which meant it wasn’t available. It was, unfortunately, out of paper and we couldn’t locate another spool to replace it with. ACARS (Aircraft Communications and Reporting System), interconnects intra airline messaging via Teletype, our normal direct link to our airline’s data base. Checking my Minimum Equipment List, I carry in my flight bag, I decided we could get along without the system; we can manage using our communication radios. They will have plenty of paper in Dallas.
The maintenance logbook looked somewhat unusual, but in a rush, I signed it without paying close attention. We were pushing up against our flight’s departure time and needed to get on with the remaining checklists. Our late cabin crew members had just arrived and passengers were being rushed into the Jetway. Covered in ice and snow the aircraft hadn’t thawed yet. We would still need a de-icing crew to hose us down; that will take place on a taxiway out closer to the departure runway.
When our Flight Attendants arrived in the boarding area the gate agent had the passengers follow them into the Jetway. He held back boarding at the Jet-bridge while the crew completed their preflight and safety checks. Once finished, and as the last passenger set foot through the cabin door, the agent announced, “Ladies and Gentlemen please take your seats as quickly as possible” swinging the door shut behind them. As the Jet-bridge pulled away, the aircraft covered in snow, sitting in the silence and glow of terminal lights, remained unidentifiable.
As passengers were finding their seats and while the Jet-bridge moved away, our first flight attendant stuck her head into the open cockpit door saying, “Stop them, we don’t have enough plates in First,” meaning First Class. Concerned, we called the ramp for help, their reply was, “Sorry, in this weather it will take the caterers an hour to get back.” We were then assured by the cabin, as they always do, they can make it work.
All buttoned up and after engine start we taxi out from the gate towards the de-icing block to await our turn in the lineup. While waiting, Buzz, the personal entertainment center, begins one of his long tales. It involved a frog and a golfer.
“Late one afternoon this golfer see is playing singles and finds his golf ball sitting near a rough grassy patch on the right side of the first fairway. Thinking over his next shot to the green, the golfer is ready to play when he hears a low croaking voice say, “Hit the six-iron.” The Golfer doesn’t see anyone.
“It’s a six-iron” he heard again. He looks around, nothing.
“Over here” says the croaky voice. The golfer, looking off to his right, spots a frog sitting in the grass.
“Betcha it’s a six for sure” the frog says.
The golfer replies, “Well, let us just see.”
The golfer hitting his six-iron crushes the ball off the center of the blade heading for the center of the green. Once there it did one hop, rolled up and buried itself into the center of the cup.”
It’s a long story and Buzz continues for the next ten minutes or so. The end result has the frog, with his “What about me pleas,” convinces the golfer to take the frog home and ultimately to bed; ending up on his pillow. The frog convinces the golfer to kiss him goodnight and when he does so the frog goes Poof and turns into this beautiful fifteen year old girl. The final scene has the golfer trying to convince the judge how this young girl ended up in his bed.
As the story ended we were next in line for de-icing so we move up and shut down the engines. The fluid mixture used for de-icing is only slightly flammable but isn’t at all healthy for breathing and could be toxic. To prevent fumes being sucked into the cabin requires completely shutting down power, which includes the APU, our Auxiliary Power Unit. It’s an eerie feeling sitting in the dark listening to De-icing hoses splashing on the outside… swoosh-swooshing up and down the aircraft cabin. The sound, combined with darkness, I feel certain is unnerving for passengers sitting in back. Once finished we get the high sign from the crew outside and again start up to continue progress towards the runway for departure.
Because of the early hour and low visibility in continuing snow, the tower controllers are unable to visually see aircraft in line on the taxiway. Our turn came up for take-off and we were cleared to depart. Now, free of ice and snow, we head south for Dallas having no idea what surprise awaits us on arrival.
Once we have the aircraft leveled at cruise altitude, we hear a knuckle tapping on the cockpit door followed by an immediate call from the flight attendant’s interphone in the forward cabin. She requested we open the cockpit door. This was pre 9/11; before airline flying and life in America forever changed. The flight attendant, sticking her head inside the cockpit says, “My key isn’t working in this door” and in a humorous note commented, “We are still working for American Airlines, right? The guys in the way back noticed after passenger briefing the evacuation cards all read Delta Airlines. But, catering gave us our normal American fare; maybe cabin services mixed up on the cards, coffee anyone?” Buzz and I didn’t give it much thought and continued with our business getting the flight from Seattle to DFW. I loved the three-day flight schedules where during our first and second days we flew more segments. On the last day, it was a simple one leg sequence back to our crew base allowing for a commute home the same day. The home report from Montana says Killer the dog has been in a pout the last few days; the coyotes have taken control of our little airport again and she is having anxieties about that.
The weather was clear for our arrival at DFW. A normal descent and visual landing to runway 13 Right was planned. We touched down just a few minutes behind schedule which I thought good considering our delay leaving Seattle. After landing and during rollout the controller instructed, “American Four-Forty… take the next high speed and join taxiway inner Bravo, hold short of Runway One-Eight-Right, contact ground frequency One-Two-One-Eight-Five.”
The Tower Controller continued; “American/Delta Four-Forty holding short there… who-are-you, really? Do you have a gate yet?”
“Ground, you calling American Four-Forty… we’re confused?”
The ground controller came back, “Aircraft holding short of One-Eight-Right, there at Bravo, say again your call sign?”
We answered, “Um, American Four-Forty is holding short at Bravo,”
“Oh Boy, I am confused now”, continued the ground controller, “I am looking at an MD-80 in Delta Airline paint holding short at Bravo. Say again, American Four-Forty, is that you?”
We replied, “Affirmative, Four-Forty holding short at Bravo!” We were then instructed, in a terse manner, “Four-Forty… Hold Your Position!”
The conversation taking place in the tower must have continued something like this. Calling to his duty supervisor the ground controller would say, “What do you make of this, a Delta answering to an American call sign, he’s holding short there at Bravo? You think something’s up?” “Well,” the super paused; let’s not take any chances, call security.”
We were soon surrounded on the taxiway by a half dozen airport security vehicles accompanied by sirens with blinking red, and blue lights. Instructed to shut down in place, near the runway intersection, we lowered our air-stairs and opened the cabin door. As I stood in the doorway I could see at the bottom of the stairs, a security team, complete with dogs on leashes. A German Shepard and a Black Lab were sniffing around the stairs at ramp level; the Lab could have passed for a sibling of my own great black hunter, the Killer. I thought to myself, Oh boy, these guys aren’t looking for coyote’s.
Well what more is to be said, it was true, we did it; we had flown an MD-80 airliner belonging to Delta Airlines to the Dallas Fort Worth Airport. There were some tell-tale signs as we looked more focused around the cockpit again and I said to my co-pilot, “I wonder when my hearing will be?” Buzz humorously replied, “Wha-ut about me?”
In defense of ourselves, the hearing for the unintended use of Delta’s aircraft turned out to be not much at all. During my many years of flying there were periods when airlines would use one another’s aircraft. They were generally short term leases or acquisitions of another airlines expendable aircraft for new route expansions. Some of those aircraft hadn’t always been through the cosmetic conversion for changes in interior and exterior branding. We, both pilots and flight attendants, had been conditioned by previous experiences. The nuances of our airlines identity had been easily overlooked, but our experience won’t be long forgotten by anyone, least of all us.