The Flying Circus

The Flying Circus

The Flying Circus

Egos run rampant in most airline cockpits, no matter what airline. It came with the territory. While attending a recurrent training period, which all Captains are required to accomplish each six months, a psychologist addressed a group of us in an auditorium one day. There were about two hundred pilots in the session and it was being done under the guise of CRM (Crew Resource Management). How to work as a team to solve problems without exerting your Captains authority as the rule; extracting the best of fellow crew members and how best to manage egos in close quarters (a tall order under any circumstance)?

The Psychologist posed this question to the group; “Those of you in the room that are first born in your family please raise your hand.” I was shocked when we all looked around the auditorium to see that most of our hands were raised. It was more than ninety percent of us that were firstborn. Our speaker reflected; this should tell you a lot about what is going on in your cockpits. It answered a lot for me.

Some Characters I have known

A circus is known for its variety of characters; a show with feats of skill, some animal acts and always a few clowns. The Ringmaster keeps the show moving; that would be a chief pilot’s job. It might have a menagerie, a display of exotic creatures, a few musicians and jugglers of course. Then there are the daredevils, shot from canons perhaps. Yes, we had all of those in our pilot groups at one time or another; entertainers all… for certain.

Flash Gordon

There was Flash Gordon; I don’t recall his first name because we called him Flash. While flying he liked to say “watch this” while he flew an approach with his feet on opposite rudder pedals. His right foot on the left pedal and his left foot on the right. He called it his polish landing maneuver. Flash was fired from the airline early in his career.

The Sleeper

Another Captain I used to fly with had some serious problems with staying awake. He was observed to be sound asleep for the better half of any flight I ever flew with him. He was also known to have slept through ground training sessions and when asked a question by the instructor would always have the correct answer. He was amazing. I remember one flight, after I made the landing, I needed to wake him up because the nose-wheel steering control was on his side of the cockpit and we needed to steer the aircraft off the runway. This was during the era when you could still smoke in the cockpit and it was his custom to keep a cigarette continually lit so that when it burned down to his finger-tips it would wake him up. He often complained about having a sinus condition that didn’t allow him to sleep while lying down, so he got used to sleeping when sitting up straight. Captain “Sleeping Straight Up” I have to admit, was a really good pilot even when asleep.

Captain Paranoid

Then there was Captain Paranoid; any conversation occurring within the cockpit that was sensitive in nature to our airlines management or the FAA (our federal aviation authorities), he would place his hand over the cockpit voice recorder microphone located at the top of the overhead panel; a significant stretch. Or, he would pull the recorder circuit breaker so it wouldn’t record the conversation. He was fixated on that mic for most of the time he occupied his cockpit seat. It was nut-so. After this particular airline went out of business the Captain just quietly disappeared, he could have gone to work for the CIA?

Shamu meets Captain Aerobat

At Overseas National Airways, (ONA) I flew frequently with a Captain that was a former Air Force fighter pilot; a retired colonel, that used to fly the F-100, and probably had logged more time flying upside down than I had right side up. I referred to him as Captain Aerobat and he told some really good stories; he always threatened he was going to roll the transport category airplane during flight. He preferred doing a snap roll, he would say, and he would then describe how he was going to accomplish it. I thought the airline might frown on that.

An unusually exotic passenger: During 1969 we were contracted to fly Shamu the Killer Whale (Orca) from Seattle to San Diego to her new residence at SeaWorld. The aircraft was one of our DC-9 freighters with one large cargo door located at the front of the fuselage. Shamu, by whale standards, was provided a first class seat. She arrived at the aircraft suspended in a sling attached to the sides of a huge half cylinder. The cylinder contained seawater that was being pumped up, through a series of hoses, connected to spray units on top that would keep her moist though out the flight. Shamu would not require a seat belt for this trip, I hoped.

The flight from Seattle to San Diego went without incident I am pleased to report. After the whale was unloaded, we were to position the aircraft back to Sacramento for its next cargo flight at McClellan AFB. During the preflight briefing Captain Aerobat says to me… “It’s about time we do this snap roll – what do you think?” “Geez Captain, I don’t think it’s a great idea,” I recall thinking or saying? We lined up on the runway and poured the coal to it. The aircraft was very light, empty as a matter of fact as we weren’t going far, so the DC-9 just leaped off the runway. Once off the ground, at about 500 feet, Captain Aerobat honked the aircraft into a 90 degree bank left turn and pulled back hard. It was exactly what you do if you are about to execute a snap roll. The “g” forces were so great I could feel the blood draining from my head and thought I might pass out. The aircraft’s wing shuddered slightly and the Captain relieved some of the back pressure and rolled the aircraft back to wings level. He then looks over at me and says… “Scared the shit out of you didn’t I?” It turns out he was kidding with me all along. I don’t believe he ever accomplished his snap roll in a transport category aircraft, but he really wanted too.

Captain Hunk

Captain Hunk, as you might expect, was a chick magnet of the first order. No matter where he went or when he went there, girls always showed up and at times in numbers. He had a winsome personality and wasn’t what you would consider classically handsome, in that Cary Grant sort of way, he just had -it, whatever -it was?

On one trip in particular we arrived at our hotel late one evening, approaching midnight, after a grueling transcontinental cargo trip; with an airplane full of boxes. The clerk behind the desk is surly and not pleasant as he tells us the hotel bar is closed. Captain Hunk and myself, turning around, grabbed our bags and headed for the hotels elevator. At which point the Hunk whispers to me… “God, I’m as horny as a goat.” We push the button for the elevator to come fetch us. The doors open, we climb in and the doors begin to close behind us. Suddenly, there is a ding ding ding and the doors begin to open again. Standing there in the doorway is a looker, and I mean a looker, she stepped in and pushes the button for her floor. The elevator begins its climb and we wait… she is getting off first. The elevator stops and the doors open. Mind you, not a word has been spoken between them. At which point they both step out of the elevator, and Captain Hunk and the Looker proceed down the hallway together. All it took was for him to look horny as they exchanged glances; it isn’t a language most people speak.

Captain Checkmate

When flying the North Atlantic back in the day when we occasionally still had navigators on board as cockpit crew, because not all of our aircraft were equipped with the new Litton Inertial Navigation Systems. There was plenty of time between navigation fixes that we had time to pass a magnetic chessboard back and forth, as the navigator passed us heading changes while waiting to report our positions via HF radio, to our company and Air Traffic Control at Gander or Shanwick; about every ten degrees of longitude or fifty minutes.

Captain Checkmate was an avid chess player and a very aggressive one at that. I had been playing chess from a very young age so felt competent when playing the Captain. Not many co-pilots enjoyed flying with him because of his gruff nature. I didn’t mind and got along with him because he allowed the distraction while flying the airplane. Having a good chess match that lasted the entire trip took away the boring elements of flying the North Atlantic; especially at night. Captain Checkmate had a problem… he dabbled in the stock market. Confucius say “A pilot and his money are soon parted.”

The difference in our ages was considerable, he was near retirement age and I wasn’t. I was able to continue after our airline went out of business and he wasn’t. With huge swings in the stock market he found himself short as he approached the end of an aviation career that spanned many decades. He took a huge gamble and lost. Captain Checkmate was offered an opportunity to haul a load of drugs out of South America and got caught and went to prison. I found him and continued to play chess with him by mail for a period until he no longer answered my moves. He had died in prison, end of story… Checkmate!

And then, in a circus, there are the clowns; you need clowns for a good flying circus. You need pilot clown friends, that paint your car pink while you are away on your honeymoon, then place it back in the airline employee parking lot to await the return with your bride. The kicker, after finally finding their car, the newly married pilot and his bride are stopped by the police as they exit the parking lot. It appears the car had been under surveillance because of its unusual appearance. Or, could it have been the stuffed parrot hanging from the rear view mirror; maybe it was their names emblazoned on the rear bumper?

Also, the kind of clown friends that while flying over the Rockies, in the middle of the night while you doze a bit, they run the fuel gauges to zero then pull the circuit breaker to lock the pointers on empty then lean back, as if asleep, while reaching up to press the fire warning test switch. The kind of sound that results, both from the warning bells and the dozing pilot are not pleasant to see or hear. But, what is the purpose of being a clown if not to stir up a few emotions?

2 thoughts on “The Flying Circus”

  1. very enjoyable! I remember there was a captain with ONA who was always asleep when I walked in the cockpit. He must have had narcolepsy. On a flight out of the Canary Islands on 863 to Bangor about an hour out, the senior informed me that we were going to ditch! It turned out the front landing gear was not going to be coming down. I was a nervous wreck because I had evacuated the aircraft in Bangor the year before when the uncarriage caught fire. As we circled the airport the pax were wondered why all these fire engines were down below. Luckily, the landing gear came down. This captain landed it like he was landing on eggs! Skip Doolittle was the First Officer. When we landing, the windshield in the cockpit had cracked.

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