The screech of tires skidding on pavement snapped my fight-or-flight reflexes into action as eyes flashed wide open, knuckles went white as they gripped whatever was handy and adrenaline coursed from wherever that particular hormone lies in wait. Twelve years of professional aviation led me to that fateful night where I worried suddenly that someone else would have to get my remains back home and spread the ashes across the red Georgia clay, a flurry of gray bound to earth that would melt away with the next passing thunderstorm. Dying on an island in the Caribbean, I mused, might not be all that bad. At least someone could enjoy a day at the beach when they came down to sign the papers.
The risk of mortality in our profession is something most of us happily avoid spending a lot of effort worrying about. Once I quit spending my weekends at air shows, the ranks of friends who prematurely ceased the celebration of birthdays thinned considerably. Don’t get me wrong. Professional pilots dedicate no small effort to safety. We just spend a lot less time dwelling on the possibility of death than the average person you meet at a party who poses the inevitable, “Do you ever have emergencies, you know, where you think you may die?”
I’ve had no lack of airplanes that let me down over the years. One engine decided that two cylinders was as good as four, and another decided that 26 minutes’ worth of ignition was enough work for the day. Several systems failures made me cuss the family names of the brands on the boxes that became paperweights while I was working my way through checklists. I cringed at the phone calls, paperwork and monetary outlays it would take to get airborne again in each of those instances. I didn’t take the time to consider how badly things could have gone until I was on the ground. Even then, I know most of those instances were merely an increased workload with minimal chances of meeting the Maker.
What I failed to realize all along was this: The Grim Reaper approaches from unexpected directions.
We were on day three of a five-day trip, and we were in New York, preparing for a flight to Kingston, Jamaica. We ran through the paperwork and loaded our route into the airplane. All the numbers checked out. We pushed, expecting runway 22R for departure. Once we taxied clear of the ramp, ground called us with a change to runway 31L. “On a second radio, contact clearance for a new route,” he added. Clearance apologized because he couldn’t get our route to load in the CPDCLC system for us, and he told me that a pen and paper would be handy for the full route clearance coming up.
I fished a good pen out of my shirt pocket. The hotel pens I leave in the cockpit pen holder have a bad habit of running dry when you really need them. The weather app we use imports flight plans using the most recently cleared route, so I refreshed the route and saw the course line move from well offshore to an inland odyssey, coming down the west side of the weather hugging the entire east coast. I smiled at getting a sneak peek. “Ready to copy,” I said. I wrote the route down in spite of having it on a screen before me, just in case. My scrawl and the electrons matched. There was a lot of writing involved, and I triggered a warning message as I read back the full route. The readback was long enough to make the Airbus think I had a stuck microphone button.
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There were a lot of chainsaws to juggle, and I set to working through all the changes. There were performance numbers to run for our takeoff on a different runway, the departure procedure was different and runway 31L has a more complex engine failure procedure. Runway 22R was a simple scenario of flying the runway heading. Our new runway pointed straight at the tall buildings of downtown NYC, necessitating a left turn over the water before accelerating and sorting out the emergency if an engine failed on takeoff.
Then there was the route itself. Ground had us taxi across 31L to a taxiway on the other side and out of the way while we dealt with everything. As we stopped there, I began typing in the full route. Fix, airway, fix, airway, fix, fix, airway, ad nauseum until I had drawn our new from the northeast, down the eastern states, through Florida, and partway across Cuba before one airway refused entry into the computer. “Invalid Airway/Waypoint,” a message chided me. I double-checked my work, expecting my grade-school sloppy script to have misled my typing. No, the paper in my hand matched the weather app’s route. I called the guy on clearance back, who verified that my numbers and letters were all correct. We both studied our screens, and he offered that the offending airway actually began with a VOR before the one giving me grief. I could enter that VOR, then the airway to the terminating fix at the airport and trick the computer.
In nearly four decades of roaming the earth, I should have known by now that outsmarting a computer isn’t one of my cool party tricks.
Meanwhile, the captain, Rick, had been on the horn with dispatch to run the numbers, and he tried to figure out the route with the dispatcher. Three flight-planning apps, two pilots, a controller and a dispatcher all failed to find a solution.
We could have launched with the route unresolved and sorted it out airborne, we both reasoned. But if things didn’t work out, our actions would be indefensible when it came down to a meeting with a chief pilot and a Fed sitting across the table from us. So we set the parking brake and called dispatch back, and he canceled our flight plan altogether, figuring a start from scratch was the best plan of action.
We finally got airborne, more than an hour after leaving the gate, with a full route that worked for all involved. We picked our way through isolated storms and small lines of weather as far as North Carolina, where the skies cleared, we took a deep breath, and we reached to turn the seatbelt sign off. The ride was uneventful all the way down the rest of the nation, and our check in with Havana Center was uneventful a hundred miles north of the boundary crossing, as we said hello to a lady with a clear transmitter and impeccable English. We dodged one storm over the island and negotiated a shortcut that bypassed another giant cell raging off the south coast of Cuba.
We turned east as we contacted Kingston for its boundary crossing and picked our way between cells over Jamaica before joining the localizer and whistling down at idle with the speed brakes out and inching slower and slower as we tried to get to flap extension speed. Everything was coming together after a long day that began in Orlando, where we had to begin this whole odyssey. Still awake and alert, but certainly glad to be nearing the end of the day, my mind drifted momentarily to how nice it’d be to sleep in the next morning, waking just in time to catch the plentiful buffet at the hotel.
Back to the cocktail party. Strangers standing around, expecting an exciting tale of what the airlines would love to keep from public consumption about people nearly dying in a fiery blaze of jet fuel, bent metal and destruction. There’s a long pause, and then I think back to the night in Kingston. Screeching tires. A jolt against the seatbelts. Adrenaline. There was no time for the whole life-before-your-eyes phenomenon. I went from content with the world to fearing the worst in the time it took to open my eyes.
Then, it was time for those words everyone stood ready to hear. “So there I was,” then I took a deep breath, gauging the reaction from all around. “I’d just fallen asleep on the hotel shuttle van in Jamaica, when our driver and another driver decided one lane was wide enough for two vehicles…” We didn’t hit, but it was close, and having drifted off to sleep, I found it a less-than-desirable way to be shaken from a nap. The looks of disgust were predictable, the thriller tale equivalent of a dad joke, and you could all but hear the impact of pupils against skulls as eyes rolled back into skulls while I explained that getting to and from the hotel is one of the biggest dangers we face.
Hotel drivers pull double and triple shifts, working for multiple hotels in one area, the property management blissfully ignorant of these feats of endurance driven by low wages in high-cost-of-living neighborhoods. We’re completely immune to surprise when we board up by the glow of check-engine lights, low tire pressure alerts and the ever-popular amber silhouette of a fuel pump. This particular day had begun with a van in Orlando with zero seatbelts installed, side-facing benches with nothing to hold on to, and a driver who believed left turns from the straight-across lane at a traffic light, in spite of a fully queued turning lane, were no reason to keep from stretching out his hand for a tip after we got to the terminal.
Months before, an accident in San Juan hit home when a wrong-way driver in the early hours of the morning rammed into a crew van, only sparing that crew by the thinnest of margins. One flight attendant finished that trip in the hospital with a broken back. These aren’t the risks we trained for, but there they are. The Grim Reaper just keeps looking for alternate routes to reach the same result.