01 Feb I was an Airline Pilot for thirty years, and I have some stories to tell
There’s a good reason most of the goings on in the pointy end of the airplane are so seemingly shrouded in mystery. Firstly, in the rare event that a catastrophic failure occurs, there’s usually no upside in letting people know. Yes, your safety may be marginally impacted overall, but, simply put, informing the nice folks in the back we lost one of our hydraulic systems and are just a few faulty valves from being uncontrollable doesn’t seem to inspire the calmness we generally aspire to, at least in my experience. Secondly, and more apt in this account, it’s because sometimes those goings on are so inexplicable that a prudent pilot may be wiser to pretend nothing happened at all, lest he ends up flying a Prius for Uber. And so, most airmen, not unlike myself until now, (and only then because of the anonymity this medium affords) float their way through their careers with a veiled, stifled, sense of terror about them. A sense a common man would never notice, but that a fellow aviator knows all too well. It’s the sight of cold, darting eyes across an empty horizon or the single bead of sweat forming on an otherwise unfurrowed brow. It’s not abject terror, never. It’s the sound of an overly calm announcement from the Captain after a spot of “turbulence,” or a cold, calculated nod between crew members as they both look to one another to affirm they’re really seeing “whatever that is” out there. And a nod is all it will be, too, otherwise, the discussion might end up on a cockpit voice recorder.
This account lifts the veil so carefully placed over these phenomena so that maybe, we might shed light on what’s going on out there. I, for one, would surely like to know. And so, I’ve just put my feet up in my den after having returned from Hawaii, which was my last trip in this business. And the first duty I’ve prescribed myself in my newfound retirement is to pour myself a large glass of my favorite brown-colored drink and to spill my proverbial guts out.
May 7th, 1982 – An Emergency Diversion to “The Azores”
For those who aren’t aware, The Azores are an archipelago about 800 miles West of Portugal. Throughout aviation’s brief history, the islands have proven to be an invaluable fuel stop for aircraft hopping from the States to Europe. As technology progressed and fuel endurance increased, these fuel stops were no longer necessary as contemporary jet aircraft could offer nonstop flights. In the 80s, any flight stopping over in the Azores was likely because of a fuel emergency that developed en route.
In late Spring 1982, myself, a First Officer, and a Captain known only to me then as “Captain A-Ham,” owing mostly to his considerable size, were flying a Lockheed L-1011 Tristar from Atlanta to Lisbon. The evening prior’s weather forecast foretold dense fog the next morning, and unsurprisingly, a thick, stolid, blanket floated over the airport as we prepared the Tristar for departure. Captain A-Ham, for his incredible size, proved to be a nimble enough fellow, moving effortlessly through the Tristar’s cramped cockpit. His round, bullish shoulders seemed almost to offset his bulbous gut, while both contrasted his sharp, diminutive tone. What I did not know then, being inexperienced, was that Captain A-Ham was the most bid-avoided Captain in Atlanta, which, simply put, meant nobody wanted to fly with him. And after the first few minutes of preparations alongside him, I had immediately discovered why. The man was a slob. After no longer than ten minutes, he had strewn his things across both sides of the cockpit and managed to get mayonnaise from his sandwich all over the radio’s controls. Needless to say, I had already resigned myself to four days of torment as we climbed through the gray soup and soared north-eastward.
Much to my relief, after a few hours of flying, and quite a few snacks, the man became pleasant enough. We talked of our families and aspirations, meandering about through the usual getting to know each other. This process is delicate among pilots, and, for a young First Officer, is not unlike being locked in an elevator with your boss for days at a time. It’s a ritual almost, and any crew member wholly uninterested in his crewmate is not long for the profession. Jeff Dunkirk, whom I later came to know Captain A-Ham as, was a second-generation immigrant from Scottish descent. He worked hard, had a family, and had absolutely no desire to end up at the bottom of the ocean due to a fuel leak in the number one engine. Unfortunately for us, that was the circumstance we found ourselves in, and even more, we hadn’t discovered the leak until it was far too late to turn back toward Atlanta. Eleven minutes after I detected the leak, the number 1 engine flamed out, and we began drifting downward toward the icy blue maw below us.
“Find me a fix to the Azores,” Captain Dunkirk said. “And it looks like you better make it snappy.”
“About a 110 heading will do it,” I said. “But we aren’t going to make it. They’re over 400 miles away.”
The leak had been particularly pernicious as it had gone so long undetected. Jets can be smart but all too often, they are dumb. Normally, when one engine burns (or in this case leaks) fuel more quickly than the others, fuel is automatically transferred across tanks to balance the aircraft. In our case, the transfer pumps had been running for nearly the entire flight, dutifully balancing our aircraft and pumping our precious fuel overboard. I had realized this shortly after the engine flamed out, and had overridden the automatic cross-flow of fuel, but it was too late. Number two and three engines flamed out only moments later.
Pilots are cool. Not in the new-age Top Gun/Hollywood kind of way, but in the methodical, fate accepting, diligent kind of way. You quickly learn that slow is smooth and smooth is fast. You also learn that if you keep diligently working, even in the face of certain doom, it’s a great way to procrastinate a complete mental breakdown. It’s exactly why you see such strange behavior during disasters, like that guy in Saving Private Ryan fixated on finding his arm.
We slowed, solemnly, to our best glide speed, which would give us the farthest gliding distance without power. Neither one of us could work up the courage to make an announcement to the passengers. Cruising at 41,000 feet, we were descending now at about 1200 feet per minute. That’s about 34 minutes of an eerily quiet ride to the waves below. Way too much time alone with thoughts about the finality of death and what, if anything, might lie beyond. So we didn’t think. Like the Private holding his arm and charging into battle, we both fastidiously scanned the horizon for a patch of dirt, recalculated our time to impact, and prepared the aircraft for an eventual ditching. Scan. Calculate. Scan. Calculate. Scan. I must have scanned the horizon a thousand times and even convinced the Captain to change course momentarily to scan the areas we couldn’t see. Then, descending through 10,000 feet and with eight minutes and 18 seconds left to impact, I saw the impossible. A small island off our right flank sporting a long, beautiful runway. It was well within our gliding range. With an appreciation for life only those who have faced certain, unavoidable death have experienced, we banked the Tristar toward the island and made our gliding approach.
“That wasn’t there before,” Captain Dunkirk said. I glanced toward him, then shook my head.“Must be the Azores, then?” I asked. The Captain shook his head.
He was right. It wasn’t the Azores.
As the Tristar groaned to a halt on the runway, we expected to be greeted by emergency services and some semblance of a fire department, yet we found nothing of the sort. The Captain instructed the flight attendants to keep the passengers as orderly as one could expect and then made an announcement informing everyone that everything was in order and that due to unforeseen circumstances we simply needed more fuel so we might continue to our destination. Then we waited. The radio proved to be useless as none of our attempts to tune navigational aids or communication frequencies worked. After several unsuccessful hours, I went about determining our position. Toiling for an embarrassing amount of time, I arrived at my conclusion. It was unmistakable – about 47 degrees west. That was about 300 or so miles from the Azores, which was essentially the middle of the goddamn ocean. It couldn’t be right, but it was.
“I’m going to look for someone,” The Captain said. “No, stay with the ship. I’ll go,” I replied. He nodded.With the Tristar and the pristine runway at my back, I walked for what seemed like hours until I approached a huddle of small aircraft hangars. Then I heard it, the squealing and cawing. Chimps. Hundreds of them flocked, pulling and prodding at my clothes and gibbering wildly. I laughed, awestruck. But that was only the beginning. Growing tired of being prodded, I walked away when one chimp distinguished himself. Larger than the others, he wore a tattered green shirt and darted in front of me as I turned from the crowd. The other chimps quickly encircled us, and I quickly realized this must be a leader of sorts.
“Listen pal, this looks fun and all, but I’ve got a lot of people waiting for me,” I said, laughing as I spoke. Then the chimp nodded and pointed toward the Tristar’s outline on the horizon. “Yeah, there’s a lot of us, we’re stuck unless we can get a hold of someone.” The chimp pointed at himself. “Yes, you seem to be a someone, but I’m talking people like me, see?” I said, pointing toward myself. The chimp’s eyes narrowed, and he suddenly clapped his hands together. A smaller monkey whirled into view, holding a green canteen labeled U.S. Army. He handed it to the leader. Carefully, the largest chimp unscrewed the lid and pointed toward the Tristar, then slowly dripped water onto the ground in front of him. “I’m not thirsty,” I said. The chimp screamed and pointed in another direction. There, I could see the outline of an aircraft behind a collection of small huts.
Eventually, he led me to a site I couldn’t believe. A C-47 transport aircraft, straight out of WWII. It lay motionless with engines deconstructed at its sides. Within the aircraft was cage after cage carefully loaded in its cargo area. A faded manifest lay in the flight deck. Department of the Army: Zoological Research Transport. As I pried my jaw off of the floor of the C-47’s cockpit, another sporty fellow carelessly hopped up into the seat beside me. Slapping a faded, cracked Hula Bobber on the dash, the chimp began wildly throwing the C-47s controls, pretending to fly. Then I heard a clinking from behind me. It was the leader, alongside a solemn-looking chap, at their feet lay a collection of shattered, dirty spark plugs. They were trying to repair the damn thing, but couldn’t get it running because of the bad plugs.
I sat for a long while until the leader pulled me from the aircraft and toward the huts. The huts then eventually gave way to a few larger concrete buildings, one of them labeled Research Laboratory A12. Thinking they wanted me to go inside, I walked toward it, but the leader became agitated and pulled me away, leading me toward the opposite end of the building. As we crested the building’s flank it came into view. Lo and behold, a 3000-gallon Avgas tanker, a white star painted on its side. Apparently, Uncle Sam had plans of coming and going.
I jumped in the tanker but was quickly stopped by a chimp with whom I had not yet been introduced. Despite this, he had no qualms about showing me who was in charge and insisted on driving. At that rate, who was I to argue? As we drove, the Tristar’s hulking frame grew closer on the horizon and before long the fuel tanker, the leader, and a handful of his compatriots were situated under our jet’s wing. I motioned for them to wait, and just as I turned toward the cabin door I heard him.
“What the fuck is this?” Captain Dunkirk said as he climbed down the aircraft.
But there was no explanation, not really. There was the objective truth of what was happening, and there was all we had known about the world previously crashing down around our ears. That happened several times during my airline career, and each time was just as jarring as the last. After the shock of what he’d seen, the Captain went back to the flight deck and ordered the attendants to ensure all the side windows of the aircraft were closed. Nobody was to see half a dozen chimps gravity feeding forty-year-old Avgas into the wings of our Tristar. Boy, that would have been a great Polaroid.
As the last of their remaining fuel drained from the tank, the gravity of the situation struck me. The smaller monkey, who had before shown such delight in manipulating the C-47‘s controls, had slung his arm over the leader. While the other chimp sulked in the fueler. They had given us the last of their fuel, and despite their defunct spark plugs, until this moment, they had obviously retained some small modicum of hope they might escape this island. I had to pinch myself as my eyes misted over, just to make sure I wasn’t dreaming. Moments later, the troop all steadily loaded back into their truck and I turned away, grabbing the first rung of our boarding ladder. Tires screeched behind me, as the fueler came to an abrupt stop just as it had started off. I looked back to see the leader approaching. He handed me a folded piece of paper. On it was a map – US RESEARCH STATION A12 – was stretched across the top. Just as I had suspected, we were about 300 miles west of the Azores. The leader pointed to the map, then to the Tristar, then to the map, and then to himself. Then he squinted and pursed his lips tightly, making carefully calculated sounds which were barely audible. I heard him despite himself:
Come back for us.
The situation back in the Tristar was bleak. The fuel leak wasn’t fixed, but we could isolate the tank and use our remaining two engines to depart. Frankly, while unthinkable under normal circumstances, there seemed to be no other option. It would be an uncomfortably long takeoff, but the runway was plenty long. In addition, our engines would be scrapped by the time we got to the Azores proper, as they would run much hotter because of the nonstandard fuel. The old tanker gave us just enough, with a bit of reserve, but that was all.
As the engines spooled to life, and we taxied toward the end of the runway, I could see small figures standing on huts in the distance, waving palm fronds and jumping to and fro.
“What’d he give you?” Captain Dunkirk asked.
“This,” I replied as I unfurled the map.
“We’ll be put in the nuthouse, you know that right?” The Captain said. “They’ll lock you up and throw away the key.” He ran his hands through his hair as he spoke, stuttering. “Best to give it here,” he said as he reached for the map. “Plus, if they find out we didn’t find that fuel leak before we left Atlanta we’re both cooked, you understand?”
It was a different time. I understood.
“We tell nobody and get the thing fixed in the Azores, got it?”
He tore the map into confetti. I felt a pang in my chest as he sprinkled them into the bin. It was an awful thing. Truly awful. The worst was I still knew the coordinates, even after Captain A-Ham tore them to shreds. Even after all this time. I just never spoke up. None of us did.
Until now: N35°8’W47°28’
More to come, that‘s enough for now.