29 April 2008

Dispatches from the Line Mk.II

A close encounter of the scary kind.

A few years back now, I had just gotten transferred at work to a different building. This building was where the company kept all of it's charter aircraft fleet. It was a bit of a different experience, instead of having many different aircraft and pilots always in and out on their business in Grand Rapids, I got a chance to get to know the crew and the aircraft, since they were actually based in my building.

It was enjoyable to get to know some of the pilots, many of whom are still around, and many of whom are not, but I still run into from time to time. Since at the time the charter business was just starting to get going, we would usually have some time to sit and talk and hang out with the pilots as they would come back. Sometimes, they would have left over catering, and we would sit around a half-eaten fruit and cheese tray, talking about where they went, and how awful this "rich people food" tasted.

One night, the weather wasn't the greatest in Milwaukee, where one of my airplanes had to be. There had been a front moving through, and had left the airport wet, rainy, and foggy. The airplane made it back, and I had taken care of the passengers and saw them on their way, so I was eager to talk to the pilots to see how their day went. Besides, I had noticed that the passengers had barely touched their catering, and Flight Line Rule Number One is: Always eat free food.

As I walked into the kitchen, Jim, one of the pilots, was sitting on the little sofa we had in there, with a rather tall and full glass of whiskey that we keep aboard the aircraft. Incidentally, if ever you read someones name in these Dispatches, its fake. I have to protect the innocent...and the guilty.

Anyway, Jim was there, with his Dewar's tumbler full, and his hands were shaking a bit. Clearly, something didn't go quite as planned. I asked him what happened.

Jim shook his head. It seems that as they were leaving Milwaukee, the weather was starting to get a little bit worse, not enough to delay them significantly, but enough that there was some trouble with other airport traffic. There were some diverted flights that were attempting to leave, and some arrivals that were trying to make it in before the weather got even worse. All in all, a pretty hectic time, especially for the air traffic controllers. It is obviously their job to control all the arrivals and departures, and so they were stretched just a bit trying to make everything run smoothly.

Jim and his copilot were taxiing to the runway for takeoff, and the fog was getting thicker, so that they could barely make out the lights for the runway in the distance. They were in constant contact with the tower, and the tower was taking care of all the other arrivals. I don't remember the exact details, but Jim was cleared for takeoff, which means that they can taxi from the taxiway onto the runway, and the runway is considered their space until they are clear. As Jim taxied onto the end of the runway, he had to turn the aircraft to line up with the runway. The aircraft was lined up now, and Jim's hand was on the throttle levers, ready to increase power for takeoff.

Suddenly, out of the fog, another aircraft came in for a landing on the same runway! Jim and his copilot caught just a glimpse of the underside of the other aircraft, gear down, flaps down, twenty feet above them, before the other aircraft aborted their landing and disappeared back into the night sky.

Ernest K Gann, an aviation author, said that Fate is the Hunter. Never is that more true than in an aircraft.


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