Columnists

May 4, 2011

Homecoming

Photo by Ander Aguirre
Photo by Ander Aguirre
FL370, Mach .83, 150NM Northwest of Toronto (YYZ), Destination JFK.

The night air is smooth and endless. We are hanging here, suspended in space sitting completely still among the stars, completely enclosed from the torrent of cold air rushing past the cockpit just four inches from our faces. The warmth in the cockpit of our Boeing 747-400 is like a comforting blanket. In the distance, small towns and villages dot the cold, Canadian landscape. Families and friends in their homes, with the people they love. Do they see us up here?

We are just about two hours out from New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport and in a bit we will begin our preparations for descent and arrival. This sequence of events takes place on hundreds of flight decks each and every day, on airliners arriving from all corners of the globe. I have landed airplanes thousands of times in my life with not a scratch on anyone or anything, however, something on tonight’s flight just feels…different. I have flown in and out of New York for all of my flying life. There is a certain bit of romance to the evening arrivals into the biggest metropolis on the eastern seaboard. Overhead the quiet surf, along the south shore of Long Island, jetliners from Europe, Asia, Africa, and all parts far and wide, glide in effortlessly over the salt marshes and bays that surround New York’s airports, bringing with them the people and precious cargo that make the world work.

In my previous life, I had flown in and out of LaGuardia Airport on the north shore of Queens, one of New York’s outer boroughs. Flying into LaGuardia always required the finest in professional airmanship. There was no room for error, and precise planning and flying were always the order of the day when arriving there. Two short, intersecting runways made for some very daring arrivals and departures. Coupled with the tight airspace of neighboring Newark International Airport and JFK, the arrival and departure corridors were woven like the threads of a sweater. What an amazing task, to orchestrate the arrivals and departures through the invisible highway up high in the New York night.

As I lean my head against the heated side window I stare back out into the night. There was something about tonight’s flight that left me with a special feeling as we hurtled towards the city at eighty three percent the speed of sound. I had thousands of hours of flight time. Thousands of arrivals in this very city. However, tonight was different. Tonight was something new. Tonight was my homecoming.

*****

In a quiet little town on the South Shore of Long Island, a young teenager stands in his driveway with a camera. Just like so many other kids his age, he is inexplicably drawn to aviation. He doesn’t know why, nor does he seek to know why. With a scanner in one hand, and a camera in the other he listens ever so closely…..

“Kennedy Tower, Good Evening, TWA 801 with you for the right side.”
“TWA 801, Kennedy Tower, Wind calm, Runway 31R, cleared to land,” they reply.
“Cleared to land, 31R, TWA 801.”

A perfect opportunity. The light out of the southwest will perfectly illuminate TWA’s Flight 801, a B747-100, on final approach of its non-stop journey from Paris. With the camera waiting, the whine of the four massive engines becomes audible, increasing in pitch and intensity. Finally the ship emerges from beyond the trees, with the sun’s last rays casting a golden hue over the aircraft just as the young man snaps a perfect shot of it.

One day…….one day…….

*****

FL370, Mach .83, Overhead CYYZ, Destination KJFK

Our concentration is broken with a loud chime indicating a new ATIS is coming through on the printer. New York will greet us with a perfect evening with clear skies, calm winds, and arrivals to the northwest on Runway 31R. We review and brief the arrival and approach plates, and set up this information in the Flight Management Computers.

Boeing 747-400

(Photo by Michael L. McLaughlin)

It is impressive to think that a few keystrokes can guide our two hundred and eighty ton ship from our present position to a complete stop exactly on the runway centerline. However, we must always be ever mindful that it is us, the flight crew, that must ensure that we have checked and double checked that everything is setup correctly, and in the event the logic does not respond as intended, we are to immediately step in manually to ensure the aircraft is doing exactly what we want. Complacency is not an option.

There is a full moon and it will look over us as we descend into JFK via the Kingston Eight Arrival. The Kingston Eight will guide us from over the central part of upstate New York towards the Catskill Mountains, and then south along the Hudson River Valley, where we will cross into New York’s airspace for the greatest show on earth. A clear, cloudless, moonlit night is the perfect setting for our overhead crossing of Manhattan Island at Flight Level 190. We will see Times Square from eighty miles away.

After our completion of the arrival, we will receive radar vectors towards the final approach to Runway 31R from a controller who is hunkered away in a dark room in Garden City, Long Island. It is a busy time now for everyone from the flight crew, to the air traffic controllers, to the operations personnel awaiting our arrival on the ground.

“Descent Checklist…….”

*****
Most rules make sense. Some rules are just contradictory, which is usually the result of numerous bureaucracies making different laws and not cross referencing them with other agencies. That is the reason why on this calm Saturday morning, a sixteen year old is about to fly an airplane alone, all by himself, when his parents had to drive him to the airport to accomplish this feat. The aviation gods laugh.

Boeing 747-400

(Photo by Tom Turner)

A first solo is a rite of passage for an aspiring aviator, and even more so for this young man. It is similar to a commencement ceremony, which is appropriately defined as the beginning and not the end of a journey. Although he has worked hard to get to this point and to earn the trust of his instructor who is about to liberate him, this is just the beginning. Like a parent letting a baby take its first steps, he soars alone into the sky.

As the PA-28-161 is released from the earths grip, he learns what freedom is in an instant. Words on paper cannot explain the feeling that engulfs him on his first solo flight. Pride, terror, exuberance, and unbridled enthusiasm are just some of the emotions poring through his mind and body. He is aloft, dancing above the Great South Bay, taking in this one flight that he’ll never get back. You only get one first solo. Like many other firsts in your life, this one will remain with you forever.

As the wheels kiss the ground, a ritual accomplished by thousands of aviators before him has been accomplished and put in the books. With a glance towards the west, as he pushes the airplane into its tie down spot, a B747-400 glides over Republic Airport on its way into JFK.

One day……one day……..

*****

FL200, 300KIAS, Overhead Kingston (IGN) VOR, Destination KJFK

“Global Oceanic 100 Heavy, New York Center, Descend to Flight Level 190. Cross LENDY at 250 knots.”
“Roger, Descend to FL190, cross LENDY at 250 knots, Global Oceanic 100 Heavy.”

As we turn to a southerly heading over Kingston VOR, we are given further instructions to descend and reduce speed so as to ensure our proper sequence into the flow of traffic this evening. The lights of the New York mertropolitan area glow with a fierce intensity and although we are still approximately forty nautical miles north of the city, we can easily make out Manhattan Island, Times Square, the Verrazano Bridge, and the length of Long Island, stretching one hundred and twenty miles to the east. The blackness of the Long Island Sound is easily visible as the lights of the city clearly define the edges of the body of water that separates New York and Connecticut.

It is easy to get distracted when flying into such a grand environment. However, training and professionalism are always automatically ensuring that we are well up for the task at hand, and although it’s a beautiful night we do have a job to do. As we soar in over Rockland County, our TCAS begins to fill up with the indications of other aircraft, a sure sign of the busy airspace ahead. I wonder what is going on in the minds of the other pilot’s in those aircraft tonight? Do they think about their families, their homes, or are they just enamored with the beauty of this evening’s sky? Hopefully they are being just as vigilant for avoiding other aircraft as we are.

I continue to think back to that feeling I had earlier. Despite flying into New York a thousand times before, there was something new and exciting about this evening’s flight. As we near the terminal area, I can sense that this will be an approach to remember forever.

“Prepare the cabin for arrival……”

*****

The flight instructor can’t be more than nineteen years old. He looks younger than his students own son, the son he wouldn‘t trust to drive him to the train on workdays. Yet the instructor displays the confidence of a seasoned veteran despite his having just three hundred hours of flight time. No matter. The FAA is certain in his abilities to not only fly these small aircraft, but to teach someone to fly them as well!

Guiding the student through the preflight inspection, the young Lindbergh carefully explains the operation of the ailerons and the purpose of the trailing edge flaps. He is impressed with himself that he is projecting such a professional image despite this being the very first time he has ever given a flying lesson. As they say a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, and the same is true of aviation. The journey of thousands of hours, begins with just one. One single, solitary, lonely hour of flight instruction out of which an incredible journey will begin.

As they launch off of Republic Airport’s Runway 19 into the hot, hazy summer sky, the instructor is confronted with the notion that this is for keeps. It is not his own life on the line anymore. He is now responsible for his student as well. The self doubt creeps into his mind, if only for a fleeting moment, when he realizes that although this is new, his training and preparation have prepared him for this very moment in his life.

How far we’ve come……

*****

10,000FT, 250KIAS, 15NM Southwest of JFK, Destination KJFK

The aircraft shakes with a gentle rumble from the extended speed brakes to help expedite our descent to 3,000 feet. As the airflow tumbles off the spoilers it flies back in a turbulent flow smacking off the horizontal and vertical stabilizers causing a rhythmic buffet through the airframe. Lets hope the engineers were as thoughtful in their jobs as I am in mine. I am confident that they were.

Boeing 747-400

(Photo by Eric Dunetz)

I can remember warm summer nights in high school, standing on the beach watching the airliners cross over the spot where ocean met land as if there were a monumental boundary being breached. I sensed it was an important and symbolic moment in flight, the first crossing onto land after thousands of miles and many hours aloft spent over the ocean and it was right here in Atlantic Beach where landfall occurred. I can remember wishing it was me up there, guiding those massive wide bodies into JFK on those nights so long ago. Back to the task at hand though, and as we approach 4,000 feet I smoothly retract the speed brakes to ensure a smooth transition to clean flight.

“Global Oceanic 100 Heavy, New York Approach, reduce speed to 180 knots, turn left heading 040.”
“Slow to 180 knots, left heading 040, Global Oceanic 100 Heavy.”

I call for Flaps One and then again for Flaps Five. The wing has now begun the transformation from an engineering marvel designed for speeds in upwards of Mach .90, to one of which is capable of speeds as slow as one hundred and thirty knots. As the long and slender leading edge flaps extend, a long guttural groan and rumble are felt throughout the airframe, up through the yoke, and into my fingertips. Although this may be a bit disconcerting, this is completely normal for this flap setting . As I call for Flaps Ten, I can see the lights of Atlantic Beach and Long Beach stretched out ahead into the night.

“Landing Checklist……”

*****

As an EMB-145 descends into LaGuardia Airport, the young copilot remarks to himself at how far he has come up to this point. Crossing over Coney Island in the early winter morning, the visibility is unlimited, and for a new airline pilot’s first airline flight into New York, this day could not be beat. As the small airliner inches its way closer to the runway, a quick glance off to the east reveals JFK International’s massive expanse.

As quickly as LaGuardia Airport begins to fill the windscreen, the thoughts of what an incredible ride it has been, up to this point, begin to creep in as well. How has this neophyte been so blessed to be flying into his city after all those years and dreams past? As the approach at hand continues, from the corner of his eye, he spots the sight of a B777 sailing out past Canarsie on its way to a distant land. What a long way from home for some. An arrival, for others. Its tough to acknowledge sometimes, that despite how far one may have come, there is still so much further to go.

Touchdown…….

*****

“Global Oceanic 100 Heavy, Kennedy Tower, Wind Calm, Runway 31R, Cleared to land.”
“Cleared to land, Runway 31R, Global Oceanic 100 Heavy.”

Now that we are established on final approach, we begin to sail in over Long Beach. The lights of Manhattan twinkle fifteen miles ahead in the distance and I realize what it is that has been on my mind tonight. As I guide this massive jet, all two hundred and eighty tons controlled by my hands, it dawns on me that a lifetime of wishing has come true tonight, as we fly beyond the surf of the Atlantic Ocean. Over two hundred thousand pounds of thrust being controlled by a few fingers, causes the neighbors below to turn up the volume just a bit more on their televisions as we roar past their homes. As we descend above Reynolds’s Channel, the call for “gear down” brings with it the feeling that we are almost home.

Boeing 747-400

(Photo by Phil Derner, Jr.)

The Queen of the Sky responds smartly and promptly to my inputs, as I guide her past the Woodmere Golf Course, The Five Towns, and Cedarhurst Park on final approach to Runway 31R. In an instant, life’s attainment of certain goals sails past in the blink of an eye, as I briefly glance down and see the house I grew up in fly past in a flash! It always seemed so much slower when watching from the ground. We are now four hundred feet above the ground and I begin to see the moonlight illuminate the distinct blue track at the high school where I spent more hours staring out the window at the airport, than staring at my books like a good student should.

With a gentle pull on the yoke and a smooth reduction of power the sixteen main tires spool up to one hundred and fifty knots as we touchdown ever so gently. The only way we know we are down is the quiet movement of the speed brake lever to the aft of the pedestal. With a quick pull up on the thrust levers, our world gets very loud! The engines release an avalanche of reverse thrust helping the brakes in their agonizing attempt to stop us! It is so loud on the flight deck that I can barely hear myself think. As we slow, the reversers get stowed, and the cockpit once again returns to its previous state of calmness and serenity.

This was my first wide body approach and landing into JFK. It was only half a lifetime ago, that I stood in that driveway wishing to be on the flight deck of an airliner flying into this airport, this runway, this approach. How many nights did I wish I could feel the warmth of the cockpit as I soared into this airport, over my town, the place of my youth. Tonight was something different. Over thousands of hours, thousands of landings, countless training flights, countless student pilots, countless commuter flights, and to finally end up right here is bittersweet. So many days, weeks, and months spent gone from family and friends over the years was the sacrifice, but tonight I am here. Tonight was my homecoming.

“Welcome Home…..”

*****

In a quiet little town on the South Shore of Long Island, a young teenager stands outside in his driveway. Just like so many other kids his age, he is inexplicably drawn to aviation. He doesn’t know why, nor does he seek to know why. With a scanner in his hand, and a hot chocolate in the other he listens ever so closely…..

“Kennedy Tower, Good Evening, Global Oceanic 100 Heavy, with you for the right side,”
“Global Oceanic 100 Heavy, Kennedy Tower, Wind Calm, Runway 31R, Cleared to land.”
“Cleared to land, Runway 31R, Global Oceanic 100 Heavy.”

The moonlight out of the west will perfectly illuminate Global Oceanic Airways, Flight 100, a B747-400, on final approach of its non-stop journey from one of the far corners of the earth. The whine of the four massive engines becomes audible, increasing in pitch and intensity. Finally the ship emerges from beyond the trees, with the moonbeams casting a brilliant glow over the aircraft just as the young man looks up. The airplane sails from right to left and then beyond the houses across the street until he cannot see or hear it anymore. As the sleepy hamlet falls back into silence, he turns around to head inside, yet, he can’t help but swear that he saw the pilot looking down on him.

One day…….one day…….

***

A version of this article appeared in the December 2010 issue of Airways Magazine.

NYCAviation Columnist Justin Schlechter is a First Officer for an international airline and lives with his family on Long Island, New York. You can read more of his writing on his Positive Rate blog.