The Angle of the View (1989)
Stories / The Rules
"The Rules" are twenty-six ideas I've collected over the years that seemed relevant enough to life in general that I've written each down with a short story to reinforce each in particular. This is Rule Number Twenty-two.
The angle of the view sometimes determines the view itself.
They called these trips “Presidential Support Readiness Inspections.” We took the airplane, loaded with White House Military Office officials, to all the different places in either the Pacific or in Europe, to inspect the military bases tasked with supporting a movement of the President. WHMO, pronounced “Whamo,” called all the shots for our airplane, especially when the President was moving. It was high stress for us in the business of flying airplanes because the price of failure was too high. But if the President hadn’t been to the theater in question for more than a year, we flew a trip without him, just to make sure everything was still in readiness.
Without the risk of failing while tethered to Air Force One, these readiness inspections were one of our favorite events. We loaded up with double crews to maximize the training and wherever we went, everyone had some time off. You couldn’t be selected to command the trip until you were an experienced instructor pilot. Because the airlines were hiring, I was considered experienced enough two months after earning my 747 IP status. My first task would be to sit down with the WHMO commander, an Army Colonel.
“I’m not sure we’ve ever had a mere captain command an inspection tour,” Colonel Dewey Markham said after gesturing me to sit opposite his desk. He was referring to my military rank, captain. The squadron had another captain instructor pilot before, but he had since been promoted to major. “But we are all soldiers here,” he continued, “and we do what we have to do. So, captain, what is your mission for this tour?”
“To safely fly you to where you need to be,” I said, “so you can do your job.”
“Damn right,” he said. “So we have to treat this as if the President was en route and our job is to support him. So we treat this like the real thing. You got that, captain?”
“Well the rules are different,” I said. “We don’t have the same freedom of movement without Presidential status following us.”
Colonel Markham drilled his eyes into mine. I knew Army colonels were not used to having officers inferior in rank (and therefore status) contradict them, but I thought it was always best to get these things into the open quickly. He would next play the “who blinks first” game to reinforce our stature difference, but it was a game I refused to play. I blinked.
“In my view,” he said, “we train like we fight and we fight like we train. So as far as I am concerned, we play this one for real. Got it?”
“Got it, sir.”
With that, he dismissed me and I retreated to the squadron to busy myself with putting the trip together. It was to be two days off each in Anchorage, Tokyo, Okinawa, the Philippines, and Hawaii. I had to make sure each section chief had their teams ready and, more immediately, that our two navigators had everything ready to go with our flight planning and tanker support. The senior navigator, Lieutenant Colonel John O’Neil would be ceding all duties to Captain Paul Michaels, who was upgrading to instructor navigator.
I sat at the mission-planning table with Captain Michaels' paperwork spread before me. The logs were technically correct but I wasn’t happy with the Anchorage to Tokyo leg. “It’s a bit of risk,” I said, pointing to the air refueling control point. “I hate to bet everything on a single tanker here.”
“Yeah,” Paul said, “John said the same thing. But we called SAC and they couldn’t release more than just the one KC-10 unless we had more horsepower pushing the mission. Oh well.”
“How about trading the KC-10 for two KC-135s?” I asked.
“We didn’t ask,” he said.
“Then ask,” I said.
The Strategic Air Command owned all the tanker assets and there weren’t many of those in Alaska. The larger KC-10 could give us twice the gas and they were normally more reliable. But if that one tanker broke we would be out with nothing. With two of the smaller KC-135s, we might have greater redundancy.
A few hours later Paul came back with the bad news. “No dice,” he said. “Oh well,” he added.
Without the imprimatur of the White House behind us, I knew, there wasn’t much to be done. But since we didn’t have strict timing requirements it really wasn’t critical. We could simply slow down and make the leg, albeit with a late arrival.
After a week of planning we were finally off. We had a single KC-135A tanker for our trip to Alaska; not that we needed the gas, but the tanker was available and it was an opportunity for training. The WHMO passengers were never happy about air refueling, but we would be doing this on a real trip so they bought off on doing it for this leg too. Our Boeing 747 had tremendously long legs and almost never really needed a tanker, but our job was to be the spare aircraft for the President. We tended to keep our fuel tanks as full as possible, only deviating from that principle when it was time to land. We were pros at taking off a the maximum allowable takeoff weight, 800,000 lbs. And we were equally adept at landing at the maximum allowable landing weight, 630,000 lbs.
All of that went as planned for our first leg to Anchorage. I purposely put the “B Team” in the seats so as to be in the seat for the longer leg to Japan. I also put a passenger in the jump seat for landing, much to the dismay of many on the communications team. I knew I would be fielding jump seat requests all week long and thought it best to get one of the passengers in for the most routine landing in our future. I wanted to reserve the very last few landings for any enlisted crewmember who had shown any extra effort during the week. The passenger was suitably impressed and the week was off to a good start.
Our ground time in Anchorage was enough to get our fill of crab legs and for the passengers to inspect what needed to be inspected. Next up: Japan.
I was happy to see the KC-10 roll out directly in front of us, 3 miles ahead and 1,000 feet above us. From here it was simply a matter of flying a 3-degree line up to the tanker using known power settings and a gentle hand on the yoke. Once I was a few hundred feet behind I would be maneuvering left and right of a yellow stripe painted down the tanker’s belly and the appearance of the wings and engines to judge elevation. Some pilots used an antenna on the tanker’s nose, but it was canted at an angle and I found that distracting. At 50 feet I would need further permission from the tanker boom operator to go any further.
“SAC Three Seven, Gordo One Five,” I said while keying the air refueling frequency, “stable, pre-contact, ready.”
“Clear to the contact position,” the boomer said.
I pushed forward on the four throttles to feel the slack in the springs under the throttle quadrant compress, but not enough to physically move the throttles. Any further and the nose would be out of trim and I would have another set of problems to contend with. In about ten seconds I could perceive movement. In another ten seconds we were definitely getting closer. I maintained the pitch so as to climb a 3-degree line until the boom was in front of me and I could hear the disturbed airflow hit our tail. The tremor in my hands verified we were close. I relaxed the forward pressure on the throttles.
“Tanker Three Seven, contact,” the boomer said.
I saw the amber “ready” light on our glare shield flick off and the green “contact” light illuminate.
“Gordo One Five, contact,” I said.
“Pumping,” the boomer said, and then, “negative flow.”
“No gas,” our flight engineer said. “Nothing.” We spent the next ten minutes trouble shooting and tried plugging and unplugging a few times.
“It’s us,” another voice on the radio said. “The last valve in the system is frozen shut. Sorry.”
“Request disconnect,” I said over the radio. “I guess you guys got an extra one-hundred grand of fuel to worry about and we have to come up with a Plan B.”
“Sorry,” the voice said again. “Good luck.”
We sent the tanker on its way and continued west while considering our options. We could return to Anchorage, run out of duty day, and try again in 24 hours. Or we could pull the speed back and try to make it on the gas we have.
“Flying a decreasing Mach might do it,” Master Sergeant Pete Bellman, the lead engineer said. “If the winds are as predicted, we’ll just make it with legal reserves.”
The consensus among the pilots and engineers was to press on. We would make our destination, albeit an hour late. I just wasn’t sure about the winds. With Anchorage an hour behind us, the forecast had been pretty solid.
“What do you think, John?” I said to our senior navigator.
“What do you think, Paul?” he said to our junior navigator.
“Like anything I am going to say is going to affect the decision,” he said.
“I would like your opinion,” I said.
“You have more experience looking at wind charts than I do,” he said. “I just assume not offer an opinion.”
“You are going to trust your fate in my hands,” I said, “without so much as a peep? Don’t you want a vote?”
“When you aren’t the lead dog,” he said, “your view never changes.”
John shook his head. I stepped out of the cockpit on my way downstairs. My decision was made but I had to wonder about my not-the-lead dog.
“Eddie,” John said as he closed the cockpit door behind him. “Sorry about that, I’ll have a talk with Mike. In my opinion the wind forecast has been solid. If anything, the forecast is for a stronger headwind than I’ve ever seen in this part of the world and I would bet they could lessen. You have a few divert options in northern Japan. There is an Air Force fighter base with a runway long and wide enough. They’ll be surprised to see us, but at least we won’t go swimming.”
“Thanks,” I said. I already added Misawa Air Base to my calculus but hadn’t considered the fact the winds, if anything, were going to change in our favor. I headed downstairs into WHMO territory with renewed confidence and impressed with our flight crew’s resourcefulness.
Colonel Markham was not at all impressed. “An hour late! That’s unacceptable! You will have to do better.”
“The only other option is to spend a day in Anchorage,” I said. “Since we don’t have Air Force One timing to worry about, an hour late isn’t too bad.”
“What is and isn’t too bad is my call to make,” he said. “In my view, this is unacceptable.”
“I have no other options,” I said.
“Get us another tanker,” he said.
“We don’t have the horsepower to order another tanker,” I said. “And even if we did, by the time it got here we would be even later.”
“In my view,” he said, “you should have anticipated this. You are a lousy commander.”
There wasn’t anything left to say, so I left. As I made my way forward a WHMO intelligence officer approached with the question I was sure to come. He had flown with us for several years and had never witnessed a landing from the jump seat. Before he spoke I smiled and said, “Sure. Come up about fifteen minutes before landing.” It would be two legs in a row with passengers in the jump seat. The natives would be unhappy.
We managed to get to Tokyo about an hour late with our legal fuel reserves. I knew this would generate a WHMO to Air Force nasty gram, but we had done all we could do so the entire event would be filed under my “you can only do what you can do” category. We would be spending a day and two nights at Yokota Air Base, more than enough time to rewind for the next leg of the trip.
As soon as we landed, the airplane disgorged itself of people, ninety-eight in total. Of those, I was responsible for two flight crews, six crew chiefs, ten communications specialists, and eight security guards. All but the pilots and navigators were enlisted crewmembers; but the only ones I considered specifically under my care and feeding were the flight engineers and flight attendants. Since we were on a military base, we officers would be in Visiting Officer’s Quarters (VOQ) and the many enlisted would be at the Visiting Airman’s Quarters (VAQ). It was going on seven o’clock and I had just enough time in my VOQ room to put my bag down, splash some water on my face, and wonder about dinner before a set of knuckles was rapping on the door.
I opened the door to find Master Sergeant Bellman and the second engineer, both with their luggage in hand. “No rooms at the inn?” I said, knowing full well they both had rooms.
“No, sir,” Bellman said. “No quiet rooms.”
We walked across the grass promenade between our two buildings and up a flight of stairs. It was fairly noisy, about what you would expect for a college frat house. I was still in uniform and whenever one of the frat boys caught sight of me they would stop what they were doing and stand at attention. Bellman inserted his key into his door and we walked into a very nice room. I sat in a comfortable chair facing the doorway and spotted the problem.
“A transom,” I said. “I haven’t seen one of those for years.” It was an open glass window above the door into the noisy hallway, as wide as the door and nearly five feet tall.
“I didn’t know it was called that,” Bellman said, “but it doesn’t close. There is no way I am going to be able to sleep here. I asked for a new room but they don't have any.”
“Good enough,” I said. “Get the flight attendants and meet me in front of the billeting office. We are going downtown.”
I returned to my room to get my bags, found another pilot and had him gather the other pilots and navigators. From there I went to the billeting office and asked for and was given what we called a “non avail” form. It basically allowed us to get hotel rooms off base at that base’s expense. That chore done I found the flight crew assembled in the front courtyard.
Major Brad Fischer, our second aircraft commander, was in the middle of a joke but fell silent as I approached. I handed him the non avail form.
“Brad, I need you to handle this gaggle while I brief the Whamo Colonel. Arrange transportation and go with the lead group to this hotel. Get everyone checked in. Leave one vehicle for me and anyone left over. I’ll be back as soon as I can.”
“You got it,” he said. I reversed course and headed for the Officer’s Club where I knew Colonel Markham was having dinner. I found him at large table with six members of his staff.
“Sir can I have a moment?” I said as he made eye contact.
“You can have one moment,” he said. “After that I start charging by the minute.” His staff laughed.
“Sir, I am taking the flight crew off base for quarters,” I said. Colonel Markham kept his stare on full but his voice on mute. “The quarters we have are too noisy for proper crew rest.”
Markham laughed. “You Air Force weenies are a bunch of coddled pansies,” he said. “Son, I spent the better part of my career carrying my hotel on my back. The United States Army issued me everything I need in a perfectly good sleeping bag and tent. And you are telling me you girls can’t handle a little noise?”
“That about sums it up, sir,” I said.
“Unbelievable!” he said. “You are dismissed captain,” he said. “I’ve had about all I can take from you.”
“Thank you, sir.”
The next day about a half of the flight crew was tagging along for a stroll through the streets of the Ginza district. The engineers were happy with their quieter rooms and the navigators were thrilled with the chance to be within walking distance to so much sightseeing.
“In all my years flying,” Neil said, “I’ve never been so lucky to be so close to downtown Tokyo. You must have done some major league convincing to get this out of Colonel Markham.”
“I didn’t ask him,” I said.
“How did you get the non avail form signed,” he asked.
“I signed it myself,” I said.
“Can you do that?” he asked.
“I can and I did,” I said.
Captain Michaels laughed and jabbed Neil in the ribs. “I told you,” he said. “The lead dog has a different set of rules than you and me.”
“I guess so,” Neil said. “Some pilots are like that.”
“I want each flight crewmember on the tops of their games whenever we fly,” I said. “You want to fly an instrument approach with the engineer sound asleep from exhaustion?” No one answered, the answer was assumed.
The next day we were back in the office, the one that sits 28 feet above the tarmac and at the nose of our 225-feet long airplane. The weather at our next destination was at minimums and I would be required to take the leg, even though I had the previous leg too. Kadena Air Base, Okinawa was shrouded in fog and had only a Category I ILS to help us down. No matter, “they wouldn’t call it minimums if it wasn’t good enough.”
I sat in my seat, thinking about the weather and our divert options. The flight engineer handed me the aircraft forms with a PostIt note on the front cover. “Sergeant Wilkins requests the jump seat for landing.”
“Who is he?” I asked.
“She,” Master Sergeant Bellman said, “is a radio operator. She is a good kid and I told her I would put in a good word for her.”
Now I added the jump seat to my missed approach math. Was it wise to have a non-aviator in the jump seat if we had to go missed from just two hundred feet off the deck? There is nothing more impressive than seeing a Boeing 747 land from the cockpit, except seeing that same thing at minimums. But to the uninitiated, a missed approach can seem terrifying. That’s when I thought of it.
“Tell her she can have the next one,” I said. “I have someone else in mind for this leg.” I unstrapped and went downstairs. As I entered the main conference room I found Colonel Markham alone, reading the latest Clancy novel.
“Yes, captain,” he said.
“Sir I would appreciate it if you joined us in the cockpit for the landing,” I said.
“No,” he said, “that’s okay. I know a lot of the youngsters really hope for the jump seat. Give it to one of them.”
“Sir,” I said, “you would be doing me a favor. I think this would be a great way to help with Army Air Force relations. I’ll spend some time with your staff if you could spend fifteen or twenty minutes with mine.”
He put down his book and drew his eyes to mine, another stare off. I blinked.
“Okay,” he said. “If it makes you happy.”
When I announced my decision to the cockpit crew there were more groans. “I’ll have the crew chiefs clean up the upper rest,” Bellman said. “We got to look our best for Whamo.”
The weather report as we started our descent confirmed everything we had planned on. The base reported one-half mile visibility in fog and an obscured ceiling. We would be flying the ILS to Runway 05 Left, which required a decision altitude of 200 feet. At our approach speed, that would give me about 15 seconds from decision to landing. But the decision would likely have to be made in a second.
Passing about 10,000 feet the cockpit door opened and I heard Colonel Markham’s voice. It was still daylight outside and the sun shone through our windows almost requiring sunglasses. But if anyone had a pair on, they wouldn’t need them for long. Sergeant Bellman helped the Colonel strap in and gave him a quick rundown of the cockpit and the flight instruments we would be using for the approach.
Passing 4,000 feet the sun disappeared for good and the cockpit was immersed in a diffused gray light. The altimeter unwound as if controlling the lighting, the lower we went the darker it became. At 2,000 feet I asked for the landing gear and all the flaps we had to give. I could have flown the approach with the autopilot coupled, but the airport announced the localizer beam was unmonitored. My first thought was to order them to monitor it. But we were a minute from landing so I thought it best to deal with it on my own.
“Five hundred above,” the copilot said. “Nothing in sight.”
Our squadron wasn’t the most disciplined when it came to sterile cockpit rules. But when landing the huge airplane at minimums, everyone became medicinally quiet. The cockpit of a Boeing 747 is one of the more quiet ones that I have flown. When the airplane gets very fast or when flying through heavy rain, the noise level does increase. But in a fog at approach speed, it is as quiet as a library.
“Two hundred above. Nothing in sight.”
The winds were light and the localizer needle behaved itself. The 747 is an easy airplane to fly on instruments; it is exceptionally stable. The pitch, however, can be tricky with aggressive thrust changes. Our airspeed was about five knots high. I’d rather be a little fast than off the needles. The two needles remained perfectly centered. About the only movement on the instruments was the altimeter.
“One hundred above. Nothing in sight.”
I caressed the takeoff / go-around button on the number one throttle with the thumb on my right hand. Once pressed, the throttles would leap forward to near full thrust and the command bars on my flight director would guide me to getting the airplane away from the ground. My eyes had been on those command bars almost exclusively. I was tempted to peek. The altimeter needle was just about there. My right thumb began its move.
“Lights, twelve o’clock.” I spotted two, then three of the sequenced flashers. That bought me another hundred feet.
“Continuing,” I said. I once figured that the extra one hundred feet was typically eaten up in about eight seconds. But now my eyes were spending half their time outside, half inside on the gauges. Then I saw them, the red terminating bars on the runway.
“Runway in sight,” I said, “landing.”
As the aft body gear wheels touched the landing gear handle safety solenoid clicked twice to announce we were on the runway and that it would prevent the handle from being raised. I pulled up on all four thrust reverser handles as far as they would go, knowing that once the forward wing landing gear had fully “untilted” I would have full reverse at my command. Once I lowered the nose to the ruwnay I got my first glimpse of the pavement itself. It was right where it was supposed to be.
As I turned off the runway I heard Colonel Markham unstrap. He leaned forward and slapped me on the back. “From now on, captain, you can sleep wherever you damned well please.”
After he left the cockpit I spoke over the interphone. “What was that all about?”
“When you said ‘runway in sight,’” Bellman said, “I heard the good colonel say ‘where?’ When the thrust reversers came out I could almost hear him sigh in relief. I think he was scared.”
“Oh,” I said. “That’s good.”
“Truth be known,” Bellman said, “I never saw the runway until you lowered the nose.”
And that would be true. They say every inch behind the correct seating position on a 747 decreases your perceived visibility a few hundred feet.
The rest of the trip was uneventful and Colonel Markham never hesitated to ask me if I had everything I needed. A week after we got back I got our official WHMO trip report, what we always called the “Whamo Nasty Gram.” It was filled with praise and even the way we handled the Anchorage tanker situation was complimented.
“He has magical powers,” I heard Captain Paul Michaels tell a group of navigators. “As a lead dog, that Haskel can see through walls.”
“The angle of the view,” I said to the fawning audience, “determines the view itself.”