Another Shot? (2001)
I wrote this the night I got back from China, not wanting to miss any details. What does it have to do with flying? Lots. If you fly corporate for a living, you are no stranger to alcohol. If you fly international corporate, you are no stranger to desynchronosis (jet lag).
When I was a budget programmer at the Pentagon my job was buying and selling airplanes for the VIP world of the Air Force. In the Clinton years there wasn’t a lot of buying; I spent most of my time getting rid of airplanes. One of the exceptions was a program to replace the Gulfstream III’s at Andrews with something with more range. Everyone knew that was going to be a Gulfstream IV, which could fly twelve people from Frankfurt, Germany to Washington, DC nonstop. That became the criteria: fly 12 passengers 4,150 miles.
The good folks at Canadair brought out a Challenger 604 prototype to the Pentagon to entice me to considering a Canadian aircraft. I took it around the pattern for a takeoff and landing and everything seemed to be in order. I kept asking, “this thing will fly 4,150 nautical miles?” “Yes, it will.” “This thing will carry twelve passengers?” “No problem.” On my drive home I finally figured it out and rushed to a pay phone to call the Canadair salesman. “Will the 604 fly 12 passengers 4,150 nautical miles without a fuel stop?”
“Uh, I’d have to look that up,” the salesman said, “I know it will do the range but I’m not sure how much payload it can do with that much fuel. I’ll let you know.” An hour later he called, “Uh, the 604 can indeed fly 4,150 nautical miles, but not with 12 passengers.”
“How many can it take that distance?”
“Uh,” he stammered, “none.”
Seven years later I found myself flying a Challenger 604 for Compaq Computer all over the world. It was a midrange aircraft flying long range missions. That meant lots and lots of fuel stops and lots and lots of crew swaps. So that’s how I found myself flying Continental Airlines from Houston to Seattle, sitting for a few hours, and then Alaska Airlines to Anchorage. Another crew would take one of our 604’s tomorrow from Houston to Anchorage where my crew would take over on our way to Tokyo, Hong Kong, and Shanghai.
With me I had Jeff and Diane. Jeff was an Air Force vet, from the F-16 world. He had a limited international resume but was a good stick. Diane was a standard issue Compaq flight attendant: a stewardess right out of a fashion magazine. She was a good travel companion as well and a good match for Jeff - they were both single.
Jeff showed up at the airport for his airline trip wearing jeans and a tee shirt — I had to remember to remind him about our “business casual” rule. It was a silly rule, but it was the company’s policy. No need to lecture Diane, she was decked out as if getting ready for the cover page of Vogue.
I ended up in the middle seat somewhere near the front of our Boeing 757. Jeff was seated to my left and Diane to my right. I’m not sure how that happened, the travel department knew we would be sealed up in the same aluminum tube as flight crew and wanted nothing to do with each other while deadheading. I wanted to trade, but Jeff is too big for the center seat and Diane insisted on the aisle. Oh well.
The good folks at Continental Airlines presented us with a mystery meat with mystery potatoes and mystery soup for lunch. Jeff finished the meat and potatoes off in no time, flat, while I poked at the meat wondering what it was. “You want this?” I asked. He reached over and took the tan brown concoction; too dark for chicken too light for cow. I polished off the potato and left the murky bowl of broth unmolested. “You want my soup?”
Jeff declined. “Nah.” He looked over and saw untouched bowls on all three of our trays. “No soup for you!” he proclaimed.
Diane laughed, “no soup for you!”
“What’s so funny?” I asked. They both looked at me like I was asking about the orbit of the earth around the sun.
It would seem I was the only person in the northern hemisphere who had never watched an episode of Seinfeld. Diane and Jeff traded lines from their favorite episodes as I tried, in vain, to nap.
Three hours later we were sitting next to our Alaska Airlines gate waiting for our flight to Anchorage. “I’m going to Burger King,” I said as I got up, “you want anything?” They both declined and I strolled over and got in line behind two airline pilots. The taller of the two recognized me instantly. “Colonel Haskel!”
“Rob!” I knew Rob got out from my squadron in Germany. I went to a staff job and he went to the airlines, Northwest judging by the wings. We traded stories, catching up on the last five years, as we advanced in line. I felt a tug on my arm and noticed Rob and his fellow Northwest pilot were looking intently to my left.
“They are boarding now, captain,” she said in as sweet a voice as I had ever heard from her.
“Thanks,” I said, almost at a loss for words, “I’ll be right over.”
“Can I take your brief case for you?” I nodded and she strolled out of site, placing one leg in front the other, each high heel shoe tracing the same line. Rob and his mate kept their eyes glued to her until she turned the corner.
“Who was that?”
“Our flight attendant.”
“Do they all look like that,” Rob asked, “in the corporate world?”
“No,” I answered honestly, “but at Compaq they do. What about Northwest?”
They both laughed. We got our food and parted ways, the two airline boys green with envy I think. It was true I was making more than the two of them combined and probably not working nearly as hard. I had to learn to appreciate my new life. I got back to our gate and Diane handed me my brief case.
“I know what you did for me right there,” I said to Diane, “and I just want to say, thank you.”
“Did they appreciate the show?” she asked.
“Those are two airline pilots,” I said, “that will never look at a corporate jet the same way again.”
Six hours later I was asleep in my hotel room when the phone on the night stand came to life. “No soup for you!” It was Jeff.
“No you’re not,” he said, “you’re talking to me. Besides, Seinfeld is on in two minutes. Turn on channel seven.”
I said that I would, knowing I would not. But, lying in bed, wide awake now, I knew I had to. It was the Soup Nazi episode. Kismet? Maybe. Serendipity? To be sure.
Challenger 255CC arrived at Anchorage on time and we flew on to Tokyo. Over the next five days Jeff learned the finer points of Japanese and Chinese air traffic control while I got reacquainted with the foods of my youth. All things considered, it was shaping up to be a good trip. We almost always ventured outside the hotel for dinner but I usually made an exception for the night before a long flight. From Shanghai to Anchorage with a fuel stop at Sendai, Japan would be a full day so no sense wasting time in a cab. I wanted dinner, a few drinks, and bed.
I exited the hotel elevator on the lobby level moments before another elevator deposited Jeff and Diane. “To the bar!”
We walked through a double set of glass doors into a darkly lit barroom dominated by a long, mahogany bar behind which stood a mirror-lined wall of Scotch Whiskey. “You got any Scotch?” Jeff asked with a grin. The bartender flipped three menus deftly in front of us, each landing on the table unfolded to the precise page. “Two hundred, seventeen, all in stock, you name your desire.”
I won a bottle of Scotch in pilot training, shared half of it with my classmates and drank the other half in about a month. I’ve never been able to touch the stuff ever since. Jeff and Diane, it would seem, were both Scotch Whiskey Connoisseurs and set up themselves the task of trying all two hundred and seventeen. We ended up eating dinner at those very bar stools. I had set 0700 as our show time, which meant the FAA considered our alcohol consumption period to end at 2300. Our management company rules, however, used twelve hours prior to takeoff, which was scheduled for 0900. As the clock neared 2100 I made a grand show of checking my watch, asking for the check, and paying off our tab.
“Twelve hours prior to takeoff,” I announced, “and just about bedtime for me.” Jeff and Diane made no gestures towards following my lead. “I shall see you both tomorrow at oh seven hundred, bags in hand.”
The next morning we three assembled and were whisked away to our awaiting aircraft. Jeff and Diane seemed perfectly rested and the flights to Sendai and Anchorage were routine. The relief crew was ready for us and we waited until the aircraft taxied from sight. “Back to the Captain Cook Hotel,” I ordered the driver. I looked to the back seat of the van, Diane’s eyes were closed and Jeff looked like a zombie. “You guys up for Simon and Seafort’s?”
“Sure.” It was hardly the enthusiastic response I was hoping for. The best crab legs in Alaska deserved better. Within an hour we had checked in, changed clothes, and walked down the few blocks to the eatery. The maitre de gave us a table with a view of the Cook Inlet, probably the only ugly view of water in the state. No matter, it was a good table for a good meal to serve as the capstone for a good trip. Jeff and Diane still seemed more ready for bed than dinner. They opened their menus and each lit up, “Scotch!”
Simon and Seafort’s did not have hundreds of varieties of Scotch, but the seven on the menu all met with the approval of the critics at our table. I joined in the revelry with yet another glass of Shiraz. We weren’t flying tomorrow, after all. Well, we were flying, but we would be flying as passengers to Seattle and back home to Houston. We had to get up early again, but there weren’t any company or FAA rules on how late the bar light would stay on. And it stayed on a very long time.
The next morning everybody was in place at the appointed time, but that was about all that could be said in our favor. My throat felt like I had swallowed some 80 grit sandpaper. Diane was dressed in jeans, highly unusual for her on an airline day. Jeff’s eyes were puffy slits and it looks like he forgot to shave. No matter, we were members of the traveling public today. I was happy to see our seats were spread far apart, Jeff in seat 12A, me on the opposite side at 14F, and Diane in back. My only worry now was that Jeff’s snoring two rows ahead would keep me from finding the magical R.E.M. I so desperately needed.
R.E.M. was exactly where I was at when I felt the tap on my shoulder. “Captain Haskel,” I heard, “you are Captain Haskel aren’t you?”
It was an Alaskan Airlines flight attendant. How did she know who I was? I wasn’t in uniform and the “captain” title is not something branded on my forehead. “Yes?”
“Your flight attendant just passed out in the galley.”
I rushed back and there was Diane, sitting on the floor with an Alaska Airlines flight attendant steadying her against a galley cart. She smiled weakly, started to speak but the stopped.
“What should we do, captain?”
It was a ridiculous question. I wasn’t the captain, I was passenger 14F. “Well,” I said, “I would call forward to Seattle and have medical help waiting for us. I would keep her comfortable here until then.”
After landing, while we taxied in, the public address system came to life. “Ladies and gentlemen, we have an injured passenger in the aft galley of the aircraft. EMTs will be meeting the aircraft so we ask you to please remain seated until we let you know the EMTs have reached the back. Thank you for your cooperation.”
That ain’t gonna happen, I thought. But it did. Everyone remained seated until the EMTs made it to the back. I waited until the last passenger made it past my row and made my way back. There I found Diane were I last saw her, but this time with a smile. “I’m okay,” she said.
“She’s severely dehydrated,” one of the EMT’s said to me, “you need to pump her with liquids before your next flight.”
“We have three hours,” I said, “will she be okay to go on to Houston after that?”
“Sure,” the EMT answered, “just get those liquids into her. The best thing for her would be a nice warm bowl of soup.”
I spun on my heels and knelt down to Diane’s face, “no soup for you!”
Diane smiled but the look from the Alaska Airlines flight attendants hit me cold. To this day I am sure they still tell the story about how harsh corporate captains are.
We never speak of that trip. I like to draw life lessons from each of these stories and fit these lessons into my list of rules, twenty-six at last count. “Lead by example” is one of my favorites, but my lead didn’t do much good that night in Shanghai. “Sometimes thoughts are best unspoken,” may have fit my performance on the last day in the aft galley of that Alaska Airlines MD-80. But that was more of an epilogue to the story, it wasn’t the story itself. I’ve settled on a modification of one of my primary rules:
A Woman Has to Know Her Limitations.