Monday, December 28, 2009

A Grinch who almost stole Christmas

I’m touched by what went down a few nights ago. The events which transpired on Christmas Eve befit the Holiday. Both the naughty and nice sides of human nature were on display, and I’m proud of the way people with my company and others responded to the situation.

Our story starts after a Philadelphia-Milwaukee round trip, where we incurred takeoff delays in Milwaukee because of not one but two airborne emergencies of Northwest Airlines and United Express planes. After uneventful outcomes of both we blasted off for the ‘City of brotherly love’, grateful that no one was had been hurt.

As a side note, a ‘monumentally impressive snow and rainmaker of a winter storm’ (TV Weatherman impersonation) was producing only a cold and constant rain at Brew City’s Mitchell field. Freezing rain or snow, which was then located to the north and west of Milwaukee, would’ve delayed us twenty minutes or more to de-ice and anti-ice our aircraft. The frontal boundary of this weather system eventually stretched like an upside down horseshoe from the east coast over the Great Lakes and down into the southern plains states. They had blizzard warnings for Iowa and Oklahoma on the same day. The best part is this big storm was moving slowly. They’ve had flood warnings in the east, from days of rain far ahead of the snowy part of the storm system. You can see from the weather map that moisture from the Atlantic Ocean is being drawn up the east coast and across the Great Lakes, helping to feed moisture to the already snow laden atmosphere.

Back to our Christmas story, to start it that is; kind of like the background of the traditional Christmas story, it takes a little to get it going. We arrived a little late in Philadelphia from Milwaukee, and were to swap into a new aircraft for a flight from Philadelphia to Albany, New York for our overnight. I had been flying with reserve Co-Pilots on this trip, and I called our Dispatcher to ask three questions: for a meal break for my Flight Attendant and I, where our plane we were to swap into was, and who my new First Officer (FO) was. He was fine with the meal break, as we had skipped lunch, and told me that our FO, a reserve pilot from one of our other bases, had been in PHL for two hours. Arriving at the gate with Chinese food in my hand, our jet was ‘cold and dark’, airline parlance for not powered up, no electricity and no heat. What it really meant was that my new FO wasn’t present, for some reason. I put on my best poker face in front of fifty anxious passengers and one mainline pilot/jumpseater, then the Flight Attendant and I walked down the jetway to the plane. After firing up the APU to prepare the plane I called Crew Scheduling to advise them that FO ______ wasn’t present. I was quickly concerned when Crew Scheduling was surprised that he wasn’t there and began trying to track him down.

My good Flight Attendant and I agreed not to board the jet until Crew Scheduling had found an FO for the flight, this one or a new one. He wasn’t happy about it, but we advised the gate agent of this, and I became worried that the flight would be cancelled. Crew Scheduling determined that ________ had commuted back to his base for the night, and they started trying to find a new FO for us.

Rachael, our Flight Attendant, brought sodas and water to our fifty Albany bound passengers waiting at the gate. A Gate manager who was helping oversee everything brought out pretzels to the passengers as well. By now we were the last Express flight out of PHL on Christmas Eve, and my optimism was fading fast.

I went out and spoke to a few passengers about the delay, trying to bite my tongue concerning what I suspected our FO had done: essentially ditched us, the company, and fifty Empire Capital bound passengers just before one of the Holiest days and biggest Holidays of the year. A passenger asked me about the new departure time on the monitor. It now showed a 9:40 PM departure time, 2:40 later than we had been scheduled. I called Crew Scheduling (CS) back to ask about it. They informed me that the pilots of a flight currently landing at Elmira-Corning, New York would reposition a jet without passengers back to PHL and the FO from that plane would fly with our crew to Albany (ALB) for the night. Good news!

CS and our Dispatch Coordinator had worked a Christmas Miracle. They had tried assigning ready reserve pilots (different than normal reserve) but they were off duty, no other reserve pilots were available in PHL, and they called to ‘junior man’ pilots but no one was answering their phones (understandably). They had done almost everything they could to find a pilot to assign this flight to, and the only trick they had left was to extend a crew who were still on duty’s schedule, fortunately it worked.

I hated the idea of canceling this flight on Christmas Eve. The visual I had of the suffering these people would experience in not making it to loved ones for Christmas Morning was difficult to me to bear. I’m very grateful that my company and others went the extra mile to find an FO and not cancel this flight. They did more than just avoid a cancellation and the expense of putting fifty customers up in a hotel for the night. They saved Christmas for them!

I’d like to give ‘gold stars’ to my Flight Attendant Rachael, the gate agents, and ramp agents for taking great care of the passengers during this delay, and staying to see our flight out, and especially to my airline’s Dispatch Coordinator and CS Personnel responsible for not canceling this flight and for finding a replacement FO. To strand passengers in PHL on Christmas Eve because of this would have been a very unfortunate thing to do. My company and the others involved spent thousands of dollars more than necessary to get this flight out, but I’m proud of their response in this situation.

I had asked the CS person if she could share any details with me about the first FO’s missed flight assignment. CS contacted him at 7 PM on the 23rd during an overnight stay, via a voice mail message, with the PHL-ALB flight assignment. He didn’t call back, and CS left him another voice mail message on this Christmas Eve during his day of flying. He didn’t return this call either and commuted back to his base after arriving back in PHL after flying three flights. CS wasn’t happy with this person’s actions, and it seemed that this situation would definitely be addressed by management, and rightly so.

I and Rachael were angry and embarrassed, frankly, to hear of these events: angry at this employee, whom neither of us knew, and embarrassed that someone at our airline would do such a thing. While I don’t know his side of the story, it seemed to us that our FO intentionally missed his flight assignment, just in order to be home on Christmas Eve. For a reserve pilot to not call back about a new flight assignment to be flown on a scheduled day of reserve duty is very unprofessional, but even more so on a holiday like Christmas Eve.

I went back to preparing for our ‘Santa’ flight. Our jet’s wingtips were collecting frost, so I requested a de-ice. A PHL Operations Manager responded, but ultimately requested a change of aircraft because the deicing trucks had been shut down for the night, and the de-icing crews had gone home for the night as well (can’t blame them really). Our Dispatcher changed our jet to the one being repositioned to PHL, bringing in our new FO, assigned to our PHL-ALB flight. This plane was “negative APU” (APU inoperative) so I requested an air start cart (for the engines) and a GPU. The circus music had already replaced the Christmas music in my head, and it was getting louder. Fortunately and thankfully our ramp agents and gate agents had not abandoned us, and continued to take care of our needs.

With only the Captain and our ‘savior’ FO on board, our new jet arrived and parked next to our frosty one. The ground crew plugged the GPU (ground power unit) in and we had electricity on the aircraft without having to run one of the engines. Rachael, our new FO and I prepared it and boarded our 50 passengers for ALB ASAP. We pushed back just after ten PM, three hours late.

This night, Christmas Eve night, we had had a Grinch who tried to steal Christmas from our passengers, a selfish fellow with an ugly attitude, thinking only about himself and not others he was to serve. True Christmas spirit, that of giving, serving, and sacrifice, and ultimately of suffering, was not in him. It reminds me of how secular traditions – the commercialization of Christmas (giving gifts, Santa, etc.) and applied humanist philosophies try to steal it from it’s true reason: The celebration of the human birth of Immanuel, ‘God with us’ (Isaiah 7:14) , The prophesied Messiah for the Jewish people and all mankind, Jesus Christ.

There were many prophecies fulfilled just by the birth of Christ. Concerning his birth, the who it was, what would happen, when it would occur, where it would occur, how it would occur, and of what lineage the Messiah would be was prophesied of hundreds and thousands of years before Jesus birth. For two websites worth exploring these prophesies at, click here and here.

Why do I write of Christmas in this way, that it includes sacrifice and suffering? The original, true Christmas story had these elements. Mary and Joseph were certainly cursed at under the breath of others, and possibly ostracized by those who didn’t believe their ‘Holy Spirit conceived pregnancy while still a virgin’ story (Matthew 1:18-25, Luke 1:26-37) that no doubt made the rounds in their town of Nazareth. There’s suffering there.

The arduous journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem that they made during the final stages of her pregnancy involved suffering and sacrifices as well. It was 70 miles, and tradition says that Joseph walked and Mary was on a donkey. The census, called by Caesar Augustus, was to collect taxes for the Roman Empire, and required that everyone travel to their hometown (Luke 2:1-5). By God’s sovereign plan this requirement enabled fulfillment of the prophecy that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem, given by Micah the Prophet in Mica 5:2: “But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, are only a small village among all the people of Judah. Yet a ruler of Israel will come from you, one whose origins are from the distant past.”

We humans love signs from the divine, and in the Christmas story, one of the signs ‘of the new King’ was given to ‘wise men from the east’. From Matthew 2:1-12, wise men from the east ask King Herod in Jerusalem “Where is the new born king of the Jews? We saw his star as it rose, and we have come to worship him.” Why did this signal to the wise men that a new King was born? According to a Bible guide I have, some astronomers calculate that in 7 BC Jupiter and Saturn lined up inside the Pisces constellation not once, but three times. On the ancient Middle Eastern horoscope, Jupiter represented kings, Saturn represented the Jews, and Pisces (fish) represented the Jewish homeland, so it seemed that a Jewish King was arriving at the Jewish homeland! Click here for a Theoretical Astrophysicist’s interesting opinion on it.

What a great sign this was! And I’m grateful that I received a sign this night, a skeptic might say it was coincidence, but I have faith in Jesus, and prefer to use it when I can. Our great sign this night was the name of our new FO, whose last name was ‘King’, I kid you not. He was easy to work with, understanding of the situation, he even called me sir, kept doing it too, even after I told him he didn’t need to. A ‘King’ who suffers and serves, he had those traits in common with the Lord.

If you’re thinking ‘baby Jesus didn’t suffer’ you’re probably right (except for the animal dung smell!), but suffering was part of his destiny. By reading the gospels one can see that He never turned away when faced with suffering and sacrifice. We Christians are quick to accept his serving, suffering, and sacrifice for us, but tend to be slow in accepting it in our own lives. However, In relationship with God through faith in Jesus as personal Savior and Lord and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in us, we can grow to accept sacrifice and suffering with Joy. This sentiment is expressed in I Peter 4:12-16: “12Dear friends, do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering, as though something strange were happening to you. 13But rejoice that you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed. 14If you are insulted because of the name of Christ, you are blessed, for the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you. 15If you suffer, it should not be as a murderer or thief or any other kind of criminal, or even as a meddler. 16However, if you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed, but praise God that you bear that name."

Glory, praises, and all honor to all mankind's newborn Messiah and King!

Friday, December 25, 2009

Merry Christmas!

Merry Christmas everyone!  Lots of snow and blizzard conditions where I have loved ones, be careful out there! I'm in Albany, NY, and am scheduled to fly to Philadelphia, PA, then to Cincinati, OH tonight.  I have a great Christmas story I'd like to share, but will get to it later.  I promise.  Thanks for reading my blog again!

The promised Messiah for all of mankind, Jesus Christ, Immanuel, 'God with us', is born this Christmas morning!

Sunday, December 20, 2009


Yesterday started out nice in Milwaukee, and finished nice in Philadelphia, but in between it was murky, foggy, and tenuous with the scene of the world outside the windows, and eventually the question of where I would lay my head for the night.

Our scheduled day was Milwaukee (MKE) - Charlotte (CLT) – Harrisburg, PA (MDT) – CLT – Washington, DC (DCA). Most of it went according to plan. The first flight to Charlotte went well, except for light turbulence the second half, in ‘IMC’ (the clouds) over the Blue Ridge and Smokey Mountains portion of the Appalachians, pointed toward Charlotte. Once over the CLT terminal area, most of the white skies gave way to an undercast layer far below us, guarding the ground with a blanket of Sunday Football watching nap weather, which I wished I had the opportunity to do instead of shepherding planes full of trusting holiday travelers.

In very light winds, I flew the garden variety ILS (Instrument Landing System) approach, but in ‘solid’ conditions. We didn’t spend much time in the thin layer before we broke out at about 350 feet above the runway, which was covered in moisture from a light drizzle. A temperature inversion (which is a layer of air which is warmer at a higher altitude than it is below) hugged the ground. The cooler temperature on the ground promised that the conditions were all set to get worse, and we trusted that it would.

It was my First Officer’s legs to be the PF (pilot flying) from Charlotte to Harrisburg and back, more infamously known as ‘Three Mile Island’, which the airport is very close to. He’s an Asian-American, was born and raised in Hawaii, and is a long way from home. Very easy to work with, he’s a good, knowledgeable pilot, and quiet and good natured. Harrisburg had a thin overcast too, and the air was so smooth during his approach that you wouldn’t have known it otherwise. I called the ‘approach lights in sight’ at about 500 feet AGL (Above Ground Level) and he landed nicely on the long, misty runway.

After a visit to McDonald’s, and not a healthy salad but a greasy third pound burger and fries (comfort food when missing my three wife and two girls back home), I was ready to jump through the murk back to Charlotte. We had a guest up front, a jumpseating Piedmont First Officer who was in his fourth year there, flying the Dash-8 Turboprop and based at Harrisburg. Piedmont is a proud carrier, a rare regional airline which hasn’t ‘lowered the bar’ and taken paycuts and concessions in exchange for Regional Jets. Good for them, I say, but on the other hand, I’d bet that it can be a heartache seeing all those RJ’s taxi by while you’re making a career commanding an out of fashion and out of favor turboprop. I’m not demeaning T-prop’s, just commiserating with their pilots, that’s all. I think the Dash-8 Q400 (which Piedmont doesn’t fly BTW) is a great plane, but for that many seats (74) a pilot should be paid a great hourly rate.

“US Express thirty-seven-fourty-nine, right turn heading one-eight-zero” Harrisburg departure told us as my FO climbed our jetliner out of the clouds into the night sky. As we turned, the Three Mile Island Nuclear Power Plant loomed seemingly just right below us. The enveloping mist around the tall, hourglass shaped cooling towers and other structures tried to hide it all from view, but the power plant’s bright white lights and ‘aviation red’ obstruction lights would have no part of that. It was a surreal moment surrounding a still amazing and controversial energy technology.

From here onward to Charlotte and part way back to DC, we would observe the earth’s new portrayal of itself, as a gray, white and orange, marbled, spider webbed and interconnected surface. Lights of civilization from the cities, towns, and highways below were illuminating through the thin layer of clouds and fog. For me, it was yet another reminder of how Jesus Christ gives light, true light, his true light, to us, and how he penetrates our hearts, through whatever fog and clouds are in our lives.

We chased some more green light on the way to Charlotte, and had good conversation with our Jumpseater. I made a mental note to see whether the green light in a fading dusk horizon from 20,000 feet is observable on terra firma, and yesterday, when driving home, I verified that it is not. You now have another reason to book a flight, in order to cross the sky and appreciate an exquisitely beautiful sunset and dusky sky.

For our second approach into Charlotte, we still had a thin overcast layer and temperature inversion, but the conditions had gotten significantly worse on the ground. Charlotte was reporting almost calm winds, ½ mile visibility with mist, and a thin cloud layer starting at 300 feet above the ground. The businesslike tone of the controllers and the pilots on the frequency reflected the seriousness of the atmosphere.

Upon checking on with Charlotte Approach, they told us that the runway ‘three-six right’ (36R) RVR was 2000. RVR stands for ‘Runway Visual Range’, and is a measured horizontal visibility that governs instrument approaches in poor visibility. Our airline’s minimum legal visibility permitted for an approach is 1,800 feet, so it was approaching our legal minimums for an instrument approach.

He had already briefed the ILS approach to 36R, so all that was left to do was to cross our t’s and dot our i’s regarding our procedures and such on the approach. Since I take the plane off the runway, I briefed that we would take the first exit we saw at a slow enough speed, or as the tower cleared us. It was likely they would want us clear of the first available taxiway. We both knew that the likelihood of going around was good, so we were mentally prepared for that, as we always are, but more so this time.

One of the components of the ILS is the approach lighting system. It is a sequenced line of lights on the ground, extended from the beginning of the runway up to a half a mile, and on some runways the runway itself has touchdown zone lighting, symmetrically on both sides of the runway centerline. ATC can turn these lights up very brightly, to make it easier to see the approach lights and runway through the low fog and mist. Only I forgot to brief my FO on how bright these lights would be, so bright that they take away all of your depth perception in the landing flare. Even with all our jet’s landing lights on, you can’t see the runway surface.

He did a fine job though. By the time he was flaring the plane for landing it was readily apparent that there was no depth perception. I didn’t want to distract him at that point, so I didn’t say anything. You would think this is a no brainer for airline pilot pros, but we see these conditions only about three times a year – twice in real life and once in the simulator. My FO has been at our airline for over three years, and he told me after we taxied in that it was the lowest visibility he’s actually landed in as the pilot flying.

Those conditions aren’t anything to fool around in. Unfortunately, later that night, after we departed Charlotte for Washington DC, another airline’s MD-80 had a landing mishap after continuing an approach in those foggy conditions when they perhaps should have gone around. The crew landed with one main landing gear on the edge of the runway. Then, in trying to steer the jet back onto the runway, one of it’s wingtips struck the ground. It is reported that these pilots reported trouble with their autopilot and disconnected it during the approach, electing to hand fly it the rest of the way to touchdown.

After a landing accident from an unstabilized approach that my own airline had a couple of years ago, (with no lives lost or injuries, thank God), my airline now has a policy of requiring the autopilot to fly the approach to the missed approach point when the visibility below 3 miles. Some of our pilots opine that they’re restricting our ‘freedom’, but I believe this policy is a good thing.

Taxiing out of Charlotte later, I had to take it very slowly; it was so foggy that ground control was relying on position reports from the aircraft. Seeing other jets on the ground itself was difficult. They tended to show up like silvery lit sets of lights, sliding by like ghosts among the colored Christmas tree lights of the taxiways and runways (I like colored lights on Christmas trees). ‘What is that jumbo jet Airbus doing?’ He turned toward us on the runway we were crossing as he was taxiing to the gate after landing. Suddenly he looked a lot bigger and we wondered if he saw us like we saw him. He was a normal narrow body Airbus after all, 320 series. The fog made planes seem bigger, and they sneak up on you quicker.

In a long line for takeoff, we enjoyed watching the airliners (which had lower legal landing minimums than our airline does) break out of the low overcast and land virtually immediately. The clouds were now reported as 100 feet above the ground and the visibility was variable between 1200-1400 RVR. We had asked our dispatcher for a takeoff alternate at the gate, he knew we would call and was planning it for us. Since we were limited to RVR 1800 when landing at Charlotte, if we had an engine failure or another emergency we wouldn’t be able to return to Charlotte. On our release I ‘pen and inked’ the ‘TOA’ and we were on our way.

The trend seemed to be that a blanket of fog was being thrown all across the south. DC’s forecast wasn’t that bad, relatively speaking. It was supposed to be “31005KT 2SM BR OVC003” (light winds from the northwest, two miles visibility, mist, overcast clouds 300 feet above the ground) by the time we arrived after a 50 minute flight. I was the pilot flying this leg, and by the time I finished my salad in cruise flight, Washington center gave us the standard clearance to “Descend to cross OJAAY at one-zero thousand, two-five-zero knots”. OJAAY is an ‘intersection’ on our route of flight into DC from the south, and ATC wanted us to cross it at 10,000 feet at 250 MPH.

My good FO had just brought up the weather report from DC. It was “19003KT 1/2SM FG OVC001”, with the visibility of ½ mile at our approach minimums. The RVR reports would tell the tale on whether we would get in, or even fly the approach. Soon Washington center gave a clearance to turn back behind where we were and enter ‘the published holding pattern’ at JIMBE intersection. We never made it to OJAAY. After my good FO programmed the holding pattern at JIMBE in our FMS (Flight Management System-computer) I said “execute”, punched the right buttons and twisted the right knobs, and our jet magically entered the holding pattern, flying the oval racetrack pattern depicted on our moving map display.

Meanwhile, the RVR reports from DC weren’t good. It was 800-1200, and the absolute minimum RVR at DC for any aircraft (due to limited ground equipment and approach lights etc.) is 1600. Under these conditions, no aircraft were getting into DC tonight. The weather forecast for DC had been in the neighborhood, but the ‘weather guessers’ had still basically blown it. A revised forecast we received via our ACARS box predicted that the thick fog would stick around DC for the night.

We had about 30-40 minutes of fuel to hold with, with four or five other forlorn airliners waiting for DC above and below us. As usual, there is lots to do when holding, waiting, wondering if you’ll divert to your alternate airport or another airport: update the passengers, the Flight Attendant, communicate with Dispatch, check and re-check the weather reports and forecasts at your respective airports, and look for meteors falling through the sky.

Uh, that last part is rare but true. We were lucky enough to be flying in a clear sky on the night of maximum meteor activity of the annual Geminids meteor shower. My FO had spotted a few more than me, but after I learned where to look I started catching up. It was the only consolation I could offer our passengers as we waited for our bingo fuel to arrive or for the fog to lift at DC.

Our bingo fuel, calculated by our Dispatcher, and verified by us, is the minimum fuel we could leave the holding pattern with, fly the approach at DC, go missed approach, and continue to our alternate and land with IFR reserves (45 minutes worth of fuel) at our alternate, which in this case was Philadelphia. PHL seemed like a long way for an alternate, my FO stated, and I tended to agree with him. We checked the weather at nearby Washington DC Dulles (IAD) and Baltimore (BWI). It was fine at BWI and marginal at IAD, but we might be able to get in there. We ‘emailed’ over our ACARS box to Dispatch our suggestion to divert to IAD instead of PHL, but they didn’t take the bait. He kept responding that “PHL is ready for you”. PHL did have better facilities for receiving a stray US Air Express flight, as it’s a hub for them. But I was visualizing unhappy passengers getting off the plane in PHL asking ‘why didn’t we land at Dulles or Baltimore?’. We crept down closer and closer to our bingo fuel with every meteor sighted.

After holding for about 40 minutes we reached our bingo fuel of 3,800 lbs, and set things in motion with ATC to divert to PHL. Away from blanketed ground beneath us we went toward the bare, fog free Virginia and Maryland peninsulas, towards unclouded Philadelphia and a 20 mile line of aircraft on final approach. That’s a long final approach, it seemed Philly was running a reduced ATC operation, using only one runway for landing. A normal flight from Charlotte to DC usually takes 1:25 total, with this diversion to Philly it took 3:08.

Yes, the people were not happy, especially when the gate agent announced on board that the flight had been cancelled. It was a weather cancellation, which meant that the airline wasn’t liable for providing a hotel for inconvenienced passengers. I know, I know, but I just fly the plane, I don’t make up the rules. Comments like “I’ll miss an important meeting because of this”, “did the Airbus flying from Charlotte to DC make it in?” (no), and of course “three airports in DC, what about going to Baltimore?” were faced by me with the best apologetic, empathetic smile I could muster.

At the hotel a while later, at 1 AM I tried to settle into my comfortable room, but my head was still buzzing with the experiences and sights we had this day. My heart had a flurry of activity too, feeling for our passengers so close, but yet so far from where they thought they would be. I was looking forward to going home, on an unknown early flight from Philly to Minneapolis or Chicago, then on the final leg to Sioux Falls. I was missing my wife and two girls dearly. I hadn’t seen my wife but for a couple hours the last time I had been home. She had traveled to be with her father in Omaha, in the hospital.

The internet didn’t work for my laptop in my room, so I would have to guess on the time and airline to jumpseat on. Murphy, as in Murphy’s law, was running the show. After four hours sleep I clawed my way to the airport and picked Northwest, even against my instincts telling me to go to United. My flight had a maintenance delay. Once at MSP, I learned that the flight I could’ve taken to Sioux Falls, if I had been on time, had cancelled. Passengers and jumpseating pilots from the cancelled flight spilled over in the departure lounge. Soon I missed the next two flights on regional jets, and finally caught the third one home, it had taken 12+ hours.

I was home for 22 hours, as I had only two days off and had an early show for next trip I had to commute back to DC for. But I had a great 22 hour layover at home. Sometimes this job, and life, goes this way. Sometimes you get Scrooged, by the weather and your commute. But God doesn’t say in the Bible that you won’t get scrooged. He does say that He will be there for you when it happens.

Thanks for reading my blog. ‘Happy Holidays’, and have a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year! I hope to post again for Christmas, before the year is out.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Just a little Bit

Recently it happened; I knew it would eventually. In the fallout after a Northwest Airlines flight crew accidentally lost communications with ATC and over flew Minneapolis-St. Paul airport by over 100 miles, I just knew that sometime in the future, an airline passenger would make a rude remark about it in my direction.

I asked the lady finishing her meal if the seat next to her was taken. I was waiting for my pizza while commuting home through Chicago’s O’Hare airport. “I don’t know, are you drinking?” was her reply. I could feel my facial muscles in disappointment as she further stated “do you have a laptop? Where are you going? Are you going to Tampa Bay?” In complete disdain and eye roll mode I exasperated to her “Please. I’m commuting home to where I live, and I’m not drinking, I’m in uniform”. All the while I was asking myself, telling myself, that she is kidding. Right?

My pizza came, albeit with a soggy crust. I was hungry so I squatted down on the stool, popped in my earbuds with my back to my offender, and tried to get over it. The music intended to soothe my frayed nerves was short lived. I felt a soft pat on my back, then another. I knew without looking that it was this lady again, wanting to accost me, or talk, for some reason. Being the gentleman that I am, I obliged her. It turned out that she was fairly nice, but talkative and opinionated, finishing a glass of wine to prime her tongue.

Her husband was a private pilot and wanna be airline pilot, so she just knew everything that goes on up in the flight deck. She knew a little in any regard. We chatted for a while and she told me about her two sons, how blessed I was to have two daughters instead, and how her husband was a retired Marine but he still won’t get rid of his uniforms (don’t know why that’s a problem). Excepting her first comments, she was actually very nice, and she had a Christian cross necklace on, so at least we had the same God in common. It was strange how I was seemingly making friends with this fellow traveler who moments before I had classed as very rude, all without her apologizing or clarifying that she had been kidding me. I wouldn’t be surprised if I get comments of that nature again in the future.

In this age of high technology, everyone thinks it’s so easy to be an ‘expert’ on anything. Google it, look it up on Wikipedia, read about it on the internet, and you’re an instant layman on any subject. The saying ‘a little knowledge is a dangerous thing’ hasn’t changed in value, though. The vast capability technology gives us, coupled with easy access to information, has somehow given others a license for ridicule and lampoon when human failings break through the system we trust, as they will always do. The average Joe thinks that just because the jets are so automated, that ‘they can fly themselves, and even land themselves’, that it doesn’t take the same level of skill, discipline, and judgment, and leadership as it used to. “So easy, even a caveman could do it?” I definitely don’t think so.

All in all, it shows a lack of respect that travelers have for pilots these days. Then again, by their own actions and appearances, pilots have tended to show a lack of respect for their profession as well. It's not just the pilots though; I also point the finger of blame at the management and leadership of the airlines. I can? Sure I can, this is my blog. Yes, I think both parties have a share in this.

Here are a few axioms that are current in the industry, common to others as well:

"When they pay me like a professional, then I’ll act like a Professional." I don't agree with this one, but it is common in 'the way of the world'. This is a poor attitude to have, and I've written about this before. When it comes to transporting precious human life through the air, this attitude should be invalidated. The intent should be that professionalism, and thus safety, shouldn't suffer, whether you're flying a puddle jumper or a 747. In fact, the per flight hour safety record of the nineteen seat twin turboprop commuter airlines is virtually the same as that of the majors, and these fellas are some of the hardest working and least paid airline pilots there are. I know, because I was one of them for two years. Being less of a professional just because you feel you're underpaid is itself the epitome of unprofessionalism.

However, airline pilots do make significantly less that they did in the past, mainly because of federal deregulation of the airlines (which occurred under Carter but came to final fruition under Reagan) and the consequent competition in the free marketplace. After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, in bankruptcies and the rise of the 'low cost carriers', things got even worse for airline pilots. Major airline pilots now make one-half or less of what they used to, basically. According to data published in my pilot union's latest newsletter, when corrected for inflation, a 1982 Captain of a 44 seat turboprop would have made more than twice as much today as regional jet Captains are now at our current airlines. When adjusted for inflation, a Republic Airlines (the original Republic Airlines mind you) Captain of a Convair 580 would make $171 per flight hour now, compared to about $70 per flight hour a 50 seat RJ Captain currently makes. Airline pilots get paid for approximately 1,000 hours a year, so you can do the math.

(Free market Conservative Capitalist steps in): 'Time out now, Craig. You blamed airline management, and now said they (the government) deregulated the airlines, which in turn forced them to compete more with each other in the free marketplace. It's only logical that airline managements would try to reduce their costs in order to remain competitive, which is what they've done. So what's wrong with management responding to the new market established by deregulation, and why haven't you blamed the government?' Nothing, I suppose. You can't blame someone for trying to defend their standard of living, however. I try to strike a balance between understanding the economic stance of the airlines and establishing what I need, not necessarily want, to get by with and provide for my family. Regarding the government, it is what it is, and they are a few voices calling for regulation of the airlines again, I don't think it will occur though. The intent of deregulation was to reduce the cost of airline travel and make it more affordable for more Americans, and that goal has been achieved.

"You get what you can negotiate, not what you deserve." In capitalism based, free market economy, this holds true, like it or not. Whether you like it depends on how well your company is doing and how much you can negotiate, I suppose. For example, FedEx and UPS pilots currently have excellent pay, the best in the business and substantially better than the passenger airlines, because they've been able to negotiate it, based on the incredible profitability their companies have had in the 2000's.

Regional airlines have been buffeted by extreme pressure to reduce their labor costs, and in many cases have caved, my airline being no exception.  Regional airlines have been pitted against each other to compete to be awarded or keep the share of flying they do for their parent carrier.  This is called 'whip-sawing', and it hardly existed before deregulation and the rise of regional, or 'contract' carriers.

Airline management has conflicting priorities: one is to maximize profitability; the other is to operate a safe airline. At some point, pushing pilots, real human beings, not machines, to do more and more with less and less in order to save money does affect safety in a negative way.

My bottom line, the bottom line, IMO, is that even though airline pilots make substantially less than they used to, professionalism shouldn't suffer. Safety, or perceived safety, shouldn't suffer either. ALPA, the largest airline pilots union, and airline pilot groups everywhere are in large part responsible for the excellent safety record of the airlines, not airline management. Of course, some airline managements are more attuned to their pilot groups concerns regarding safety than others. Our unions and pilot groups should and will continue for fight against the degradation of professionalism in the flight deck. The honor of our profession and the traveling public's trust is at stake.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Sequestered in Manchester

The very first flight I had after four days off promised to be an interesting one, and it delivered. I was paired up on this three day trip with a First Officer whom I had flown with before; by previous experience we knew what each other was like, and the best way to work together. That is the good part; the bad is that we had had previous disagreements, to the point of anger and even ‘butting heads’, so to speak. We had resolved our previous conflict the best we could, but there was still some lingering resentment between us.

Encountering conflict of this scale and nature is rare for me and my personality type, so it is stressful and trying for me when it happens. I prefer not to disparage my Co-Pilots too much, so I can’t reveal many details of our past. I will volunteer that I’m not the only Captain “Sean” has perturbed and ‘butted heads’ with, however.

Everyone has positive attributes, no matter where a co-worker may fall on the entirely subjective and individualized scale of desirability of workmates that we all have. One person might like a trait a co-worker has, the next person might not. These days I sincerely try to identify valuable characteristics that my co-workers do bring to the job. If I can change how I work with them to play to their individual strengths, it makes our work performance together more effective, permits them to be themselves, and enables me to appreciate them for the persons they are.

My Co-Pilot seemed pleased to see me. My first reaction was thinking that we would get along fine on this trip; over time I’ve realized that he has a personality type is that is direct and clear, but can be confrontational. Sean is like a desert: although he heats up fast, the good thing is that he cools down fast as well. Translation: his temper will flare, but most likely it will be over in a short while.

That being out of the way, it was a beautiful day on the east coast, blue skies and ‘High Pressure dominating’ in TV Weatherman speak, as we climbed out of DC for Manchester, New Hampshire. At 23,000 feet and just past the New York City area in smooth, clear air, with about forty minutes left in the flight, we heard the ding. This wasn’t the sound of the seat belt sign being turned off, either.

Accompanied by the bell was a yellow flashing ‘master caution’ light on a panel in front of us, and a new message in yellow on one of our flight displays. “IDG2” is what it read. I pushed the master caution switch to cancel the flashing light and show the airplane that we acknowledged the message. The IDG2 message then disappeared and reappeared for a few seconds numerous times over the next minute. “Let’s do the QRH, there’s obviously a problem with it”, I said. My First Officer replied “it’s been written up and MEL’d before”. That fact wasn’t surprising to me in the least.

Before I lose you, the IDG is an Integrated Drive Generator, which is driven by the engine, and produces electricity for the jet. Our IDG for our right engine was malfunctioning. IDG’s are filled with oil and work in a similar manner to the automatic transmission of a car. When an IDG malfunctions, the most likely reason is that the oil level inside it is too low.

The QRH is our Quick Reference Handbook, which contains emergency and abnormal checklists for just about any abnormal or emergency condition the jet can encounter. “Sean” was soon finding the QRH checklist for an IDG2 message. MEL stands for ‘Minimum Equipment List’. We have a long list, FAA approved, of things we can fly with broken. It may seem strange but there are plenty of things we can fly with broken, all we have to do is document it with our Maintenance department and abide by the MEL operating procedures. Don’t worry, the MEL is conservative, and an engine is not ‘MELable’, so to speak.

Down the QRH road we went. As the PM (Pilot monitoring), Sean would read it and I, as the PF (Pilot Flying) would perform the actions the QRH specifies. Very soon I was verifying, touching, and activating guarded switches. If I disconnected the wrong IDG, our IDG1, the ‘good’ generator, it would reduce us to emergency power and would promise a hot cup of coffee with the Chief Pilot. That is why certain switches have guarded covers, so that both pilots may verify that the correct switches are being selected in an abnormal or emergency situation.

First the QRH checklist had me take the bad IDG ‘off-line’ and completely disconnect it from the number two (right) engine. It could only be reconnected on the ground. Then per the checklist I started the APU (Auxiliary Power Unit) to restore the electrical power the jet lost when taking IDG2 off-line. The autopilot disconnected when I ‘killed’ IDG2, I should’ve seen it coming but I still have ‘quick hands’, even though I just turned forty. The workload wasn’t too bad, as we could still re-engage the autopilot, and now prepare for the descent and approach into Manchester.

A nice cloud layer above New Hampshire, with mist, two miles visibility, and a 500 foot cloud ceiling in Manchester made for a busy arrival. Lots of question had yet to be answered after our jet had a fit, and with the time remaining to land we could only ask them. Could we “MEL” the bad IDG and still carry passengers out of Manchester to Philadelphia? Would the on call Mechanic arrive quickly and be able to address our problem? How long would the departure delay to PHL be? Would our Maintenance department want the jet repaired or MEL’d? Should we delay passenger boarding? How many irritated passengers would our Flight Attendant have to deal with?

The biggest problem we encountered on the ground was the gate agents bothering us to board our PHL passenger aircraft, close up, and push back before everything was completed. The prompt, on call mechanic found that IDG2 was a little low on oil, sure enough, and was completing the paperwork to defer repairing it until a later time. For our now late departure to Philadelphia, we needed a whole new set of paperwork from our Dispatcher sent over the wire. Manchester had conscientious gate and ramp agents; however, they could have more patience and understanding in what it takes to address a mechanical problem, that’s a common trait of outstations at times. “No, we need our aircraft logbook back, we need new paperwork from our Dispatcher, and then we need at least five minutes to do checklists and prepare for this flight, before we can close the doors and push back. Thank you”; this was the sentiment that was difficult to communicate to them. We pushed back 23 minutes late, not too bad for what we had to deal with.

Fortunately, we weren’t ‘sequestered in Manchester’ very long; but it makes for a catchy blog post title, which I can’t let slide. I was to be sequestered with “Sean” for three days instead. He would love to be a Captain, and I would say with certainty that he doesn’t necessarily enjoy being a First Officer. He has less “right-seat Captain” in him than he used to, I have recognized that. A certain stubbornness is still there, however. For me, it’s a balancing act to ‘hold the reins’ wherein we’re both comfortable with the operation. In regard to him and me getting along, the trip went along fairly well. Sean will be a good Captain someday, but he'll just have to wait, unfortuntely.

Fast forward to a later departure of the day, enough about flight crew dynamics and interpersonal working relationships for now. For our third leg of day, Sean was the pilot flying out of the vibrant and varied cites of Norfolk and Virginia Beach, Virginia. Taking off to the northeast just after sunset, he hand flew the climbing left turn to the west that Norfolk Departure Control gave us.

Wow, what a view it was; we both gazed at the colors in silence, partly because we were still below 10,000 feet altitude and were still in ‘sterile cockpit’, partly because no words from our American English vocabularies could justify the scene in front of us.

Below the sharply defined horizon, in a silver sheen the waterways and bays surrounding Norfolk split up the darkening and light twinkling peninsulas of the ‘Hampton roads’ area. Red, like pigment taken from a rose, hugged the horizon. Our CRJ climbed in smooth air to ‘flight level two-two zero’ (basically 22,000 feet) and we both sat in continuing silence admiring Nature’s (God’s) palette of the fading day.

Remember art class in elementary school? Combine blue and yellow and you get green, and there we were ‘chasing the green light’ once again, between the blue and what yellow there was. The view was slowly changing, as the sun raced away from us towards the west. The once red stripe slowly changed to a deep orange-red, which seemingly permitted the yellow to blossom more, now flickering with beamed fingers. A horizon on fire was depicted by the last vestiges of red licking up into the yellow parts. The master artist even had purple haze swished around to give depth, in the way of far off cirrus clouds left by the painter’s brush.

Meanwhile, beneath this wondrous display terra firma was doing it’s best to provide the right contrast. Far below, all classes of humanity were heading home from day jobs and planning their evenings. The connected web of orange lights, known as civilization, where the people are, shown up at us like a cosmic tree grown out in all the scientifically predicted directions. Virginia was past us, and the Carolinas were starting to slide by. A look at the MFD (our moving map display) showed that Raleigh-Durham airport was under us. We would be landing in Charlotte in not very long, and it was time to go back to work.

Back to work? I get paid to do this? Yep, I get paid to deal with situations such as we had with the IDG, to work in close quarters with persons of all temperaments and personalities, and to do many other things that come with the territory of this job. Enjoying the view when I can is just a fringe benefit. All while not napping or operating this laptop I’m writing this on. Honest.

In spite of the sacrifices this job requires, in spite of the loss in pay and benefits as compared to years past, in spite of the loss of prestige and professionalism airline pilots have suffered in recent years, this career is still a rewarding one. And I still have a hope and purpose in it, in that I hope to glorify God and share my faith in Jesus Christ with others through it. Being sequestered with another in a cockpit for days on end is still allright with me.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

The Great American Race

I've been busy since my last post, and this might be a short one also.  I've been working on starting up a new company, and developing the first product to sell.  You can check if you'd like more information about it. 

I'm renewing my Flight Instructor Certificate this month also, via an online course.  For those in the know, yes, I could theoretically visit the FAA at one of their offices in a 'big city' and renew it in person.  But since I don't 'give instruction' to my Co-Pilots (under the black and white definition anyway) that interpretation depends on the individual FAA Inspector.  And it's inconvenient for me to take the time and expense to attempt a visit like that anyway.  So that's been requiring some time as well.

It's my lovely wife's Birthday today, SG is XX years old, and looks XA years old, Happy Birthday SG!  Thank you for all that you do to enable me to do what I do, cross the sky in adventure and 'mission' (without 'laptops on' I assure you).  SG is a great Mother, juggler, and hat wearer in general.

Here's just a moment from last night's arrival into DAB.  We were descending through 10,000 feet and things were getting busy, my Co-Pilot looked a little high on our descent profile to get into the traffic pattern, we were about eight minutes from landing, but I had all the confidence in him, I had flown with him before.

We were headed south, and out the windscreen the view justified this job for me again, sweet like candy.  A blob of cumulus cloud slid by to my left and a thin line of cloud was just below us.  In the gap between the two, the orange lit strip of Daytona Beach was illuminated in a line line stretching to the main cloud layer, which went to the horizon.  The beach was white with foam, some pretty large waves were breaking, especially for the east coast of Florida.  The city of Daytona Beach was inviting us in, but in a teasing manner.  The main cloud layer was blocking our view of the airport, but we expected a visual approach once we descended below it.  Shortly thereafter Daytona Approach gave us a descent down to 4,000 feet and a vector to the southwest, toward the final approach course.

Below the main layer we could see the effect of the strong winds from the east, related to Hurricane Ida, far to the west, in the Gulf of Mexico.  We needed those winds because our jet was still quite a bit high to reach the standard and safe 3 degree approach path.  "Going down and slowing down" is tricky in a swept wing jet, but my Co-Pilot had it covered.  He deftly and smoothly maneuvered us to landing, without the GPWS (Ground Proximity Warning System) barking and without violating our limitations or flight standards.  I was impressed with the way he handled it. 

Entering the approach corridor, he was too high to begin with, but I wasn't ready to say that; it was readily apparent to him.  The plane gives you room to make a few mistakes and recover, but you still have to watch what you're doing.  A 'micro-manager' Captain might have said something, but I prefer to let errors happen, to a certain point anyway.  I believe you learn from your mistakes better that way.

Daytona International Speedway, home of 'The Great American Race', the Daytona 500, is literally right next door to Daytona International Airport (DAB).  I'd never flown into here before Sunday, so it's been a good change.  So often I fly to the same twenty or so airports.  We have a fairly nice hotel too, it's near the speedway, (a huge facility BTW - 2.5 mile track & tons of seating), and the hotel has a large outdoor pool, with lots of shopping and restaurants nearby.  I joke that I'm going to enroll in the Richard Petty driving experience, and drive or ride in a real stock car on the speedway.  I'd love to, but the budget won't permit that right now.  I think NASCAR has a museum there though, which I'll try to check out next week, on another trip with DAB overnights.

(NASCAR diversion, skip if you like): I like NASCAR quite a lot, grew up watching it, and most other forms of auto racing.  I root for the 39 car, but he's had trouble winning in the last few years.  I'm reluctantly trying to switch over to root for Jimmy in the 48 car, but he's so dang good it's hard to, I feel like I'm jumping on the bandwagon.  I think he'll win his 4th Championship in a row. 

Well, I gotta run and race off to get things done for my day of flying.  Today it's DAB-CLT (Charlotte)- DAB-CLT-DCA, commute home tomorrow.  Speaking of which, lately it has felt like I'm in a great American race.  I'm excited about starting my new company though; I feel it's the beginning of something I've pondered and been inspired to do for many years now. 

I intend, though, to keep the balance in my life, like keeping the right balance in a race car.  I hope to not go too fast and blow the engine up, or miss a pit stop and run out of fuel.  God is still good, all the time.  All the time, God is still good.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Cockpit Fear

Last night we were cruising in smooth night air at 29,000 feet when Boston Center cleared us to descend to "Flight Level one-nine-zero".  Us being 280 miles and 47 minutes north of Philadelphia, en route from Ottawa, Canada, that didn't seem right.  I asked my First Officer to get an explanation from them, while I slowly started our early descent to FL190.  The controller sputtered something back like 'well got crossing traffic descending blah blah NY' etc., so I grudingly accepted his explanation.  At least we questioned it, I should've asked him why before we accepted the clearance, as that is within our rights as Pilots.  Choppy air at our new altitude made the 'seat belt sign off' time short lived.

Then, however, I did have a few moments to observe the scene outside the small room we shared.  The mostly full moon, the 'smaller great light', at our 10 O'clock high position above us, was shining through a sliding sheet of scattered thin clouds above us, like headlights shimmering through sheer curtains in a secret pair of lover's room of rendezvous.  Right in front of us, shined upon by our nose landing light, rain from nowhere is hitting us at 320 knots indicated, without a sound or feel, as the turbulence had subsided for a bit. 

That, combined with the rest of the sky, make for a surreal scene.  Life at this instant wasn't black and white, but all in shades of gray, nuanced in mottled, smooth cloud layers swished around near and far, with slate gray and muted blue tones backdropped toward terra firma and the upper atmosphere.  The horizon was gone; only the brightly lit moon remained as a comfort.

I looked over at my dark haired, masculine First Officer, and he was deeply reading something I had given him earlier.  He's a good Co-Pilot, but he had me irritated before, just a little bit, multiple times, after commiting various 'rookie' type errors.  I resolved to watch him more closely and not let my guard down for the rest of the trip.  "Look at this view, you can really appreciate this, with the moonlight and clouds sliding by", I said.  With an aggressive but graceful and strong body language, for a long moment he gazed up at the moon, now exposed without any clouds in the way, then straightened up, leaned toward me, and looked me deeply in my eyes.  Something about this was suddenly disconcerting to me.  "Oh, I know about the moon, believe me, much more than you know".  His clear and convicting words struck me suddenly as I felt the  adrenaline rushing through me.  'Surely he sees, and certainly enjoys, seeing my eyes widen', I thought upon comprehending that his gaping smile now shows his fangs, real fangs, bared, fangs I have always associated with the 'legend' of vampires and horror films.  Until now, that is.

Fear has shown itself to me, and is suddenly rushing me headlong, forcing me to react, as strongly as is humanly possible for me to do so.

The previous was mostly true, except for the Co-Pilot part.  Happy Halloween, I guess, and I hope you're not offended by my foray into the 'dark side'.  But I tell you this, by my own experience and lay training, I believe that Evil (with a capital E) is not just the subject of legends and folklore, woven over the milleniums and our last few centuries into our culture and traditions.  Evil exists, and it has a name.  In my experience, evil constitutes the enemy, or the thief, and "the thief only comes to steal, kill, and destroy" I have come that they may have life, and that may have it more abundantly." - some of Jesus' most excellent words from John 10:10.

Fear is a strong emotion that does force us to react, whether in life or in flight.  As a matter of coincidence, everyone has heard of the term 'fight or flight' in regard to how humans react in situations of fear or danger.  How do Christians react, and what spiritual weapons and tools do Christians have at their disposal to fight evil?  Good question, I could wax all day long on my lay knowledge and my personal experiences of dealing with what in my heart I consider to be true encounters with evil.

Ok, you twisted my arm, here are a few paragraphs straight from my faith narrative I refrenced twice in previous 'New Vantage Point' blog posts:   "Once each, during the last two of my college years, a striking thing occured to me that I responded to in the strength of th Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit.  As I was trying to fall asleep demons attacked me, in my dreams, perhaps.  It felt like it happened right when I was on the precipice of being unconscious.  They had the appearance and atmosphere of true evil and hatred, like nothing I've ever experienced.  Both times I sat upright in bed, rebuked the demons loudly in Jesus name, and prayed in confidence that I would sleep like a baby.  I woke up both times well rested, asking myself "did that really happen?", then answered my roomate's questions about what was going on last night.  Then I recalled that when I was a child, my mother taught me well how to rebuke Satan and evil spirits.  I feel that these this experiences indicated the spiritual reality of the wrestling going on between God and the enemy over control of my will and sin nature."  BTW thanks Mom!

As Christians, what shall we fear?  Better yet, as humans, what shall we fear?  I found a few scriptures which might shed some light on the subject. 

Jesus talks quite a bit about Hell in the gospels.  As distasteful as it may taste to the sense of fairness and the expression of human freedom, the Bible teaches that Hell is an eternal destination for some.  I don't want to defend the concept of Hell straight on too much, so click here for a thoughtful explanation on Hell. 

The corollary, or opposite reasoning for it, might start with the following free-form expression: Without getting too theological, God is a Holy, Pefect God, and in the eternal scheme of things, God demands that all beings who exist in his realm be perfect.  We become perfect and holy in God's eyes by believing and receiving, in our heart of hearts, Jesus Christ as our Savior and Lord.  The incredible, merciful, full of grace, and loving sacrifice of Jesus, The one and only true Son of God, being crucified on this cross for our sins and imperfectness enables this to be so.  The theological term is sustitutionary atonement; Jesus Christ died for our sins on the cross as a substitute for us.  He took the punishment for our sins so we can have a true relationship with God now and for eternity. 

So, those who die who have rejected Jesus Christ as their personal savior are in danger of being sent to Hell for eternity, to be separated from God.  Jesus backs me up with his words in John 3:18: "He who believes in Him (God's Son) is not condemned; bt he who does not believe is condemned already, beacause he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God."  Also, in Luke 12:5 Jesus gives a clear warning on what to fear: "But I will show you whom to fear: Fear Him (God) who, after he has killed, has power to cast into hell; yes, I say to you fear Him!".

In spite of the starkness those who stand next to standard tradition Christian doctrine espouse, blessings are yours and mine to be had, available straight from the Bible, in many verses where we are taught not to fear:

From Psalm 27:1: "the Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear?  The Lord is the strength of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?"

Another great passage on fear from Romans 8, which my aforementioned Co-Pilot helped me find (he really is a great guy, a fellow brother in Christ, we talk about our common faith and Lord quite a bit) is from Paul's letter to the Romans in chapter 8:28-39 (New International Version)

'More Than Conquerors'

"28And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. 29For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. 30And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified.

31What, then, shall we say in response to this? If God is for us, who can be against us? 32He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? 33Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. 34Who is he that condemns? Christ Jesus, who died—more than that, who was raised to life—is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us. 35Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? 36As it is written:

"For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered." 

37No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, 39neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord."

Yes, you might be wondering after a careful reading of that passage, whether I think that the world is a dangerous place for Christians.  I fully agree that it is, and that it is getting more dangerous.  And I stand confidently on God's promises that we have nothing to fear in Christ Jesus name.  Glory be to Almighty God!

Monday, October 26, 2009

Feel like a nap?

As everyone knows, last Wednesday, October 21st, Northwest Airlines flight 188, an Airbus A320-200, en route from San Diego, CA to Minneapolis, MN with 147 passengers, overflew the Twin Cities airport by 150 miles before they turned back toward Minneapolis, after being alerted by a Flight Attendant.

Radio contact was lost with the flight when it was 130nm southeast of Denver, CO. The airplane continued and overflew their destination 62 minutes later, and continued on an easterly heading for another 15 minutes before radio communication was re-established about 110nm east of Minneapolis. The airplane then descended to FL320, turned around and landed safely in Minneapolis 45 minutes after radio contact was restored.

The NTSB reported that the crew told ATC that they had become distracted and had overflown Minneapolis, and now requested to return. According to post flight interviews, the FAA reported that the crew had engaged in a heated debate over airline policies and had lost situational awareness. The NTSB have opened an investigation, scheduled an interview with the crew and secured the cockpit voice recorder and flight data recorder of the airplane.

The Co-Pilot gave a short interview to CNN, insisting that they weren't sleeping and they weren't arguing, as everyone seems to suspect. In my (professional) opinion, a 'heated debate over airline policies' actually seems likely, as Northwest Airlines continues the integration process with Delta Airlines, their merger-buyout partner. In the future these two legacy carriers will be fully integrated as Delta, for now the NWA planes are being repainted, and Northwest Pilots have to adopt Delta's flight standards and procedures, a recent occurrence. This can encompass virtually every detail in how the pilots operate the airliner and perform the flights, and the reasons and philosophy behind the procedures. It is a credible cause for distraction, because procedures can vary widely from one airline to the next: most veteran airline pilots who are 'set in their ways' might likely oppose operating according to new procedures and standards.

However, it is not a valid excuse for overflying your destination, a major hub for the airline this Captain, at least, had presumably flown for at least a decade. That being said, I do not wish to disparage these Pilots, in fact, I'd like to express a little sympathy for them.

The following is a common saying, at least at the regional carriers, of the Captain briefing the Co-Pilot on 'nap' protocol while en-route on a 'long' flight (one of perhaps more than 2.5 hours): "Don't let me wake up to find you sleeping". It's cute and light hearted, but sets a certain standard at the same time, that IF (and that is a big if) one pilot is to 'catch a few winks', the other pilot shall handle everything involved in flying the plane, and shall be alert and awake. I don't adopt this saying, because I don't want the idea of napping in the flight deck to become commonplace in my operations. Do I ever do it or permit it? I won't deny that it hasn't occurred before; it is honestly a rare occurrence, perhaps a half dozen times a year. When it does occur, I prefer that a strict standard be set, and that it be allowed only because it is agreed upon that a rest will improve the alertness of the pilot in question.  It's all in the interest of safety, see?

I insist that if the Captain or First Officer wants to take a nap, that it first be approved by the Captain, that both crewmembers are comfortable with the idea, and that the remaining crewmember agrees to have complete responsibility for the aircraft, and will remain awake and alert.

Though when I think about it, we have a situation where only one pilot is awake in the flight deck frequently. The other pilot isn't sleeping; he isn't there, period. And it happens on long flights. What I'm speaking of is, of course, when a pilot has to take a bathroom break. On our regional jet the lavatory is in the back of the jet, and we tend to call it 'the walk of shame', somehow it's a macho thing to be able to hold your bladder (these youngsters at the regionals, ya know).

So what's the difference between a 5-10 minute bathroom break (we still have the same needs you do, you know) and a 15-20 minute snooze? Not much really. Actually, if an emergency occurs while a pilot is sleeping, he has a better chance to be a beneficial crew member than if one occurs while he is indisposed in the lavatory. It's all in how it is perceived, and I am trying to be sensitive to the public in that regard.

How could a pilot even consider taking a nap with all those passengers’ lives in his hands? Put yourself in the pilot's place. Think, you have a four day trip, all early shows, 5:30 AM vans to the airport. You're flying on the east coast but you live in Denver. On day three you have an accumulated sleep debt of 15-18 hours, and that's being generous. On that one long flight, with beautiful weather and a smooth ride, the sandman can come, with a vengeance. Reading puts you to sleep, and there is no energy to talk, or desire perhaps. Post 9-11 security protocol doesn't prohibit opening the door to fetch a cup of coffee, but it does discourage it somewhat. And coffee can only keep you awake and alert for so long.

Both pilots, sleeping? Absolutely unacceptable in any book, obviously. I'm not saying that these pilots were sleeping, but it has happened before, in Hawaii of all places. Read about last year's flight of Go! Airlines flight 1022.

As strange and as uncomfortable as it may sound, legalization of pilot napping could possibly become a reality in the future. According to a recent Wall Street Journal article, "U.S. airlines and their unions have joined forces to push the Federal Aviation Administration to let pilots do what was once unthinkable: sleep on the job." Research has been performed and provides "overwhelming evidence that controlled napping provides significant" ways to reduce fatigue risk.

For now, I'm going to give these NWA Pilots the benefit of the doubt. In spite of the likelyhood that I haven't reassured you that your pilot isn't sleeping during your next long airline flight, let me tell you straight up: you have nothing to worry about. "Sit back, relax, and enjoy the rest of the flight. (And maybe take a nap, the air in the cabin is at pressurized to an 8,000 foot elevation, and that book you have is putting you to sleep anway!)".

Thursday, October 22, 2009

To 'Zinzinnati' in 'Oktober'

Yesterday I started a four day trip, and the big H on the weather map meant mostly blue skies, sunshine, and generally smooth air all day long. Charlotte to Cincinnati was our third flight out of five. Out of the Charlotte area and headed northwest, we were climbing through 21,000 feet, I was flying with the autopilot engaged, and I took a few moments to enjoy the views.

What I describe won't match what it looked like, because this picture is from two weeks ago, but it was another flight from Charlotte to Cincinnati.  Differences: the clouds are below us, with cumulus formation, which means curved, rounded edges, and a little turbulent air inside them.  The white sun is in common, and the evening and autumn colors, though.  I like the long shadows the sun cast behind the lumpy cumulus jutting up from the top of the layer in the foreground.  I don't have a good picture from yesterday, but next is my description of it.

The long ridges of the Great Smoky Mountains, displayed in a blue-gray, darkening, almost pixilated tint, were in front of and below us, and the haze between them helped to frame their wavy washboard ripples. From the horizon, long, flat and gray stratus clouds raised above to a white reflection above our altitude, the top of the clouds being illuminated by our white sun above and to our left. It was still gleaming while the angle this section of the planet Earth gave it a few moments more to do so, in its ever-present spin. The blue skies above our present position wouldn't last much longer.

We were now at 24,000 feet, our groundspeed was 400 knots and accelerating, and we would be in Cincinnati in 45 minutes. Looking far below I see autumn, orange and yellow textures on the long, alligator spiny, arcing ridges, interspersed with snaking rivers in the valleys they are constrained by. The airplane is a great way to observe geological features. With my lack of knowledge, though, I have more questions that answers.

The colors, and where we're headed, reminds me of a good time I had once on an overnight, attending the Oktoberfest in 'Zinzinnati', as a co-pilot when we were flying for a different airline. Cincinnati hosts the second largest Oktoberfest in the world, next to the one in Munich, where it originated. Authentic German food, drink, dancing and songs, and culture can be found throughout it. I thought just maybe if the airplane broke on the way into Cincinnati this evening, we could perhaps repeat it. But here in the Columbia, SC hotel I found out while blogging this that 'Oktoberfest Zinzinnati' is actually held during the third weekend in September.

Yes, I'm writing about drinking beer, and yes, I believe a Christian can have an alcoholic drink in clear conscience. I like a good beer or glass of wine with a meal. 'Everything in moderation', right? To me, at least, Oktoberfest isn't about getting drunk, but about celebrating with others the food, drink, and culture Germany has brought the world. I happen to think that God want us to celebrate life. After all, wasn't Jesus first miracle when he turned the water into wine at the wedding party, after "the guests have drunk freely" and they had run out of wine? (John 2:1-11 ESV)

To be clear, I am for the responsible use of alcohol, whether by your own consumption, or by limiting your use in order to avoid tempting others. Jesus teaches this clearly in Matthew 18. After he characterizes new Christians as humbled children (not a condescension by the way) and as the 'greatest in the kingdom of heaven', he warns against temping these new creatures to sin. From Matthew, 18:5-7 (ESV): 5 “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, 6 but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea. 7 “Woe to the world for temptations to sin! For it is necessary that temptations come, but woe to the one by whom the temptation comes!"

Now, these words, directed straight to my heart do have an implication for me personally. I would never open a bar, for example. Jesus' teachings can be difficult to put into practice; we can only hope to do so in submission to God and in a heart attitude of receiving and following the Holy Spirit's guidance in our lives.

Here's a fellow blogger's good post on temptation.

This is another good post on 'Do not be drunk'; instead be filled with the aforementioned Holy Spirit. Ephesians 5:17-20 (NIV) advises the same: "17Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the Lord's will is. 18Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit. 19Speak to one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. Sing and make music in your heart to the Lord, 20always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ."

It is worldly wisdom that drunkenness lowers inhibitions and increases temptation, and in a roundabout way, the good word agrees on this: From Galatians 5:19-21: "19The acts of the sinful nature are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; 20idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions 21and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God."

Drunkenness is actually part of the sinful nature; this is what we're really talking about here. In our lives, it seems that our hearts need to be filled with something, whether it is drink, the Holy Spirit, or something else. What fills your heart?

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Providence and the Glory in the skies

Dateline: September 25, 2009

We arrive at the White Plains airport at 5:15 AM, and after looking at the paperwork for our flight to DC, I exclaimed to my two crewmembers "negative APU". Usually that puts a damper on things, because it means our APU (Auxiliary Power Unit) isn't working, and we’ll require extra external equipment to electrically power the plane, to provide air pressure to start the engines, and to condition the cabin in hot or cold weather. It means headaches and possible delays to get those things. We’re to have the plane all day as well, flying four legs, but the cool and cloudy weather means we might get by without too warm of a cabin, at least starting out.

The capable ground crew gets the various carts connected in short order. Under my hands and fingers, I pull us off the ground at 6:15 AM. Climbing out toward the west, on our left we spy, sliding by, the behemoth known as New York City, sleepily waking up in gray and black silhouette, street lights shining their last moments before the partial orange sky behind us, hidden behind a sloping cloud deck, overcomes the faded darkness.

Now, below and to the left, over New Jersey now, the New York Giants stadium lights are still burning bright and white, on charged up battery power, so to speak, from the big Bono and company (U2) show last night. I could have gone, I really wanted to, the 'wife of my youth' gave clearance, but it would've been a 'goat rope' transportation wise, and definitely not compatible with a 4:30 AM wakeup call. I've seen them before; 84,472 fans set an attendance record there last night. Loving U2 is like loving Harleys, if you're not a fan, you wouldn't understand.

Onward to Providence we go, through DC. Providence is an interesting word and city in Rhode Island. A pretty city near the ocean, it has an inland bay that lets out gradually in postcard quality, scenic and sandy beach arcs to the Atlantic. From the air, on our route from DC, Connecticut seems to be hidden by Long Island, but RI is a nice transition area between New York and Massachusetts. Connecticut and Rhode Island are very green, given that there are quite a few wooded hills around. I’ve overnighted a few times in Providence, and have appreciated the nice folks there. My awesome cousin in the Coast Guard, Jose, used to be based in Rhode Island, and he and Sonya loved their stay there.

So what does 'providence' mean in relation to God? From Webster’s dictionary: “the care of benevolent guidance of God or nature; an instance of this”. It's not really in the bible as a term, but it is a theological one. It means to be divinely cared for, by God, in his protection and guidance, actually framing and preparing the stage for pre-ordained events to occur in your life. Scripturally, we can see this in my late, great Aunt’s favorite verse, Romans 8:28: “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” You can recognize providence in events, I call them “God things”, or not recognize them; that depends on your faith and outlook. It does take a little faith, I admit, and skeptics have the right and wherewithal to cast doubt on one’s witness of these things.

When events conspire to bless or protect one, naysayers talk of ‘having good luck’ or chalking it up to ‘just a coincidence’. The term luck seems to be used in two ways, both self focused: (1) to lament your lack of it and to express envy of others who have it, and (2) to credit your own worthiness of being lucky. Providence doesn’t focus on a ‘lucky’ person or an unknown reason and cause. Providence focuses on God, the providential one. Here is a good website to check out for more information on Providence from a Christian perspective: Providence in All of Life

My most memorable event showing God’s providence in my life has to do with an answer to prayer. There have been times where I’ve recognized that God was protecting me or providing for me, but the one I’m sharing still stirs me when I think about it, was in the 1988 fall semester, during my second year in college, in the dormitory at Oklahoma State.

One evening I was feeling especially lonely, desperate, and far from God. My relationship with God was standoffish, and one with Jesus as my Savior, and not quite my Lord. I was having a difficult time settling in the dorm, making friends, and studying well and making good grades. I prayed in the bathroom stall, crying out to God to rescue me. Immediately after I returned to my room, two older guys from The Navigators ministry knocked on my open door, wanting to share the gospel. It was an amazing, immediate answer to my prayer. I shared with them what I had just done, prayed the prayer of salvation with them, and started meeting with my new friend. However, I quickly broke it off, one reason being because I couldn’t convince him that I had already become a Christian as a child. Even though I was still a babe in Christ, he thought I was chronologically and literally a brand new Christian. My pride was perhaps in the way as well, and I still wasn’t ready to give the rest of my life up to the Lord. However, I was very gratified and thankful to see that God was still ‘knocking on the door of my heart’.

You might say there has been Providence at Providence, as well. On a foggy and dark December 1999 night, United Airlines flight 1448 made a few wrong turns while taxiing to the gate on arrival, wound up on the active runway, and had a near miss with a FedEx aircraft which took off on that runway. After that a US Airways jet refused takeoff clearance twice, before the mistake was realized.

God's providence is just one of many qualities of his character which gives us reasons to revel in his glory, as displayed in nature and in the skies. I see our God of wonders in the ever changing and dynamic sky, intermixed with the changing light, clouds, and terrain of the seasons. But I don’t worship the creation, as some do, I worship the creator through appreciating the creation. Last week I saw my pastor describe how he appreciated God by observing the beauty of a sunrise over local rolling farm fields, while jogging around our golf course. If he can experience that, how much more blessed am I to exercise and affirm my faith by experiencing God’s beauty, glory, and wonder in the scenes painted and created in his sky! It’s like he made it himself, just for me.  Other pilots don't seem to appreciate it the same way I do.  The next time you fly, look out the window, and commune with the Father of us all.

These days I try to read a Psalm each day, and often there are references to 'the heavens proclaiming the glory of God' (Psalm 19:1-4).  I call them 'sky Psalms' and try to share them on twitter.  I think I'll start sharing them here also.  "God of Wonders", a great song of praise still played frequently on Christian music stations, has lyrics compiled straight from the Psalms:

“Lord of all creation, of water earth and sky
The heavens are your tabernacle
Glory to the lord on high!

God of wonders, beyond our galaxy, you are Holy, Holy
The universe declares your majesty, you are Holy, Holy

Hallelujah to Lord of heaven and earth, (3x)”

Continuing our day, the ground crew at 'PVD' made quick work of us, even as our jet was crippled with a broken APU.  We took off toward the south, before turning west toward Long Island, on the dogleg shaped route ATC gives us.  The scenes that morning were especially striking.  You can't see it too well, but in the first picture the sun is low, shining through the overcast cloud deck, far to the horizon.  The light spilled low and long across the gray sea, leaving me spellbound till we turned the corner, to see . . .

the very eastern edge of Long Island, New York below, with cirrus clouds right above our altitude, shades of jet blue all around.  I should clarify that I'm pretty sure there were created from the contrails of other jets.  I tried to enlarge the picture, but you get the idea.  I experience beautiful scenes in the sky like these every trip.  It's just that I appreciate them more than I used to, I believe.

Does God really exist in the clouds and sky, the heavens? Well, yes and no. The no part is that God is a spirit, and exists in another dimension, a spirit dimension. With faith, and his spiritual presence in our lives by the Holy Spirit (part of the Holy Trinity), God is spiritually there in the believer, evidenced by his glory in the skies. It's hard for my layman’s words to explain, but God's glory in the skies is a a visual and physical representation of a spiritual manifestation and reality.

The yes part is that biblically, God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit do come and go on and in the clouds!  See, let me show you.  (1) When Moses led the the Israelites to the promised land for fourty years, "the cloud of the LORD was over the tabernacle by day, and fire was in the cloud by night, in the sight of all the house of Israel during all their travels" - Exodus 40:38.  (2) When John the Baptist baptized Jesus to start his earthly ministry, "heaven was opened and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form like a dove.  And a voice came from heaven: "You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased." "- Luke 3:21-22.  (3) After Jesus appeared to his followers after he was resurrected from the dead and gave them 'the Great Commission', "he was taken up into heaven and he sat at the right hand of God.  Then the disciples went out and preached everywhere, and the Lord worked with them and confirmed his word by the signs that accompanied it." - Mark 16:19-20. 

And there are many other instances of this in his Holy word.  There is a U2 song called "Window in the skies", and now I know another meaning for it.  "Oh can't you see what Love has done?"

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

A Better Vantage Point, part II

Recently, in late summer I’ve experienced some beautiful sights and challenging work days: a vertical moon beam projected downward through a narrow gap in the clouds, an expansive and vibrant rainbow, cumulus clouds that carry a punch greater than their looks, the real milky way coupled with meteors, cloud shadows trying to camouflage themselves as the woods in hill valley bottoms below, ‘embedded’ thunderstorms trying to hide behind haze and surrounding stratus clouds, a selection of ‘interesting’ (to say the least) Flight Attendants, an ATC induced go-around at Philadelphia and Indianapolis, and a few long, delayed duty days.

But for this second ‘vantage point’, I’d like to take you back in time a few years to just after the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001, when I was based in Denver as a Captain flying the Beechcraft 1900 turboprop.

Flying for Great Lakes was basically driving me nuts, because during the fall of 2001I was getting junior manned to fly as a First Officer instead of as a Captain, and junior manned down to ten days off a month as well. I was able to switch bases to Minneapolis-St. Paul, and hoped for a lighter schedule load, and some adventurous winter flying. I learned that Vanguard Airlines, out of Kansas City, was growing their fleet and switching from 737’s to MD-80’s. KC is halfway between Tulsa, Oklahoma, where I grew up, and where we still live now in northwestern Iowa. It was kind of like a attracting an insect to a blue light.

That was the flying career situation for me by the spring of 2002. With tens of thousands of ‘heavy iron’ drivers furloughed or about to be furloughed from the majors, and none of the low cost carriers hiring, Vanguard seemed like a great place to go, until the majors and low cost carriers started hiring again, at least.

Their minimums were 1000 hours turbine PIC (pilot in command), but I applied anyway with 800 Turbine PIC, and got no response. After applying again with 1100, things happened quickly. I was soon in Vanguard’s ground school in Long Beach, California, experiencing a cool and rainy ‘So Cal’ spring while drinking up the MD-80’s systems ground school course from a fire hose, as the saying goes.

I had never flown a jet before, not a LearJet, and not a CitationJet. I was a little intimidated, because this was ‘Mad Dog’ jet, aptly named because of the MD initials and because the flying and handling characteristics aren’t reputed to be near as nice as the jets Mr. Boeing builds. Several fellow students in my class were veterans of Vanguard’s 737, and after learning about the McDonnell-Douglas product they recycled the old joke ‘Boeing builds airplanes, Douglas builds character’ among us. For an interesting page on the MD-80, click here.

After learning that the aircrafts’ roll control and pitch control wasn’t by hydraulics and was only by cable and ‘control tabs’, these same pilots said the MD-80 was the ‘0riginal fly by wire jet – on a one-eighth inch cable’. The ‘80’ was a stretched version of the DC-9, which had the same type of flight control system. The MD-80 also ushered in some new technology to the airlines, but it did so using an old style cockpit display and instrumentation. It had the ‘old school’ style ‘six pack’ of flight instruments in front of each pilot, but with an electronic display version of the attitude and horizontal situation indicator (EATT and EHSI). Added on was an advanced flight guidance system for the autopilot, automatic thrust control for the engines (autothrottles), and a flight management system (FMS). All this advancement in technology was meant to reduce the workload of the pilots, but because of the way it was cobbled together with the same usual instrumentation, plus additional panels for all the new technology, meant that in a way this aircraft actually increased the workload required by the pilots. I found this out quickly when flying it, and after transitioning later in my career to aircraft which have a full EFIS (Electronic Flight Instrumentation System) presentation on six TV like flight displays, I appreciated ‘full glass’ much more.

Once in the simulator, I found out that the quirks this jet had were true, the flying characteristics were like nothing I’ve ever flown before, even considering that I had never flown a jet. It was like being on the front end of a struggling sky dart. I was happy with how I made it through training in the simulator. However, once I started flying the real plane and got checked out online, it was an anxious transition. The controls felt funny, and it was a long jet, so long that I couldn’t see the wings from the seat. I was apprehensive about where to look, what to touch, and what the plane was going to do next.

The flight guidance system, which controlled the autopilot and flight director, was fully functional, but had to be used gingerly and wisely, or one would risk giving the passengers an uncomfortable and jerky ride. The same thinking went regarding the autothrottles. On line, good technique necessitated that we lead and lag the autothrottles thrust settings, and program a descent or climb rate slowly. Otherwise the passengers would get pushed or pulled in their seats too much.

The FMA – the flight mode annunciator, was a panel which displayed the armed and active modes of the autopilot and flight director. On a more modern EFIS aircraft the flight modes are shown just above the attitude indication, so in result, this separate panel actually increased our work scan: it was another instrument to include in our ‘scan’.

Hand flying the jet was interesting. Lag in the control response was to be expected, especially in pitch. In pitch the force felt in the control yoke was springy and spongy, light at first but it increased at a non-linear rate. There was a large null spot where the aircraft was trimmed out, where movement of the yoke seemed to not affect the pitch attitude of the aircraft at all. It was light in roll, and the yoke was spring centered back to neutral when released. When the yoke reached 5 degrees deflection, the roll spoilers deployed, and the roll rate increased suddenly. The rudder was the only surface powered hydraulically.

Click here for a good link to a few pictures of Vanguard's Md-80's. My first landing in one, with my hands on the controls was a doozey, oh it was! Seeing in my peripheral vision my Check Airman Captain reaching for yoke during flare is not a good thing. I had already increased back pressure during the flare, and didn’t know just where the ground was, so to speak. I was trying to land it ‘like the simulator’, how I had been told. But the sight picture out the window was totally different than I was used to, as at touchdown the deck height above the ground in the ‘80’ is quite a few feet higher than in the 1900. I knew this, and tried to compensate for it. Observing the plane sink the last ten feet down to the runway surface is a useful clue while landing, but it takes a while to get used to the sight picture in order to discern this. In a long jet the nose is increasing in pitch angle as you land, this mitigates the sink sight clues somewhat. The radio altimeter had called out our height above the ground from 50 feet down in ten foot increments. Well, it was supposed to be ten foot increments. “50-30-20-10” bam! Somewhere far behind me (72 feet or thereabouts) the tires hit like a body part hitting furniture while walking in slumber in a friend’s dark house. We didn’t bounce, I realized as I perceived the cockpit bulkhead shaking behind us in a wave of reverberation from the point of impact. Ugh, oh well. Chuck, my Check Airman, didn’t ask for a hard landing inspection after we both gave it a good once over during the post flight inspection. That was good, and I hoped I could redeem myself. The next few landings went better, fortunately!

There are similarities between learning and flying a new and unfamiliar airplane and growing spiritually in a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. Apprehension, anxiety, excitement/joy, and exhilaration can and will be experienced from one moment to the next, side by side. A classic phrase from aviation (the movie Top Gun) is "highway to the danger zone", and the similar phrase in Christianity describing spiritual growth, especially in mission, is to "get out of your comfort zone". A sense of purpose, mission, and challenge that each arena has can help provide motivation to fulfill the hopes and goals presented. Most of all, learning a new plane or growing in Christ isn’t best done alone; one is much more productive being engaged with the intimate personal assistance, teaching, and learning involved in each endeavor.

In ‘A better Vantage Point, Part I’ in August I wrote a little about the Vantage Point 3 program, a discipleship course my wife and I were in last year at our church. I’ll share with you now the details of the course. In part III (there’s a part III? ;) I’ll share the changes I’ve experienced as a result.

VP3 (for short) has helped to spark a process of renewal in both of our lives and in our marriage. Growing in Christ can be difficult; we’ve learned again that growing pains aren’t only for children. As Christians, it’s often easy to feel comfortable where we are in our spiritual lives. VP3 is a ministry based in Sioux Falls, SD, and their purpose is to develop emerging leaders for the church, to call and enable Christians to become who they are destined to be in Christ Jesus. It’s much like a discipleship group, but it operates a little differently. Our group of five men and nine women, plus our facilitator/associate Pastor, met together for an hour and a half each week. The sessions presented challenging thoughts and questions, and involved personal introspection and sharing from all of us.

The first stage of VP3 was called Biblical Foundations of Leadership. From a scripturally personal standpoint, I became reacquainted with my Christian foundations, and articulated my own personal biblical values. It was a confrontational experience to consider the values I say I have verses how I actually live them out. I was asked to consider and draft a personal biblical mandate.

As a class, we read four books. My two favorites were In the Name of Jesus by Henri Nouwen, and The Gift of Being Yourself by David Benner. Nouwen has a unique but sound angle to our relationship with Jesus and how he can authentically be lived out in our lives. One big concept Nouwen expresses is that we should seek to be irrelevant to other people, not relevant, as one would assume. Why? Because as we are irrelevant to others while in relationship with them, they see and receive us as vulnerable, naked, and stripped to the core of our being. A being which has Christ lived out of us in Love, sacrifice, suffering, and serving others purely, just as Jesus did when he walked the earth. They can only respond in two ways: receive us as we are in Christ’s Love, or reject us.

Knowing God was of course a focus of VP3, but more emphasis was put on knowing your self, in that knowing yourself better, you can know God better as well, and thus permit God to indwell in the real you. David Benner’s great book The Gift of Being Yourself does a lot for the reader in that process; it is a deep book that I’ll read again this year. This is a concept which I hadn’t heard much about, and is very refreshing.

We were asked to write a personal faith narrative, framed by our life stories and events. In recounting my spiritual journey, I came to grips with my victories and my defeats, the times I’ve accepted the call of Christ and the times I’ve turned and gone my own way, and the pain it caused myself and others. I remembered and honored the ‘God things’ I’ve experienced: the events and moments in my life when I have truly seen or felt God and his grace and mercy, and the Holy Spirit act on my behalf. It is my story of God ‘meeting me where I’m at’ in my personal relationship with him, and it has great value to me. Nothing can take away my experiences of God acting personally in my life, leading me back into a right, fruitful, and intimate relationship with him, one step at a time. My VP3 brothers shared our stories with each other, and grew closer to each other in the process.

VP3 emphasized mentoring, both having a mentor during VP3 and becoming a mentor for others. A Christian mentor is more than an accountability partner; a mentor is brother or sister in Christ who listens to the song from your soul. A good mentor is a trusted and close friend, one you can bear your heart to, your spiritual and heartfelt victories, defeats, hang-ups, bitterness, questions, doubts, and one who will challenge you and teach you how to move forward, and to mentor others as well. I believe mentoring is a key to increasing the number of committed and discipled Christians in our nation and world. A united community of mentoring and mentored Christians will produce a harvest the church and the Lord will rejoice over.

The last stage of VP3, Functional Foundations of Leadership, is one I’m still grappling with. What habits and characteristics does a successful Christian leader have? What will I do to ensure I grow into and remain an emerging Christian Leader?

These last two paragraphs give a short version of a couple of the changes I've had as a result of VP3.
These days I have a more central and singular purpose in my life, and it all boils down to Jesus. Sure, my wife and children provide deep meaning and satisfaction to me, but my best person is in relationship with them through Christ. Ultimately, he gives me the deepest meaning, purpose, and satisfaction I have in my life. It sounds crazy, but it’s true.

As much as I love flying a jet through the sky, I sincerely don’t think I would keep doing it if it wasn’t for God sustaining me through the hard times of struggle and sacrifice. Doing it in Christ, through Christ, and for Christ helps me to continue packing for a five day trip away from my wife and family, with a half day commute on both sides.
Praise our one holy and true God!
And thanks again for visiting my blog.