Proficient Pilot

Around the world, chapter one

December 1, 2004

Retired airline captain Barry Schiff holds five speed records — one captured from the Soviet Union.

The world is smaller for pilots than other people make it out to be. When I flew for TWA, I made nine trips around the world in 1972. I saw places that only a relative few pilots see and had experiences that do not occur between Denver and Dubuque. I would like to share with you the following notes taken during one of those round-robin flights, Los Angeles to Los Angeles, in a Boeing 707-331B.

On the first leg of our 11-day odyssey, the VOR points an electronic finger toward Guam, a dot on the chart, a fleck of land floating on the Pacific vastness. Puffy clouds far below are sheep grazing on a boundless blue meadow. Ahead, the cumulus grows tempestuously taller, confirming that our route crosses the equatorial front, a cauldron of thunderstorms brewed by mixing moist tropical trade winds.

It seems inconceivable that more than 50,000 thunderstorms occur daily over the Earth until you've flown the South Pacific. At times, all of them seem to challenge your right to the sky and necessitate the most serpentine flight path imaginable.

We used to be led across the oceans by navigators using sextants to shoot the stars in the mystical manner of ancient mariners. One this day in 1972 we use Doppler navigation updated with loran A fixes. It advises that a strong headwind has slowed our progress dramatically, adding to the deceiving effect of slow motion at high altitude.

A patch of turbulence, a change in outside temperature, an increase in groundspeed — these indicate that the jet stream has tired of resisting our progress and veered north to perpetrate its folly elsewhere. It is cold outside, dangerously close to the fuel-freeze point of minus 100 degrees Fahrenheit. We request a lower, warmer altitude and discuss with renewed amazement the incongruity that the coldest temperatures in the atmosphere occur above the South Pacific.

Sunday evening suddenly becomes Monday evening. We have crossed the international date line, a line on the chart drawn to pacify man's obsession for order and definition. We streak south of wishbone-shape Wake Island, a 4.5-mile-long atoll that became a fuel stop for Pan American Airways' Clippers in 1935. Those learning to fly there are not required to make cross-country flights; the closest airport is Eniwetok, 600 miles south in the Marshall Islands.

Below, the cumulus clouds continue to drift behind with metronomic regularity, casting shadows on the water that resemble small islands. We wonder how many flight-weary pilots have unwittingly descended to a shadow thinking that it was an island.

The Pacific is immense, monotonous. There is little to do except monitor systems, make occasional position reports, and stare at the repetitious, moonlit seascape. The pilot of a nearby flight breaks the boredom by broadcasting risqué jokes on the air-to-air frequency. Someone sings or plays a harmonica. Such diversions last only a few minutes, and pilots return to their personal bouts with the "Pacific blues," a fatiguing form of boredom.

Those in the cabin do strange things to break the monotony. Yemenites have been known to start campfires to cook a meal. Passengers accustomed only to train travel have attempted to climb into overhead baggage compartments for a nap, and there are the honeymooners unable to wait.

South Pacific islands are encircled by rings of turquoise where the water is shallow. Approaching Guam, the water is midnight blue. The island rises from the depths of the Marianas Trench; it is the tip of a 37,000-foot-tall oceanic mountain.

After our layover, we prepare for the next leg, and the dispatcher adds a chart to the maze of preflight paperwork spread before us. It contains the last known position of every large surface vessel steaming near our route to Hong Kong as well as recommended ditch headings to use in the vicinity of each.

Our flight to Hong Kong is via "Typhoon Alley," a nickname given to this region when hurricanes are on the rampage. Flying into Hong Kong, I review the approach plate for Taipei, an en route stop. Numerous restrictions are imposed on arriving aircraft because cunning aviators from the People's Republic of China once landed unnoticed at Taipei late at night and absconded with aircraft belonging to the Nationalist Chinese Air Force.

Friends occasionally ask for my impressions of Taipei and other places I have been. Although I have been there many times, I can describe only the airport. For this and many other places, I have never been in the country for more than an hour at a time, often in the dead of night.

Taxiing for takeoff at Taipei, a red light warns us to stop so that a military guard can verify that our N number matches the one on the flight plan. If it does not, we will be escorted back to the terminal. His machine gun and the anti-aircraft batteries surrounding the airport convince us that this is one red light we cannot afford to run. The guard salutes respectfully and shines a green light. We trundle to the runway.

We are soaring through placid valleys of white cotton candy, banking gently on occasion to follow the contours of an aerial fantasy land. Our wings are like outstretched arms and slice through soft cumulus castles. This exhilarating sense of speed and freedom is what flying is all about.

To be continued next month.

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