Proficient Pilot

Over and back

September 1, 2005

Retired TWA captain Barry Schiff has flown around the world 14 times in his 53 years of flying.

Over the years I have written much about what I loved about airline flying. A few readers have commented that everything about it could not have been that good, that there must have been aspects of my career that I did not enjoy. There were, and most had to do with sleep (or lack of it) and coping (or not) with time-zone changes.

When people ask what I did to prepare for a flight across numerous time zones, I respond woefully that there was little I could do. It was a matter of gritting my teeth and enduring it.

The worst of these trips seems at first blush to be exciting and romantic. And it was. But the polar flight, a nonstop trek across the Arctic from Los Angeles to Paris, also was the most grueling.

Follow me through

I report for duty at 1:30 p.m. local time in Los Angeles. The crew is fresh, rested, and ready for our 3 p.m. (local time) departure. During the summer months we fly north of the direct, great-circle route to latch onto the jet stream. It is farther north in summer than in winter when it usually meanders across the Lower 48.

It doesn't get totally dark during this overnight flight at high latitudes in the summer. After 11 hours of gazing at ice floes and marveling at the hypnotic and mystifying aurora borealis from our front-row seats, we arrive at Charles de Gaulle Airport at 11 in the morning (local time). This means it is 2 a.m. in Los Angeles. We're exhausted and ready for bed.

But first there is a lengthy ride on the crew bus through Paris traffic. When we finally arrive at our hotel, most of us are already snoozing in our seats. The need for sleep is compelling, but we often have to wait until our rooms are ready. I cannot understand how some flight attendants use this delay to go shopping when most of us are falling asleep where we stand.

We're finally in our rooms ready to crash. I request a wakeup call in four hours. Four hours after being up all night? We don't dare give in to sleeping for eight hours because this would have us waking at 9 p.m. Paris time. That much sleep would make it difficult to go back to sleep a few hours later to prepare for our return flight home late the next morning.

The phone rings and jolts me from deep slumber. For a moment I have no idea where I am. The pamphlets on the nightstand are in French, so this must be Paris. Aching for more sleep but understanding the consequences of submission, I shower, shave, and get dressed. It is 5 p.m. local time, and I stroll along the Left Bank before meeting my crew for dinner.

Touring and dining in Paris a few times every month sound exciting? There were wonderful times, but they are difficult to enjoy when you feel like a zombie and spend half your time pouring drops into your eyes to calm the redness and scratchiness.

After a truly expensive meal, it is 10 p.m., time for a night's sleep, which begins easily.

I awaken a few hours later at oh-dark-hundred. My body, which is still on Los Angeles time, "thinks" it is only 4:30 in the afternoon. It doesn't want to sleep for eight hours, which is what I desperately crave. I am overtired.

I turn on television but a rerun of CNN International every 30 minutes gets old. I try reading but have trouble focusing on the words. And the room is either too hot or too cold.

Returning to sleep does not come easily until the approach of dawn.

I recall a room in one layover hotel where the temperature was much too toasty for my comfort. This was in the dead of winter. There was no way to cool the room because air conditioning in the building had been shut down until spring, and I couldn't turn off the heat or open the window. I called the front desk in the middle of the night pleading for a cooler room but was advised that the hotel was full. It was too hot to sleep, and I gave in to the frustration by wrapping a towel around my elbow and breaking the window. Cold air flooded the room, and I passed out immediately.

The telephone rings a few hours later. It is my crew call, time to get dressed, have breakfast, and be ready for the crew bus one and one-half hours later. But wait a minute. It's midnight at home. I want and need more sleep. There is no rest for the weary, and ahead is another flight across the Arctic scheduled for a block-to-block time of almost 12 hours.

The flight home is fatiguing and worsened by sun flooding the cockpit all the way home. Before flight-management and global-positioning systems, we kept busy navigating with Doppler (a dead-reckoning system) and Loran-A (predecessor to Loran-C) to obtain an occasional fix used to update the Doppler.

Navigation now is largely a matter of the autopilot tracking a thousands-mile-long purple line from one side of the world to the other. Such boredom adds to the fatigue.

Because of the nine-hour time-zone change, we land only three hours after leaving Paris. All I want after clearing Customs is to go to bed.

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