Proficient Pilot

The left seat

December 8, 2009

Several local pilots and I were huddled in the Waypoint Restaurant at the Camarillo Airport sheltering ourselves from a rare October rainstorm that was scudding across Southern California. The discussion du jour eventually evolved into recollections of our most memorable flights. Predictably, most gave enthusiastic and fond descriptions of their first solo flights. In my case, though, it was a somewhat different kind of solo flight.

In July 1968 I had recently completed transition training on the Boeing 727. More important, I had simultaneously completed upgrading to captain on the “three-holer.” But since there were no captain vacancies at the time, I returned to duty in the right seat of the Boeing 707.

Six weeks later on August 31, I received an unexpected call from TWA Crew Schedule. The scheduler, Bob Holman, advised me that the captain scheduled on a flight that evening had called in sick, and no reserve captains were available. “Captain Schiff,” he said matter of factly, “you’ve been assigned to Flight 310, L.A., Vegas, O’Hare, LaGuardia. Departure time is 2200. First officer is Ron Hansen and your engineer is Bill O’Neill.”

I replied as nonchalantly as possible, trying desperately to contain the swelling whirl of excitement, “Sure, Bob. I’ll be there.” After hanging up, I involuntarily released this inexplicable, primordial scream and tried to get my pulse and respiration rate under control. This is the day of which professional pilots dream.

I had already purchased my gold wings and captain’s hat, although I had no clue that I would need them so soon. I was caught totally off guard and realized that I would have to make a quick trip to the local tailor to have a fourth gold stripe sewn onto each sleeve of my uniform jacket.

Pilots normally take a long nap before a red-eye, but the adrenalin flow that day made this impossible.

I reported for duty earlier than required, walked out to Gate 35, and spent time conducting an exterior inspection of the aircraft even though this was the flight engineer’s job and had already been done. The stretch-727 seemed larger than it had in the past, and I could hardly believe that it was being entrusted to me. The largest airplane I had previously flown as PIC was a Twin Beech Model 18. I gave one of the brick-hard tires a healthy kick (a custom of some sort) and almost broke a toe in the process. I would’ve taken the flight even if I had broken a bone. Not much could have kept me from the cockpit that night. I understood why Chuck Yeager flew the Bell X-1 in 1947 to become first to fly faster than sound while keeping it a secret that he had broken a rib the previous day.

As I warmed the left seat and began my preflight checks, I wondered how the 100-plus passengers behind me would feel if they knew that their captain was on his first “solo.” I hoped that the flight attendants would not advertise the fact during a P.A. announcement.

While setting up my radios, I heard behind me the voice of a mechanic who had stuck his head into the cockpit, “Hey, skipper.” I continued with my preflight chores. The voice was louder, more insistent and impatient this time, “Hey, skipper.” It finally dawned on me that I was the skipper and that he was talking to me.

“The logbook is clear, skipper. Have a nice flight.”

Between Los Angeles and Las Vegas I noticed that the view out of the left window was somehow better than out of the right. On the second leg, O’Neill handed me the latest Chicago weather. Not good. Although above published minimums, it was less than the higher minimums assigned to new captains during their first 100 hours. I did not relish the idea of diverting to an alternate while everyone else made it in. New captains also were regulated against allowing their first officers to make landings during those first 100 hours, a prohibition that many new captains ignored. After all, my first officer had a lot more experience flying “Miss Piggy” than I did. I could learn a few things by watching.

Is it different being responsible for 100-plus passengers than when flying lightplanes carrying a few? Not at all. Airline pilots are seldom concerned about the safety of their passengers, irrespective of the number. They fly safely for the best of all possible reasons—the well being of their own derrieres. It doesn’t matter how many folks are on board. If the nose of the airplane arrives safely, so will they.

Was I nervous during this flight? Not at all—the result of great training and outstanding check airmen. TWA was so good at training that it had been chosen to train the pilots of Air Force One (when the Boeing 707 was used).

This first flight occurred only four years after I had been hired by TWA on July 6, 1964. I have always wanted to attribute this rapid advancement to my superior cunning and airmanship, but, alas, it was simply the fortune of seniority. I was hired as co-pilot on the Lockheed Constellation at the beginning of a rapid industry expansion that began that same year, and I rode that crest for 34 incredible years. At the end, the FAA and the calendar conspired against me on my sixtieth birthday. No matter. I wouldn’t have changed a thing.

Barry Schiff has more than 27,000 hours in 312 different types of aircraft. Visit the author’s Web site .