Flying an aging airliner into an unfriendly alien world
Seated in a stiff wood chair, the room smelled of pencil shavings and old books; like a library or grade-school classroom. Well lighted, the retro-décor was cold-war era – both spartan and sterile. Single-pane windows were mounted in the military gray, cinder-block walls. The caulking was dried and brittle with pieces missing. Delicate panels of glass were blackened, allowing only shards of light to penetrate the cracks in the paint that resembled canals on the surface of Mars. It was a clumsy but effective way to prevent any view of the secretive, alien environment. We were debriefing, CIA style, after our once-in-a-career flight to this place. What were they going to do with my darling Super-80? One thing was certain: our jet would never leave this place.
We have all heard tales about this place and how strange things happen here. Ships come from faraway realms – and disappear. Stories are told about this place. This Roswell, New Mexico place. Land of Enchantment, indeed. People see things and never speak of them. Or they lie about what they saw. Those that do talk often stretch credulity so far that you feel the urge to back away from them slowly. This story is not one of seeing a bright light on the runway in ORD then suddenly awakening in a distant land. Nor is the sterile, cold-war interrogation room, described above, an insight into a secret undercover operation involving off-world aliens. In fact, the whole debriefing-room thing never really happened at all – except in a nightmare after this adventure. Apparently it was my subconscious reaction to what I have done to one of my darling Super-80’s. Unassisted by little gray creatures with pie-sized black eyes, we arrived at Roswell in the usual fashion: flying in the atmosphere at jet speeds – landing on a paved runway. Taxiing to a parking spot. Climbing out of the cockpit and down the air-stairs with our pilot-stuff. The difference this time: No one will ever walk back up those stairs, enter the cockpit and fly this wonderful machine again. Ever. My darling Super-80 is being temporarily stored…… then scrapped.
The process of delivering an airliner for “salvage and reclamation” is pretty straight-forward. It’s the same as a maintenance or ferry flight. We operate under Part 91 with a permit from the FAA for just such a flight. Our dispatchers and load agents perform the flight planning and weight and balance calculations just as they would for a revenue flight. Ballast fuel is added to compensate for the abnormal load. We typically board the airplane at one of our maintenance hangars and join the line of other airliners for departure. This flight is different; we will have a CNN crew led by senior correspondent Richard Roth and representatives from corporate communications aboard and we’ll depart from a gate in the terminal – but no paying passengers and no flight attendants. We only arm two of the emergency exit slides, the ones closest to the cockpit. There is no catering and thus, no coffee. This can be a problem, because it’s against airline pilot protocol for Captains to spend their own money on coffee or newspapers. And, speaking of breaking the rules, the probability of procedural non-compliance is about 25% higher on this type of flight. Partially due to pilots misbehaving. Historically, (not at my carrier) there have been examples of maximum altitude exceedances, bank angle excursions and a few “since we’re empty, let’s try something….” maneuvers. But most non-compliance is accidental. This type of flight is very non-routine and it’s easy to get out of our habit pattern. With this in mind, I still make my nest of kit bag, glasses and note paper. I store the flight documents in their normal location, and I use the seat belt sign as I would on a normal flight. And (don’t laugh) I still make the mandatory PA’s to the non-existent flight attendants: prepare for takeoff, prepare for landing, etc. This helps to keep me in my habit pattern and to avoid accidentally becoming “non-compliant.”
Bad Moon Arisen
There were no earthquakes and lightning, or non-compliance, but this was a fateful journey aboard our 29 year-old Mad Dog and there were bad times today (thank you Creedence Clearwater Revival). I volunteered for the mission in hopes of obtaining closure over the loss of my friend of 25 years. The jet of my career. Delivering tail number 569 to a final, peaceful resting place. A chance to say goodbye; without a plane full of passengers that may hear a crack in my voice over the PA or glimpse a tear in my eye. Despite a pre-departure toast and celebration, as we completed the delivery of our MD-80 to Roswell, the emotion I felt was not closure. It was betrayal and abandonment. I’m betraying my darling Super-80. I’m leaving her alone. Alone to die. Yes, stories are told all right about this Roswell, New Mexico place. And so are lies. Lies about aliens and lies about airplane heaven. This isn’t airplane heaven – it’s airplane hell.
Reddy the Red Fox
We had a Red Fox kit when I was young – mom named him Reddy. Dad found him abandoned in the woods while hunting. He was just a baby and a search for his mother was unsuccessful. Dad felt compelled to bring him home so we raised him as you would a domestic pet dog. He seemed to enjoy life with people but as he grew up, he developed the signature musky smell of a male Red Fox. Not as bad as a skunk, but close enough. We kids didn’t mind but for dad it was frustrating and for mom it was intolerable. One day, we all piled into the family station wagon along with Reddy and headed to the Allegan State Forest, an hour north of home. We drove several miles into the woods along a tiny dirt road that was more like a forest service trail. We all climbed out of the wagon and played with Reddy. After a few minutes, we got back into the car – without Reddy. Dad drove back up the trail. From the roll-down window in the back of the station wagon, through our tears, we boys could see Reddy running along trying to keep up. Then he started to limp. He had picked up a pricker in his domesticated paw. Dad stopped and we removed the pricker from Reddy’s paw. Mom had brought along some raw hamburger in anticipation of this issue. Dad put it on the ground for Reddy and we once again drove off. The tactic worked and Reddy was left behind. The son has become the father and I’ve left my darling Super-80 behind.
Jim Gorman (Gorman-Rupp Pump Co.) donated his Duke, the last one built, to the Beechcraft Heritage Museum in Tullahoma, Tennessee. It’s a beautiful Duke and will remain beautiful for a long time. “My” F-16, the first one in which my name was embossed on the canopy, is in the boneyard at Davis Monthan AFB in Tucson, AZ – officially called the AMARG (Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group). Still in one piece, albeit shrink-wrapped and sans the motor, it’s in a row of fighters slated to go to a loving museum somewhere. The fate of this MD-80 is almost certainly much grimmer. My darling Super-80 is not being donated. It will not be kept safe, warm and polished – nor shrink wrapped. There will be no tours or visitors admiring her beauty, genealogy or pedigree. No children will be inspired by the vision of her to become an airline pilot. Unlike Davis Monthan, there is no “regeneration” in the name of this Roswell, New Mexico place. And no one asked if my Darling wanted to be an organ donor – they certainly didn’t ask for my permission. It’s possible that this was my last flight in the Mad Dog. An appropriate punishment for a betrayer, one undeserving to fly the magnificent machine again.
Able to keep flying with no hydraulics or electricity. No recorded announcements, no entertainment systems, no impersonal texts, e-mails or tweets. An old-school airplane with old-school customer service. Bob Crandall made a brilliant decision in the 80’s, got a great deal and put the MD-80 to work. Reliable and dependable, it’s been the workhorse – the heart and soul of the company. Plain and simple, the Super-80 built this airline.
As I leave this Roswell, New Mexico place and fly off into the distance, will the MD-80 stare toward the terminal, wondering when I will return? Will it sit, waiting for its pilot-master to round the corner? Will she feign a pricker in her paw? Accustomed to sitting overnight at airports around the country, perhaps the realization of betrayal won’t begin until tomorrow morning, or the next, or the next – when no one shows up to fly. When will you accept that you were abducted and abandoned? On the day you are unceremoniously disassembled, I think. Please forgive me, my Darling Super-80.