Post-Christmas downer

Published 12:32 pm Saturday, May 9, 2015

by James Harrell

The airline has been expanding for the last several months. A hundred or more pilots have been hired, trained and released to line operations. Consequently, new, expanded flight frequencies have increased my opportunities to be more selective in choosing a monthly schedule. I have managed to have Christmas Day off with my family. Still a relatively new employee, I’m happy to have such choices.

This month, December, has been filled with flights to Chicago, overnight, and return to Los Angeles the next night. Departure times and return times are not the most desirable, but it’s a schedule that I can easily live with. The flight leaves in the afternoon, undergoes the two hour time change and arrives in Chicago around dusk. Then we stay over and depart the next night for the return trip, arriving back in Los Angeles just after midnight. It’s this part that makes more senior pilots avoid the schedule.

Two days after Christmas, we depart Los Angeles to the west at our scheduled time, make the slow turn around Long Beach, and settle in for the 1,800 miles ahead. The first hour and a half will be at flight level 290, meaning our altimeter will be set at a standard 29.92 inches of mercury and it will indicate 29,000 feet. That keeps aircraft separated by 2000 feet and everybody’s altimeter will be set to a standard. All that was worked out many years ago when aircraft started using high altitudes on a regular basis. Flight safety is utmost in airline operations.

Our aircraft is scheduled to cruise at .84 mach, or a little above eight-tenths of the speed of sound at that specific altitude and temperature. It is our normal cruising speed and we’ll stay at flight level 290 for at least an hour, when our weight will permit us to maintain .84 mach at a higher altitude. Generally, the higher the altitude, the more efficient the engines. The skies are also smoother, generally.

We know that Chicago has fog in the forecast, preceding a frontal boundary. We have a required alternate, just in case. As we pass Denver, I check current and updated weather for Chicago and it’s getting nastier. The weather at our alternate is getting nastier as well.

About an hour from landing, we get a notice about a holding pattern in the Chicago area because of greater time requirements for longer landing intervals. Our projection of fuel burn and endurance doesn’t fit what we’re hearing and I am given the task of finding a new alternate. The two pilots have their hands full with flying the aircraft. Radio traffic is heavy and it takes all my concentration to talk to our dispatcher, through a “radio patch.” It takes awhile.

The new alternate, Indianapolis, is acquired and we decide to land there, refuel and return to Chicago with enough fuel to hold for an extended period if necessary. Indianapolis is about 30 minutes beyond Chicago and we should be able to land, refuel and be back in the air in about a half hour.

All goes well with the plan. We’re back over Chicago, working our way through traffic to a landing. The fog has not gotten worse but many of the flights that were scheduled to land had to go to an alternate for fuel also. We’re on the leading edge of the return group.

During the approach and landing, we become aware of a different atmosphere on the radio chatter. It’s barely noticeable, would be unnoticed by anyone other than professional pilots. It’s subdued, hushed even. After landing, during the taxi to our gate, we can see the flashing lights of a large number of emergency vehicles going and coming through the fog.

We learn that a North Central Airlines flight has crashed into one of the hangars on the field. The aircraft was almost inverted when it hit. We are a little subdued by this report.

Newscasts are full of interviews and on scene reporting. It seems the aircraft smashed into the hangar doors, behind which a musical marching group was practicing. By some miracle, some passengers survived. A few of the marching band were injured; some seriously. Our layover in Chicago is mostly somber; an aircraft accident is strongly felt in the airline community. The flight crews from North Central that layover in Chicago are also at our hotel. We’re community.

I feel for the loss of the families of those that died in the plane crash in Chicago. As those who have gone before me, both in the military and civil aviation worlds, I try to put the tragedy behind me, concentrate on the task at hand and say a little prayer of thanks.

JAMES D. “ARCHIE” HOWELL is a Southampton County native and 1955 graduate of Franklin High School. He can be reached at