Great Airline Flying Story

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1st Lieutenant
May 30, 2011
Cape Canaveral
I got this in e-mail form years ago and just stumbled across it.
The Payoff Dedicated to Frank Crismon (1903-1990) by Capt. G. C. Kehmeier
(United Airlines, Ret.)

"I ought to make you buy a ticket to ride this airline!" The chief pilot's
words were scalding. I had just transferred from San Francisco to Denver.
Frank Crismon, my new boss, was giving me a route check between Denver and
Salt Lake City. "Any man who flies for me will know this route," he
continued. "'Fourteen thousand feet will clear Kings Peak' is not adequate.
You had better know that Kings Peak is exactly 13,498 feet high. Bitter
Creek is not 'about 7,000 feet.' It is exactly 7,185 feet, and the
identifying code for the beacon is dash dot dash. "I'm putting you on
probation for one month, and then I'll ride with you again. If you want to
work for me, you had better start studying!" Wow! He wasn't kidding!

For a month, I pored over sectional charts, auto road maps, Jeppesen
approach charts, and topographic quadrangle maps. I learned the elevation
and code for every airway beacon between the West Coast and Chicago. I
learned the frequencies, runway lengths, and approach procedures for every
airport. From city road maps, I plotted the streets that would funnel me to
the various runways at each city. A month later he was on my trip. "What is
the length of the north-south runway at Milford?" "Fifty-one fifty." "How
high is Antelope Island?" "Sixty-seven hundred feet." "If your radio fails
on an Ogden-Salt Lake approach, what should you do?" "Make a right turn to
290 degrees and climb to 13,000 feet." "What is the elevation of the Upper
Red Butte beacon?" "Seventy-three hundred." "How high is the Laramie
Field?" "Seventy-two fifty." This lasted for the three hours from Denver to
Salt Lake City. "I'm going to turn you loose on your own. Remember what you
have learned. I don't want to ever have to scrape you off some hillside
with a book on your lap!"

Twenty years later, I was the Captain on a Boeing 720 from San Francisco to
Chicago. We were cruising in the cold, clear air at 37,000 feet. South of
Grand Junction a deep low-pressure area fed moist air upslope into Denver,
causing snow, low ceilings, and restricted visibility. The forecast for
Chicago's O'Hare Field was 200 feet and one-half mile, barely minimums. Over
the Utah-Colorado border, the backbone of the continent showed white in the
noonday sun. I switched on the intercom and gave the passengers the word.
"We are over Grand Junction at the confluence of the Gunnison and Colorado
Rivers. On our right and a little ahead is the Switzerland of America--the
rugged San Juan Mountains. In 14 minutes we will cross the Continental
Divide west of Denver. We will arrive O'Hare at 3:30 Chicago time."

Over Glenwood Springs, the generator overheat light came on. "Number 2 won't
stay on the bus," the engineer advised. He placed the essential power
selector to number 3. The power failure light went out for a couple of
seconds and then came on again, glowing ominously. "Smoke is coming out of
the main power shield," the engineer yelled. "Hand me the goggles." The
engineer reached behind the observer's seat, unzipped a small container, and
handed the copilot and me each a pair of ski goggles. The smoke was getting
thick. I slipped the oxygen mask that is stored above the left side of the
pilot's seat over my nose and mouth. By pressing a button on the control
wheel, I could talk to the copilot and the engineer through the
battery-powered intercom. By flipping a switch, either of us could talk to
the passengers. "Emergency descent!" I closed the thrust levers. The
engines that had been purring quietly like a giant vacuum cleaner since San
Francisco spooled down to a quiet rumble. I established a turn to the left
and pulled the speed brake lever to extend the flight spoilers. "Gear down.
Advise passengers to fasten seat belts and no smoking." I held the nose
forward, and the mountains along the Continental Divide came up rapidly.
The smoke was thinning. "Bring cabin altitude to 14,000 feet," I ordered. At
14,000 feet over Fraser, we leveled and retracted the gear and speed brakes.
The engineer opened the ram air switch and the smoke disappeared. We
removed our goggles and masks.

Fuel is vital to the life of a big jet, and electricity is almost as vital.
The artificial horizon and other electronic instruments, with which I
navigated and made approaches through the clouds, were now so much tin and
brass. All I had left was the altimeter, the airspeed, and the magnetic
compass--simple instruments that guided airplanes 35 years earlier. "Advise
passengers we are making a Denver stop." "The last Denver weather was 300
feet with visibility one-half mile in heavy snow. Wind was northeast at 15
knots with gusts to 20," the copilot volunteered. "I know. I heard it." The
clouds merged against the mountains above Golden. Boulder was in the clear.

To the northeast, the stratus clouds were thick like the wool on the back of
a Rambouillet buck before shearing. I dropped the nose and we moved over the
red sandstone buildings of the University of Colorado. We headed southeast
and picked up the Denver-Boulder turnpike. "We will fly the turnpike to the
Broomfield turnoff, then east on Broomfield Road to Colorado Boulevard, then
south to 26th Avenue, then east to Runway 8." The copilot, a San Francisco
reserve, gave me a doubtful look. One doesn't scud-run to the end of the
runway under a 300-foot ceiling in a big jet. Coming south on Colorado
Boulevard, we were down to 100 feet above the highway. Lose it and I would
have to pull up into the clouds and fly the gauges when I had no gauges.
Hang onto it and I would get into Stapleton Field. I picked up the golf
course and started a turn to the left. "Gear down and 30 degrees." The
copilot moved a lever with a little wheel on it. He placed the flap lever
in the 30-degree slot. I shoved the thrust levers forward. "Don't let me get
less than 150 knots. I'm outside." I counted the avenues as they slid
underneath. . .30th, 29th, and 28th. I remembered that there was neither a
31st nor a 27th. I picked up 26th. The snow was slanting out of the
northeast. The poplar trees and power lines showed starkly through the
storm. With electrical power gone, we had no windshield heat. Fortunately,
the snow was not sticking. "Let me know when you see a school on your side
and hack my time at five-second intervals from the east side of the school
yard." Ten seconds. "There it is. The yard is full of kids. Starting time
now!" Good boy. Smiley faced Holly. From the east side of the school yard,
I counted Kearney, then Krameria, Leydon, Locust. Remember the double lane
for Monaco Parkway. Then Magnolia, Niagara, Newport. Time the speed at 130
knots. Only eight blocks to the end of the runway. Oneida, Olive, Pontiac,
Poplar. From Quebec to Syracuse, the cross streets disappear; figure eight
seconds. Keep 26th Avenue under the right side of the nose. "Full flaps."
Dead ahead, glowing dimly in the swirling snow, were the three green lights
marking the east end of Runway 8. We crossed 20 feet above the center green
light and touched down in a crab to the left. I aligned the nose to the
runway with the right rudder, dropped the nose wheel, popped the speed
brakes, and brought in reverse thrust.

It took us 10 minutes to find the terminal in the swirling whiteout. We saw
the dim, flashing red light atop the building indicating the field was
closed to all traffic. A mechanic materialized out of the snow carrying two
wands. He waved me into the gate. I set the parking brake. "We have ground
power," the engineer advised. "Cut the engines." The bagpipe skirl of sound
spiraled down to silence. "My hat is off to you, skipper. I don't know how
you ever found this airport." "I used to fly for an ornery old chief pilot
who made me learn the route," I replied as I hung up my headset and
scratched the top of my head where it itched. Frank Crismon passed away at
his home in Denver on 25 Jan 1990.

Editor's note: Professionalism, readiness, and knowledge can never be
replaced by all the electronic gadgets in the world. Whether you drive a
truck or a C-17, nothing beats knowing your capabilities and those of your
machine, and knowing where you are at all times. It's hard to come up with
options if you don't know what's going on.
I'll admit that on occasion I have looked down from my Ercoupe and read road signs or names on water towers to find out where I was. But doing that kind of navigation from a four engined jet airliner, and in a snowstorm, is something else again.
One day I boarded an airliner going from Orlando to Reagan National. We took off and there was nothing but clouds under us, until they parted, and I looked down decided that must be Jacksonville down below. A minute later the pilot came on and said we were over Jacksonville. Then we were back in the clouds and when they parted again I assumed the city below must be Richmond. Then the pilot came on and said we were over Richmond. Back in the clouds and when we broke out I looked down and saw something quite familiar from my Ercoupe flights. We were just north of Fredericksburg , VA., coming up on the Potomac with Tobacco Point just ahead and Blossom Point across the river. The pilot came on and confirmed it, although he did not use those geographical terms. But this was about the only time I ever rode an airliner where I could look out and figure out where we were at every spot where you could see the ground.

On the Smithsonian Channel Air Disasters series they covered the crash of a Brazilian 737 in the early 90's. The airplane was flying from the interior to an airport on the coast to the North. The course was supposed to be 27 degrees. But the airline had gotten in some new airplanes that enabled you to set the navigation system down to 0.1 degrees and they had changed the flight plans they issued to reflect that. So the flight plan read 27.0 degrees. The pilot and copilot set 270 degrees into the navigation system and literally flew off into the setting Sun. Some passengers asked why they were heading West when they should have been flying North, and were told that they were not pilots and did not understand this complicated stuff. Unable to get the VOR at the destination airport they resorted to ADF but did not bother to find out where the radio station was - they were listening to an important soccer match. Unable to get the airport on VHF comm they contacted them on HF, and while still talking to them ran out of fuel and crashed in the jungle, over 400 miles off course. So not everybody in the front office of an airliner can look out the window and figure out where they are to within a block or two, even with the power on and the radios working.
On the Smithsonian Channel Air Disasters series they covered the crash of a Brazilian 737 in the early 90's.

That would be a good example for flight safety induction. One example I use is this ship accident. The Renate Schultz was a new ship with every known anti-collision aid fitted operating in the Mediterranean but the officer of the watch on the night this happened turned off all the aural alarms because he was sick of all the "false alarms" and noise caused by the equipment detecting small craft and got bored with watching the radar sweep.

The good news was there were no fatalities and the salvage crew were able to separate the two ships without breaking either and without either sinking, something that would not happen in flight. Both the Brazilian 737 and this ship had all the right equipment and crew who did not use the equipment in the manner it was designed to be used.
On one of those USN ships that collided there were two female officers on duty that night who were not speaking to each other, apparently due to some personal tiff they were having. Given the traffic in that area I would think the officer on the bridge would have been calling the radar every 10 min.

There was a Greek 737 that took off with the pressurization system not activated and the were busy trying to figure out why the avionics were giving off overheat warnings. They thought the circuit breaker to the cooling fans had popped but it was because there was not enough air for the fans to move. They were on autopilot because the pilot was out of his seat looking at the circuit breakers. The airplane flew to Athens with everyone on board passed out and crashed.
There have been multiples of that accident in multiple types and classes of aircraft going back at least as far as the Fokker F-27. Variations include the L-1011 Tristar that flew into a swamp because the crew were concentrating on a 6 cent light bulb instead of flying the aircraft.

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