First Trip Back
30 July 2011 | Hong Kong
All day yesterday, as we were readying the jet for departure in Chicago, dealing with a maintenance delay, discussing a potential diversion for a fuel stop in Japan if the tropical storm in Hong Kong threatened extensive delays, surrounded by the general chaos of being back at work, and feeling completely out of sorts in my awkward uniform, I had the theme song to "Welcome Back, Kotter" by John Sebastian in my head: "Welcome back, your dreams were your ticket out."
I'd commuted in to Chicago to fly this 6-day trip to Hong Kong and Singapore the day before, and had a relaxing night in the Hyatt Regency O'Hare before showing up for duty at United's largest pilot base, our home city. I love Chicago O'Hare's Airport -- I love the tunnel that runs between Concourses B and C, with the tinkling bells playing "Rhapsody in Blue" and the changing colored lights overhead, I love the recording that says something about the moving walkway coming to an end, but how, with multiple recordings at once, sounds more like "keep walking, keep walking." It was great to be back for the first time in almost a decade, but it's all a bit intimidating. I couldn't remember the door codes, or where things were, nor was I familiar with the local mores of the pilot group here. Like, where to get the paperwork, at which table to sit for international flight planning, whether I should grab one of those little 3-letter city code placards and put it on the table for the rest of the crew to see when they showed up. I figured it all out, and soon enough the other 3 crewmembers arrived and after greetings and introductions, we were in the business of flight planning. We talked about the new flight plan format, briefed the weather situation in HKG, had a long conversation with the dispatcher, and headed for the gate. We discussed the possibility of a fuel divert with the head flight attendant, who reminded us of the tight schedule for crew legality if we took much of a delay. Then we discovered the faulty radar unit, which we needed in order to avoid the extensive weather across the continent as well as in Hong Kong. The maintenance delay, combined with the possible fuel divert, was beginning to threaten the successful completion of our flight. "Welcome baack ..."
Now, no matter what you might think, there isn't a pilot alive that wants to delay or cancel a flight. We have a genetic predisposition to complete our mission, and our goal is to remove barriers and get the job done safely. It really is. So the threat of a crew going illegal and having to stay overnight for crew rest, plus the obvious inconvenience to passengers, is contrary to our very existence. But we also know that safety reigns, and sometimes, it is what it is. So we were ready for anything.
In the end, our maintenance people in Chicago were quick to find a replacement radar unit, the weather in Hong Kong was good enough that we didn't need to get more fuel in Japan, and, after a 14-hour flight across Canada, Alaska, Russia, Japan and China, we were only 30 minutes late. My first landing in the 747 in 2 years was nice and smooth, the sun was shining, and through it all, John Sebastian's mellow voice kept me company.
Now, as I sit in the glass-walled lobby of the Novotel Hotel in Wan Chai, smack-dab in the bathroom-remodeling neighborhood of Hong Kong, it's raining. Outside, people rush past in colorful mobs, half of them hiding under umbrellas, the other half appearing to not notice the warm rain. The lobby is full of mostly Chinese guests, busily buried in their laptops and smart phones, with a few cute kids squeaking around, being chased by serious, alert parents. I splurged this morning on a $10 reflexology session in the upstairs salon of a 24-hour massage place, next door to The Old China Hand, a bar that a lot of airline folk frequent on their long layovers.
I was reminded of a night a few years ago in the Old China Hand. I was sitting with a few co-workers when suddenly the music was turned off and a group of men began to sing a cappella on the other side of the room, in deep, rich voices. For 45 minutes they mesmerized everyone in the bar, singing hymns, marching songs, political yarns and Irish folk songs. At last, they finished, and of course, I had to ask them what it was all about. Turned out to be a group of English banking professionals or something, who perform together on a regular basis. Often, they said, they'd fall into an impromptu rehearsal in the Old China Hand. I've never been back to hear them again, and wonder if they're still around.
It's good to be back at work, and flying the 747 again. As Allan has noted, this time around, we get a chance to learn the airplane a little better, and to bring a fresh attitude to work. A do-over, of sorts. I'm seeing it all through fresh, or refreshed, eyes. For example, sleeping in the crew rest bunk: it used to be really tough to sleep in turbulence, but now, after being literally thrown across the boat in heavy seas, the airplane bunk seems downright peaceful. And meals: someone else prepares them! And brings us drinks! Of course, since 9-11 our lives have changed, and we're virtual captives in the cockpit, not allowed out without gate and guard, but still - it's a bit of a luxury to not have to cope with a thrashing galley and flying food, as I did for 3 meals a day on Fly Aweigh.
I do hate the uniform. This is where my unbridled whining reaches its peak. Who in the world invented the dress shirt and tie? What cruel, tortuous, evil person decided to strangle a perfectly nice neck with a rough cotton collar, encircled and constricted with a tie? Who invented buttons? And pants, and socks, and dress shoes? Oh, for my flip-flops and shorts!
The paycheck will be nice, though. Welcome Back!