July 28, 2013
Recently, while cleaning out a house that belonged to my mother, I came across a yellowed piece of National Airlines (NAL) paperwork dated January 1965 that transferred John P.G. Sotham from New York’s John F. Kennedy airport, to Miami International, the airline’s corporate home. My dad, who died in 1998, started as a ticket agent, then attended the Sheffield School of Aeronautics on North 36th Street, the northern border of Miami International (MIA) that today features seedy hotels, a few ancient airline uniform shops, and the last true vestige of Pan American Airways—the Pan Am Flight Academy. In 1962, my dad was awarded the aeronautical rating of Aircraft Dispatcher.
Dispatchers compute fuel loads, and determine routes based on weather, and prepare flight plans based on maximum takeoff weights and field conditions. With the captain, they are jointly responsible for the release and safety of a given flight. The Sheffield School, and others, still train dispatchers—by the time my dad retired from Pan Am in 1982, he was guessing the job would be replaced by computers.
My dad did his computations long hand, until the day he showed me a brick-sized marvel that promised to make his work easier. Sadly, his Texas Instruments calculator, which cost him $50 (in the 1970s!), was itself soon dispatched by salad dressing leaked from a container in his work bag.
I was wondering what had become of the career, when I opened an inflight magazine last week and came across an article about U.S. Airway’s flight control office. The story profiled dispatcher Joe Mealie, and a photo of his work space—surrounded by flat-screen computer monitors displaying flights en route and real-time weather. The office was nothing like I remember when I visited my dad at work. His desk inside National’s scrubby concrete-block flight control building at MIA, with palm trees leaning at lazy angles outside, hung under a constant low ceiling of Pall Mall smoke, with banks of rotary phones and the constant clatter of teletype machines announcing runway closures or displaying smudgy renderings of weather fronts. Sweating inside the badly air conditioned building, he would deal with a DC-8 diverted because of a blizzard at Boston’s Logan International Airport, or perhaps assist the crew of a 727 circling over JFK. How far could they get with the gas on board? A pencil and paper would determine the answer.
I loved to hear him tell about the stories from his shift, including colorful tales of unruly passengers or medical emergencies that forced one of his flights to land, or the time an unfortunate stowaway climbed inside the wheel well of a 727 and didn’t live to see his destination. During the 1970s OPEC crisis, when jet fuel prices skyrocketed along with gasoline, he relayed wild rumors from other dispatchers that some airlines—looking to put the least amount of fuel possible on board—had a few jetliners shut down from fuel starvation while taxiing to the gate if they had run into an unexpected traffic delay. But, usually the tales featured weather. Always the weather. My mom and I learned to speak his shorthand about troughs aloft or dips in the jet stream. And we came to know airport codes almost as well as he did.
I barely saw him for weeks if he was pulling midnights. My parents exchanged notes to each other on a spiral notebook left on the kitchen counter. While cleaning, I unearthed one of the notebooks. A typical entry: “Hell of a night. PHI, JFK, EWR, all below minimums. Goddamn machinists about to go on strike again. Thanks for the tuna salad.”
It wasn’t until many years later that he confessed to me how stressful he found the job, and that on some nights, if there were particular flights that worried him, he’d sit in his car in the parking garage after the shift was over and wait until the jets—those he had released for push back in airports thousands of miles away on his watch but that were now the responsibility of his relief—had landed safely in the balmy night air of MIA. Only then would he return home and get some sleep.
There was none of that in the spiral notebooks, though. Just the day-to-day travails of a tough day at work.
July 2, 2013
Once a month, scrambled eggs, strong coffee and fellowship combine in a crowded hangar in Taylorville, Illinois at the Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA) Chapter 1315′s regular pancake breakfast. Recently we stopped by Taylorville Municipal Airport while visiting my in-laws Vito and Mary, who live in nearby Springfield. Taylorville (KTAZ) has two paved runways — the longest a bit over 4,000 feet — and a grass strip beloved by its local pilots. Its operations office features glass cases filled with die-cast models donated by John McClure, and the hangar outside is crammed with three wingless Learjets. Wooden racks house cowlings and other spare parts.
As we cleaned our styrofoam plates on long folding tables, my brother-in-law, Brian Prinzavalli — who’s an enthusiastic pilot in two Las Vegas-area EAA chapters — and Larry Snyder chatted next to the hangar doors. A handful of kids, mine included, had been eyeing the sky and watching the occasional airplane taxi up for fuel, and it didn’t take much to convince Snyder to bring his Beechcraft A36 Bonanza out of its hangar for an impromptu “Young Eagles” event.
He could take three passengers at a time, so the kids discussed who would go first, and with which fellow traveler, with all the seriousness of the U.N. debating a resolution. Who would sit up front? Should the girls, including cousins Olivia and Chloe, go together, or should sister and brother? But what if that bumped a BFF?
Ultimately, it was decided. The two boys would fly first, so I walked my son Ian and his cousin Tommy to the Beech. Ian took the right seat and Tommy sat facing aft. Jerking a thumb at the extra seat, Snyder invited me aboard, and within a minute, the door thunked closed and we were holding short to Runway 18 while he ran up the engine and checked the magnetos. No intricate ballet of overhead bin stuffing, safety briefings from the flight attendant, or endless taxiing. Flying at Taylorville means you just throw on a headset and go — and we were definitely number one for take off.
The bumpy Midwestern air became smooth at about 2,200 feet as we climbed above a thin layer of clouds. Grain silos, the concrete ribbon of Highway 29 and the neighboring town of Edinburgh passed sedately below. Snyder told Ian to grasp the yoke. After a few calmly delivered instructions, Snyder’s hands were off the controls and it was Ian’s airplane. For the next 10 minutes, I craned my neck forward and watched my 12-year-old son execute five gentle turns to bring us downwind and back to the airport, all the while scanning for traffic like a pro.
Three girls went next, and Eve, my daughter, took right seat. After the Beech returned to Earth with a tire chirp, I could see her bouncing up and down in her seat from excitement as they came off the runway. She too, got some good stick time, and Snyder handed me his phone so I could send myself a photo of a beaming and confident 9-year-old girl (wasn’t she just using sippy cups?) piloting a Bonanza.
Since 1992, the EAA has flown more than 1.6 million kids through its Young Eagle program, which is aimed at exciting a new generation of kids about careers in aviation, or simply enjoying the freedom of a private license.
I know two kids who just got hooked.