November 19, 2010
I’m writing this longhand as we fly back from Frankfurt, Germany. We’re over the North Atlantic, a few hours from landing in New York. Out here there are no controllers to talk to, and not much to do except monitor the instruments and make the occasional position report.
It’s been a routine trip. Good weather overall, with some occasional light bumps. Nothing exciting, and that’s the norm, which is pretty remarkable. This particular airplane, a Boeing 767, is the same one we brought over two days ago. We arrived at about 6:30 a.m. Frankfurt time, and the plane left at 11:40 with another crew for the return to New York. They probably got in around 3:30 Eastern time, then turned it right around at 6:30 to come back to Germany. This plane is in the air more than it’s on the ground! And that’s just what it was meant for. Airplanes only make money when they fly.
The reliability of the plane and its engines is something that amazes me whenever I stop to consider it. Usually I just take it for granted. It was the advent of jets that made these trans-Atlantic flights so routine. In the early days of ocean crossings by air, the planes were powered by four reciprocating engines, and they were temperamental. Those engines were the high point of piston engine development, with up to 28 cylinders and turbo-charging for better high-altitude performance. They were complex pieces of equipment, and required tender loving care. A dedicated flight engineer monitored them throughout the flight, keeping operating temperatures and pressures within acceptable limits. Even with this close attention, it wasn’t uncommon to have to shut down an engine en route—something I’ve never had to do.
The piston planes couldn’t fly as high as today’s jets, so weather and in-flight icing were always a consideration. Read Bob Buck’s “North Star Over My Shoulder” or Ernest K. Gann’s “Fate is the Hunter” to get a feeling for the kind of anxiety they dealt with on those flights. Today, I feel as comfortable here seven miles above the cold water of the North Atlantic as I do sitting in my living room at home.
Well, time to put this away. Another position report is coming up, and soon we’ll be coasting in over Newfoundland.