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Cockpit Chronicles: So what's it like when your brother is also your captain?
My older brother Kurt and I were inside rushing through the final steps to build our styrofoam rubber-band powered Citabrias. Once finished, we still had to wait until the Elmer's glue was dry. If the white stuff wasn't set, the fuselage seams would split in half and we wouldn't be able to fly until the next day.
While flying the airplanes under a lamp that lit up the frozen lake behind the house, Kurt's model managed to fly well above my head. I began to wonder what it would be like to ride with my brother in an actual Citabria, a two-seat airplane that he would later fly on his first solo when he turned sixteen. He was so lucky, I thought.
But I'd get my chance, I knew it. In fact, I was sure that Kurt and I would fly a Boeing together someday, for the airline my dad flew for, and where my sister had just become a flight attendant.
And why shouldn't I think that? My grandpa flew with his brothers from the '20s to the '50s, and my dad flew with his brother at that same airline.
I'd have bet everything on it. I imagined Kurt and I would fly a 737 from Anchorage to Seattle someday, and Kim would be the flight attendant. It was going to happen.
Like most older brothers, Kurt never passed up an opportunity to teach me something, and occasionally the 'lessons' weren't even related to flying.
On the lake between flights, he stopped me mid-sentence after I apparently took something for granted. It was long enough ago that I don't remember exactly what I had said.
"So, would you say you assumed that?" He asked, referring to whatever I said at the time.
"Uh, yeah, I guess so." I responded.
He then proceeded to give me the lesson about assuming. You know, the one in which the act of assuming will often make an ass out of you, and me. He drew ASS/U/ME in the snow with a stick. These are the kind of lessons older brothers specialize in.
The 'other' far more helpful thing he taught me was how to fly an airplane. It was my brother who soloed me, well before my sixteenth birthday and without anyone else knowing, just a few hundred feet from where we flew those foam airplanes.
It was a rather rough ride, bouncing across the tracks created by snow machines that ran seemingly in every direction on the lake.
By this time, I figured I was a seasoned flyer, since the year prior, Kurt pulled me (and a few other neighbor kids) up in his hang glider behind a snow mobile. And I had flown with my dad in the Citabria on skis, performing a dozen or so touch-and-gos. And of course I flew model airplanes.
So I wasn't so sure I needed to spend so much time taxiing around the lake on the frozen ice. It felt like I was going to lose a filling in my teeth.
But I discovered if I went just a little bit faster...
It was heaven! I was airborne. Just five feet off the ground, flying down the mile and a half long lake. Toward the end, I pulled the throttle back with my left hand and settled back down on the skis. I taxied to turn around and then flew back to the other end of the lake. It was a feeling I've never been able to re-create, although I've tried, much like a druggie who tries to relive their first hit. I kept going back and forth while my brother was warming up inside.
The introduction of ultralights, which didn't have an age limit, allowed me to take to the air and satisfy a longing that I had been trying to fulfill for years with balsa and foam airplanes and subsequently, R/C models.
From then on, Kurt was my aviation mentor. I 'soloed' the ultralight in front of my dad a few weeks later, without my father knowing at the time that this wasn't officially my first flight.
Of course my dad played big part in my early flying lessons. He let me operate whatever he had access to, which gave me flight time in a variety of airplanes. But Kurt helped me to reach my goal to fly as a professional pilot, since he had more recently navigated the hurdles to earn his private, commercial and multi-engine ratings that were needed to land a job with a commuter in Alaska. He motivated me, gave me guidance and even loaned me the money needed to pay for my flight training after he started working for a major airline.
"Have you taken your private written [exam] yet?" He'd ask every time I'd talk to him on the phone while I was at Washington State, a university that didn't have a flying program. His help kept me on track just as if I were attending a flying college such as Embry-Riddle.
Finally, in 1993 it happened. I was hired at the same major airline where my brother was now a captain. He told me it was like a race-car owner that had invested so much time and money into a team and had just won the Indy 500.
Kurt pinned my wings on in New York after new-hire training
My timing wasn't so good though, since I would be the last pilot hired at the company for the next five years, and a few months after I was on the line they laid off six hundred pilots. I was, naturally, the first to go.
On the second to last trip before my three-year furlough, the New York flight office arranged for me, a New York 727 flight engineer, to fly a trip with my brother who was a 727 captain based in Chicago.
Naturally, Kurt didn't stop with the lessons.
While I was hanging my coat up, he pointed out that the captain's jacket goes on the far left.
Duly noted, I thought.
The industry picked up again and I was back to work in 1996. In 1998, I bid Boston and two years later, Kurt came to the base as well. The pieces were aligning for another chance.
Finally, in 2001 we flew together on the 737 for two months in a row, mostly flying between Boston and Seattle. And last year we worked together on a 757 from Boston to Miami before we deadheaded (rode in the back) home.
And eight years later, we managed to fly a single Boston to Miami flight together in the 757. Since it was just one leg, we had to flip to see who would fly the leg. But that hardly qualified as 'flying together' I thought.
It's a challenge for us to get on the same schedule as I'm in the international division and he's domestic. I told him that we needed to figure out a way for me to get on one of his trips one last time since I'd be leaving to fly out of New York in May.
After some trip-trading gymnastics, I was able to drop two one-day San Juan 'turns' in order to pick up the three-day LAX and NY trip from a domestic co-pilot who was scheduled to fly with my brother for the month.
For a domestic flight, it looked sweet. One leg to Los Angeles with a short overnight there, followed by one leg to JFK with a long 24-hour layover in Manhattan. The last day day had us going to Miami and then Boston.
On the day of our trip, the phone rang as I was in the shower.
"I'm just driving by your house, and I thought I'd grab a sandwich at the country store. I can pick you up if you want a ride to the airport." Kurt's message said.
Kurt likes to get to operations early to take a close look at the weather and to have time to co-ordinate a revised routing with the dispatcher if warranted. Every pilot has their pet issue, and for Kurt, it's finding the smoothest ride.
I grabbed a sandwich from the store and drove myself to work. In operations, Kurt was asking about the ride and the winds along our route of flight. Today's routing had the potential for some turbulence, so he and the dispatcher added fuel in case we changed the route while airborne to avoid the bumps.
At the gate, I came in from the walk-around inspection while Kurt was setting up his side of the cockpit.
"Which leg do you want? The first one? Second one? All of them, or none of them?" Of course, he was kidding with the last two options. I wouldn't fly every leg, nor would I give up all of mine, especially since there were four legs to be flown on this three-day trip. For me, and many pilots, flying the airplane is like the sugary part added to a frosted mini-wheat. It's what you look forward to when coming to work.
I deferred to Kurt, so he gave me the first leg, which today was in a 757. We're qualified to fly both the Boeing 757 and 767, and in fact the next day we'd take a 767-200 to New York. I knew he enjoyed that airplane, and this was probably his motivation to give me the first leg in the 757.
As is usually the case, the cockpit was silent during the taxi out and climb through 10,000 feet during the FAA mandated sterile cockpit period. The only comments were related to checklist challenge and responses, airspeed call-outs and ATC communications. Takeoffs and landings are the busiest time of flight and you don't want to miss an important radio call or become distracted while taxiing.
Up to this point, flying with a family member isn't much different from flying with any other pilot. The words said are essentially identical. It's at cruise where you notice a difference.
Conversation is a big part of flying, and it helps you to stay alert. It's what we do after leveling off and the PA has been made to the passengers about the route of flight, weather and flight time. We talk.
But when flying with a sibling, you're often caught up on the latest events by the time you hop in the airplane. I see him all the time. We talk every few days. So the conversation can sometimes get slow.
"You call mom lately?" I said at one point.
The monotony was broken up when we one of our flight attendants, Chris, visited the cockpit. After 43 years, she was retiring and she had a clever way to mark the occasion. She wore a sign around her neck that counted down the days until her last flight.
Chris retires after 43 years
We got busy as we approached the eastern shore of Lake Michigan. Dispatch sent a text message to us via ACARS describing an area of light to moderate turbulence associated with some thunderstorms that were at our altitude and lower.
Kurt dialed a frequency and began talking with the dispatcher.
"What if we went Chicago and then Hector? You think that would keep us out of this stuff?" He said while I listened to the other radio for any calls from ATC.
After sorting out the best route with dispatch, Kurt called the center controller.
"We'd like to put in a request for a turn to Chicago and then direct to HEC."
All waypoints are identified by three or five-letters; HEC (short for the Hector VOR) marked the beginning of our arrival into LAX. Amazingly, the controller came back immediately and said our query was "approved as requested."
So far, we hadn't experienced a single bump. But Kurt was going to see to it that Chris, and everyone else on board, would be getting the smoothest possible ride.
I was surprised when we crossed the Rocky Mountains, an area that's notorious for at least some light chop, without having to turn the seatbelt sign on.
The strong jet-stream that we had been bucking on the first part of the flight was scheduled to move off to our left after crossing Lake Michigan. Instead, by turning left toward Chicago we continued to have the 115 knot headwinds for the entire flight. It meant that we'd be arriving 45 minutes later than planned, for a total flight time that was nearly 7 hours, a record for both of us.
Kurt and the dispatcher made the right decision to sacrifice a few minutes and some extra fuel for a smooth ride.
On the ground in LA, the passengers didn't seem to mind, and while deplaning, a few of them said, "Nice flight, brothers!"
Apparently one of the other flight attendants mentioned that we were related in her PA. But the biggest reactions came from our co-workers and the hotel staff when we checked in.
"Wait a minute. Are you guys related?" They asked. After explaining that we were brothers, they questioned whether we got along ok--I suppose sibling rivalry could be a bad thing in a cockpit--and then admitted that they hadn't realized it was possible or even allowed for two brothers to fly together.
Continue to part II...
Filed under: The Cockpit Chronicles