My flight level epiphany

In late Spring 1973, almost 44 years ago, I was 22 years old and on the cusp of achieving my life-long goal of becoming a professional pilot.

I had done the Air Canada Initial course, the DC-8 S/O Type Rating course, the Line-Indoc flying and now it was time for my Initial Line Check.

It was an overseas flight with a notoriously-crusty old senior check captain so I was vibrating with anxiety. There would be no remedial training if this guy gave me a thumbs down at this tenuous point in my career. Two hundred and seventy five hours total flying experience doesn’t imbue one with a lot of self-confidence. The biggest thing I had flown before strapping on this four-engine jet was a 150-horsepower Apache. The ink was still wet on my ratings.

DC-8
275 hours and flying a DC-8? Gulp…

He mostly ignored me on the way from Toronto to somewhere in Europe and I don’t recall anything about the outbound trip nor the layover.

What I do remember is that, after hours of his handing back my takeoff data and landing data chits and hourly fuel “how goes it” calculations without any acknowledgment whatsoever, we coasted out westbound over England, sped out of VHF range and began to settle into a semi-alert Oceanic+HF posture, the three pilots winding down a bit while the navigator spooled up. That was when the captain turned and spoke his first words to me, “What’s our LLCP?”

That’s the Low-Level Critical Point, the time in space at which it would take an equal amount of time and fuel to divert to two coastal alternate airports, one in front and one behind, after an emergency descent to 10,000 feet.

In those days before computerized flight plans, the company provided all pilots with tables that had the Great Circle distances between various pairs of coastal airports, one on each side of the Atlantic. These were very useful if you happened to be running exactly along that track line; if not, then they degraded from useful to helpful and plotting on a chart was required.

Now this calculation may seem straightforward, involving only two groundspeeds and a distance, but each of the values in the LLCP equation required many multiple calculations of fuel flows and TAS and weights and air temperatures and headwind and tailwind components at various altitudes as we step-climbed over thousands of miles of ocean as well as at 10,000 feet plus the distance covered during the emergency descent and all of this had to be interpolated from blurry, faxed, constant-pressure charts and thread-thin lines on performance graphs and there was a lot of rounding off and downright guesswork and TLAR fudging involved.

I had not been strong on this sort of stuff, tending to “paralysis by over-analysis,” wherein there were too many vague variables in play and I couldn’t gather it all together for a happy ending.

So I sat facing sideways at my little desk, armed with weather charts and performance graphs and a hotel pencil and scratchpad and I scribbled and scribbled and scribbled, furiously guesstimating wind directions and speeds and then putting wind dots on my prayer wheel (circular slide rule) and reading off the varying wind components as the True Track changed as we followed our march across the ocean.

Using way-too much guesswork, I did my best.

With a visibly-trembling hand, I passed the Captain a chit with my calculated LLCP time on it. He looked at it and then he reached into his chest pocket and pulled out another tiny piece of paper and opened it. I could see there was a four-digit time written on it.

The crafty bastard had somehow done his own calculation or perhaps he had flown this route, using these two coastal alternates so many times that he just knew. In hindsight, almost half-century later, I now suspect he had clandestinely asked the navigator to work one up for him.

The times were the same. Not just close. Exactly the same, right to the minute.

I saw him sitting there motionless, staring at both chits. He looked over at the First Officer, showing him both. The F/O looked at them and raised his eyebrows.

Captain in DC-8
When the captain smiles, you feel like you belong.

Then that grumpy, frightening old bugger turned to me. And he smiled for the first time.

I swear the high, thin cirrus suddenly parted and the sun flooded into the cockpit, giving the captain a brilliant halo and bathing me in a happy and welcome warmth.

Right then and there, at that very moment, with the four cabin compressors happily rumbling away under the rudder pedals, the radar antenna rhythmically clunking as it reversed its sweep in the radome, the pitch-trim compensator audibly ticking the “snake” up and down the metal tube along the F/O’s control column, the freon compressors faintly screaming away in the E&E compartment beneath my seat, the whooshing of the radio-rack cooling air through the glass-fronted shelves of radios behind the navigator, making the access panels rattle, the watch-like jumping of the dozen fuel quantity digital indicators on my panel, the silent hunting of the yellow, outflow-valve lollipop and the mixing-valve levers visible in the quadrant at the end of my desk, all this cacophony barely audible above the hiss of the atmosphere over the fuselage as we parted it at Mach .805; right then, I knew I had this ride in the bag and that my life had changed forever.

My heart soared, I couldn’t suppress the idiotic grin reflected in the glass faces of the saturate- and superheat-temperature dials on my panel and the perspiration began to evaporate.

At that moment, too, I finally realized and accepted that I can do this, despite being the least-experienced (by thousands of hours) and the second-youngest candidate on my course. I could measure up to the totally-foreign challenge of high-altitude meteorology and transonic aerodynamics and everything else the job required, too.

Some distant management types had made a decision to take a gamble on this fledgling flyer and not lost.

Dreams do come true: mine did at that moment, high over the Atlantic, westbound in the bright sunlight.

I was where I had always hoped to be someday. I was home.

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