Flying 727 shuttles out of New York’s La Guardia Airport to Boston and Washington in the 1980s and 90s was a hands-on, back-to-basics operation: steam gauges, hand-tuned VHF navs, one or two low freq ADFs, no FMS and an autopilot that had to be tended to get you where you were going. Planes were a mixed lot, gathered from various airlines with a range of engine and cockpit differences, but configured similarly in the passenger cabin. And since there were only about a dozen or so shuttle-configured planes, pilots who regularly bid shuttle trips came to know each one.
Excellent maintenance and well-stocked spare parts bins kept the 727s flying with remarkable reliability. Yet, their years in service were evident in subtle ways. Firm landings, turbulence and just the rigors of flight left their mark on the planes. Even with carefully balanced wing tanks and identical EPRs across all three engines, some 727s simply defied all efforts to fly exactly straight through the air without a tweak of rudder and aileron trim. In a way, those seasoned 727s were like senior skippers with their little quirks and preferences that crews tactfully accommodated.
On a typical day, we’d operate four or five flights, either ending up back at La Guardia or at the Boston or Reagan National layovers. Except in unusually bad weather, it was common practice to alternate flying round trips. Usually the captain started the day. As a first officer and later captain, strapping into the familiar 727 cockpit seat, reviewing the dispatch paperwork, doing the repetitive preflight tasks, setting airspeed and altitude bugs, takeoff EPRs, the outbound departure radial, initial heading bugs and running checklists – it was like becoming one with the airplane.
Like New York City, La Guardia had its own frenetic pace akin to merging onto a busy highway. Just getting to work on the city’s maze of highways and local streets was good preparation for the flying to come. Pilots who grew up and lived within a car commute of LGA accepted the occasional road agita as just part of the job. To commuting crews involuntarily assigned the New York base by the vagaries of seniority and living in nearby crash pads, the city’s frictions and frustrations took some getting used to. Some never adjusted and bid out at the earliest opportunity. Others adapted, taking on a kind of New York patina, filling their logbooks with LGA, DCA and BOS trips and staying till retirement.
A New York edge was a necessary attribute, not just for getting to work on time but also strategically fitting into the flow on the ground and in flight. Copilots calling for taxi clearance on La Guardia’s frenetic ground control frequency quickly learned that waiting more than a millisecond to key the mic could easily translate into a quarter hour takeoff delay because others called more quickly, getting ahead in the line to take off.
And then there’s the story about a first officer named Tony who grew up in the bowels of Brooklyn in the 40s and 50s before it became the yuppie haven it is today. He tawked with a Brooklyn accent that should have been bottled for a Hollywood late 40s Brooklyn period flick. Lots of New York Center and Tracon controllers had similar accents but Tony’s was a standout. New York controllers working with international crews from all over the world are tolerant of English spoken in all sorts of accents and the same can be said of international crews trying to understand the local accents of New York controllers.
But Tony’s Brooklynese ATC acknowledgements were more than they could take and they wrote him up for mocking them. He was called to the chief pilot’s office for disciplinary action. After a short exchange, all was forgiven when it was apparent that Tony was just being Tony and shared a common language with his brother controllers.
Our shuttle base was at La Guardia’s Marine Air Terminal, commonly referred to as the MAT, and it deserves a mention. It opened in 1939 and was New York’s domestic and overseas gateway to Europe. Built with depression-era Works Projects Administration (WPA) funds, La Guardia was probably the grandest airport in the country and possibly the world at the time. In addition to two paved runways, its art deco Marine Air Terminal was Pan Am’s flying boat base where, on March 31, 1940, a Boeing 314 flew the first regularly scheduled trans-Atlantic flight to Portugal via the Azores.
Inside the small round terminal, a 12-foot high, 237-foot long mural circles the interior. Painted by James Brooks, an abstract impressionist funded by the Federal Arts Project to support artists during the post-depression years, it traces the history of flight from mythical dreams to images of a Pan Am flying boat crew preparing for its trans-Atlantic flight. Post-war McCarthy era paranoia nearly caused its demise when a zealot at the Port Authority ordered it painted over in 1952 because of some perceived socialist imagery in the work. Thankfully, the hysteria of the times ebbed, affluent art lovers prevailed and the mural was restored in the late 1970s. As a Pan Am and later Delta pilot, I’d sometimes take in the mural between trips as passengers hurried by, rarely looking up.
The MAT’s location across the field from other terminals gave it the unique advantage of being next to the approach end of runway 4 for takeoffs and the rollout end of 22 for landings. Landing on runway 22, we’d commonly block-in at shuttle gates within a minute or two after touchdown. And to speed folks on their way, the 727’s aft stairs were lowered, allowing rear-seated passengers to alight onto the tarmac, and hurry through the terminal annex straight out to waiting cabs and limos. It was a New York thing.
From a flying perspective, not much has changed at La Guardia, although today’s planes are much more automated than our steam gauge 727s. La Guardia was and still is unforgiving of pilots on challenging days. High profile incidents and accidents keep the airfield in the news. Shortly before the presidential election of 2016, Mike Pence’s 737 charter flight made headlines when it landed beyond the touchdown zone on rain-slicked runway 22 and went barreling off the end. Fortunately, it was snagged in the overrun by the airport’s recently installed engineered material arresting system.
Then there was the Delta MD-88 that skidded off the left side of snow-covered runway 13 in March 2015. According to the NTSB, the pilot reversed too aggressively, blanking out rudder authority enough to impair directional control. The left wing took out 940 feet of berm fencing before coming to rest 5000 feet from the threshold with the fuselage resting atop the berm separating the airport from Flushing Bay. Twenty-four on board had minor injuries.
Twenty-three years ago when I was a shuttle regular, the flood protection berm at the rollout end of runway 13 got the nickname Continental Shelf after an aborted takeoff left a Continental MD-82 perched atop the berm with its nose teetering in Jamaica Bay’s tidal mud flat. Today, I suspect that nickname has faded along with the Continental brand. But even now with La Guardia’s on-going major terminal and road access improvements, the adverse weather challenges of its two 7000 ft runways remain.
Since shuttle routes to DCA and BOS were “canned,” varying rarely except in unusual circumstances of weather or perhaps a navaid outage, flying became a sort of well-rehearsed aerial ballet. Pilots knew what to expect and controllers knew that pilots knew the way. We’d cruise to DCA and return in the low FL 200s. Same thing to BOS except coming back we’d fly in the low teens, streaking along around 350 KIAS, just under the airspeed indicator’s barber pole.
The 727-200 came of age in the late 1960s when speed was a selling point, jet fuel cost 10 to 15 cents a gallon and global warming was only an academic interest of climatologists. With a .90 Mach MMO, it could outrun all of today’s medium-range and most long-range Airbuses and Boeings coming off the production line. But speed came at a price. Barreling by A320s, 737s and RJs if we could get over, under or around them, the 727 gulped Jet A prodigiously. On the BOS-LGA run, 10,000 lbs per hour was common.
Takeoff, climb and cruise were the most constrained flight segments dictated by air traffic control separation requirements. But on clear days arriving flights had more latitude and in the late 1980s, newly installed VSI TCAS displays allowed pilots to see the far off arrival competition. For example, a strategic crew descending from the north into Reagan National around 3500 ft/min with speed brakes extended might beat out an arriving flight coming up the Potomac by requesting a visual approach to runway 36, not too unlike an aggressive New York commuter muscling into heavy traffic on the way to or from work.
Like an artist working in the confines of canvas and materials, 727 drivers had their rules of thumb sculpting with space and energy. Slowing at idle thrust from cruise in level flight, the 727 decelerated about 10 knots IAS per mile and descended at idle thrust, 280 KIAS around 2500 ft/min on a three to one profile (nominally 60 miles from touchdown at 20,000 ft, 30 miles at 10,000 ft, etc.). Unconstrained by traffic and weather, pilots would plan to arrive 3000 ft above touchdown 10 miles out at 200 KIAS, gradually extending flaps in five increments as speed decayed. Ideally at 1000 ft above touchdown, the gear would come down, final flaps extended and thrust spooled up to stabilize at approach speed, usually around 125 to 140 KIAS, depending on landing weight.
Then came the moment of judgment, at least for the folks in the back. The flight could have been artful in every aspect, or a bit klutzy, but in the judgment of most passengers, landing is the weighted grade. And no matter how routine or challenging the approach, the 727 had the final say. Unlike more forgiving airliners, most notably the 747 with its 16 main gear wheels spread over four bogies, the 727 had two stiff main gear struts, two tires each. No matter how consistent the landing technique, it simply never touched down exactly the same way twice. And flying four or five legs a day on the shuttle, we got lots of practice.
In my experience and what I observed in others, most landings were un-noteworthy light thumps, fewer were feather touchdown greasers. After a greaser I’d think I finally got the hang of it, only to bump down on the next one. Occasionally, for no discernible reason, there’d be a cruncher. Company tradition dictated that the pilot who made the landing stood at the cockpit door to say goodbye to passengers. After such definitive arrivals, departing passengers fancying themselves flying experts would sometimes look me in the eye and remark, “I’ll bet you were a navy carrier pilot.” I’d just smile and hope to revert to the light thump on the next leg.