Back to basics: flying 727 LaGuardia shuttles

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.

Delta shuttle
Quick turns and tight schedules were the norm on the shuttle.

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.

MAT at LGA
The Marine Air Terminal was a wonderful base of operations, both beautiful and historic.

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.

727 panel
Low on technology, and high on fuel burn.

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.

14 Comments

  • Great article! I lived that dream for many years, as an FE and FO on 727. It was like being back in a squadron, knew all the mechs, the FA’s, the ops folks, and of course, the pilots. I remember our “Jepps” was a single piece of paper, printed on each side, with the northbound or southbound route, freq’s, etc. A roundtrip was as simple as flipping the page over 😉 And I also remember always trying to touch down prior to the “hump” (the intersection) when landing on 22. Also loved launching on 4 in LGA and landing 4R in BOS for the shortest possible flight time. The biggest challenge for the FE’s was landing 22 LGA or 27 BOS and being set up for an engine shutdown within seconds after clearing the rwy as we glided into the gate! S/F, John Underhill

  • The hardest part was getting the numbers right after all those years. Good thing I had old PAA and Delta manuals down in the basement. Arnie

  • Why is the 727 such a safe airplane? Because it goes up like a safe, and it comes down like a safe… this is a great story with a lot of familiar memories. I flew the 727 with TWA for 3 years, between the 1011 and the 767. I love your point about the drive into LGA getting you spooled up for flying; that’s exactly how I used to think of the drive in from my rented room in Darien, CT. The combination of LGA, the 727 and the Marine Air Terminal is about as pure as it gets in aviation history.

  • I am not an airline pilot but flew aboard a Continental Air Mike ‘milk run’ 727 back in 1990 from Honolulu to Majuro, RMI. The aircraft had half of the interior used for passengers, half for freight with supplies and animals inside a cargo net. We stopped at Johnston Atoll (2000 miles SW) to get fuel and were greeted by a pair of GI’s on the tarmac on a jeep, one perched behind a M-60 machine gun mounted on the hood. No one was allowed off the plane: it was military property. The pilot and I stood on the forward opened door area, looking outside, chatting, lit up Marlboros (!) and he explained his paper weather chart (fax?) with the funny cloud shapes and heights, etc., and we were going to fly thru one. He had flown this run all the time, Marshall Islands, Saipan, Okinawa, and others. We flew thru the depression en route with only a couple of crow hops: the plane was built like a cement mixer. The return flight was similar. The Marshall Islands hadn’t been re-developed for tourism, were very primitive, some were pristine, and all were fascinating. Since then I gained one habit (got my private) and gave up another (smoking).

  • I started my airline career as a 727 FE with Pan Am, flying the shuttle. They were heady times, as we got to know each other and the operation intimately.

    Years later, I finished my career at Delta as a Captain on the MD-88, flying the shuttle. It was still fun, and we knew the routes and operations intimately…but nothing could compare with the 727.

    A sidelight: There was a noise curfew at DCA, and the 727 was too loud to land or takeoff outside of curfew hours. The shuttle normally departed on the half hour. However the first departure out of DCA in the morning was at 0645. That gave us time to get to the hold short line in time to be number one for departure at 0700 when the curfew lifted. The ATC folks at DCA worked with us, and I remember a number of times that we were told to taxi into position and hold (now line up and wait) at about 0655 or so. The next thing we heard was, “Clipper 123, time now 0700, cleared for takeoff.” What a bunch of great folks!

  • Arnie:
    Great article on the shuttle. It brought back a lot of memories. Really enjoyed your way of telling the story. Aloha from Wailea, Maui. Pensacola wow, you really returned to our roots. LOL
    Stan Cobb

  • Ok. Im gonna give away my age. My first flight experience on the LGA-BOS shuttle was the Eastern Electra an aircraft which I indeed loved to fly.

  • Great article! Airline Skipper here, but not lucky enough to fly “steam gauge” airliners.
    Flew many times as pax o/b B727 from Alaska, TWA, Iberia (mostly), and Mexicana!… great memories and great airplane indeed.
    FD

  • Captain Reiner,

    I too remember the shuttle when Eastern was flying those beautiful Electras and a purser would walk down the isle in-flight taking tickets. I always wondered what it was like to fly that route. Thank you for your wonderful account!

    P.S. Next time I’m back east I am going to visit the Marine Terminal. If you like those depression-era murals, you might enjoy a visit the Detroit public library where one depicts the history of the Ford Motor Co. complete with a flying AT-3.

  • Eastern started flying the shuttle in the 60s before Delta even considered doing it. I had the privilege of flying the Electra and the 727 on the shuttle in the 70s and it was a great operation. Crews bid this operation and were usually found working together throughout the months. Made a lot of approaches and landings at BOS, DCA, and LGA bwtween 70 and 76.

  • I was a controller at LaGuardia Tower. The part about the frenetic pace on LGA’s ground control frequency was certainly true. Sometimes I would get on the frequency and order all aircraft to maintain radio silence while I proceeded to issued taxi instructions to 8 or 10 aircraft without unkeying the mic.

    Ground control was never as simple as lining up aircraft in a first-come, first-served sequence. The Tower had to give the aircraft to the departure controller 3 miles in-trail, but Departure had to hand them off the Center 5 in-trail. If we gave Departure several aircraft in a row all going the same direction, say Boston, it wasn’t long before the departure controller order a stop because he was too busy spacing the aircraft out. Ground control was responsible for establishing a departure sequence that would minimize the workload on the departure controller. All that, of course, while keeping the high-speed turnoffs from the arrival runway clear lest everyone else in the tower swear at you for forcing a go-around!

    Ground control was really the glue that held the airport together. LaGuardia Ground was, by far, the hardest job I held in my life.

  • “Check essential, download, cover the buss”. What you didn’t want to hear in a 727 cockpit because you had probably lost normal generator power either by mechanical failure or human error.

    Starting my major airline career with Continental as a 727 engineer i came to love that cantankerous old plane. The “72” would do everything Boeing said it would and then some. Including drinking huge amounts of fossil fuel.

    The hardest job I ever had in aviation was learning systems on the 727. Nothing was automatic. It became quickly evident that as engineer I was really a human switch.

    Now about to retire as a 757/767 captain at United I look back at the “72” with fondness. Island hoppers from Guam to Honolulu, BOS-EWR-DCA shuttles, Caribbean turns and sports charters among others. Good times.

  • Nice article.

    My dad used to say the best looking planes are usually the best planes. To this day, I say the 727 was the best looking commercial jet ever built. Saw a couple in the ‘90s or ‘00s with STC winglets added, which were icing on the cake.

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