Thunderstorm at night
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11 min read

We knew much of the world by its night skies flying 707s and 727s in the 60s through 90s. South America’s towering CBs and Saint Elmo’s fire, North Atlantic auroras, North America’s continent-spanning squall lines, and Europe’s icy winters were as familiar to us as the roads and towns commuting to work. This is about those nights and the crews of that time.

Six hours out of New York’s JFK on a Pan Am 707 eleven hour all-nighter to Buenos Aires, we threaded between towering CBs. Ahead amid the radar precip returns, Manaus was just a bright spot on a bend in the Amazon River. Instrument lights were dimmed for better night vision. Still, we couldn’t peer ahead because the night sky was blocked by Saint Elmo’s fire sparking across the windscreen. It was the late 1960s and a familiar neighborhood to junior copilots like me who alternately spelled the captain and first officer on those long flights. In those days my log was filled with long hauls to Europe and South America.

Thunderstorm at night

Thunderstorms at night are beautiful—and frightening.

Over the Amazon rain forest, air from the hemispheres converges, billowing into towering CBs and bulging the troposphere—sometimes to FL500. The 707’s Doppler ground speed and drift displays told us there was no wind; true airspeed matched groundspeed and drift was zero. Passing through cirrus layers, tiny supercooled ice droplets took on a charge, hissing and flashing as they scrubbed across the windscreen. Navaids defined our position but the thermal bumps and hissing Saint Elmo’s fire also told us we were transiting the intertropical convergence zone.

One night as we entered a particularly sparky cirrus patch, a steward came forward with a tray of snacks. Startled by the windshield flashes, he blurted: “What’s that?” The old skipper in his late 50s (at least from my perspective as a 27-year old new hire), whose early Pan Am years dated to Connies, DC-6s, DC-7s, and Boeing 377 Stratocruisers, slowly turned around and said, “What do ya think? We’re on fire!”

In the 40s and 50s, when the skipper was a first officer, Stratocruisers plied Atlantic, Pacific, and South American routes commonly cruising in the teens without radar, their pilots peering ahead, dodging buildups as best they could. Engine shut-downs were part of life but Boeing 377 crews were likely more wary than their DC-6, DC-7, and Connie brothers. Strats, as they were called, were pulled along by four monster, 4360 cubic inch, four row, 28-cylinder, eight foot long, 3490 pound, turbo-charged radial engines, each turning four shatter-prone 17-foot diameter hollow bladed props filled with rubber. The Hamilton Standard propeller hub and blades weighed 761 pounds and when a propeller blade separated, the imbalance could tear an engine off the wing and take the plane down as well. I’d sometimes hear old time Pan Am and American Overseas Airlines Strat pilots and flight engineers talk of those troublesome 4360 radials and their failure prone props and prop governors.

Strat crashes and ditchings, mostly from mechanical failures, were frequent in the 50s. One was in the Amazon jungle on April 29,1952, several hundred miles from our track that night, when a Pan Am Stratocuiser en route from Rio de Janeiro to Port of Spain went down—most likely from a propeller and engine separation. The number two engine and propeller were missing from the wreckage and was never recovered.

Those recip trips were distant memories to the skipper, who back in the day teamed with the flight engineer to deal with a forest of throttles, fuel/air mixture controls, and prop pitch levers. On our flight, managing thrust was much simpler: the four thrust levers were just periodically eased back to keep the Mach number from creeping up as we burned off fuel.

Passing south of the the intertropical convergence zone, skies cleared and the air smoothed out. Soon the first officer would come forward after his rest break and I’d switch to the left seat so the captain could take his break and be fresh for the descent and landing. Buenos Aires was still hours away. Later, the first slivers of dawn would light the east horizon. Flight attendants would get busy in the galley, turning up cabin lights and readying the cabin for breakfast. We’d shake off the cobwebs of the night, get our arrival and approach charts out, listen for the ATIS, and get ready to land.

Eastbound North Atlantic night crossings in the 60s were busier than the long JFK to Rio and Buenos Aires flights—and mostly black—but sometimes there were spectacular light shows. We didn’t have inertial and GPS. They were still in the future. Our 707’s two Doppler nav systems were state of the art for long range, overwater navigation when Pan Am bought the planes in the mid and late 60s. But they weren’t always dead on and sometimes needed updating. And the busy work of taking fixes, computing winds, and making position reports kept our eyes inside a lot of the time. Outside, for those who cared to look and knew where to look, there was the Big Dipper, Polaris, and Orion.

707 cockpit

The cockpit of a 707 over the North Atlantic at night can be a lonely place.

Met reports were transmitted on HF along with position reports at every 10 degrees of longitude. To take a fix, we’d sort through loran sky and ground waves on the 707’s pedestal cathode ray tube display, and plot two or three LORAN lines of position on North Atlantic plotting charts. If LORAN reception was spotty, we’d count Consol dots and dashes, plotting the count on Consol arcs printed on plotting charts for an additional line of position. To compute wind on circular Jepp CR-3 computers, commonly referred to as “wheels,” we’d integrate drift angle and groundspeed from the Doppler’s displays with true airspeed, applying magnetic variation from the plotting chart’s isogonic lines.

Deep lows and 120+ knot jet streams came with the territory. At long range cruise, about .80 Mach, ten degrees of drift and 50 to 100+ knot tailwind components were common. When the most advantageous tailwinds took us to higher latitudes, brilliant auroras sometimes put on a show. Passengers most likely missed the oscillating light curtains. By then meals had been served, cabin lights dimmed, and most had nodded off to catch a few winks before the sun burst over the horizon approaching Ireland.

Typically, time zone differences between Europe and North America had us arriving on overseas flights in the morning and departing the following morning or early afternoon. It was different for Berlin-based Pan Am Inter German Service (IGS) pilots. They flew day and night from their Tegel base in West Berlin.

My winter temporary IGS assignments in the 80s flying 727s, connecting Berlin to Western Europe, were memories of what I didn’t see. It seemed a place of perpetual low ceilings, fog, and ice, all overlayed by Cold War politics. The sun came up late and set early, and CAT I and II approaches to minimums were the order of the day. On some flights our last sight of the ground on departure was at rotation and the next was within about 20 seconds of touchdown.

Russians, through their East German vassals, restricted Berlin’s air access to three 20-mile wide, 10,000-foot high corridors—regardless of weather. The northern corridor spoked out from Berlin toward Hamburg, Bremen, and Northern Europe; the center toward Hanover, Dusseldorf, Cologne/Bonn, and Western Europe; and the southern toward Frankfurt, Stuttgart, Munich, Nuremberg, and Southern Europe.

The center corridor was the shortest and the preferred jet route that minimized uneconomical and sometimes speed-restricted low altitude cruising. Still, in winter it often meant flying in freezing rain and heavy icing. Cruising with wing and engine anti-ice systems on was the norm. Then and now window heat is on regardless of weather on jet transports, not only to keep the windshield clear of ice but also to provide more glass flexibility in the event of a bird strike. Yet with such copious precipitation, the edges of the windshield still iced up. It just went with the territory.

At night, with the center of the windshield mostly clear and the edges shedding ice, there was just the glare of landing lights ahead as we descended toward minimums. With the autopilot tenaciously tracking the glideslope and localizer, the radio altimeter pointer swept through 200 feet, sometimes lower, before the sequenced flashers pierced the fog. Then the approach lights and touchdown zone lights burst into view. The autopilot was pickled off and another par for the course winter night arrival was logged. All in a night’s work for an IGS crew.

North America has every kind of weather but the lines of evening summer thunderstorms pushing east from Texas to the Great Lakes were for me the most dramatic. A DFW-JFK 727 trip in the mid ’90s defined those nights.

727 panel

Flight engineers on the 727 came in two distinct varieties. 

Climbing north out of DFW, twilight was fading in the west and looking east, continuous lightning lit a wall of towering cells. Bright orange and red filled the right side of our radar. With no soft spots to squeeze through, we headed north, paralleling the line. Many flights were deflected the same way and ATC chatter was near continuous. Dic (that’s the way he spelled his nickname) was our flight engineer.

Back then, there were two groups of flight engineers: the young and the (relatively) old. The young new hires, usually in their 20s or 30s, worked the panel, putting in their time before moving up to a first officer’s slot. They often referred to themselves as “plumbers,” as in, “I’m plumbing on the 727.” The ROPEs, short for retired old pilot engineer, were over 60, the mandatory pilot retirement age back then, and for various reasons continued flying. Asked about their cockpit position, they’d say they were, “ROPEing on the the 727.” Most accepted their fate and unremarkably went about their work. Others were more memorable, because of some incident or their personality.

Dic, age 61, was a ROPE. Years earlier in the Navy he was a strapping hot stick F-8 driver with hundreds of day and night carrier landings in his logbook. At 6’2” he barely wedged into the Crusader’s cockpit. Now, heavier with the passing years, he ambled about more slowly with an air of someone who had been around the block a few times, doing the job almost on his terms. That included ranking landings, particularly when some hapless pilot thumped one on.

He was a personification of the feast or famine airline business. Lucky pilots get hired by a major airline, never get furloughed and ascend smoothly up the equipment and pay scale. The less less fortunate struggle through recessions, layoffs, bankruptcies, mergers, and seniority integrations. An extreme example was Pan Am in 1969. Boeing 747s would soon start arriving and displacing 707s just as a decade-long recession hit. Less than a year of seniority separated pilots who continued with uninterrupted employment and those who were furloughed 17 years!

For the hardy souls at Pan Am who returned, there was more to come: an airline merger, seniority integration, bankruptcy, a route buyout, and another seniority integration. As a 1968 new hire, Dic was caught in that maelstrom. The age 60 mandatory pilot retirement rule further capped his upward mobility to a first officer’s slot and now he was ROPEing on our 727.

That night, headed north on vectors over Arkansas, twilight faded to dark except for the lightning-defined wall of CBs to the east. We were in moderate chop, seat belt sign on, flight attendants told to stay seated, passengers reminded over the PA to stay seated and keep their seat belts fastened. It was just one of those North American mid-continent summer nights. And Dic at the flight engineer’s panel at random intervals was singing the latest in his repertoire of advertising jingles. This night it was “R-E-C-OL-A,” a cough drop ad prominent on New York radio stations.

Had he been a “plumber” new hire, we would have told him to shut up. But in deference to his age and career scars, we simply endured it along with the chop and unrelenting lightning as we headed north. About 200 miles south of Chicago, the cells thinned out. Chicago Center turned us east and we traversed the line into clear, calm skies. Dic lapsed into silence, flicking on fuel boost pumps and resetting crossfeed valves from center tank feed to tank-to-engine.

Today, at major US airlines, planes with flight engineer stations exist mainly in the memories of today’s senior captains who back in the day were bright eyed plumbers starting their careers, “living the dream” as they sometimes put it. And alas, there are no ROPEs behind them to grade their landings.

Arnold Reiner
10 replies
  1. Rich R
    Rich R says:

    Sounds like both you and Dic had some stories, hope your other crew listened/learned.

    I was fortunate to have a salt of the earth retired EC-121 flight engineer doing my Yak annuals with me for a few years…what scared Cessna I&As gave him a chuckle, “oil leak? that’s no leak!!”…his EC-121 had 50 gallon tanks on the firewalls with refills from a fuselage tank…and I can only imagine fouling 56 plugs on that.

  2. George Lycan
    George Lycan says:

    Good write Arnold. Your Nav setup was pretty much the same as our(CAL) 707 setup–same boxes that I remember seeing when visiting a PanAm 707 on the ground at HNL in 1969. CAL did not teach Consolan but some of us used it as a backup or to fight boredom. As to accurate nav, Loran was OK…but we taught the concept of looking on the Loran chart for any island, reef, or protrusion and look for it visually plus tune the radar to find the small islet & measure the distance of our projected track from it. If we were within about 20 miles of the projected distance away, we relaxed and pressed on. CAL got rid of 707s by 1980. Never upgraded them to Omega or INS.

    I may have run into you at USMC. I was 3 yrs in H34’s, then Instructor at PNS, then(1968) to CAL at LAX. Now living in AVL.

    George Lycan

  3. Enderson Rafael
    Enderson Rafael says:

    What a beautiful article. Nowadays, flying some of the same routes in a Boeing 787, I can barely imagine how was it like to do it back then, albeit you guys were flying the most advanced airliners of your time, so one day, someone will read my memoirs and feel the same. The weather and the northern lights, after all, are still there! Recently I was transferred to the 777, and felt like moving 20 years back in many aspects – noticeably the noise. When it comes to career progression, is really unfortunate how much luck plays a major role in it. You can be among the best, dedicate yourself relentlessly and yet, get stuck for decades – while watching people that maybe were just lucky getting way ahead of you. This is certainly something I’ve been ahead and behind in different moments of my career, and I just hope to be thankful to my fate when my time to leave comes. In the meantime, I keep trying to help my luck, but I can’t say it’s been easy. This industry is as irresistible as treacherous. Thank you once more with the great insights to the golden age of the jet era.

  4. mac mclauchlan
    mac mclauchlan says:

    Flight Engineers in the UK were a specialist profession, never pilots on their way up. except in British Airtours B707-236 sourced from BA Mainline, First Officers from Comets were trained for the F/E role rather than transfers from the BA fleet. However on the 747-136 & 236 the F/E continued until the advent of the 747-436 two crew airplane. I flew one of the first 2 crew service from London to Philadelphia in July ’89 and recall meeting an Air France Airbus 3 crew at check in at the same hotel who expressed surprise that we had made the crossing with a 2 pilot crew, My comment was maybe 2 pilots but 2 RR engines under each wing.

  5. mac mclauchlan
    mac mclauchlan says:

    My friend the late Ernest Gann told me the two most important things in airline flying are to stay alive and eating. The second can be less easy.

  6. Horace Sawyer
    Horace Sawyer says:

    What a wonderful writer you are Capt. Reiner ! I felt like was in the cockpit. That was real flying. As a non-pro, but having grown up around airplanes and made it to my 60’s, am embedded with great respect for you guys who have lived the dream.
    Laughed out loud about your roping Recola singer, and that you would have otherwise told him to shut up. But those things color the adventures of our lives, don’t they. Many days now I feel like I’m ROPEing amidst many competing duties, taking on and doing more than a human should have to, when retirement is not something I want to enter. But such is life.
    Hope that you will take time to write more. You have a great gift.
    Thank you for sharing it with us.

  7. Edward Williams
    Edward Williams says:

    I knew Arnie Reiner rather well. In the early years during the furlough, Arnie would ferry 727s from where they ended up to where they needed to be for a next day flight. He got his Capt rating to do that. I was a 707 RCO during my short career up to the furlough on Jan 01, 1970. I was lucky to get a lot of legs, usually on the. I had Lisbon, Santa Maria, Boston to JFK route. I was “officially” called back 17 years into the furlough. I chose not to return as I was flying a Cessna 525, ‘high altitude airspace blocker’ and VP, Dir Of Flt Ops for an Aviation Insurance Company monitoring a fleet of Beech Bonanzas based at each of our regional offices.


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