Published by April 2016 issue
In the years since Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin set foot on the moon, only 10 men have ever wa9lked on an extraterrestrial surface. Each of these Apollo astronauts has been asked at one time or another to describe his most memorable lunar experience. You might expect the answers to include comments about exploring another world. But almost unanimously, their most cherished moments were those spent looking back across the blackness of space and seeing this world.
By Barry Schiff
Our world is smaller for astronauts and pilots than ordinary people make it out to be. I used to fly airliners for a living, and during my stints at work I have looked down upon places that only a few others will ever see from above. I have also encountered problems, humorous situations, and experiences that simply do not crop up on a cross-country flight between Dubuque and Des Moines.
The farther afield we fly, the more fascinating becomes the countryside that slides beneath our wings. So if you are inclined to wander, and to remember the world as it was four decades ago, I invite you to join me aboard a TWA Boeing 707 flight around the world (from Los Angeles to Los Angeles) that I piloted in 1972, during the age of the jet set.
We are in the second leg of our 11-day odyssey. The course-deviation indicator points an electronic finger toward our next destination. Guam is a dot on the map, a fleck of land floating on the Pacific vastness. Far below, puffy clouds are like sheep grazing on a boundless blue meadow. But ahead, the cumulus clouds grow tempestuously taller. Our route coincides partially with the intertropical convergence zone, a global band of thunderstorms brewed in the tropics by mixing moist trade winds.
A mature thunderstorm contains more destructive energy than a nuclear bomb and obviously must be avoided. It seems inconceivable that more than 50,000 of them occur daily over the earth. At times, almost all of them seem to challenge our right to the sky and necessitate the most serpentine flight path imaginable. This inevitably leads to a late arrival and an assortment of complaints from passengers. (One of my pet peeves is that passengers judge an airline crew’s performance only by the timeliness of arrival and the smoothness of the landing. Seldom considered is the skill and cunning that might have been used to sidestep hazards along the way.)
Not long ago, airliners were led across the oceans of the world by navigators who used sextants to ‘shoot’ the stars in the mystical manner of ancient mariners. On this flight we depend on Doppler navigation and Loran A. These systems advise that a strong headwind has dramatically slowed our progress, adding to the deceiving effect of slow motion at high altitude. We are suspended in ethereal blackness where nothing seems to move except the fuel gauges.
A patch of turbulence, a change in outside temperature, an increase in groundspeed—these indicate that the jet stream, a meandering river of high-velocity wind, has tired of pushing against us and has veered north to perpetrate its folly elsewhere. And it really is cold outside, dangerously close to the fuel-freeze point of -100°F. The air traffic controller in Hawaii requests a lower, warmer attitude, and we discuss with renewed amazement the incongruity that the coldest temperatures in the atmosphere occur above the Tropics.
Sunday evening suddenly becomes Monday evening. We have crossed the International Date Line. A passenger sends a note to the cockpit, announcing with mock disappointment that he’s been cheated of his birthday. We respond unsympathetically, advising that he should have caught an eastbound flight and celebrated his birthday twice.
Below, the cumulus clouds continue to drift behind with metronomic regularity, casting shadows that resemble small islands on the water. How many flight-weary pilots, we wonder, have unwittingly descended toward a shadow, thinking it an island?
The Pacific’s immensity is monotonous. More clouds, more water, more sky. Because an autopilot flies an airplane more efficiently and smoothly than humans can, it is assigned the task of maintaining altitude and track.
Occasionally, the pilot of a nearby flight breaks the boredom by broadcasting risqué jokes on the air-to-air frequency. Someone might sing. Or play the harmonica. Such diversions rarely last more than a few minutes. Each pilot then returns to his personal bout with the Pacific blues, a fatiguing form of boredom.
Tropical islands below are circled by rings of turquoise and green where the water is shallow over the coral reefs. Approaching Guam, however, the water is a single shade of midnight blue. This island, the tip of a 37,000-foot-tall (11,275m) oceanic mountain, rises straight from the ocean floor.
A 25-hour layover later, we prepare for the next leg of our global odyssey. The dispatcher adds another chart to our maze of preflight paperwork: the last known position of every large surface vessel steaming in the vicinity of our route to Hong Kong as well as recommended ditch headings to use near each. He is apparently worried we might have to ditch in the Pacific. Although this has never happened, the very thought of it gnaws at the psyche of every command pilot.
Our flight to Hong Kong will take us through Typhoon Alley, a nickname for the region when Pacific hurricanes are on the rampage. It can mean severe weather, but nothing as vicious as in Tornado Alley in the US Midwest. I recall once flying inadvertently through an innocuous-looking Kansas rain shower not large enough to show on radar. The gusts lifted the meal from my lap and slammed the tray against the instrument panel, leaving the gauges gooey with coq au vin.
I review the published approach instructions for Taipei, an en route stop. Numerous restrictions are imposed on arriving aircraft. According to rumor, this is because some cunning aviators from the People’s Republic of China once managed to land unnoticed at Taipei late one night and absconded with several aircraft belonging to the Nationalist Chinese Air Force.
We are on the ground in Taipei for no more than an hour. While we taxi for takeoff, a red light warns us to stop so that a military guard can verify that the aircraft registration number on our tail coincides with the one on the flight plan. If the two don’t match, we will be escorted back to the terminal. The guard’s machine gun convinces us that this is one red light we can’t afford to run. The guard salutes respectfully and shines a green light, and we trundle to the runway.
Now we are soaring through placid valleys of white cotton candy, banking gently at times to follow the contours of an aerial fantasy land. Our wings are like outstretched arms, slicing through soft cumulus castles. To a pilot, this exhilarating sense of speed and freedom is what flying is all about.
Still, a glance at the chart abruptly returns us to the stark reality of the world below. Continuing west, we have passed over Makung, a small island city in the strait separating Taiwan and China, and are paralleling a buffer zone intended to protect the Chinese mainland against trespass by uninvited aircraft. Our chart informs us to be on the alert for erroneous radio signals from China that could be hazardous to navigation. Another note warns that “any aircraft infringing upon the territorial rights of China may be fired upon without notice.”
Nearing Hong Kong, we lower the nose and prepare for the world’s most unusual landing approach. Upon reaching the Cheung Chau Radiobeacon, we descend through globs of nimbostratus while flying a series of graceful figure eights, using the beacon as a pivot point. The rain gets heavy. We must now fly 15 miles at only 750 feet above the sea. Forward visibility is only a mile, but 12 miles ahead, the Stonecutters Radiobeacon urges us to continue. We pass abeam the tip of Hong Kong Island and enter Victoria Harbor, our screaming turbines seemingly unnoticed by people on the hundreds of junks below that plod and heel through windswept waters.
Crossing Kowloon Beach, we begin a gentle right turn, our eyes straining to see the aiming point, a large orange-and-white checkerboard on the side of a 300-foot-high (90m) hill near the approach end of Kai Tak Airport’s Runway 13. Tall buildings below stretch for the sky, probing for our belly. The illuminated checkerboard appears at 12 o’clock. We bank the aircraft right to avoid the hill and simultaneously descend toward man-made canyons and through torrents of turbulence. Wings level at 200 feet (60m), and we are at last lined up with the 8,000-foot-long (2,440m) concrete ribbon projecting into the harbor from Kowloon’s east shore.
Hong Kong: a sweet-and-sour mixture of Chinese antiquity and modern British colonialism, a place where you can go broke saving money, where the brave can sip bird’s-nest soup, a glutinous compound made from the saliva of birds.
On the ground, I take care of an essential chore, the purchase of a ‘survival kit’—canned groceries to obviate having to eat anything cooked or grown in Bombay, our next layover point. I have found that the food in India can incapacitate my Western stomach with something certain to baffle the medical world.
We are now high above the South China Sea listening to the high-frequency receiver on a channel normally used for air traffic control. But instead of that, we hear the English edition of Radio Peiping’s version of Tokyo Rose spewing her daily dose of political air pollution.
The 115-mile flight across Vietnam takes only 13 minutes and begins over the central coast town of Qui Nhon. Broad, vacant, inviting beaches of white sand characterize the scalloped coast. From our perch, Vietnam seems a paradise. But looking carefully, we scan see bomb craters, pockmarks on the face of the Earth, on the face of man.
We soar across the muddy, swollen Mekong River and then the rice-rich fields of Cambodia and Thailand as we prepare for an en route stop. While approaching one of Bangkok’s two parallel runways, I marvel at what lies between them: a golf course. Like the rabbits that dwell between the runways at Los Angeles, the golfers at Don Muang Airport must be stone deaf. A few hours later, we are over the southern extremity of Burma, gazing at pagodas so large they are visible from seven miles above. Ahead lies the 1,000-mile-wide (1,600km) Bay of Bengal and, on the other side, India.
We estimate landing in Bombay at 20:05 Greenwich Mean Time (GMT), or 01:35 local time. Because Bombay is five 1/2 hours ahead of Greenwich, we conclude that Indian leaders couldn’t decide whether their country should be GMT plus five or six hours, so they compromised. But what form of logic was used by the Guyanese, in South America, who decided that their country should be three hours 45 minutes behind Greenwich? And until recently, local time in Saudi Arabia was based on Arabic or solar time, which varied each day according to the time of sunset.
Forgive this preoccupation with time, but when crossing numerous time zones, it becomes a vital issue. Airline pilots live in constant psycho-physiological turmoil, trying to synchronize their body clocks with the sun. Passengers frequently ask what airline pilots do to cope with jet lag. The painful truth is that we can’t do much. Because a layover seldom lasts more than 24 hours, our bodies never have a chance to adapt to local time. I often find myself staring at the ceiling when in bed and falling asleep over lunch.
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Our weather radar screens, displaying different shades of green for land or water, shows that we are passing south of the mouths of Burma’s Irrawaddy River. Two hours later, we soar over Vishakhapatnam, a fishing village on India’s east coast. Fortunately, we are not required to pronounce these names. Instead, each checkpoint is assigned a two- or three-letter identifier. In this case, we simply report passing ‘Victor Zulu’. Even more difficult to pronounce is Inoucdjouac, a radiobeacon on the east coast of Hudson’s Bay, in Canada, that is referred to as ‘Papa Hotel’.
The lights of small towns passing below are like jewels scattered on black velvet. We begin our descent toward Bombay’s Santa Cruz Airport, where holy cows are free to wander. The landing lights spike the blackness, and we pray that tonight there are no bovines on the runway. I recall once having to brake heavily during a landing in East Africa to avoid rolling into a family of warthogs.
After passing through customs, we are confronted by a group of consummate beggars, miserable, destitute children ranging in age from 2 to 5. But we are prepared. We pass out handfuls of candy.
Later, the crew bus rattles through unlit streets, weaving once to avoid a toddler straying in the night. People are sleeping in gutters, on sidewalks, in doorways. An airline crew normally is a jovial group, but on this ride we are silent.
The unrelenting monsoon rains have begun their seasonal assault, dampening my spirits and adding to my desire to leave. It is raining so hard that it might be easiest to swim from the terminal to the aircraft. It is so hot and humid that unfolding the wilted charts in the cockpit requires the care used to unravel cooked spaghetti.
The runway lights have not survived the deluge. They’ve been replaced by flare pots. As the aircraft gathers speed, the flickering lights become a blur. Visibility is poor, and we curse the windshield wipers, more noisy than effective. Soon the wings flex, and we are airborne, a flying Noah’s Ark.
Above the wet, lumpy cumulus, we sail on silken air beneath a canopy dotted with distant diamonds. We are strangers flying over foreign lands, but my celestial companions provide comforting familiarity: Polaris winking from starboard, the Southern Cross watching from port.
The flight to Tel Aviv takes six hours 25 minutes, an hour and a half longer than would be necessary if Middle East nations coexisted peacefully. Because our destination is in Israel, we must fly 850 miles out of the way to avoid neighbors unfriendly to the Jewish state. In this part of the world, flight planning is determined more by political climate than by winds and weather.
We turn northward and fly an aerial tightrope over the narrow Red Sea. Passing between Egypt and Saudi Arabia, we stare upon a world seemingly uninhabited. From our vantage point, it is difficult to appreciate the notion of global overpopulation.
Approaching Israel from over the Mediterranean, we aim for the Shalom Tower, one of the tallest buildings in the Mideast, and pass over Tel Aviv, a sprawling coastal city that from aloft could be mistaken for Miami. Over the nose we can see the Dead Sea. Beyond that, the mountains of western Jordan.
The landing at Tel Aviv is routine, but to some Jewish passengers, it is like seeing their newborn child for the first time. The touchdown on Israeli soil triggers cheers and applause that echo throughout the cabin, a flood of emotion from people who have struggled for years if not centuries to realize this moment. An elderly couple bolts from the aircraft and weeps without inhibition as they fall to their knees to kiss the tarmac. Israel, the Promised Land.
Airline pilots hold that the most dangerous part of a flight is the drive to and from the airport. Nowhere is this truer than in Israel. Israelis drive as if they were in Sherman tanks on the road to Beirut.
The next day our engines etch four contrails above the jagged coast of Greece. Flying in the Mediterranean can put Yankee patience to the test. In Rome, for example, one American pilot at the end of a long line of aircraft progressing slowly toward the departure runway finally lost his patience. On the radio, he exhorted the tower controller, “Can’t you move this parade a little faster?” After a pause, the controller announced calmly, in a thick Italian accent, “To all aircraft on-a da ground. Roma Tower going off-a da air.” Traffic came to a halt, and further efforts to contact the tower were futile. Half an hour later, the controller keyed his mike and announced with marvelous one-upmanship, “All-a right, fellas. Now tell-a me. Who’s-a da boss?”
In central and northern Europe, the shoe is on the other foot, and controllers lose patience with pilots. It is difficult for a pilot to stay ahead of the game when the rules change every time a border is crossed. And just when you have become accustomed to the heavily accented English of one nationality, it is time to change to another.
A flight across Europe involves more than conforming to the dictates of regulation. It is sailing above a fairyland of castles, cultures, contrasts. A glance in any direction finds a scene lifted from the pages of history.
London’s Heathrow Airport is the busiest and often the foggiest in Europe. Fog here can be so thick that a pilot taxiing to the gate can get lost for hours. To solve this problem, the British have installed a guidance system. Working like the track switcher at a railroad yard, the Heathrow ground controller leads a pilot to his gate—or wherever else he needs to go—by turning on only the appropriate taxi lights.
We are about to take off on the last leg of our globe-girdling journey. The fuel tanks burgeon with fuel, and the wings sag noticeably under the load. Los Angeles is at the far end of a 6,000-mile-long route (9,700km) across the roof of the world.
The throttles are advanced, and the aircraft accelerates slowly, demonstrating little apparent will to fly. In the cabin, a veteran flight attendant sits in her jump seat facing the passengers and is accustomed to the necessarily long takeoff roll. Sensing passenger concern, she announces on the public-address system: “Ladies and gentlemen, you can help by lifting your feet.” Obediently, hundreds of feet rise, and the aircraft pushes the ground away at almost 170 knots (195mph).
We are over Scotland, heading northwest along the Great Circle Route, leaving behind the spider web of European airways and the unceasing chatter of radio communications. Ahead is peace and quiet, the serenity of watching ice floes of brilliant white drifting in frigid black water. Visibility in the High Arctic is so unlimited that it hurts your eyes to look that far.
After crossing the Denmark Strait, we interrupt the cabin movies to point out the spectacle passing below: Greenland, the world’s largest island with the most inappropriate name. Jagged peaks cast ragged shadows against the two-mile-thick icecap. Glacial fingers of ice probe for the sea, grinding mountains that stand in their way—the same awesome, slow-motion process that carved the continents.
From above, the Arctic has a fearsome beauty. Yet flying above it is most pleasant. The Polar regions are vast deserts, characterized by light wind, low humidity, infrequent and thin cloudiness, and little rain or snow. Winds aloft seldom exceed 30 knots (35 mph) at any altitude. By contrast, a flight across the United States presents far greater problems: frontal systems, thunderstorms, tornadoes, strong winds, and considerable precipitation of all kinds.
We cross the Davis Strait, aiming for Frobisher on Baffin Island in extreme northeastern Canada. As we approach the Magnetic North Pole, our magnetic compasses soon fluctuate wildly or point east when they should point west. Our polarpath compasses fortunately provide an accurate reference to True North.
Our track angles southwest, and Mount Rainier soon pokes its lofty head above the clouds, welcoming us home. Although it will take several days for us to recover from this 23,423-mile (37,696km) odyssey across 24 time zones, our aircraft has no such need for rest. Within a few hours and with a fresh crew, it will begin another flight around the world.