Hangar Flying: Jumpseat rides

 - May 27, 2008, 10:57 AM

FAREWELL TO GUESTS UP FRONT–Jumpseat rides on non-U.S. airlines are one of the many casualties of recent events. It wasn’t just September 11, either. Air-rage episodes (including an incident a year ago that put a British Airways 747 into a severe attitude and major altitude loss over Africa after a passenger entered the cockpit and wrestled with the crew) had pretty much put the kibosh on flight-deck visits by even the most well mannered passengers. September 11, the most nightmarish of cockpit intrusions, soundly squelched the last vestiges of this freedom on top-tier carriers.

I look back with fond memories of the many times I was invited up front over the past 20-plus years. Sometimes it was prearranged; other times I would send my card up front with a note asking if it would be possible to occupy the jumpseat for takeoff. Almost always the answer was yes.

Uppermost have to be seven flights aboard British Airways Concordes, six of them viewed from the jumpseat in that decidedly cozy cockpit. The first one was a swift sprint from New York JFK to Miami in 1985 when BA briefly operated that leg as a continuation of its service from London Heathrow. Capt. John Hutchinson, since retired and enjoying a second career in TV broadcasting and airshow planning, was in the left seat. If I recall, there were only 11 passengers in the back (and some of those were travel agents on “familiarization” rides), so for the  one-and-a-quarter-hour run down to south Florida we were light on fuel too. Having read that at light weights dry thrust can suffice, I asked “Hutch” if he would still use the afterburners for takeoff. He looked over his shoulder and, with a wry smile, said, “Oh yes. It’s much more fun that way.” And off we sped in what is affectionately known by BA crews as Goldenrod, the Bionic Tea Tray and the Bionic Toothpick.

Particularly vivid memories from that first ride on the rocket were what I characterized as assorted burning smells once the four turbojets’ power levers were fully forward and she began to move. (Another Concorde pilot didn’t care for that image and suggested I call them “smells familiar to fighter pilots.”)

The curious hush that descended on the flight deck during climbout as the visor slid up to cover the blunt-edged windshield panels–not unlike the sound of one of those modern airplane lavatories as it quits sucking.

On runway bumps and undulations, the almost violent swaying of the flight deck, suspended as it is some 60 ft ahead of the nosewheel. For my seventh ride I strapped into the last row of passenger seats to see the wing trailing edge at work on takeoff–the elevons take quite a beating from the vortex that creates the lift at high alpha–and to hear the music of the four Olympuses from the orchestra seats instead of the balcony. Up front, they’re nothing more than a distant rumble and a change in the hiss of the air conditioning. The flexibility of the fuselage on those runway bumps, when viewed looking forward to the cockpit from the wayback seat, was remarkable.

The relentless shove of 77 tons of thrust pushing 200 tons of airplane toward some ungodly rotation speed –195 kt at transatlantic weight, lower at our Miami takeoff weight.

In cruise, covering a mile every 2.6 sec, the speed with which things happen–and, in direct proportion, the speed with which the pilots must think and plan.

The importance of the flight engineer, who manages not only fuel and power and climate but also the center of gravity to align it with the center of lift, which is seven feet farther aft at supersonic cruise.

Then there’s the famous gap in the flight deck, just downwind from the flight engineer’s panel. In cruise it’s thick enough to stuff your hand into, as the airplane heats (127 deg C on the nose) and stretches by 5.5 in. On the descent the gap vanishes. A manual placed in the gap in cruise and not retrieved before deceleration is stuck there until the Machmeter heads for 2.0 again.

The buffeting and shaking as she moves through the bottom of the speed envelope, departing and arriving on the lifting power created by the massive vortex that cascades off that seductively curvaceous wing leading edge.

The big drop as the nosewheel sniffs for concrete, and when it finds it, the awesome stopping power of reverse thrust and commercial aviation’s first carbon brakes.

The bittersweet blend of elation and disappointment that the ride is over. Concorde, like life, is a journey, not a destination.

The first time I strapped into the jumpseat of a 747 (a “Classic” -200 model), I was struck of course by the sheer loftiness of this office from the surface of the earth. The pilots’ eyes are 28.5 ft above the ramp. This was merely the first manifestation of the extraordinary remoteness that comes with herding Boeing’s behemoth into its element. As the engine start sequence was initiated, a distant, low hum in a neighboring county to the southwest became apparent as the first big fan began to turn. A slight shudder could be felt as the rotating mass passed through a vibration band, and soon enough all four had settled into their routine. By straining to look over my shoulder, I could see part of the wing leading edge. The sheer hugeness of the machine is staggering–and all at the command of the gnats in its nose.

The scale of the machine is most apparent when it is on the ground, mingling with imposing ramp trucks and jetways rendered suddenly toylike from up here. Expansive taxiways become narrow ribbons of concrete down which the $200 million machine threads its ponderous way. The cockpit negotiates sharp turns sideways, with enough lateral g to topple your seated balance, since it is some 100 ft ahead of the 16 mainwheels acting as the fulcrum, further adding to the bizarre sense of remoteness from all that heretofore has been familiar about airplanes.

But while there is simply no escaping the hugeness of this flying machine, the surroundings in the cockpit, sitting high on the tapered nose section, are normal in scale.

It can be a bumpy ride atop that cavernous barrel of a fuselage as it builds speed down what, even at 150 ft wide, looks from up here to be as narrow as a mountain meadow strip. In a jet with a strong power-to-weight ratio, straight-ahead acceleration wins over the vertical acceleration of the runway bumps as the dominant assault on the senses. Not so in the 747, which girds itself for flight with a slow deliberateness befitting its bulk.

The 747 is a four-engine airplane that loses only 25 percent of its motivation if one engine quits, so it does gather speed at a slower rate than a twin that has excess power to cope with losing half its thrust if an engine quits. Again, the sensation in the flight deck is the remoteness of the levers and controls from their purpose. Other than the distant growl from the big fans and the slow accumulation of speed they unleash, the four thrust levers seem to be disembodied from the rest of the airplane. The same can be said of the flight controls. The heave back at rotation precedes the event by enough margin to suggest that the two events are only vaguely related. A wise old retired captain friend of mine recalled that when he first got in the saddle of the 747, he felt he was herding the airplane through the sky more than controlling it.

I remember viewing my first approach and landing from the jumpseat of the 747. Until the final stages of the approach, optical distortion while looking through the left edge of the captain’s curved windshield from that seat appeared to move us sufficiently off centerline that I was convinced we were going to miss the runway entirely and touch down in the grass alongside.

On another approach in that seat, we were flying south near Albany, N.Y., toward a landing at Newark after a crossing from London, when turbulence jostled that big aluminum structure with enough force for the autopilot to throw its helping hands in the air and declare, “I quit.” The crew, demonstrating that a good pilot never quits learning and that no form of flying can ever be counted on to be routine, was visibly perturbed by the ferocity of the rough air. I knew it was rough, but when I saw the concern of these graybeards, I began to realize just how rough. I marveled at another aspect of this endlessly impressive flying machine, as its massive, aeroelastic structure flexed and shook and creaked under the onslaught.

Eventually, after maybe five minutes of bucking and lurching, the airplane found smoother air and settled back into its unruffled routine, as if it had never left it. But the episode set me wondering if somewhere, in a clear but malevolent corner of the sky, there still lurks troubled air roiling beyond Boeing’s expectations and calculations. Certainly there has been. A BOAC 707 broke apart many years ago (1967, if memory serves) in turbulence near Mt. Fuji.

Speaking of unpleasantness, I sometimes wonder if the NTSB would ever have figured out what happened during the final stages of a takeoff by an A340 from Newark that I witnessed from the jumpseat, bound for Europe. The airline had just received the brand-new Airbus four-holer, and up front were two senior captains familiarizing themselves with their airline’s latest acquisition. They kindly allowed me to join them,  eager to share their enthusiasm with someone who appreciated the newness of their steed.

A few knots short of Vr, the captain’s left armrest collapsed–an alarming structural failure because suddenly the stabilizing surface for his forearm and the hand manipulating the sidestick had vanished. The pilot-not-flying in the right seat swiftly assumed control with his sidestick, and the takeoff proceeded uneventfully. As I said, I wonder if the NTSB would ever have figured that one out.

Riding jumpseat in a factory-owned Challenger from Hartford, Conn., to California with former Air Force One commander Les McClelland in the left seat, I heard a fine explanation for an EFIS failure. On approach into Van Nuys through the Southern California haze, Les’ upper screen went blank and started to emit smoke. He disabled it and had his right-seater shuffle the deck to bring up the missing images on his lower screen. “Well, that proves it,” he said. “These things really do run on smoke and mirrors, and this one just sprang a leak.”

To all the crews who were kind enough to allow me to enter your world over the years, before it all changed on September 11, thank you. For anyone who knows what goes on in the sharp end of a jetliner, the desecration of these transportation marvels is doubly sickening.