Cockpit Chronicles: So what’s it like when your brother is also your captain?

The temperature was fifteen degrees in Anchorage and it was getting dark. But we didn’t care, we just wanted to fly.

My older brother Kurt and I were inside rushing through the final steps to build our styrofoam rubber-band powered Citabrias. Once finished, we still had to wait until the Elmer’s glue was dry. If the white stuff wasn’t set, the fuselage seams would split in half and we wouldn’t be able to fly until the next day.

While flying the airplanes under a lamp that lit up the frozen lake behind the house, Kurt’s model managed to fly well above my head. I began to wonder what it would be like to ride with my brother in an actual Citabria, a two-seat airplane that he would later fly on his first solo when he turned sixteen. He was so lucky, I thought.

But I’d get my chance, I knew it. In fact, I was sure that Kurt and I would fly a Boeing together someday, for the airline my dad flew for, and where my sister had just become a flight attendant.

And why shouldn’t I think that? My grandpa flew with his brothers from the ’20s to the ’50s, and my dad flew with his brother at that same airline.

I’d have bet everything on it. I imagined Kurt and I would fly a 737 from Anchorage to Seattle someday, and Kim would be the flight attendant. It was going to happen.

Like most older brothers, Kurt never passed up an opportunity to teach me something, and occasionally the ‘lessons’ weren’t even related to flying.

On the lake between flights, he stopped me mid-sentence after I apparently took something for granted. It was long enough ago that I don’t remember exactly what I had said.

“So, would you say you assumed that?” He asked, referring to whatever I said at the time.

“Uh, yeah, I guess so.” I responded.

He then proceeded to give me the lesson about assuming. You know, the one in which the act of assuming will often make an ass out of you, and me. He drew ASS/U/ME in the snow with a stick. These are the kind of lessons older brothers specialize in.

The ‘other’ far more helpful thing he taught me was how to fly an airplane. It was my brother who soloed me, well before my sixteenth birthday and without anyone else knowing, just a few hundred feet from where we flew those foam airplanes.Kurt managed to buy an EagleXL ultralight when he was just eighteen years old. He became an instructor, which is a bit of a challenge, considering the airplane only had one seat. But the first step in the lessons were pretty simple; taxi up and down the frozen lake on skis.

It was a rather rough ride, bouncing across the tracks created by snow machines that ran seemingly in every direction on the lake.

By this time, I figured I was a seasoned flyer, since the year prior, Kurt pulled me (and a few other neighbor kids) up in his hang glider behind a snow mobile. And I had flown with my dad in the Citabria on skis, performing a dozen or so touch-and-gos. And of course I flew model airplanes.

So I wasn’t so sure I needed to spend so much time taxiing around the lake on the frozen ice. It felt like I was going to lose a filling in my teeth.

But I discovered if I went just a little bit faster…

It was heaven! I was airborne. Just five feet off the ground, flying down the mile and a half long lake. Toward the end, I pulled the throttle back with my left hand and settled back down on the skis. I taxied to turn around and then flew back to the other end of the lake. It was a feeling I’ve never been able to re-create, although I’ve tried, much like a druggie who tries to relive their first hit. I kept going back and forth while my brother was warming up inside.

The introduction of ultralights, which didn’t have an age limit, allowed me to take to the air and satisfy a longing that I had been trying to fulfill for years with balsa and foam airplanes and subsequently, R/C models.

From then on, Kurt was my aviation mentor. I ‘soloed’ the ultralight in front of my dad a few weeks later, without my father knowing at the time that this wasn’t officially my first flight.

Of course my dad played big part in my early flying lessons. He let me operate whatever he had access to, which gave me flight time in a variety of airplanes. But Kurt helped me to reach my goal to fly as a professional pilot, since he had more recently navigated the hurdles to earn his private, commercial and multi-engine ratings that were needed to land a job with a commuter in Alaska. He motivated me, gave me guidance and even loaned me the money needed to pay for my flight training after he started working for a major airline.

“Have you taken your private written [exam] yet?” He’d ask every time I’d talk to him on the phone while I was at Washington State, a university that didn’t have a flying program. His help kept me on track just as if I were attending a flying college such as Embry-Riddle.

Finally, in 1993 it happened. I was hired at the same major airline where my brother was now a captain. He told me it was like a race-car owner that had invested so much time and money into a team and had just won the Indy 500.

Kurt pinned my wings on in New York after new-hire training

My timing wasn’t so good though, since I would be the last pilot hired at the company for the next five years, and a few months after I was on the line they laid off six hundred pilots. I was, naturally, the first to go.

On the second to last trip before my three-year furlough, the New York flight office arranged for me, a New York 727 flight engineer, to fly a trip with my brother who was a 727 captain based in Chicago.

Naturally, Kurt didn’t stop with the lessons.

While I was hanging my coat up, he pointed out that the captain’s jacket goes on the far left.

Duly noted, I thought.

Flying together in the 727. Captain Kurt and Flight Engineer Kent.
Over the next three years, as my wife and I moved around the country while I was chasing flying jobs, I looked forward to getting recalled and hopefully flying with my brother again.

The industry picked up again and I was back to work in 1996. In 1998, I bid Boston and two years later, Kurt came to the base as well. The pieces were aligning for another chance.

Finally, in 2001 we flew together on the 737 for two months in a row, mostly flying between Boston and Seattle. And last year we worked together on a 757 from Boston to Miami before we deadheaded (rode in the back) home.

And eight years later, we managed to fly a single Boston to Miami flight together in the 757. Since it was just one leg, we had to flip to see who would fly the leg. But that hardly qualified as ‘flying together’ I thought.

It’s a challenge for us to get on the same schedule as I’m in the international division and he’s domestic. I told him that we needed to figure out a way for me to get on one of his trips one last time since I’d be leaving to fly out of New York in May.

After some trip-trading gymnastics, I was able to drop two one-day San Juan ‘turns’ in order to pick up the three-day LAX and NY trip from a domestic co-pilot who was scheduled to fly with my brother for the month.

For a domestic flight, it looked sweet. One leg to Los Angeles with a short overnight there, followed by one leg to JFK with a long 24-hour layover in Manhattan. The last day day had us going to Miami and then Boston.

On the day of our trip, the phone rang as I was in the shower.

“I’m just driving by your house, and I thought I’d grab a sandwich at the country store. I can pick you up if you want a ride to the airport.” Kurt’s message said.

Kurt likes to get to operations early to take a close look at the weather and to have time to co-ordinate a revised routing with the dispatcher if warranted. Every pilot has their pet issue, and for Kurt, it’s finding the smoothest ride.

I grabbed a sandwich from the store and drove myself to work. In operations, Kurt was asking about the ride and the winds along our route of flight. Today’s routing had the potential for some turbulence, so he and the dispatcher added fuel in case we changed the route while airborne to avoid the bumps.

At the gate, I came in from the walk-around inspection while Kurt was setting up his side of the cockpit.

“Which leg do you want? The first one? Second one? All of them, or none of them?” Of course, he was kidding with the last two options. I wouldn’t fly every leg, nor would I give up all of mine, especially since there were four legs to be flown on this three-day trip. For me, and many pilots, flying the airplane is like the sugary part added to a frosted mini-wheat. It’s what you look forward to when coming to work.

I deferred to Kurt, so he gave me the first leg, which today was in a 757. We’re qualified to fly both the Boeing 757 and 767, and in fact the next day we’d take a 767-200 to New York. I knew he enjoyed that airplane, and this was probably his motivation to give me the first leg in the 757.

As is usually the case, the cockpit was silent during the taxi out and climb through 10,000 feet during the FAA mandated sterile cockpit period. The only comments were related to checklist challenge and responses, airspeed call-outs and ATC communications. Takeoffs and landings are the busiest time of flight and you don’t want to miss an important radio call or become distracted while taxiing.

Up to this point, flying with a family member isn’t much different from flying with any other pilot. The words said are essentially identical. It’s at cruise where you notice a difference.

Conversation is a big part of flying, and it helps you to stay alert. It’s what we do after leveling off and the PA has been made to the passengers about the route of flight, weather and flight time. We talk.

But when flying with a sibling, you’re often caught up on the latest events by the time you hop in the airplane. I see him all the time. We talk every few days. So the conversation can sometimes get slow.

“You call mom lately?” I said at one point.

The monotony was broken up when we one of our flight attendants, Chris, visited the cockpit. After 43 years, she was retiring and she had a clever way to mark the occasion. She wore a sign around her neck that counted down the days until her last flight.

Chris retires after 43 years

We got busy as we approached the eastern shore of Lake Michigan. Dispatch sent a text message to us via ACARS describing an area of light to moderate turbulence associated with some thunderstorms that were at our altitude and lower.

Kurt dialed a frequency and began talking with the dispatcher.

“What if we went Chicago and then Hector? You think that would keep us out of this stuff?” He said while I listened to the other radio for any calls from ATC.

After sorting out the best route with dispatch, Kurt called the center controller.

“We’d like to put in a request for a turn to Chicago and then direct to HEC.”

All waypoints are identified by three or five-letters; HEC (short for the Hector VOR) marked the beginning of our arrival into LAX. Amazingly, the controller came back immediately and said our query was “approved as requested.”

So far, we hadn’t experienced a single bump. But Kurt was going to see to it that Chris, and everyone else on board, would be getting the smoothest possible ride.

I was surprised when we crossed the Rocky Mountains, an area that’s notorious for at least some light chop, without having to turn the seatbelt sign on.

Our route, courtesy of

In the end it cost us some extra time and fuel.

The strong jet-stream that we had been bucking on the first part of the flight was scheduled to move off to our left after crossing Lake Michigan. Instead, by turning left toward Chicago we continued to have the 115 knot headwinds for the entire flight. It meant that we’d be arriving 45 minutes later than planned, for a total flight time that was nearly 7 hours, a record for both of us.

Kurt and the dispatcher made the right decision to sacrifice a few minutes and some extra fuel for a smooth ride.

It’s not always serious. Kurt and Kent enjoying a laugh.

On the ground in LA, the passengers didn’t seem to mind, and while deplaning, a few of them said, “Nice flight, brothers!”

Apparently one of the other flight attendants mentioned that we were related in her PA. But the biggest reactions came from our co-workers and the hotel staff when we checked in.

“Wait a minute. Are you guys related?” They asked. After explaining that we were brothers, they questioned whether we got along ok–I suppose sibling rivalry could be a bad thing in a cockpit–and then admitted that they hadn’t realized it was possible or even allowed for two brothers to fly together.

Continue to part II…

Cockpit Chronicles: Flying with my brother (Part II)

Continued from Part I

We were both tired after arriving at the airport hotel in LA, so we didn’t meet up for dinner, as it was too late anyway. Instead we parted to our separate hotel rooms on the same floor and vowed to meet up at 7 a.m. the next morning.

After picking up breakfast in the airport employee cafeteria downstairs, we proceeded up to the luxurious operations in LA.

The fact that this prime real estate is occupied by the pilots in LAX is stunning. Formerly an Admiral’s Club, it includes the usual assortment of mail boxes, a few offices for the chief pilot and his staff and a dozen or more computers to access the weather and to pull up flight plans.

The modern-looking facility clashes with the 1980s vintage dot-matrix printers though.

What makes this operations so impressive is the view. You can look out at the airplanes on the one side as they park at their gates and then turn around and walk all the way to the other side, past a replica of a late nineteenth century pre-Wright brothers Chanute hang glider that’s on loan from the Planes of Fame Museum in Chino, before you arrive looking down on the other ramp.

As you worked your way around the vintage glider, all along the wall are historic ‘plates’ depicting the early history of the airline, and air travel in general. There were pictures of pilots and flight attendants and the planes they flew in the 30s through to this decade.

The cynic in me wondered just how long our operations could remain at such a lofty location.

Kurt finished up his usual call to dispatch and we worked our way into the terminal.

Our 767-200 pulls up to the gate at LAX

An hour before our scheduled departure, our 767-200 was taxied up to the gate by two mechanics. Kurt commented on the men’s unusually big smiles and said, “They must have taken it out for a spin, they look so happy.”

I looked down the fuselage. It dawned on me that I hadn’t flown this shortened version of the 767 since my initial training on this airplane ten years earlier. That fact might surprise people, but Boeing went to a lot of effort to design the two different 767s and the 757 to have very similar ‘systems’–the mechanical features you learn about in the first few weeks of ground school.

In fact, each airplane flew in a very similar manner, even though one is a wide-body (a short -200 version and a long -300 type) with two aisles and the other is much skinnier with just one aisle.The main flying difference with the 767 was that, compared with the 757, it was more sensitive in the ‘roll’ control. So just after lifting off the ground, it takes a moment to get used to the yoke with its boosted sensitivity if you haven’t been flying it regularly. It’s similar to going from a ’70s cadillac, with its loose power steering, to a Japanese import with a tight suspension. The 767 feels more solid and responsive and thus, more fun to fly.

Kurt and I had never been on the 767 together. So it was another airplane to add to our shared airplane list. I made a mental note to take some pictures inside the cockpit of the two of us, as I’ve done each time we’ve flown the other Boeings.

Kurt lifted off and climbed out over the ocean, before ATC turned us back toward the airport, which we were required to cross at 10,000 feet. He did a nice job of expediting the climb and we passed over LAX with room to spare, making the altitude restriction as we were still looking south west at the Catalina Islands while turning toward Los Angeles.

Before long we were over Las Vegas, which wasn’t as impressive during the day as it was the night before.

Just east of the city was Lake Mead, a beautiful reservoir that has lost so much water over the years it’s possible to see the changes along the shoreline from 37,000 feet.

I had forgotten just how beautiful this particular flight was. It had been a year or two since I’d flown a transcontinental flight across the US and I enjoyed the opportunity to take pictures of what I was missing when flying over the North Atlantic.

At the end of the Grand Canyon, we came upon the equally beautiful Lake Powell. Another aircraft complained ahead to ATC of moderate turbulence at our flight level. For Kurt, the decision was easy.

“Ask them where the rides are smoothest.” He said. I relayed his request to Denver Center and they offered us flight level 310, or 31,000 feet.

“Let’s try that.” Kurt said.

The lower altitude would mean we’d burn a few hundred pounds more fuel–100 pounds is about 15 gallons. But the guidance given by our company puts the priorities this way:

1) Safety
2) Passenger Comfort
3) Fuel efficiency

I was skeptical of the smoother ride below, but it turned out to be an excellent move. Once again we passed over the Rockies without the slightest bump. I have to hand it to Kurt. He works harder than anyone I’ve flown with to keep the ride perfectly smooth for the flight attendants and the passengers.

Avoiding the bumps again. Courtesy of

While over the Rockies, Kurt pointed out Telluride, Colorado just off his side of the airplane’s nose.

Flying over Telluride, Colorado

“Let me borrow your camera and I’ll get a shot of the launch area.” Kurt said.

Years ago, the hang gliding bug bit Kurt again and he began to fly a much higher performance kite, even managing to do some ‘cross-country’ flights. One of his most memorable experiences happened right below us at Telluride. He showed me where he launched, where the landing zone was, and where the clouds rolled in on the other side of the valley, which forced him to land early. Unfamiliar with the local weather, these clouds were common guests along the opposite hill, but always kept their distance from the launch area and landing zone.

Given his lack of knowledge of the area, he wisely elected to land.

I was envious. I did some hang gliding from a small hill while in college with an instructor who wanted to launch me off the mountain, but Kurt insisted I wait until he could be there. The timing was never right after that, and I regret not pursuing it further. Having a wife and kids makes you think twice about those kind of things, so I doubt I’ll try it again.

Over New Jersey, the controller asked us to give him as much notice as possible if we were going to need to deviate. He told us about a Qantas flight in front of us that required a turn away from some weather near Kennedy. Kurt’s smooth flight was now in jeopardy as we looked at a cloud formation parked over the airport. It was hard to tell how ‘developed’ this cloud was.

Sure enough, as we were about over Manhattan, we told New York approach that we’d have to fly out to Long Island before we could turn back toward JFK. Either that or we could go south to Newark and then back to the airport.

Neither options were available, and the controller gave us a holding pattern. Airplanes behind us began to enter the hold as well, but one flight told ATC they’d like to continue their approach. It’s always nice to have a canary to go into the mine before you. We elected to do the one turn in the holding pattern and wait for the preceding flight to give a report on the ride conditions.

The word came back that the flight experienced heavy rain but nothing more than light turbulence while on the arrival.

“All right, let’s start the approach.” Kurt said.

I jumped on the radio and told the controller that we were ready to rejoin the arrival. As the turbulence began, our on board ACARS printer paper ran out. We’d been getting multiple notes from the company about changes to our arrival gate, and that, along with the weather reports we needed, caused the printer to run out of paper.

After Kurt briefed the approach–an ILS to runway 04 right–I slid in a new roll of paper. These printers seem to run out just when you’re at the the busiest part of the flight, and while getting bumped around in the clouds.

I know Kurt wanted to make his usual nice landing, especially with me at his side, but the touchdown gods weren’t with him today. After another smooth flight across the country, he unceremoniously arrived at Kennedy with a light thump. No worries, he could make up for it tomorrow, I figured. Besides, he earned it after the extra effort he put into finding a nice ride across the country.

When we finally reached the hotel after an hour drive through heavy traffic with an aggressive (even by New York standards) Russian van driver, we were whipped.

But we rallied the energy to meet downstairs, since I had arranged a tour of the ‘crash pad’ where I’m going to stay when I start to commute from Germany to New York in May.

Fortunately it wasn’t too far from the hotel, but those clouds we had flown through earlier started to spit out a snow/freezing pellet combination that left a slushy mess on the sidewalks.

We opted to take a taxi.

“It’s a lot like fishing.” I joked to Kurt after we failed to stop the third empty cab that went by.

Kurt and I were thrilled with the apartment. To call it a crash pad is a disservice, since there are no other pilots staying there. It’s a two bedroom apartment that I’ll share with a friend who has lived in Manhattan for the past ten years. I’ve always wanted to see more of the city, and while I won’t be spending too much time there, this could be far less depressing than a traditional pilot crash pad.

That night, on Facebook, my neighbor, who didn’t know I was in New York lamented, “I wish there were a Bagel Fairy that could bring me some H&H Bagels from New York to New Hampshire. I just can’t stop craving one.”

So I had a goal for the next morning. A ‘quick’ run over to this famous eatery to pick up a dozen bagels that I would personally deliver to her.

As it happened, these bagels reached her far sooner than I expected.

When I woke up, I read reports of a fire at the Miami airport fuel tanks. A quick check of the computer showed that already the company was canceling some flights in and out of MIA due to the reduced fueling capacity.

Sure enough, as I walked back from the bagel shop, my cell phone rang. Our flight to Miami and Boston had both been canceled. We were now scheduled to deadhead from New York to Boston.

I went straight from the bagel shop, packed, and met Kurt in our van to LaGuardia before riding in a regional jet back to Boston.

The bagels were hardly cold when I showed up in my neighbor’s driveway just six hours after I bought them.

It was an abrupt end to our trip. I’ve been lucky to fly with Kurt on four different occasions in four different airplane types. If I could only fly with my flight attendant sister Kim, much of my aspirations made in grade school would have come true.

Since I’ll soon be based in New York, and Kurt remains in Boston, it doesn’t look like we’ll get another chance to pair up. Besides, it’s looking like a captain position is around the corner for me, as long as another downturn doesn’t get in the way.

There I go again, assuming.

Cockpit Chronicles takes you along on some of Kent’s trips as an international co-pilot on the Boeing 757 and 767 based in Boston. Have any questions for Kent? Check out the Cockpit Chronicles Facebook page or follow Kent on Twitter @veryjr.

Cockpit Chronicles: Six surreal sights seen by pilots

I’ve said it before; the office view from the pointy-end of an airliner is something that can only be matched by an astronaut’s view.

But that’s not to say we don’t get to see a few celestial sights of our own. No, I’m not going to touch on the rumored UFO sightings by pilots, although I promise I’ll keep my camera ready, just in case. I’m talking about the stunning sights, both man-made and natural that we can witness if we take the time to look for them.

Here are examples of six ‘out of this world’ sights as seen from the cockpit:

1) Rocket plumes and Shuttle launches:

On March 5th, while coming back to Boston from Santo Domingo, we saw the rocket plume of the secretive X-37B project. Even though it launched from Orlando, which was at least 600 miles away, we knew right away what it was. The spiraling exhaust left circles in the sky.

We knew to look for this as a possibility as our flight was dispatched with extra fuel, in case we needed to be re-routed well away from the launch area which was noted at the bottom of our flight plan.

The first sign of the rocket appeared as a trail of exhaust that began to swing off into a contorted lasso. The new moon, less than 24 hours old, presented itself in just the right spot amongst the rocket blast. Of course I had to pull out the camera.

%Gallery-118861%Occasionally, a Shuttle launch can be spotted as well. Back in the 727 days, before carrying a camera everywhere I flew, I saw a Space Shuttle launch while flying from San Juan to Tampa.

Passengers can get lucky as well, as seen in this video that caught the ascent of the Space Shuttle Discovery:

2) Noctilucent Clouds

Another rare natural event, which some speculate is actually enhanced by rocket and shuttle exhaust plumes, are noctilucent clouds.

The conditions have to be just right in order to witness these clouds that live at 300,000 feet, (80 to 85 kilometers) an altitude which seems impossible, considering the lack of atmosphere, for a cloud to exist.

They’re most commonly seen during a two month period that straddles the summer solstice. Furthermore, most sightings occur between 50 and 70 degrees latitude; perfect if you live north of New York, Madrid or Beijing and south of Barrow, Alaska.

Finally, as if to make it as difficult as possible for anyone to catch sight of these clouds, they’re only visible for an hour or two before sunrise or for a while after sunset. The reflecting sun illuminates the clouds from below, lighting them up in the dark sky.

I flew across the Atlantic at night, during the perfect time to witness these clouds, for eight years before finally sighting them. Two weeks before snapping these pictures, I had seen a wisp of a cloud that I probably wouldn’t have given any thought to.

But a British Airways pilot explained the clouds to a few curious pilots over our air-to-air frequency that’s often used to share ride information or to collect an email address of a passing flight if an especially good photo is taken.

He spelled the cloud to a pilot, who asked again for the name. N-O-C-T-I-L-U-C-E-N-T.

I vowed to look that up when we landed.

Less than two weeks later, the captain and I dimmed the lights (a time-consuming task involving 30 knobs that will be the subject of a future Cockpit Chronicles video) so we could get a better look at what appeared to be the Northern Lights.

They were spectacular. But there was one thing that didn’t seem quite right. They weren’t moving at all. Typically the Aurora Borealis glow and change shapes every five seconds or so.

After a few minutes I mentioned noctilucent clouds to Mark, the captain. The clouds lit up the arctic sky, although it was two to three a.m. over this part of the Atlantic. The sun wouldn’t be up for a few hours.

Initially I was disappointed that I only had a wide angle lens with me, but it turned out to be just the right look. I think it ranks as my favorite shot ever.

3) Satellites

I have to confess. I never knew it was possible to see satellites with the naked eye when I was a new pilot flying in Alaska. “Look at that traffic.” I said to the captain.

But soon, it became obvious that this ‘traffic’ was missing the rotating beacon or nav-lights typical of an airplane. And it was traveling too fast for its size.

Space shuttle floating away from the International Space Station last week.Jerry Lodriguss at Astropix

After that, I made it a practice to look for satellites when the conversation in the cockpit died off. Again, after dimming the cockpit lights, it was possible to see north-south satellites while flying over the interior of Alaska. I’ve since seen them going in other directions while flying in the jet. Typically, however they’re best seen between one and three hours after sunset, or before sunrise. Just like the noctilucent clouds, the reflecting sun lights them up well.

It’s possible to track the largest of these kind of objects, the International Space Station, and it’s really worth marking down the times it will pass overhead your area for a look. Set your alarm and check it out yourself. Maybe you’ll catch smaller satellite as well while looking. There’s even a good iPhone or Android app that I’ve been using while away from the computer and you want to know when the next satellite, space station or shuttle will pass overhead.

4) Northern Lights

While not exclusively spotted from aircraft, there’s no better time to see the the Northern Lights than while you’re flying at night, away from the bright lights of a city with a clear view to the north. I’ve caught them as far north as Fairbanks, Alaska and as far south as Spokane, Washington (which were the brightest, surprisingly).

If you’re on a night flight across the Atlantic and you just happen to be sitting on the left side of the airplane while traveling east, be sure to open your window shade once or twice to see if you can see anything glowing off in the distance. Very rarely will a pilot announce anything about the Aurora Borealis on these flights, since we presume that most passengers would rather not be disturbed. (See poll below).

5) Meteors and comets

Meteors are probably just as easy to see from the ground, but when you’re in an airplane for hours at a time, with no buildings or lights to obscure your view, it’s far more likely that you’ll see more meteors than those stuck on the ground (a.k.a. groundlings). Usually just one pilot will see the meteor, saying something along the lines of, “Aww, you just missed a bright one there” to the other pilot. If the light show continues, someone might mention it on the air-to-air frequency. The airwaves were lit up years ago when the Hale-Bopp comet first appeared. And just as in the noctilucent example, someone on the air knew all about the comet and proceeded to tell us exactly what we were looking at.

6) Static discharges or St. Elmo’s Fire

Finally, I thought I’d round out our collection of surreal sights with a video taken on one of my flights of a static buildup, sometimes referred to as St. Elmo’s fire, that we occasionally see when flying in the vicinity of thunderstorms.

Wikipedia has a full explanation of what causes this.

With the advent of the new dimming window shades on the 787, passengers are apt to see more of this type of show in the future. All it takes is a slight glow coming through a dimmed window and passengers will hopefully want to investigate by brightening up their shade. Perhaps they’ll get to see what we so often take for granted.


Photos by Kent Wien, Jerry Lodriguss and Aresauburn.

Cockpit Chronicles takes you along on some of Kent’s trips as an international co-pilot on the Boeing 757 and 767 based in Boston. Have any questions for Kent? Check out the Cockpit Chronicles Facebook page or follow Kent on Twitter @veryjr.

Hot coffee hijacks United Airlines plane?!

Drinking and driving is a problem … and drinking and flying is no different. A United Airlines pilot found this out the hard way: he spilled his coffee, which triggered a hijacking alert. So, United Flight 940, which was set to go from Chicago to Frankfurt, Germany, had to dash across the border to Canada for an unscheduled stop.

A hijacking alert can have that effect, you know.

The plane landed safely in Toronto, an emergency was declared and the defense department in Canada was notified. In the end, everything was sorted out

Hey, buddy: ever heard of a travel mug?

[photo by dimnikolov via Flickr]

Galley Gossip: A flight attendant Christmas story

I graduated from flight attendant training on the 8th of December in 1995. Two weeks later, on Christmas Eve, my roommate and I were called out to work a trip – together. The crew scheduling God’s must have been smiling down on us that day because it’s not often a flight attendant gets to work with their roommate who also happens to be their best friend on reserve. Although we were scheduled to layover in Buffalo, or maybe it was Albany (I can’t remember), we knew we were lucky. By the way, that’s us in the photograph.

What I remember most is glancing out the window and seeing rooftops and – Oh. My. God! – we were seconds from landing and I still had first class meal trays out in the cabin! I ran like crazy to collect everything and lock it up in the galley before we touched ground, barely making it to my jump seat in time. The Captain never made the prepare for landing PA, even though he swore he did when I called him on it later, which is why I had no idea how close we were to landing. As if that weren’t stressful enough for a new-hire, things went from bad to worse (at least in my head it did) real quick.

As we taxied to the gate, I began to make an announcement, you know the one. “Ladies and gentleman, welcome to….to….to -” Oh no…where the heck are we?! For the life of me I could not remember. My brain was shot after having flown to so many cities in just two weeks on the job. With my heart pounding like crazy, I frantically searched my pockets for the flight itinerary.

“Buffalo, we’re in Buffalo!” yelled a passenger. Or maybe he said Albany. I still can’t remember. But wherever we were that Christmas Eve, that’s when everyone on board started to laugh – at me. Mortified, I hung my head.

The following day my roommate and I wound up eating Christmas dinner out of a vending machine located on the second floor of our three-star hotel. The restaurant in the hotel was closed and there was nothing else open nearby. Although we would have been much happier eating turkey and dressing at home with our family and friends, we made the best of it with a couple packets of peanut butter crackers and Diet Coke. To this day, fifteen years later, it’s the most memorable Christmas I’ve ever had.

Four months later my roommate quit. I’ll never forget the day my cab pulled up to the curb outside our crash pad in Queens and I spotted her sitting on the stoop smiling from ear to ear. She couldn’t wait to tell me the big news. I hadn’t seen her look so happy since our first day of flight attendant training. The job is not for everyone, and being away from loved ones during the holidays certainly doesn’t make it any easier.

Today I still work for the same airline, and from time to time I still screw up. But not this Christmas! Seniority is everything at an airline and because I work out of New York, the most junior base in the system, I have the day off. New Years Eve, however, is a different story. So for those of you traveling to North Carolina in a few days, consider yourself warned.

NOTE TO SELF: North Carolina, North Carolina, I’m flying to North Carolina!

A special thanks to all the airline employees who went to work today! It’s because of them that many of you are having a very merry Christmas this year.

Photo courtesy of me! (Heather Poole)