Twenty Years and Counting

November 12, 2021

WE MADE IT. I had my doubts, but we pulled it off.

Today marks the 20th anniversary of the crash of American Airlines flight 587 in New York City. We have now gone twenty full years since the last large-scale crash involving a major U.S. carrier. This is by far the longest such streak ever.

On the sunny morning of November 12th, 2001, American 587, an Airbus A300 bound for the Dominican Republic, lifted off from runway 31L at Kennedy Airport. Seconds into its climb, the flight encountered wake turbulence spun from a Japan Airlines 747 that had departed a few minutes earlier. The wake itself was nothing deadly, but the first officer, Sten Molin, who was at the controls, overreacted, rapidly and repeatedly moving the widebody jet’s rudder from side to side, to maximum deflection. The rudder is a large hinged surface attached to the tail, used to help maintain lateral stability, and Molin was swinging it back and forth in a manner it wasn’t designed for. Planes can take a surprising amount of punishment, but airworthiness standards are not based on applications of such extreme force. In addition, the A300’s rudder controls were designed to be unusually sensitive, meaning that pilot inputs, even at low speeds, could be more severe than intended. In other words, the pilot didn’t realize the levels of stress he was putting on the aircraft. The vigor of his inputs caused the entire tail to fracture and fall off.

Quickly out of control, the plane plunged into the Belle Harbor neighborhood of Queens, a skinny section of Rockaway only a few blocks wide, with ocean on both sides. All 260 passengers and crew were killed, as were five people on the ground. It remains the second-deadliest aviation accident ever on U.S. soil, behind only that of American flight 191 at Chicago, in 1979.

Flight 587 was well known among New York City’s Dominican community. In 1996, merengue star Kinito Mendez paid a sadly foreboding tribute with his song El Avion. “How joyful it could be to go on flight 587,” he sang, immortalizing the popular daily nonstop.

This was a catastrophe to be sure. It was also the last multiple-fatality crash involving a legacy American airline, and the last on U.S. soil with more than 50 fatalities.

To be clear, there have been a number of post-2001 tragedies involving regional carriers and freighters. The worst of these were the Comair (2006) and Colgan Air (2009) crashes, in which 50 and 49 people were killed, respectively. In 2005 a young boy in a car was killed when a Southwest Airlines 737 overran a runway in Chicago, and in 2018 a woman on a Southwest Airlines 737 was killed after being partially ejected through a blown-out cabin window.

What we haven’t seen, however, is the kind of mega-crash that was once brutally routine, year after year. Take a look through the accident archives from 1970s through the 1990s. Seldom would a year go by without recording one or more front-page mishaps, with 100, 200, sometimes 300 (or more) people killed at a time. In the eighteen years prior to November, 2001, and not counting the September 11th attacks, the American legacies, which at the time included names like Pan Am, TWA and Eastern, suffered ten major crashes. The idea that we could span two full decades without such a disaster was once unthinkable.

It’s especially remarkable when you consider there are nearly twice as many planes, carrying twice as many people, as there were in 2001. Since then, the mainline American carriers have safety transported more than twenty billion passengers. Today they operate over four thousand Airbuses and Boeings between them, completing tens of thousands of flights weekly. The streak also takes in those dark years of the early 2000s, when pretty much all of the big carriers were in and out of bankruptcy, fighting for survival. Not to mention the dire challenges of the last twenty months, brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. Best of times, worst of times. All it would have taken is one screw-up, one tragic mistake. Yet here we are.

When we expand the context globally, the trend is even more astonishing. Between the 1980s and the mid-2000s there were dozens of air disasters worldwide — sometimes five or more in a year. In 1985 alone, twenty-seven major crashes — twenty seven! — killed almost 2,400 people.

How we got here is mainly the result of better training, better technology, and the collaborative efforts of airlines, pilot groups, and regulators. We’ve engineered away what used to be the most common causes of accidents. Yes, we’ve been lucky too, and the lack of a headline tragedy does not mean we should rest on our laurels. Complacency is about the worst response we could have. Air safety is all about being proactive — even a little cynical. Our air traffic control system needs upgrades, our airports need investment. Terrorism and sabotage remain threats, and regulatory loopholes need closing. The saga of the 737 MAX has been a cautionary window into just how fortunate we’ve been, and exposed some glaring weaknesses.

Duly noted, but a congratulatory moment is, for today, well earned. This isn’t a minor story.

Almost nobody in the media is paying attention, trust me. Crashes, not an absence of them, make the news. Call it the silent anniversary, but there’s no overstating it: we have just passed one of the most significant milestones in commercial aviation history.

 

U.S. Airline Accidents With 50 or More Fatalities, by Year

1970: 1
1971: 1
1972: 1
1973: 2
1974: 4
1975: 1
1976: 0
1977: 2
1978: 1
1979: 2
TOTAL 1970s : 15

1980: 0
1981: 0
1982: 2
1983: 0
1984: 0
1985: 3
1986: 0
1987: 1
1988: 1
1989: 2
TOTAL 1980s: 9

1990: 0
1991: 0
1992: 0
1993: 0
1994: 2
1995: 1
1996: 2
1997: 0
1998: 0
1999: 0
TOTAL 1990s: 6

2000: 1
2001: 5

Since 2001: 0

 

History’s Ten Worst Disasters Involving U.S. Carriers

1. 1977. Two Boeing 747s, operated by Pan Am and KLM, collide on a foggy runway at Tenerife, in Spain’s Canary Islands killing 583 people, 335 of them on the Pan Am plane. The KLM jet departed without permission and struck the Pan Am jet as it taxied along the same runway. Confusion over instructions and a blockage of radio transmissions contributed to the crash.

2. 1979. As an American Airlines DC-10 lifts from the runway at Chicago’s O’Hare airport, an engine detaches and seriously damages the wing. Before its crew can make sense of the situation, the plane rolls 90 degrees and disintegrates in a fireball beyond the runway, killing 273. The engine pylon design and airline maintenance procedures are faulted by investigators, and all DC-10s are temporarily grounded.

3. 1988. Two Libyan agents are later held responsible for planting a bomb aboard Pan American flight 103, which blows up in the night sky over Lockerbie, Scotland, killing 270 people, including 11 on the ground.

4. 2001. American Airlines 587 goes down outside JFK airport in New York killing 265.

5. 1985.  An Arrow Air DC-8 crashes after takeoff from Gander, Newfoundland, killing 256 people, most of them U.S. military personnel returning from Egypt. The disaster is blamed on ice contamination of the jet’s wings.

6. 1996. Shortly after departure, a fuel tank explosion destroys TWA flight 800, a 747 carrying 230 passengers and crew from JFK to Paris. There are no survivors.

7. 1995. A navigational error causes American Airlines flight 965, bound from Miami, to Cali, Colombia, to wander off course during arrival. The 757 hits a mountain 25 miles from its destination. There are four survivors of the plane’s 163 occupants.

8. 1987. A Northwest Airlines MD-80 crashes on takeoff at Detroit. The pilots had neglected to properly set the flaps and slats, and for reasons unknown the jet’s warning system failed to alert them. A four year-old girl was the only survivor among the 155 passengers and crew.

9. 1982. A Pan Am 727 goes down seconds after departing from New Orleans, Louisiana. There are 153 fatalities, including eight people on the ground. The plane had taken off into a rare and deadly microburst — a localized, high-power windshear produced by a violent thunderstorm.

10. 1978. A Pacific Southwest Airlines (PSA) 727 collides over San Diego with a small private plane. A total of 143 people die including seven on the ground.

 

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The Day of the Cockroach

corridor-shot-1994

 

September 11, 2021

MY MOST VIVID MEMORY of September 11th, 2001, is my memory of a cockroach.

It was one of the biggest roaches I’ve ever seen — copper-colored and bullet-shaped, the length of my little finger — and it came crawling across the platform of the Government Center subway station at 7:00 a.m., as I stood there waiting for the train that would take me to Logan Airport. It scampered, stopped, then zigged and zagged, in that deliberate yet utterly directionless way of insects, its footsteps so heavy I swear that I could hear them, click-click-click on the greasy concrete.

It portended everything, this giant subway cockroach. Or it portended nothing. And as it came closer I drew my foot back — my right foot, I remember with absolute clarity — and nudged it, gently, off the platform and down into the dark and filthy space alongside the tracks, where it disappeared more or less instantly into the shadows and detritus.

This is how we remember things.

Once on the train, I would chat briefly with a United Airlines flight attendant, whose name I never got, and who maybe, possibly — I’ll never know for certain — was headed to work aboard the doomed United flight 175.

I was on my way to Orlando, where I’d be picking up a work assignment later that afternoon. My airplane would lift off only seconds after American’s flight 11, the first of the two jets to hit the twin towers. I had watched the silver Boeing back away from gate 25 at Logan’s terminal B and begin to taxi. United 175 would launch a few minutes later. My plane was in-between.

In an old briefcase here in this room, I still have my boarding pass from that morning. It shows me assigned to seat 11D, on the aisle, but there were empty seats and I slid over the window.

Elevens were wild that day. On the 11th day of the month, flight 11 would collide with the World Trade Center, two buildings that shaped an enormous “11” in the Manhattan sky. I looked down from row 11.

But there was nothing to see, yet. I recall an almost uncannily clear view of Manhattan, taking note, as I always do, of that graceful little bend that the island makes — the way it turns eastbound just below Midtown. There was no smoke, no fire. I was just a few minutes — a matter of seconds, maybe — too soon.

A short time later, about halfway to Florida, we started descending. Because of a “security issue,” our captain told us, we, along with many other airplanes, would be diverting immediately. Pilots are polished pros when it comes to dishing out euphemisms, and this little gem would be the most laughable understatement I’ve ever heard a comrade utter.

Our new destination was Charleston, South Carolina.

A bomb threat had been called in. That was my hunch. My worry wasn’t of war and smoldering devastation. My worry was being late for work. It wasn’t until I joined a crowd of passengers in Charleston, clustered around a TV in a concourse restaurant, that I learned what was going on.

And there I am. I’m watching the video of the second airplane, shot from the ground in a kind of twenty-first century Zapruder film. The picture swings left and picks up the United 767 moving swiftly. This is flight 175. The plane rocks, lifts its nose, and, like a charging, very angry bull making a run at a fear-frozen matador, drives itself into the very center of the south tower. The airplane vanishes. For a fraction of a second there is no falling debris, no smoke, no fire, no movement. Then, from within, you see the white-hot explosion and spewing expulsion of fire and matter.

And then, a bit later, the collapse. And this is the important part. Because to me, had the airplanes crashed, blown up, and reduced the upper halves of those buildings to burned-out hulks, the whole event would nonetheless have clung to the realm of believability. Had the towers not actually fallen, I suspect our September 11 hangover, which rages to this day, might not have been so prolonged. It was the collapse — the groaning implosions and the pyroclastic tornadoes whipping through the canyons of lower Manhattan — that catapulted the event from ordinary disaster to historical infamy.

As I stand awestruck in this shithole airport restaurant in South Carolina, the television shows the towers of the World Trade Center. They are not just afire, not just shedding debris and pouring out oil-black smoke. They are falling down. The sight of those ugly, magnificent towers, collapsing onto themselves, is the most sublimely terrifying thing I have ever seen.

Then I would go to a motel and spend the night. The next morning I would rent a car and drive all the way home to Boston.

This is how we remember things.

And pilots, like fire fighters, police officers, and everyone elsewhose professions had been implicated, had no choice but to take things, well, personally. Four on-duty airline crews were victims, including eight pilots. John Ogonowski comes to mind, the good-guy captain of American 11. Of the thousands of people victimized that day, Captain Ogonowski was figuratively, if not literally, the first of them. He lived in my home state; his funeral made the front pages, where he was eulogized for his philanthropic work with local Cambodian immigrants.

Maybe it’s melodramatic to say I felt a bond or kinship with these eight men, but it’s something like that. What they went through, these eight colleagues on the very front edge of the attacks, the very men whose airplanes would be stolen and weaponized, is something I can’t fathom yet, at the same time, I can imagine and visualize all too chillingly.

And yes, in the ten-second bursts it took the towers to fall, I knew something about the business of flying planes would be different forever. I just wasn’t sure what it would be.

Fast-forward. It’s hyperbole to speak of the world having been “changed forever” that day. I’m conservative and skeptical when it comes to these things. History is bigger than us. Try to take the long view, even if, all these years on, the dominos haven’t stopped falling. Heck, tens of millions of people died in World War Two — tens of thousands at a time, as the incendiaries rained down over Europe and Japan. A hundred thousand bodies one night in Tokyo alone.

Sure, things are different now. Albeit for reasons we don’t always own up to. I have to say, I’m discouraged — or should that be encouraged? — because more than any “clash of civilizations,” the real and lasting legacy of Mohamed Atta and his henchmen is something more mundane: tedium. Think about it. The long lines, the searches and pat-downs, the litany of rules and protocols we’re forced to follow — all this meaningless pomp in the name of security. Of modern life’s many rituals, few are marinated in boredom as much as air travel. “Flying” is what we call it. How misleading. We don’t fly so much as we sit and stand around for interminable amounts of time.

And most distressing of all, we seem to be okay with this. There’s the real legacy of September 11th. The terrorists have won, goes the refrain, and perhaps that’s true. It isn’t quite what they hoped to win, but they’ve won it nevertheless.

The irony that nobody talks about is that the hijackers’ ability to pull off the 2001 attacks so spectacularly had almost nothing to do with airport security in the first damn place. I’ve made this point many times, but never have I seen or heard it acknowledged elsewhere. As conventional wisdom has it, the terrorists exploited a weakness in airport security by smuggling boxcutters onto the airplanes. But conventional wisdom is wrong. What the men actually exploited was a weakness in our mindset — a set of presumptions based on the decades-long track record of hijackings and how they were expected to unfold: diversions to Beirut or Havana, with hostage negotiations and standoffs.

The presence of boxcutters was merely incidental — particularly when coupled with the bluff of having a bomb. The men could have used knives fashioned from plastic, broken bottles wrapped with tape, or any of a thousand other improvised tools. The only weapon that mattered was the intangible one: the element of surprise. And so long as they didn’t chicken out, they were all but guaranteed to succeed.

For a number of reasons, just the opposite is true today. The hijack paradigm was changed forever even before the first of the Twin Towers had dropped to the ground, when the passengers of United 93 realized what was happening and fought back. That element of surprise was no longer a useful device. Hijackers today would face not only an armored cockpit, but also a planeload of people convinced they’re about to die. It’s hard to imagine a terrorist, be it with a boxcutter or a bomb, making it two steps up the aisle without being pummeled. It’s equally hard to imagine that organized groups would be willing to expend valuable resources on a scheme with such a high likelihood of failure.

In spite of this reality, we are apparently content spending billions of taxpayer dollars and untold hours of labor in a delusional attempt to thwart an attack that has already happened and cannot happen again. Guards paw through our luggage in a hunt for what are effectively harmless items: hobby knives, scissors, screwdrivers. Meanwhile, even a child knows that a lethal implement can be crafted out of virtually anything, from a ballpoint pen to a shattered first class dinner plate.

A September 11th post isn’t anything I’ve looked forward to, and I’m wary of the maudlin sentimentalizing and over-the-top coverage this anniversary will bring. But something needed to be said, and so here it is. After all, nothing in my lifetime had a more profound effect on air travel than the events of that Tuesday morning twenty years ago.

Until now. Until COVID-19 came along. And as the legacy of September 11th troubles me, so do its eerie parallels with the ongoing battle against coronavirus.

Both crises were born of legitimately dangerous circumstances, but quickly became twisted by politics and hysteria. Curiously, this seems to have happened in opposite ways: After the 2001 attacks, it was mostly people on the right who bought into the hype and fear; who saw terrorists around every corner and were willing to sign off on things like the Patriot Act, TSA, the Iraq War, and so forth. Left-leaning people resisted. This time, it’s left-leaning people who are the more fearful and pessimistic, while those on the right advocate for a softer, more laissez-faire approach.

Why the difference? I suspect it’s because people who lean right are more naturally drawn to responses involving power and conflict; going after enemies, seeking revenge, etc. — all the things that came into play after September 11th. The pandemic, on the other hand, centers on concepts like compassion and “saving people.” Thus it has galvanized that mindset instead of the more reactionary one.

Regardless of where you stand, the big question is: how and when does it end? Or does it end at all?

When people are afraid they adjust rapidly, to almost anything, accepting ways of life that are ultimately harmful. Replace “war on terror” with “war on coronavirus” and feel what I mean. After 2001, we spent two entire decades — and counting — obsessed with the specter of terrorism. It never went away. Will the same thing happen again?

There’s been a lot of talk and prognosticating about “after.” People often talk of a life “after COVID” or “when COVID is over.” This is a nonsensical proposition. Just as there can be no “end of terrorism,” the virus too will stay with us, chronic and endemic. How we adapt will define the next decade. Will we do so sensibly, or, as we chose with terrorism, by waging a ruinously expensive and self-destructive battle that, to this day, has no conceivable end.

 

Author’s photo, taken from the cockpit of a 19-seater in 1994.

An earlier version of this essay appears in chapter six of COCKPIT CONFIDENTIAL.

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Thirty Years On

The author and the “Spirit of Moncton,” in 1994.

 

August 28, 2020

HOW LONG have you been a pilot?

I’m never sure how to answer that question. I had my private pilot’s license at nineteen, but is that the proper benchmark? For a number of years after that, building time as an instructor, I flew nothing bigger than a single-engine four-seater. Define “pilot,” I guess.

What most people are getting at, I think, is how long I’ve been an airline pilot. And the answer to that one is easy: thirty years. Thirty years to the day, in fact. There couldn’t be a worse time for the marking of such a milestone, what with the entire industry bleeding at the jugular. But that’s aviation for you. In this weird business, the forces that shape your career are usually those beyond your control.

And here we are.

I vividly remember “the call.” Nowadays it’s more likely to be a letter, or an email, but in those days it was always a call. It was the summer of 1990, and I remember the phone ringing. I remember standing in the kitchen of the house I grew up in, where I still lived at the time, and picking up the receiver, hoping it was the airline at the other end. And I can recall, pretty much verbatim, the entire conversation between me and a secretary named Vanessa Higgins, as she told me I’d been selected for class. I should report for training on Monday, August 28th, Vanessa explained. The adrenaline rush almost knocked me to the floor.

I date my 30th anniversary not to the moment of that phone call, or to the day, a few months later, when I lifted off the runway with passengers for the first time. To me, it’s the day that I showed up for classroom training, in a rented schoolroom in downtown Bangor, Maine. That was the day I became an employee. Our instructor was a young pilot named Ubi Garcez, who today is a captain for Delta Air Lines. He welcomed us, allowed us to dispense with our neckties, and issued our ID badges, which in those days were little more than pieces of laminated cardboard on which Vanessa had hand-typed our names. My employee number was 421. And typed across the bottom was my date of hire: August 28, 1990 — probably the most significant day of my life, save for my birthday.

The company was an upstart outfit called Northeast Express Regional Airlines. We were one of the feeder affiliates for Northwest. Our planes, painted in red, said “Northwest Airlink” on the side. The company had been started in Maine, and kept its offices there, but its hub was in Boston, where our small turboprops would bring passengers in from outlying cities and connect them to Northwest’s Boeings and Douglases headed around the country and overseas.

This was the shittiest of shitty airlines. The planes were old and working conditions dismal. My starting salary was $850 per month, gross, and my first aircraft, the Beech-99, was a relic from the 1960s. It had no pressurization or autopilot, and most of its instruments and radios were the same ones I’d seen in the cockpits of the Pipers and Cessnas I’d flown as a novice. But none of that mattered. Salary, working conditions — those things meant nothing to me. All that mattered was to be sitting in that room, with that stupid-looking ID clipped to my pocket.

Page from the author’s logbook, 1991.

Pilot jobs in those days were exceptionally competitive. At twenty-four I was the third-youngest in our class of about a dozen. And with 1,600 or so flight hours I was one of the least experienced. I was fortunate to be there at all. I would study the others, wondering where and how I fit in. To this day I remember most of their names and can still hear their accents. One guy had flown business jets, another had flown 727s at Eastern. No, this wasn’t the major leagues. To make a baseball analogy, it was like getting to play for a last-place team at Triple-A in front of about 35 fans. But it was pro ball, so to speak. I’d made it. I was an airline pilot now.

My first “revenue flight,” to use a common if charmless aviation term, didn’t come for another three months. It would take place on October 21, 1990, a date promptly immortalized in yellow highlighter in my logbook. This cherished day involved, among other misfortunes, a drive to Sears at 9:30 in the morning, an hour before my sign-in time, because I’d already lost my tie. (And then the clerk’s face when I told him, “plain black” and “polyester, not silk.”). Then the big moment, in a thickening overcast just before noon, when I would depart on the prestigious Manchester, New Hampshire, to Boston route — a fifteen-minute run frequented, as you’d expect, by Hollywood stars, sheikhs, and dignitaries.

The plane was too tiny for a flight attendant, and I had to close the cabin door myself. Performing this maneuver on my inaugural morning, I turned the handle to secure the latches as trained, deftly and quickly in one smooth motion. What I didn’t see was the popped screw beneath the fitting, across which I would drag all five of my knuckles, cutting myself badly. The door was in the very back, and so I came hobbling up the aisle, stooping to avoid the low ceiling, with my hand wrapped in a bloody napkin.

It was oddly and improbably apropos that my inaugural flight would touch down at Logan International. Airline pilots, especially those new at the game, tend to be migrants, moving from city to city as the tectonics of a seniority list dictate. It’s a rare thing to find yourself operating your very first flight into the airport you grew up with. And I mean that — “grew up with” — in a way that only an airplane nut will understand. As I maneuvered past the Tobin Bridge and along the approach to runway 15R, I squinted toward the parking lot rooftops and the observation deck from which, as a kid, I’d spent so many hours with binoculars. Looking down, I was watching me watch myself, in a sense, celebrating this weird, deeply emotional culmination of nostalgia and accomplishment. If only my hand wasn’t bleeding so much.

A Beech 99 of Northeast Express.

Noisy and slow, the Beech-99 was a ridiculous anachronism kept in service by a bottom-feeder airline and its tightfisted owner. It had rectangular cabin windows that gave it a vintage, almost antique look, like the windows in a 19th-Century railroad car. Passengers at Logan would show up planeside in a red bus about twice the size of the plane. Expecting a 757, they were dumped at the foot of a fifteen-passenger wagon built during the Age of Aquarius. I’d be stuffing paper towels into the cockpit window frames to keep out the rainwater while businessmen came up the stairs cursing their travel agents. They’d sit, seething, refusing to fasten their seat belts and hollering up to cockpit.

“Let’s go! What are you guys doing?”

“I’m preparing the weight and balance manifest, sir.”

“We’re only going to goddamn Newark! What the hell do you need a manifest for?”

And so on. But this was my dream job, so I could only be so embarrassed. Besides, the twelve grand a year was more than I’d been making as a flight instructor.

In addition to just enough money for groceries and car insurance, my job provided the vicarious thrill of our nominal affiliation with Northwest. Our twenty-five or so little planes, like Northwest’s 747s and DC-10s, were done up handsomely in gray and red. Alas, the association ran no deeper — important later, when the paychecks started bouncing — but for now I would code-share my way to glory. When girls asked which airline I flew for, I would answer “Northwest,” with a borderline degree of honesty.

Our uniforms were surplus from the old Bar Harbor Airlines. The owner, Mr. Caruso, had also been the owner at Bar Harbor, and I suspect he had a garage full of remainders. Bar Harbor had been something of a legendary commuter airline in a parochial, New England sort of way, before finally it was eaten by Lorenzo’s Continental. As a kid in the late ’70s I would sit in the backyard and watch those Bar Harbor turboprops going by, one after another, whirring up over the hills of Eastie and Revere. A dozen years later I was handed a vintage Bar Harbor suit, threadbare at the knees and elbows. The lining of my jacket was safety-pinned in place and looked as if a squirrel had chewed the lapels. Some poor Bar Harbor copilot had worn the thing to shreds, tearing the pockets and getting the shoulders soaked with oil and jet fuel. I’m fairly sure it had never been laundered. Standing with my fellow new-hires in our new (old) outfits for a group picture, we looked like crewmembers you might see stepping from a Bulgarian cargo plane on the apron at Entebbe.

A Metroliner of Northeast Express, 1994.

My second plane was the Fairchild Metroliner, a faster and somewhat more sophisticated machine. It was a long, skinny turboprop that resembled a dragonfly, known for its tight quarters and annoying idiosyncrasies. At the Fairchild factory down in San Antonio, the guys with the pocket protectors had faced a challenge: how to take nineteen passengers and make them as uncomfortable as possible. Answer: stuff them side by side into a 6-foot-diameter tube. Attach a pair of the loudest turbine engines ever made, the Garrett TPE-331, and go easy on the soundproofing. All of this for a mere $2.5 million a copy. As captain of this beastly machine, it was my duty not only to safely deliver passengers to their destinations, but also to hide in shame from those chortling and spewing insults: “Does this thing really fly?” and “Man, who did you piss off?”

The answer to that first question was sort of. The Metroliner was equipped with a pair of minimally functioning ailerons and a control wheel in need of a placard marking it “for decorative purposes only.” It was sluggish and unresponsive, is what I’m saying. Somewhere out there is a retired Fairchild engineer feeling very insulted. He deserves it.

Like the 99, the Metro was too small for a cockpit door, allowing for nineteen backseat drivers whose gazes spent more time glued to the instruments than ours did. One particular pilot, whose identity I’ll leave you to guess, had doctored up one of his chart binders with these prying eyes in mind. On the front cover, in oversized stick-on letters, he’d put the words HOW TO FLY, and would stow the book on the floor in full view of the first few rows. During flight he’d pick it up and flip through the pages, eliciting some hearty laughs — or shrieks.

Northeast Express route map, 1994.

In the spring of 1993 I graduated from the Metro to the De Havilland Dash-8. The Dash was a boxy, thirty-seven-passenger turboprop and the biggest thing I’d ever laid my hands on. A new one cost $20 million, and it even had a flight attendant. Only thirteen pilots in the entire company were senior enough to hold a captain’s slot. I was number thirteen. I went for my checkride on July 7th, shortly after my twenty-sixth birthday. For the rest of the summer, I would call the schedulers every morning, begging for overtime. Getting to fly the Dash was a watershed. This was the real thing, an “airliner” in the way the Metro or the 99 could never be, and of all the planes I’ve flown, large or small, it remains my sentimental favorite.

I flew the Dash only briefly, and Northeast Express would be around only for another year. Things began to sour in the spring of ’94. Northwest, unhappy with our reliability, would not renew our contract. We were in bankruptcy by May, and a month later the airline collapsed outright.

The end came on a Monday. I remember that day as vividly as I remember my bloody-knuckle inaugural in New Hampshire four years earlier. No, this wasn’t the collapse of Eastern or Braniff or Pan Am, and I was only twenty-seven, with a whole career ahead of me; still it was heartbreaking — the sight of police cruisers circling our planes, flight attendants crying, and apron workers flinging suitcases into heaps on the tarmac. Thus the bookends of my first airline job were, each in their own way, emotional and unforgettable. That second one, though, I could have done without.

Dash-8 at Kennedy Airport, 1993.

I have only a few mementos from that job. A few scraps of paper, a set of wings, a coffee mug, and a tiny number of poor-quality photos, not one of which, for better or worse, shows the Beech-99.

From that final day at Northeast Express through today, it’s been both an uphill and downhill journey. Many years and five airlines later, I finally made it to the major leagues — to the New York Yankees, as it were, to revisit my baseball analogy. Along the way I’ve endured bankruptcies, multi-year furloughs, and now the COVID-19 debacle that, for all I know at this point, could end the game completely. Highlights, lowlights, life-defining thrills and crushing disappointments, it’s all packed in there.

And it continues. I judge my career as a successful one — I made it further than most pilots do — and it remains a work in progress. However and whenever it reaches its conclusion, at the beginning of it all — and really at the heart of it all — is that first day of class in 1990. Thirty years ago today.

Photos by the author, except Beech-99 courtesy of Rich Morgan.

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