Guest Editor Dave Nichols
Ball Peen Hammers and Earth Worms
By Dave Nichols
I was on the jump seat of a 727 shortie operated by a major carrier. We were on a regular passenger flight from Houston to Cleveland, then on to Buffalo and New York-LaGuardia. Ah yes, the days of point-to-point flying. During 1976, many air traffic control facilities were doing reciprocal arrangements between pilots and controllers. Each would walk a mile in the other’s shoes. I was spending the day with this crew. Next week, they would come to approach control in Houston and “plug in” with me and closely observe radar air traffic control. I participated in a lot of these programs. As a pilot and controller, I enjoyed both sides of the fence. About 20% of the controllers at Houston Approach were active pilots. Six of us were dyed in the wool, over the edge aviation addicts. When we weren’t controlling we were flying light planes or jump seating with air carriers to broaden our knowledge. As a commercial pilot I did not get a break with a major air carrier. Jump seat privilege helped me fill my personal jet gap.
The flight today was going to play chicken with an easterly moving squall line, somewhere west of Cleveland. The captain was hoping it would move fast enough to rumble across CLE before we got there. Not to be: the line of thunderstorms was 20 miles west of Cleveland when we arrived, so we were assigned a holding pattern 40 miles west. The stack was filling up – about 10 aircraft, all 1000 feet apart vertically, flying the racetrack pattern. Above us was a Northwest DC-10; I remember this because it seemed like only 500 feet due to its size. As we sliced in and out of small cumulus clouds I could see the wide-body up there just ahead of us. It looked like we were maneuvering to perform in-flight refueling. Just below our level was a North Central Convair 580.
Airline captains have a common thread: they like to be in charge and in control. I don’t blame them. When holding in time consuming and fuel eating stacks they become antsy. The schedule is flitting away and the fuel remaining starts gnawing at the planning side of their brains. They are stuck on a treadmill. Transmissions to controllers become more frequent. “Has that squall line moved east of the airport yet?” and “Say surface winds now,” and the infamous “Could you vector us around the end?” Impatience is present in all professions and at all levels.
What I have noticed through the years about holding pattern etiquette is it only takes one airliner to leave the hold and several others will follow. After a few minutes, some remaining captains feel they are being shuttled to the rear of the line and they start requesting to head inbound. Sometimes this chain of events happens too soon. The controller knows the heavy weather will not be gone before the first airplane starts the approach. He has the big picture. On today’s trip it was the DC-10 above us who asked first to leave the mundane pattern and be vectored for the approach. I could tell by the controller’s voice inflection that it was too soon. All of us were in the clear, away from the mess. The storm would move past CLE in about twenty more minutes. Why would anyone want to bore into that gray mass and shoot the approach?
Within seconds, a 737 pilot asked to follow the DC-10 “in”. The momentum quickly built. Our captain was the third to leave. As we banked away I saw the Convair 580 below us. He stayed. I whispered: “You are the wisest of them all.” The approach controller warned every one that final approach was covered in heavy rain. He reluctantly turned us over to the final approach controller. Just in case you didn’t know, controllers do not have the right to deny an approach to a pilot as long as the airport is still there.
Our altitude was about 7,000 feet when we penetrated the blackness. As we came up on the new frequency, the DC-10 called out “picking up hail at five thousand”. His voice was high pitched. In the same breath we were in it, too. Ball peen hammers were glancing off the windshield. This was my first encounter with hail at 230 knots. I couldn’t believe how the windshield was able to hold up. The cracking sound of the hail on the glass was startling. I expected the windshield to be in my lap any second. I never even had the presence of mind to think about the engines; Those poor compressor blades. Our captain asked for a 90-degree turn to the left but the radio frequency was hopelessly clogged with people stepping on each other. In one full minute we were out of it. It was still solid IFR with turbulence but no hail. The thunder was as loud as an explosion. I now know what submariners felt during a depth charge attack. The lead dog DC-10 plowed on, beat up but undaunted.
When we turned a 12-mile final the turbulence stopped. All we had to contend with now was just torrential rain. The 737 ahead of us was quite concerned about the rain at the airport and braking conditions on the runway. The controller said, matter of factly, “Braking action reported fair to poor due to standing water and worms.” “Worms?!” blurted the 737 first officer in a non-humorous voice. “That’s affirmative, we haven’t had a landing in a while so the ops car did the braking test. He said there are thousands of earth worms all over the runway.”
Despite the experiences of the last ten minutes, boyish smiles were passed around the cockpit. Now it was time to get this three-holer on the runway. The rain was inundating, engulfing. The DC-10 called a missed approach. Quick glances were shared. Windshield wipers on “full” did not buoy my confidence. A blurry landing flare was made and our machine plunked down firmly on the mains. When the nose wheel lowered to the soaked, worm covered pavement we “shlipped and shlided” ten degrees left and right. The rudder was all the captain had to maintain directional control. Brakes resulted in nothing but anti-skid thumps but he got it slowed down with just reversers. We exited the runway in good shape.
After parking at the jetway, the rain stopped and I went outside with the flight engineer. He was going to do a thorough walk around. The ramp guys were laughing pretty hard despite the fact that they were soaking wet. All over the belly was a slimy coating of brown mush. The ground crew thought it was poop from the forward lav but it was thousands of night crawlers, reduced to organic pulp. The flight engineer yelled for a hose down. As we completed the fifteen-minute walk around, the mechanics went up in a cherry picker to look at the engine intakes. I saw, out of the corner of my eye, that beautiful Convair 580 taxiing in without a drop of water on it.
Copyright Photo: Bruce Drum. Convair 580 N4810C (msn 100) of North Central Airlines prepares to taxi from the gate at Central Wisconsin Airport.
Write Dave Nichols at firstname.lastname@example.org
Read Dave previous articles:
A Day With Aspen Airways: CLICK HERE
Nostalgic Tickets: CLICK HERE
Spring Break with Lake Central: CLICK HERE
What Allegheny Meant To Me: CLICK HERE
A Day with Southern Airways: CLICK HERE
Mohawk’s Incredible Weekends Unlimited: CLICK HERE