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After flying the hot F-8 Crusader in the US Navy for a few years, I joined United Airlines. Now and then people ask if I had a scary or even memorable flight. In 33 years with United there were several, but my favorite took place on a windy, dark, and snowy night in Boston.
For four years I was a check pilot on the 757 and 767 for Captains and Copilots. On this night we were in a 757 and it was a new copilot, but that’s misleading: he was a former Air Force C-5 pilot. The C-5 is big, so I knew he wouldn’t be a problem and he wasn’t. This would be only the fellow’s third actual landing in an airliner. He’d had one good one and one not so good. This was going to be a demanding test for him and I was anxious to see how he handled it.
I always told the new guys, and even the old guys if it was going to be a challenge, “If at any time in the approach you feel uncomfortable, tell me and I’ll finish the landing. If at any time I feel uncomfortable, I will tell you and I will finish the landing.” But it was a hollow threat because I never took the airplane away from a single pilot at United, although I had a couple of times when I gave them specific instructions, rather firmly.
An important detail for this story: on the approach page we used for landing in Boston, down at the bottom is a note: “On the south side of the airport is a deep-water channel.” I had seen it and wondered why I should care — it turned out to be important.
The snow wasn’t very heavy, but it was coming down. The wind wasn’t strong, but it was enough to make the approach very bumpy. That’s actually more important for the passengers than the pilots. Passengers tend to associate bumpy with scary or dangerous. It is neither.
We received instructions to land on runway 04 Right. There was a 04 Left, but it was being used for takeoffs. We broke out of the overcast at about 1,000 feet and had the runway in sight, which was a good feeling, but the tower came up and said, “There is a liquid nitrogen ship transiting the deep-water channel. You are prohibited from flying over this ship. You can either transition and land on 04 Left or go around for another approach to 04 Right.”
We were 90 seconds to touchdown. My brain was saying I do not want to go around in this weather and make another approach, but I didn’t say that; I asked the copilot what he wanted to do. He said he’d take 04 Left. That made me happy, but he had some work to do in the next minute and a half. He made a gentle, descending swing to the left and brought the Boeing in for a perfect landing on 04 Left. I was very happy and relieved. He was going to pass the check ride for sure.
As we taxied to the gate, I set the brakes and told him I wanted him to immediately get his hat on and stand by the passenger door just outside the cockpit. I would shut the engines down and do the checklist. He asked if I was serious and I told him yes. After the last passenger deplaned, he came back into the cockpit laughing. He said every single passenger thanked him for getting them on the ground safely. I told him, “I didn’t want you to miss it. That’s the only time they don’t think we are overpaid.”
We went to the hotel and I told him change clothes and come back to the lobby in ten minutes. I was going to take him to the famous Cheers bar for a beer. Ten minutes went by, then fifteen, then twenty. I was beginning to wonder if Air Force guys were always late for appointments. Finally, he appears. I asked him, “Why so late?” He said, “Sorry, I had to call my wife and tell her about that landing.” That was okay with me.
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