Jet Lag

For most of the seventies, I must have averaged 60 miles per hour, 24 hours per day. My work called for jetting across enough time zones to keep my circadian rhythm steadfastly botched.

The first week on my new assignment at corporate headquarters in Connecticut, I "red-eyed" to California and woke up the next morning in a room at the Century Plaza Hotel, disoriented. My gosh, it's almost noon back at the office. I grabbed for the phone and dialed my new boss. Push-button dialing was years in the future.

"You're in Los Angeles!" exclaimed the voice on the phone.

"Meeting got called yesterday, Don. Sorry, but I didn't have a chance to -- "

"Let's get something straight," interrupted the Chief of Staff. "If we are going to have a viable relationship, you must learn never to telephone me for the solitary purpose of saying where you are (click)."

The management team of this huge, multinational company had set a goal of growing at the rate of one billion dollars per year -- per year! My responsibilities included providing a "corporate overview," according to a memo I found on my desk. As far as travel was concerned, it said, "you have an unlimited budget" -- an oxymoron, of course.

Countless meetings and plant visits jammed each week. In between, were the shriek of jets and the bustle of hotel lobbies. I saw much of the world through venetian blinds. Our travel department would whip up the arrangements, our secretarial staff linked us back together again by phone.

    "Where are you today? Please hold."
    "Uh, London."
As a bachelor-father, I tried to arrive home in time for dinner with my teen-age children.
    "Where were you today, Dad? Please pass the butter."
    "Uh, Pittsburgh."
No exaggeration: I remember one period of nine consecutive working days in which I day-tripped all over the North East and as far away as St. Louis but still made it home each evening. In time for dessert, at least.

Then, too, there were the corporate jets.

We had five of them. Three SabreLiners, a French Falcon, and -- tah-dah! -- the Gulfstream II. Faster than airliners and convenient but for me hardly a perquisite. Corporate jets are mighty cramped for long trips.

Two factors helped, though. One was the poker games.

    "We're touching down, guys."
    "Shut up and deal."
The other, of course, was watching the action in the cockpit.   Just imagine a wide-eyed juvenile perched in the jumpseat of the G2 at 41,000 feet -- three times higher than my Cessna -- on a clear night eastbound from Chicago, captivated by the incandescent sweep of the entire Atlantic shore from Cape Cod to Philadelphia in the glow of a gabillion unblinking watts.
    "You want in the next hand?"
    "Deal me out."
The "G-2" could take us to Europe non-stop. We would climb in and, during the climb-out from the White Plains Airport where the company planes were based, we would put on our pajamas. Sleep came easy. During the G-2's descent, there was just enough time to shave, dress, and breakfast before landing. After an all-day meeting to review some project, followed by dinner at a fine restaurant, it was back to the plane and pajamas for the return trip. We would show up at the office by nine, not even yawning.
    "Dropped by for lunch yesterday. Where were you?"
    "Uh, Paris."
Little time for highjinks. Still, I tried to stay in practice. For example, there was this refueling stop at the Minneapolis airport. A bunch of us strolled across the tarmac to the Falcon. Possibly not by accident, I was wearing a gray suit which nearly matched those worn by the flight crew. The line boy handed me a clipboard to sign for the refueling service.

I put down my briefcase and studied the numbers. "Don't tell those executives I asked this, but which way is Rochester from here?"

The line boy tore off the receipt. "South, about 75 miles. Unless you mean the one in New York; that's back east somewhere, I think."

Chronic "jet lag" was an occupational syndrome. One particular trip by corporate jet -- an exceptionally short one -- gave new meaning to the expression.

It was after six o'clock on the day before a scheduled plant visit to a semiconductor factory. The five-man acquisition team held a caucus that afternoon. Our meeting was about to break up.

"Where is this place, Jack?" asked Don, pulling on his coat.

"Wappingers Falls."

Don, the consummate staff guy, was my neighbor in New Canaan. He turned to me. "Want to car-pool it?"

My definition of a staff guy is one who, if his bed catches on fire, rolls over and complains to his wife, "We must do something about this." Whereas line managers are known to "point with pride," a staff guy only "views with alarm." My neighbor, Don, appeared to suffer from a funereal funk. I learned it was merely a studied affectation. The man was still in his forties. I nodded. "Pick you up at seven, Don."

Jack, the organizer of this particular exercise, spoke up. "We'll be taking a company plane."

Don grunted. "You gotta be kidding. Wappingers Falls is this side of the Hudson near Poughkeepsie, less than 50 miles from where we live."

Jack slapped himself on his balding pate. An energetic man in his fifties, he flipped through his Rolodex and reached for the phone. "Damn!" he exclaimed after a time. "No answer. And our hosts will be waiting for us at the airport. With cars."

Monty had flown in that day from California to join our task force. He grinned at Jack. "I'd just as soon drive."

"Too late to cancel the plane, I suppose," commented George, the fifth member of the team. "Which one is it?"

"The G-2," said Jack grimly. He hurriedly dialed Flight Operations at White Plains. "Missed 'em," he said with a snap of his fingers.

I glanced across the conference table. Monty is an engineer-turned-manager, a distinguished author in the computer field. He has a quick and jovial mind, but he can be intensely serious too. I knew him to be a confirmed aviation non-enthusiast, for he had respectfully declined any number of invitations to go aloft in Two-Four Fox. "Get yourself an airliner," he had said.

Don, who never grinned, expressed a staff-guy thought about driving to White Plains from our homes in New Canaan. "White Plains is actually the same distance -- away from Wappingers Falls!"

Jack stood up. "See you all at the hangar, gentlemen. Seven sharp, if you don't mind."

"We have a little problem," said our pilot. He was kneeling in the aisle of the Gulfstream II as the five of us came aboard. "Wappingers Falls is reporting 'wind calm'."

"What does that mean?" Monty asked me with a laugh not born of mirth.

I shrugged. "The runway must not be long enough for the G-2."

Jack looked even more chagrined than last night.

"Wind," said George, a veteran of corporate life and a student of all subjects including aviation, "wind effectively shortens the required landing distance."

The pilot nodded. "We would like to have at least 10 knots, this morning, okay?" This man had the only job in the company I truly coveted. He reminded me of someone, but I couldn't remember who, and I didn't catch his name. From his appearance it should have been Scot or Chuck or Buzz. He commented cheerfully that the flight would be short. "Which means, with our fuel load, the G-2 will be landing heavy."

"Great," said Don. A staff guy never uses that word unless in sarcasm.

"Can't you off-load some fuel?" Jack asked.

"O'Brien is checking on that right now," answered the pilot, referring to our co-pilot. "It will take quite a long time, though. I recommend that you notify the people who are meeting you, okay?"

Jack shook his head. "Can't reach 'em." This was the seventies; although predicted by some of us, cellular telephony was decades away.

Monty grinned at Jack. "I'll go get my rental car."

"Let's go ahead and fly up there," suggested I. "If a wind comes up, fine. We won't have waited around here to off-load fuel, and the plant tour can take place as planned."

"And if there's still no wind?" asked Monty.

George yawned. "We would have to fly back here."

"And then drive to Wappingers Falls," added Don.

"That's not what I had in mind," I said edgewise. "If there is no wind, we can just fly around playing poker and burning off the fuel."

"Sure," Monty grumbled. "You would like that."

George folded his New York Times in quarters and set to work on the crossword puzzle -- with a ballpoint pen. He is famous for solving them left-to-right, top-to-bottom, while carrying on a conversation on any subject.

"The guys waiting for us on the ground will see us in our goddam G-2," Jack said ruefully. "They'll really wonder what the hell we're up to." Knowing Jack, he probably added the s-word.

George shrugged. "What else is there to do?"

Don shook his head grimly. "Great."

The Gulfstream II blasted into the sky. No sooner had the gear doors thumped closed and we were at a couple of thousand feet -- as high as we would go. Next thing you know, the gear is coming down again and we are descending. Just like that.

The pilot's voice came over the cabin speaker. "Gentlemen, the surface wind at the airport is still reported to be less than five knots."

Ripe epithets were expressed by Jack. Don slumped in his seat, grimacing. Monty made a sound something like laughter. George, glasses low on the bridge of his nose, made marks in his puzzle.

The plane banked and I looked down at the tiny field a thousand feet below. Sure enough, there were two limousines parked side-by-side near the ramp, all doors open. Standing beside them in their three-piece suits were our hosts for the plant tour. You could see them gazing up at us, shading their eyes against the morning sun. I described the scene for my colleagues.

Another round of salty unquotables from Jack.

What is at stake here? 

A small impact, so to speak, to our collective egos, a blow to our corporate pride. Surely forgettable in weeks or days, considering the pace of events. We were, after all, the 'prospective customers' for an acquistion. The five of us might have done a better job of planning, that's all. We could even blame our travel department. Staff guys do that sometimes. 

No. What was at stake here was time. And time was indeed valuable.

Figure it out. The assignment we shared was to develop a billion dollars per year of new business for the company -- every year. Excuse the Andrew H. Brown reasoning here, but that amounts to $5 million dollars per year every day. You are looking at more than $10,000 per minute, folks. The most precious company resource is -- well, us! Don't want to waste executive minutes. It is by that very argument the company justifies all these fancy airplanes in the first place. 

We are the make-it-happen guys. No problems, just opportunities. Find those objections, then overcome them. Clear the bar, then raise it. Move and shake, push and persuade. Make it happen.

There can be no doubt that the mentality just described is the worst for any aspect of aviation. Yet, you will find many pilots who interpret an adverse weather report as merely an objection to overcome. They are the make-it-happen guys of the air. And they don't, sometimes.

Consider the Beechcraft Bonanza with its characteristic V-tail. It is referred to by those of us who can't offord one, as the "Fork-ed Tail Doctor Killer." Now, the plane is not especially dangerous. The Bonanza is simply a fast, slippery airplane, popular among members of the medical profession -- the savers of life, the overcomers of disease and hurt.  Doctors are themselves too often the victims of hubris. So are their passengers. And then there are lawyers.

The overcomers. Watch out for them. Whether they fly Bonanzas or Barons, Citations or Skywagons. Doctors, lawyers, corporate chiefs. Custers in the sky. People who habitually overcome diseases, opponents, competitors -- even their own fears. Some of them get it in their minds that they can overcome anything, including atmospheric realities, mechanical warnings, fast-rising terrain, or -- well, a runway that's not long enough to land on.

There we were, the five of us, bathed in self-importance, indignant to be suspended unproductively aloft, caught with our gear down, meandering around the sky, will-powering up a breeze for the Wappingers Falls airport.

Jack crouched his way forward to discuss the matter with the flight crew. Whatever was said surely increased the psychic pressures on that pilot. The tragic consequences of dramas such as this one are well documented. You could smell the growing impatience. Let's put this thing on the ground, damn it. We have business to attend to.

I took a deck of cards out of a compartment. "Anybody up for a few hands?"   

To business functionaries, flight is but a means not an end. Yet, aviation expressions are borrowed shamelessly, often ominously.
  • "You'll never make it fly," is a common disparagement.
  • A proposal might not even "get off the ground."
  • A vanquished competitor is said to be "down in flames."
  • "Crash and burn" describes the consequences of missing a vital deadline.
  • A risky policy or public relations ploy is "pushing the envelope."
  • This one is my personal favorite: An overwhelmed executive can "get behind the power curve."

We, the make-it-happen guys, the archetypical overcomers checked our watches. The people on the ground were doing the same, surely. A half a million dollars worth of minutes went by.

"Hey George," spoke I, tongue firmly in cheek. "Need any help? My brother and I know every word they put in those things."

George counted some squares. "Seven-letter word for a white crystalline acid."

I shook my head. "That's one my brother knows."

George winced.

Our pilot, voice taunt, announced a slight wind increase. Jack returned to his seat unsmiling.

To business functionaries, pilots are functionaries.

The career path of a professional pilot is curious indeed and quite unlike other professions. Consider their training. 

Some professional pilots, of course, learn how to fly in the military, where they were selected at least in part for their derring-do. You don't expect to find mild-mannered 'fraidy-cats in the cockpits of modern fighter-bombers, nor wimps at the controls of helicopter gun-ships. Civilian aviation is not supposed to be exciting, though, is it.

Airline de-regulation has created a demand for pilots that exceeds the supply from military sources. If not academy trained, how? 

These days many pay their own way. An airline pilot might start off as a 'ramp tramp' -- working around an airport accumulating hours and eventually getting a commercial license. Next step: a CFI rating -- Certified Flight Instructor, a person who hangs out at flying clubs giving lessons in Cessnas and Cherokees at starvation wages in order to accumulate hours. Lucky CFIs take jobs as corporate jet-jocks, hoping to work their way up and be accepted by an airline company, where they start at the bottom again. The process takes years of determination. And something else.

A man or woman must have a passion for the sky to expend the requisite effort. Which raises the question, do aviation enthusiasts make the best airline pilots? 

Consider the many personality types you encounter in business. Behavior experts have labored to classify people according to...

  • Task-Orientation, 
  • People-Responsiveness, 
  • Ego-Drive. 
Management scientists, who invariably model the world in quadrants, have identified the Analytics and Amiables, the Expressives and Drivers. Managers are counseled to match the appropriate types to respective career assignments. 
  • Analytics and Amiables make good accountants and engineers, according to theory. 
  • Expressives and Drivers to wind up in marketing and sales. 
If we have learned anything from Darwin that might apply to the human species, it's that environments do the selecting of attributes, not vice versa. The holes pick the pegs. Birds have wings because they fly, not vice versa. 

One might expect, then, that Analytics and Amiables should be 'selected' by chess and golf, not steep turns and stalls. Your standard Expressives and Drivers are the types most likely to be drawn to the sky -- the ones to be found in aerial combat schools or sweating out engine-out landings in the right seat of a Cessna 152. But which would you prefer to have flying your next airliner? a salesman or an accountant? a risk-taking entrepreneur or a risk-averse book-keeper? 

Which type of individual is more given to the joyous exultation in the sky, to be willing to pump gas and wash planes just to be near them, to go bouncing around the sky with student pilots? 

And, then, which type of individual is best suited to sitting for hours in a cramped office-in-the-sky, to pressing buttons and reading meters, to strict adherence to regulations, to following rigid procedures, to repetitious, non-creative, non-improvised behavior?

A slight wind increase, did he say? I declined to suppose that our pilot is yielding to executive pressure. I listened to the whine decline in the engines. I watched the flaps emerge from the trailing edge of the wing and felt the rumbling buffet of increased drag. Our youthful pilot has made a decision on behalf of the enterprise.

Thus did the Gulfstream II relinquish its security in the sky for a dubious encounter with earth. Above the forests along the Hudson River, cheers rang out from the overcomers. Some of them.

What was at stake? More than five egos, for sure.

Down we went. The plane tilted up nose high. I tightened my belt. Don put down his Wall Street Journal and did the same. I felt the final pitch adjustments as the pilot "walked the thing down down the glide-slope," in aviation talk. Monty was seated ahead of me facing aft, eyes inert. George handed me his completed puzzle for inspection. I flashed a look out the window at the trees rising to meet us and wondered how my kids would remember me.

    "Not a bad father, really. Please pass the butter."
The G-2 apparently can take more punishment than the people inside. As we hit, I watched the flexing of the wing, expecting to see the landing-gear strut stabbing through it. A familiar pain zipped up my back, a pain first experienced five years ago at Crystal Air in a Schweitzer something-or-other.
    That's who our pilot reminds me of -- Jeff! The half-assed flight instructor who augured in our sailplane. And now he's a jet-jock?
Full reverse thrust and the nose wheel slammed against the runway. Briefcases flew along the aisle. Monty dodged mine. It hit against the bulkhead and stayed there. Ears saturated by the screaming engines, I could hear nothing else, but I knew the wheels must be scuffing along the pavement. I felt the shuddering, shuddering. Painted markings on the far end of the runway passed my window.
    Naah, it couldn't be Jeff. Too much of a coincidence. You can bet, though, I'm gonna find out his goddam name. If we make it.
The G-2 skidded to a stop. My briefcase fell to the floor. Monty laughed. Engines quiet. Jack smiled. Maybe ten feet to spare. "Great," said Don.

"Anybody up for a plant tour?" I asked.

The pilot's named was Chuck.


 
 
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