“Newark is a stinking vat, staved in smoke and coopered in swamp gas.” – E.K.G.
After serving Sierra as a prop co-pilot for more years than I like to admit, I landed my first gig in what is now known as a “shiny” jet. My seat was still the Co-pilot. However, my new company titled me Officer. I’m not sure what I was an Officer of, but I do know it had nothing to do with a nice compensation package or relaxing schedule.
My first assignment was to fly into Newark’s Liberty airport. It was the start of my IOE, Initial Operating Experience, and soon I would be a bona fide jet pilot. The regional jet, emblazoned with America West Express livery, flew as fast and high as the bigger airliners. It would only be a matter of time before I would make it to Jumbo Jet Captain, but I would have to put in my time flying this li’l tube.
We descended towards Newark’s airport on final approach to Runway 4R. I concentrated between my instruments and the runway threshold. This was my opportunity to show I had what it takes to learn the job and perform it well.
Then, as though I wasn’t even flying the airplane, the Captain asks “Do you know why they call it Sewark?” Attempting to maintain a stable approach, yet pay attention to my superior, I simply shrugged my shoulders. “Because it smells like a sewer!” That is all he had to say to me until we arrived at the gate. The young Captain took off to smoke a cigarette, and left me to set up the cockpit and perform a preflight inspection before the next leg of our trip. “I’ll be back,” he stated.
Eager to complete my preflight duties, I headed for the jetbridge door and strutted down towards the tarmac. Then it hit me. That first breath of New Jersey air. “Oh my God. What is that smell?” I cringed to myself. “This place reeks like a landfill.” My Captain had been right. This was place was a trashport. The terminal and jetbridges were painted a dark brown and looked depressing. The old tower loomed in the distance. It look like a structure that should have been at a defunct Russian airport. I had been outside all of a few seconds, yet I was ready to leave this hell hole.
My walk around complete and ATC clearance received, all I needed was the rest of our passengers and more importantly, the Captain. He arrived about the midpoint of the boarding process and threw a newspaper down on my lap. “There ya go!” he exclaimed while taking his seat. At that moment a boarding passenger snuck his head into the cockpit and chuckled “You guys haven’t been drinking have you?” I could only smile as I did not know how to respond. “Not yet!” chimed the Captain. It would take much more than such a question to rile that regional pilot.
I looked down in my lap and saw what looked to be a tabloid. CROCKPIT. Two America West pilots had been caught intoxicated while on the job. Reading further into the paper, it was revealed these two had one heck of a night racking up a large tab and downing a couple gallons of brew. They had finished up only a few hours before reporting for flight duty. This turned out to be a bad idea.
Flying under the America West banner, I’m sure some of the traveling public would see us in the same manner as they saw these two. Looking back at my career, they were right to.
When I first felt the instinct to fly, I held pilots in the highest esteem. I once told a friend that a pilot must have the best eyesight, acute hearing, and be in athletic shape. After all, they had to pass a stringent medical exam. Pilots were smart. They had to think on their toes and react quickly to any challenges that may come. I was confident in my belief of their superior judgement and morality. Then I became an airline pilot.
Airline pilots like to drink. And they can drink a lot.
My IOE Captain took me to a joint that served food and beer during our overnight. We sat down at the bar and he pulled out a little card from his wallet. “What’s that?” I asked. He replied “I’m on The Tour!” The proud Captain was referring to this establishment’s World Beer Tour. If you drank a number of the various offerings, you would receive a mug or something just as silly. The card had been marked for all the beers he had tried. The Tour continued.
I matched him beer for beer as we easily went into the 12 hour “bottle to throttle” limit set by our company. I was feeling more than a little buzzed as we approached the FAA mandated 8 hour limit, and I had a feeling we weren’t going to stop. I subtly let the Captain know he should save his Captain’s bucks for another time. He grinned and picked up the tab. We staggered back to our hotel to sleep it off.
This trip was becoming a blast, and it certainly foreshadowed what was to come in my piloting career. The trick to the party game would be to never get caught. So where did those America West pilots go wrong?
It turned out one of them got into an argument with the TSA over bringing a Starbucks coffee through the security checkpoint. An agent had smelled alcohol and the rest is history. These guys got in big trouble. Several years later they were tried and convicted. They went to prison. The Co-pilot received 2 and a half years. The Captain got a 5 year sentence. 5 years! Damn.
This event wasn’t the first of its kind. There was a Northwest Airlines crew that got caught in a similar fashion a decade earlier. The main difference is that they flew! The America West guys never got off of the ground. I suppose we have to give the Northwest crew credit for being so good they could do their jobs even if a little tipsy. The Law gave no such credit, and this crew served time in prison.
The crazy thing is that some of the Northwest crew flew in the airlines again.
One of the pilots was hired back at Northwest and eventually became a 747 captain. Maybe it was the bolo tie. Maybe it was because he was Native American. Judge for yourself.
I haven’t flown with any American Indian pilots. Black, White, Hispanic, Asian. Yes. Native American? Never. Oddly enough, American Indians tend to hit the bottle hard. I guess he lived up to the profile. The only Native American pilot an alcoholic? Hmmm.
Another one of the Northwest Trio, the Flight Engineer, wrote a book about the ordeal. Later, he was hired at American Airlines. It would have been an even better fit if he had been hired today. The CEO of American is known to booze a little too hard as well. They could have been a nice duo.
I haven’t heard what happened to the other pilot of that crew. And I haven’t heard what became of the America West pilots. I suppose the Co-pilot is hiding out in another career. However I did see that up to 5 years in a prison cell couldn’t stop the Captain from getting back into the jet saddle. It appears he may be flying again!
The petrochemical, sewer aroma engulfing Newark’s airport certainly makes any pilot want to drink its memory away. I just hope I never have to claim to be an alcoholic in the way many pilots have in order to keep flying. I’m not the most apologetic writer. A book would do me no good. I’ll just have to abide by the Airline Pilot’s credo: Don’t get caught.