by Capt. William R. Tymczyszyn
I hoped we’d fly together again someday, but I didn’t know just when. Then a sense of something special came over me, as I released the brakes on our venerable DC-10 and pushed back from a gate in Toronto. I felt like someone had entered the cockpit—and his presence startled me.
As we completed our checklist, I turned to look at my fellow pilots. First Officer Roger Wood and I had diverted to Toronto the day before as tropical storm Floyd ravaged New England, during our return to Newark from Paris. This was not the first time Roger and I would be departing an airport at which we never intended to land. Months prior, it had been fog in Milan that gave us cause for rerouting to Genoa. On approach there, we were greeted by a massive bird strike, the windshields so completely covered with remains that I later had to roll open my side window to taxi.
Composite photo courtesy of ERIK SIMONSEN
There were no birds in Toronto today, though, and we were departing under a glorious midday sun to take our passengers—a day late—to Newark, NJ. Roger is a good pilot and a pleasure to fly with, I thought.
But it wasn’t him I was thinking about.
I twisted further in my seat, glancing at Second Officer Carl Armani. The night before, Carl had been instrumental in getting us to one of the only cities in the eastern half of North America that still had hotel rooms available. We were not the only airplane, or the only airline, seeking shelter from Floyd, and most cities in the Midwest were already full of airplanes and passengers. We’d nixed Cleveland at the last minute, after Carl learned about the 4-hr. wait for Customs clearance and 900 people looking for hotel accommodations. Carl had been a captain for many years, and had bid back to a flight engineer position when he reached age 60, the then-mandatory retirement age for airline pilots and copilots. He was a consummate professional.
But it wasn’t him, either.
The fellow who’d entered the flight deck had taught my four brothers and me to fly. After retirement, he had been a partner in my avionics flight-testing business. Years before that, as an experimental test pilot, he had helped usher in the jet age, ultimately sharing the Society of Experimental Test Pilots’ Iven C. Kincheloe award for flight test and certification of America’s first jet transport. A charter member and past president of the SETP, he also had won the Octave Chanute Award for flight tests of the Boeing 707, the Douglas DC-8, and the Convair 880. Joe Tymczyszyn had made his mark in the development of today’s air transportation system, and was, in a sense, part of this airplane.
But on this day, I felt him in an unusual, yet tangible way. That test pilot, who I called “Dad,” had made his final flight in February 1999. And although I was glad to have him aboard, I couldn’t answer one question: why this flight?
Our ATC clearance matched our company-filed computer flight plan to the east, with a turn southeast across Lake Ontario to join the flow of aircraft headed toward the Big Apple at 33,000 ft. As we taxied to runway 06 Right, I finished my takeoff briefing by telling Roger and Carl I was going to make a special request of the controller, after takeoff.
Even though we had a soul in every seat and a smile in every window, the DC-10 fairly leapt off the ground, because relatively little fuel was onboard—much less than our normal transoceanic fuel load. The departure controller gave a heading to the east and cleared us for a climb to Flight Level 230.
“It looks like a nice day for a tour of Niagara Falls,” I radioed. “Mind if we fly a southerly heading at 4,000 ft.?”
“Sure, but I don’t have the falls on my radar,” the controller responded. “Just take up a heading of your choice and tell me when you’re ready to go to Newark.”
I leveled at 4,000 ft., turned off the seat belt sign, switched on the autopilot and gave the plane to Roger for a moment.
“Ladies and gentlemen, this is Captain Tymczyszyn. As we had a trying day yesterday, and you were so inconvenienced, I’ve decided to throw in a Niagara Falls tour along the way, no extra charge. You may get your cameras out now. In a few minutes we will make a complete circle to the left, then return for a circle to the right. Those of you by the windows, please share your view with the folks seated in the middle of the plane.”
As I lowered the left wing, we could see the “Maid of the Mist” tour boat nestled up against the falls, tossed about in the frothy fury. Spray wafted high into the air and glistened in the sun, creating a rainbow and trimming the entire canyon in white lace.
As we circled, I could feel a ripple of excitement course through the airplane, all 250 of us enjoying one of the world’s great wonders. I felt I was in the right place, at the right time, doing the right thing. And I could feel him there, too. He had taught me to fly, and today I knew we were all aspiring to his primary rule of flying: “The main purpose of every flight is to have fun,” he used to say. I was glad he was along to share this.
We thanked ATC for watching over us, while we toured the falls, then took up a heading to the east and climbed into jet country. I lamented the fact that, very soon, our tri-jet DC-10s would be replaced by high-tech twinjets. When that day came, we wouldn’t be halfway around our first turn of the falls before alarm bells started going off at airline headquarters. The new airplanes would be constantly transmitting everything we did to the company via satellite link—and the chief pilot would be waiting for me upon landing. In the future, having fun will just take more ingenuity, I decided.
We leveled off at 33,000 ft. and kept our speed up to regain time lost, during the waterfalls tour. As we crossed Pennsylvania, blue skies gave way to thickening clouds, and turbulence forced us to slow down. When Floyd had moved on to Nova Scotia, unstable air was left behind, and strong winds were following the low-pressure area that pushed northeast.
Winds at Newark were blowing directly across the runway at 25-30 kt., close to the DC-10’s demonstrated crosswind limit of 31 kt.
Okay, Bill, you’ve had your fun, now deliver the goods—and in good order, I thought. Beginning the descent, I shut-off the autopilot early to get a feel for the now-choppy air. My left hand held the control yoke, and my right hand caressed the throttles—but someone else was flying. All right Pop, this is your landing.
Passing the outer marker, we received a final wind check from the tower and set the plastic pointers on our airspeed indicators. Approach speed would be 162 kt., 15 kt. above normal, thanks to that brisk crosswind.
“One thousand feet,” Roger called.
We set up a crab, apparently flying sideways, if viewed by a ground observer, but tracking directly toward the runway.
“Five hundred feet.”
The controls were pretty much all over the place, and the throttles as well, but we continued straight down the pipe toward the runway centerline.
“Two hundred feet.”
Think about the flare and decrab ahead.
No use looking inside anymore; the threshold is passing under the nose.
The left wing began to lower itself.
Right rudder came in to complete our transition from a crab to a slip, then point us straight down the runway.
The control wheel gently came back.
The throttles eased back to idle. As the yoke came back another inch to maintain our attitude, the spoiler handle on the center console moved backwards. The airplane knew we were on the ground before we did. The nosewheel gently touched down, and the thrust reversers came to life, accompanied by thunderous applause in the back.
As we taxied to the gate, I wondered if this would be our last flight together, at least in my lifetime. I hoped not. Suddenly, I felt Dad leave. He had taught me well, and probably had others to teach elsewhere.
Nice flying with you again, Pop.
Roger, Carl and I stood by the door, as passengers filed off the airplane. It’s a funny thing about airline passengers. You get them to their destination 30 minutes late, and they’re upset. Deliver them a day late, but let them know you’re on their side, and they love you. Many people thanked us for the falls tour, some in English, others in French.
But one elderly gentleman stopped to say, “I flew B-24s in World War II, and I know that was one helluva landing. Who made that landing?”
I didn’t know what to say. I couldn’t take the credit.
The old man was insistent. “Who made that landing?”