An Inside Look at Commercial Airline Flights

This week, we had a behind-the-scenes look at a fictional flight from Newark Airport to Dallas-Ft. Worth. Robert Zyriek, a former Air Force fighter pilot, now an experienced commercial pilot with more than 20,000 hours of flying time, made the presentation. I’d describe the process as an inevitably frustrating exercise in precise planning amidst a sea of unpredictable circumstances.

Flight 001 was scheduled to leave Newark at 7:30 am Eastern Time and arrive at DFW around 10:45 Central. Leaving, of course meant “doors closed, no latecomers allowed,” and arriving meant “doors open for deplaning,” not when the wheels touch the ground.

That’s a hard-and-fast rule. An excruciating TSA line in San Francisco prompted a couple of guys to prevail on me to let them go ahead, because they were about to miss their flight to Chicago. I of course said “sure,” and as a result, arrived at the gate for my Newark-bound flight just as the door closed. “But the plane is sitting right there.” “Yes, it is, and the door’s closed.” I’d run afoul of the stringent rules of the Federal Aviation Administration, which cover every aspect of your flight, as Zyriek explained.

Planning for a particular flight begins hours before you’re even headed to the airport. For our 7:30 departure, the dispatcher starts around 2 a.m., working up an overview of the flight, condition of the plane, the anticipated weight of the passengers and their luggage, and, most important, the amount of fuel needed.

As the dispatcher does the calculations, the captain, first officer, and flight attendants are still sleeping. The FAA even prescribes when they need to leave their hotel to begin being “on duty.” For a 7:30 a.m. flight, that’s probably about 6:15. We’ve all been on flights where a late inbound flight made the scheduled crew late for our outbound flight. If the combination of the delayed flight and the planned outbound flight will exceed their allowed hours on duty, there must be a new crew altogether.

It’s in implementing the flight plan that the captain contributes to the airline’s bottom line. Pilots can’t control the number of seats sold, but they have some control over the amount of fuel used. The plan covers the route, anticipated weather, whether an alternative landing airport is needed because of weather uncertainties, and the amount of fuel required. The FAA also requires a fuel reserve for 45 extra minutes of flying time, extra fuel for the backup landing airport and for anticipated on-ground delays, and so on. On a short flight, these extra fuel allotments may exceed the amount of fuel needed to reach the original destination.

When the crew arrives at the airport, each member has a job to do. The gate agent hands off the the dispatcher’s plan to the captain, tracks the number of passengers and any special requirements, like wheelchairs, whether there will be animals on board, and the like. The Captain is the nexus of information, and the First Officer (whom Zyriek called “the doer”) turns on the power, programs the navigation computer, and walks around the outside of the plane looking for problems. The flight attendants check their safety equipment, attempt to adjust the cabin temperature, make sure the seats and overhead compartments are working, and take on board food and beverages.

The first changes to our carefully worked out flight plan occur when the first officer’s walkaround reveals ice on the wings. While dispatch planned extra fuel for this, the captain is told the DFW weather forecast is tanking and may require landing at the backup airport (Tulsa), which requires additional fuel. This creates a delay, while fuel is added (time for the wings to ice up again), and dispatch creates a new timing, and a new fuel load calculation. This is why your mom has been waiting at the airport for two hours already by the time you arrive.

In flight, the Captain is anticipating the next moves and monitoring some sensors, but most of the monitoring duties fall to the First Officer. Generally, they take turns “flying” the plane and working the radio. While they might use autopilot during some portion of the flight, Zyriek maintains that autopilot is only as good  as the information it’s given. That’s up to the crew. Over Kentucky the plane encounters a patch of turbulence. Ordinarily, the captain would increase the altitude to avoid it, but the added fuel make the plane too heavy to do that.

During our flight, the cockpit receives reports of worsening conditions at DFW, and Tulsa looks to be in our future, but at almost the last possible moment, the weather moves out, and we land around noon. Whew!

Where in the World?

Dozens of maps help illustrate the family history I’m working on, and I’ve learned a lot from exploring them. Let me share a few of the more interesting ones. Apologies for my rather inartful use of the highlighter to indicate where relatives lived.

General Reference Maps

These three maps (Dorchester County, Maryland; Bastrop County, Texas; and Limestone County, Alabama) provide the general lay of the land in these areas. Bastrop County is where a lot of movies are filmed; Smithville is named for my great-great grandfather. I selected maps with an old-fashioned look about them, but most of their information is probably still correct.

Topographical Maps

You’re looking at the hilly, creek-ridden countryside of Virginia’s Franklin County, slightly southeast of Roanoke. The vertical notation “Standiford’s Creek” along the bottom, shows where my ancestors lived. This area is now underwater due to the construction of the Smith Mountain Dam.

Historical Maps

Historical maps show where things “used to be.” On the cattle trails map at left, the farthest west vertical trail was the Goodnight-Loving trail, named for Charles Goodnight and Oliver Loving, models for the characters in Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove. In colonial days, “hundreds” were administrative divisions of the land and population containing about 100 households. My family lived in Ceil County, Maryland’s Octorara Hundred. The detailed 1561 London map on the right is a real find. It’s interactive, so you can select what you want to see. The Great Fire of London began in a bakery on Pudding Lane, just north of the church (in purple).

Thematic Maps

These fascinating examples show the ethnicities of people living in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the original extent of Indian lands in the southern United States, and key locations in Salem, Mass., linked to the 1692 witch trials.

Cadastral Maps

When you find your ancestor on one of these, you’ve struck gold. My family members appear on these maps of New Haven, Conn. (1641), Barbados (late 1600s), and southwest Virginia (both Howe and Hoge, 1777).

Further Research

If you’re interested in finding maps like these—either for a project or just for general interest—the Library of Congress’s online collection is a helpful place to start.

“America’s Westminster Abbey”

Established in 1757, Princeton Cemetery, owned by Nassau Presbyterian Church but nondenominational, has been called “the Westminster Abbey of the United States.” It certainly contains a microcosm of American history. By Zoom and a walking tour today, the Princeton Historical Society provided a fascinating overview of its history. Perhaps 23,000 people are buried in its approximately 19 acres, and efforts are nearing conclusion to digitize the disparate burial records—scribbled in ledgers, on file cards, and the like.

Among the many luminaries buried there are one U.S. President—Grover Cleveland (left above)—and most presidents of the University, but not Woodrow Wilson, who’s buried at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. The graves of Cleveland and his wife are often decorated with leis, as the people of Hawaii revere him for opposing Hawaiian annexation. Among those University Presidents was Aaron Burr, Sr., whose namesake son (of Hamilton notoriety) is also buried nearby (center above).

John Witherspoon, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, and the children of Richard Stockton, another signer, are there. In a literary and artistic vein, you’ll find John O’Hara, African American artist Rex Goreleigh, and Sylvia Beach (right above), founder of the Paris bookshop, Shakespeare & Company. Milligan Sloane (d 1928) is buried there, founder and first president of the U.S. Olympic Committee. When the Olympic Torch came through Princeton en route to Atlanta for the 1994 Games, the entourage made a stop at the cemetery to honor him.

A large section of the cemetery is occupied by African Americans, many of them freedmen, former slaves, war veterans, early graduates of local schools after integration, and prominent citizens. Among them are the parents of Paul Robeson. Their graves have a clear view of the church where Robeson’s father preached and the street where they lived (Robeson himself is buried in New York State).

Princeton was originally a Presbyterian school, and Old Opequon (Presbyterian) church was the Valley of Virginia’s first place of worship. Its minister, the Rev John Hogue, graduated in the first class, “fresh from (Princeton’s) Nassau Hall.” (He’s my first cousin, seven times removed.) In addition, Moses Hogue, the sixth President of Hampden Sydney College, is another Princeton graduate who became a Presbyterian minister. He’s my fifth-great-half-uncle. I’m more pleased at how genealogy has enabled me to calculate these relationships than in their very attenuated existence!

You might have the impression that Princeton is the last bastion of WASP America, but the names in the newer part of the cemetery demonstrate a much wider heritage than you might expect.

Ancestor Trouble

Regular readers of this blog know one of my passions is genealogy. My latest adventure? Learning how to customize maps to show my ancestors’ travels across geography as well as time. Not everything I’ve learned about their migrations is happy news.

So I listened with interest to a recent presentation by the author of the just-published and much-anticipated memoir, Ancestor Trouble: A Reckoning and a Reconciliation by Maud Newton, sponsored by the New England Historic and Genealogical Society.

I don’t write memoir, but from friends who do, I know that figuring out how to tell these stories and how much to tell is a big part of the challenge. Newton had wrestled with her family’s difficult past for a long time, and she’s used both genealogy and DNA research to try to sort out fact from fiction. For example, did her paternal grandfather really marry thirteen times? (Newton has found records of 10 of his marriages to nine different women.) Did he really murder a neighbor with a hay hook? (Yes, but it was self-defense, after her grandfather came to the aid of the neighbor’s step-daughter whom the man was assaulting.) And did he die in a mental institution? (Yes, and Newton has put a gravestone on his formerly unmarked grave. It’s inscribed “Not Forgotten.”)

Her family, including her mother, were great Texas storytellers, and Newton had decided that, given everything else she knew about the family and the mental illnesses that plagued many of them across generations, many of her family stories seemed improbable but not unlikely. On her mother’s side, the family was very poor, yet in the early 1800s, they did own slaves. Even a Massachusetts ancestor, who in the 1600s was tried twice for being a witch and exonerated both times, may have owned a slave, slavery being not as unknown in New England as generally believed.

The details and corroboration of these and many other stories were a lot for family members to bring on board. Not only was the research difficult, the bigger challenge was for the family to come to the reconciliation Newton alludes to in the book’s title. Unfortunately, some family members’ approach to the past is to “sweep it under the rug.” That’s a loss in a much greater sense, because, as Newton says, “without each of the people who came before, who contributed to the genes that ultimately contributed to ours, we wouldn’t exist as we do now.”

Books on Exuberant Display

It takes more than a some Ikea bookshelves to make a memorable display. A beautiful, thoughtfully designed library or bookstore incites the imagination. People who love to read are certain a beautiful display of books–whether bookstore or library–holds unknown, but discoverable treasures of knowledge and imagination.

We recently visited Manhattan’s beautiful Morgan Library to see the Hans Holbein the Younger exhibit and were equally intrigued by the exhibit on Woody Guthrie. Two more different experiences are hard to imagine, except with the common thread of explaining and reflecting their times, separated by five centuries. The accompanying photo shows the library behind an open copy of the Gutenberg Bible.

One library that turns up on every list of “world’s most beautiful” is the Admont Abbey Library, (above), part of a Benedictine monastery in Admont, Austria. The gold-and-white library is a confection of baroque excess. Not only is it the world’s largest library in a monastery (about 70,000 volumes), it looks like it belongs on a dessert plate.

We’re visiting Portugal later this year, and the bookstore, Livraria Lello, in the city of Porto is something I hope to see. Porto is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and the bookstore is more than 115 years old.

This neo-Gothic structure, with its pinnacled grey exterior, is one of the oldest bookstores in the country. Not only does it contain a wealth of history, but keeps one foot firmly in the modern era.

JK Rowling once lived in Porto and reputedly frequented the store while she was working on the Harry Potter series. You now need a paid voucher system to enjoy this exuberant architecture.

One of my favorite bookstores is the Poisoned Pen in Scottsdale, Arizona. As its name suggests, it mainly features the crime, mystery, and thriller novels I enjoy. Plus it offers an ambitious program of conversations with noted authors. A Rogues’ Gallery of past presenters is tacked to the ceiling beams, and, if you like this genre, you’ll find many favorite authors pictured, some from their early writing days. We heard Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child talk about their most recent work there. Someone in the audience asked Preston, whose background is in science, about his predictions about the likelihood—even the inevitability of—a major pandemic. Barely a month later, we were in lockdown.

The Chinese Lady

The Chinese Lady, by Lloyd Suh, is on stage through April 10 at The Public Theater in Manhattan, directed by Ma-Yi Theater Company artistic director Ralph B. Peña. The play premiered in July 2018, but disturbing events over the past year have made it poignantly timely.

Based on real-life events, the story centers on Julia Foochee Ching-Chang King, called Afong Moy (played by Shannon Tyo). In 1834, Moy was brought to New York by a shipping magnate named Carnes who bought her from her parents. She was 14 (or so) and arrived at a time when few Chinese men and no (known) Chinese women had been seen in this country. Carnes put her on display, in order to promote the exotic trade goods he imported from the Orient. The exhibit was popular, and Moy was the first Chinese person to receive wide public acclaim and recognition in this country.

The room where Moy gives her performances is outfitted in “Chinese style,” and she describes her life there and her reaction to the New World. She demonstrates eating with chopsticks and the tea ceremony, and part of her act is to walk around the little room to show her audience how the practice of foot-binding inhibits her ability to walk. (The real-life Afong Moy toured America as a “living exhibit” for decades.)

Of course, in the beginning, Afong Moy cannot speak English, so she has a translator named Atung (Daniel K. Isaac), who is her servant and, as she says, “irrelevant.” He brings the food for the chopsticks demonstration and takes it away, he brings the tea service, and he shows audience members various artifacts that Carnes hopes they will buy. She is charming and funny.

Because the two of them talk naturally to each other, you don’t have a sense of how limited Atung’s English is until they meet President Andrew Jackson. You hear Afong Moy’s heartfelt sentiments about crosscultural communication and understanding and Atung’s translation (this is not word-correct, but you’ll get the idea), “She like it here.”

Afong Moy grows up before your eyes, evolving from a lively, optimistic teenager into a world-weary mature woman, now performing in P.T. Barnum’s American Museum. As time passes, the play references the anti-Chinese laws and violent attacks on Chinese in America of the late 1800s. It isn’t necessary to dwell on the sad irony that these prejudices still generate violence, especially against Chinese woman and elders, despite the determination of the first Chinese Lady to reach out and teach.

(Watching Moy, in her beautiful blue-and-white costume, and seeing how her life and dreams shattered reminded me of a 2015 Metropolitan Museum exhibit, “China: Through the Looking Glass.” One of the costumes from that exhibit, similar to the one pictured, was fashioned by contemporary artist Li Xiaofeng from pieces of Chinese porcelain, simultaneously beautiful and broken.)

Theater production credits to Junghyun Georgia Lee (scenic design), Linda Cho (costumes), Shawn Duan (projections), Jiyoun Chang and Elizabeth Mak (lighting), and Fabian Obispo (composer, sound design). Contact the box office.

Photo credit for The Chinese Lady: Joan Marcus

Let the Oscar Countdown Begin!

Only three days until this year’s Academy Award ceremony, and if you haven’t seen all the movies in the overstuffed “best picture” category, there’s hardly time. This category needs to be broken up in some way so that viewers and voters are comparing apples to apples or at least to other fruit. Which is better, political commentary or pure entertainment? A film with a mega-million special effects budget or a small gem? A star-studded romp or exciting new talent? Ten choices are about twice too many. At the very least they should separate musicals from dramas, but of course that may just be my advocacy of West Side Story showing.

Let me admit up front I’ve seen only seven of the “Best Picture” nominees. No Don’t Look Up (sounded too baldly polemical), no Dune (though I loved the book), and no Drive My Car (too depressing and long). And here’s where they could pare the list further. Why is Drive My Car both a “Best Picture” and a “Best International Feature” nominee? Pick a category, please.

Tastes vary, and viewers who like one genre of movie may not resonate with another. In my pair of films in the “why was this nominated?” category, you may have a favorite Sorry! My mystery nominees are Nightmare Alley (though people tell me the 1947 original was better) and Licorice  Pizza. The corollary to the “why?” question is “why not?” Why wasn’t the awesome The Tragedy of Macbeth nominated?

One thing I’d say about all seven nominees I saw, is that the acting this past year has been great. Another thing that can be said about many of them is, they’re too long. Some judicious editing would have helped.

Here are my five top Oscar contenders, in reverse order:

Coda – one of those small sweet films that will never win, and, anyway, the plot was disappointingly predictable; loved the fish stuff
King Richard – great characters and great acting (yes! Aunjanue Ellis), and if I could ever remember how tennis matches are scored, I would have gotten more out of the looong, decisive match
West Side Story – perfection; loved that sly Riff (Mike Faist)
The Power of the Dog – a mystery; haunting music, beautiful scenery, horses!; too long
Belfast – beautiful acting, well directed, powerful historical story

Image by Gia Knight for Pixabay.

Authors for Ukraine

Mystery author Amy Patricia Meade sent out a call to authors to donate a book to be auctioned to raise money for CARE’s Ukraine Crisis Fund. Some 170 responded from the US, UK, and Canada, including me! The auction will take place from 8am EDT March 29 through 11 PM EDT April 12. Your book will be signed by the author with a message especially for you.

In the market for a good new book for yourself or friends and family with birthdays, anniversaries, moves, graduations, weddings, new babies (lots of reading time for them!), or want to help the people of Ukraine in every possible way? Here’s your chance.

The book I donated is Seascape, Best New England Crime Stories, which includes a wide range of engaging tales, including my short story, “The Ghost Who Read the Newspaper.” This story, based on a “real ghost” said to haunt a Washington, D.C., hotel, was selected for reprinting earlier this year in Black Cat Weekly. The successful bidder on this book will also receive a copy of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine (Jul/Aug 2019), in which my story “New Energy” is the lead.

CARE’s Ukraine Crisis Fund is striving to reach four million people with immediate aid and recovery. This includes, food, water, hygiene kits, psychosocial support, and cash assistance. The program prioritizes women and girls, families, and the elderly.

Because the authors are handling shipping costs, the auction is limited to residents of the US and Canada. Especially if you’re a fan of cozy mysteries, you’ll appreciate this auction. And heaping praise on Amy for thinking of it and organizing it!

The Irish on Film

In past St. Patrick’s Day posts I’ve talked about some of my favorite books set in Ireland or with strongly Irish characters (See those here and here.) Here are a few of my favorite movies about that story-laden land, old and new. Is it because there are more stories there, or because the Irish are such good story-tellers? Cannot say.

Belfast

Kenneth Branagh’s highly personal elegy to his home town in 1969, at the beginning of “The Troubles” certainly deserves its Academy Award Best Picture nomination (trailer). It captures the joy of childhood, as well as the anxieties of the adults in a Protestant family, where the neighborhood around them is devolving into religious violence. What a nine-year-old boy thinks of as adventure, his parents see as is mortal danger. Outstanding, should-have-been-nominated performances by Caitriona Balfe as the mother and Jamie Dornan as the father, Judi Dench and Ciarán Hinds as the grandparents, and Jude Hill as the sunny boy.

Brooklyn

Remember Brooklyn? The 2015 film written by Nick Hornby about a young Irish immigrant , Eilis (Saoirse Ronan) in the 1950s (trailer). It’s an effective meditation on how all immigrants feel they have a foot in two places, that they are or could be living two entirely different lives. Compound that in Eilis’s case that the trip across the ocean coincides with growing up and starting her own life. Lots o  disruption for one spunky gal.

In the Name of the Father

Go back in time thirty years for this one, released in 1993 (trailer). Daniel Day-Lewis, in one of his awe-inspiring star turns, plays Belfast petty thief and general layabout Gerry Conlon. Falsely imprisoned on charges he participated in an IRA bombing, he’s in jail for fifteen years before the dogged efforts of the lawyer for his father, also falsely imprisoned, provides any hope of release. Pete Postlethwaite plays his father, and Emma Thompson the lawyer. Though fiction, the story is “inspired by true events.”

Sherlock Holmes at the Grolier Club

This week my friend Nancy and I visited Manhattan’s Grolier Club, founded in 1884, a bibliophile’s paradise. On view there (until April 16) is the special exhibit, Sherlock Holmes in 221 Objects. Every mystery-lover will recognize the significance of that number.

Especially remarkable is that the 221 objects were selected from the riches of one obsessive collector, Glen S. Miranker, and a number of them are one-of-a-kind. His is a collection “rich in bibliographic rarities, manuscripts, books, correspondence, and artwork, all with intriguing stories to tell beyond their significance as literary and cultural landmarks.” Seeing Doyle’s small, careful handwriting as he makes notes about possible stories, or pens his drafts and writes to his publisher and Gillette, is truly a thrill.

If, as the Grolier Club flyer says, Conan Doyle’s creation became “a literary juggernaut,” it was a theatrical one, as well. London’s theater world wasn’t interested in the possibility of staging versions of Conan Doyle’s stories, but U.S. actor William Gillette (pictured) was, and he made it happen, playing the role of Holmes on US stages from 1899 to 1932.

The artwork from theater posters and programs, as well as the book covers of the many editions in which the stories appeared—both legitimately and pirated—often indelibly captures the Great Detective, sometimes in contemplation, pipe in hand, and sometimes on the hunt across the moors. And sometimes just in the Art Nouveau designs in vogue around the turn of the last century.

If you’re in New York in the next month, visit The Grolier Club, 47 East 60th Street. Call ahead for a timed reservation, because the number of visitors at any one time is controlled. Masks required.