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!

“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.

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.

Where Writers’ Ideas Come From: What Kind of Trip is It?

Tarifa, Spain

Authors are praised for strong, vivid writing that makes their settings seem “just like another character.” The Virginia countryside of SA Crosby, Val McDermid’s remote reaches of Scotland, a gritty part of Philadelphia in Liz Moore’s Long, Bright River, the barren Utah countryside in The Never-Open Desert Diner by James Anderson.

Yet, our characters are not necessarily glued to one place. Many stories take them away from the familiar, detailed world that’s been established and put them on the road. There may be too little time/space to develop a complete, three-dimensional picture of these secondary settings. This is where you need a few telling details.

You can think of such a destination as a bare-bones stage set, and the writer embellishes it selectively and, to some extent, quite naturally. If there’s danger, there might be the smell of garbage, trash in the streets, ominous sounds (or even more ominous quiet), streetlights blinking out. If there’s romance, there may be beaches and outdoor cafes and bright colors. Ideas about which aspects of a place to describe and how to describe them come from the place, from the character, and from the character’s purpose in being there. These descriptors need to be tightly connected to all three or they risk feeling arbitrary or superficial.

The protagonist, of my forthcoming novel, Manhattan architect Archer Landis, travels to Brussels for work and to Tarifa, Spain, for powerful personal reasons. In Brussels, he has to get a job done. He is organized, deliberate in the parts of the city he chooses to see. But in Spain, he can’t escape the emotional reasons motivating his trip, which calls for a different type of details. Food and street life and contemplation-inspiring vistas are emphasized, as opposed to the newspapers and briefcases and cabs of Brussels.

Even though I’ve been to Tarifa, the geo-linked photos that people post in Google maps were helpful reminders—whitewashed walls, narrow brick streets, flowering plants in clay pots, wrought iron balconies. These were among the features an architect like Archer Landis would notice. If he’d trained as a Navy Seal, there would have been a totally different significance to the claustrophobic streets, the balcony shutters standing ajar (a hidden watcher?), the low-rise, flat-roofed buildings, perfect for snipers.

In my story, these elements were easily worked into the action. For example, Landis naturally notices how the whitewashed buildings bring light into the narrow streets; when his trip is going badly, he hates the red geraniums’ aggressive cheerfulness. Looking across the patio of their penthouse suite, Landis notices the tightly packed buildings, and how hard it will be to find whom they’re looking for. By contrast, his friend and bodyguard Carlos notices how easy it would be to jump from one of these other roofs to theirs.

This is a reconsideration of this issue of setting, which I’ve gone back to now that the publication of Architect of Courage is scheduled for 4 June!

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.

A Week in Room 1435

Monday Check-in:  Julia

The orchid on her pillow did it.  Julia arrived in Oahu on a late flight from Chicago, ill-fed, stiff, wearing too many clothes. In the fourteenth-floor room of her Waikiki Beach hotel, the fuchsia jewel suggested a treasure chest of possibilities. She slid open the lanai door, shed her clothes, and melted into bed. The flower-drunk air kissed her good night; the ocean sang her to sleep.

At daybreak, a teasing breeze investigated her room, slipped through the closet’s louvers, and ruffled the clothing hanging there, light as a pickpocket’s touch. Rose and gold clouds hugged the horizon and framed a tourist’s view of Diamond Head. Surfers waited, their bobbing heads sprinkling the ocean like peppercorns.

A lone man swam back and forth across the blue cattleya that glowed from the bottom of the hotel pool. She sat on her lanai, drank coffee, watched . . . interested. He flipped onto his back and regarded the bank of hotel rooms. The sun broke the horizon, and, gradually, people appeared on the beach. Early people, stuck in wrong time zones.

In sundress and sandals, the bright orchid pinned in her hair, Julia strolled to breakfast at the House Without a Key. The swimmer sat at a nearby table. Over the top of his menu, his eyes smiled at her. She smiled back. In the garden alongside the restaurant, one of the seven brides Julia would see that day posed for pictures. The air was that precise temperature where it cannot be felt at all, and the world held its breath.

A waiter brought pineapple juice and a note.  “Dinner – La Mer – 7 pm?”  She rubbed the orchid’s velvet petal between finger and thumb and with the offered pen wrote, “Sharp.”

Thursday Check-in:  Kurt

Business meetings in Hawai`i are an affront, Kurt thought, and scowled at the view. From his fourteenth floor lanai, every single thing he could see was infinitely preferable to another marketing meeting. The orchid pool. He hadn’t surfed in years, but . . . Girls in bikinis decorating the beach bars. The snorkeling bay hidden behind Diamond Head.

Hours later, in the windowless downtown conference room, the afternoon dragged, participants grew edgy, needed breaks, shifted in their chairs. Early adjournment.

For a forty-eight-year-old man, at least that many pounds past trim, Kurt moved fast. Within a quarter-hour of re-entering the hotel, he was downstairs again in turquoise swim trunks, t-shirt, and flip-flops, gleaming with suntan oil. In even less time, he hugged a longboard and splashed into the sea.

The surf shop’s rental manager, a skinny kid with sun-whitened hair, took out his camera. He wasn’t going to miss this.

Saturday Check-in:  The Thorntons

Standing on the lanai, Bill sighed first. The Halekulani—“their” hotel—had grown and changed since their honeymoon, but the ocean hadn’t. The welcome hadn’t. The feeling they’d found a place where everything was good hadn’t. Dee twirled the pink orchid and let it draw her into memory’s arms, fourteen floors above the beach where they’d been young.

Some Washington, DC, Travel Highlights

The list of interesting things to do and see in our nation’s capital—indoors and out—is endless. A lightning trip there last week gave us the chance to see temporary exhibits featuring Rosa Parks and Laurie Anderson that we greatly enjoyed.

Performance artist Laurie Anderson’s work has taken over the entire second floor of the Hirschhorn Museum, and it’s thought-provoking and entertaining by turns. Titled “The Weather,” the exhibition is on view until the end of July 2022, the largest-ever US exhibition of her work. There are soundscapes (using the instruments she’s designed), fascinating visuals (including photos of her sleeping in various unlikely places), and works large (entire rooms) and small (tiny holograms of people).

Not to miss are her written statements about the work, which add immeasurably to the experience. One room, walls and floor painted black like a chalkboard, is emblazoned with hand-drawn figures and sayings that are by turns full of pathos, humor, and insight (video here). In that room also is an enormous crow made from shiny black plastic and a parrot intoning nonsense.

If I had to sum it up, I’d say it’s a homage to creativity.

A second highlight was a visit to the main building of the Library of Congress, now open again to the public. Docents are scattered around (and available on screen) to explain the building features, which are nothing short of spectacular!

We also spent time in the temporary exhibit, “Rosa Parks in Her Own Words,” and had the good fortune to be guided by an exhibit curator. When Rosa Parks would not give up her bus seat to a white man on December 1, 1955, and catalyzed the 381-day Montgomery Bus Boycott, she was no stranger to Civil Rights activism. Her work to free the Scottsboro Boys and with the NAACP and the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters extended from the 1930s up to that fateful day.

Her own letters to friends and family and Civil Rights leaders give a well-rounded picture of this dedicated American. Though she lived many years in extreme poverty, she eventually garnered many honors and honorary degrees. After her death in 2005, she became the first woman to lie in state in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda.

Photo by Harry Breger

Touring James Dean’s Home Town

Taking a trip to central Indiana? Consider a detour to the two-stoplight town of Fairmount, Indiana, boyhood home of actor James Dean. Maybe he’s not the household name he was fifty or sixty years ago, but even younger generations know about—or through the magic of video streaming—have seen the three movies where he had a leading role: East of Eden, Rebel Without a Cause, and Giant.

It was near the end of the Giant filming that he had the car crash that killed him at age 24. Filming of Giant was still under way when Dean died, which devastated his co-star and friend, Elizabeth Taylor, a year younger than he was.

Fairmount hasn’t forgotten him. When we visited in mid-September, the town was gearing up for the annual James Dean festival. Although he graduated from high school in Fairmount, he soon relocated to California attended Santa Monica City College and UCLA, majoring in theater, then to New York and the Actors Studio. The James Dean Gallery (a private museum in town) shows clips from the several dozen live television dramas where he had small parts. He also appeared on Broadway.

A certain amount of mythology grows up around someone who dies so young, so tragically, and many people believe he wrecked his car by driving way too fast. Not exactly true. Late afternoon, Friday, September 30, 1955, he was driving his new rear-engine Porsche Spyder to a race to be held the next day. In the car with him was his mechanic. Yes, he was driving about ten miles over the speed limit, but who hasn’t? A 1950 Ford Custom Coupe in the approaching lane turned left just in front of him. Dean was killed. The mechanic was thrown clear and survived.

Sedans in those days were not the aluminum and plastic vehicles we have today. Steel, baby. One and a half tons of it. Engine in the front, of course. The Porsche never had a chance.

You can visit the Gallery, see the farm where he grew up, the cemetery where he’s buried, and other modest sites, all in and around Fairmount, 70 miles north of Indianapolis. Take the country roads. One reason we went is because James Dean is my sixth cousin, with our common ancestors being our 5th great-grandfather. I had the list of intervening generations with me and asked the historian at the museum whether it looked right to him. “Those are all familiar names,” he said. A certified genealogist wouldn’t be satisfied, but I am!

Killer Nashville in the Rearview

Last week’s Killer Nashville was a satisfying excursion on the whole. Not only were the speakers/attendees/lunch buddies great and the panels interesting, I arrived in Nashville several days early and spent them at Tennessee’s beautiful new State Library and Archives downtown. Accomplished a lot, genealogy-wise.

The meeting was at a hotel about twenty miles south of the city in a county whose citizens have been notoriously anti-vaxx. According to information I pried out of the organizers beforehand, mask policies were set by the hotel (there weren’t any or they weren’t enforced), so that only about forty percent of the attendees wore masks. The conference website and Facebook page were surprisingly mum on the subject; it was as if covid (and people’s understandable worries about it) didn’t exist. Perhaps it was repeated questions like mine that prompted a very last-minute letter from organizer Clay Stafford to attendees, but by then quite a few people had cancelled or decided not to attend. The planners’ cavalier attitude is summed up in the conference title: “Killer Nashville: Unmasked.” Stafford made a convoluted argument attempting to justify this choice, but it fell flat, with me at least.

Nor, unless I missed it, did the pre-conference materials mention that restaurant in the conference’s hotel venue is closed. Breakfast only. The bar was open, but not a peanut, not a pretzel stick in sight. Caterers must have brought food in for the two lunches and one dinner that were part of the three-day meeting. Attendees needed a car to get to any restaurant that wasn’t fast-food, chain-type.

Aside from these lapses in planning for attendee comfort and safety, the program was excellent and diverse. Ironically, despite covid concerns, this was the largest Killer Nashville attendance to date! There were right around 300 people, desperate to chat up their friends and fellow authors. People were upbeat, happy to be together, and grateful to Killer Nashville for making it possible. And, of course, when I saw that the bookstore would send my purchases home, at no charge if I bought more than $100-worth, I “saved” myself that mailing fee with no trouble at all!

How the West Was Lost: Travel Tips

A recent trip to Scottsdale prompted a return visit to Western Spirit: Scottsdale’s Museum of the West, at 2d Street and Marshall Way—a fine place to spend a couple of hours. There’s a permanent exhibit of Western “stuff,” ranging from saddles to signage to six-shooters, plus special exhibitions.

On view until August 2020 are more than 300 works from the man called “the West’s greatest artist,” Maynard Dixon. Born in 1875, he lived during the time the frontier American West began to disappear.

When he was a child, the wars between Indians and European settlers still raged, Texas cowboys herded cattle north long distances to railheads, and “civilization” was as flimsy as the frontier town stage sets in Blazing Saddles. Dixon not only painted hundreds of notable landscapes and portraits, he was a prolific illustrator, producing cover art for magazines and illustrating popular novels.

Artists gave Easterners their first glimpses of the beautiful and dramatic West, but they were less appreciated on their home ground. Said Dixon,
“In those days in Arizona being an artist was something you just had to endure—or be smart enough to explain why. . . . If you were not working for the railroad, considering real estate or scouting for a mining company, what the hell were you? The drawings I made were no excuse and I was regarded as a wandering lunatic.”

Also at the museum, we had the chance to see a one-man show, “Wyatt Earp: A Life on the Frontier,” in which one of Earp’s descendants gave the true “not-what-you-learned-from-Hollywood” story. It was a lot of fun (tickets best ordered beforehand, though I don’t believe the website makes that clear). While this program may not regularly repeat, the museum offers frequent special events, noted on its website.

By coincidence, on this trip I was reading David Grann’s Killers of the Flower Moon, which puts a tragic twist on the story of the “conquest” of the West. In the 1870s, the Osage tribe had been driven into an unpropitious area—“broken, rocky, sterile, and utterly unfit for cultivation,” according to a Bureau of Indian Affairs agent. The Osage bought the land, located in what became northeast Oklahoma, thinking it so undesirable they would not be evicted again. Maynard Dixon’s works even evoke this suffering.

But the new reservation held a surprise. Oil. For a time in the 1920s, tribe members accumulated dollars in the millions, becoming the wealthiest people per capita in the world. Then the murders began.

It’s a riveting yet almost forgotten real-life tale of greed, corruption, and betrayal that reads like a novel. There’s even a bit part for J. Edgar Hoover, who intuited that solving this case would catapult his little agency—and himself—to national prominence.

Alas, we cannot look back at those days and think the exploitation of our beautiful West ended there. We are still losing it.

Or maybe this post should be titled “Small Museums: Part 2.” (Part 1 here.)