Thursday, January 16, 2014

Night Departure from Tachikawa. 1958

The cockpit crew enters from the maintenance stand on the right side. Their shoes scrape the serrated, steep, metal stairs. The side rails are dirty and oily and they are careful not to let them touch their gabardine ‘suntans’. The cabin to cockpit door is closed and the crew compartment is cloaked with a dull red glow; the electrical inverters whine and the gyro instruments hum in anticipation of flight.

All cockpits have a familiar smell. If they are cold and the airplane is new, the smell has a sharp ‘auto body shop’ tang. If the airplane is old and the cockpit is warm, the sweaty smell of long flights clings to the crew’s seats and is released when the crewmembers settle in to make their ‘nests’ - the place in which they must endure the long hours of transoceanic flights. The nest in the cockpit ‘cave’ becomes their personal refuge from the elements outside.

They wait for taxi clearance. The warm summer rain spatters the cockpit windows; the ground crew waits beside the outside power unit with its umbilical cord supplying electricity until the engines take over.

The Cabin Door Warning Light extinguishes; the co-pilot looks at the inner right hand engine and says, “Ready on three.”

The Captain commands: “Start Number Three.” The starter whines, the propeller turns, the cylinders fill with gasoline vapor and obey the spark. The engine wakes up coughing through its exhaust pipes.

All engines started, the plane now alive, begins its journey, taxiing to the runway as the crew recites the litany of the checklists. The smell of the Orient fades as pressurized air fills the ‘plane. Cockpit lights are dimmed as they wait for takeoff clearance.

Now the Flight Engineer scans the engine instruments as the Captain orders, “Max power,” requesting the full power of the four, 14 cylinder Pratt and Whitney engines powering the Douglas DC-6. The Captain’s and Engineer’s hands push the throttles forward, and the maximum power is reflected on the engine instruments. The airplane’s brakes are released. Inside the aluminum tube, everyone feels the rapid acceleration of the propeller driven airplane.
The co-pilot focuses on the airspeed indicator waiting for it to register the speed beyond which the ‘plane cannot stop should the takeoff be refused. The Captain’s left hand which has tightly gripped the Nose Wheel steering control, begins to relax as the rudder now steers the airplane.

The Co-pilot says, “Vee one”, and the takeoff can no longer be denied. They are committed to fly. The Captain’s left hand smoothly moves from the Nose Wheel control and now grasps the yoke – the master control of the airplane’s altitude and direction. He pulls it toward his waist and the airplane begins to fly.  They are airborne, the engines at full power almost drown out the Captain’s command to raise the Landing Gear, but his right hand thumb jerks up – a visual command understood by all airmen, “Gear up!!”

The lights of the city pass under the plane and they enter fractured clouds leaving behind the growing population whose next generation will astound the world with its productivity.

Sayonara, Tachikawa.