Flying Stories
Seeing the light on a red-eye
February 25, 2011

Sometimes, commuting can be enjoyable.  I needed to be in San Francisco by 3:30pm to start my reserve period.  To leave plenty of backups, I chose a flight at 10:20am.

Being Sunday, there was no traffic on the interstates around Denver.  (No E470, yeah!) I breezed into the airport in record time.  I found a great parking spot near the beginning of the shuttle route.  The shuttle picked me up right away.

I arrived at the gate much earlier than anticipated.  The agent gave me a boarding pass.  The Boeing 767 had over 100 empty seats.

I settled into my own row of the Economy Plus section of the airplane.  A few minutes later, the agent reappeared and asked if I would like to sit in First Class.  I politely declined her invitation.  It was the last first class seat.  I was actually more comfortable in my current seat with nobody else around me.  For a two hour flight, it was perfect.

My kind of commute!

My services were not needed the first day of reserve.  After eating lunch at the airport, I checked into the Red Roof Inn.  That evening, friends picked me up to go grab a healthy dinner.  Although I enjoy the greasy-spoon restaurant at the Red Roof, there aren’t many healthy dishes on the menu.

We formulated a plan for the next day:  I would leave the Red Roof at noon, ride the Bart out to the friends’ apartment, work out, and return to a hotel that evening.  I even arranged to share a room that night with another pilot.

But, all plans changed when the phone rang at 9:30am.  A three day trip had come open and it was assigned to me.  Fortunately, the report time wasn’t until 4:40pm.

I changed clothes and headed over to the DoubleTree for a workout.  In the gym, I ran into another pilot.  He was hired at United one year before me.  He was furloughed for 18 months during the 2003-2004 furloughs, but was able to hang onto his job during this round.  What a difference one year makes!

Without much begging, I was able to talk the Red Roof desk clerk into a 2:00pm checkout.  I headed over to the airport for lunch, and wandered around until my report time.

That evening, we flew two flights:  the first to Seattle, then down to Los Angeles.  I flew the first leg and the captain finished up the evening.  Both flights were completely full of guests.  With so much competition on the West Coast, it is really nice to see we are filling up our jets.

After a good sleep, I put myself through a pretty grueling workout at the layover hotel.  Since I’ve spent so much time re-conditioning my body in Denver, I am able to push myself harder when I workout at sea level.

After cleaning up, I was chauffeured by a couple of local friends to go grab a healthy lunch.  (See a pattern here?  I don’t think I could do this without friends all over the place.  Thanks Chuck & Samantha!)  After, it was time to go back to the hotel and grab a few more hours of sleep.


Red-eye flights are a necessary evil in this business.  Aircraft make money in the air.  Leaving the west coast at night allows the airplane to generate revenue and be in position for a morning departure from the east coast.  Getting adequate rest before departure makes them tolerable.

At 9:31pm, Pacific Standard Time, I pushed the thrust levers up to take-off power.  At 150,000 lbs, we accelerated quickly, lifted off and headed out over the Pacific Ocean.  The controllers quickly turned us back around to the east.  We climbed to 35,000 feet and settled in for the red-eye flight to Boston.

Once in cruise, the captain asked if I was ready to turn on the cockpit dome lights.  After toggling the switch, I shared a story with him.

I think of this story every time a pilot switches on the dome light on a red-eye.  Years ago, at another airline, we lifted off out of LAX on a flight for Dulles.  Upon reaching cruise, it was still dark in the cockpit.  I asked the captain if he was ready to switch on the lights.  His response?

“I don’t believe in the dome light.”

I thought he was kidding, so I began to chuckle.

“No, I’m serious.  I don’t believe in the dome light.  It messes with your night vision.”

“True, but don’t you think there will be enough time for our eyes to adjust before descent and landing?  It is a four hour flight.”  I had to try.

“I don’t believe in the dome light.”  It was the end of the discussion.

Good thing I didn’t try to convert him to my religion.  I couldn’t even get him to believe in a light bulb.  It was a long night.

Years later, the story still makes my flying partners laugh.  On the way to Boston, the cockpit was adequately lit.

The one hundred knot tailwind made the flight even more tolerable.  From LA, we flew south of Las Vegas and north of Albuquerque, NM.  From there, we headed over southern Colorado, then up over Salina KS and Kansas City.  After clipping southern Illinois, we passed over Indianapolis and turned up towards Cleveland.  When we arrived over Albany NY, we joined the charted arrival procedure for Boston’s Logan Airport.

With strong winds from the northwest, I knew Logan would be landing on runway 33L.  With only one long runway heading northwest, it long ago earned the nickname 33-Late.  One runway means 50% of normal landing capacity.  Being 5:00am, that wouldn’t be a problem.

I used to fly commuter airplanes out of Logan.  For as long as I can remember, 33L was a straight-in approach.  Since it was usually backed up, we generally flew 10-20 miles southeast of the airport, turned around, and joined a long final approach for the runway.  When I read the ATIS (weather and landing information) on descent, it was advertising the “Light Visual” to runway 33L.

I actually laughed out loud when I pulled up the unfamiliar procedure on my electronic flight bag.  Ever since I was a child, residents all around Logan have complained about jet noise.  Jets have gotten a lot quieter since I was young, but, the complaints persist.  I honestly don’t know how long this procedure has been published.  But, it was the first time I’d seen it.  Can you figure out where the people live?

Light Visual Approach at Logan. I colored the charted flight path in yellow.

When cleared for the approach, I flew the jet along the charted route.  I’ll admit… it was a little bit fun to do something other than the typical straight-in approach.  Upon landing, the four hour and forty-five minute flight ended.  Hopefully, you were still sleeping.

After seven hours of sleep, my sister and niece picked me up at the airport hotel.  We drove north a bit and joined my parents for lunch.  Dad grilled up some local butchery steak-tips to top a fresh garden salad.  Good stuff.

Later that evening, I arrived back in Logan’s B Terminal for the flight back to San Francisco.  With such a good tailwind earlier, we knew we’d be punished by the same wind returning to the west coast.  When we received the paperwork, it showed a very uninspiring flight time: 6:31.  Ouch.

But, it was a good flight.  Time passed faster than I’d anticipated.  The sun had set before takeoff, so staring at a bright ball of light was not an issue.  It was the captain’s leg to fly.  I talked on the radios all the way across the country.  We arrived in San Francisco around 11:45pm.

Commute Home

In the morning, the commute was more interesting than the one earlier in the week.  When I arrived for the flight, there were four other pilots waiting to jump-seat to Denver.  One of them even felt the need to mention there was a “0% chance” of me getting on the flight.

I love those kind of odds.  Soon after, three of them were issued seats in the cabin.  The fourth and I rode in the cockpit jump-seats back to Denver.  Don’t ever tell me there’s a 0% chance of anything… things always work out for the best.

Waiting for takeoff on the commute home

About author

Renewed Pilot

I've endured a roller coaster career in the U.S. Aviation Industry. Currently flying the 737 on my third try with the same legacy carrier, I have also flown for a regional, fractional and start-up carrier. My piloting experience includes the 737, A320, 727, Citation Excel, Citation Bravo, Saab 340 and many light singles and twin engine aircraft. I reside in the suburbs of Nashville, Tennessee.

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There are 3 comments

  • Julie T says:

    hi Brian!
    I LOVE your blog. It’s always so interesting. Being a “frequent” flyer and world traveller hearing the pilot’s point of view on many of the routs I’ve taken, and airport I’ve been in is refreshing, and eye-opneing!
    You cousin,

  • flyjets says:

    Ditto B! I too have heard the Gate Agent mantra many, many times, “-You may as well leave now, I won’t have any seats open for you on this oversold flight”. Yet, 80% of the time I’m waving goodbye to that same agent from behind an aircraft window. Negative people in this industry feel the need to spread their doom and gloom. Oh well. They just don’t realize that a positive attitude goes a long way. My toes are still tappin’ regardless…..
    You seem to have an ability to make even the mundane things about this career somewhat interesting! Nice job. gp

  • Samantha says:

    It was great seeing you the other day. We will take you for a “healthy” lunch anytime! Looking forward to the next blog and your next LAX layover!

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