I’m currently recovering from some minor surgery, and out of the cockpit for a few months. During this time, I’m digging up some memorable flying experiences from the past. Don’t worry… multiple paragraphs contemplating the ocean from 40,000 feet will be back soon!
The clock on my dashboard reads 4:55 am as I pull into the parking lot. My Jeep doesn’t have an air temperature readout, but I don’t need one to know that it is well below freezing. Thousands of snowflakes flicker through the twin beams of my headlights, driven across the flat, midwestern landscape by a gusty north wind. The parking lot hasn’t been plowed since yesterday and there are only faint indentations in the thick blanket of snow to hint at the tracks of previous departures and arrivals. I weave my way between the hulking snowbanks and still forms of snow-covered cars, towards a patch of relative darkness, away from the bright pools of light being cast down from the hazy, indistinct pole-mounted fixtures glowing in the storm above. Once there, I cautiously brake to a stop, the deeply frozen snow crunching beneath my tires. I put the gearshift in park and the throaty roar of the straight-six engine diminishes to a low-pitch rumble, leaving the blower fan that is pulling hot air off the engine as the loudest sound.
My airport reserve shift starts in a few minutes, so I call in and navigate the phone menu system until I reach a real person—actually sitting just a few hundred feet away—inside the hangar/office complex just across the parking lot. The scheduling clerk tells me there is nothing going on right now and abruptly hangs up. Shaking off the odd rudeness, I clip my phone back into its holder next to the radio and then take off my gloves. The Jeep has been on and running for almost an hour now and the heater has finally made some progress against the cold. Thanks to my remote car starter, I was able to get 30 minutes of heating in beginning from the moment I woke up at home, and then another 30 minutes on my drive in to the airport, as I repeatedly blinked my eyes and listened to classical music on NPR.
Now, with no flying assignment on my immediate horizon and 10 hours of airport reserve ahead of me, I feel myself sliding down towards the sleep that I abruptly left behind an hour ago. I’ve folded down the back seat, and in the flat area I’ve created is a camping style air mattress and a thick comforter. Piled on top of that is a large sleeping bag, with an additional mummy-style negative 10 degree bag inside of it. Sitting at the foot of the sleeping bags are a pillow… and another heavy-duty comforter. Somewhere buried in the sleeping bags is a hot water bottle I filled up before stepping out into the darkness of my apartment building’s parking lot.
With the engine still running and the warm air blasting into the Jeep, I unbuckle my seatbelt and awkwardly wiggle between the two front seats until I am sitting in the back. Talking to myself to both stay awake and provide motivation through the shivering process, I quickly take off my shoes, jacket, and work shirt, placing them in the front passenger seat, directly in line with the heating vent. I then turn up the volume on my phone and turn off the ignition. The engine sputters once and then dies, leaving behind a silence disrupted only by the distant whine of a turbine engine starting up somewhere on the airport tarmac and the sound of the wind scouring the frozen world outside the sheltering bubble I’m sitting in.
With everything in place, I shiver again and then pop open the small side window behind the driver’s side door (my Jeep is a 2-door sport edition and doesn’t have roll-down rear windows). Cold air floods in, but as I’ve opened the window on the downwind side, the snowflakes stay out. With that accomplished, I slide into the double sleeping bag setup, put the pillow under my head, and pull the second comforter over me.
I can feel the cold seeping in through floor of the Jeep, but the combination of the air mattress and the doubled comforter underneath me keep it at bay. I’ve been practicing this move several times a week every winter for three years now, as I am the most junior captain in base and get stuck with 5 am airport reserve regularly. I adjust the watch cap on my head, so it better covers my ears, and slide my feet farther into the cold depths of the sleeping bag, before sighing contentedly despite this decidedly “not being part of what I signed up for when I first decided to fly for a living” experience.
I check the luminous hands on my watch and see that it’s now 5:15 am. If I’m lucky, by the time I wake up, the sun will have cracked the cloud-shrouded horizon to the east, and several hours of my airport reserve shift will have passed by while I slept. I’ll lazily reach out of the warm cocoon I am lying in and turn the Jeep back on, letting the interior warm before venturing out of my coverings. If I’m unlucky, just after I’ve stopped shivering in the cold and finally fallen asleep, I’ll be jarred awake by the ringing of my cell phone (currently set to play Fleetwood Mac’s Sweet Little Lies ever time Crew Scheduling calls) with an urgent assignment causing me to scramble to put on my uniform in the frigid confines of my Jeep’s back seat, knowing the worst is yet to come when I’ll step out into the cold, windswept darkness of the snow-covered parking lot to make the five minute walk to the terminal.