Part 4 of the story of Captain Wendy A. Yawching

 

Thrill, joy, excitement. To be brought into BWIA as a “direct-entry” co-pilot on the sleek MD83 jet. In those days, the normal route was for a new pilot to start out as flight engineer on the B707 (and later the L1011) and then, after several years, graduate to a flying seat. But due to the business demands, I was part of the first group of new hires to enter directly into a flying seat. A dream come true! Faster, higher, further. I loved everything; the months of training, the simulator challenges, the speed and power of flying a jet. I was insatiable, loved my job and found it hard to believe that I was being paid to do something that made me so happy.

My career path at BWIA went like this:

1988-1999 First Officer MD83 – sleek twin-jet, a pilots’ airplane. Fly it or it would fly you!

1999-2002 Captain DHC-8 – back to the island hopping, great fun just like the LIAT days

2002-2004 First Officer B737-800 – welcome to the next generation aircraft!

2004- Captain B737-800 – where I belonged 🙂

I loved every step of the journey.

Did I have difficult moments? Oh yes. But obviously, none that were catastrophic. Just the normal incidents that would occur over a career of flying: bad BAD weather, diversions, minor mechanical issues; my personal list includes a hydraulic failure, shattered windscreen, engine shutdown in flight, aborted take-offs, lightning strikes and an emergency landing for a sick passenger.

I’ll never forget my first line check. Very much a newbie, armed with theory and simulator success but not much else, I was to be examined by one of the most feared check captains of the day (and there were some fierce ones!) His nickname was ‘Shaka Zulu’, which will give you some idea of his reputation. I couldn’t sleep the night before my flight, trembling in fear of this great man in whose hands rested my flying career.

The next day, he followed me closely through all the preflight procedures, asking question after question. To my dismay, after passengers boarded, we found a mechanical issue and had to swap airplanes. Had to do the preflight all over again, with him at my side watching and asking. Thank heavens that plane checked out fine, and we departed a couple of hours late with a planned route of; Barbados, Antigua, Jamaica. Shaka Zulu sat in the jump-seat making notes.

On arrival in Antigua we had another problem, which in the end required us to leave our passengers there and ferry the airplane back home to Trinidad with the landing gear down. I remember having to do all the performance calculations (for flying with the gear down) by hand, with him watching and checking everything I did.

When we made it back to Trinidad, Flight Operations informed us that we would need to take yet another aircraft to Jamaica for the waiting crew and southbound passengers. Here we go again, my third pre-flight for the day! At that point, Shaka Zulu turned to me and said: “I’ve seen enough, I’m going home now. You’re fine.” and he took his bag up and left us to fly to Jamaica without him. I don’t think there has ever been another line check quite like that one. From that day, my fear of him melted into respect, and he took me under his wing and he spent our many flights together teaching me the million things that make a good pilot.

While in Trinidad I continued my outdoor adventures, hiking and kayaking and camping. Of course, travel featured regularly, but now because of the airline benefits I could go further afield… so I made it my duty to hike all the major mountain ranges that I could get to, including the Rockies, Swiss Alps, and to the Base camp of Mt Everest. In 1994 I took 6 months’ no-pay leave and headed to the South Pacific, backpacking and hiking around Fiji, New Zealand, Australia, Vanuatu, Tonga and Samoa. New Zealand is where I tried Bungee jumping, and did my first parachute jump out of a perfectly good airplane! It was the trip that sparked my desire to start Wildways, my adventure travel company… but that’s another story.

People often ask me about what it was like being a female in a men’s world, and what it was like to work so closely with all those men. Of course, there was occasional machismo and light flirting (Caribbean men after all) which I soon learnt to handle with style. But I don’t think the guys really thought of me as a girl, nor was I ever “one of the boys”. I think I fell somewhere in between, like a cute mascot. Also, because I was so obviously passionate about flying and learning, my Captains generally adopted me and tried to stuff me with all their own wisdom. There are many Captains whom I must thank for making me the pilot that I became. I am hugely grateful to them all.

As a First Officer I was like a sponge, soaking up all the advice, training and experience that came my way. I learnt that the Captain is not God, nor infallible, and that my input was important; so, I learned to stand up and be counted in the cockpit. I learnt that I loved the challenge of operating into high density airports (like JFK) and that there is a part of me that thrills when something needs extra skill and expertise, since that’s when all our training pays off. I learnt never to take anything on a flight for granted, to check and double check. One very frightening takeoff in snowy Toronto taught me never to underestimate the dangers of ice and snow, even though you really really want to get home in time for Christmas with the family.

I learnt that lightning does strike twice in the same place, and that the airplane can handle it. We were diverting to Guadeloupe after two aborted attempts at landing in Antigua during bad weather. Everywhere, the radar showed red. Though the cockpit window that red showed as huge black and green and yellow clouds. Picking our way through the storm, there was an almighty crackle and we both saw the bolt of lightning coming straight for the cockpit. The plane jumped like God had lifted it up and dropped it, we heard screaming in the cabin. If not for my seatbelt I would have been on the Captain’s lap. Within seconds, another exactly like the first, more screaming from the back. After landing safely in Guadeloupe, the engineer found two small holes where the lightning had exited the aircraft, nothing damaged. Incredible experience!

I learnt that despite the “glamour” and the respect that our profession brings, we are wingless without a huge extended team; the integrity of a flight depends on so many people doing their job to perfection:  the mechanics, the baggage handlers, the load sheet agents, flight operations and the flight attendants (the only ones who really know how to work all that survival equipment :-)) to name just a few. I learnt to respect and value all of these people. My life was literally in their hands, as the passengers’ lives were in ours.

Over time, I realized that every day, every flight, is a learning opportunity. You can learn from the good flights, and even more from the challenging ones. From the people that you admire, and from those that you would rather not follow.  A good pilot never stops learning…it is a lifetime journey.

 

The Story Continues……

 

You find Part One HERE

Part Two HERE

Part Three HERE

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