Posted by: harrisonjones | September 20, 2012

Needles in the Milk Jug

The illusion is that of flying around inside a milk jug and looking out. The milk jug is huge, and like an aluminum amoeba, my airplane swims blindly toward the bottom in hopes of escape. I briefly consider that I may be homogenized or pasteurized, but decide it doesn’t matter. I have been assured that the milk jug floats 400 feet above the ground and the earth, in all its green glory, still exists below it. Seeing is believing, and therefore I refuse to believe until I see it. I’m blind and paranoid in a milk jug, and wonder if I should pinch myself to see if I’m dreaming.

 A radio voice speaks in my left ear and clears me down to 5000 feet. Okay…I’m not dreaming, nor am I alone. The copilot stirs in his seat to my right and repeats the clearance to ATC. His real voice sounds bored in my right ear and electronically disinterested through the earpiece in my left. He looks at me and his eyes open a little wider when I double click the autopilot disconnect button; once to disengage it and again to silence the warning. I take satisfaction in the fact that my thumb is fast enough to silence Bitching Betty, the female electronic voice, before she can admonish me as to the great danger of the autopilot being off. Bitching Betty is paranoid too.

 I announce to the copilot that I will be hand flying the approach and he sits up a little straighter in his seat, as if something abnormal has occurred, or is about to. I am amused by his concern. My thumb fumbles the second click on the auto throttles and Bitching Betty quickly punishes my ineptitude by spouting a few syllables before I can shut her up. Did they use a female voice because they thought we wouldn’t hit a woman?

 I nudge the throttles back and the nose drops slightly to maintain speed. I imagine that I am churning milk with jet engines. The color and texture outside the windshield darkens and thickens as if we have descended from an area of skim into the 2% below. I tell myself to forget the stupid milk analogy and then immediately glance at the weather radar to see if the jug contains chocolate. Moisture appears at the corner of the windshield and I watch as it gathers to form a drop. The airspeed indicates 250 knots, but the drop creeps across the windshield at a snail’s pace. Go figure.

I switch my instruments from the map mode to raw data, and now instead of Google Maps, I’m looking at round dials and needles pointing in various directions. The copilot scratches his head, but silently stares at the map mode on his panel as if it were a security blanket. I brief him on the ILS approach and explain what I’m doing. He rogers the briefing and tightens his seatbelt.

Approach Control clears us for the ILS approach to Runway 9R when we’re 20 miles from the runway. I raise the armrests on my seat and stow them out of the way. Now I sit and wait for the needles to tell me what to do. Unlike Bitching Betty, the needles are silent and subtle and will not offer an opinion if I screw up. I like the needles. They point and wiggle and give me little clues to draw a picture in my mind—a mental Google Map rather than a visual one. The compass tells me our heading is 060 to join the final approach course of 092. The skinny needle on the compass points to the outer marker for the runway and invites me to turn to 70 degrees to follow it, but the skinny needle is a notorious tease and I think of it as a female. I refuse to be enticed by the skinny needle and maintain heading. I will force it to move around the compass until it points to 092 before I turn. I’m confident the skinny needle will submit to my will, which causes me to re-think the gender thing.

The plan is working and as skinny lazily moves, I slow the airplane so I don’t zip past the turn point like somebody squeezed a watermelon seed. The gentlemen flying the parallel approach might be offended if I intrude onto their Google Map.

Skinny slides past 85 degrees and the localizer bar wiggles off the left side of the indicator. I roll into a shallow right turn and adjust it so that the localizer bar centers up as I roll out. Skinny is pointing straight ahead. I love the needles.

The glide slope bar slowly moves down the face of the indicator and when it reaches halfway, I call for the gear down and additional flaps. I’m happy the auto throttles are not jockeying the power around during this process. The airplane slows with the gear and flap extension and the airspeed needle arrives at final approach speed as the glide slope bar centers. I lower the nose and the speed and descent stabilize. I’m irritated that I have to make a slight throttle adjustment. Skinny swings all the way around the dial and points behind us as we pass the marker. Skinny is a tease.

At 600 feet we exit the milk jug sooner than expected and there is the green earth as advertised. We are welcomed home by an array of white flashing lights leading to the concrete destination. Now I believe, and the paranoia subsides. I duck under the glide slope slightly to save a little runway, but I’m careful not to set Betty off on a glide slope rant that can’t be silenced until you make a correction. As we taxi in, I contemplate, what might be for dinner, and the copilot asks if he can try one of those approaches on the next trip. Skinny is now wandering aimlessly around the dial as if teasing him into a challenge. I’ll gladly see him fly a manual, raw data approach, but I’ll have to needle him a little first.


  1. Great job of describing a typical hand flown approach. I have never thought if it as being inside a milk jog, that is great. I described it as being inside a ping pong ball.

    I really enjoyed reading it.

    • I like the ping pong ball analogy, Rob. Serve up a little turbulence and you’re right in the game.

Leave a Reply to robakers Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: