A quick 600-mile flight from Charlotte, NC (CLT) to Chicago, IL (ORD) was the first of three flights on the trip to Thailand on November 1, 2021. The flight and service of the American Airlines flight attendants was top notch. Having previously covered similar flights, I hope you won’t mind that I’m primarily using this post to share memories provoked by some of the sights along the way.
American Airlines Flight 1688
I had missed the scheduled flight because of the longest security lines I can remember. A very helpful agent rebooked me on the next flight to Chicago about 90 minutes later. Very surprisingly, she put me in first class, the same class of service on the original flight. Under the circumstances that morning, I would have been very pleased with a middle seat in coach.
This flight was on an American Airlines A321neo. American outfits them with 20 Rockwell-Collins MiQ domestic first class seats. See this post about a flight on an A321neo from Phoenix, AZ (PHX) to Anchorage, AK (ANC) for a discussion of the seat and set up of the first class cabin on American A321neos.
Seat 4K, a window seat on the right (starboard) side of the plane, provided a great view of Runway 36C as the captain positioned the aircraft for takeoff. Runway 36C (Three Six Center) is the middle and longest of CLT’s three parallel runways. When taking off or landing in this direction they are aligned on a magnetic heading of due north. Conversely, when landing or taking off in the opposite direction, the magnetic heading is due south or 180º and the runway is designated 18C (One Eight Center).
From previous flights to Chicago I knew the route might provide a view of Cincinnati, OH or Indianapolis, IN the cities where I lived before moving to Charlotte in 2007.
Cincinnati, Ohio And Sunken Lunken
After crossing the Blue Ridge Mountains, the skies cleared approaching Cincinnati. At this point, the actual flight path was nearly identical to the great circle route above. A great circle route is the shortest distance between two points on the surface of a sphere. Airlines like to fly the shortest route possible to save fuel and time.
In the hazy photo below from six miles (9.6 km) up, you can see downtown Cincinnati where I worked for 10 years, Lunken Airport and the Ohio River. Downtown Cincinnati is in the lower right and Lunken Airport’s triangular runway arrangement is visible in the center east of downtown on the northern banks of the Ohio River.
I rented four-seat Cessna 172s at Lunken and flew as a recreational activity. Lunken has excellent facilities for general aviation, which is defined as charter and corporate flight operations and flights with individually owned or rented aircraft. The airport is affectionately known as “Sunken Lunken” because the whole place is submerged every few years or so when the Ohio River floods.
Readers with sharp memories may recall my Mile High Club post from September. Flamingo Air runs a flight school at Lunken and, as a sidelight to its main business, it is also one of the two or three operations in the U.S. with a plane specifically configured to let consenting adults experience the fantasy of sex in an airplane at an altitude of at least one mile (1.6 km). Flamingo Air advertises this service on the internet, but I was unaware until doing the post. (That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it. 😊)
Surprisingly, tiny Lunken Airport has hosted Air Force One on several occasions. Lunken’s longest runway, 3R/21L, is only 6,101 ft (1,860 m) long. An unmodified 747 normally needs a runway slightly longer to land and takeoff safely. Lunken is a tight fit even if a president is flying on a Boeing C-32, the military version of a Boeing 757. Lunken’s reputation as a favorite stopover for stumping politicians was displayed when it served as the location for several scenes in George Clooney’s 2011 political thriller The Ides of March starring Ryan Gosling.
The flight path also afforded a view of Cincinnati’s commercial airport, Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport (CVG). CVG was one of Delta Air Lines’ major hubs until the merger with Northwest Airlines in 2008 and was my home airport for airline travel when I lived in Cincinnati. In 2021, Skytrax airport ratings rated CVG as the No. 42 airport in the world making it the second highest ranking airport in the United States.
CVG is unique because it is located on the south side of the Ohio River in Covington, Kentucky making Cincinnati, OH the largest city in the U.S. that has its primary commercial airport located in another state. Newark Liberty International Airport (EWR) in Newark, NJ serves New York, NY along with LaGuardia (LGA) and John F. Kennedy (JFK) Airports in New York.
Potential Disaster Over Lake Michigan
As we approached Chicago and passed over the Indiana shoreline of Lake Michigan it reminded me of a nighttime Civil Air Patrol mission when we lost all cockpit lighting over the lake.
I’ll try to keep a long story as short. Civil Air Patrol (CAP) is a United States Air Force civilian auxiliary. When I flew with CAP in the 90s, CAP senior squadrons primarily were involved with training for and conducting search and rescue missions for civilian and military aircraft, disaster relief, aerial tracking of emergency locator beacons that activated accidentally, drug enforcement activities, and transporting government personnel if requested.
CAP operates government-owned and equipped aircraft like four-seat Cessna 172s that perform tasks that the Air Force can’t do for legal reasons or prefers not to do because of the cost or time required using its own aircraft and personnel. CAP personnel are part-time volunteers who receive no pay. Some of the training and missions take place on USAF and joint military bases.
In the early 90s, as a member of the CAP Indianapolis Senior Squadron I was happy to accept a mission along with another CAP pilot to fly a government employee from Indianapolis to Chicago. I was Pilot in Command on the flight to Chicago in a CAP Cessna 172. We dropped the employee off at Palwaukee Airport in Wheeling, IL, a suburb on the northside of Chicago. Palwaukee is another outstanding general aviation/executive airport. We flew the mission on a December evening after the workday at our real jobs. I was flying right seat on the flight back to Indy
Although I didn’t know it when the flight was over Lake Michigan on November 1, the flight to Japan reinforced that memory as it flew over Palwaukee Airport.
The return flight departed Palwaukee around 20:00 (10pm). Our flight path took us just north of downtown Chicago and then out over Lake Michigan. After being over the lake for a few minutes, we noticed that the cockpit lights were growing dim. Adjusting the lighting settings had no effect. We called Palwaukee Tower to say we were returning. Shortly after that the lights failed completely. Inside the cockpit, it was pretty much pitch black. Below us Lake Michigan was just a big void with no visual references.
Lake Michigan and shore north of downtown Chicago from the Japan Airlines flight to Tokyo on November 1, 2021. The lake might as well have been an ocean on that mission in the 90s.
Thankfully Chicago was within sight. Lights along the shore and downtown Chicago provided a visual horizon so we could maintain control of the airplane’s attitude without reference to the instruments. If we had been in instrument meteorological conditions or above a solid overcast layer at night with no cockpit lights, we would have been shit out of luck, if you’ll pardon the expression.
When we got back over Chicago, the city lights afforded enough ambient illumination that we could read the instruments. We landed at Palwaukee and taxied to the ramp where we could then see that the electrical system master switch had not been engaged properly. The lights went out because the battery had been discharging. We fully engaged the master switch and took off again. When Palwaukee Tower handed us over to Chicago air traffic control things took a turn for the best. Instead of flying away from the city over Lake Michigan, ATC vectored us directly over Chicago O’Hare (ORD).
The night was cold and clear with excellent visibility. The view of the activity on the ground and in the air around ORD was quite a sight. The trip home was uneventful after that, but before putting the plane back in the CAP hanger at Eagle Creek Airport we had to land at Indianapolis International (IND) to refuel so the aircraft would be ready for the next mission. It was a long night. After that mission I always flew with a small Mag-Lite flashlight in my flight suit.
Thanks for indulging the trip down memory lane that this flight inspired. I’ll use a more standard format to cover the outstanding flights to Tokyo and Bangkok.