ORIGINALLY WRITTEN TOM STOPPEL
Most children dream of being a pilot one day, but Steve Greenhaw of Hillsboro is one of the fortunate few who knows dreams really do come true.
Greenhaw is a pilot for United Airlines and has flown since being a member of the Reserve Officers Training Corp at Kansas State in 1972.
“Growing up in Canton on a farm, I can remember seeing planes fly over and I thought that would be a pretty good living,” he said. “I thought it would sure beat unplugging a plow.”
Greenhaw and his wife, Lou, a Hillsboro pharmacist, will celebrate their 32nd wedding anniversary in August. But Steve has spent a good portion of those years high above the ground.
“I flew a C141 Starlifter four jet engine cargo plane in the Air Force,” Greenhaw said. “I was based in the States but we flew just about everywhere in the world.
“I was at Braniff in 1976 and flew for them for 14 years,” he said. “And I flew for a cargo company for six years before getting hired by United.”
This will be the eighth year Greenhaw has been in the cockpit of a United flight.
“Flying has always been a lot of fun, taking off and landing and just being up in the sky,” he said. “Just this last week, we were working our way around thunderstorms and it’s just an awesome sight up there.”
Greenhaw serves in the capacity of a co-pilot (first officer) for United and pilots a 737.
“We can only fly one type of plane at a time, because they’re pretty much different,” he said. “I guess if something went wrong on a flight, I could land just about anything. But as far as being trained for insurance and safety precautions, we’re only trained on one type of airliner at a time.”
Although Greenhaw lives in Hillsboro, he’s based in Chicago.
“I drive to Wichita and catch a flight to Chicago,” he said. “I get to Chicago and have flights so that I’m out for three nights and get back to Chicago on the fourth day and catch a flight back to Wichita.
“We’re limited by the number of flights we can work-per day, per week, per month and annually,” he said. “We can fly 100 hours per month and 1,000 hours per year.
“Obviously we fly less than 100 hours per month, otherwise we’d only be able to fly 10 months out of the year.”
Greenhaw said time is tabulated from the time the park brake is released on the 737 until the time it’s set again.
“Time we spend away from home, time we spend on our flight planning, and time in between flights doesn’t count,” he said. “We spend the overnights in a hotel, and the company pays for that.”
When Greenhaw recalls the events of Sept. 11, 2001, he remembers what he felt when he heard of the terrorist attacks.
“I happened to be on vacation and had a few weeks off,” he said. “I remember sitting here thinking about it.
“It’s almost like being a pro baseball player and getting hit by a pitch,” he said. “The more you sit there and think about it, the more you wonder if you’re going to get back into the batter’s box.
“It was odd going back to work that first day,” he added. “There were a lot more security measures in place that made it much more difficult to get a plane off the ground.
“But I never hesitated about flying again,” he said. “I’m sure since we’re aware, things are much safer now than they were then.”
While Greenhaw admitted that it was possible a similar attack could happen again, it was highly unlikely.
Greenhaw said the airline industry has implemented many safety measures. Obvious to the average traveler is the increased emphasis on personal identity, baggage checks, and even inspecting passengers’ shoes.
But behind the scenes, even more measures are being taken.
“There is a federal program, a ‘Flight Deck Officer’ program, that allows pilots to carry guns,” he said. “I haven’t gone through that, but United does have stun guns that we’ve been trained with and we’re just waiting for the FAA to give us the go-ahead.”
Also, selected flights have federal air marshals on board, and the planes have been equipped with reinforced cockpit doors.
“I can’t imagine any situation that a pilot would open a door unless all safety procedures we have now are in place,” he said. “As Americans, we don’t tend to be too security-minded, and we don’t like to have our liberties threatened.
“But we are certainly more aware of things going wrong,” he added. “People don’t particularly like to have to go through all the security checks, but it’s for their own safety.”
But the economic impact of the increased safety measures also has a cost.
“The extra reinforced doors on the cockpit alone cost about $45,000 each,” he said. “Where will that money come from?
“If you increase ticket prices too much, people won’t be able to fly, so revenue will drop, causing further money shortfalls.
“It’s a very expensive business,” Greenhaw added. “People want to fly as cheap as they can, but they don’t want any of their services cut back.
“It’s a tough balancing act.”
Other measures unrelated to 9/11 have also made the airlines much safer, Greenhaw said.
“We have something that’s sometimes referred to as the ‘fish finder,'” he said. “It’s a terminal collision avoidance system and it shows planes around us on a screen when they get within 40 miles,” he said. “You know exactly where the other planes are and what their altitude is.
“If we get within a few miles of each other, the planes actually talk to each other and tell each pilot how to maneuver the plane to avoid a collision. It’s required on all commercial planes.”
Another safety feature is a “Ground Proximity Warning” that keeps the planes clear of terrain.
“When you fly too close to terrain like mountains, it shows,” he said. “That’s a comforting thing to see on your screen.”
Maintenance is also closely scrutinized.
“Jets are checked based on the number of flight hours and time as well,” he said. “We are required to do a ‘walk-around’ after every flight. At the larger airports, the maintenance crew does a walk-around also.
“Some things are checked on a daily basis, and basically it’s whatever the government thinks is necessary to check.”
Once the plane is deemed safe for travel, his job begins.
“Our ground speed is about 160 mph when we take off,” he said. “We aren’t allowed to use the auto-pilot until we’re at least 1,000 feet up, but most guys hand fly it to 15,000 or 20,000 feet. and maybe even up to cruising altitude.”
As unlikely as it may seem, pilots have to adhere to speed limits, too.
“You fly the speed the controllers tell you,” he said. “But the limit below 10,000 feet is about 287 mph.”
The thought that pilots just sit back and let the computer fly the plane is a fallacy.
“We have reports that we have to fill out and send in, we have to be very aware of the weather, and we’re always talking to the radar controller,”he said. “Theoretically, we could just sit back and let it take off and land itself, but there are a lot of other things involved.
“When things go right, it’s pretty smooth,” he said. “But one of the reasons they go smooth is because you stay ahead of possible problems by doing your work.”
Greenhaw said passenger concerns, such as air temperature and medical situations, also demand attention from the flight crew.
Greenhaw said he usually doesn’t get to see who’s on his flights, but has had country legend Buck Owens on a flight and in 1980 he piloted a plane with a presidential candidate on board.
Weather, particularly this time of the year, also commands a pilot’s attention.
“We fly around thunderstorms,” he said. “We’ve been told that they can build up as fast as 6,000 feet per minute, so we don’t try to fly over them.”
Greenhaw said he has been on a plane that has been struck by lightning, but it “just scares you” and that’s about it.
“You usually find a spot on the plane where the bolt hit, and that’s a required write-up,” he said. “Maintenance has to do a thorough check on it to make sure everything is still working right.
“I’ve never been on a flight that I was scared that we were going to crash,” he said. “But you always need to be on your guard.”
Greenhaw said he’s been fortunate that the planes he’s flown have never had any serious mechanical problems.
“In 32 years, I’ve never lost an engine and only had one hydraulic system failure,” he said.
But just because Lady Luck has been on Greenhaw’s side, doesn’t mean he’d be unprepared if such an emergency would arise.
“We have to go to the flight simulator every nine months,” he said. “There you practice emergency situations such as failed engines, hydraulics and electrical systems. They’re visual simulators and very realistic.”
Greenhaw said his most memorable flights have been the first time he took a solo flight, and the first time he was the captain of a flight.
“That was a special feeling.”
Greenhaw said he looks forward to going to his job and thinks it would be an excellent career for those who love flying.
“I think I get paid well for what I do,” he said, although recent trouble in the industry have forced him to take numerous pay cuts.
“When I go to the airport, I feel very fortunate,” he said. “I enjoy flying but it’s not like I think I’m better than you because I can fly.
“I’m just trained to do it, and I have pride in my job. The best part of being a pilot, is just the thrill of flying.”