The Author is David Reed, a commercial pilot for over 40 years. Over these four decades he has had many events occur, some interesting, some exciting, a few that were frightening and a lot of misadventures. Every story in this blog is true.

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Christmas Eve Flight

It was Christmas Eve in the year 2007. I was flying for a company in St Louis doing organ transplant flights. These flights were fairly predictable. About 15 minutes after you go to bed you get a call from dispatch: You have an organ flight. You now have 45 minutes to get to the airport, pull the plane out, fuel it and be ready to go. 
     Step 1: T-44 min. File the flight plan. Thanks to, I always have stock flight plans ready to go. We normally go to the same destinations, maybe half a dozen all together. I update the departure date and time on the applicable flight plan and file it. Get dressed, out the door!
     Step 2: T-37 min. As I begin driving to the airport, which is 12 minutes away, I call the ramp service guys. Tell them we're a go and they start pulling the airplane out. Next call is to the copilot, Jeff. I make sure he was alerted and then tell him to grab some doughnuts on the way to the airport.
     Step 3: T-25 min. Arriving at the airport, the ramp guys have just gotten the doors open and are about to pull the airplane out. I begin my preflight as they start moving it, pausing at the wingtip to ensure proper clearance exiting the hangar. Once outside, and with preflight completed, I dash back inside as they begin fueling. Normally we just top off the outboards. I wish we could just leave them topped off and save a few minutes, but the company prefers not to. Jeff arrives, puts a couple of Diet Dews and the doughnuts in the cabin. We know our passengers well.
     Step 4: T-10 min. I start a fresh pot of coffee. We usually have the filters loaded and ready to go, water in the pot already. Just pour, set and start. Next I go to the computer and print out the flight plans, check the weather and print out a copy. Jeff and I review the weather quickly. I then take my flight bag out to the plane.
     Step 5: Zero Hour. The two hospital representatives arrive. A quick brief ("Clear skies, should be a smooth flight"), and we board the two ladies and start engines. I run the taxi checklist as Jeff picks up the clearance from ATC. In short order we launch into the night sky just before midnight.
     We fly to Springfield MO on this particular night. They have a trauma hospital there that serves the entire region. This is where you normally find transplant donors. We pull up to the ramp at the FBO and the ambulance is waiting. I leave the right engine running with Jeff remaining in the cockpit. Outside by the left wing the ladies are quickly doing paperwork and handing me the sample boxes. These are blood and tissue samples. They'll be tested back in St Louis to make sure the donor is compatible with the receiver. Once the samples are properly checked and signed for, they head off to the hospital and I climb back aboard. They will go and make sure the operating room is ready and waiting for the doctor when he arrives later. They will also brief hospital staff and talk to the donors relatives to reassure them that what they are doing is a good thing. They also make sure that we are not getting a liver from an alcoholic. Meanwhile we fly back home and deliver the samples to the ambulance waiting at the airport.
     We head home for about five or six hours rest. If the samples are all good and everything is a go, we will get a call and we repeat steps one through five again. This time we take down the doctor and one or two assistants. We land in Springfield, they head off to the hospital. My copilot and I make sure the return flight plan is filed, double check the weather and then head to the crew lounge for a few hours in the Lazy Boy chairs. Around four hours later we get the call, they're about to leave the hospital. We grab some coffee, check weather one more time and go out to the airplane, giving it one more look over. If it's an icy night we would have had it in the hangar. If it's snowing or worse, we'll keep it in the hangar and load there, then get towed out and launch. But tonight is a clear night. I start the right engine and warm up the cabin. A few minutes later the ambulance, lights flashing and siren wailing, races out on the ramp and pulls up next to us. Another reason to have lights on and an engine running. More than one ambulance has raced onto a dark ramp and then drove around trying to figure out which airplane to go to. Everyone, the first two women, the doctor, the assistants and their two organs (a liver and a kidney) climb aboard and we quickly start and call for taxi. As we head to the runway we have a problem. The left generator won't come online. We try several different things but the yellow light stubbornly refuses to go out. Back in St Louis, two people are already in the operating rooms in preparation for receiving these new organs. I discuss the situation with my copilot. It's just under an hour flight. If the other generator quits enroute, we will have 30 min of battery life left. If we go and it quits in the first 30 minutes, we'll come back. If we go and it quits late in the flight we know we can make it. The weather is still clear and a good tailwind will reduce the flight time to just under 50 minutes. We decide its a risk worth taking. We turn off everything we won't need: second radio, ADF, excess cabin lighting, so as to reduce the load on the operating generator. We launch and everything goes smoothly. Back home the organs are whisked off to the hospital and we call it a night. It's Christmas morning. Maintenance comes out later and checks out the problem. A faulty switch. A new one is replaced and all is ready for our next trip. I open presents with my wife and then sleep most of the day.  I do love this job.

Friday, December 16, 2016


Emptiness. Wide open prairies. Wheat fields waving gently to somewhere beyond the horizon. Blue sky above, endless to infinity. The vast emptiness is overwhelming, screaming in its loneliness. I stand alone, my mind as blank as this Midwestern plain. I can see the view, but I cannot understand it, no comprehension of its meaning. In front of me is a concrete ramp, a single concrete building, and next to it an olive drab Army bomber from World War II sits quietly. 
A door on the building creaks slowly, moved slightly by a dry breeze, a gentle wind that is only passing through with no intention of stopping or even pausing at this tiny way station. I study the bomber. It sits patiently in its basic Army markings. It appears ready to go, awaiting only a pilot to give it reason to fly. I look around me slowly, embraced by the loneliness of this place. In all directions there is nothing to see, not a road or a car or a person of any sort. No crew, no farmers be. Yet as I contemplate my reason for being here, not sure how I even got here, I am somehow drawn to this. Everything about this place seems strangely familiar. Something inside of me is whispering in my ear, the answers to my questions lie in the cockpit and in the blue skies above.
I try hard to remember where I was before this but can remember none of it. I place my hands on my hips, lean back and close my eyes. I listen to the breeze, to the vast empty prairie and take a deep breath, hold it, then slowly exhale. I open my eyes, kneel down and touch the grass beneath my feet, pick up some of the dirt and let it slip between my fingers back to the ground. Real grass, real dirt. I notice then that I'm wearing some sort of khaki uniform, an aviators uniform from the war. I touch the material gingerly. The cotton is clean and crisp to my touch. Ironed, starched smooth and a tailors fit. It's actually quite impressive and strangely comforting. I tilt my hat back and look up again, twist around and confirm what I cannot see. No life as I know it, yet surrounded by the living earth, the prairie grass and wheat fields that seem to now embrace me. "Huh," I say out loud to no one in particular. I try hard to understand why I'm here, where I am, what this is all about. Filled with questions I can sense a comfort inside me, like I'm being gently led. I decide finally that I must be dead, and this place is something like a pilot’s version of the Pearly Gates. Could it be? I can't hardly believe it, but how else can I explain this? I remember then that I wasn't feeling well, I remember that much, finally. I was tired. Yet my old hands are now a young man’s hands. I stand up and cautiously start to walk toward this B-17 bomber. I must start it. I've started many airplanes in my life, how hard could this be? I chuckle to myself. How many times have I thought that and only found disaster instead. But this I'm pretty sure I can do, I'm confident in that. This bit of confidence encourages me. As I get closer I start to walk with more purpose, I begin to review what I need to do to make this happen. I'm formulating a plan. 

And then I wake up. 

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Cold Winter Night

Marvin Falitz was a friend of mine. We flew together at Northwest Airlink. We both had been in the Navy before, too. Marvin was on submarines, I was on a destroyer. One day I left a picture in his file of depth charges going off as a ship attacked a sub, and wrote "Another steel coffin goes to the bottom". He replied with a picture of a ship blowing up from a torpedo hit with one simple word: Target. 
Marv had spent a lot of time in the Merchant Marine making big bucks but he got tired of seeing endless open ocean every day. So he got his flying license, built some time and got hired at Airlink. He was the only First Officer to ever show up at class in a Mercedes Benz. He got posted to Minneapolis and when winter hit his car wouldn't start. It was a diesel and the fuel had gelled. So it sat there for two months in the employee parking lot until we hit a warm day, then he traded it in on a new Lexus. And I was driving a Yugo.
One day a group of us went to the horse track. It was a beautiful summer afternoon and my first time to a horse race. We were using these scientific formulas that Eddie had to pick a horse, but Marvin just picked ones because "I knew someone with a name like that". We lost every race, but Marvin won every time. Every time! He'd collect his winnings, buy us all hot dogs and beer, and pick another horse. At the end of the day, before the final race, we gave all our remaining money to Eddie with instructions to place a big bet on this particular horse that Marvin had picked, Lucky Lindy or something. We went out to the parking lot, piled into the Lexus and picked up Eddie at the gate. "Did you make the bet?" "Yes, but I picked Snagglepuss. He had much better numbers." "What?!" Later we learned that indeed, Lucky Lindy had won, and if he'd placed that bet like we told him to we all would have made like $500 each.
One late November afternoon in 1993 Marvin called me up. "I want to go fly the B-17," he said. Some girlfriend had bought him this line control, gas powered balsa wood B-17 model. He built it and it was huge, and amazingly detailed! "Are you sure? It's pretty windy today." "Yep, it's taking up too much room in my apartment." So I met him at this church parking lot. Crystal clear blue sky, windy, cold. We set it up, it was a beauty, so much detail. I held the tail while Marvin started the engines, then he ran over and grabbed the control line. "Let it go!" he yelled. I let go and off it went. After a quarter turn it lifted off, looking exactly like an old movie scene from WW2. Beautiful! I was speechless. Then a wheel fell off so we knew this wouldn't end well. As it continued around the circle it climbed higher and higher, higher and higher. After three quarters of a turn it was directly overhead, stalled and plummeted downwards. "Look out!" I yelled. It crashed right next to Marv, not ten feet away. A million pieces of balsa wood and olive drab smashed into the ground. We stood looking at it a while, then Marvin said, "Sigh. Just as well. I didn't have room for it anymore." We took a few pictures of Marv laying next to it like it had creamed him good. Then he poured the remaining model engine fuel on the wreckage and lit it.
December 1, 1993. Marvin and Chad flew up to Hibbing in a Jetstream 31, flight 5719. The weather was night time winter lousy, with fog, icing and snow. They flew the back course approach, but when they were supposed to level off they got distracted for a moment, leveled off a few hundred feet low and hit a tall tree doing 140 mph. Took the right wing off, it rolled 190 degrees to the right and hit a slag hill moments later, killing all 19 on board instantly.The NTSB was pretty hard on Marvin, calling him abusive. But I knew Marv, and I'll always remember that smoke from the burning model rising up into the annihilating sky, like God calling him home. You're gone but not forgotten Marv, fair winds and following seas my salty friend. 

Thursday, November 17, 2016


   When you fly with a copilot, you need to understand this: Anything they do wrong is your fault. Your boss, the FAA, even your wife will ask "Why did you let him do that?" Flying with a copilot is both good and bad. A good copilot (Tom W or Rachel R) makes life better, safer, happier. A bad copilot makes the flight a single pilot operation with a handicap in the right seat. You have to watch those copilots every second. It's exhausting.
   August 29, 2016. We're flying the usual route, St Louis to Atlanta, then Charlotte and down to Orlando. We always arrive in Charlotte at the busiest time of the day, so things are typically crazy, like WalMart on Black Friday. Planes are landing and taking off from 36R every couple of minutes, and in the blistering August heat the rubber and grease on the pavement is slick and sticky. My copilot is flying while I work the radio. Speedy isn't the worst, nor is he the best. He's pretty good most of the time. One CRJ takes off just ahead of us, an American Airbus is close behind us and the tower is obviously planning on squeezing out another CRJ right after we land. So the need here is to keep the speed up, then land and make the turnoff right in front of Wilson Jet Center, which is where we're going. This requires some talent to accomplish, but my copilot Speedy has a habit of landing fast. And today is no exception.
   On short final he is supposed to pull the power back and slow quickly to landing speed. Not happening. We fly over the threshold as the tower says "Brickyard 4211, line up and wait, be ready, traffic three mile final." As he screws around trying to get a smooth landing I say "Get this thing on the ground, will you?!" He lands it and we're going like a bat, and here comes our turn off. The next one is way down the runway and missing this will completely screw up the tower's plans, cause American to go around, and get us in Dutch with everybody. He starts to bring the engines into reverse and I shout "I got it!", get on the reversers hard and mash on the brakes. A Metroliner brakes are next to worthless, so pushing hard is usually an effort in futility. Today however, the right outboard brake decides to work much better than the rest, the slick runway helps the process, and lo and behold the right outboard wheel locks up. I don't know it because I'm steering onto the exit and the Metro cockpit is LOUD. But the guys on the ramp at Wilson Jet Center hear it. They all look up to the sound of a locked up tire, smoke pouring from the wheel, engines in reverse. They said it was quite an impressive sight indeed. We get slowed to a nice slow speed and taxi in while running the After Landing checklist. As we pull into the parking spot everyone is pointing at the right landing gear. I get out and see this (brand new) tire with a great big hole in it and smell the unmistakable smell of burnt rubber.  Ah, crap. So I call it in and we spend the night there while maintenance sends a new tire and wheel assembly to Charlotte overnight. Inside, the girls behind the counter were quite impressed. Took them just a minute to come up with my new nickname: Screech. 

Friday, November 4, 2016

Gene Gets A Violation

I don't remember exactly when this happened, but I'd bet it was sometime in late 1992. It is typical for a controller to operate more than one frequency at once. We see this even today, especially on Center frequencies where, for example, Atlanta Center might be monitoring and working four frequencies at once. Usually this happens when business is quite slow. Not hard to do when all four combined have only two airplanes. Sometimes though it tests the limit of the controllers sanity and I sympathize with them during these frustrating times. Keep it short and sweet and no special requests when the controller is so obviously overworked. Want to go direct to destination? Ah, let's wait until the next guy, this guy seems swamped. Then some private pilot jumps in and has this long, complicated request for something silly and you (and everyone else) rolls their eyes. 
One evening it was nearing the end of rush hour in Minneapolis. Rush hour, or "push" as it's sometimes called, is when all the flights fly into a hub, switch passengers, and fly out again. Regional flights typically arrive just before the push so passengers can easily make connections to our mainline code-sharing partner (Northwest). We leave last too, after everyone has arrived on the mainline flights. At the hub, regionals are first in, last out. And while I'm at it, let me just say for the record, we HATE being called commuter airlines. We are a regional airline. We serve this region. Got it? But I digress. 
So it's near the end of the evening push. Night has fallen, so this is probably late fall or winter. The traffic is still fairly busy. I'm at the end of the runway, 11L. Gene is at the end of 11R. Our flight numbers are very similar. I'm probably flight 4021 and Gene is something like 4031. You know, similar. The tower controller is working two frequencies, one for the north runway (123.95) and one for the south runway (126.7). I'm on 123.95, Gene is on 126.7. The controller clears me into position on 11L, which we acknowledge. At the same time, Gene's copilot mistakenly acknowledges and Gene taxis onto 11R. Neither Gene nor the controller caught the mistake. The controller clears me to take off, which we do. Gene sits on 11R, awaiting his clearance. And he waits, and waits. Meanwhile a big Northwest DC-10 is getting closer and closer to landing on 11R. Then the guy sitting next in line behind Gene notices the DC-10 about to land on 11R with Gene sitting there and says on the tower frequency, "You know, there's a plane in position on 11 right." The controller immediately tells the Northwest DC-10 to go around and starts asking who the hell is on the runway. Gene of course replies "Flagship 4031 is position and hold on 11R." The DC-10 screams overhead, missing Gene by a few feet. The controller is livid. He gets Gene off the runway and quickly things get back to normal. The FAA investigated. Often when a pilot screws up, the FAA is happy to let the pilot's employer dish out the disciplinary action. Saves them the trouble, the pilot gets punished, everyone (except the pilot) is happy. Airlines do not like their pilot group having a list of violations. But not this time. Gene got a 90 day suspension of his license, the copilot got fired because he was still on probation, and the rest of us learned an important lesson. 
I've had new copilots, even today, respond to a call meant for someone else. Usually I just say something like "Not for us, pay attention!" If it's while we are at the end of the busy runways at Charlotte International, it'll get him banned from the radio for the rest of the night and a serious dressing down by yours truly. It's when my sailor language really kicks in. A friend of mine got killed during takeoff because of someone talking on the frequency when it wasn't for them. As a Captain, I learned long ago that you can't be politically correct or everyone's friend all the time. Sometimes you have to be a son of a bitch, you need to be a son of a bitch because someday he might make that mistake again and it'll cost him his life. Now I understand why Marine Corp drill instructors yell a lot. It all makes sense now.

Friday, October 28, 2016

Silly Things

They say that flying is hours of boredom interspersed with moments of shear terror. That really bugs me, because it's so untrue. It's a few hours of boredom interspersed with a few moments of pure comedy.
     When I was a First Officer at Northwest Airlink, I was in my seat getting ready to start a day of flying. Larry Wooden was the Captain and Michelle Boyer was the Flight Attendant. I had brought a large, black rubber worm from my fishing box at home. Now on these flights we carried coffee in a pair of big thermos bottles. So I carefully laid the worm on the rim of the thermos when Michelle wasn't looking. Later, she was in the galley and we were in the cockpit doing our thing. "Hey Larry, did you hear what they found on the plane this morning? A small black snake."
"Really? I've heard they can crawl up inside, through the wheel well and the air conditioning ducts." (Absolute BS. No such thing)
"Yeah, probably did. They're not poisonous I hear, but they are nasty little things."
Now Michelle isn't a part of this conversation, but she's listening intently.
"Nasty huh?"
"Oh yes. They bite you like crazy, but not poisonous. Nasty buggers."
A few minutes go by. Then I said, "Hey Michelle? Can I get a cup of coffee please?" She said sure and got a cup and grabbed the thermos. As the "snake" fell off the thermos and landed on her hands she let out a blood-curdling scream, dropped the thermos, inspected the rubber worm, then came up and punched Larry hard in the arm. Perfect! Next I put it on the liquor tray and went outside to preflight the airplane. As I inspected the right wing I hear a scream from inside the airplane. Everyone on the ramp turns and looks. Susan comes storming down the stairs (she was doing galley servicing that day), looked under the plane at me and yells, "You're dead meat, Reed!"
    Another day I brought my water pistol (unheard of today). We had this little six inch hatch by the Captain where we could pass paperwork out to the ground people below. So I had the hatch open on this clear, sunny afternoon when a girl on the ramp came by. Squirt! She flinched, wiped it, looked up at the sky confused, then walked on. Another girl (most of our rampers were young girls) walked by. Squirt! Again, a wipe, a confused look upward. We did this all day. Later, a new girl began cleaning our window. All the newbies cleaned windows, and they all had to get initiated. So as a group of passengers is about to walk in front of us headed to another airplane, I reach out the small hatch, grabbed her shorts and yanked them down over one cheek. She jumped and swatted at my arm, and several passengers were smiling and giving me a thumbs up. 
     We had this one ramper, this guy that hated being outside in the winter. So he was always reporting pilots for the smallest infractions, hoping to get promoted to a job inside. When we landed we were encouraged to cycle the deicing boots and break up the ice so that later when they deiced it, it would come off easier. We turned off the runway with ice on our wings. I noticed from afar that this goober was going to be parking us. A Light bulb went off. We taxied in, shutting down the left engine as we did. He signaled us into the parking spot. When we stopped I set the brake, reached up and turned on the high pressure bleed air. This goober predictably put the wheel chocks in place on the nose tires, then started to walk back to unload bags. I put my finger on the manual boot inflation button, looked over my left shoulder, and when he got to the wing I pushed the button. The boot inflated and a ton of ice fell off, knocking him hard to the ground. Oh crap! I though maybe I'd really hurt him, but we were too busy stifling our laughter and trying not to be seen. Later he said to me that he'd been hit by ice falling off my plane. "Yea, you gotta watch that. It'll do that sometimes."
     In International Falls they had a station manager that everyone hated. She also hated the job in I-Falls and was always writing pilots up for minor infractions, hoping to get promoted to a better station. That was how the promotion system worked at Airlink. So I'm pulling into the ramp one night and it's cold and the ground is covered in slush and deicing fluid and I saw my chance. I came up to her at a good clip, then mashed the props into max reverse. Instantly she was blasted with a big cloud of slush and deicing fluid, soaking her from head to toe. Later I explained that when I hit the brakes, nothing happened, so I had to use reverse to get stopped. Mess with us, will ya?
     You know those little packets of condiments you get at the fast food place? Mustard, ketchup, mayonnaise. I used to take those and put one under the front of the nosewheel. Then when we were being waved out of our parking spot, we'd roll over it and shoot this glop of white creamy goo at the ramper. Only got someone once, but it was worth the wait. 
     Larry and I went to the supermarket after work one day to get some food for a barbeque. We were both still in uniform, with our long black rain coats on but no hat. No gold stripes visible either. The young cashier eyed us both, then finally asked "Do you guys work for the government or something?" Without missing a beat I replied, "Yes ma'am. We work for the Federal Bureau of Investigation." "Wow," she replied, "The FBI! Cool! Do you carry guns?" "Yes ma'am, regulation." "Wow." Larry just stood there, looking straight ahead, all serious. Outside he says "FBI, huh?"
     Fast Eddie had a thing for Continental. He hated them. It was a union thing. If we were coming in to land and Continental checked on behind us, he'd immediately slow to our minimum speed, about 110 knots. Now its almost certain that a Continental jet can't get that slow and every time Fast Eddie did that, Continental would end up having to go around. Every time.
     One Sunday it was pouring rain and we were the last plane to leave MSP. Naturally, we were at the end of the parking line so it meant a long, long walk for the passengers in the rain. So I told the ramper I'd start up, pull close to the door, then they could board them five at a time and no one would get very wet. Great idea! So I tucked it in as close as I could to the gate. As they are boarding the passengers, the First Officer says "You know, we're pretty close to this jetway. You gonna be able to get out?" Well shoot, he was right. Didn't look good. So I got the ramper up to the cockpit and explained that I would back up ten feet so I could get out. We reviewed the signals and then we prepared to do it. The First Officer remarked "You know, we're  not supposed to be backing up." I said "I know, but it's Sunday, nobody is here, and we just need to back up a little bit."
     Meanwhile, inside the office the Chief Pilot had dropped in on this rainy Sunday to check up on things briefly. He was only there a couple of minutes, but while he was there he heard this roar of engines, looks outside, and there's Dave Reed backing up. 
     The next day he called me up at home, said he'd seen me backing up. "You're not authorized to back up, you know," he said sternly. Drat! So I came right back with "Well what about that big speech you gave us the other day, about doing whatever it takes to get the job done?" and he said "Well yeah, but I didn't mean to back up!" I said I wouldn't do it again and he let it go at that. Later, in Hibbing, she parked us right behind a Jetstream at the gate. I asked "What's wrong with him?" She said "Oh, he's broke." "Well, how am I supposed to get out then?" She looked out at the airplane kinda dumbfounded, and yep, I ended up backing up to get out. No Chief Pilot saw it though. Whatever it takes to get the job done. We did lots of crazy things. Still do in fact. It's a pilot thing.

Ted's Excellent Adventure

Ted was a pilot at Northwest Airlink. He and I went through upgrade training together and later he was based in Memphis while I was based in Minneapolis. Ted was a very nice guy. Young, energetic, conscientious. Ted was obviously destined for the major airlines. Or so we thought.
Ted, his co-pilot and the flight attendant were flying empty from Memphis to Tupelo to start another day of flying. The weather was clear, a beautiful spring morning in the south. During the short flight they got to talking and his co-pilot mentioned that he had never seen a propeller actually stopped and feathered in flight. Ted was more than happy to rectify that. He proceeded to shut down the left engine and feather the propeller. From his vantage point in the right seat, the co-pilot couldn't see the left engine so he climbed out and went in the back to look out the cabin window. As he and the flight attendant were checking out the stopped engine, Ted decided to restart the engine. Doing so he followed all the procedures correctly for starting an engine on the ground. Unfortunately, starting the engine in flight was a slightly different procedure. As the engine came to life with the throttle in ground idle, he suddenly discovered something he had probably heard in ground school but didn't pay enough attention too. That is, there is no overspeed governor when in ground idle. So as the prop came up to speed while going 160 knots, the prop did what it wanted to: it ran to an incredibly high overspeed condition. This created a tremendous amount of torque, which caused the plane to roll to the right dramatically, to the tune of almost completely upside down. The overspeed and over torque condition finally hit the Hail Mary engine protection switch and it promptly shut down the engine. Forever. Now the airplane is in anything but controlled flight, and a fair amount of negative g's were created as they hung upside down and started to fall away. The co-pilot and the flight attendant meanwhile are now on the ceiling, grabbing for anything they could grab on to. A cabinet, a seat back, each other. At this point, the right engine, due to the negative g forces, starved for fuel and quit also. So here is Ted, alone in the cockpit, upside down, his crew on the ceiling in the cabin, flight bags emptying everything all about the cockpit, with two dead engines over the great state of Mississippi.Yes, an excellent adventure it was!
Ted managed to get it upright again, even got the right engine running again but the left engine was toast. On the way back to Memphis they tried to get their story straight, but it just wasn't happening. I imagine Ted trying to explain this to the chief pilot on the ground outside the airplane, babbling like Ralph Kramden caught in a lie- "Humina humina humina..." Took the chief pilot about ten minutes to fire them both. Ted appealed it through the union, but the day before it went to System Board he called and dropped it. Seems his father was quite wealthy, owned a Learjet, so we assumed Ted went back to fly for dear old Dad. Sometimes you have a great story for all the wrong reasons.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

United 232

United 232 trying to land
The date was July 19, 1989. I was three weeks away from going to Captain upgrade training in the Saab 340 at Northwest Airlink. It was a hot summer afternoon as we flew south from Minneapolis to Sioux City, Iowa. I forget the Captain's name, the flight attendant was Michelle Boyer. As we landed we could see a lot of fire trucks and ambulances driving onto the airport. I said something like "I guess they heard you were coming," and he replied "Oh ha ha. Very funny." It was around 3:30 pm as we pulled up to the gate. We sat there doing our thing, waiting for bags and people to get unloaded, then bags and people being loaded for the 4:00 pm departure back to MSP. We could hear the ground controller talking to the firemen, something about a DC-10 that could only turn right. The National Guard A-7's were landing, so we figured one of them must have bumped an Air Force KC-10 or something. Finally we get loaded, doors closed, engines started and I call for taxi. They clear us to taxi to runway 17. We do a 180 on the ramp and start to taxi north when the controller yells at us to "Stop! Stop right there!" then to the fire trucks, "He's coming in on 22!" This was a surprise, as all the emergency vehicles were lined up on runway 22, expecting them to land on runway 31. So all these emergency vehicles takeoff across the grass, heading right towards us. We looked off to our right and here he is, quite low, flaps all up, gear doors hanging open, going very fast. Just then Michelle came up front to say everything was ready in back and I said, "Hey Michelle, watch this. This guy doesn't have any brakes." I fully expected to see a KC-10 roll down the runway, off the end and get stuck in the mud for a week, nothing more than that. It was then we noticed it wasn't a KC-10 at all, but a United DC-10. Just as he got to the airport he started a roll to the right. The right main gear and wingtip hit right at the corner of the runway, right where we would have been had we kept taxiing! This huge airliner then crashed into the ground, blew up and ricocheted back in the air, a giant cloud of black smoke and flames erupting high into the sky above, right in front of us. 

As the crash continued we could see part of the plane, the United emblem, cabin windows, appearing and disappearing in this tremendous black cloud of flame. The video they showed later didn't look half as big as it did to us, a mere thousand feet or so away from it. The crashing slowly stopped, the tail section directly in front of us. The center section came to rest nearly upright just to our left. The front continued on into the corn field to the right of the runway. The flames and smoke continued to bellow upward. We were in shock. We thought we had just seen like 300 people die. No one could have possibly survived that fiery inferno. Finally the Captain notices this huge cloud of... napkins. Thousands of napkins and paper were floating down towards us. I've read that in a plane crash, lightweight things like paper get blown up and out, and usually end up all over the field next to the crash. He says "This stuff is gonna FOD the engines. We'd better shut down," so we did. That snapped us out of it. Then we saw a helicopter swoop in and land just to our left, some firefighters had a body they carried to the helicopter, threw him in and it took off for the hospital. We were amazed anyone had actually survived! Actually, of the 296 people on board, only 111 died. That was a miracle. The cockpit was so crushed that it took rescuers 35 minutes to discover that the pile of debris was the cockpit and the four pilots inside were in fact still alive. 

We were parked on the ramp just to the right of this
We opened the door and went outside to watch. Our airline people took the passengers back inside. No one felt like flying after seeing that, and who could blame them? A short time later a guy in a suit walked up to us from the crash and asked if that was the door to the terminal. We said yes it was. I thought it was some sort of FAA person. Then the Captain whispers to me "Look at that!" This guy's suit was completely burned away in back. He had actually walked away from the crash. Still later a United 727 flew low overhead and circled the airport a few times. It landed on runway 31, blowing a huge amount of napkins into the air as it did. The copilot came out and asked us what happened. They'd been at the gate in Chicago when all this took place. "A large group of United management personnel ran down the jetway, kicked off the few passengers that had been boarded and handed us a flight plan to Sioux City. We'd never even heard of Sioux City," he said. 

The police did a great job. The state police closed down the interstate from the airport to the downtown exits. The city police blocked the main road from the interstate to the hospital. Ambulances ran back and forth non-stop with the most seriously injured. Less serious patients went to other area hospitals. We finally left around 9pm that night, flew empty back to Minneapolis. I remember that for a week or so after that, Sioux City passengers on our flights were mostly FAA and NTSB people, and a whole lot of priests. Later they put all the wreckage in one spot, put up a big fence around it, parked a rent-a-cop by the gate and it stayed like that for years. If I never see anything like that crash again I'll be happy.

Thursday, October 13, 2016


     Wildlife and airplanes, we have this uneasy relationship. They try to bring us down, to disable us and cause us to land in rivers and such. We in turn fight them off, winning more times than not. Which we have to do, because like the RAF battling the Nazis in the Battle of Britain, they far outnumber us. 
     Late night, 1993. We land our Northwest Airlink Saab 340 in International Falls, drop off a few passengers and taxi out for the trip to Hibbing. We taxi to the end of the runway and nearby a very large buck sees his chance. We add power and race down the runway. At around 125 mph I call out "V1, rotate," and at that moment the buck runs out onto the runway, right in front of us. "Rotate! Rotate!" I yell. The buck stops, does an about face maneuver, changes his mind and turns back again. Nice reflexes, he does all this quicker than an Olympic gymnast. My copilot yanks back on the control wheel and we leap into the air, ending the age old question 'if you pull back hard enough, will you hit the tail?'. Answer: No you will not. The buck flashes by close aboard on our right, so close I can easily see the fur on his back. In an instant I'm waiting for the impact, the veering off to the right, the wingtip catching the ground and the inevitable sliding, burning, dirt flying carnage that is sure to follow. But as quick as it happened, it was over. These two cool airline professionals are sitting there wide eyed saying, "Oh my God. Oh my God. Oh my God..." There are a few tense moments as we wait to see what may happen, but it seems that everything is working. Holy Mother of God, how did we not hit him? Eventually, we calm down enough to do things like retract the landing gear and set climb power. In Hibbing we inspect the outside of the plane, but not a mark anywhere. Like a baseball player sliding into home plate, it seems the buck has managed to avoid our tag. Had he not, I'm totally convinced we would have wrecked that airplane. He was huge.
     Spring, 2007. I'm flying a KingAir 200 up to some small airport in the middle of no place in Michigan to retrieve a kidney. No doctors, just grab the Styrofoam box and go, so I've brought the wife along for company. Arriving in Michigan the weather is cloudy and the AWOS is reporting visibility around 1/2 mile in fog. I let the autopilot fly us down to minimums on the RNAV approach and see the airport. As we are touching down we notice these deer alongside the runway. Not just a few, but like a whole herd. Twenty or more, they were everywhere. Surprisingly none were on the runway. On my right are more deer in the grass between the runway and taxiway. It was kinda surreal, like walking nervously past some notorious gang members late at night. They watched us suspiciously but didn't move or run away. I cautiously taxied to the ramp and shut one engine down, leaving the wife in charge of the airplane ("Wait! You can't leave me here! Where are you going? Come back!!") I'm not crazy, it's running in feather and I told her if anything happens just pull this lever here. I hop out the door, sign for the box from the courier, and hop back in ten seconds later. Deer-wise, this is a bad neighborhood and I don't want to hang around for long. It's not like I could call someone to clear the area first. This airport is deserted and it was around two o'clock in the morning. I slowly back taxi down the runway, past the Deer Gangsters. They're eyeballing me and I'm avoiding eye contact. I get my clearance, say a prayer that they're still off the runway, and take off. They let me pass, this time.
     Birds. I love birds. Love sitting at home watching them fly to their little nests, taking a splishy splashy bath in the bird bath, swinging on the bird feeder, flying into a window. A bright sunny day in Eau Claire, Wisconsin. Beautiful summer afternoon. We load up and taxi out to the runway. All checklists complete, we start our takeoff roll. As we are about to reach rotation speed I notice a few birds in the grass by the runway. As we rotate, these few birds turned into a gigantic flock of small birds, Starlings or something, who all decided at once to takeoff, right in front of us. Oh crap! We blast through this dark cloud of feathery friends, maybe ten or twenty feet above the runway. They hit the plane like baseballs, a rapid fire banging all around us, so many I can't even begin to count. My God, we decimated them. Those two eleven foot diameter propellers were like two bloody blenders. We sat there, like a boxer waiting to dodge the next punch. Except it doesn't come. Past the end of the runway the ground drops off to the river below, and I was fully expecting two engines to quit and we'd "glide" across the river into that dirt field beyond. But everything keeps humming along. All gauges normal. All controls, um, controlling. Back in Minneapolis we looked it over. A small red smear on top of the cockpit, that was all. Not a dent, nothing. Not at all like that big sea gull we hit before. He left blood and guts all over the side of the plane, so much that maintenance had to wash it off. It was a smelly, gory mess.
     Some people have a seriously bigger fear of birds. One night we were to ferry a plane down to Sioux City from northern Minnesota so maintenance could fix it. It was a pressurization problem so we'd be at 10,000' the whole way. The First Officer, he refused to go. He swore we'd run into a flock of geese or ducks, or something just as deadly. I finally had to tell him to either call scheduling and refuse the trip or get on board. Quit being such a pussy. I really wasn't worried. Our front windows are literally bullet proof. We replaced a window once and the mechanics took it home, fired a .38 round into it. Nothing. So the other mechanic (with some alcohol encouragement I'm sure) fired his 44 magnum at the same spot. Still no penetration. They were so impressed that they brought it back to the hangar and hung it on the wall. Some airplanes though are not as well equipped. Late one night a Great Lakes Beech 1900 took off from Sioux City and flew towards Sioux Falls, a short flight away. Their windows were not bullet-proof. They were at around 4000', doing 250 knots, when they ran into a flock of birds. One went through the left windshield, striking the pilot square in the face. Another followed behind the first one, traveled the length of the cabin and blasted the back wall. Still another hit the engine intake, after going through the propeller, hard enough to hit it like a sledgehammer. Yet another hit the leading edge square on, went right through and into the fuel tank. The copilot landed back at Sioux City and the Captain spent three days in the hospital. Pretty lucky, all things considered. I got to see the plane in our hangar. I asked the mechanic what kind of birds they were. He said he wasn't sure, but it smelled a lot like roast duck.
Some day I'm going to find myself at the Pearly Gates and Saint Peter is going to say, "Dave! Welcome! Come on in!" But off to the side a group of glaring birds will raise a wing and say "Wait a minute..."      

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Technically Run Back

     In ground school at Northwest Airlink, they taught us to activate the propeller deice whenever an ice accumulation was detected, i.e., on the wing or the wipers (at night you can't always see the wings that well, but the wipers are 14" in front of your nose). Sounds simple enough. In actual practice, it doesn't work too well. 
     To understand it, you need to know how a prop deices. Simple- centrifugal force. The outer two thirds of the propeller are turning fast enough so that centrifugal force needs no assistance. Ice builds up and presto! It flings off. The inner third though is not turning fast enough for centrifugal force to work. For this area there is an electric boot. When the prop deice is activated, the boot heats up, melting the underside of the ice accumulation. No more adhesion and so presto! It flings off.  So in icing, always put the props to max rpm for greater centrifugal force.
     This works great on metal propellers. On a composite propeller though, not so great. Apparently the metal blade is heated up to some degree (partially by the boot and partially by friction) and prop ice that melts and runs back on the metal blade just evaporates or runs off. Remember, it only needs to be 33 degrees or better. A composite blade though does not heat up. Herein lies the problem. When the boot heats up, the ice melts. If there is only a small amount of ice accumulation, then the entire amount of ice melts, not just the underside. Centrifugal force then causes the melted ice to run back onto the propeller. Like water drops running down your windshield, it runs down a line and refreezes. This line runs down the length of the propeller at an angle, not straight back. The prop deice is on a timer, so every three minutes it heats up again. If the ice has not accumulated enough, the boot will heat up, the new ice accumulation will melt again and run down the same line the previous melted ice made. This creates small ridges, which totally ruins your thrust. Remember, props are just wings mounted sideways. These little ice ridges act the same as spoilers do on a wing. As the ice ridge builds, it will do so unevenly from blade to blade. This makes the blades unbalanced and so the shaking begins. First it's a low hum that won't go away. Then over time it builds until everything is vibrating slightly. If you're still in the ice then things start to vibrate more. You can't take a sip of coffee without spilling it on your clean white shirt. Oh the humanity! Eventually the oxygen mask, hanging on a hook behind you, starts rattling on the wall. An experienced Saab 340 pilot knows to wait until the mask rattles before turning on the prop deice. As the boots heat up, the accumulation is flung off and all the vibrations cease. Now the key is to wait until the mask rattles again, so you need to turn off the prop deice as soon as things smooth out. Problem is, this is contrary to every airline's Standard Operating Practice in icing conditions. It's also contrary to what Saab recommends in the Flight Manual.
     Winter, around 1992. We're flying the DME arc to the localizer back course approach to Hibbing, Minnesota. Yes, it wasn't that long ago people actually flew DME arcs and back course approaches. So there we were (ah, such a classic line), at 3000' in the clouds, in moderate icing conditions. The landing gear is up and the flaps are up, and we have full power set, yet we're only getting 160 knots indicated. We should be doing 250 plus. The plane is vibrating like crazy too. The prop deice is operating and doing a great job of creating run back on the propellers. The only way to get rid of it of course is to fly into air above freezing, and that isn't happening until we get pulled into the hangar tonight, assuming we make it that far. I discuss with the First Officer my doubts about being able to hold MDA with gear and flaps down. He agrees and we figure that something like 650 fpm should give us a 3 degree descent angle. So we'll hold that and at MDA if we don't see the runway we'll just retract everything and go vibrating our way to Duluth. So down we go, using lots of power to hold 130 knots with gear and approach flaps set. Full flaps felt like it would be too much. Nearing MDA we get the runway in sight and land. 
     Ten years later. I'm working as the Program Manager for the Saab 340 at FlightSafety International. As such, I get to attend the Saab Operators Conference being held in St Petersburg Florida. That was amazing. Let me digress a bit to say that every morning they had a gigantic buffet set up, with every kind of breakfast food you could imagine, and giant, fancy coffee urns filled with Starbucks coffee. Lunch was out on the grass using tables with white tablecloths, like a wedding almost. Dinner was on the beach, under a big tent, where they had a stage set up and some sort of lively entertainment. It was in a word, amazing. Those Swedes can sure party.
     Well I've been selected to give a presentation to all the flight departments. I spent weeks preparing for this, and brought my kick ass PowerPoint presentation along with a stack of reference material. At the conference, the typical presentation was just a review of some system or operating practice. Some were interesting but most were pretty dry. After lunch on the appointed day, with my wife taking a break from snorkeling on the beach, they announce "And now a presentation by David Reed, Program Manager for the Saab 340 at FlightSafety International from the United States." All eyes, experienced people from airlines all over the world, turn and look at me. Dear God don't let me fuck this up. I take a deep breath and launch into my discussion on why the current Saab endorsed propeller deice procedure is wrong. I give a few nervous glances to the Saab representatives but they
haven't pulled out the blow darts, yet. When I was done I got a few questions and thank God, nobody stood up and called me a complete idiot. Actually, it was kinda controversial and challenged the current convention, and to my surprise I got a LOT of people coming up to me later and saying things like "I'd never thought of that. You know, you really hit on something there," or "I smiled when you mentioned the oxygen mask. That's exactly what I do!" Not to toot my own horn too much, but it's really neat when you give a presentation to a large group of highly qualified people and get kudos afterward. I remember my boss, Mike King, told me "I thought those Saab guys were gonna hang you, but when you're right, you're right and I think they agreed with you." That was it, my fifteen minutes of fame. Now, where are those chocolate-creme filled Swedish croissants?

Saturday, October 8, 2016


Laura Brooks. We worked together at FlightSafety. Laura was young, in her early thirties, and taught basic indoctrination classes for airlines at FlightSafety in St Louis. She wasn't glamorous or outgoing. A plain Catholic girl from a Catholic family in Belleville IL. In fact, her mother was a Catholic nun. She was friendly and a great person, and she had the same aspirations we all had- to get a job flying airplanes. She did flight instructing at the nearby Scott AFB Flying Club. One day, November 19, 1996, she went along as copilot on a flight in a KingAir 90 to build her multi-engine flight time. The PIC was a retired TWA Captain and Air Force Colonel. They flew to Quincy, picked up some passengers, flew them to Tulsa and later returned to Quincy and dropped off the passengers. Just before sunset on that cool fall evening, while taking off they collided with another plane landing on a crossing runway. Both planes burst into flames. Laura and her pilot tried to get out but only made it halfway through the cabin before smoke overcame them both. And just like that, another good pilot I knew died a violent death. 

July, 1997. Hot as Hades. The temperature at mid-day was pushing a hundred degrees, and the humidity was brutal. I was off from work and had picked this day to go pay my respects to Laura. I'd felt bad ever since she died, bad that I didn't know her better, sad for such a young life to end so harshly. People die every day, but Laura hit close to my heart for some reason. I drove out in the blinding heat to Belleville where she was buried in the Green Mount Catholic Cemetery. I stopped at the 7-11 across the street and got a rose for the grave. Brutally hot and humid. I drove across the street to the office where the nice lady showed me on a map where Laura was. It was a newer section, out in the sun with few trees. I drove down the gravel paths and reached the spot. I climbed the rise and soon I found her marker. Laura Brooks. Died Nov 19 1996. I stood there deep in my thoughts, talking with Laura quietly. Soon though, I came to realize how cool it was. I looked up at the cloudless sky and the bright sun, but the temperature felt like the mid seventies. No humidity either, it was like a cool spring morning. But this was July. I thought a cold front must have moved in, bringing a break to this terrible heat. At last! I stood there in the cool air with my thoughts of Laura. Finally I said good bye, got back in my car and drove to the 7-11 for a cold drink for the drive home. Stepped out of the car and was greeted with the same hot blast of heat from before. Temperature near a hundred, brutal humidity. I got my Coke and then stood outside for a minute, looking back across at the cemetery, searching for an explanation yet finding only one. Only one made sense. Laura had been there with me. 

Still today, when that sixth sense starts telling me something is wrong, I know its Laura, or Buddy, whispering in my ear, "Dave, this isn't right." I sit up and look, listen and check things out. Maybe it's obvious, maybe not. Sometimes I find something, most times not. But I know Laura is near, keeping me awake, aware and safe. I can't believe it's been twenty years already. It's time to go pay Laura another visit and say hello.