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.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Flaps up, flaps down

When I flew for PBA, I flew my Cessna 402C all over southern New England. I would show up at 7AM and be on reserve all day. Dispatch would call and say things like "Run over to Nantucket and fly 7312 to Hyannis," and off I'd go. We had some regular runs, but mostly you just went where they said. 

It was New Year's Eve and we were done flying. My roomate and I were driving to Hyannis for the New Years Eve party when we stopped by the airport in New Bedford where we were based. A guy was at the counter and asked us, "When's the next flight to Martha's Vineyard?" We explained that the last flight had already left. The manager said he'd suggest the ferry but they'd stopped running too. This guy said he absolutely had to get there, any other ideas? We called the charter service down the road. No, all their pilots were gone for the night (probably at the party in Hyannis). I said wait a minute and called our dispatch office. I explained the situation and asked what would they charge for a charter for this guy. "I don't know, what seems fair?" he asked. I said something like, "$150 ought to do it," and he said, sure, go ahead. We were very casual about our flying business at PBA. So my roommate and I went out to the plane, preflighted quickly and took off for the 15 minute flight to the Vineyard. When we landed he was very grateful and gave us each $50. Wow! Until then we'd been broke and didn't even have gas money to get to Hyannis. So we flew home feeling pretty rich.

On Monday mornings we would often fly nine state workers over to the Vineyard where they would work all week, then we'd fly them home on Friday night. These were big guys, with lots of heavy tools. Being based in New Bedford I was usually the guy who flew them. So one night I run over to the Vineyard and nine husky dudes climb on. We fly back in the winter darkness to New Bedford. It's cloudy, pretty crummy weather, all foggy and wet snow. In the clouds I get vectored to the final approach course for the ILS to runway 14. Flaps to approach, slow to 130 knots. At the outer marker I put the gear down and drop full flaps, slowing to 110 kts. Suddenly there's this loud BANG! under our feet. The front seat passenger jumps. What happened was the cable to the left flaps broke. This caused the left flap to immediately retract fully. So suddenly I have the right flap full down and the left flap full up and we start rolling left. I crank in all the aileron I can but it's still rolling. At the same time I undid whatever I just did. I grab the flap handle and put it back up. This makes the right flap retract. As it does, the rolling stops at around 60 degrees of bank, just as I was REALLY getting worried. You know, when the first thing happens you think "Oh crap!" and then when it gets really worse you think "Oh fuck me!"  I was just past the second part when she started to roll back upright. I quickly corrected back to the right to the ILS and continued on in. Didn't say anything to the tower. What would be the point? I landed with flaps up, which is a simple thing, and taxied in. At the gate I shut down the engines and it was dead silent, no one moved. Then the supervisor in back says in a very gruff voice, "Hey Cap'n, what was that noise?" I said oh it was nothing really, just a cable broke I think. (just something that almost killed us all). He thought about it a moment, and then said "Well, good job," and everyone got up and left. 

I was alone after that and just went about finishing up my duties. Then I took off my stripes and hat and went into the airport bar (our favorite haunt) and ordered a beer with a shaking hand. I don't remember it shaking, but I'm sure it was. Undoing what I had just done, putting the flaps back up, proved to be the lifesaver, and after that it became my rule #1. Unfuck yourself. Found out if the other cable had snapped, to the right flap, I would have been screwed. The flap indicator only sees the right flap and if I had selected flaps up with the left flap down it would have looked at the right flap and seen it was up and done nothing. Lucky for me it was the other way around. That of course is life. One cable or the other. Life or death. In all my years of flying, that's probably as close as I ever came to "buying the farm". Well, OK, there was that one night in Minnesota.....

Wednesday, September 28, 2016


Everyone carries passengers. Its why we fly, unless you carry freight. Passengers though, it's like they go through a weird transformation when they get on an airplane. Most will just sit there and enjoy the ride, while others feel the need to make a spectacle of themselves. 
Alcohol is the biggest problem that passengers have. In nine years at Airlink, we took nine passengers off the airplane for being drunk. Now, customer service is not supposed to board a drunk passenger. Its against the Federal regulations. But when the 220 lb drunk hands his boarding pass to the 18 yr old, 110 lb gate agent who's working her first job, its a lot easier to say "Enjoy your flight!" than it is to say "You can't get on, you drunken bum." A customer service manager came up to me one day in the cockpit and said he had this passenger who may have had a few drinks (I immediately interpret that as crazy drunk), but he's talked to him and he understands the rules and promises to behave on the flight, etc. His mistake was telling me first, because I usually play strictly by the rules and my immediate answer was a big smile and a firm "No". A drunk that gets past customer service though will usually be fairly quiet at first. Then you take off and through the miracle of pressurization the cabin altitude will begin to rise and this increases the alcohol to oxygen ratio, making him even more drunk. Then they get crazy. Rule #1: When the flight attendant calls up in flight and says she has a drunk passenger, THE BAR IS CLOSED. The worst thing you can do is give everyone a drink except the drunk. Step #2: We, the crew, will then adjust the pressurization to an even higher cabin altitude, like 10,000'. That's as high as I can legally make it. This makes the guy's alcohol to oxygen ratio so high he literally passes out. I learned that back flying college kids to football games and it works like a charm. Step #3: Call ahead and say you need the airport police to meet you for a drunk passenger. You don't want him arrested. Yeah, right, and spend my day off at the courthouse in Escanaba Michigan? I don't think so. No, I just want the police to make sure he doesn't try to drive out of the airport on his own and kill some innocent motorist. Police have a lot of experience dealing with drunk people. Once a Marine, just home from Gulf War I, was very drunk and the police took him away. Later I asked them whatever became of the happy Marine. "We called his mommy to come get him," they smirked. 
I was in the Navy and flying back to my ship one night on Allegheny Airlines. That's who USAirways was before the name change. We flew from Hartford to Norfolk by way of Philadelphia. Not many people on board, so I grabbed a seat up front (it was all coach, no first class section on this DC-9). This one guy, another sailor, was totally smashed. I was surprised they were letting him on, but this was 1976, so who knew? Well we get up to cruise, and about halfway there this drunken sailor comes staggering past me and grabs the main cabin door handle. WTF!? I pull my seat belt even tighter as the flight attendant gets between him and the door. "Sir, you can't get off. You need to go sit down." But he's carrying on, calling her bad names and saying things like "I'm getting off this thing now!" Well, she looks around for some help and dang it, I'm the only one sitting up front. So I get up and go up behind this fine representative of American Naval Traditions and say 'Hey man, why don't you just sit down. We'll be on the ground in a few minutes." He looks over his shoulder all surprised and slurs out "You don't tell me what to do," (with a bunch of expletives), turns around and tries to punch me! Well now I'm mad because he's really embarrassing me as a fellow sailor. As he tries to choke me I grab him by his shirt and throw him down across the seats. As I hold him there I think to myself, "OK, now what do I do?" I contemplated taking out a lot of frustration by punching him senseless. Then this arm, with four gold stripes on it, comes past me and puts his finger in the drunks face and says "You, son, are going to go sit down and be quiet! Understood?" He mumbles a couple of yessirs and the flight attendant and some guy from the back take him back to his seat and I sit back down. Jeesh! Back in the back, this young girl is like "He's not with me! Don't put him here!" and the flight attendant suggests she sit somewhere else. So I'm up front by myself, thinking what an embarrassment that was,  when suddenly this young girl flies into the seat next to me, looks me right in the eyes and says "You were such a hero!" Well now, this is a happy turn of events! So I basked in my heroness for another 15 minutes until we landed. She got off, I never saw her again. The drunk got off, took a swing at the cops and got hauled off in hand cuffs. I saw it, it was comical. I got my connecting flight and went back to the ship. 
I love freight. Freight never complains that it's too cold. Freight never cries that this plane is too small. Freight never gets boarded drunk and tries to take a swing at me. Freight is sober, polite and understanding. I love freight.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Cool Airplane

So what was the coolest airplane you ever flew? Which did you like the best? The worst? These are the kind of questions a pilot will ask another pilot. No civilian will ever think to ask this kind of question. I asked a friend once, a former TWA pilot, what was the best plane he ever flew. He said without hesitation, "The Tristar, the L1011. That was a beautiful machine." A Northwest DC-10 pilot once told me "The 747. You can fill up the cargo hold, with every seat empty, and still make money. It would fly all the way to Tokyo with plenty of reserves." Another friend, who's in the Air Force Reserve said "The F-16. I have been at 3000' and 250 knots, pulled it up with the afterburner on, and went through 31,000' like a missle, still doing 250 knots. And with an external fuel tank, too." Now that's a cool airplane.
Different airplanes meant different things to me. The Cessna 402C and I had a special relationship. When I held that plane in my hands it felt like it was a part of me, it would speak to me. I could fly it with my fingertips. Landings were almost always beautiful. We were just very much in synch. The Beechcraft Baron was also like that. Though I didn't fly it nearly as much, it flew like it was on ball bearings. Flying either one always put a smile on my face.

The Saab 340. It was big and flew like a big heavy machine, and it was in a word, stable. It always did just exactly what you expected it to do. A rock solid machine that was dependable and never had any surprises. Plus it had a cockpit door, a bathroom in the back and hot coffee, so it was pretty much a dream. I love to taxi, and the Saab was fun to taxi. One day I lined up on runway 31 at Int'l Falls and Thor lined up next to me in the snow with his hot rod snowmobile. He signaled go so I added power and took off. He told me later, "I kept up with you for a short distance, and then you were zoom! Gone!" 1735 shp a side would do that. It was a good place to earn a living. The KingAir 200 was just like a Saab, only smaller. Rock steady, dependable. With hot coffee, a cockpit door and a bathroom.

The SA227 Metro IV. This I fly today, and it's a love-hate relationship. It is in a word, demanding. You must respect it and fly it with precision, or it will very quickly turn around and kill you if you let it. It uses a lot of runway for both landing and takeoff. Oh it'll haul a big load, and can fly non-stop from Seattle to St Louis, or San Juan to South America, but the autopilot only holds heading and altitude, the radar is right out of 1968, and there is no GPS. It is old school all the way. My hand flying skills have never been better! You can't come blazing into anything, traffic pattern or approach. It takes forever to slow down thanks to Fairchild's fascination with flush riveting. She does not like being handled that way. You set up early and it'll fly quite nicely. It is possible to roll it on the runway too, in the touchdown zone. I know, my First Officer did it today. But only if you fly it precisely and are established and stabilized early. It demands respect, and after a good flight you feel like you really earned it's respect back. It gives you a feeling of accomplishment.

The DC-3. I loved that plane. They flew them at PBA and I rode the jumpseat every chance I could. One night we were to fly home to New Bedford empty, and two instructor pilots were flying. They asked if I wanted to fly it (I was slated for DC-3 Captain class soon). No need to ask me twice! Takes off is at a ridiculously slow airspeed, it lumbered along like an elephant, but was smooth in its handling. It was summer so I had the side window cranked open, flying at 1500' over the Sound to New Bedford, with those beautiful Pratt & Whitney's making that hypnotizing sound just a few feet behind me. I looked out at the lights on the shore, without a glass window between me and just being out there. As we approached EWB I flew it toward a left base entry to the runway, figuring when he took it back I'd have him in a good position. We got closer. And closer. And he leaned over and shouted "After we land, don't touch the brakes!" Oh my God, he was going to let me land it. I flew as nice a pattern as I could. The controls took a lot of movement to make anything happen, but it was actually happening. We crossed the end, I closed the throttles and eased back on the wheel. With a bit of a sigh she just sat down on those two big, fat tires nice as could be. He took over and I let the sounds of those engines and the squeaky brakes just flow right through me. The best 45 minutes of my life. Never did get the Captain class, they made all us 402 drivers stay where we were. Sigh.

Rockwell Sabreliner 60. Only got about 60 hours in the right seat, but what a rocket machine. It climbed like crazy and would go up to FL420 as easily as you walk to your mailbox. Except at ludicrously fast speeds. It made contrails, landed easy, handled sweet. First landing I did, the Captain was all nervous. Guess he felt turboprop pilots don't know how to fly jets. He wasn't making me nervous though. I was too busy flying it around the pattern with a giant grin on my face. Felt like I was handed the reigns to a thoroughbred race horse.

The worst airplane? None of them. There's no such thing as a bad airplane. Just bad pilots.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Emergency! Oh, wait...

When people find out I'm a pilot, they inevitably ask me the same question: What was the most dangerous thing that ever happened to you? It's like people have this fascination with how dangerous flying is, though of course in reality I'm more likely to get injured walking to the bathroom in the middle of the night than I am in an airplane. My standard go-to answer is usually "Well, nothing really. It's been a pretty boring career in that sense." They seem disappointed but the conversation usually ends there. I have however, had a few instances that would fall under the category of potentially harmful. These of course are occurances not caused by my own stupidity. 

SA227 Metroliner
Well, one time I was flying home at FL240 from Orlando. It was late and I was by myself, clear skies, minding my own business, when suddenly there is this loud creepy-sounding groan. Then the cabin pressure abruptly changed. Not a little bit, but all at once the pressurization failed (an outflow valve failed full open). In a second the cabin was at 24,000'. My first thought was "Oh, crap!", then I figured I'd better do something. So I reach behind me and grab the oxygen mask. Now in some airplanes the oxygen mask fits like a glove. In this 30 year old Metroliner, it doesn't fit at all. On it's smallest setting it is still ten sizes too large. Luckily I already knew this so I didn't waste any time with trying to make it fit. I grabbed the mask part and held it up to my face and breathed deep. Ah, good, oxygen flowed. I keyed the mike to tell ATC but there was nothing. Oh right, gotta throw the mask switch, which is conveniently located behind me on my left, at the very back of the dark side panel. I switch hands and grope around in the dark for the switch and move it, hoping I haven't just switched off the essential AC bus or something. I switch hands again and key the mike. "Memphis Center, Amflight 743 needs to descend to 10,000 right away," in one of those muffled I'm-wearing-a-mask kind of voice. The woman controller says "Alright, ALRIGHT! Everybody just be quiet for a minute! (pause), OK, Amflight 743 you need to descend?" "Yes, I'm starting down now." "OK, OK, descend and maintain ten thousand. Do you need assistance?" "No, we're good for now."

All this conversation is happening while I'm holding the mask on with my left hand, disconnecting the autopilot with my right hand, pulling the power to idle (which activates the landing gear warning horn which definitely doesn't help the situation), putting the nose down and flying the airplane, all with my right hand. Then I switch hands and with my left hand push the trim switch to keep the nose down and pretty quick I'm descending at a phenomenal rate. It was a real clown-fest. I remember thinking something like "Holy Guacamole!" because the descent was so darn fast. As we approached redline we passed twenty thousand, then eighteen, then sixteen, and suddenly I was fast approaching ten thousand. I leveled off, dropped that damn oxygen mask, and set it up in cruise again. Then I just flew home at 10,000'. So really, it was no big deal. Just a quick descent.

1990. One morning when it was still dark out, I taxied out in the trusty Saab 340 at Sioux City IA. Our maintenance base was there so the airplanes usually had some sort of inspection process going on overnight. We taxi to the end of the runway, get cleared for takeoff and away we go. All is normal until 400' when the copilot turns on the bleed valves. Suddenly the whole cockpit is filled with some kind of smoke. Thick it was, making the panel instantly hard to see. And the stuff was nasty! Made your eyes burn and water, further messing with your vision. Plus, it made breathing very hard. Every breath was like breathing some toxic substances. It burned. Now in training, when the instructor says "Smoke in the cockpit!" you calmly put on your mask and goggles and run the smoke in cabin checklist. Not us. First thing we did was undo what we had just done, i.e., we turned off the bleeds. Now it wasn't getting better but at least it wasn't getting worse. We both knew that 1/4 mile behind us was a runway we really wanted to get back to, so I said "You run the climb, in-range and landing checklists, I'll talk to ATC," which he promptly started doing. I called the tower, said we had smoke in the cockpit and were returning immediately.  I leveled at 1500' and banked right around into a downwind leg. As the copilot began the before landing checklist I called for landing gear and flaps when he got to them, and abeam the threshold I pulled a lot of power off and made a descending turn to the runway. We rolled out on short final and, wow! The fire trucks were already there! Who called them out, I wondered. We landed, stopped on the runway, and the fire trucks began shining spotlights on us. I asked them on the radio if they could see anything and they said no, it looks fine. So I taxied to the gate. Maintenance was there and indicated to keep the right engine running while the passengers got off. Then the mechanic supervisor came up and said sorry, we did an engine wash last night and forgot to run the engines afterward. So what we got was all this toxic engine wash, compressed and heated and sprayed into the cockpit in a misty gas form. As we ran the engines on the run-up pad I was making clear in no uncertain terms how unhappy we were. But, it could have been worse, so looking back it really wasn't that big a deal. The whole thing only lasted a few minutes.

I had a couple of other things happen, but nothing too bad. I'll talk about those later in another chapter. Honestly, looking back on my career, it was pretty boring with just a few abnormal situations. It's probably been more exciting for you in your Volvo. I mean, I never had an airplane strand me in a bad neighborhood. 

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Deadly Night

It was the big NCAA Final Four games in Indianapolis.We flew the boss and his friends there for the big show in their little KingAir E90. Going into Indy the place was mobbed with business aircraft. We get put into a holding pattern, which is really quite rare these days. We're in the hold, doing the standard right turns as instructed. We can see others below us doing the same thing. Then we see this big Global Express, about as fancy as a corporate jet can get, slowly pass a thousand feet above us in the holding pattern. Very beautiful lines, neat to see. At the holding fix the Global jet, with all it's high tech navigation gear, the absolute latest electronic equipment, starts a turn to the left. As we begin our right turn I remarked "Where's he going? I guess he entered a wrong letter when he programed the hold in his computer." Funny, you can be Mr Fancy Corporate Jet Pilot but still screw up a holding pattern. 

The ramp was a zoo. Jets parked as far as you could see. We got a space way in the back. Vans would drive endlessly around, picking up any pilots or passengers that waved to them. Inside the FBO they had a large spread of catering for all the pilots. Even a free massage room! I signed up Rachel and she got what she described as a "bruising rub down" by the woman masseuse. We enjoyed some terrific chicken wings and shared a small table with a nice guy flying by himself. Several hours later the games end and everyone starts returning. Vans are running non-stop. They're well organized and pretty soon we are boarding our little E90. We start up and taxi out. We're given a spot and get in line. Some guy in his Gulfstream V is carrying on, all upset, because he is burning up fuel just sitting there waiting his turn. So I play nice and let him in front of me. Right or not, at least he shut up. 

We taxi slowly down the taxiway at night, number 14 for takeoff, and that's just on our side of the runway. There are many more on the other side too. Adding to the problem was the weather. A huge storm was sitting just south and west of the airport, right where we wanted to go. Just after 11 pm we saw a Cessna 414 take off. "Guess we're the smallest plane here now," I remarked. Gulfstream IV, Falcon 90, Global Express, one by one they thunder down the runway. Finally, a long time later, we are next in line. We get cleared to go and takeoff, getting a heading that keeps us out of the way of those big jets behind us blasting off. We stagger up to 14,000' and with our ancient radar begin dodging the weather. Two things helped. The moon was full, making it easy to see the clouds, and the clouds all had lots of lightning inside of them, making them also easy to see and avoid. We fly a zig zag course way down south, then way over to the west, and eventually back up north. Our destination is Harrisburg but there is a giant red cell right over it so we elect to land at Benton instead, around 1:00 AM. We fly the best RNAV approach I've flown in a while and she spots the runway right at the missed approach point through the dark, dense fog. We land, drop everyone off, then head home to MVN, ten minutes away. It was a hard trip, because you are constantly moving forward at 220 kts and you need to pick a new route often, constantly coordinating with ATC, while keeping track of fuel and weather and just flying the airplane.
Later we learned that the Cessna 414 we saw takeoff crashed while landing in Bloomington IL, not far from our destination. He flew the ILS approach to runway 20 but his heading and altitude were "erratic". He crashed, killing all seven on board. Sad ending it was, for most likely we had at one time or another shared the buffet with the pilot. You never know what might be the fate of the guy you're sharing chicken wings with. It's just a fact of flying. People die. You never hear about the small plane crashes. You can relate because you know how quickly things can get out of hand, how fast a seemingly well in hand approach can suddenly go tragically wrong.
N789UP the morning after the crash

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Red Spots

Thunderstorms are a part of daily life in flying. Living in the Midwest we see plenty of them. Pretty to look at, easy to avoid. What I hate are scattered, small embedded thundertstorms. Not so easy to navigate around, especially at night. Sometimes you just need to be remotely near one to get slammed but good. 

When I was flying organ transplant flights, we often flew from St Louis to Springfield MO. It's about an hour flight straight down I-44. Thunderstorms around here usually come up from Texas and Oklahoma, moving right along I-44. So we would often find ourselves flying alongside a long line of boomers. At night especially, it was quite a light show. One night we brought a body back (they'll use most of the organs). St Louis is one of the top transplant sites in the world. So we get this huge, obese body on board (which is why they are like they are. Overeating is a killer, friends). One of the nurses, who I know pretty well, just rolls her eyes as the doctor, a real prima dona, barks out orders. A real unlikable fellow. Maybe he's a good Christian who just lacks people skills. On the flight home I can hear him carrying on back there, so finally I beckon back to her and yell "I need you up here!" She comes up and I said "I thought you could use a break," then pointed out the fantastic light show taking place on our right. Her and Jeff and I, we watched it for a long time while Dr Bigfoot stewed in the back. 

Rachel and me
One day I was with my trusty copilot Rachel and we were flying empty back to Mt Vernon from Denver. Rachel was in the left seat and I was doing copilot duties. We'd been dodging thunderstorms all over Kansas and Missouri, and as we descended over St Louis there were a few small cells still about. One small red area appeared directly ahead, but I could see it was clear on the other side. As we passed through 20,000' at max velocity Rachel asks "Shouldn't we turn a little left and go around that?" "Oh no," I replied, "We're fine. It's small and its clear on the other side." We get closer. Again Rachel asks, "You know, we should probably ask for a turn to the left to go around this." "No, we're OK. See? It's small. Hey, turn on the nacelle heat, would ya?" Rachel begins looking around for the nacelle heat and that's when we entered it. Wham! WHAM! Suddenly we are getting thrown all around the cockpit despite being tightly buckled in. Arms and hands are just flying all over, bodies getting thrown left and right. WHAM! WHAM! WHAM! Anything not tied down is airborne in the cockpit. She's hanging on to the control wheel but neither of us can get a hand on the power levers. Finally we pop out the other side into clear air and the wildly violent ride stops. Now most people would be scared to death at this point, wide eyed and wishing they'd worn their brown pants. Not us. We couldn't stop laughing. Just couldn't stop laughing. We laugh at death! This is insane, but we can't even hardly talk we're laughing so hard. "See? I told you it was clear on the other side," I laughed. She's still laughing and says "There isn't any nacelle heat, is there?" "No, I made that up. I just wanted to get you mind off of that darn red cell."

Monday, September 19, 2016

Jump Seat

Jump seats are a true enigma. It can be a savoir or a curse. I've rode the jumpseat many, many times. When I was flying in the Cayman's, a Republic Airlines Captain was nice enough to give me the jumpseat on his DC-9 leaving the Cayman's, saving my butt. There is also proper jumpseat etiquette. Some people think that with a jumpseat pass you get to ride in this cool new airliner cockpit. Wrong! You only get to ride the jumpseat if (a) the Captain invites you, which isn't happening if you're not a personal friend, or (b) every seat in the back is full. You see, pilots like to be left alone when doing their job, and a jumpseat passenger is simply an invitation to doing something really stupid. The jumpseat has allowed me to visit some cool cockpits though. I have a lot of time riding in the DC-3 jumpseat. Too many hours in a DC-9 jumpseat. Rode the jumpseat of a 747-400 (brand new, just delivered to NWA) and had a First Class breakfast served to me. But that was once. All the other times were much different.

I rode the jumpseat on an Airborne Express DC-9 one night out of Wilmington OH. It was around 5 am and I was so tired I was more asleep than awake as we started our takeoff roll. We rolled and rolled and rolled and rolled... and I opened my eyes to see nothing but red runway lights as the nose came up and we took off.  Whoa! Later I asked about it and they said the loadmaster would stop adding up weight when he reached the maximum. Didn't stop loading, just stopped adding the weights.

One afternoon we departed Hibbing MN when I worked at Northwest Airlink, and flew south to Minneapolis. An FAA guy came up and said he'd like to observe us from the jumpseat. Sigh. So Kent was the FO and it's his leg. All went fairly well until we got near Minneapolis. We were told to cross a particular intersection at 7000', something we do every single time we fly this route. Every. Single. Time. So today Kent is descending at a leisurely rate and despite my subtle hints managed to cross the intersection 500' high. Nice going Kent. Plus he set off the overspeed warning like ten times during the descent. Then on landing he crosses the end of the runway twenty knots too fast, floats forever and we finally turn off more than three quarters of the way down the eight thousand foot long runway. Aaugh!

As a First Officer I was flying with Jim Hadstate when a Northwest 747 Captain came up and asked for the jumpseat to Duluth. We took off with flaps set to 15 degrees, which was normal SOP at the time. During climb, passing 5000', I am mortified to discover the flaps are still at 15! As professionally as I can, I say to Jim, "5000 feet. Flaps up?" "Uh, flaps up," he replied. Of course we weren't fooling anyone. Your chances of doing something stupid grows by a factor of 100 with someone in the jumpseat. 

Another FAA fellow did a line check on us going to Eau Claire, the shortest route we had. That SOB talked constantly during the trip, blah blah blah. We were however being very careful not to do any unnecessary talking below 10,000' which is a bad thing in the eyes of the FAA. But this fool wouldn't shut up. We ignored him but he just kept on blabbing. Later, at the gate, he said "Good job. You want to be careful though about talking below 10,000'. It's against the regs, but I'll overlook it this time." I was grinding my teeth.   

When you can fly for free, everyone in your family expects you to attend every single family function, no matter how small or trivial. "You fly for free, right? So what's the problem?" I would ride between Minneapolis and Boston, which was a very popular route, i.e., planes always full. And they were both crew bases, so guess what? The jumpseat is always taken by a commuting Northwest pilot. Flying non-rev is the worst. Everybody, and I mean even a flight attendant from Thailand, is senior to you when you want to non-rev someplace. I've been bumped from flights more times than I care to remember. 

Sometimes it was good though. I rode a Northwest DC-10 jumpseat to Boston once and we had a blast up front. The Captain had some great stories. At the gate the first officer asked what I was flying. "I don't know yet, probably a Jetstream," I replied. He thought about that a moment then turned to the captain and said "Hey Jim, what's a Jetstream?" Jim replied with a wave of his hand, "Light twin." Sigh. Well, technically I guess it was. Small potatoes compared to this DC-10. They decided to start an engine for some AC being as it was a hot August afternoon. The Captain picked up the handset but the ground crew wasn't paying attention. "Christ! They're just standing there," he says looking outside. He slides open his big side window, stands up and leans out and, right in front of the boarding passengers yells down to them, "HEY! We want to start a fucking engine!" Next we pushed back into the taxiway and the FO says "Oh crap, I forgot to call for clearance to push back." "Just call them like you had permission," the Captain said. ATC still scolded him for blocking the taxiway though. It probably happened because I was in the jumpseat. Later we were climbing out and ATC called out a 737 as traffic to us and the FO asks the Captain "What are we looking for?" and the captain replied, "Light twin." 

One day on my own flight, the gate boarded 34 people. Problem was, we only had 33 seats. The flight Attendant came up and told me this, said two people had the same seat assignment. I told her to go see if anyone was a pilot. She gets on the PA, "Does anyone know how to fly a plane?" One guy holds up his hand and comes up front. "I own a Piper down at Anoka County Airport," he said. I called inside, told them the problem but there was a Northwest pilot on board so could we... "Yes, yes! Just go!" I turned to the private pilot and said "If you're willing to be a Northwest Captain for an hour, I'll let you ride up here." Heck yeah! 

To ride jumpseat you usually go in uniform. And if there is a seat open in back, you always grab that. Which means I would often be sitting in coach and some yahoo would sit down and ask "Heh heh, you a pi-lot?" This was followed by five minutes explaining who Airlink was, another fifteen minutes expaling what a Saab 340 was, followed by twenty minutes of listening to his puddle jumper horror stories. Every time! Until one day a guy sat down next to me on a Northwest DC-9 flight to Boston. "Heh, heh, you a pi-lot?" 
"Who do you fly for?"
"What do you fly?"
"This, a DC-9."
"Do you like it?"
"Eh, its a job."
"I hear ya," and with that he didn't bother me at all the rest of the flight. Genius! After that, whoever I was on, whatever I was in, that was who I flew for and what I fly. The result is always the same. You can also say you fly for UPS. Everyone knows them but knows very little about cargo flying. "Eh, its a job."

I flew in a 727 jumpseat only once, which was kinda surprising. It was Northwest from Memphis to Minneapolis. On landing the Captain hammered, I mean slammed that thing into the pavement. Probably because I was in the jumpseat. I felt bad. No one said a word, it was dead silence. As we started to taxi to the gate the First Officer finally says, "Well, we certainly dissapated a lot of energy on that one." This broke the tension and made the Captain laugh. 

Jumpseated home on one of our Saabs one day with Bob. Forget his last name. We filled up, took off and climbed out normally. Then I noticed the fuel gauges and said, "Wow, Bob, 4000 lbs of fuel. That's a lot of fuel." Which is about 1000 lbs more than we could take, so we actually took off half a ton over gross. He sighed. "Yeah, I know. I forgot we were full out of here and topped it off in MSP." I said "Well I appreciate you not bumping me off. She sure did climb well enough though." It did too. Took off and climbed out like we were empty. Well, almost empty.

Yes, the jumpseat is both a blessing and a curse. It's also the most uncomfortable chair you have ever, ever sat in. Unless its a brand new 747-400 with a First Class breakfast.

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Expense Accounts

Part of flying is getting used to handling an expense account. Basically, the company gives you a credit card and you keep track of all the legitimate expenses like fuel, parking, meals, hotels. I worked for a business in St Louis once, flying aerial reconnaissance aircraft. These planes had highly sophisticated cameras mounted inside, cameras worth more than the plane itself. We would map cities and towns across the country for GoogleMaps. Very precise work, requiring a lot of preflight planning and flawless execution. These cameras would be repaired or modified at a location in Hayward, California, a small suburb of Oakland. I spent many days in Oakland. We used to fly a testing route when they needed to calibrate the camera. Downtown San Francisco and south for about forty miles, back and forth, back and forth. On one test flight we were about two hours into it and I realized I really, really needed to use the bathroom. So I went in back, closed the little door and relieved myself with the relief tube. That's a small hose that simply runs outside the plane. Strictly for liquids. As I'm doing my business, I glance out the little window. Yep, I was taking a whiz right over downtown San Francisco at 16,000'. But I digress.

One evening my copilot and I went out to dinner in Oakland and chose a nearby Olive Garden. It was a Saturday and the waiting line was long. Now Oakland is the gangland capital of America. So a good number of the people waiting were obvious gang members with their dates. I went to the desk to put my name on the list and asked how long was the wait. "About 45 minutes to an hour," was her response. I looked at the bar area behind her, with it's small metal tables. One was open. "Can we sit there?" I asked. "Sure," she said and so we sat down. The waiter came by and I ordered a Coke and asked if we could eat dinner here too. "Why sure you can," he replied. Waiting time just dropped to zero. 

My copilot went to the bathroom and while I'm sitting there this little old lady came up. "Would you mind if my husband and I sat with you until our table is ready? There aren't any seats open in the waiting area." I knew exactly what this meant. This elderly couple, well into their eighties I'd say, needed a place to sit. These local gangland kids had never learned anything like manners or respect your elders, so none of them were giving up a seat for them. It's sad, you know? Well I immediately said "Sure! I'd be happy if you would join us!" and stood up and held the chair for her. I said why don't you join us for dinner, we're eating right here. "Oh? I didn't know you could eat here," they replied. My copilot came back and I introduced everyone. The waiter came by and I said there'd be four of us tonight, and ordered a bottle of their less expensive wine (it is an expense account you know).

They asked about us and we explained we were pilots and I bit my lip when they responded with the usual "Oh really? Which airline do you fly for?" We explained what it was we actually do, then I asked about them. Well, what an interesting story they told. They had dated back in high school. This was during Wold War II, and on graduation he had enlisted in the Marines. Took part in the invasions of Iwo Jima and Okinawa. You were lucky if you survived one of those invasions, but he had managed to survive both! He recounted how they couldn't take prisoners. Japanese soldiers surrendering usually carried a hidden hand grenade and would blow up themselves, and their captors, first chance they had. All the dead or injured Marines and no prisoners had obviously been a traumatic time for him, obvious even now after all these years. When the war ended, he was sent home where he married his high school sweetheart and they'd been married ever since, 66 years now. When they got married they had bought a home in Hayward and still lived in it today.  The same home!

This was a most enjoyable meal with some very interesting conversation. Had it just been the copilot and me, we'd sat there talking about flying some, which is what pilots usually do. Or texted on our iPhones silently. This though, this was some enlightening, stimulating conversation! We ate our dinner, laughing and discussing what it was like to be married so long. I remember he said saying 'yes dear' a lot was helpful. Some things never change. After a tasty dessert I whispered to the waiter to put it all on our tab. I signed the receipt, we said good bye to this lovely couple and left them alone to share the last of the wine. The free meal surprise would come later for them. Thank you Google, for showing this couple respect when no one else did. It was definitely a legitimate expense.

As a former veteran of six years in the Navy, I still use food to show respect. If I'm in a restaurant and a soldier is there, I pay for his meal. Usually I don't let on it was me, I just tell the waitress to give me their bill as I'm leaving. One time, when I was driving a truck (one of my between-flying jobs), I was in line at McDonald's and a soldier got in line behind all of us drivers. When I stepped up to give my order I looked back and waived at the soldier to come on up. Who? Me? The other drivers were saying "Go on! Get up there! He's buying your meal!" I'd make sure he got everything he wanted ("Make that a large Coke") and then shake his hand. Sure it cost me a few bucks, but it makes you feel good about yourself, makes the soldier feel good and hopefully inspires others to do the same. It's my personal expense account.

Friday, September 16, 2016

Hot Times In Miami

So it's late summer of 1987 and I'm flying a Cessna 402C for Provincetown-Boston Airline (PBA). At one time, PBA was the largest regional in the world. They had a fleet that included the Cessna 402, Embraer 110, DC-3, YS-11 and Martin 404. The plane that operated the flight depended on how many passengers they had. In the beginning I was based in Key West, sharing a home with some other pilots in Sugarloaf Key. That place had a dock and boat ramp. For dinner you just put on your swim trunks and jumped in, grabbing a rock lobster or two. It was pretty sweet.

One afternoon I'm flying from Key West to Miami with nine passengers. One passenger was this hot young blonde in a short white dress and she took the seat right next to me! Sometimes you get lucky! We took off and fly this 45 min flight across water and swamps, with about 5 minutes over populated land. Halfway there this lovely young woman leans over and asks, "Is there a bathroom on this plane?" Well obviously there isn't, so I figured we had just reached some sort of critical stage. I answered that there wasn't, but I'd speed up and get there more quickly. So I pushed the throttles and props full forward which made a lot more noise but only gave us about five more knots of airspeed. I called Miami Approach and said I needed to go direct to the airport. Approved, having any difficulties? "No, not yet," I replied. I sure didn't want to have this pretty young lady mess her dress and get all embarrassed so I did what I could. We got switched to another controller. "Are you declaring an emergency?" he asked. What? "No, not yet. We just need direct." Cleared direct. Then they switched me to Miami Tower. I checked in and they replied "PBA 7313, you're cleared to land on any runway you can make!" Oh crap! They thought I had some real emergency going on here. Drat! Well, I figured what the heck and took advantage of their offer, landing on runway 9R. I hit the high speed turnoff and zoomed down the taxiway to the small terminal we used. I whipped up in front and said to her "Through the doors and to the right!" She said "Thanks!" and ran off the plane. Luckily they didn't call out the fire trucks or it would have gone on my permanent record. "Landed with pretty passenger with urgent physical needs. No action taken." 

One night I was sitting at this little terminal just before midnight, waiting on the People Express flight from Newark and their connecting passengers going to Key West. The mechanic and I sat outside in the hot Miami night air having a smoke when we heard this loud roar of four big radial engines going to full power. A beautiful sound it was. We watched for the plane to appear from behind the fire house as it took off from 9L. Back then there were plenty of old prop airliners flying freight from the north ramp, also known as the Miami Smithsonian or Miami Boneyard. Well eventually this plane making all the fuss appears, barely moving. Slowly it accelerates, like a long freight train. You can see the flames at the exhaust pipes. It was trying real hard, just not having a lot of success. It roared past us and then, around halfway down the runway, the nose came off the ground, like that was supposed to do something. But it just kept rolling, mains firmly attached to the concrete still. Finally it struggled into the air, so slowly I swear you could almost watch the struts extending. It got about 12 inches above the runway and immediately they retracted the landing gear. Barely climbing they staggered along, turning slowly left to avoid the tall buildings of downtown Miami and the sound faded into the humid night air. I asked one of their pilots later why they climb so flat. He said they have to. They need to get the speed up to cool the engines and not cook them. With the low octane 100LL they were using (130/145 octane hasn't been made in years), the engines get hot real fast. And the long takeoff roll? "The weight of the freight they give us is based more on fantasy than fact." Hot times indeed.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Twilight Zone

N8083H at San Pedro Sula Airport, Honduras being prepped for flight

During my time in the Cayman Islands, I often flew to San Pedro Sula Airport in Honduras. It is located in the bottom of a valley, along with the VOR navigation aid. This makes doing maintenance on the VOR easy, but it's fairly useless as a navaid because the surrounding mountains block the signal until you're almost on top of it. In our airplanes we had a single VOR receiver with line of sight range. The flight is over 400 miles and three hours flying time, all over water. So I would take off from Grand Cayman and head deliberately to the left of San Pedro Sula. Three hours later I would come upon the Honduran shoreline, turn right, and fly down the beach until I reached the grass huts. These huts marked the entrance to the valley and the VOR signal would suddenly come alive. Fly down the valley and presto! San Pedro Sula.

At the airport there is a beautiful old Lockheed L1649A Constellation, N8083H. Only 49 of these types were built, the most advanced piston-engine airliner ever made. The airplane I was looking at was parked in the grass beside the ramp. It flew for TWA for only four years, then went through a long series of cargo operators over the next twenty years. It's final operator used it to carry marijuana and it was abandoned at San Pedro Sula in the fall of 1983. It sat out in the hot sun, all shiny in it's bare metal skin devoid of all paint, four tremendously large engines (the biggest prop engines ever made) sitting high above the ground on it's long graceful landing gear. Beautiful.

One day I noticed there was a group of mechanics working on the airplane, obviously getting it ready for flight. I sat on the wing of my Aero Commander with the fueler and we discussed the old Starliner. I didn't speak Spanish and he only knew a little bit of English. I asked who had bought the airplane, where was it going? The mechanics turned over an engine. The propeller turned slowly at first, then a few loud pops, some flame from the exhaust, and with a cumulonimbus-sized cloud of white exhaust smoke it slowly came to life. If you have ever heard a big radial start up, you know what a beautiful sound that really is. It's mesmerizing.
We went back to fueling. The fueler replied to my question about who had bought it."Some rich American. They going to fly it to America soon."
"Any idea who?" 
He thought long and hard, carefully pumping fuel into my plane.
"Ah! A very wealthy man. His name was, uh, Smithsonian! Si, Si, Smithsonian."

We sat under the warm Caribbean sun on top of my wing, slowly pumping 100 octane fuel while we listened to and watched this historic dinosaur coming back to life. I closed my eyes and listened, basking in the warmth of the sun, the humidity of the surrounding jungles and the sounds of airport times gone by. An old DC-3 landed and taxied in. She pulled up gracefully to the gate area, swinging around and coming to a squeaky stop. Passengers walking across the hot concrete ramp. In Central America the DC-3 still flies regular airline flights as purposely as they did thirty years ago. This entire airport was a twilight zone, still living and breathing in 1961. When we were done I paid the man in US cash, the standard currency of choice here. I gave him a $20 tip and with a smile and a handshake we went our separate ways. I took off, turned off the radio and flew low down the valley, past the grass huts and out over the vast Caribbean Sea, heading north by northeast towards the distant Cayman Islands and reality.


Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Cayman Island Turbines

It was the summer of 1986 and I was flying the "dream job". My ship had finally come in. A friend had told me about this ad he'd seen about a job flying in the Cayman Islands. I called down there and talked to the owner, Marjorie Bodden. She and her family ran the charter service in the Caymans. Down there, two families run the island- the Bodden's and the Peterson's (I think that was the name). They also have a rule down there, only one of anything. So there is only one air charter service, and the Bodden's own it. There is only one apartment building, and the Bodden's owned it. Plenty of hotels, but only one apartment building. Seems their son Duane had been killed flying their Cessna 402B on Cayman Brac. He was their only pilot so they needed someone. "Do you have any turbine time?" she asked. I said I had plenty of turbine time, flying Cheyennes and the like. Actually, my total turbine time was about two hours, sitting right seat in a Cheyenne II where I wasn't allowed to touch anything. But what the heck, I really wanted this job. "I'll send you an airline ticket tomorrow." I said I couldn't leave before the end of the week, which gave me just enough time to check with the DEA and Customs to see if they were legit. More on that later.

When I got down there, I discovered their turbine airplane was a Commander 681, N9058N. This was one of the very first turboprops ever made. They had two mechanics, Sid who was a former RAF mechanic now married to a Cayman Airways flight attendant. His assistant was a Jamaican fellow who's name I can't remember. Anyway, Sid said the airplane had "history". On October 4, 1971, it belonged to a charter company in Florida. One of their pilots was having an affair with a married woman and when her husband found out, he chartered the airplane, asking for this particular pilot. On the day of the flight he and an accomplice met the wife at the airport, dragged her onboard and with guns waiving made the pilots take off. They flew around for a while, then the husband told them they wanted to go to Cuba. They landed in Jacksonville and the copilot came out to the FBI with the demand for fuel but the FBI agents told him he wasn't getting back in, they were ending it right here, right now. When the husband saw what was happening he ordered the pilot to start the engines. When he began to do that, the FBI opened up on the airplane with everything they had. The drunk husband killed his wife and the pilot before killing himself ( So later the Bodden's bought the plane, really, really cheap. Now Sid spent all his free time trying to patch all the holes so it would pressurize again. 

When I arrived they were waiting on a new left engine. Seems that poor Duane would burn up an engine about once a month according to Sid. I dug around and couldn't find a checklist anywhere. Sid pointed to a large stack of maintenance books and flight manuals and suggested I look there. So while we awaited the new engine from the USA I created new checklists, including power charts and performance data. I studied those manuals like I was cramming for the bar exam. Then a couple of days later the engine arrived. We got a friend with a tow truck to pick up the engine and back up to the airplane. I helped them with the work as best I could. Finally it was all done and as the sun set Sid announced that in the morning we'd fire it up for a test run. I went home to my apartment in their apartment building, ate dinner, then came back out to the airport after dark. With my new checklist in hand I carefully threw switches and set levers and somehow managed to fire up the right engine without destroying it. Well shoot, that was easy compared to some other engines I'd started! On these Garrett 331's you just throw a switch and the rest is automatic. Very pleased with myself, I shut it down and went home. The next morning we started the left engine and it ran fine after a few adjustments. Then the local aviation official, the local "FAA" type person, called me into his office. He told me they had a lot of trouble with this airplane and he would prefer I fly it ten hours solo before I took passengers. I explained my new checklists and performance documents to him, which seemed to give him renewed confidence in our abilities. So I went out to put on ten hours of flight time. 
In the Cayman Islands, the wind always blows from the east. Always. So they have one runway, east-west. Except on these two days when I flew the airplane around the traffic pattern for ten hours total, the wind was howling out of the north, a direct crosswind. Sid said it did this like once a year. Lucky me! So I spent my first ten hours in a turbine engine airplane playing Don Quixote with this wind. It was great fun. The engines ran well enough, the airplane never did pressurize and the sixteen fuel bladders (yes, sixteen!) filled through one opening and took over and hour to fill, I kid you not. Half the bladders had been replaced, and the other half leaked so bad that the left side of the plane under the wing was always perpetually wet with Jet-A. We never flew above 10,000' and burned/leaked fuel like crazy, but I was flying a turbine and that was pretty cool. Life in the sunny Caribbean was sweet indeed!  

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Winter in Connecticut

It was winter in Connecticut. We had a regular run where we would fly the Cessna 172 up to Bradley Airport (about 30 minutes away), meet the United flight from Chicago, pick up a big envelope of negatives and fly them back to Chester. A large printing business was located nearby and they would print out all the Time and Sports Illustrated issues for the New England region, using the negatives we picked up. If the weather was bad then we had to drive it, and nobody liked doing that. On this particular night it wasn't bad right now, but was supposed to get bad later. So Jason and I decided to fly up there together and hopefully beat the snowstorm.
We picked up the large envelope and took off for Chester, Jason flying and me in the right seat working the radios. It had just started to snow. Fifteen minutes later we were flying through a heavy blizzard and in the Cessna when you flew in snow the navigation radios wouldn't work. They just couldn't get a signal through all that snow. So I called Bradley Approach Control and said our radios weren't working and we'd like to come back to Bradley. Zhimba, our boss, was going to be furious! Bradley replied "Sorry, Bradley Airport just closed due to the snow. State your intentions." Oh crap, this was just getting worse. We discussed it briefly and then told them we'd like a radar approach to New Haven, which was not too far away from Chester, down on the shore of Long Island Sound. He said OK, but his radar wasn't near there and couldn't get us down very low at that range. Great.
We flew south towards New Haven when suddenly, down below, there was this hole in the cloud and we saw an interstate connecting with another interstate. Aha! That was I-91 meeting I-95 on the edge of New Haven! We knew exactly where we were! So we quickly cancelled our flight plan and Jason began a tight spiraling descent through the hole. We got below the cloud base a few hundred feet above the ground. We then headed up I-95, watching the signs for exit 63, Killingworth Road. We found it, turned left and followed it up to the liquor store. You see, there is an instrument approach into Chester Airport that comes in from the southwest direction. We'd flown this approach in clear daylight many, many times, and we knew that just three miles from the airport on the approach you flew right over this liquor store on Killingworth Road. So we flew up the road to the liquor store, turned right to 064 degrees, and a minute later we flew across the airport. We flew around the pattern at 400' and landed to the north. We taxied to the ramp, handed the driver the envelope and went about securing the airplane for the night. Just then Tom drove up in his station wagon. He lived in a house at the end of the runway. "How'd it go?" he asked. 
"Oh fine, fine. No problem," we replied, focusing on tying the airplane down.
"Weather ok?"
"Yea, well, some snow you know. But no problem." He stood there for a a while. Nobody spoke.

Finally he said "Well OK then. Get it tied down and get on home." He got back in his car and drove off. We knew what had happened. See, Tom Zhimba knew everybody in aviation in New England. I mean everybody. When we cancelled our flight plan and spiraled down through the clouds, the controller had called Tom at home to tell him his boys were off radar and flying around down low in this blizzard somewhere (our chief pilot Bruno confirmed this later). Oh yes, he knew, but we never admitted to an adventure. That fact that we had found the airport and landed safely was good enough for him.

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Flying the Appalachians

I was at my very first flying job in Chester CT, working around the airport as the airport grunt, doing some flying now and then. The owner was Thomas Zhimba. He had a fuse that was so short it was nearly invisible. And he was a big guy too, so when he lost his temper it was truly a scary thing. I worked there for 13 months, which was 12.9 more months than most people. Tom was strict but he taught me everything I know about work ethic. Do it right or go home.
Piper Lance
Well one day Tom tells me I'm to go to Detroit with Lester. Lester was flying the Lance out there to deliver a mechanical thing of some sort, and I was to go along. In Detroit I would pick up a Cessna 172RG, brand new with no radios, and fly it back to Chester so the new owner could get his custom radios installed. So Lester and I took off on a stormy morning and flew to western Massachusetts to pick up the freight. We then headed west to Detroit. Somewhere over the Appalachians we were still in the clouds, no radar, just following the airways like we were supposed to be doing. Then the world outside got darker. The rain got heavier. The turbulence got rougher. The farther we went, the worse it got. Eventually we found ourselves unintentionally in the middle of a thunderstorm. It was dark as night. The rain was so intense there was serious concern whether the windshield would bust. The turbulence was extreme, and we were climbing faster than the VSI could indicate, despite having power back and the nose a little low. We should have been descending like a brick but instead were going upstairs like a rocket. I called ATC and told them we were climbing out of 9000' and I had no idea when we would stop, we couldn't control it. He starts asking around and a USAir flight says they're in the clear, about ten miles ahead. We topped out around 13,000' and then we start descending. With full power and the nose up some, we were still dropping like a rock. I passed this on to ATC also. Now our concern was the mountains below. No idea when this crazy descent would stop, the turbulence made it hard for Lester to just keep the wings level. All of a sudden we popped out of the cloud. All around us were these towering spires of clouds, all gold in the afternoon sun, a sight that so like heaven I asked in all seriousness if we had just died. And Lester didn't laugh. We checked it out for a minute and decided no, we'd just somehow managed to survive that.

We spent the night in Detroit. Lester flew home the next day while I picked up the Cessna 172RG and plotted my course home. I'd head to Buffalo, stop for gas, then head on if the weather was ok. With a green light from the tower I was off for Buffalo Downtown Airpark. When I landed the skies were very cloudy and rainy. Nothing too bad though. I checked the weather and found the cloudiness extended all along my planned route. With no radios I couldn't file an instrument flight plan, so I called Mr Zhimba and said I'd stay the night there. Then I sat down at the FBO table and thought hey, if I'm going to be a commercial pilot, I've got to learn how to fly in this sort of thing. So I pulled out my sectional chart and found a low altitude route through the mountains. I'd fly east to Attica, follow the railroad to here, then follow this interstate through the mountains to the other side, then straight across Connecticut to Chester. With map in hand and the fuel bill paid, I fired up and took off. All went well at first. It was cloudy but not bad. Easy to stay VFR. But as I got further along, the clouds got lower and lower. Eventually I found myself in a valley over the interstate highway below, with hills on both sides extending up into the clouds. The visibility wasn't too bad, and at something less than 500' I was "clear of clouds", so I pressed on. The entire time I had the chart on my lap with my finger on the spot where I was, following my progress mile by mile. Up ahead, the chart showed a tower on the north side of the highway. I crossed to the south side. Zoom, there goes the tower. Ahead, another tower, this time on the south side. I banked over the the other side. Zoom, there goes that tower. At one point the highway split, one going northeast and the other east. I got a little confused and circled this small city, working very hard to keep my orientation while deciding which one I needed to follow. Off I went, following the highway. Tower, obstruction, tower. I moved left and right as needed to avoid them all. Finally I came out on the east side, to much flatter countryside, very hazy but clear weather. I flew to Chester as the sun got low on the horizon, and arrived just after a rain shower had passed. The air was silky smooth. I made the best landing ever, a full stall touchdown on the 2600' runway right were I was supposed to. And nobody saw it. I parked by the fuel pumps and went inside where Tom sat having a St Paulie Girl beer at the end of the day (a Chester Airport tradition). "What are you doing here? I thought you were staying in Buffalo to meet up with old girlfriends," he asked. "How did the flight go?" and I said "Oh fine, no problem. Just followed a highway through the mountains. Made a nice landing." "Uh huh," he replied, and went back to his paperwork. Tom hated adventures, so I never let on about this one.


It was winter in Connecticut. We had a regular run where we would fly the Cessna 172 up to Bradley Airport (about 30 minutes away), meet the United flight from Chicago, pick up a big envelope of negatives and fly them back to Chester. A large printing business was located nearby and they would print out all the Time and Sports Illustrated issues for the New England region, using the negatives we picked up. If the weather was bad then we had to drive it, and nobody liked doing that. On this particular night it wasn't bad right now, but was supposed to get bad later. So Jason and I decided to fly up there together and hopefully beat the snowstorm. 
We picked up the large envelope and took off for Chester, Jason flying and me in the right seat working the radios. It had just started to snow. Fifteen minutes later we were flying through a heavy blizzard and in the Cessna when you flew in snow the navigation radios wouldn't work. They just couldn't get a signal through all that snow. So I called Bradley Approach Control and said our radios weren't working and we'd like to come back to Bradley. Zhimba, our boss, was going to be furious! Bradley replied "Sorry, Bradley Airport just closed due to the snow. State your intentions." Oh crap, this was just getting worse. We discussed it briefly and then told them we'd like a radar approach to New Haven, which was not too far away from Chester, down on the shore of Long Island Sound. He said OK, but his radar wasn't near there and couldn't get us down very low at that range. Great.
We flew south towards New Haven when suddenly, down below, there was this hole in the cloud and we saw an interstate connecting with another interstate. Aha! That was I-91 meeting I-95 on the edge of New Haven! We knew exactly where we were! So we quickly cancelled our flight plan and Jason began a tight spiraling descent through the hole. We got below the cloud base a few hundred feet above the ground. We then headed up I-95, watching the signs for exit 63, Killingworth Road. We found it, turned left and followed it up to the liquor store. You see, there is an instrument approach into Chester Airport that comes in from the southwest direction. We'd flown this approach in clear daylight many, many times, and we knew that just three miles from the airport on the approach you flew right over this liquor store on Killingworth Road. So we flew up the road to the liquor store, turned right to 064 degrees, and a minute later we flew across the airport. We flew around the pattern at 400' and landed to the north. We taxied to the ramp, handed the driver the envelope and went about securing the airplane for the night. Just then Tom drove up in his station wagon. He lived in a house at the end of the runway. "How'd it go?" he asked. 
"Oh fine, fine. No problem," we replied, focusing on tying the airplane down.
"Weather ok?"
"Yea, well, some snow you know. But no problem." He stood there for a a while. Nobody spoke. Finally he said "Well OK then. Get it tied down and get on home." He got back in his car and drove off. We knew what had happened. See, Tom Zhimba knew everybody in aviation in New England. I mean everybody. When we cancelled our flight plan and spiraled down through the clouds, the controller had called Tom at home to tell him his boys were off radar and flying around down low in this blizzard somewhere (our chief pilot Bruno confirmed this later). Oh yes, he knew, but we never admitted to an adventure. That fact that we had found the airport and landed safely was good enough for him.

Connecticut Fire Patrol

My very first flying job was in Chester CT. I was actually the airport grunt. Mowing the lawn, trimming bushes, cleaning airplanes, pumping gas. Once in a while the owner would let me do a "91" flight. In the summer I did a few fire patrol flights. I would take the Cessna 172 up to Hartford, pick up two people and fly a big, BIG square around the state at around 7000'. This would take like three and a half hours at 70 knots. It was a struggle to stay awake. Most of the fires we saw were people burning leaves and such, nothing big. We'd land in Chester for lunch at noon, then fly another big circle in the afternoon.
One day I had two people I'd flown with a few times before, a young lady in front and a big forest service guy in the back seat. When we landed for lunch the woman stayed in the plane, which was odd. I asked if she wanted to get out and use the bathroom or have some lunch but she said no, she was fine. So a little later we took off for the afternoon trip. When we landed in Hartford later, they both jumped out and went to their cars. I was to hop over to another airport and pick up a friend of the boss, then fly him down to Chester. When I got there the man went to climb into the seat, put his hand on the cushion and said "Hey, did someone spill their Coke here?"
I didn't say anything except "Yea, maybe..." and later, in Chester, I scrubbed the seat. I felt sorry for that woman. She had to fly around all day after wetting herself, it must have been humiliating. I didn't mind though. Stuff happens. But I never saw her again. I think she was too embarrassed to fly again.
The Connecticut Department of Natural Resources helped us get through some rough times. When everyone else was going broke, we were doing little trips for the state and bringing in a little income. One memorable trip was a the fisherman recon flights. We'd take off in a 172, N734TB, and head down to the shoreline. Then, at 500' and 70 knots, with the windows open, we'd fly along the shoreline, counting fishermen on piers and boat trailers at boat ramps. I thought it was a crazy use of taxpayers money, but I was getting paid and having a blast doing it. We did several of those flights. So much fun!

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Winter's Pefect Storm

It was one of those lousy winter nights in the upper Midwest. Every year, at the beginning of winter and at the end of winter, there comes two storms that are especially nasty. I must be a hard luck case, because every year I managed to find myself flying in them.

This night began innocently enough. It was just twilight in late winter. Myself and my copilot Chris were sitting in the cockpit waiting for the passengers. All preparations were completed, so we tuned the ADF radio to the local AM radio station where we heard The Doors playing Break On Through To The Other Side. I started wondering aloud if Marvin had done that, broke through to the other side. Marvin was a friend who had recently  crashed and died. Our deep thought discussion ended when the first people began climbing the stairway, so off with the radio and on to the before start checklist. To the west you could see a few clouds, but nothing much. A USAir pilot joined us on the jumpseat, a small seat between us.

We took off from Minneapolis and turned south for Mason City, our first stop, 35 minutes away. We asked for and got 4000' as a final altitude. This would allow us to go directly to Mason City as we would not be interfering with all those other planes headed in to Minneapolis above us. Minutes after takeoff we entered the clouds. Immediately we began to get tossed about violently as we pushed through these thick clouds laden with heavy snow. All the anti-ice and deice were on but it still struggled to keep up with the accumulation. The turbulence was so bad the autopilot wouldn't stay engaged at all. I had two hands on the control wheel, and I wasn't flying, I was fighting the weather constantly. The turbulence tossed us every way except straight ahead and constant, forceful corrections were being applied by me. This will wear you out fairly quickly, but we had a ways to go still and so all I could do was struggle on. I thought those poor passengers, they must be scared to death in this. The wind was fierce and we got vectored around to the ILS approach. To say the approach was less than perfect is an understatement. Like I said, I wasn't flying, I was fighting it constantly. We got the runway in sight, landed and taxied in. With one engine left running, we dropped off a few passengers and some bags, then fired up and taxied back out. Now it was Chris's leg. In these extreme conditions I would normally not let a rookie fly, but Chris was an experienced first officer and good at what he does. So he took over the fight on our flight to Fort Dodge. "Damn!" he cursed as he fought the controls, trying to keep it somewhat on course and altitude. Wham. Wham! WHAM! It was a short flight to Ft Dodge and we flew the ILS approach there too. At minimums we got the runway in sight, sort of. The wind was a very strong crosswind from the left with a lot of snow falling and just as much snow blowing across the runway. The runway itself was covered in snow, and in the very limited visibility all we could see were some runway lights stretching out into the darkness ahead. Chris fought it down to the runway and did a terrific job of moving into a slip, left wing down, lots of right rudder to get us aligned. He put the left main gear on, then the right main and then the nose, right in the touchdown zone. I was greatly excited at this great show of airmanship, except that at this moment Chris apparently decided he'd had enough of this fight and took his hands off the controls. Instantly the plane weathervaned about 30 degrees to the left while starting to slide off to the right. (Note: Weathervaning is when a strong crosswind pushes on the big tail in the back and tries to turn you around into the wind). Hands and elbows were flying everywhere! "Grab the wheel! Grab the wheel!" I yelled, as I grabbed the rudder with my feet, the nosewheel steering with my left hand and the power levers with my right hand. Chris cranked the wheel hard left while I crabbed even more and added some power to stop this skid that was well developed and sending us right up by the right edge of the runway. Slowly we came back to the centerline (if you could see it. Everything was covered in blowing snow), I went to reverse thrust with more reverse on the right side to counteract the weathervaning. Still doing around a hundred knots we were back under control, sort of. We slowed down, crept to the taxiway and taxied to the ramp. As I turned left on the ramp the wind grabbed the vertical stabilizer and slowly spun us around the the left, until we stopped more or less where we were supposed to be. Damn! I shut down the left engine and turned off the seatbelt sign. The USAir guy said "They don't pay you guys enough!" and left. We sat there, kinda panting heavily, still wide-eyed over what had happened. Then Chris says slowly, "I am not yet ready to break through to the other side." I replied "Me neither, brother!"

The next and final leg was to Sioux City and we were empty on this leg. As we taxied back out, I just followed the tracks we had left in the snow. "I want to see how close we came to the edge," I said. "OK, but be careful! Don't drive this thing off the runway." We followed the tracks down the runway and what we saw was an eye opener. The right main tires had exited the runway between two runway lights, run parallel for several lights, then came back on the runway between two more lights. Meanwhile, the nosewheel and left main tracks had crossed, considerably. That's how sideways we had gotten. Man were we lucky we didn't hit an edge light. We fought that thing all the way to Sioux City and as we were climbing out I asked the flight attendant "Hey Michelle, how much are these little bottles of liquor?" "Five bucks," she replied. I put a five on the galley counter, grabbed two cups and split the little bottle into two shots of whiskey. I handed one to Chris and we both said cheers and drank the whole shot. Michelle watched us and said "I probably don't want to know what that was about, do I?" "No, no you don't," I answered. Later that night the heavy wet snow turned into heavy rain and washed all the traces of our little excursion in Ft Dodge away.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

High Speed Landing

I was a new captain at Northwest Airlink, with a fresh type rating in my pocket and a license to fly! I'd been flying the Saab 340 for over two years as a co-pilot, and this move was something I'd been looking forward to for a long time. As a Captain I was careful and meticulous, but I was also young, with the anything-to-get-the-job-done mentality. I was based in Minneapolis and had plenty of experience flying in the frigid land of the north.
On this night we were flying to International Falls (INL) with a full load of passengers and bags. The weather was bad- lots of clouds with icing and plenty of snow. We began our descent from cruising altitude and started making preparations for landing. The weather was sky obscured, one half mile visibility in blowing snow, temperature in the teens. The wind was blowing ten knots out of the southeast, which meant we'd have to fly the ILS with a tailwind. No problem, the tailwind limitation is ten knots, so we're good. As we got vectored onto the final approach course, we called the airport and Thor, the son of the airport owner, reported the runway had just been plowed but had a hard packed layer of snow still on it. Roger that. We talked about how this would make the runway quite slippery. I almost wished they hadn't plowed it. The snow plow had taken several inches of snow and turned the runway into a skating rink. Autopilot all set up, we started down at our maximum landing weight. Our Vref speed was something like 126 knots with required icing corrections, with an approach speed of 136 kts. We barrelled down the glideslope, needles centered, right on speed, making minor corrections to keep everything stable. At minimums we got the approach lights in sight, and moments later the runway threshold appeared. At 70' I disconnected the autopilot and concentrated on holding the glideslope right to the runway. With little flare I flew it on right where the glideslope meets the pavement. On snow, you can't make a hard landing. It's like jumping on a bed. It was immediately obvious- We were moving! With the tailwind, we touched down doing 136 knots across the ground, or 145 mph. On a tricycle, on polished slippery snow.  I immediately pulled it into max reverse, stepped hard on the brakes and said to the co-pilot "Get on the brakes, get on the brakes.." which he promptly did too. As we went racing by the midfield point, past the terminal, I remarked with surprising calmness, "Boy, you can really feel the anti-skid working, can't you?"  "Yeah, you can," he replied. And we were still going close to a hundred.
Meanwhile, Thor was sitting in the fuel truck on the ramp, trying to keep warm, waiting for us to arrive so he could give us some fuel. Suddenly he hears this loud roar of engines in reverse and looks over to see "a giant ball of snow with a red blinking light in the middle flying by me on the runway." It was obvious to him we were not going to get stopped so he began to drive down the taxiway to give us a ride back.
Meanwhile, still rushing headlong down the runway, we had gotten slow enough that several things started to happen. Below eighty knots the props in reverse begin to have a dramatic effect on the rudder as they begin to pull air from around it. It'll begin slamming one side to the other, so at eighty knots the co-pilot usually reaches down and engages the control lock. Which he did, as the runway end lights loomed brightly ahead and I switched to nosewheel steering. The reversing propellers are now blowing snow ahead of the cockpit, ruining visibility. Which wasn't a bad thing, considering the proximity of the runway end fast approaching. As we came within a plane length of the end of this 7000' runway, we finally slid to a stop. Back to idle, the blizzard within the blizzard settles away and there, not fifty feet in front of us were the end lights, bright as can be. I turned off at the taxiway and we started to taxi back when we saw Thor turning around on the taxiway. "What's he doing out here?" I asked.
At the gate, after the passengers had deplaned, our flight attendant came up and said "Now Dave, I know you're a new captain, but you can't leave it in reverse that long. Makes the passengers nervous." The co-pilot opened his mouth to reply but I touched his arm and said, "Oh, OK Sue. Thanks. I'll remember that." The co-pilot looked at me quizzically.  "If you tell her why, she'll not understand, think we're dangerous, and tell all her flight attendant friends that we're dangerous. Best to just leave it be."
Later I reviewed the manuals to try to figure out why we took so long to stop. Ah, right here, buried in the winter ops performance section, a little side note. "When braking action is reported as poor, maximum tailwind component is 1 knot." New Captain indeed.