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 Fltplan.com, 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

Prairie



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.