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 9, 2017

Rug Dancin'

     Sometimes your best intentions just go horribly wrong. Such was the case as we flew a short trip back to St Louis one afternoon. Between us and our destination lay a line of thunderstorms. My first inclination was to divert all the way around to the west, passing behind all of this late afternoon summer convective activity. Visually the cells were well defined and clearly visible. Soon though we entered the clouds and lost sight of the buildups. We checked in with approach control and immediately informed them we needed to deviate left (west). The reply was that there was a break in the line ahead and others were getting through so he’d vector us through it. A CapeAir Cessna 402, going the opposite direction at 4000’, reported a smooth ride. Mistake number 1: Abandoning my instincts, premium weather radar and satwx and letting myself be led by ATC. We had two technicians on board and a donor patient. We descended to 5000’ as instructed and they turned us between two cells, or so I thought. KA-WHAM! Suddenly we are seeing purple on the radar and getting violently hammered. After a few seconds that seemed like forever, we came out of it and exited the clouds with downtown St Louis dead ahead. Mistake number 2: I never told ATC anything about the turbulence. On the ground the techs informed me that the patient had moved somewhat in the bed and the breathing apparatus had fallen and broken, but they were able to fix it. Mistake number 3: After we unloaded the patient, instead of filling out a Safety Report, I thought I'd just fire off a quick letter to ATC pointing out the error of their ways. This course of action left our management in the dark and caused ATC to start a full fledged investigation into this "service failure". Imagine my bosses delight when the FAA called to discuss it and he didn't know what they were talking about.
     Eventually I ended up going to a meeting with ATC and my boss. Approach control showed us a tape of the incident, and clearly the path we flew was the same as the others, between two cells. Of course the others were at 4000' in smooth air, while we were at 5000' and getting hammered. Yes, you can get a difference in ride like that with only a 1000' change in altitude. Weather can be unpredictable that way. I have to say that ATC was pretty good about the whole thing, and we got a nifty tour of the facility.
     Bottom line: Don't let someone else take over your job of weather avoidance. Second, don't fly through an area of bad turbulence and not say anything. If you tell ATC then they will know not to send someone else through there at your altitude. Finally, if an incident like this does happen, fill out the Safety Report and let the program run its course. It's there for a good reason. There's no fun at all in standing at the big green table and doing a rug dance. Nope, no fun at all.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Caribbean Storms

       The 1980's was a very good time for me. I was the only charter pilot in Grand Cayman, and I often flew to various Western Caribbean destinations like Mexico, Belize, Honduras and Panama. The weather was almost always perfect, as it often is in the Caribbean. Sunny skies, mild temperatures, steady breezes. One trip I did often was to fly a businessman to San Pedro Sula, Honduras. It was just over three hours of non-stop overwater flying. The blue Caribbean was always calm, and halfway there, if you were lucky, you passed over a tiny island called Swan Island, though I called Gilligan's Island. Navigation aids were virtually non-existent, so my procedure was to aim to the left of a direct line. When I got to the Honduran coast I would simply turn right and follow it to the group of grass huts, marking the entrance to the valley where San Pedro Sula is. There was a fairly modern navigation aid at San Pedro Sula, called a VOR, but to keep maintenance easy they installed it on the airport. Because of the high mountains on three sides, it was virtually worthless until you got right over the valley. My airplane, N2718B, a 1955 Aero Commander, had a VOR set in it and not much else, but the engines ran good so I had no worries. 
       One day I flew this nice businessman to San Pedro again, only this time the weather wasn't so nice. Thunderstorms were developing all along the route of flight. I didn't have radar or satellite weather, and ATC did not have a radar either. In fact, I couldn't even reach ATC until I was within an hour of the airport. So we are bumping along in the clouds and the rain, and after two and a half hours I was getting concerned. Concerned because my bladder had been shaking for the entire time and it
was now screaming for relief. I had filed an IFR flight plan before leaving Grand Cayman, and it called for me to fly directly to a beacon in northeast Honduras, then fly west toward San Pedro Sula until I got over the valley and could receive the VOR. This beacon was right out of the 1950's, and was nothing more than an AM radio station with no music. The single needle in the cockpit pointed to it, but gave no indication as to how far away you were. You only knew when you were over it by the needle swinging around to point behind you. The receiver had another unexpected function: it would point at lightning with amazing regularity. So I'm trying to pick up this 1950's beacon signal, some 80 miles ahead of me I estimate. It points ahead, then left, then right, then back left, then ahead again. The ride is even darker and rougher than before and I thought "Oh the hell with this. I'll descend down until I'm under the clouds and go in visually, like I usually do." Bladder agrees. Knowing the mountains are somewhere in front of me, I start a circling descent. Down we go, lower and lower, with nothing in sight. Finally, around 200', I see the ocean below, a raging storm of an ocean and almost zero visibility. Rats! I climb back up and ATC asks when I expect to cross the beacon. "ETA 1315" I reply, 1:15 pm. That time comes and goes, and ATC calls again. "ETA 1345" I reply, now more of a guess than anything else. 1:45 pm comes and goes. Another call from ATC. Shoot, I must be getting close, the signal is fairly strong now. "ETA 1400" I reply, and it darn well better be because the bladder is near bursting. Just before 2pm The needle suddenly swings around behind me, marking station passage. I call with my position and give my ETA to San Pedro Sula. Still in the clouds, I know the ground is near by as I fly over the high ground near the mountains. Finally I cross over the ridge and the VOR jumps to life! Quickly I call the control tower who clear me to descend to the airport. Flying a race track pattern around the VOR I descend and find the cloud bases aren't too bad here, and I get the runway in sight. Cleared to land I make a quick approach, land short and taxi quickly to the ramp. My passenger, seemingly unconcerned with any it, gives a cheery wave and heads for the terminal. I grab the customs guy and say, "Bathroom! Now!"
       I clear customs, which is always interesting. Three offices to visit, dropping off $5 as a "gift" at each, then check back out, visiting the same three offices with more $5 bills. I get fueled up, take a deep breath, start the engines, take off and head down the valley to the ocean. As the trip home progresses, the weather continually improves, until about halfway there the sky is clear and the ocean has calmed down. Three and a half hours later I land in Grand Cayman and head for the Holiday Inn bar, which is the happening place on Wednesday nights. I've earned this one!

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Cockpit Talk

     There's an old saying: What's said in the cockpit, stays in the cockpit. During your flight you could say anything, do anything and you wouldn't have to worry about anyone else hearing about it. It's an airborne confessional in a way. A good crew that gets along well has this bond, this code of ethics. Of course if you do something REALLY stupid, like taxi into the mud and get stuck, well that's not going to keep secret. Or if you have a problem with passing gas, everyone will hear about that, too. Flight attendants know about the Code and most of them respect it.
     When you fly to Las Vegas, the rule "What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas" applies too. Applies to anyplace you lay over. There are things that happened there that I will take to the grave, for my word is my bond. I take the Code of Ethics very seriously. Which is why I get upset when people violate that code. Where I work now, they've never heard of the Code. What you do or say in the cockpit is company-wide news the next day. Some guys even keep little notes, then send these to the Director of Operations via email in the hopes of, well, I don't know what they're hoping for. "David Reed doesn't use the radar," was one complaint. Because on clear days I don't need it. The same atmosphere of animosity applies even when you're away from the airport. At my current job it is a difficult environment to work in, because you basically can't talk about anything with anybody, and I'm sure not going to let that weasel fly the airplane ever again. I'll probably hear about that in the near future too. 
      At my last job at Ameriflight, the rule was true. The Code of Ethics didn't have to be taught, everyone already had it. They were born and raised with it. Even my first flying job, long time ago, we lived by the Code because if you squealed on others you were labelled a weasel. To us, the Code of Silence is like the mafia Code of Silence. It's religious in nature, to break it was sacrilegious and once you did, no one ever trusted you again. Ever. 
     That's why I like a small corporate job, with one airplane and two pilots. We could be up there in the clouds doing loops or smoking cigars and no one would ever know it. The biggest squealer I know is a former government employee. He honestly believes he is doing a good thing by being a squealer. He has no Code of Ethics, no Code of Silence, no Corps, Country, Family. He is not, nor will he ever be, one of us, for he has no respect for the Code or for himself.

Saturday, April 29, 2017

Hotel Motel

Hotel Motel

As every pilot knows, hotels are a part of any aviation career. How good a hotel is depends on who is paying. Business pilots usually stay in nice places. Airline pilots run the whole gambit, from the Sheraton to Motel 4.
     As an aspiring pilot I used to think any hotel was an adventure. It started with the cheapest motels, when I worked my first flying jobs and staying overnight anywhere was rare. My first real experience with extensive motel living though was at Northwest Airlink. Almost every trip ended at some small town motel. Often these overnights were continuous duty by nature, because we didn't have enough time to get legal rest. We called them stand up overnights because you usually got about five hours of sleep. In Hibbing Minnesota we stayed at the Americas Best Value Inn. A cab usually drove us there and I remember the driver always had a bottle of scotch in hand to help keep warm with. This motel was bare bones basic. We broke down once and spent three nights there waiting for the plane to get fixed. There were two high school hockey teams and a cheerleading squad there as well. Our flight attendant was Sahrie, and all night long these kids would be in the hallways partying with Sahrie screaming obscenities at them. Later the company gave me the Employee of the Month award for helping out at the airport while we were waiting, but the Chief Pilot told me it was really for surviving that nightmare with Sahrie. They couldn't believe I didn't strangle her. 
     In Eau Claire we stayed at a slightly better motel. The American Motel or something like that. It was a safety rule that flight crews always stayed on the second floor or higher, but one night he put the flight attendant in a room on the first floor. Around 0430 she woke up to find a man crawling through her window! She screams, he runs, she calls me and we all meet in the lobby. She's ok and it's about time to leave anyway so we just grabbed a cab to the airport. I made sure she reported it to her supervisor, Sue Berg. Back in Minneapolis Sue asks her if she'd recognize the guy and our flight attendant says “Yes! It was the albino creep behind the front desk.” She gasped “Why didn't you say something??” “Well, I didn't want to delay the flight.” Sue marched her out to the ticket counter and they both got on the next flight to Eau Claire, called the police and went with them to arrest the guy. This created panic among our young flight attendant group, but Sue knew her job well. “If you are concerned, you may bring a relative or boyfriend along if you'll feel safer.” Boyfriends went along on every overnight for six months.
     In Sioux City, Iowa, before we were based there, we stayed at the downtown Hilton. Not as fancy as it sounds, but it was nice. We always got the same rooms, every time. Flight Attendants used to leave notes for each other in their room. One night the flight got downgraded and they used a plane with no flight attendant. That night the First Officer got assigned the flight attendant's room. As he walked in he was startled by a large black man who came out of the dark bathroom. The man said he was with maintenance and left. The FO called the front desk who told him no, there was no maintenance at that time of night. After that little incident we started a new routine. It was a routine the pilots came up with on our own. When the flight attendant goes in her room we would stand by the open door while she checked the bathroom, under the bed and behind the curtains. I still do that even today whenever I fly with a woman. 
     Some hotels were memorable for different reasons. In Las Vegas we stayed on the 28th floor of a luxury hotel where each room had a jacuzzi in it. It was heaven! I've stayed at numerous bed & breakfasts that were delightful, and surprisingly affordable. The Hilton Garden Inn in Mobile AL is a favorite because it was just a nice time, as was the old west hotel in a small town in the middle of nowhere, Texas.  In Orlando we stayed at a resort, that was so relaxing we left only once. Giant pool with water slide, meals poolside, bar by the pool. In Evansville IN we had reservations at the Holiday Inn. Upon arrival the desk agent was very rude. No rooms left, he said. Sorry, can't do a thing. Goodbye. My boss was so mad he took the man’s name and we left. Went to the fanciest hotel in Evansville and stayed there. The next morning he said my job was to make life a living hell for that guy. So I called up the Holiday Inn home office. Explained how I am the chief pilot for a major corporation (sorta) and we always stay at the Holiday Inn. She thanked me for our loyalty. “Except Evansville. When I talk to other corporate pilots should I say Holiday Inn is great except Evansville? I don't think he represents your company very well.” She promised to call me back and about thirty minutes later she did. “We paid for your hotel last night, it was credited back to your card. That man you spoke with no longer works for Holiday Inn.” Let me tell you, unemployment is the best revenge!

Sunday, April 23, 2017

The Big Scare

     So here I am, right out of flight school. I got maybe 250 flight hours total, with hardly any instrument time to speak of and even less actual bad weather flying. My father ran a business in Connecticut and one day he needed to send two guys to Watertown NY. Would I like to fly them? You bet! So I rented a Cessna 172 from the local airport and on the appointed day I met the two men at the small terminal. The weather wasn't too bad, but the forecast was for a bad snow storm coming in from the west. If everything went according to schedule, we'd leave Watertown just ahead of the storm. So off we went, enjoying a nice ride up over Connecticut and New York state to our destination. While they were in town I checked the weather constantly. No computer weather service back then, all I could was call a government employee at the Flight Service Station (FSS) who would give me a weather briefing. More like a weather bashing. The storm was moving faster than expected, and the two guys I flew up there were taking longer than expected. Finally, at the last possible moment they showed up and off we went towards Hartford. 
   As we flew along the airways (no GPS then either) it had gotten quite cloudy and quite bumpy. We cruised at about 125 kts, but our ground speed was around 60. The weather was getting worse and the guy next to me says "Christ! The cars down there are passing us!" Finally, as we crawled past Utica I gave it up and decided to land there rather than press on. I knew my limitations and I was maxed out. We landed on a very snow-covered airport where high winds threatened to overturn the little airplane. Once I got it parked they went inside, rented a car and drove the rest of the way. I went to a cheap motel to wait out the storm. The next day the weather seemed to be clearing and the FSS guy was saying the worst was passing Hartford now and should be fine by the time I get there, so I got the Cessna ready and took off for home. The closer I got to Hartford, the lower the ground speed, the weather was worsening and the turbulence was crazy bad. No autopilot so I was just fighting this thing every second. I crawled past Albany, then slower and slower towards Hartford, the weather getting worse and worse. Now all I wanted to do was just get this stupid thing on the ground. I didn't have time to get sick, because it was so rough I was getting downright scared. I focused on flying, working very hard to keep it pointed in the right general direction. Not Easy! Hartford Approach Control vectored me for the only approach there, a VOR approach from the south. This meant crawling my way down south with a ground speed of about 35 knots. He tried to turn me inbound once but quickly turned me back, the wind was just too strong. I'm looking at the approach plate as best I can, what with everything flying about the cockpit. I'd been getting beat up hard for well over three hours now. I was physically exhausted, scared to death and I knew when I turned inbound I'd have this enormous tailwind that would make the approach last only a couple of minutes. I decided I'd descend down until I saw the ground, minimums be damned! Approach control turned me inbound, I picked up the approach course more or less, descended down at a very good rate and saw the ground in plenty of time. Flash down the runway, crank it around to final, drop full flaps and touchdown at about walking speed. It wasn't over yet. I still had to get to the tie down before this windstorm flipped me over. Holding the controls this way and that way, I taxied slowly to parking, shut the engine off and tied it down quickly. With hardly a word I dropped off the keys, drove home, went into my bedroom and sat there having a serious discussion with myself about whether I really wanted to keep doing this. The next day I finally decided I had too much invested in this, it couldn't be this bad all the time, so I'd keep at it. For now. Since then I've been in a lot of similar weather in a lot of different airplanes. I still get nervous, but I never got really scared again. I know now what to do to get through it and would focus on that. Mostly I just get mad. When the turbulence gets really bad, my Navy sailor language returns, because I can't believe I got myself into this again.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Things You Don't See Every Day

     Life is always full of surprises. I love that, keeps me on my toes, always interested in the next hour. When I was a young boy of about 12, I was out in my front yard playing one day. I heard a noise, looked up, and there I saw three World War II era TBM Avenger torpedo bombers in formation, maybe five hundred feet in the air, roaring right over my house! I ran in to my mom, talking a mile a minute and saying how we have to go to the airport. So we did! Mom was great that way. She always supported my flying interest.
     As a new private pilot and only 17 years old, I got checked out in the slightly larger Cessna 172, a four seat Cessna. Not much, but it was "big iron" to me! I was in the pattern after having been checked out, doing some touch and goes on a cloudy but quiet day. As I touched down on one landing I suddenly notice a Mooney, a fast little airplane, touching down on the same runway but coming right at me in the opposite direction! I quickly braked and veered off into the grass as he went sailing past me with his brakes locked up. Surprise!
     I remember the day I picked up a new Cessna 152 from the factory in Kansas. I was headed down to Tulsa in this brand new machine at around 1500' and decided what the heck, I'll do a roll. I'd seen pilots do it all the time in the movies so I figured how hard could it be? I cranked the control wheel all the way over to the right. As we became almost inverted the thing just quit, fell out on its back and suddenly I was pointed straight down at a field full of cows. AAHHH! I quickly pulled out, missing the cows by maybe a hundred feet. I continued to Tulsa swearing I'd never do that again. Years later, I did. Same result. 
     Droning along one Sunday morning in winter from New Bedford to Nantucket in my PBA Cessna 402C. A few passengers onboard, nothing out of the ordinary. Suddenly these two F-111 Air Force fighter-bombers flew past me, I mean one right in front of me and one right over top of me. Freakin close! I watched them curve around, then roll hard over and dive down to the runway at Nantucket. I asked the control tower in a fairly aggravated tone what the heck was that all about. "Oh, they come down from Pease AFB sometimes and simulate bombing the airport. They had you in sight." Oh big relief. Jeesh!
     One day I'm at my home in Sioux City Iowa working in the yard when I hear a jet close by. I look up and see a bright red MIG-15 fly overhead, maybe 1000' high or less. I mean, it's not every day you see a Russian fighter buzzing your neighborhood! I drove out to the airport and saw him parked on the National Guard ramp. Privately owned, bright red warbird. So cool.
     Landed in Boston in my PBA Cessna 402C on 33R. We turned off at the end and held short of the longer runway, 33L, as a United DC-10 thundered down the runway. He took forever to rotate, obviously loaded for a flight to LA or SFO. As he rotated in front of us a bright flame came out of hs right engine, huge tongue of flame. The passenger in the front seat and I watched him and he turns to me and says "That isn't normal, is it?" I was impressed by the fact that with only two engines working, this heavily loaded whale of an airplane was still climbing better than my 402C ever hoped to.
     Finally, I'm holding short of runway 27 in Duluth MN one afternoon. In front of us, two Canadian CF-18s takeoff down the runway, afterburners blazing. Shortly after, three Minnesota ANG F-16's line up and blast down the runway in hot pursuit. As the third one is lifting off we notice a little extra flame coming from his tailpipe. He zooms up and to the right into a downwind position, a long trail of flame engulfing the F-16's belly and stretching far behind it. Then the canopy pops off and a large cloud of brownish smoke comes out, as does the pilot in his seat, small parachute pulling big parachute out. Seat falls away as does canopy while the main chute blossoms open. The pilot floats down to the ground right in front of us on the airport service road. He said later that after he landed he looked around, saw no one, so he gathered up his chute and walked to the hangar. Came around the corner and the Sergeant said "Captain! Didn't you just leave?" and he replied "Yep. The plane's up in the woods. What should I do with this chute?" 
     I wonder what strange thing I'll see next...

Friday, March 10, 2017

A Night To Remember

     I was on call for an MTS trip. These are organ transplant flights and we are required to have a crew ready 24/7 for these. In years past, I was it, and was on call every single day. A day off required a special request. Today though we get regular days off. Me, I didn't care, I love flying MTS trips, but the wife wasn't too happy about it. 
     In the winter the airplane went in the shop for an avionics upgrade, including ADS-B and satellite weather (Nexrad). When it was done I got put on call and in no time I was called out just before sunset for a trip. The weather was terrible: lots of rain in St Louis, and two, count 'em, two lines of thunderstorms running in a long line from St Louis to our destination. We got all prepped and ready, the passengers showed up and as we taxied out I remarked to the First Officer, whom I've never flown with before, "You know how to work this Nexrad?" No, he had no idea. We launched and headed northwest, then paralleled the lines of weather with a beautiful sunset dead ahead and very impressive lightning on our left. We messed around with the Nexrad as we climbed to 20,000' and managed to eventually figure out how to get it working. It worked great, giving us a terrific display of the weather. Naturally our destination was right between these two big lines of weather. As we got closer I spotted a hole in the line nearest us, which was confirmed by ATC. I knew the bases of the clouds were around 6000' so we descended down to 4000' as we steered our way through the weather. Below the weather you could clearly see where all the rain showers were and had a good view of the lightning flashing to the ground all around. We passed a single engine Bonanza going the other way and wondered what was he doing out in this. Then a tremendous flash of white light and a gigantic bolt of lightning blasted down right in front of us! Aye carumba! We were actually able to fly a visual approach into the airport, and as we pulled on to the ramp it began pouring rain with some hail too. Not wanting to get drenched, we all sat in the airplane for a few minutes until it subsided somewhat. I told the coordinator don't be in a big rush to get back, better to let this weather pass by. She was all for that. So around three hours later the weather had moved off to the southeast and the moon was high in a clear sky. Another plane landed and taxied in, having just come from St Louis. I asked the pilot how was it and he said it was clear all the way. Well isn't that always my luck! The passengers showed up, we taxied out and flew home in a clear dark sky. That's when I discovered just how inexperienced the First Officer really was. Sigh, another day and night in the life of a commercial pilot. Never a dull moment. Think I'll get some training material together for that Nexrad. And maybe the FO too.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Caribbean Fun With The FBI

     Summer 1986. I'm flying charters and trying to make a living at it in Jacksonville FL. So far I'm having a hard time paying even one of my bills. One afternoon a friend of mine called and said there was a job posting on their bulletin board. It was for a flying job in the Cayman Islands, one of those dream jobs you hear about but they never turn into anything. But with bills piling up I thought what the heck and called the number. A woman answered, Mrs Marjorie Bodden. She said it was an air charter business and their only pilot, her son, had died in a plane crash last week. Did I have any turbine experience? "Oh sure, I got time in a Cheyenne," which was kinda true. I once flew in the right seat of a Cheyenne II but wasn't allowed to actually touch anything. "I can send you an airline ticket tomorrow, can you start right away?" I said I would need till the end of the week so she made me a reservation for Friday. After celebrating for about 30 seconds I started to think. First I called the DEA and asked if this place, Executive Air Services, was legit. "We don't discuss that information, sorry." So I tried the US Customs office in Miami. "Sorry, we don't discuss ongoing investigations," the man said. I explained my situation and said I just didn't want to get involved with a bunch of drug smugglers. He said he understood and appreciated my concerns. "I can tell you this. They're not currently under investigation." Good enough for me. I began packing my bags and the newest US Customs investigation began.
     As I got assimilated to the life of Riley in the Caribbean, sipping iced tea on the beach at sunset when not flying to exotic places, the FBI and US Customs approached Marjorie's husband, William (a bit of a degenerate), posing as drug dealers. Said they wanted to launder $40 million in drug money and would he fly this cash from Miami to the Cayman Island banks for them? That was very illegal because you are supposed to declare any amount over $10,000 when you leave the country. So naturally Mr William Bodden said yes when they offered him $1 million for his troubles. A few months go by, and then one day, about a year after I started, the trap was sprung. Why it took them a whole year is beyond me. On Miami Vice they could have done this in 48 minutes. But I digress. We load up and fly the Turbine Commander up to Tamiami Airport on yet another Bodden family shopping trip, or so I though. We landed, cleared customs, and then I took off again for Jacksonville to load up the rest of my belongings. Yep, I was going all in for this job. This little side trip caught them all by surprise. Later I saw surveillance photos of me loading my boxes into the airplane in Jacksonville, taken by local FBI agents. I flew back to Tamiami Airport the next day, filled out the required US Customs forms under the watchful, distrustful and glaring eyes of US Customs agents. Nothing suspicious here, US Customs agents are always distrustful and glaring. Put them in a convenience store and they'll make you feel like buying those Twinkies is a felony. Are you sure you want those, son? Later the Bodden clan pull up in a cab and everyone climbs aboard. I start one engine and suddenly we are surrounded by unmarked cars with blue flashing lights and agents pointing big guns at us. Being the simpleton that I am, my first thought was that I must have forgotten to fill out a customs form. I shut down the engine and climb out. A man walks up and says "I'm Agent Jones with the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Do you work for these people?" Wide-eyed I reply "Not anymore!" to which he replied "Don't get smart with me, wise guy!" They handcuff everyone, hand behind their back, and take them to the FBI cars. They handcuff me with my hands in front and had me stand by the airplane. They had me turn on the interior lights so they could better photograph the briefcase full of cash. Later we all went downtown. I am no hardened criminal. I am sweating bullets and my only thoughts are of prison and the sex slave business within. I find myself in an interrogation room singing like a canary. I got answers for every question and then some. After a couple of hours of questioning they eventually said they knew I wasn't involved and I'm free to go. RELIEF!! We walked out of the room, laughing at something or other, and right there are the Bodden's, heading down to the lockup. Oh, that did not look good I thought. The next day I flew back to Grand Cayman to gather my things. I walked into the hangar and our mechanic, Sid Giddings, asked why I was there. "To get my things," I replied. "Doesn't the DEA pay for all that?" I explained that I did not work for the DEA or FBI and Sid says "Well, the entire Bodden family thinks you do." So when the next flight departed Grand Cayman, I was on it. 
     For the next year I got very nervous whenever someone knocked on my door, especially when the FBI came by to inform me that William Bodden had skipped bail and was on the loose. Today he'd be in his 90's so I'm not too worried about it anymore, but whenever the doorbell rings I notice that I always look first before opening it. You know, in case some cousin still holds a grudge and a shotgun.

Friday, February 10, 2017


Checkrides are a part of life in a pilot's world. From your first checkride for your Private Pilot license to your most recent, they are for the most part pretty standard. Aborted takeoff, then some stalls and steep turns, maybe an unusual attitude. A coupled ILS approach to a missed approach and hold. A non-precision approach to a circle to land. Another takeoff, this time with an engine failure, followed by an ILS single engine to a landing. There can be some slight variances, but for the most part they're pretty predictable. Most of the time.

     My Private Pilot checkride started out with me arriving an hour and a half late. Not my fault, the previous pilot got back late and I had to fly to another airport for the checkride. The examiner was fuming. We went out and did all the required maneuvers. I focused on the flying and not the lightning storm seated next to me. Finally he says "Give me a short field landing." So I did, picture perfect, in the last third of the runway. D'Oh! As we taxied in he said I had done fine (he'd calmed way down by now), and said about the short field landing, "Don't be afraid to go around if it isn't right." So I passed. 
     My first Part 135 (VFR) checkride was with Maddog Zimba in a Cessna 182 at my first job. He smoked constantly. He hopped in, lit up a Marlboro and said "Take me to Gardner's Island". I started looking at the map because I knew where Gardner's Island was, I just didn't know they had an airport. They didn't. He lets out a big sigh, grabs the map, "Give me that! It's right here!" he shouts, jabbing a big finger at the center of the island. We took off ("Finally! I didn't think you'd ever get going!") and flew across Long Island Sound. "Why are we at 7500 feet?!" he yells at me. I said it was so if the engine quits we can glide to shore. "Quits where?! What shore?" I said, well, it depends on the wind. If there's a headwind we would go a little farther... "Oh, you are so full of shit!" We descend to Gardner's Island and I enter an upwind because we are still high from our cross channel descent. "Christ almighty!! What the hell is this?! You're burning up all my gas!!" I land in the tall grass and he hops out, telling me to "stay here" while he lights up his fourth cigarette with his buddies up on the hill. When he gets back, he lights up Marlboro number five and says "Take me to the Devil's Hopyard." I start up and taxi back, do a soft field takeoff ("Worst damn takeoff I've ever seen") and fly back to Connecticut with my finger on the chart. The Devil's Hopyard is a private grass strip his friend owns and it isn't easy to find. I found it though, and landed ("Worst landing ever! Lucky to be alive!!"). He told me "Stay here. There's snakes everywhere" and went up for a smoke with his friend. Came back, lit up Marlboro number eight and we took off. At 200' he shoved the nose over and said "High enough! Low cloud deck. Take me home if you can. Which I doubt." I flew back following the roads and landed. He stormed off. I told Bruno our chief pilot about it and he said "Oh yeah. He always does that. If you can survive a flight with him, you can survive any passenger."
     Flew a checkride at Northwest Airlink one night in a Saab 340 with check airman Jim Hadstate. We were up in Hibbing MN and it was snowing. We took off around midnight and leveled off at 7000' in the clouds. "Give me a steep turn to the left and right," he said. "Really? In the clouds?" He looked at me and asked "Do you want to come up here again on another day off and do this again?"  Well, no, so I did two steep turns, and two stalls, in the clouds in icing conditions. We were in the process of negotiating our first union contract, so Jim had a lot to say about that. Talked non-stop about the contract while I flew the ILS, did a V1 engine failure on takeoff, then later a single engine circle to land in this snowstorm at around 2am. "You really need to focus on the Captain's pay. 500 above minimums. The per diem is important too. We need an industry, 100 above minimums, standard per diem rate. Ref plus ten. Minimums. And don't forget the duty time limitations!"
     One night I met Lanny Riley at the hotel. We went out for dinner and I asked him if he wanted to do the oral exam at dinner, or later. He looked at me and asked "Dave, how long have you been flying the Saab?" "About six years now." "You really need an oral?" And that was the oral. Best ever. 
   April, 2016. I'm slated to take my checkride/type ride in the Metro IV with the FAA observing. Oh great, what fun. Also the Metro Program Manager showed up to observe too. Remember, the Metro is a very difficult airplane to fly, and the sim is worse. So we get through a 3 1/2 hour oral exam, then later climbed in to the sim. The air conditioning at FlightSafety was broken again, and in San Antonio it was HOT. Me, the examiner, the FAA and the Program Manager all squeezed into this sim with no AC. 3 1/2 hours later we are soaking wet with sweat, just about to shoot the final approach of the checkride when the sim overheats and crashes. We got out, stood around for ten minutes, then got back in, stinking like a high school gym locker room after a big game, and the sim managed to go in motion just long enough for us to complete the ride. Worst ride ever.
     Have I ever failed a checkride? Nope, never. Not one. I think it was the fear of going home afterward and telling everyone I wasn't good enough that kept me from busting a ride. Fear of humiliation is a giant motivator. Huge.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Charter Saab

     Back in 1996 I got let go from Express Airlines I for purely Union reasons. It was my fault. I helped start the union there, then served as Sec-Treas for over five years. That put a big bullseye on my back.  Let one of our students sit in the right seat on a Part 91 positioning flight for two minutes, that was all the reason they needed. Should have laid low a lot sooner.
     Right after that I got a call from an old friend, Mark. He was flying for PLM Air, where they flew a Saab 340 out of Springfield MO. Turns out there were three of us flying there, and each of us had been let go from Airlink for union reasons. Talk about solidarity! We flew charters with the airplane. PLM (Pacific Lease Management) leased oil tankers from their California offices and had somehow ended up with this Saab 340A. When one of the VP's retired he took the Saab home to run a little charter business. We got a PLM Visacard with no upper limit and no one ever questioned our expenses.
     We flew a lot of college women basketball teams. They were great! They brought their bags to the back and handed them up to me in the baggage door. We would have pizza, Diet Dew and other junk food ready to go. In fact the pizza aroma would prove to be too much and they'd be eating it before we even took off. One night after the game the coach comes up the stairs and says, "They don't get nothing." Guess they must have lost.  One night we took a men's basketball team home to Chicago. When we got there one of them stole the lighted wands for some stupid reason. The ramper told me and said he'd have to pay for them if he can't get them back. So I went up on the bus and told everyone I wanted the wands back and the bus wasn't leaving until I got them. A few seconds later the wands appeared. 
     We took some people to Detroit and landed at the downtown airport. We were waiting for the hotel van and the manager asked if I was going to leave the Saab there, where it was parked by the fence by the street. He said that around 2am when the drunks come out, that big white tail is going to be a big target and it'll be full of holes in the morning. So we started it up and I followed the manager around behind the hangars. There I found a whole gaggle of corporate jets, safely out of small arms range. We spent five days in Detroit at Christmas in this awesome hotel. The big one downtown, with rooms on the floor just below the Presidential Suite. Absolutely amazing. Everything, including a few Christmas presents was paid for.
     Another trip was to El Paso where we picked up 20 rich Mexicans and flew them to Leon Mexico for a horse track opening. While waiting for the passengers we were in the hangar when this gorgeous hot woman in a tight, short black dress walked by. We were... Speechless. The mechanic we had been talking to said "You know who that is? That's the wife of the guy you're flying. She's 13." What?! No way! "True! He marries them, gives them a boob job, and when they turn 18 they're butts get huge and he divorces them. It's actually pretty common in Mexico." Yikes. We stayed in this amazing hotel down there, where armed police kept the dirt poor people out of the hotel. Beautiful women would escort you to your room and they had a statue of a man on a rearing horse in the lobby that was easily two stories high. We'd brought along a pilot who routinely flew freight into Mexico. We cleared Mexican customs while leaving the right engine running as this pilot laughed and gabbed with the customs agents that he apparently knew quite well. Normally clearing customs took almost an hour, so this was a big lesson learned. We paid the guy well and tipped the agents well too.
     Mark though was a bit of an idiot. He often took his wife along as the flight attendant. That was ok but when he couldn't get a sitter he'd bring his two young children along. We were in Indianapolis with his wife and kids one day when we get a call to fly to Kentucky for a charter. We would need every seat, so what to do with his kids? Mark flew west all the way to Springfield, about two and a half hours, dropped them off with a neighbor, then flew all the way back to Kentucky. Amazing he didn't get fired. We burned about $3000 in fuel that we shouldn't have.
     Finally, we took a group to Aspen. In the Saab in winter it was a bit nerve wracking with all those Rocky Mountains around. We dropped them off and inside the FBO a guy came up and asked if we were going to Denver (we were). Seems they had chartered a plane for 16 people but the charter company decided not to show at the last minute, and they had flights to catch out of Denver. So I told them to grab their bags and let's go! I told the flight attendant to give out the free drinks and business cards and away we went. Just after take off we went into the clouds and started flying this complicated departure procedure that is designed to keep you from slamming into granite. Just then the Electronic Flight Instrumentation System decided to fail. Totally blank screens. Oh crap! Granite lurking in the clouds nearby was big in my mind. Well we flipped switches and got the number two system online in record time without having deviated too much from the safe course. That was enough excitement to last me for the next fifty years, but she wasn't done yet. Then the engine anti-ice failed. WTF?! We monitored the engines closely and pressed on because coming back to Aspen really wasn't an option. The weather there was going downhill fast. We got to Denver and dropped off our very happy passengers. A few days later PLM sold the airplane, another chapter came to a close and once again I was out of a job. The airplane still flies, carrying passengers on scheduled flights in Alaska. Those Saabs, they just keep on running. You know that in the US there has never been a single passenger killed in a Saab 340? There is a corporate Saab 340 in North Carolina for sale and I keep in touch with the salesman. Now that would be a fun gig, so long as we keep away from Aspen.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Not A Pilot

     I know a lot of people who would like to be a pilot. It has the glamour, the excitement, the best office in the world. Back in the day though, there was a weeding out process, the Darwin Effect we called it.  Early in a pilots' career there are jobs that are inherently dangerous. True, the blame lies all around. The job at hand may have only a small amount of risk, but throw in an inexperienced pilot with a strong desire to prove himself, and the flights can become high risk. Now, if the pilot has poor judgement or lacks the proper skills, the result is usually a dead pilot in a mass of twisted aluminum on a remote hillside. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. 
     The sad part of course is when the pilot was otherwise a good person. They would have made a great bank teller or car salesman, but they made their career choice and suffered for it. The rest of us, we weren't trying to be super-pilots. We weren't Chuck Yeager wannabes. We worked harder at our job for one simple reason- we didn't want to end up on that hillside. Scared straight.
     Today, the process is different. Newbies get computerized training, a lot of classroom smarts and shortcuts and before you know it they're in a cockpit without a clue. I see them all the time. At Ameriflight they had a deal with this organization that allowed Korean pilots, fresh out of initial training in Florida, to fly as copilot on Ameriflight aircraft. A few were not too bad. Most were an accident looking for a place to happen, with only you between them and eternity. Typical was one guy I'll call Jason. Couldn't hardly speak English. It was bad enough that, I kid you not, Charlotte ground control wouldn't even answer him on the radio. I had to do all the communicating when he was on board. One day we were flying along and I decided to quiz him a little. You're flying along, straight and level, all trimmed up, autopilot off. You reduce the power. What happens and why? Blank stare. A couple of whispered guesses, wrong of course. It was apparent very quickly that he had no clue what was going on, aerodynamically speaking. To be fair, he wasn't the only pilot I'd met who was clueless. 

     When I worked at FlightSafety we once had a student show up in a regional airline class. This young man was different alright- he had tourettes syndrome. Another star for Human Resources.  And it was not the good kind either. On the first day his teacher came down to the Director of Training's office. I was there and listened to her explain the issue. When the subject was easy, he only cursed a little bit. When she'd get in to details, he'd curse more. When the subject got hard, it got, well, ugly.  She went back upstairs and discovered him in a confrontation with some other students. "You're disrupting the class!" "I have every right to be here!" She had to break it up as they were about to get physical. Well, we figured he might get through basic indoc, maybe even through systems class, but probably wouldn't make it through the simulator phase. Too hard to make the required calls. After a week he came in and resigned. We all felt bad for him. After all, he just had the same dream each of us had, and we each knew the pain of being left behind. The real problem was that someone told him there was nothing he couldn't do, he was as good as everyone else. Maybe, but they never told him that some things, like being an airline pilot, just aren't going to happen. Would have saved him a lot of disappointment and heartache if they'd been more honest.
     Then there are the ones who are just bad, plain and simple. So long as we try to convince ourselves that computer savvy is a substitute for experience and basic piloting skills, years of learning aviation common sense, well these pilots will be a burden for the rest of us to bear. You see, if he's hired in a small plane and works his way up, he has a chance to learn in a simpler environment over time. Throw him right into an extremely complex machine though, and he will be quickly overwhelmed. Now put him at night in bad weather... How do you teach someone in that kind of situation? He has no previous experience to draw on. It's a single pilot operation with a handicap in the right seat. Sadly, good pilots die all the time at the hands of bad pilots. Sadly, sometimes two bad pilots end up on your next airline flight. Up, up and away!

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Another typical night

Let me tell you a true pilot experience, a typical day at the office for me. I promise I will not tell you about the terror when a passenger in 44-B sneezed, as some popular aviation magazines do. They often publish articles discussing events in the life of an airline pilot. Many eager readers turn the pages in anticipation of reading a hair-curling adventure of an actual pilot’s experience.
As a curious pilot, naturally I wondered what kind of near-tragedy would unfold as I read. In the first article, the pilot of a Boeing 777 preparing to depart London for New York encountered a two-fold mishap. In London, he waited for the airplane’s windshield to be cleaned and then (gasp!) nearing New York he almost had to enter into a holding pattern. Huh? Where’s the rest of the story? I flipped the page. That’s it? Well the second article should be better: an airline pilot described how she flew into Cleveland and (here we go) a small airplane flew by. No, not close by, it just flew by. Nothing more. I stared blankly at the words. What did they learn about flying from that? What made me cry was the writers of these stories received a paycheck for the submission.
            I believe my story is a bit more enthralling, and here it is, free of charge. I was assigned to operate Flight 744 from St. Louis to Philadelphia, on to Richmond, Virginia, and return to St. Louis. The airplane was an old workhorse, a Metroliner, long past it’s prime as a small airliner. It was gutted of everything inside so a maximum number of boxes could be carried. The paint was dirty and stained with oil, grease and spilled fuel. The tires were fresh, but there was a sizeable puddle of Jet-A fuel under the airplane from leaks in the fuel tanks. The cockpit seats were thread-bare, any sense of comfort long departed. The smell reminded me of an airplane in the Smithsonian Museum. Everything was the same as long ago. Cockpit panel edges worn of paint, instrument gauges yellowed from age, glare shield held together with bits of duct tape. The control wheel and throttles were well worn, the hands of a thousand flyers having polished the grips smooth. If you took a deep breath, the aroma of grease, old engine oil and Jet-A vapors wafted through the air. Add to this human sweat from hours spent sweltering in the hot summer sun, french fries lodged into unseen crevasses, spilled coffee, old leather, and dirt from ages past, and you get a sense of my “office”. It smelled wonderful.
The first half of the flight proved uneventful, just the way we like it. We staggered up to 21,000’ into the cooler air above the summer clouds. The old engines were well maintained. They ran smooth and powerfully, the silver propellers a blur just a few feet behind my window. We made good time, the westerly trade wind helping us along as the engines were tweaked at redline. Two-and-a-half hours later, we blazed into the Philadelphia area at maximum velocity. No fancy autopilot here, it’s all done by hand and the plane would communicate to you through the control wheel and throttles.
Landing at North Philadelphia, we used the entire runway as usual. The Metroliner loved runway. We unloaded some freight, closed the airplane up, the copilot got the clearance while I brought the 2200 horsepower Garrett engines to life.
We departed Philadelphia into wet skies, the cool evening air causing the lights of the vast city to shine bright and clear until jagged clouds enveloped us. It was a short flight down the Chesapeake, and we landed in a rainy Richmond, Virginia. I call in range and a sweet, distant voice answered through static.
As we parked at the private terminal, the fuel truck pulled up and began refueling the plane. I had ordered the fuel prior to landing, but made the mistake of not confirming it with the guys doing the actual refueling. I nodded, gave them a quick “Hey,” and headed back to unload the freight.
After finishing, we dashed inside the nice, dry terminal. We shared jokes with the pretty receptionist while sipping hot coffee and tried hard not to stare at her incredibly long legs. Signing the fuel receipt, we returned to the plane through the foggy drizzle on the ramp and started up the engines.
I taxied away from the building to a remote part of the ramp, preferring to do my checklists there rather than deafen everyone with our screaming Garrett engines, possibly the loudest this side of Mars. We ran all the checklists in preparation for departure. During these checks, I noticed fuel levels were lower than expected, and after a quick math calculation, nope, it’s not going to be enough to get us to St Louis. Curses!
            We taxied back in and added more fuel. Apparently, our request for 340 gallons somehow turned into 240 gallons. Sending your voice by radio waves through rain and gloom of night to a cheap receiver in an office sixty miles away wasn’t always the clearest way of communicating. The additional fuel augmented the fragrance of Jet-A while humid, hot night air added just a touch of mold inside.
In true Richmond fashion, they had us on our way again in no time. We repeated the checklists. Approaching runway two, we were cleared for immediate takeoff. We squared up with the runway, released the brakes and our now empty aircraft leapt forward as power was applied. We raced down the dark runway, lifted off, made a steep left turn to a heading of 240, and were on our way. Climbing above the rain clouds to 18,000 feet, we double checked our ground speed against fuel burn and distance. All was as it should be, so we settle in for the three-hour flight home.
We droned and droned endlessly along. Copilot Jahrid played Solitaire on his iPad while I filled out the flight log and checked the receipts. The autopilot can hold heading and altitude, but nothing else. Good enough for cruising across the Appalachians and then the flat plains of the Midwest.
With paperwork complete, Jahrid took over the flying duties while I cracked open a book "Submarines at War” a perfect ‘in-flight’ read. I glanced up every so often, scanned the gauges, looked out at the sky which was still clear, with a bright full moon over my left shoulder, then returned to reading. The cockpit lights were dim, but my reading light, old and yellowed, was sufficient for its purpose.
Jahrid and I talked about the usual stuff: food, airplanes, women, airplanes, and food. Approaching St Louis, I fiddled with the ATIS, a frequency where the current weather at your airport is broadcast. Through the static, I barely heard our destination's weather: sky obscured, visibility less than 1/4 mile. Ahhh, shoot.
I checked Cahokia Field, an airport not far away on the Illinois side of the river. Three miles with 400' overcast. That’s good. I called St Louis approach on the second radio, tell him I'm still with Kansas City Center, but what's the visibility at Lambert? He said it's ¼ mile, but Spirit was saying the RVR (runway visual range) was 3000 feet, and people were getting in. Hot damn, home-base it was.
I finished my thermos of now cold coffee. The caffeine taste, now rich from ten hours of aging, hits like a cold slap in the face, perfect for this late hour. I pulled out the approach diagram and review it with Jahrid. We would fly the precision approach into Spirit Airport, and if we missed, we’d hop over to Cahokia and call the wife for a ride home. I knew she’d be thrilled to get out of bed at midnight, and drive an hour to pick up her loving husband and his co-pilot. It’s a flawless plan. 
I took over control of the airplane (we’d been trading on and off over the last three hours) and got my seat situated just right, becoming one with the airplane. Speak to me, girl. How are you doing? We got vectored past East St Louis, across the Mississippi River, past the slumbering neighborhoods of Crestwood, Kirkwood and Manchester. One last turn onto the approach behind two corporate jets with their high-tech avionics and fancy autopilots.
Our airplane was entirely old school in its technology. The autopilot had no navigation capability at all, so this approach and must be hand flown. The insides of the clouds raced by the window, illuminated by our landing lights. I nursed the power back, called for approach flaps and reduce to 175 mph.
I was focusing hard on the gauges, holding the control column in my left hand, the throttles in my right hand. Sometimes I used both hands on the control column because the airplane flew like a truck. The manufacturer made the plane bigger and heavier but didn’t increase the size of the controls, so they’re quite heavy to move.
Inbound course was 079 degrees. I held it steady on the course. Five degrees right. Now seven. Back to five.
"Glideslope alive," Jahrid called, then "One dot below."
"Gear down, flaps half, landing checklist," I said and he got it all accomplished.
"Three green".
"Three green indicated."
"Flaps half."
"Flaps half."
"All on, strobes off."
"Complete to full flaps."
Down we went, the clouds and fog around us illuminated by the landing lights, rushing past at 150 mph now.
Jahrid called out, "Thousand above, on course, on glideslope, speed 150."
Five right, two right, easy on the pitch, hold her steady. We were coming down the ILS at over 800 feet per minute, traveling forward at 220' per second. This could be a bit unnerving, considering you can only see ten feet in front of you despite the bright glare of the big landing lights on the wings. You're working hard to keep it on the electronic glideslope and approach course. The closer you get, the more sensitive it becomes and therefore the harder it is. 
For the average person, this is insanity and no place for rational people to be. For pilots like us, we wouldn't want to be anywhere else. That's what people don't know or understand about pilots. We love the calculated risk. It was a source of pride in our work.
"Five hundred above, on course, slightly low, 152," Jahrid said.
The approach gets very sensitive. One right, on course, two right, back to course. Easy.
"One hundred above, on glide path."
I held it steady.
"Minimums, approach lights 12 o'clock," Jahrid announced.
I glanced up and saw the fog flashing and nothing more.
"Green lights! Runway in sight," Jahrid called.
“Got it! Full flaps!” I called, easing a little power off. We were over the runway now, so I started to flare, eased the power back more, held the centerline, and with a squeal of rubber we're on. Lowered the nose, then into reverse, we started to slow as I worked the rudder to keep her on the centerline.
 "Ninety knots," Jahrid called.
We brought the propellers to low rpm and rolled to taxiway A3. Tower asked us to report when clear. They couldn't see us for all the fog. We exited, called clear and taxied back down the taxiway. Hooting and hollering, we were grinning with excitement at having successfully pulled that off. 
"Man, that was close!" I stated the obvious.
"I didn't think we'd ever see that runway!" Jahrid laughed.
"When you called the approach lights in sight, I couldn't see anything but fog!" I said.
"I had 'em, then I lost ‘em, then I had ‘em again!"
We parked, shut down, collected our things, called dispatch, sent a report to maintenance, put the paperwork in the tray, and headed to our cars.
The night ended with our usual wave, "See ya tomorrow," and another day at work was in the logbook.