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, 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.