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

I sometimes read these aviation magazines, where they have some contributing writer telling about their experience where they have learned about flying from this or that, or the life of a major airline pilot. Honestly, it makes me ill sometimes. Examples: A major airline pilot describes his flight in a B777 from London to New York. First they got the windshield cleaned. Then they almost had to hold near New York. That was it. Seriously. Example 2: Two regional jet pilots are flying along and a Bonanza flies by. Not close, just flies by. That was it. Honestly, what did you learn about flying from that?? 
     Here's my boring flight report. We taxied in at Richmond and the fuel truck pulls up. I had already called in the fuel order, but my mistake was not confirming it with the ramp guys. Instead we went inside where it was warm and dry, told jokes while trying hard not to stare at the pretty receptionist's long legs. We signed the receipt, went outside and started up. I pulled away from the building and taxied to a more remote part of the ramp. I prefer to do my after start checklist here so we don't make everyone deaf with our screaming Garrett's. We also do the taxi check (the end of the runway is right here, so we get all this done first. Richmond tends to clear you for takeoff as soon as you get withing 100 yds of the runway). I notice the fuel level is lower than expected. Quick check (quantity divided by 6.71, denominator 3)- nope, not going to be enough. Dang! We taxi back in and get more fuel. Apparently our request for 170 gals a side turned into 120 a side. We didn't blame anyone but ourselves though. In true MillionAir fashion we were on our way again in minutes. Approaching runway 2 we got cleared for takeoff. Race down the dark runway, a steep left hand turn to 240 to join the Reade4 departure and we're on our way. We climb up in clear skies to 18,000 feet. The headwind isn't too bad so we stay there. If it was fierce, like last week, we'd stay down at 12,000'. Can't do that in a jet!
     We drone and drone and drone along. Mike is playing Solitaire while I do the log sheet and check the receipts. Paperwork in order, he starts a game of Monopoly on his iPad while I crack open a book, "Submarines at War". I glance up every so often, scan the gauges, look out at the sky (still clear), then back to reading. I knew a guy who flew freight in a 747 across the Pacific. Told me everyone would go to sleep and when the alarm clock went off every hour the FO would report their position via HF radio. I could see that. Black ocean below, black sky above, no radar, not a gauge in the cockpit moving. 
     Mike and I talk about the usual stuff: food, airplanes, women, airplanes and food. Approaching St Louis I am fiddling with the ATIS. With the squelch off I can just barely hear Spirit's weather: sky obscured, visibility less than 1/4. Ahhh, shoot. I check Cahokia, an airport not far away on the Illinois side. Three miles with 400 overcast. I check St Louis Lambert: Can't understand a word of that funny computer voice. So I call St Louis approach on the second radio, tell him I'm still with Kansas City Center, but what's the visibility at Lambert? He says it's 1/4, but Spirit is saying the RVR is 3000 and people have been getting in. Hot damn, homebase it is then. We discuss the plan, and if we go miss we'll hop over to Cahokia and call the wife for a ride. 
     We carefully review the approach and ask for the ILS 26L. Two inbounds and an outbound means we have to go with the ILS to 8R. Makes no sense to me. The approach to 8R is over farm land and a big river, which means lots of fog. The approach to 26L is entirely over a 1.5 mile long strip mall with heated buildings and hundreds of parking area lights. But no, we have to take 8R. 
     Vectored onto the approach behind a Canadair 600 and a Hawker jet, we start down the final approach course. The autopilot is only for level flight, has no navigation capability at all, so this is entirely hand flown. It's just been a three hour flight here and it's around 11pm so we're kinda wired, but by now we're pretty psyched up for the approach and wide awake. I am really focusing on the gauges. Luckily the wind isn't very strong at the final approach altitude, so we're not being set off much. 5 degrees right. Now 7. Back to five. "Glideslope alive," Mike calls, then "One dot below." I say "Gear down, flaps half, landing checklist," and he gets it all accomplished. "Three green". "Three green indicated." "Flaps half." "Flaps half." "Lights?" "All on, strobes off." "Complete to full flaps." Down we go, the clouds and fog around us illuminated by the lights. Mike calls "Thousand above, on course, on glideslope, speed 130." Five right, two right, easy on the pitch. hold her steady. "Five hundred, on course, on glideslope, 130." The ILS gets sensitive now, one right, on course, two right, back to course. Easy. "Hundred above." Hold it steady. "Minimums, approach lights 12 o'clock." I glance up and see the fog flashing. A second or two later we both say "Green lights! Runway in sight." I call for full flaps and ease a little power off. Over the runway now, start to flare, ease the power back some more, hold the centerline, and we're on. Lower the nose, then into reverse. "Ninety knots," Mike calls. I leave it in easy reverse and roll to taxiway A3. Tower asks us to report clear, they can't see us for all the fog. We exit, call clear and taxi back down the taxiway. Hoots and hollers, we are grinning with excitement at having successfully pulled that off. "Man that was close!" "That was cat II, that's for sure!" "And hand flown too!" We park and shut down, collect our things, send in the log sheet and head out to our cars. The night ends with our usual "See you tomorrow,"  and another day at work is in the logbook.