It was a beautiful day for flying. The kind of day I’d always dreamed of when I was a young man, flying over exoctic lands, dodging storms and having adventures. I was ferrying a brand new Cessna Grand Caravan from St. Paul Minnesota to Singapore with it’s new owner, a wealthy Swiss businessman, and his father in law. We’d started the day in Karachi Pakistan, weaving our way through a wide band of towering cumulus clouds before stopping in Nangpor India for fuel before pushing on to Bangladesh. We’d gotten a sketchy weather report that morning that showed two huge low pressure systems parked over northern India. Now normally a prudent pilot would wait patiently on the ground for a day with better weather. But I’m not normally either patient or prudent so we were flying. It didn’t matter anyway because it was Monsoon season and if you wanted to wait for a nice day you’d be waiting a very long time. And anyway we had radar, can’t get into trouble if you have radar….right?
We made it to Nangpor around noon. Plenty of time to fuel up, get back in the air and tackle the worst of the thunderstorms while still daylight. Battling a huge area of imbedded storms at night was something I really wanted to avoid. So of course that’s exactly what happened.
One of the things that a lot of pilots might hate about corporate/air charter flying is being stuck at random airports for many hours while your passengers conduct their business in town. Sometimes you’re at a large airport with a major flight support center like Signature and you’re treated like a king. When you land, a line guy chocks your wheels and puts an actual red carpet out for you and your passengers. When you walk in to the flight center a beautiful young woman greets you with a smile and offers you fresh baked cookies before escorting you to the pilot’s lounge filled leather recliners, cable TV, and often free candy and snacks. When lunchtime comes around they give you a crew car and directions to the best food around. It’s pretty nice.
On the other end of the spectrum is flying into some remote podunk airport that’s miles from the nearest town and just has small rundown shack for the pilots to wait in. No TV, no food, and just a stained old couch to sit on. Now a lot of pilots might think the first example is heaven and the second hell. And if you asked me what I thought I’d say “It depends.”
Sitting the the beautiful and shiny pilot’s lounge at Dallas international might sound great but watching daytime cable TV for 6 hours gets old fast. All that free popcorn, chips, candy, cookies, and soda? Can’t have any of that or pretty soon you won’t be able to pull back on the yoke far enough to takeoff. Walk out onto the ramp? Might be some cool stuff there but usually just a collection of business jets, which are only interesting the first time you look at them up close. The ability to have lunch at your pick of restaurants? Nice, but food is food, who cares. So in the end you’re comfortable, but bored.
Now hanging out at a small airport might be just the opposite of the big guys but not necessarily in a bad way. It might be a shabby building but it also might be filled with shabby old pilots with tons of stories. “Then there other time”. There might be only one place to eat in the nearest small town but it’s a small diner filled with character that serves the best burgers you’ve ever had. (the beer’s cheap too but that unfortunately doesn’t matter unless you get an overnight) And there might not but a vast assortment of free snacks but there might a doughnut left over from yesterday, and hey, there still good, just a little crunchy. And best of all you never know what might be parked on the ramp but it sure won’t be the same boring big shiny jets.
For example, my trusty co-captain Johnny Boy and I flew the Great White Hope down to spinks airport just the other day and really hit the jackpot. Located just south of Dallas Spinks is home to Air Center Helicopters owned by Johnny Boy’s good friend. Air Center provides Helicopter support around the world. One of their main contracts is with the US NAVY providing vertical resupply for ships in the south Pacific and the helicopters they are getting ready to ship out are Airbus H225’s. Johnny boy and I walked over to where some of the helo boys were running one up to check the avionics and got the grand tour. The 225 was a popular helicopter around the world but after 2 crashes in Norway due to main transmission failure the entire fleet was grounded. Airbus did a major upgrade on the transmission but he damage was done. nobody wanted the H225 any more. That’s where Air Center saw it’s chance. They scooped up a bunch of the idle helicopters that nobody wanted for a fraction of their original 33 million dollar price tag and put them to work. Two things make the 225 perfect for the Navy is the fact that the blades fold back allowing two of them to fit inside a ship’s hanger and the fact that they’re only helicopter big enough to fit a jet engine inside.
These guys told us that this bird and 2 others were going to be loaded onto a big Russian Antonov cargo plane and flown to the south Pacific soon.
Spinks airport was literally chocked full of cool aircraft and the time waiting for our passengers just flew by. Just like the flight home where I broke my personal ground speed record. 585 knots! OK, we were in the descent but still.
When the mechanic finally deemed the cub airworthy after it’s extensive restoration the first thing I did was get my tailwheel endorsement. The second thing I did was take it to the drop zone. Now for those of you that are new here a drop zone is the term commonly used when referring to the local skydiving school or center. The dropzone I was jumping at in 1988 was located in Osceola Wisconsin and for those of us that jumped there it was paradise. The home of the St. Croix Valley Skydivers was a ramshackle building on 50 acres of rolling farmland with a 2500 foot grass/mud/rocks/mud/bumps/mud “runway” on it. Every Friday our little band of sky Gypsies would make our pilgrimage to the DZ, spend the weekend jumping, flying and generally having the time of our lives. We slept in tents, trailers, our cars or just drank until you passed out at the bonfire. Oh yeah, I forgot to mention the beer. There were vast quantities of beer consumed, but only after the last load had taken off, mostly.
We also loved jumping out of different kinds of aircraft, airplanes, hot air balloons, helicopters and ultralights. If it could get us high enough we’d jump it. So when I showed up with the Cub naturally everyone wanted a ride. One way of course. Well the first person to get to jump the Cub was Geno, it was his plane after all. So he climbed into the front seat and the two of us went bouncing down the runway before finally staggering into the hot summer air. Oh, I forgot to tell you that the Cub had a very old and tired 65 horsepower engine that got one person off the ground just fine. But two grown men and a 25 pound parachute took a little more coaxing. After what seemed like an eternity the Cub finally reached the stratospheric altitude of 2500 feet and refused to climb any further. Good enough. Geno carefully extracted himself from the tiny cockpit, being careful not to punch a hole through the fabric side of the plane, and balanced on the left main tire while holding onto the wing strut. He looked like he was really enjoying riding on the outside of his plane until I yelled to him that he’d better go because with the extra drag of him out there we were losing precious altitude that we didn’t have to spare. He quickly let go and I flew circles around his parachute before landing.
Now it was my turn. Just one problem. The only person who was checked out in the Cub was Geno. And Geno didn’t have a license. well, he had a solo license but meant he could only fly by himself or with an instructor, which I wasn’t. Hmmm. What to do? Wouldn’t want to break the law now would we? Not us. No surrey bob! That would be wrong. “But” I reasoned, “on takeoff and climbing to altitude I’ll be pilot in command, perfectly legal. And after I jump out you’ll be by yourself. Again perfectly legal.” Of course there was that grey area when I was on the outside of the plane and not manipulating the controls possibly making me a passenger but we decided that the regulations didn’t say anything about how and where you could hand over the controls of an aircraft. Anyway it was a long time ago and there’s no video so you can’t prove anything.
And of course it’s always fun to take your buddy’s 4 year old son up in the Cub and duck down making it look like he’s alone.
I stopped flying the Cub when it developed a crack in the wooden spar and neither Geno or I didn’t have the money to fix it. It sat neglected in a leaky T hanger for years slowly rotting away before being sold. The drop zone was also sold to a non-skydiver after being the St. Croix Valley Skydivers home for over 30 years. Those days (and my youth) are long gone but the ghosts remain.
A long time ago in an airspace far far away, I was a low time pilot. You know, back when the planet was still cooling and dinosaurs roamed the earth. “Hold short of runway 27, Pterodactyl on final.” And like any other low time pilot I was obsessed with one thing, getting hours. A pilot’s total time in an aircraft is important in a number of ways. First off it’s how he or she can qualify for ratings, 50 hours of cross country time for an instrument rating, 250 hours for commercial, and a whopping 1500 hours for an airline transport pilot rating! Next, when a pilot is finally legal to work hours are the number one thing employers look at when looking at prospective pilots. The more hours you have the more experienced you are, simple. And finally, the number of hours a pilot has is his rank in the world of aviation unless he has a particularly cool job like fighter pilot, fire bomber, or international ferry pilot. 🙂
After I got my private pilot’s license I did anything I could to get time at the controls of an airplane. The first option was pay for it. Of course way back then I could rent a Cessna 152 for about $29 an hour wet but even that cheap rate got expensive as the hours slowly racked up. I also got my non-pilot friends to chip in when I took them for rides. That got me about 3 hours, not much help. It was then that my good friend Geno offered me a possible solution. Geno was a fellow skydiver who also had dreams of becoming a commercial pilot. But unlike me he had a plane. Well, his father had a plane, sort of. Geno’s dad had a J-3 Cub in his garage that needed a lot of work. He said we could use to build up flight time if we got it back into flying condition. It would take a few thousand dollars to make it airworthy but if it worked out we could fly the crap out of it for next to nothing after that. So after a little more than a few thousand dollars (with airplanes it’s always a little more) Geno and I had and airplane to fly the crap out of.
And fly the crap out of it I did. My log book has about 500 hours of Cub time and a thousand stories in it. I spent the better part of two years flying all over Wisconsin and Minnesota, rarely higher than 500 feet and never faster than 80 miles per hour. Because that’s as fast as it would go, in a dive, at full power. I would often put a 5 gallon plastic gas can in the front seat (you fly the J-3 Cub from the back seat if you’re alone for weight and balance) and after flying for a few hours land on a gravel road of farm field and refuel from the can. One time after landing on a remote dirt road in northern Minnesota I decided to take a break from flying and have lunch. I pulled the Cub off the road under some trees, sat down with my back against one of the tires and proceeded to read a book while munching happily on a sandwich. I was in heaven. Not long after sitting down a car came along and stopped. Out popped two old ladies who asked if I was in trouble. Did I crash? Out of Gas? Lost? “Nope” I told them, “Just enjoying my lunch on a beautiful sunny day!” I’ll never forget the look on their faces as they climbed back into their and drove off. I’m sure it was the damnedest thing they’d seen in a long time.
Flying instrument approaches into even marginal weather is something that I really love to do. The challenge of guiding 20,000 pounds of aircraft filled with soft squishy bits (people) onto the centerline of a runway hidden by clouds/rain/fog/snow/night/crap is just simply a blast. Sometimes the entire flight is in the weather and there’s no sense looking out the windows until the last few seconds when you either break out and see the runway or you don’t. That’s often the case in piston aircraft. You just can’t climb high enough to get on top of the weather so you’re forced to spend hours grinding away in the clouds, getting bounced around, flying through rain, snow and ice, dodging thunderstorms and generally earning every dime you make. (Lot’s of times the pay rate for flying piston powered aircraft can be measured in dimes)
In a jet, on the other hand, It’s rare that you can’t get on top. Tooling along at 43,000 feet ,or higher if need be, (the Citation 650 tops out at 51,000 feet!) with the clouds and all the nastiness therein is simply bliss. I’m always struck by the stark contrast of flying along in the bright sunshine (Hey, it’s always a sunny day if you climb high enough) then descending below the clouds only to find out that it’s really a crummy day down there.
Okay, I’ll have to admit that the preference of flying jets above the weather vs. smaller planes down in the crap applies to most pilots but not to me. Don’t get me wrong, I love flying jets. And doing 500 knots at 43,000, sipping coffee and chatting with your copilot about where we’re going to have lunch when we land is kind of nice. But what really gets me going is the fight. Sweating it out down low in the weeds. Dodging the weather dragons that threaten to end the flight anyone foolish to challenge them. That’s what I love. Breaking out of the clouds at 200 feet with visibility so bad you can only see the runway end identifier lights after a few hours of flying where the outcome was always in doubt is LIVING BABY! Yeah, I didn’t get the nickname “Scary Kerry” for nothing.
The clip above is an approach I flew into Appleton Wisconsin last week. It isn’t particularly low or difficult but it’s all I have for now.
A few years ago Son number one (SNO) decided to follow in his father’s footsteps and become one of the elite, the best of the best, the tip of the spear, the kind of man that other men want to be like and women want to be with. That’s right, I’m talking about a US Army helicopter Crew Chief! Yeah baby. As I mentioned before SNO is currently Deployed someplace warm and semi dangerous. We miss him greatly but this is the mission that he’s been training for and he’s loving the adventure. I’m jealous as hell but I guess I can still live vicariously through him.
So there I was, or should I say there they were, thought they were gonna die.
Late last week I was hanging out at our home base airport, drinking a cup of coffee and waiting for the last of our passengers and the morning sun to arrive. That morning our company was sending two jets to Texas. My copilot and I were taking 6 guys who worked in the oil fields and the other plane was taking two guys to do a little hunting. We’d arrived an hour early and The Great White Hope (Cessna Citation 650) was preflighted and ready to go. Central Wisconsin had received a good six inches of wet snow that night and the ramp was an ice skating rink. Our plan was to load the passengers while the plane was still in the hanger and then have the tug pull us out. Then we’d just fire up and take off. That way the plane would stay warm and we wouldn’t have to worry about the wings getting iced up. Taking off with contaminated wings is a huge no no. It doesn’t take much snow or ice to greatly reduce the amount of lift the wings can produce.
The four of us were just waiting for show time when the lights of a jet went whizzing past the the front windows of the lobby. Kind of strange, our windows looked out over the midpoint of a 8000 foot runway, and normally a landing plane was just about if not completely stopped by that point and a plane taking off was already in the air. The mystery was solved a few seconds later when over the radio behind the desk we heard the tower report that someone had just gone off the end of the runway. I’m pretty sure we all had the same thoughts as rushed to the windows because when a jet goes off roading it’s a bad thing. We couldn’t see anything ( no fire at least) so we clustered around the radio trying to hear what the tower was saying to the airport trucks racing down to the scene of the…crash? We were also trying to play it cool because we had a lobby full of passengers who were about to try their luck aboard our jets. “Nothing to see hear folks, never to worry. aviation is one of the top ten safest ways to travel. Why the odds of two jets skidding off the runway in one morning are……Never mind, there’s free booze! It wasn’t long before the tower declared that the airport was closed.
Of course being pilots we immediately began speculating. Too fast of an approach speed? Touchdown too far down the runway? (good possibilities from what we saw) Break problems? Thrust reversers? We soon heard that the crew was OK and the plane was still on it’s wheels. An airport maintenance worker came in looking for a tow bar that might work to pull the jet back to the ramp. Suddenly the tower came up on the radio and said that the airport was now open! My copilot and I wasted no time in getting the hell out of there before someone with more sense closed the airport again. Because even though the jet was not actually on the runway maybe jets shouldn’t be taking off over smoking wreckage filled with charred bodies. Or a plane in the weeds. And getting while the getting was good turned out to be a good plan because about 5 minutes after we were wheels up dad said close r down. We know this because while we were beating feet the two pilots of our other jet that was supposed to two hunters to Texas that morning decided to wait for a new report on how slippery the runway was. A prudent precaution for the conditions and mornings events but they ended up being stuck at the airport for 4 hours while we were in the air.
When we got back that evening we heard that the jet had been able to taxi out of weeds and back to the ramp under its own power. A good thing too because there wasn’t a suitable tow bar on the airport. We also got the the scoop on the incident from the line guys. The jet in question was an old Falcon jet that’s being used to haul cargo. The pilot claimed to have lost his right break on landing but when the company’s mechanics inspected the aircraft they not only didn’t find any damage from exiting the runway at high speed they didn’t find anything wrong with the breaks. We experts, (pilots, same thing) surmised that they landed long and fast and probably hydroplaned on the wet slush covered runway. And on one final note the 20 year old copilot initially refused to get back into the plane and fly with the 60 year old captain. He had to be threatened with being fired before he’d get back in. Not sure I blame him. (that spin was hell Maverick, it would’ve shook me up) It had to be terrifying to go for that ride. One of our line guys saw the whole thing and said that they were really moving and he could see the red light on the tail bouncing all over the place as they slid sideways off the runway. Good fun.
My visit the the John Wayne airport in Santa Ana California last week reminded me that as far as jet flying goes I still have a lot to learn. To say that the airspace just south of the city of angels is busy would be an understatement of the highest order. Helicopters taking tourists for holiday rides, flight students learning working on their license, private pilots out for a spin, and business jets all buzzing around the airport like a hive of bees. Oh, and there might be one or two airliners heading to and from LAX thrown into the mix just for fun. So when you fly in or out of an airport that gets very busy you usually are required to fly one of their predetermined arrival or departure procedures. Each procedure has a mix of mandatory altitude and speed restrictions that must be followed to ensure safe separation from other aircraft. I’m sorry, maybe I’m doing a good enough job explaining the seriousness of following the procedure. I should spend more time emphasizing the words MANDATORY and MUST! Lonely? Feeling neglected and unloved because you never get any personal mail? Just bust one of the altitude or speed restrictions in the airspace next to Las Angeles and the FAA will waste no time sending you a letter. and don’t worry it will be VERY personal.
Flying in from Scottsdale AZ we were assigned the Rooby Three arrival which, as you can see in depiction above, is complicated but relatively straight forward. There are a lot of altitude changes but only one speed restriction and only one heading change. We were empty on this leg (no one to scare but my copilot) so I got to fly. Things happened fast but it was a beautiful sunny afternoon and I managed to not only find the airport but I didn’t put any large dents in the runway when I landed.
The Hobow Two Departure on the other hand is an entirely different kettle of fish. After departure your first turn comes when you climb out of 560 feet. In a jet that takes about 10 seconds and you’re just getting your gear and flaps up at this point. After that the hits just keep coming. There are 2 mandatory speed targets, 3 altitude targets, and 11! heading changes! Let me tell you, it was a busy couple of minutes because not only did we have to make sure that we were flying the departure correctly but the radio was going nuts! Just a little different than flying skydivers out of a grass field in Wisconsin I guess.
It’s going to be a super easy and short day of flying today. First thing in the morning we bring 7 oil field workers from Wisconsin and drop them off in central Texas. The guys they are replacing jump in and we run right back to Wisconsin. Easy peasy. 2 hours each way. Done by 2:00. I’ll probably be back in time to go deer hunting when I get home. That was the plan anyway. Thunderstorms and strong crosswinds at the destination airport forced us to change where we drop off the customers. No big deal, that’s why they invented cars. The guy giving rides to and from the airport can just drive to and from a different airport is all. The only problem (aside from the fact that he’s super slow) is that when he finally showed to pick up our passengers he’d neglected to bring along the guys we we’re supposed to bring home. Great. So what was supposed to be a short turn around turned into an all day affair. That’s OK, it gave us time to stare at the radar screen as the weather along our route of flight got worse and worse. “Take your time guys, no rush!”
Well, our passengers finally showed up at sunset into an ominous dark sky. After winding our way through a line of central Texas thunderstorms, with the help of the Citation’s onboard radar and my Ipad linked to ground radar stations through the plane’s WiFi, we finally burst out on top of the weather at 41,0000 feet . With the turbulent weather thousands of feet below us our sleek white steed ripped through the night sky on air so smooth our passengers in back had no trouble putting a sizeable dent in the liquor cabinet. Looking down I commented to the pilot flying that was glad I was up there cruising along in style and comfort instead of beating my head against that wall if weather in some small slow bug smasher. He heartily agreed.
Now when I say “the pilot flying” I’m talking about the guy in the left seat because at our company all the pilots are all qualified captains, although some are more qualified than others. Most of the guys, and one woman, have been flying jets for years while you humble scribe has a grand total of one month under his slowly expanding belt. (have to watch that) For the first few months I’m to be paired with the most senior pilots who will do their best to teach me how things are done “in the real world” vs. what I was taught in the two week flight school where I received my Citation type rating. I’m also only allowed to actually “fly” the plane when there are no passengers aboard lest I scare them with some ham fisted maneuvers or bouncy landings. It’s a sound policy but seeing that the object of this company is to make money, and you don’t make much money when there are no passengers to gouge the opportunity to practice my takeoff and landing skills have been few, let’s call it 4, because that’s how many there were. Like I said It’s a sound policy but I’m itching to get my hands on the controls more. At least my jet pilot radio voice is getting better. “Aaaaaaah roger Kansas center. Citation N4Y checking in at Aaaaaah 41,000 feet.”
The rest of the flight went pretty smooth. As I’ve said before I really love flying at night. It’s usually nice and smooth out, as long as you’re above the weather, and it’s, I don’t know, just cooler, ya know?
To top things off we had a nice strong tailwind pushing us home and while I didn’t mind reducing the time until I could have a cold beer what I really liked was that I broke/smashed my personal ground speed record! 548 knots! Woot!
Back in Wisconsin a short drive home to a mostly hot meal waiting for me, (Thanks honey!) the cold beer I’d been craving, then off to bed. Gotta do it all over again tomorrow. I’m having so much fun!