Passengers: Keeping Things Interesting

Gulfstream V

When it comes to cataloging the intriguing travelers one has encountered over the years, few people can rival the improbably tall tales spun by pilots. I’ve never been one to kiss-and-tell about the goings on inside the airplanes I fly. That’s a good thing, because discretion is an vitally important aspect of working in the Part 91 and 135 worlds. It’s a significant part of what the customer is paying for, in fact.

Of course, the most engaging stories are worth telling not because of who was involved, but rather what happened. So by avoiding or altering all references to individuals, employers, brokers, locations, aircraft, dates, and so on, an anecdote from years in the past can be related in general terms and still entertain.

Here are a few that have happened to me or others with whom I’ve flown:

The Wake Up Call

I was just sitting down to dinner with the rest of the crew one summer evening when a company dispatcher called to ask how quickly we could get to Washington, D.C. for a “pop up” (short-notice) trip. After abandoning our meals, we returned to the hotel, packed up, checked out, and ferried the airplane to the nation’s capital, not knowing who our passengers would be. It turns out they were a half-dozen very clean-cut folks who were schedule to escort an important individual back to the United States.

So off we went, arriving at our destination around 1:00 a.m. Our guests milled around at the FBO, making phone calls and waiting for their subject to appear. Eventually we were advised that he wasn’t going to arrive for another twelve hours, which created a regulatory problem for us. We’re limited to 10 hours of flying and 14 hours of duty per day, so we wouldn’t be able to legally complete the return leg without getting some rest.

Hotels were arranged for the flight crew, while the passengers said they’d need to stay with the plane overnight because of the weapons on board the aircraft. They couldn’t take them off the jet without breaking the host country’s laws about importation of firearms. Nor were they willing to leave the firearms on the plane and go to a hotel. There was no GPU cart available, and our company policy prohibited leaving the jet’s APU running unless a crew member was present.

I explained that without the APU, they’d have no electricity or light and be unable to flush the lavatory, run water, move the window shades, or heat the cabin. The lead passenger laughed and said, “We’d be comfortable living in a rough hole dug into the ground. I’m pretty sure we’ll be okay. Go get some rest.” Nobody at the airport or our company could think of a better solution, so we provided a tutorial about how to operate the Gulfstream’s main entry door, made the cabin as comfortable as possible for them, and shut everything down.

I felt terrible about leaving them in a cold, dark airplane for the night. That’s not the kind of service we typically provide for customers. On the other hand, these weren’t typical customers, and they really didn’t seem to mind in the slightest.

When we returned the following day, the airstair door was open and our passengers seemed a little amped up. I asked how things went and one of them said, “It was fine… but I wish someone would have told us about the shotgun!” Mystified, we asked, “Ummm, what shotgun?” Apparently this airport keeps birds away from the field by having an employee fire off a couple of 12-gauge blanks every hour. I’d never heard of such a thing! At the crack of dawn, some hapless airport worker had unknowingly elected to do the deed while standing near a bizjet full of sleeping, yet well-armed, personnel.

I knew bird strikes are a serious hazard for aircraft.  What I didn't know was the large-gauge method some airports use to keep them away.

I knew bird strikes are a serious hazard for aircraft. What I didn’t know was the large-gauge method some airports use to keep them away.

Before leaving the previous night, we had closed the electrically-powered window shades, so they were in a dark cabin and unable to get a look at what was happening outside. All they knew was that someone was firing a weapon nearby and could only assume it might be meant for them. So they opened the airstair door and came our ready for World War III. Thankfully, they were not the shoot-first, ask-questions-later types. After a few moments of confusion, they all had a good laugh about it.

They were far less sanguine upon learning a few hours later that the principal they were waiting to escort back to the States wasn’t coming after all. As far as they were concerned, the whole trip was for naught. It certainly was memorable for me, though.

It’s Inhuman

Sometimes our passengers aren’t even people. One pilot related the story of flying to Africa to transport gold bullion. Another told me about a Boeing Business Jet (an executive version of the 737) which had a dozen passengers with so much cargo that the customer’s luggage wouldn’t fit. So they chartered a Gulfstream IV to fly chase with nothing but the baggage on board.

These trips might sounds awfully expensive — and they are — but I’ve run the numbers and they can make financial sense. If you travel with a large contingent and like to fly first class, last-minute fares of that ilk — assuming scheduled airlines even go where you’re headed — can run the bill up so high that chartering can even save money.

It's a dog's life... but somebody's gotta lead it!

It’s a dog’s life… but somebody’s gotta lead it!

Sometimes it just isn’t about dollars, though. One of my favorite flights was for a gentleman in Europe who missed his dog so much that he chartered a Gulfstream to fly this tiny teacup canine 5,500 miles across the United States and the Atlantic Ocean. The trip even had a flight attendant on board. Just imagine the catering order for a passenger like that…

I should add a word about pooches: I’ve flown quite a few of them over the years, and every one has been a pleasure to have on board. No barking, scratching, urinating, or otherwise soiling the expensive furnishings inside. I don’t know how they can lay there for eight or nine hours without needing to relieve themselves, but somehow they just splay out on the floor and snooze. If there was a way to let them stick their heads out the window, flying might rival that all-time favorite: a trip in the family car.

The Ultimate Fresh Air Vent

Speaking of windows, one apocryphal story concerns an individual who was being deported. Due to security concerns, sometimes these people can’t be transported on commercial airliners, so a chartered aircraft will be utilized instead. Some of these detainees don’t want to be deported because they know conditions in their home country are far more severe than those in the United States.

These trips typically operate with a one-to-one ratio of law enforcement agents to detainees. On this flight, despite having hands and feet shackled, one of the detainees managing to pull open the over-wing emergency exit window he was seated next to just as the aircraft touched down.

I’m not sure if he knew anything about the airplane or not, but his timing was fortuitous because this was the first possible opportunity to open that window. It has to be removed by pulling inwards, and under normal flight conditions, the cabin pressurization holds the window firmly in place. But as the aircraft descends, the pressure differential decreases, and by the time the airplane lands it’s less than 0.3 pounds per square inch.

Anyway, he was immediately tackled by the guards, who flew across the cabin and over the large dining table to restrain him before an escape could be accomplished. It’s just as well; I’m not convinced that this detainee had really thought things through, because the over-wing emergency exits are awfully close to the front end of a screaming Rolls-Royce turbojet engine.

Note the proximity between the emergency exit and the dining table.  Probably not the place to seat an escape artist!

Note the proximity between the emergency exit and the dining table. Probably not the place to seat an escape artist!

Big Things Come in Small Packages

After a revenue flight, one or both of the pilots will often stand near the exit to wish the passenger(s) farewell and thank them for flying on the aircraft. One day, a friend of mine transported a well-heeled gambler home from Las Vegas. As he exited, this passenger handed a casino chip to my friend. Tips are not expected or even common, but they’re not unheard of either. So the pilot simply said thank you and placed the chip in his pocket. It was only later that he remembered it and fished the small disc out. Inscribed on the chip: “$10,000″.

Fish Out of Water

I’ll conclude with a story from my days flying for a public-benefit organization. Today, this non-profit only accepts humans in need of medical transportation. But back in the day, they’d occasional accede to requests that were, shall we say, slightly out of the ordinary.

This particular request was to move a juvenile sea lion from a rescue facility to a place where it could be released into the wild. One of their volunteer pilots offered his Baron 58TC for the flight. With the rear seats removed, there was sufficient space for a cage large enough to hold the 400 pound mammal. A veterinarian sedated the animal, it was loaded aboard the Baron, and the flight commenced.

I don’t know if it was an error on the part of the vet, an effect of the high altitude, or what, but a couple of hours into the flight, the anesthetic wore off. Instead of a sedate sea creature, the airplane suddenly had a confused, muscle-bound fighter who was none too happy about being two miles above sea level in a loud, vibrating contraption. Thankfully, he was securely locked inside the cage, so aside from some banging around and a whole lot of noise, there was no risk to the flight.

All was well until the pilots noticed that the sea lion’s barking seemed to be growing in volume. Kind of weird, they thought. One of them turned around to see what was going on and got the shock of a lifetime: the pinniped had somehow escaped the cage and was wallowing forward toward the cockpit. The pilot flying had his hands full re-trimming the aircraft as the animal moved, while the other fended off the sea lion with bound manuals, a clipboard, charts, and anything else he could find until they were able to land.

I’m not sure if this scene was scary, comical, or both. But as W.C. Fields famously said, “never work with animals or children”. Especially when you’re 12,000 feet above terra firma.

This entry is part of an ongoing collaborative writing project entitled “Blogging in Formation”.

Crappy Sunglasses


Sunglasses are to a pilot as tanning beds are to the cast of Jersey Shore. Many — perhaps most — aviators buy expensive shades, and I understand why. It’s not just about the look (although that’s certainly important), it’s about comfort. Comfort with a headset, comfort on a 10-hour flight. It’s about preventing headaches and protecting one’s eyes when you’re above much of atmosphere and therefore exposed to more of the sun’s damaging ultraviolet radiation.

Me, I do it differently: I buy the cheapest pair I can find. It’s not that I don’t appreciate the optical clarity, build quality, and style of expensive shades. I do. But over the years I’ve developed a theorem called Ron’s Law of Sunglasses Longevity. It simply declares that the length of time a pair of glasses will last is inversely proportional to how much you paid for them. I bought a $10 pair of sunglasses at a gas station and they lasted for 6 or 7 years. On the other hand, I’ve paid $200 for a set of non-polarized Maui Jim sunglasses (polarization doesn’t mix with computerized cockpit displays) and had them disappear or break within weeks.

Not only do I lose sunglasses, but I often manage to do it in the most creative way possible. It’s almost an art form. One time I put my sunglasses and a book on the ground for a moment while I checked something on an airplane. Naturally, they were forgotten about until the main landing gear ran ‘em over, shattering the polycarbonate lenses into a million pieces. Thankfully the tire was not harmed — that would have really been expensive!

Another time a famous celebrity stole my shades. I don’t want to mention any names, of course. They were one of the cheap pair from that same gas station. I had duplicates in storage for just such a scenario (at $10 a pop, even the most poorly compensated among us can afford backups), but these were record-holding in terms of how long I’d had them. It must have been eight or ten years by this point. I almost couldn’t get rid of them even if I tried. Like a bad penny, they’d somehow find their way home.

Anyway, the aircraft had a galley in the aft section and I had set my sunglasses down on the counter there while offloading some baggage from the cargo area. When I returned, they were gone. I think the flight attendant figured they belonged to one of the passengers and they had walked off with the celebrity. She tried to get them back on a subsequent leg, but in the melee of a multi-day trip it just never happened. I sometimes wonder if that celebrity isn’t wearing those sunglasses today, unaware that they were an ancient $10 Chevron special with Twilight Zone-ish longevity.

The last example — the one which prompted this post — was a wholly new and innovative way to dispose of a decent pair of specs. I’m fond of saying that every situation in life can be directly related to a Seinfeld episode, and this is no exception. If you’re a fan of the show you’ll know exactly which one I’m referring to.

We were returning from New York without any passengers, so everything was casual on board the jet. No uniforms, just a pair of jeans and a V-neck t-shirt. A couple of hours into the flight, I excused myself from the cockpit to visit the aft lavatory. As is my custom when I’m not wearing them, the sunglasses were clipped to my shirt when I entered the restroom. (You can probably guess where this is going, right?) So there I was, standing over the toilet “taking care of business” when I reached up to close a vent which was blasting cold air and somehow managed to knock the them off my shirt. The next couple of seconds passed in slow motion. The sunglasses twirled through the air, bounced off the granite counter, and completed the swan dive with a perfect hole-in-one into the bowels of the toilet.

The lav is pretty simple on a Gulfstream; it’s basically just a tank full of “blue juice”, so there wasn’t much risk of the glasses jamming up any drain lines or whatnot. The only thing down there is a valve which is manually actuated from a panel outside the aircraft. It allows the old gunk to be drained and fresh liquid pumped in by the ground service personnel.

Nevertheless, I was going to have to fess up to what I’d done. The look on my face must have said it all, because when I exited the restroom, the flight attendant asked what was wrong. I gave her the “short” version, and she proceeded to shock the hell out of me by asking in a very matter-of-fact way if I wanted her to retrieve them. I thought she was kidding, but it turns out there were long rubber gloves on hand for just such an occasion. I offered to do the dirty deed myself, but she said “no problem, it’s not the first time something’s fallen down there” and before I could even think of a clever retort she had fished them out!

I’ve given a fair number of gifts, tips, and thank-yous over the years, but I’m wondering: how much does one owe another person when they stick their hand into a dirty airplane lavatory in order to retrieve your pair of $10 sunglasses?

In case you’re wondering, the glasses were double-bagged and sealed until I got home. The next day, I thoroughly cleaned them with multiple rounds of hot water, soap, sanitizer, and anything else I could get my hands on. I half expected the metal frame to be partially dissolved or corroded by whatever was in that toilet tank, but they came out as good as new. Ron’s Law of Sunglasses Longevity at work again!

There was a definite moment of pause before putting them back on my face for the first time, but today those Chevron Special’s are back at work. I wish I knew who manufactured them, because they build a hell of a product. While they might not repel bullets the way some sunglasses do, there’s no doubting they’ve been through the proverbial wringer.



Perhaps it’s just my background in theatre and music talking, but wouldn’t you agree that one of the most compelling aspects of aviation is the opportunity for artistic expression through one’s flying? I’ll be the first to admit it’s a romantic notion, straight out of the swashbuckling, barnstorming 1930’s, scarf and all. But so what?

Whether it’s perfectly coordinated operation of the aircraft, maximum efficiency during a flight, a smooth centerline “kiss” of the runway with the tires, or barrel roll so flawless that it appears the earth is rotating around a stationary aircraft, there’s a higher level of consciousness — a zen, if you will — to be realized in achieving it.

There are other ways to express one’s artistic side, of course. One such example is this video by Brent Owens, who mounted a video camera under the perfectly polished wing of his RV-8.

The resultant video reminds me of the opening scene from L.A. Opera’s Das Rheingold. The three maidens were suspended above the stage while supernumeraries in identical costumes were positioned upside down underneath them to represent a reflection in the waters of the Rhine. In the same way, scenery underneath Brent’s airplane is bounced off the lower wing like a film noir sequence beaming onto a screen at a timeworn drive-in theater.

I love it.

The likeness of three Rhine maidens are "reflected" by actors mimicking their movements from below.

The likeness of three Rhine maidens are “reflected” by actors mimicking their movements from below.

Artistic flying can take many forms. For me, it’s best represented by precision and accuracy when I’m behind the controls. For others… well, they take the road less traveled. Sometimes it gets downright wacky! For example, an Dutch artist whose cat was run over by a car decided to convert the feline corpus into a remote-controlled helicopter.

Yes, you read that right. It’s got to be a bit morbid to see the permanent wide-eyed expression of a former companion perpetually staring back at you, but it’s certainly a one-of-a-kind tribute to a beloved pet and avocation.

This guy takes the combination of art and flying to a whole new level!

This guy takes the combination of art and flying to a whole new level!

Kristi and I have two cats, but I’ll refrain from any suggestion of furball formation flying…

The Hello Kitty Jet

Even the flight attendants look the part.  All they're missing is the Hello Kitty backpack...

I’ve noticed that most people not directly involved with the aviation industry assume that anyone who is (or aspires to be) a professional aviator wants to fly for a major airline. Even military pilots are believed to desire an airline career.

The logic behind this assumption has always escaped me. There are certainly many pilots for whom an airline job is the proverbial brass ring, and I say more power to them. Someone has got to fly those things. If it’s what you love, do it. For me, however, when I consider the seniority system, financial instability, surly passengers, tough working conditions, low pay, terminal & gate congestion, unions, strikes, and poor management of most scheduled airlines, it doesn’t hold much appeal.

The Hello Kitty jet

Nevertheless, all of that pales in comparison to the ultimate reason to avoid Part 121: the Hello Kitty jet. In the words of Cosmo Kramer, it’s burning my rods and cones.

Unusual livery on an airliner is not new. From Sea World’s Shamu and Disney’s Tinkerbell to professional basketball, it’s been part of the airline scene for thirty years. Travel much and you’ll find Snoopy, salmon, Simpsons, safari, Starcraft, and sex as special livery themes on airliners. There’s even a fleet of Pokemon jets out there. But Hello Kitty really takes the cake when it comes to detail and cuteness.

At Taipei’s Taoyuan International Airport, they receive Hello Kitty boarding passes and baggage tags. A Hello Kitty song plays as passengers board the plane, which is plastered on the exterior with a Hello Kitty decal made by 3M. All-female cabin crew members swap their usual EVA Airways-issued green uniforms for pink aprons and scarves. All seats (252 to 309, depending on whether it’s an Airbus A330-200 or A330-300), are covered with Hello Kitty headrest covers. Even the meals, ice cream, snacks, cups, utensils, milk bottles, soap, hand lotion, and tissues are designed in the image of Hello Kitty.

Hello Kitty-themed goose liver pâté.

I’m more than happy to carry my wife’s purse, buy her feminine products at the grocery store, and shop for clothes with her. But I draw the line at entering a Sanrio store, which are reminiscent of the sugary cereals of my youth that frequently made me ill. From a marketing standpoint, however, I have to admit the branding seems to be paying off.

The airway’s adorable marketing strategy has attracted some avid travelers from carriers that fly the same routes, says Nieh. The load factor on Hello Kitty flights averages 80 percent to 90 percent, about 5 percent to 10 percent higher than EVA’s average on those routes before the Hello Kitty jets were introduced. Duty-free, in-flight sales of 13 kinds of Hello Kitty products generate some revenue, too.

Even the flight attendants look the part. All they’re missing is the Hello Kitty backpack…

On a serious note, a 5-10% bump in revenue is huge for an airline flight. These companies operate with profit margins around 1%, so any measurable increase in passenger load is going to help the bottom line. One wonders how much Sanrio is making off this deal with EVA Air. In an era of slowing economic activity and brutal competition, I’d expect to see more marketing of this kind in the future.

Frankly I’m surprised it hasn’t happened sooner. Ever larger airliners are essentially gigantic traveling billboards. Oh, there might be something to be said for preserving an airline’s dignity — can you imagine this sort of thing on a Pan Am jet during it’s heyday? The idea would have been rejected outright by Juan Trippe, I’m sure. Alas, mere survival is the order of the day for most airlines.

The technology necessary for this kind of branding has advanced significantly, too. It’s relatively quick and easy these days since actual paint isn’t even part of the equation. Modern adhesives are strong enough to withstand the 500+ mph air flow over the airframe, so the “repainting” only involves placing custom-made decals on an all-white aircraft. General aviation airplanes are using the same technique.

Hello Kitty salmon. I am quite confident even my cat wouldn’t touch it.

My favorite quote from the article: “Hello Kitty is not just for kids either, if lingerie and vibrators are any indication.”

But that’s not half as disturbing as the fact that they have five aircraft painted that way, and “believe there is a market for Hello Kitty jet service outside of Asia”. That’ll keep me looking over my shoulder for quite a while! It pains me to think I might have to set eyes on that thing in person.

I know it’s wrong to deface an aircraft, but I might have to buy some spray paint and keep it in my flight bag, just in case…

Cheapo Airlines

Gotta go?  Tough luck, pal...

Flying seems to be getting more painful every day for those confined to the airlines. If you think it’s bad here in the United States, take a look at Irish-based Ryanair. They take cheapness to a new level, both in terms of airfares and amenities.

Ryanair is quite famous for this. Far from being embarrassed by their reputation, they actually take pride in it. The fares may be low, but walk aboard their aircraft you’ll find less leg room than on any other airline. They’ve even gone so far as to remove the seat-back pockets in order to save weight and space in the cabin.

But that’s just the start. Ryanair charges passengers extra money if they are too heavy (a so-called “fat tax”). You’ll also get dinged if you need to print a boarding pass or use the toilet on board the aircraft. Checking luggage? That’ll cost you at least $41 per bag.

Never one to rest on their laurels, this month Ryanair has taken the “cheapo” mentality to a new level by virtually doing away with lavatories altogether.

The budget airline announced that it would remove two or three toilets from its aircraft to make room for six extra seats. Up to 200 passengers and six crew would share a bathroom during the flight, reported the Daily Mail.

O’Leary said, “We very rarely use all three toilets on board our aircraft anyway.”

But apparently he is doing us all a favor. The move “would fundamentally lower air fares by about 5 percent for all passengers, cutting US$3 from a typical US$63 ticket.” What a steal.

While not exactly a long-haul airline, they do have awfully long routes for that sort of thing (Finland to southern Spain, for example), especially when you consider that the time on board the aircraft often includes long taxi delays. Imagine a two hour flight with a two hour ground stop.

I’m flying in the Gulfstream world, where there are two lavatories for a typical 5-7 people on board the aircraft. Ryanair is expecting 200+ souls to share a single restroom, and pay for the privilege. Can you imagine the conditions on board that airplane? I’m guessing it’ll be akin to what you’d find in a poor rural village somewhere in India.

Ryanair has been skewered by many, but few hit the mark quite like this parody: