We Don’t Train For That

Gulfstream G550 simulator

The tragic Gulfstream IV accident in Boston has been on my mind lately, partly because I fly that aircraft, but also because the facts of the case are disquieting.

While I’m not interested in speculating about the cause, I don’t mind discussing factual information that the NTSB has already released to the public. And one of the initial details they provided was that the airplane reached takeoff speed but the pilot flying was not able to raise the nose (or “rotate”, in jet parlance).

My first thought after hearing this? “We don’t train for that.” Every scenario covered during initial and recurrent training — whether in the simulator or the classroom — is based on one of two sequences: a malfunction prior to V1, in which case we stop, or a malfunction after V1, in which case we continue the takeoff and deal with the problem in the air. As far as I know, every multi-engine jet is operated the same way.

But nowhere is there any discussion or training on what to do if you reach the takeoff decision speed (V1), elect to continue, reach Vr, and are then unable to make the airplane fly. You’re forced into doing something that years of training has taught you to never do: blow past V1, Vr, V2, and then attempt an abort.

In this case, the airplane reached 165 knots — about 45 knots beyond the takeoff/abort decision speed. To call that uncharted territory would be generous. Meanwhile, thirty tons of metal and fuel is hurtling down the runway at nearly a football field per second.

We just don’t train for it. But maybe we should. Perhaps instead of focusing on simple engine failures we ought to look at the things that are causing accidents and add them to a database of training scenarios which can be enacted in the simulator without prior notice. Of course, this would have to be a no-jeopardy situation for the pilots. This wouldn’t be a test, it would be a learning experience based on real-world situations encountered by pilots flying actual airplanes. In some cases there’s no good solution, but even then I believe there are valuable things to be learned.

In the case of the Gulfstream IV, there have been four fatal accidents since the aircraft went into service more than a quarter of a century ago. As many news publications have noted, that’s not a bad record. But all four have something in common: each occurred on the ground.

  • October 30, 1996: a Gulfstream IV crashed during takeoff after the pilots lose control during a gusting crosswind.
  • February 12, 2012: a Gulfstream IV overran the 2,000 meter long runway at Bukavu-Kamenbe
  • July 13, 2012: a G-IV on a repositioning flight in southern France departs the runway during landing and broke apart after hitting a stand of trees.
  • May 31, 2014: the Gulfstream accident in Boston

In the few years that I’ve been flying this outstanding aircraft, I’ve seen a variety of odd things happen, from preflight brake system anomalies to flaps that wouldn’t deploy when the airplane was cold-soaked to a “main entry door” annunciation at 45,000 feet (believe me, that gets your attention!).

This isn’t to say the G-IV is an unsafe airplane. Far from it. But like most aircraft, it’s a highly complex piece of machinery with tens of thousands of individual parts. All sorts of tribal knowledge comes from instructors and line pilots during recurrent training. With each anomaly related to us in class, I always end up thinking to myself “we should run that scenario in the simulator”.

Cases like United 232, Apollo 13, Air France 447, and US Air 1549 prove time and time again that not every failure is covered by training or checklists. Corporate/charter aviation is already pretty safe… but perhaps we can do even better.


This article first appeared on the AOPA Opinion Leaders blog.

Back to the (Supersonic) Future

Spike Aerospace S-512

Despite wars — both hot and cold — abroad and social upheaval at home, the 1960s must have been an incredible time for those in and around the aerospace industry.

Over the course of a single decade, the United States went from being unable to reliably launch a rocket (nearly half of the twenty-nine attempts in 1960 were failures) to putting men on the moon and bringing them back to Earth in one piece. In the realm of atmospheric flight, the 1960s saw the development and construction of the first supersonic passenger aircraft, the stratospheric cruising and futuristic-looking Concorde.

That was a half-century ago. I wonder, who could have predicted that the year 2014 would see the U.S. unable to launch a man into space on its own? Or that Concorde would be a dusty museum piece replaced by aircraft which lack the speed, altitude, and glamor of that legendary delta-winged craft? Anyone prescient enough to make that call would have been laughed out of the room. By 2014 we were going to be colonizing Mars!

While the march of computer technology has certainly eclipsed anything we could have dreamed of in the 60s, aerospace has, in many ways, stagnated. Visit any airport this side of Mojave and tell me I’m wrong.

Business Aviation Leads the Way

The space program has some promising “green shoots” with the Orion/SLS program and the emergence of third-party spaceships from companies like SpaceX and Sierra Nevada’s Dream Chaser. When it comes to atmospheric flight, the most exciting developments are no longer taking place at Boeing or Airbus. Over the past couple of decades, competition and market demand for ever more capable business aircraft has revolutionized that segment of general aviation. The VLJ sector has brought small, quiet, efficient business jets to market, while on the ultra-large cabin side, today’s airplanes fly higher, faster, and further than ever before.

But we’re pressing up against the limits of what’s possible through the continuing evolution of current designs. It begs the question: what comes next? I believe we’re headed back to the future. I’m talking about the return of supersonic aircraft to general aviation. Well, perhaps “return” isn’t the proper word, because GA has never had them. More like the return of supersonic passenger aircraft. There’s nothing on the horizon in that department from the airlines, but for the corporate/charter folks, there is plenty of research and development taking place.

Spike Aerospace has designs on one, and Gulfstream worked with NASA on a project called Quiet Spike in 2006 and 2007 where they retrofitted an F-15 with a 24 foot-long retractable nose spike to experiment with reductions in the sonic boom footprint. The goal was to find ways to make transonic flight possible over the continental U.S.

What's stranger than a 24 foot spike on the front of an F-15?  A Gulfstream logo on an F-15.

What’s stranger than a 24 foot spike on the front of an F-15? A Gulfstream logo on an F-15.

The Quiet Spike project has/had an offshoot called the Gulfstream X-54, which could very well be in development at this very moment. The X-54 is rumored to be an experimental stab at overcoming the challenges of domestic supersonic passenger flight.

Sukhoi also partnered with Gulfstream on a potential Mach 2+ business jet called the S-21 in the early 90s. They determined that there wasn’t enough of a market to proceed. But that was twenty years ago.

The Marketplace Is Ready

So what has changed to make supersonic flight a potential reality for passengers? After all, we’ve had supersonic aircraft since the late 1940s, and airliners capable of the feat for half a century now. A level of skepticism is understandable, especially in an industry known for physical vaporware, but I believe the elements are now in place to make this a reality.

For one thing, Gulfstream is now owned by General Dynamics, a conglomerate with deep pockets and significant experience with supersonic flight. If you were going to partner a bizjet manufacturer with organizations that could help it overcome the technical hurdles of a Mach 2 passenger aircraft, could there be any better synergy than Gulfstream, General Dynamics, and NASA?

Then there’s Gulfstream itself, which has become one of General Dynamics’s primary revenue sources. As always, just follow the money. In years past, the idea of a $120+ million corporate aircraft wold have been laughable. Airliners didn’t even cost that much. But today, Gulfstream is building $75 million business aircraft and buyers are lined up around the block to purchase them. Boeing manufactures corporate versions of the 747 and 787. Airbus has the ACJ. Clearly, price is not a show-stopper. With that in mind, maybe there is a market for a supersonic airplane.

From a technical standpoint, you can’t go much faster without exceeding the speed of sound. We are already flying around at Mach 0.9 and the G650 was dive tested to Mach 0.995, where plenty of transonic airflow must have already been present.

Profit and Loss

The primary reason I’m bullish on supersonic passenger flight now is because it makes far more sense for the corporate/charter market than the airlines. An airliner needs to make money for the owner. That’s their business, and the only reason those aircraft exist. If the jets don’t turn a profit, the airline goes bankrupt. As glamorous and enchanting as Concorde may have been, it was a money loser. And with fuel prices headed skyward faster than a ballistic fighter jet, the economics only got worse as time went on.

Corporate airplanes don’t have to make money. They aren’t profit centers in and of themselves, but rather a means to an end: a way to get more business done. Supersonic speeds would allow the transcontinental traveler to quite literally put more than 24 hours into a day. Imagine being able to hold a lunch meeting in Europe and have another one in North America on the same afternoon. Take a look at a map of the sheer number of aircraft crossing the Atlantic on a given day. It’s dramatic.

There’s another reason supersonic bizjets could work when an an airline version would not. Airliners carry hundreds of people and tons of cargo, catering, baggage, etc. A typical business aircraft might have 4-5 passengers on board, so there’s far less need for a big cabin or massive payload capability. The one thing every Mach 2 design has in common is the general shape: long and very slender. A space that would be cramped for 100 airline guests would feel far more luxurious if it was only occupied by a half-dozen businessmen. The needs of the corporate/charter market are simply a far better match for a supersonic design.

In conclusion, all the elements necessary for a successful supersonic business aircraft are in place. Now someone just has to build it. Between their Sukhoi partnership, the NASA Quiet Spike research, and the X-54, Gulfstream is obviously serious about taking the next step. They have General Dynamics’ resources, large market share, and deep-pocketed clientele.

My prediction: Gulfstream Aerospace will deliver a supersonic bizjet within the decade.

The Contract Pilot

Gulfstream G650

As much as one may love flying, it can be a tough career choice. Many pilots struggle through the food chain only to end up discouraged, if not downright hating their job. We’re all aware of the reasons: low pay, long days, little respect, too much time away from home, difficult working conditions, commuting, regulatory hassles, bankruptcies, furloughs, and ruinously expensive training.

Quite a list, isn’t it?

Ours is a small community; word gets around, and it begs the question, how many have bypassed a flying career altogether because of it? I once read a survey suggesting that most pilots would not recommend the field to their children. Of course, many vocations are in this rickety boat. Even formerly high-flying professions like physician and attorney have lost their luster. The message: “it ain’t what it used to be”.

On the other hand, life is often what we make of it. From bush flying to firefighting, there are many different gigs out there for those willing to take Frost’s road-less-traveled. For the past three years, for example, I’ve been flying as a “contract pilot” and truly enjoy it.

The Contractor

It’s kind of a generic term, since anyone who flies as an independent contractor rather than a traditional, W-2 employee fits the definition, but I’ll focus on Part 91 and 135 corporate/charter flying because that’s what I know best.

Contract pilots function as a kind of overflow labor. Operators might need temporary help in the cockpit for a variety of reasons: a full-timer is sick, on vacation, leaves the company, times out due to regulatory limitations, or is unavailable for some other reason. God forbid, maybe they ran into trouble with a checkride or medical exam. Perhaps a trip requires multiple pilots due to length or logistics.

Some companies find it advantageous to run tight on full-time labor and supplement with contract pilots since there are no annual costs for training or benefits. They only have to pay contractors when they’re actually used, so as the flight schedule ebbs and flows, they can gracefully scale their workforce up or down without the inefficiency of, say, leaving full-time, salaried pilots sitting at home for an extended period.

For the pilot, there are both pros and cons to life as a contractor.

Gulfstream G650

The Pros

  • You’ve got some control over your schedule and can decline trips. I really hate doing that, because a) I don’t want the company to stop calling me, and b) you never know when things will slow down, so it’s smart to sock away some acorns for the winter. But if you’ve got a big vacation planned or your best friend is getting married? You’re ultimately in control.
  • We can work for multiple operators, which can provide a bit of protection if the flying slows down at one company.
  • You aren’t tied to a seniority system. If you’re an experienced captain at company A, you needn’t start over as the lowest-paid right seater at company B.
  • Contractors earn far more per day than full-time employees, and therefore needn’t work as many days to reach a given income level. That means better quality of life, especially if you’re married and/or have kids.
  • Contract pilots are typically paid by the day. I might have a five day trip consisting of a flight to Hawaii followed by three days on the island before flying home. That’s five days “on the clock”. It can be a more lucrative system than one where you are compensated based on flight hours. Operators are essentially purchasing your time.
  • You’ll travel the country, if not the world. Instead of a few major airports, on larger aircraft like the Gulfstream, you’ll see places you’d never dream of. Though I haven’t been there — yet — North Korea and the South Pole have both been on the table. (Random note: Jeppesen does publish charts and procedures for Pyonyang!)
  • I always get an honest sense of gratitude from the operators for whom I fly, because by definition I’m helping them out when they really need a pilot. For example, I recently got a call from a Part 91 Gulfstream operator whose pilot broke his arm in the middle of a trip. I airlined out the same day and flew that evening’s leg to Las Vegas, keeping the aircraft on schedule.

The Cons

You knew there had to be a few, right?

  • Contractors inherit all the hassles of being your own boss. Does anyone work harder? From providing your own benefits (don’t get me started about healthcare) to paying self-employment taxes, it’s not always the carefree work-and-go-home experience of a full-time employee.
  • You pay for your own training. On a jet, the annual recurrent training costs run in the thousands. I currently allot $15,000/year for recurrent training and associated costs (airfare, hotels, food, incidentals) on my airplane. The expenses are deductible, which helps a bit, but I figure my first month’s work each year is spent digging my way back to financial “zero”.
  • You can’t control when the phone rings. That can mean short-notice trips and/or weird hours.
  • It can be hard to plan your life out when you never know what days you’ll be working. I average about 10 days a month away, so my philosophy has been to just plan my social life as usual, and make sure people know I sometimes have to reschedule or cancel.
  • Work can conflict with itself. I’ve had three operators call me for a trip on the same day. I can only be in one place at at time, so I “missed out” on two of them.
  • No guarantee of work. But then, history has shown that there are no guarantees in life or aviation for anyone, are there?
  • It can be tough getting started. As with many careers, the best entrée is knowing someone who can get you in the door. Initial start-up costs of obtaining a type rating can be a major barrier.

Gulfstream at Sunset

I like contracting because when a trip is offered I know it’s because the operator wants to use me rather than has to use me. Contracting represents some of the best that flying has to offer: adventure, interesting destinations and passengers, phenomenal aircraft, and decent pay for the work I do.

So why don’t more people jump into contracting? Awareness, for starters. Not everyone knows about this little niche. Also, it can be tough to break in to the business. You don’t have to know someone on the inside, but it certainly helps.

The initial expense is probably the largest impediment. The best compensation is found on the larger aircraft, and that means an expensive type rating funded solely by the contractor. Some pilots speculate on their ability to get work by obtaining the type before they have a job to use it on. Unless you’re well-heeled, that’s a big financial risk, but it works out for some people.

There is a rather circuitous way around the type rating burden: start off as a salaried employee and switch to contracting after a couple of years. That way the operator pays for your training and in exchange you accumulate a significant body of experience on the airplane.

FAA to the Rescue! Not.

I should note that contracting in the Part 135 world is a bit harder than it used to be. In the old days, if you were typed and current on an aircraft, you could fly for any charter company that operated that kind of plane. It wasn’t uncommon for a contract pilot to fly for several operators. A few years ago — for reasons no one has been able to adequately explain — the FAA essentially did away with that capability.

Today, a five-figure recurrent only entitles you to work for the certificate holder under whom you trained. It doesn’t matter if you’re a veteran of ten years and 10,000 hours in a Gulfstream IV; if you went to recurrent on Company A’s OpSpec, as far as the FAA is concerned, when you move to Company B you are completely unqualified to operate a G-IV on any Part 135 flight until you’ve been through another recurrent… at your own expense, of course.

At first, this seemed like a potential deal-breaker for contract pilots, but it can help as much as it hurts. Just as the change make it harder for a contractor to work for multiple operators, it also makes it more challenging for that operator to replace a contract pilot since a successor wouldn’t be legal to fly until they went back for recurrent training.

Lock and loaded

Walking the Aviation Tightrope

Contracting does have something in common with scheduled airlines: it’s not right for everyone. If you’re the type that wants a fixed schedule or has to know exactly how much your bi-weekly paycheck is going to be, this ain’t the place. In addition to all the attributes of a good corporate or charter pilot, contracting requires the ability to run a business and cope with uneven income. Some months will be fantastic. Others, not so much. Even when business is slow, though, I get something valuable: more time at home with friends and family. Like I said at the top, life is what you make of it.

But the ability to earn a six figure income right off the bat while working a relatively small number of days? For me at least, it’s more than worth it. What I want in my flying carer is sustainability, the capacity to survive on this aviation tightrope, and ironically that’s what contracting provides. I want to fly without hating it, and that means avoiding the soul-crushing schedule and monotony of many professional flying jobs.


This article first appeared on the AOPA Opinion Leaders blog.

Stockholm

Stockholm

Saint Augustine once declared that the world is a book, and those who do not travel read only one page. While I’m fairly familiar with the tome, one glaring omission in my scholarship had been the the chapter on Scandinavia. Thankfully, the wonderful world of on-demand jet charter provided a northerly flight opportunity last month, so I packed my bag and headed for LAX. The assignment? Airline to Stockholm, hang out for a couple of days, and then fly a Gulfstream to New York.

It’s a bit ironic for a pilot to admit that one of the things they like least about their job is flying, but when it comes to the aluminum torture chamber we generously call an airliner it’s most definitely true. There’s little joy in spending twelve interminable hours crammed into an economy class middle seat. It’s made worse by the fact that I got spoiled by my previous company, which would book business or first class seats for deadheading crew members when traveling abroad. I know, I know — cry me a river, right? Of course, the pay scale is much better at my current gig, so that’s a fair trade in my book. If I had to choose between putting big bucks into my own pocket versus that of some soul-crushing mega-airline, I’d opt for the former every time.

The crew pairing for this trip had me flying with a Swedish native, so I had a built-in travel guide who spoke the language, knew the town, and was excited to show off the best that Stockholm had to offer. While I only spent a couple of days there, my impressions were of a remarkably clean city, albeit an expensive one. Even with stringent rent controls, the cost of living remains about 20% higher than here in south Orange County, California.

A view of the "old city" from across the river.

A view of the “old city” from across the river.

If you’re looking to buy, it’s three to six times as expensive in Stockholm. Apartments there sell for $1-2,000 per square foot. Why so high? The capital holds about 1/5 the total population of Sweden, yet it’s 2.5 million inhabitants are spread out over a series of fourteen islands of varying sizes, so there’s not much land to go around.

The people I encountered were quite friendly and seemed to enjoy the opportunity to speak English. Or perhaps they simply wanted to preempt any butchering of the Swedish language by a ghastly American. Maybe both. Speaking of Swedish things, this may sound stereotypical, but many of the furnishings I came across in restaurants, hotels, and public buildings had the look-and-feel of an Ikea catalog. I mentioned this to a few locals and they didn’t disagree, though they were amused that I found it entertaining.

"Gamla Stan", aka The Old City, dates back to the 13th century, and consists of medieval alleyways, cobbled streets, and archaic North German-style architecture.

“Gamla Stan”, aka The Old City, dates back to the 13th century, and consists of medieval alleyways, cobbled streets, and archaic North German-style architecture.

We probably walked ten miles over two days, exploring Gamla Stan (“The Old City”) and the surrounding area. Between the long hours spend motionless in that airline seat and the anticipation of another nine hours of sitting in the cockpit on the way back, it was good just to be up and moving around.

It was rare to find anyone who wasn’t fit and trim in Stockholm. This isn’t uncommon when you’re from Southern California, but there are parts of the U.S. where it would be very hard to find anyone who was in shape. I met a fellow Gulfstream pilot there and he said that when not flying, he’s primarily occupied with doing things that keep him physically fit.

The weather was relatively warm for February, with the temperature hovering around 30 degrees Fahrenheit during the day. Stockholm’s close proximity to the water keeps the average high and low within 10 degrees (F) of one another. I was bundled up against the wind, but it was clear the residents considered this good weather. A surprising number of them were out exercising or enjoying the lovely day despite the presence of a stiff breeze and plenty of ice in the water.

One of the countless hot dog stands that dot the streets of Stockholm.

One of the countless hot dog stands that dot the streets of Stockholm.

Food is an integral part of any cultural experience, all the moreso if you’re a foodie. My Swedish crew mate was obsessed with the wide variety of korvkiosks (hot dog stands) which populate the city. He must have grabbed a ‘dog at three or four of them within a few hours! He also introduced me to a Swedish pastry called semla, a spiced bun filled with milk, almond paste, and topped with whipped cream. Traditionally it was served between Lent and Easter, but now they’re available for much of the year at local bakeries around town.

We had lunch one afternoon at Sturekatten, a quaint cafe which was more about the ambiance than the food. That’s not to say the vittles were unsatisfactory. Quite the opposite; the salmon soup was a perfect balm for the cold, windy day outside and was more than hearty enough for a meal (take that, Bania!). But the place feels like walking into your grandmother’s apartment, from the age-old furniture to the kitschy, mismatched decor. The average age of the patrons didn’t belie the feeling in the slightest. It even had that vaguely mothball-esque scent which is often found in the geriatric home.

I was introduced to semlor, a Swedish pastry which is popular around Fat Tuesday.

I was introduced to semlor, a Swedish pastry which is popular around Fat Tuesday.

The tour continued the next day with the pièce de résistance, the Vasa Museum. It was the first thing my wife mentioned when she heard I was headed to Sweden: “be sure to visit the Vasa!” The institution is built around a single object: an early 17th century Swedish warship which sank on its maiden voyage in 1628. The wreck remained underwater for 333 years before being was raised in 1961. The vessel was almost completely intact, and today it majestically rests in a massive climate-controlled building in Stockholm.

When the phrase “they don’t build ‘em like they used to” was first uttered, it may have been the Vasa they were talking about. More than 95% of what is on display is original. The secret to her survival was the condition of the water. Massive pollution killed off the wood-eating microorganisms which would normally have consumed the ship. In fact, the melange was so perfect that after three centuries, all but the most delicate objects were at least partially preserved. Sails, masts, rigging, clothing, even brain matter the skulls of those who went down with the vessel. More than just a ship, Vasa provided countless insights into how people lived during that period.

Even the Vasa's sails have partially survived their 333 years under the surface.  Amazing...

Even the Vasa’s sails have partially survived their 333 years under the surface. Amazing…

Just as interesting as the Vasa itself is the story of her preservation. Once pulled from the water, the wood began to dry out and if left untouched, it would have quickly disintegrated as the planks contracted and split. The solution was to spray the wreck with a polyethylene glycol in order to displace the water and stabilize the vessel. This spraying continued for more than seventeen years. Even today, preserving the Vasa is an ongoing challenge, one that the curators themselves will tell you is a losing battle. One display admitted that it will not be possible to keep the ship intact forever.

Our final day in Stockholm was more about resting up than anything else. As with many ocean-crossing flights, we were scheduled to depart at 11:00 p.m. and arrive in New York just after sunrise. At nine-and-a-half block hours, this flight was about as long as any you’d want to make in a G-IV unless your goal was to see how it performed as a glider. We landed with plenty of fuel, but a blown wind forecast (no pun intended) and the use of an alternate can eat up the reserve in a hurry. Of course, that’s why we carry it! The flight ended up being smooth and uneventful. I like the northern route because you spend less time hassling with the prehistoric HF radios since VHF coverage exists for most of the trip.

We handed off the aircraft to another crew, who were continuing the flight to the southern states, and retired to our hotel for a much-needed nap. I enjoyed Sweden immensely. With any luck I’ll be back soon to continue exploring the treasures of Northern Europe.

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”.