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”.

Airline Pilot or CFI?

This brilliant sketch manages to encapsulate my daily life as a CFI in the wilting summer heat. At 8 a.m. I’m Dean Martin. By 8 p.m., I’m Foster Brooks.

Yes, it has quite a familiar ring to it, right down to the part about running an an hour and forty three minutes late for the next flight.

Going Around

I see go-arounds all the time at John Wayne Airport.  And not just with general aviation aircraft. 

The big runway is only 5700 feet long, so there’s not much room for error, especially with some of the larger transport airplanes that fly into the airport.  For example, FedEx sends a fully loaded Airbus A300 jumbo into Orange County each day.  As far as I know, that is the largest airplane to land at SNA.

Anyway, the Southern California geography gives us a semi-permanent inversion layer, and it’s typically accompanied by a slight windshear at that altitude.

Of course, sometimes that shear is stronger than others, and a few days ago I watched 6 airliners go around in the space of 30 minutes.  One of them was a Southwest 737 which turned final about 1.5 miles out with what was probably a 50-55 degree bank.  He did his best to drop down to the runway, but was fighting a strong tailwind that didn’t abate until around 600′ AGL.

Those of us in the area were razzing him pretty badly.  Someone said “$5 he doesn’t make it”.  Another chimed in with “I’ll put ten on it” and I piled on with “count me in for fifteen bucks”.  Eventually he started the go-around, and I keyed the mike with one final shot:  “If he was a tailwheel pilot I’m sure he would have made it…”.

It was all in good fun.  I think Southwest got the final laugh, though.  A few minutes after his aborted landing, a different Southwest jet was slow to cross 19L and I had to do a go-around of my own.

That’s Entertainment

Most corporate aircraft have no identifying marks on them at all because the company doesn’t want competitors knowing where their executives are going.  They even go so far as to have their N-number blocked from sites like FlightAware.

But not all companies are like that.  KFC, for example, used to have a corporate airplane at SNA.  I’m not sure if it was based here or just came into Orange County frequently, but it always seemed to be on the field.  This thing was a beauty, a Challenger 604 painted in red and white striping.

Unfortunately, the clean lines were marred by a giant Colonel Sanders logo on the tail.  Also, the 604 fuselage has a wide diameter, but it’s not very long.  So between the paint scheme and the logo on the tail, the airplane was essentially a giant KFC chicken bucket turned on its side.

One day, just for kicks, I walked up the airstair door, knocked on the side of the plane, and with the straightest possible face asked the pilot if I could get an bucket of Cajun chicken “to go”.

He got a kick out of that, laughing heartily for about 5 seconds before pointing at the airstair and telling me to get the hell off his airplane.  I descended toward the tarmac while uttering my parting shot:  “They warned me that the Colonel made a mean bird…”