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A Few Flying Stories

And now for something completely different

Recently, I’ve had a couple of people ask me about my main job as a pilot so I thought that I’d do something a little different today and tell a few flying stories. Flying is statistically very safe, especially in jets, but you’ll have some problems if you fly enough. At this point, I’ve been flying turbine airplanes professionally for 17 years so I’ve seen a few interesting things.

I got my start as a civilian flight instructor flying single-engine prop planes. Interestingly enough, I had very few mechanical problems with these piston-engine planes, but I do recall a trip where I developed an engine problem after taking off from Williamsburg, Virginia in a Cessna 172.

As we climbed out, the engine started running rough and I could tell that it wasn’t developing full power. Eventually, it got to the point where we were at full throttle and, even though we should have been climbing, we were barely maintaining altitude. I was concerned that the misbehaving engine would quit entirely so we turned toward Newport News, which was the nearest airport at that point.

The problem with that was that Newport News was on the on the other side of the James River at that point and we were heading into a stiff wind, which slowed our progress. I was second-guessing my decision and wondering what I would do if the engine quit while we were only a few thousand feet above the river when I saw it: A fleet of ships including what appeared to be several aircraft carriers moored in the middle of the river. For a split second, I thought, this might be my only chance to get a carrier landing. A light Cessna could probably have landed safely on the carrier deck with the strong headwind but fortunately, I didn’t have to find out. The engine kept running and we landed safely and on terra firma.

It turned out that the ships were the Ghost Fleet. Officially called the James River Reserve Fleet, the ships are mothballed in the middle of the river in case they are needed for a national emergency.

Several years later, I had a real engine failure. I was flying as a First Officer for Atlantic Coast Airlines. ACA was a regional airline that contracted to both United and Delta for short-haul flights. I had just completed training on the Dornier 328 Jet and had started line training, called “initial operating experience” or “IOE,” with a training captain. It may surprise some to learn that since airliners – even small ones – are so expensive to operate, that new pilots do their initial training in the simulator and usually fly the real airplane for the first time with a load of paying customers in the back.

I was on my second day of IOE in the DoJet, fresh out of the simulator, when we took off from Greensboro, N.C. One of the worst-case scenarios that pilots train for is an engine failure on takeoff, called a “V1 cut” in the simulator. The phrase refers to losing an engine at V1, a speed on the takeoff roll where it is too fast to abort the takeoff but too slow to immediately lift off. The pilot has to keep the airplane on the runway while it accelerates to Vr, the speed where the nose is rotated upward to fly the airplane off the ground. That day in Greensboro, we got a V1 cut for real.

At most companies, the pilots alternate legs, taking turns flying the airplane while the other works the radios, programs the FMS (flight management system computer), and does other cockpit chores. The training captain was flying that leg when, between V1 and Vr, we experienced an engine failure.

In the simulator, engine failures usually cut and dried. The engine just quits and you follow the checklist. My real-life V1 cut wasn’t that simple. Rather than simply quitting, the engine temperature spiked and exceeded its maximum limit. The captain pulled the power back on that engine and found that the engine temperature was acceptable as long as the throttle stayed at idle power. Modern airplanes are checklist driven and we had no checklist for such a situation. We declared an emergency and ran the checklists that we thought appropriate to set the airplane up for a landing back at Greensboro. Ultimately, we landed safely and were told that the hot section of our turbofan engine had come apart and left pieces on the runway.

I found out later that the engines in the DoJet were notoriously unreliable and short-lived, something that is uncommon for jet engines. ACA was replacing the Pratt & Whitney 306Bs at an alarming rate. Ironically, years later I flew a Citation Sovereign corporate jet with an updated version of the engine, the 306C. By that point, Pratt had apparently gotten the bugs out of it because I flew the Sovereign for more than 1,200 hours with no engine problems.

I flew the Dornier for about a year until I was furloughed (laid off) amid the airline bankruptcies of the mid-2000s. The company lost its contracts with its mainline partners and tried unsuccessfully to become a low-fare carrier as Independence Air. The company went out of business in 2006.

A third big emergency took place several years later when I was working for a fractional jet company called CitationAir. Fractionals are an aviation timeshare company in which people and businesses buy shares of corporate jets. Their share entitles them to a certain number of flight hours per year.

At the time, I was flying a Citation X, the fastest civil aircraft in the world. We had just taken off from Westhampton airport on Long Island (where I once saw then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton as she boarded an air force Gulfstream jet) when we got an EICAS (engine indication and crew alerting system) message that we had a hydraulic failure on the plane’s “A” system.

The X has two separate hydraulic systems and, naturally, the one that we lost was the important one. The A system contained the “gear, steer, and whoa” items, the landing gear extension, the nosewheel steering, and the brakes.

Many people think being unable to extend the landing gear is one of the worst things that can happen in an airplane, but it’s really not a big deal. Jets are built with lots of redundancy and there are plenty of backup systems to lower the wheels. In many airplanes, alternate extension is as simple as removing the up-locks that hold the landing gear in their bays and letting gravity drop them into place. In our case, the X had a pneumatic bottle that used nitrogen to blow the landing gear down.

In our situation, the bigger problems were the inability to steer the airplane on the ground and loss of the main brakes with their anti-skid systems. We would have to keep the airplane straight on the runway without the primary nosewheel steering and use emergency brakes to stop. Without the anti-skid, blowing a tire was a possibility if we weren’t careful. To make matters worse, the checklist imposed a penalty of about 3.5 times the normal landing distance when we used emergency brakes. This meant that we would need a runway about 10,000 feet long.

Again, the other pilot happened to be the flying pilot on the leg so it was my job to run the checklist for the emergency. As I mentioned earlier, in an emergency, modern pilots don’t rely on memory except for a few specific, time-critical situations such as fires. In most cases, the procedure calls for looking up the emergency in a thick, emergency/abnormal checklist book. In this case, the hydraulic failure affected so many systems that the checklist was pretty extensive. It helped that we had practiced the situation in the simulator at FlightSafety International.

We decided to divert to Stewart/Newburgh, N.Y. An air force C-5 Galaxy transport squadron is based at Stewart so they had a long runway. They also had a Cessna Citation Service Center where we could get the airplane fixed easily. We notified our company dispatcher as to what was happening as well as explaining to our passenger that he would not be landing in Chicago, then set up the airplane for the landing.

As we landed, the other pilot braked us to a stop on the runway since, without nosewheel steering, we couldn’t turn off onto a taxiway. A pneumatic backup gave just enough control to keep us on the runway.  I vividly remember sitting on the runway surrounded by airport fire trucks as we waited for the Cessna employees to hook up a tug to tow us to the service center. When we got out of the airplane, the fuselage was covered with hydraulic fluid from a line in the nose wheel bay that had ruptured. The system pressure of 3,000 PSI had emptied the hydraulic fluid from the entire system within seconds.

The company diverted another airplane to Stewart to pick up our passenger and so that he could continue his flight with a minimal delay. Exceptional customer service and quick backups if there was a mechanical problem were part of what he was paying for.

These were three serious incidents from almost 30 years of flying, but life-threatening problems are usually few and far between. For the most part, the drive to the airport is scarier than anything that happens in the air. That was especially true while I was based in Houston!

My flying career hasn’t turned out the way that I intended. In the beginning, I planned to be an airline pilot just as most other people looking at aviation careers do. September 11, the airline bankruptcies, and the Great Recession changed my plans and nudged me towards a career in corporate flying. While it wasn’t on my radar (pun intended), flying business jets has been a fun and rewarding career that allows me a lot of time with my family and a lot of time for writing.

But how I got to this point is another story.

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