Confessions of a freighter pilot
“How many hours do you have on a Learjet?” the twenty-six-year-old captain asked his new co-pilot.
The chief pilot had his reasons for sending these young crews on these old freighters. I wanted them to not only be able to fly with a part of the instrument panel that was not working, but they could also fly with a part of the aircraft that was not working. Deferred maintenance was the standard and not an exception. He wanted his crews to experience flying high-altitude thunderstorms without working radar. I wanted them to fly through exhaustion and fatigue and fire perfect focuses when all they could think about was sleep.
“Get a taxi clearance, will you partner?” Donnie asked his new co-pilot. Donnie was all pilot. All pilots prefer to fly before doing anything else. He commanded this Lear for two weeks and was already a hardened veteran of freight transport.
“Donnie, we are over gross weight,” the copilot said as he finished the weight and balance paperwork. “Those boxes are full of ball bearings.”
The jet was staying close to the runway and as soon as the DC-9 on the runway was in the air, it would be its turn.
Donnie checked his figures. There was no doubt that the plane was too heavy. If he opted to roll back and unload the extra weight, he could lose his takeoff window and, in the morning, he could be replaced by another captain starving for hours. His racing career was at stake. He looked at his copilot who was waiting for instructions. He also knew that their lives could be at stake as well.
“Tell them we’re ready.”
“Torre San José, the Freight 807 is ready to take off,” said the copilot through his boom microphone.
“Load 807, Torre San José, cleared”.
“807 is rolling”.
They were flying to Denver to meet three other Lears, a DC-9, and from the past, a copy of Sky King’s plane, the legendary twin-engine Beech 18.
“Get on,” the copilot yelled as old Lear started down the runway. “Steering. Pressures look good. Hydraulics are good. V1. Turn. The plane stayed on the ground. The copilot looked at his captain friend who was struggling to get the nose of the plane off the runway.” Turn Donnie! “
The track was slipping away faster than any of these drivers had ever seen. They should have been in the air 500 feet earlier, but this Lear wasn’t ready to fly. It was devouring the runway at over 145 knots. The red lights at the end of the runway looked like huge floodlights aimed at them as they raced towards the end of the runways and the holding bay.
“Load 807, do you have a problem?” yelled the tower controller. He had seen many Lears take off at this airport, but he had never seen a Lear use most of the runway. His finger hovered over the fire department alarm button. “Damn, those guys won’t make it,” he told another controller.
“Help me do it,” Donnie asked his eager co-pilot. As the two yanked on the yoke, old Lear finally released his death grip on the ground and rose heavily into the air.
“Tower 807 is fine,” yelled the copilot.
“Roger 807. Contact the outlet now.”
Both pilots sat in silence as the plane soared into the night sky. Donnie flew out and his co-pilot made all the necessary radio calls, completed the post-takeoff and climb checklists, and completed the paperwork. I knew that if the FAA found out about this, they would probably be waiting in Denver to review the paperwork.
“Close huh,” said the co-pilot as he looked at his young captain with a shy smile. “Are you lucky or are you good?”
“Do you think airline pilots fly under these circumstances?” asked his co-pilot.
“Hell no.” Donnie replied. They have unions and attitudes. “What do you think? Left or right?” Donnie asked as he pointed to the front windshield on top of the storms lighting up directly in front of them. The copilot narrowed his eyes and tried to see the top of the storms. A black mass in front of lightning could indicate a large cell that they could not see. The radar wasn’t working and it was an old one-color green system that wasn’t that great anyway.
“Okay, tell them they left,” Donnie said.
“Denver Center, Freight 807 would like to swerve left, of course because of the weather.”
“Load 807, Denver Center, that’s approved. A United went through an area at their 10:30 position with no problems.”
Donnie turned the Lear to the left as far as the driver suggested. He would fly by hand using two fingers at 43,000 feet and even in turbulence, he would keep the aircraft within 100 feet of its assigned altitude. Donnie had a great touch. Without a working autopilot, it had to have a great touch.
“See anything?” he asked his co-pilot who was scanning the skies like human radar.
“Nothing,” replied the copilot. “God, I wish we had a moon.” They could see the monstrous storms when the moon rose. Without a moon, it was fair to guess that it was keeping them out of the center of a stormy mountain with as much energy as an atomic bomb. Thunderstorms weren’t the only threat in this part of the country.
“Donnie, have you ever been in severe clear air turbulence?”
“Once,” he replied. “Over Salt Lake. It shook the whole plane and almost upset us.” Both pilots had great respect for the invisible waves of wind in the air. “It was on us and it was over in about ten seconds. Really something.”
The co-pilot said nothing as he turned on the radio to listen to the Denver airport weather and began to write down what he heard. Moderate snow. Visibility of half a mile or less. The breaking action on track 35 to the right is still good. Light cross wind to the right.
“Freight 807 contacts Denver Tower on the scoreboard, one night”.
“807 Roger, ga night.”
“Denver Tower, Freight 807 is on the inbound outside marker on 35 on the right.”
Charge 807, Denver tower, Roger. Keep getting closer. Number two. United 7330 cleared to land.
Less than a mile separated the two planes, but there were big differences in the captain’s pay. Donnie made about $ 22,000 a year. His United 737 counterpart earned more than $ 100,000 a year. Both were heading to the same track under the same conditions. United were down and clear of the track. It was Donnie’s turn.
“Approach lights at twelve o’clock, visualize,” yelled his copilot. Donnie had flown the approach to precision and the proof came as he looked out the windshield. Directly in front of the windshield and clearly visible through the blowing snow, was the rabbit’s light guiding them onto the runway.
“Nasty night, guys,” said the freight forwarder as Donnie and his copilot entered the freight company shack. His plane was already being unloaded and the cargo was recharging on the DC-9 bound for Dayton, Ohio.
“Has the Beech 18 gone up?” Asked one of the other drivers.
“Not yet,” replied the freight forwarder.
“That 18-year-old is not going to make it tonight,” said a young Lear co-pilot confidently as he looked at the falling snow. “We got our teeth knocked out when we ran into the front. If you try to blow up that old bolt bucket here, it’ll bring more ice than cargo. I bet they turned around.”
“Five dollars say they make it,” was the quick reply from one of the station agents.
“You are in.”
The radio began to crackle in the background. They could hear the ground controller giving Beach 18 clearance to roll onto the loading ramp.
The crisp old pair of pilots laughed when the young jet pilot asked them how they managed to fly the old plane through all that mountain turbulence, ice and snow.
“Tonight was a bit difficult,” the 18-year-old captain said as he smiled and took a six-hour sip of coffee. “My copilot looked to the right side and saw a moose looking at us. For a minute, he wasn’t exactly sure which canyon we were in. I almost collided with a semi-trailer along I-25 on the way here.”
The crews soon made their way to the crew’s motel. Mexican cuisine and hamburgers. A very dimly lit bar. Worn mattresses. A perfect place for freighter pilots.
“Did you hear that Delta is hiring?” said a pilot as everyone sat at the dimly lit bar eating a taco.
“Yes, but they only hire Air Force athletes,” added another. “I think I’m going to try to move on with that new Federal Express team. They go places.”
“Federal Express! All they have is those three old Falcon 20. It’s no different than this.”
“Hang on, man. Eastern and Pan Am are going to hire in a couple of months,” added another pilot.
“I have a friend who just got along with Frontier. Does anyone know what’s going on at Western?”
“You remember Scott, the Falcon 20 guy who used to come here? He took a break and went on with that new People’s Express airline. Employees own a huge chunk of it and I heard they have a ton of instant millionaires. Some people may you have all the luck “.
“Hi Dave,” asked one of the Los Angeles pilots. “How old are you?”
“Thirty-two,” he replied as he looked up from a plate of tacos and cold refried beans.
“Man that’s too bad. You don’t get a chance to get along with an airline at that age. Thirty is the maximum.”
As soon as the crews gathered at the bar, they left. If they were lucky, they could sleep five hours before the crew bus was ready to take them to the airport and departure at five o’clock.
“Sweet dreams of a better job, buddy,” his co-pilot said as he tapped the old pillow in a way that might help him get some sleep. “You have paid your debt tonight.”
“Good evening,” Donnie said as he continued to log the flight into his journal. When he got to the comment section of the log book, he stopped and looked at his new co-pilot now asleep. He looked at his log and jotted down a word. Lucky.
There was no doubt that both of them were on this trip.