Who’s in command?

Back in 1970, I was furloughed from my job as a First Officer with a West Coast regional airline. With the help of a friend, I located a flying job back in the Midwest. It was Captain on a G1 and I had been flying an F27, which shared a good deal in common with the G1.

During the interview the chief pilot made a statement that he had never canceled a flight for weather and he stated that if he hired me he expected me to do the same. I remember thinking that I had flown in some pretty tight weather situations and didn’t expect that to be a problem. What I didn’t allow for was that I was used to following the rules like an airline pilot. It turned out, he was looking for a cowboy, who thought it was cool to say they never canceled for weather.

Gulfstream G1
The old Gulfstream is a great airplane, but it’s not invincible.

For the next two years, we flew in some of the most unsafe, dangerous, difficult conditions I have ever flown in. I remember telling my friend who had helped me find the job that I felt safer flying in Vietnam.

The flight that taught me a hard lesson about being in command: on this particular trip, we had taken a senior executive, his wife and eight-year old daughter to New Orleans so they could visit with their son at his college. My boss (the chief pilot) took his wife on the trip and the two of them were going to party. He flew us down, I would fly us home.

On departure day, I arrived at Lakefront Airport a couple of hours early to get everything ready for the flight. When I checked the weather, the forecast was for a fast moving squall line to hit Milwaukee at about our scheduled arrival time. Weather was calling for a squall line. Thunderstorm heights in excess of 70,000 ft, hail, heavy rain and extreme turbulence. Visibility one-half mile in rain and fog.

When everyone arrived, I briefed my boss on the arrival weather and suggested that we might have to consider landing short in Chicago or Racine and put our passengers in a limo while we waited for the line to go through. His reply was a grunt and a look that made me realize he wasn’t very impressed with my suggestion.

The trip was completely routine until we got about 200 nm from MKE. We had a great Collins radar that had a 180 nm range. As we got within 180 miles of MKE, the squall line painted a solid line of thunderstorms completely across the scope. I started trying to talk my boss in to going to Midway or Palwaukee. He basically ignored my comments and, about that time, Center gave us a lower altitude of 12000, and then down to 8000 feet and handed us off to approach control. By now we are well within 35 miles of MKE. The squall line was right over the airport. I could see the greenish tint of the roll cloud indicating hail. MKE Approach had us sequenced right behind an Ozark DC-9 who was also landing at MKE.

Approach cleared Ozark to 5000 feet, direct to the outer marker and cleared for the approach. Ozark had just entered the roll cloud and was getting a terrible ride. They replied to MKE approach that they were going to stay at 8000, on the heading they were on, and as soon as they got through they wanted a vector around the east end of the line and then back to Chicago. At that point, approach control called us and said, “Gulfstream 1234G (not the real N-number), will you accept 5000 ft, direct to the outer marker, cleared for the ILS approach?”

Squall line cloud
If it looks bad, it is.

By then we had entered the roll cloud and were getting the wildest ride I have ever had. At that point, I wasn’t about to do a 180. I had my hands full just staying right side up. I motioned for my boss to accept the clearance, cinched up my seat belt, put on the thunderstorm lights and disengaged the autopilot.

As soon as we entered the storm, we got into hail. I have never before or since experienced so much noise. Hail is much louder than heavy rain. The noise was truly a cacophony of sound. There was no way to communicate except sign language.

As if the wild ride and overwhelming noise wasn’t enough, the “autofeather system” kept trying to shut down the engines. As we were pulling negative g’s, the engines would lose suction in the fuel system and as one engine started to flame out the system would begin to autofeather.

About that time, we’d get positive g’s and the engine that was trying to feather would relight. Then we’d hit another negative g situation and the other engine would try to autofeather. It was dark outside and the autofeather pumps, and warning lights were flashing to the point that it looked like a flying pin ball machine. Of course every time an engine relit, we’d get a power surge. Our track must have looked a little strange as we were yawing from side to side as engines failed and then relit. I wasn’t too concerned about that as I was plenty busy staying right side up.

We broke out at about 300 ft and landed in a driving rain storm.

Not a word was said in the cockpit. I taxied to our hangar and shut down both engines. Our mechanics hooked us up and pulled the airplane into our hanger. Neither of us said a word. My boss’s wife came up to the cockpit and told us about how the little girl was sitting next to her and she kept popping out of the seatbelt and my boss’ wife would grab her and pull her back into the seat and tighten the seatbelt even more. As our passengers were getting off, the little girl said, “Mommy, my legs hurt from that seatbelt.”

Neither of us said a word for the next minute or so. I was considering telling him what he could do with his job when he said, “I don’t know about you, but I can’t stand up. My legs are shaking.” I assured him that mine were as well. I also told him that I would never enter another squall line and if that was a problem, he could find another pilot. I seem to remember putting in some of the language that we used in Vietnam. He got my message!

In 42 years of flying, that is still the flight that I remember most. I don’t ever want to have another flight like that flight, but I am grateful for the experience.

5 Comments

  • Wow and wow again! Remember that scene in the film ‘No Country For Old Men” where the old store owner/clerk finally relents and serendipitously chooses heads over tails (or whichever one it was), thereby saving his life unknowingly? You’ll probably never know just how close you came to buying the farm that day – with innocents on board… I understand; I’ve done things like that too. But as the saying goes: “Time and experience make the best teachers.” Those of us who are fortunate enough to still be here can only lower and shake our heads in amazement at our prior recklessness. And that’s exactly what it all was – carelessness and recklessness. Glad you made it through.

  • Thanks Dave. A perfect example of why this series is so good, we get to learn within having to experience what you did. I flew a Westwind with an old guy who said the same thing, “it doesn’t matter if you check the weather because we’re going anyway” He took the fact that he was still alive as proof that that was a good SOP.

  • Never did that; close.ive walked away a few times…flying jobs never lasted long for me for that very reason.however,I’m still alive to share my experiences with students and would be airline pilots

  • Dave, it never ceases to amaze me how many pilots there are out there who have many thousands of hours of experience, but they still have attitudes like the one you described with that chief pilot. Many of them give lip service to being a safe operation, but they really don’t know enough about weather to know when they are safe and when they are not. And they won’t listen to someone who does know. The problem comes when they hold a position of autority over other pilots who are not willing to look them in the eye and tell them to go jump. Back in those days we didn’t have XM weather for enroute avoidance and we were doing good if we could get a picture on the weather channel before departure. So sometimes we ended up with attenuation on night flights or on longer IFR flights with unforecast conditions, so many of us from that generation know exactly what you are talking about.

    I’ve never been in combat where someone was shooting at me, but a mature thunderstorm will cower even the most battle hardened soldier if he has one working nerve left in his body.

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