I was a 900-hour Part 135 DC-3 copilot, working for Kitty Hawk Air Cargo out of Dallas/Fort Worth, based at Willow Run Airport in Ypsilanti, Michigan. It was my first commercial pilot job, and I was in aviation heaven. I’d come over all the way from Ibiza, Spain, where I lived, to build my hours to eventually head back to apply for the Spanish airlines.
Little was I to know then how aviation would absorb my life for the next 26 years, but that is another story, a story about the world of short-, medium-, and long-haul world-wide flying in everything including the DC-3, Bae ATP, Fokker 50, and Falcon 20, B 737, A 320 and 330, not to mention the VLJ Embraer Phenom 100.
It was winter 1990, and heavy snowstorms blanketed the whole East Coast of the United States. We had just landed N302SF back in Willow Run after a five-day stint flying all over the country, including a shipment to Peterborough, Canada, battling ferocious winter headwinds and night IMC approaches to innumerable slippery, uncontrolled fields to deliver overnight FedEx and UPS packages, and charters carrying car parts for the likes of Ford and GM.
Later that day, sitting around in our rest area with my captain, Mark, and our chief pilot, Tej, shooting the shit and sipping crappy coffee, Tej told us he had come unannounced from Fort Worth to ferry 302 back to Meacham Field for scheduled maintenance. He told us we had four days off, maybe six days at the most.
I jumped at the chance to go to Spain, deciding right there on the spot to jumpseat that evening to JFK and then jumpseat with Pan Am or TWA to Madrid. It meant a short visit with my wife and son.
I had not been home for nearly a year. To say my family lived a sacrificial existence was to put it simply. This wasn’t quite as simple as driving across the state of Michigan. But hell, I was young. I packed a small kit and got on a Delta flight out of Detroit Metro to Dayton, Ohio, where I hoped to jumpseat on the first flight to JFK.
Killing time in Dayton while waiting to board the Pan Am flight, I sat talking with a Pan Am 727 first officer, also jumping to New York. We got so involved in our conversation we missed the boarding call over the airport’s PA system.
When I realized suddenly the boarding gate hall was empty, we ran over to the boarding gate and convinced the agent to let us in and barely made it on board. My heart was thumping. Damn! It was close! As we approached New York we had to divert to La Guardia. The stress was unbearable. Tick tock, tick tock. We jumped in a taxi and drove through snow-collapsed New York to JFK.
Heavy snow was falling at JFK. I only had about 20 minutes to make my way through the confusing maze of terminals to reach the Pan Am flight dispatch office, locate the aircraft and crew flying to Madrid and pray for their sympathy to take me.
Short of breath and totally stressed, I reached dispatch and asked for the captain of the flight to Madrid.
“Crew’s already left for the plane, son,” a sympathetic elderly dispatcher informed me. “They’re at gate 141.”
I grabbed my bag, thanked him profusely and ran, trembling with fear I might not find the gate on time.
I ran madly through the hallways, up then down, left then right, back-tracking when I took a wrong turn. If I missed the flight to Madrid, then I might as well turn around and head back to YIP. Finally, I saw the gate. Phew! Boarding had not yet began.
Flashing my company Kitty Hawk ID, the gate agent politely gave me access to the Madrid-bound 747. Those were the days before extreme vetting. I said hi to the flight attendants in the doorway and explained my situation, climbed the stairway to the upper deck and walked forward to the stunning cockpit.
The crew were briefing the flight. I noticed a fourth person beside the two pilots and flight engineer. I waited for a lull and the captain looked back at me.
“Hey fella!” He greeted me, and then continued, as if reading my eyes and mind. “If you’re looking for a jumpseat, sorry, but this is a line check flight. No jumpseaters.” My heart sank.
“But, hang on,” he said. “The guys next to us are going to London. Maybe try them?” He got on the company frequency and got the other captain’s attention.
“Hey Steve, got a jumpseater DC-3 pilot here, needs to get over to Europe. Can I send him over?” A minute passed and I wiped my sweaty brow. The captain broke out in a smile.
“Get your butt over there, kid! He said it’s ok, he’ll let ya tag along.”
He wished me luck. I thanked him, telling him I’d likely need it, and tore down the stairs and out of the plane and raced over to the identical Pan Am 747 destined for London Heathrow. I was so stressed I could hardly speak. All I could think of was getting home. My nerves were shot. The thought of having to go back to YIP, and not using the four days to see my wife and son, was devastating.
I reached the cockpit door and stood in silence while the crewmembers briefed the flight. Steve, the captain, was an old geezer with pure white hair and a thin body. The three were huddled in deep conversation. I had to force myself to keep my mouth shut until they finished. I knew better than to disturb them. The tension was overwhelming. If Steve turned me down, I’d have to go back to Michigan. A major blow. No, please no!
There was stony silence. It was now or never. I’d been rehearsing my opening speech since leaving Metro, but I went blank. I felt instant panic. They stared at me, waiting. I just had to talk my way to London. What happened next still astounds me.
“Afternoon, ladies.” I blurted out. What the hell did I just say? My heart fell to my feet. Why in the world did it occur to me to use those words? Of all the stupid things I could say.
There was a weird moment while they looked at one another in disbelief. Oh God, could I have screwed myself in a worse way? I’d surely get my butt kicked out of the flight deck and off the plane. Ladies? I was red-faced with embarrassment.
To my utter surprise, the three flight crew broke out in hysterical laughter. I was leaning against the cockpit entryway, feeling a total ass. The captain got out of his seat and came up to me, a big smile on his face.
“Hey kid, just relax,” he said. “Man, what a great line! Haven’t heard something like that in 42 years on the line. Get comfortable, you look like you need a rest! Want a coffee or something?”
What? I could hardly believe my luck! I exhaled a breath of relief. I was going to make it to London after all!
Getting from London Heathrow to Barcelona was my next headache. In Europe they practiced a very different approach to jumpseating, much more complex than in the United States. But I was on my way, and I absorbed the pilots’ every word, every action taking place in the front office of that magnificent 747.
We took off, climbing higher into the winter night for the nine-hour crossing. I must have fallen asleep because when I woke up, we were in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. The flight engineer and co-pilot were snoozing. Steve was flying. He was an inspirational figure. The old geezer, in all respects, reminded me exactly of my old Pan Am Clipper posters depicting a middle-aged, seasoned, blue-eyed pilot, with peppered hair neatly cut beneath his hat with its coveted scrambled eggs on the bill, with Pan Am wings spread proudly across his breast pocket.
Steve carried that look of confidence and professionalism I hoped to achieve someday. I was in awe of the sky god. He ordered coffee and told me he was retiring after the return trip to JFK. He’d flown everything – US Navy fighter pilot, 38-year veteran at Pan Am. He’d had enough of hotels and funky time zones, claiming that at his age, the challenge and fun were basically gone. He was looking forward to retirement. Said it’d be at least a year before he ever left his ranch outside Dallas.
But boy, he loved the DC-3. I told him all about my Part 135 cargo-pilot lifestyle as a bonafide freight dog, and how much I missed my family. We shared story after story until overhead Ireland we started our descent towards London, still a long way off. The copilot was awake by then and he was a funny New Yorker.
London ATC was flooded with in-coming flights. Weather was low, with light drizzle and fog. Steve flew steady, as if driving his pickup on Sunday at the ranch for all the effort he seemed to apply, his grip relaxed on the yoke. The copilot handled the radio and had a bitter exchange with a controller over his strong accent. A deep Scottish accent.
“Yeah, well you guys ought to learn to pronounce English properly. I’m American, and we speak English.” I admit I was embarrassed by the exchange.
“Copied Pan Am XXXX. Guess that sums it up, eh mate?”
Before the copilot could reply, Steve shushed him.
“That’s enough. Not a good time to get into a discussion.”
We were cleared for the ILS. Steve flew precisely on the localizer and glideslope. The rain called for wipers and as they swept back and forth we caught occasional glimpses of gray ground and square buildings. The runway appeared above minimums and Steve planted the jumbo firmly on the wet tarmac. He reversed the engines and we shuddered and swayed as the giant plane decelerated. I looked at Steve. There wasn’t the least sign of effort on his face. He took the tiller wheel and we soon parked. I was in London!
Now, getting to Barcelona and on to Ibiza and my waiting family was ahead, but nothing would stop me!