Scottsdale operations called: “I have scheduled you on a ten-day South American tour with Elton John starting on the 17th. Find another captain to go with you. Elton’s agent wants an additional pilot besides Ernie.”
I interrupted, “Why?”
“The agent said he wants to see two people with some white hair in the cockpit.”
Apparently, he had done some homework. Did he know Ernie, my usual copilot, was a young fellow? Had he checked Ernie’s resume and wondered how such a young fellow had accumulated his many flight hours? Did he know some pilots have been caught accumulating hours via a P-51? (The P-51 is an airplane but some young pilots with many hours have been caught using a Parker 51 pen instead!)
I would rather have had someone my age with whom to spend ten days rather than spend them only with Ernie. Ernie had little experience, yet thought he knew more than pilots who had forgotten more than Ernie knew. He knew how to bend company rules. One policy was to not request signatures of passengers. On a flight with Michael Jordan, Ernie, after a stroll down the aisle of the plane, came back into the cockpit proudly displaying Michael’s signature. When questioned, his response was, “It’s for a friend, not me.”
I began the trip with Ernie and Keith, the second captain about my age, traveling to La Guardia Airport to pick up Elton and his partner and friends for a South American concert tour. Our first stop was for an evening concert in Bogotá, Colombia, and then a night flight over the Amazon to Rio de Janeiro. Rio would be our base. Every afternoon we left Rio for a capital in some other country, waited in the airplane or at a local restaurant during the concert, then headed back on an overnight flight to Rio. It was the same drill every day: sleep in the mornings, off to some South American country in the late afternoon, wait for the late concert to end, have a midnight departure to Rio, and back to bed as the sun was rising.
Flying from Rio to Santiago, Chile, was eye opening. On the way we studied the published Standard Terminal Arrival Route (STAR) for Santiago. Why stay at the published 17,000 feet before turning on a long final? How are we going to get from 17,000 feet to an airport at 1500 feet in such a short distance?
After a few calculations, we determined our steep rate of descent. We could see the beautiful, snow-covered Andes peaks poking through the clouds. As we followed our clearance to descend to 17,000 feet, we entered a cloud layer. We broke out below the cloud layer as we leveled out at 17,000 feet. We were in a valley. Off our right and left wing tips were mountains that extended way up, into the clouds. Obviously the 17,000-foot restriction was there for a reason. Granite is unforgiving.
It reminded me of flying into an airport in the Canadian Rockies one dark night in inclement weather. The sky was a clear blue the next morning. There were tall mountains everywhere, and I wondered how we ever made it in to the airport. It made a believer out of me that published STARs and controllers’ instructions need to be followed to avoid being imbedded in “granite clouds.”
Some passengers “decorate” the airplane cabin according to their lifestyle. With Elton, the cabin had gay magazines and newspapers scattered throughout the cabin. On a Led Zeppelin trip, I saw a number of black-looking miniature coffins on the window ledge. You guessed it, with athletes there were sports magazines.
We ended the tour by dropping off Elton and his entourage in Atlanta. On our deadhead back to Scottsdale, I reminisced.
I was a first-generation kid from a poor immigrant family, dragged by my older brother to my first day of school as I cried, “I don’t want to go to school. I don’t know a word of English!” How did this kid from the boonies of Vancouver Island end up flying the Cadillac of corporate aircraft, a Gulfstream, cruising in the mid 40,000s above most storms and airliners?
I continued to reminisce.
I had flown passengers such as President Reagan, visited with secret service guards who arrived an hour before the flight and surrounded the plane with all kinds of vehicles, and more guards once we landed. On one occasion, after the escort seated President Reagan, while I was in the cockpit programming the computers, I heard a “ding-dong” and noticed a white light flashing in the cockpit. It was someone from the cabin calling. I looked down the aisle and saw that the flight attendant had not returned from operations to get the catering. The first officer was supervising the baggage loading, which left me to attend to the call. As I approached the President, who had just opened the Sunday newspaper with the comic section spread out on his table, he said, “Captain, I think I pushed the wrong button.” He meant to push the light button to read the comics.
It was hard not to laugh and respond, as I thought, Was it you or some other president who pressed the wrong button on a tape recorder in the Oval Office?
Then there was Whoopi Goldberg, the white-knuckled traveler. I flew her to the West Coast at night after she visited the White House during President Clinton’s administration. With the slightest ripple of the plane she would rush into the cockpit and grab each pilot’s arm tightly exclaiming, “How long is it going to be bumpy?”
As soon as the plane smoothed out, the grip would loosen. Then she’d tell us a raunchy joke and eventually return to the cabin. This happened numerous times on the flight to Los Angeles.
There were also the times when, as on a trip with Charles Barkley, the flight attendant would say, “May I sit in the cockpit for a while? Charles just went into the lavatory and every time he comes out it’s with his pants around his ankles before pulling up his shorts!”
On a night flight with Frank Sinatra from Albany, New York, to Palm Springs, California, all the passengers were sleeping. The lights in the cabin were out. It felt like someone was standing in the open cockpit doorway. Just as I turned to look, I saw Sinatra turn around, and head back into the cabin. One time I caught him before he turned around and said, “Aren’t you getting any shut eye?”
His response was, “I’ve walked all the way home from Australia!”
Sinatra couldn’t be blamed for being a nervous flyer. After all, his mother died when the crew departing Palm Springs flew into a “granite cloud.” All on board were killed when they crashed into a mountain. Not following the published Palm Springs Standard Instrument Departure (SID) or STAR procedures is hazardous to one’s life, and ruins airplanes.
In the Los Angeles area, especially at the Van Nuys and Burbank airports, were are at least 100 Gulfstreams and other aircraft available for charter flights. There are also many agents who act as go-betweens between the potential customer and charter companies. Tour groups, celebrities, politicians, and others contact the agents. They select a few charter companies, asking for bids, and then arrange the flight based on the cost, company, but mainly their previous experience with the charter company. Being employed by aircraft management companies in California and Arizona brought me into contact with many celebrities.
I flew Jack Nicholson on a tour of Europe with Sean Penn, as well as Phil Michelson and Tom Weiskopf to various golfing tournaments. I flew the King of Malaysia on a business trip to various countries in Africa. Many singers chartered our planes. I flew Rod Stewart, Neil Young, Dolly Parton, and the Pearl Jam rock group to singing venues. Lionel Richie was one of my favorites; he couldn’t give me enough compliments after every trip.
Movie star Joe Pesci, whom I visited with in his home after a flight, had to call a security company to unlock his trophy room. Joe let me hold his Oscar and had his security officer take a photo of the two of us, with the promise he’d send me a copy. It never arrived, so on a following trip, I asked him about it. He said, “Oh, I threw it away because your eyes were closed.” Even his $1000 tip didn’t make up for the loss of that photo!
The crew and I listened to the sad story of Pesci’s daughter, who had not developed mentally. Prior to Joe becoming an actor, his infant daughter had a high fever. He was so poor he didn’t have medical insurance. When Joe’s daughter was taken to hospitals they were turned away because he didn’t have the $300 to have her admitted. As a result, her brain was damaged and it was difficult for her to communicate or understand, as an adult of about 40 years old.
Others I flew were Sylvester Stallone, Andrew Lloyd Webber, Chris Tucker, and Janet Jackson. The Led Zeppelin group had a one-hour-plus discussion with an immigration officer who didn’t want to let them off the airplane in Toronto. I flew Pat Robertson, Prince Faisal, Prince Andrew (Duke of York), Sandra Day O’Connor, Pat Sajak, Charles Keating, and some cardinals of the Catholic Church from Rome. There were some who traveled under a name other than their own. Then there was the time we flew empty from Los Angeles to Paris to pick up a fellow and take him to Las Vegas while another G-III from our company picked up another man. Two Gulfstreams flying empty to Paris, each to pick up one executive from the same company in France. Both were scheduled to give speeches in Las Vegas but were not allowed to fly together.
Sometimes I wonder how I ever landed such an amazing career. By watching small airplanes take off and land as a kid on Vancouver Island, feeling, oh to be free and fly like a bird! Later on, seeing contrails from jets in the sky? Or from stopping to watch airplanes take off and land at a grass strip in New Holland, Pennsylvania?
Back to reality, we are getting ready to land at the Scottsdale airport so I better stop reminiscing.
- A lucky pilot: flying celebrities around the world in a Gulfstream - December 8, 2020