You could consider me an old pilot, having retired from airline flying nine years ago at the mandatory retirement age. I still am an active pilot: I’ve flown to Oshkosh three times since retirement. Twenty-two logbooks are filled with 22,775 hours of flight experience, type ratings in two, three, and four engine jets plus a flight engineer, turbo-jet powered rating to fill out the training regimen over 54 years of aviation experience. I got to this station in life by constantly learning to fly from professionals, too many to mention by name.
Original flight instruction for me was with civilian flight instructors. Later, some instructors were fellow crew members. Others were the writers of aviation stories and theory of aviation from the early days to today. My first familiarization flight was way back on 10 June, 1968. As the examiner said to me upon my earning my Private Pilot certificate, “Remember, this is just a license to learn.”
I’ve been learning ever since. I have still yet to have the “perfect flight;” some flights have come close but there was always that one mistake, the one error, mostly quickly caught and corrected. Still, the ever-elusive perfect flight is a primary goal. Of all the fellow pilots and instructors who came and went over the years, there was one in particular that I can see in my mind’s eye. For our purposes, let’s call him George.
Everybody liked George. Everybody that flew with George respected his abilities and performance. He was funny, he was serious, he was an old warrior, having flown bomber missions in the Mediterranean theater during WWII. He was the “old man,” our “graybeard” pilot, even though he had no beard, his hair was gray among a crowd of dark haired youths. And here he was still flying with a bunch of 20-somethings, dropping tidbits of knowledge in stories that usually began with,”I remember when…” Everyone would stop and listen until his stories ended, with either a good laugh or with a bit of wisdom of something to avoid or to include in aviation life.
We 20-somethings—well, there was a few over 30 to be completely honest—were about 15 pilots hired to fly the bank checks and mail, with am FAR Part 135 cargo outfit based in Oakland, California. It was a grown-up paper route. You would be in bed by 22:00, up at 04:00, at the airport by 05:00, airborne with cargo by 06:00, done flying by 08:30. Go to the company provided motel room or condo in the company car, get some sleep and something to eat. Then reverse the process and return back to Oakland in the evening, retracing your route home.
It was a great way to learn how to fly a “line job.” No more flight instruction, which was sometimes called “one hour but a thousand times.” No, this was real scheduled flying, single pilot IFR, cross country, across mountains, day and night, winter and summer, each season bringing its own difficulties. We flew single and twin engine Piper aircraft, configured strictly for cargo: all the seats except the front two were removed and the cargo area thus enlarged. We flew the singles in the valley and the twins over the mountains. They included the PA-28 Warrior, the PA-32R Lance, the PA-23 Aztec, the PA-31 Navajo and Chieftain. This was real flying. I loved it.
Most of us pilots had around 1000 hours of flying experience when hired, mainly gained by flying that 1000 hours one hour at a time, flight instructing. Our goals were to continue to fly and to continue to fly bigger things, airplanes that you could walk under without bending your head or crawling. It was flying rather well equipped airplanes: all the twins had de-ice equipment (boots, hot props, window heat plates) so they could fly over the Sierras and Tehachapi Mountains during the winter.
Anyway, George had his run and would only fly that one run, mainly because he was the most senior pilot and could bid any run the Oakland division base of the cargo outfit had (there was another base in Burbank). His run was flying an PA-23-250 Aztec from Oakland to Ukiah and then continue on up the coast to Eureka’s Murray Field. He flew this run Monday through Friday, rain or shine. We always had bank holidays off, which was pretty neat, except for the pilots that flew the night runs down to Burbank and back to Oakland. I think he just liked the area—he certainly knew every hill and peak, every valley and knob, between Oakland and Eureka after flying that route for years.
George had a unique aura, self-assured, almost cocky way, maybe because he knew his lifetime of experience had seen him through some hairy things. He had seen it all. We all knew he could fly the pants off the rest of us—he could keep the needles centered shooting an ILS to minimums with just finger tip flying, the airspeed never moving more than a few knots from Vref. He treated his airplane like it was his baby and if you got to actually fly his bird on his rare day off, you had better be sure to leave it exactly the way you found it: radios pre-tuned to ATIS and ground control, navigation radios tuned and set for the departure from Oakland, passenger seat belt attached “just so” to the right yoke holding the control surfaces against the prevailing winds off the Bay. Even the seat distance from the panel had better be as George liked it or you would sure to get the “old man” in your face the day he returned, asking pointedly who had messed with his airplane.
One night when I was wearing a dual-hat role of evening dispatcher, a thick fog bank rolled over the Oakland airport and soon the taxi lights 50 yards away could hardly be seen. I tuned the office radio to the ATIS for Oakland and found the field had gone WOXOF (indefinite ceiling zero, sky obscured, visibility zero in fog). Of course every inbound pilot would have learned the field was closed, well below minimums, and would plan to divert to Hayward Airport, only about six miles further south of Oakland. I advised the ramp manager to radio all the drivers, who would pick up our cargo and deliver it to the proper destinations, to not come to Oakland Airport but go directly to Hayward Airport to meet our aircraft there. Hayward was our listed alternate airport in our center stored flight plans.
As I was planning on how to get to the Hayward Airport in order to meet the airplane I was to later fly that night down to Burbank, I heard a twin engine airplane taxi onto our ramp in the dark and shut down. Thinking it was some general aviation pilot who was lost due to the limited visibility, I walked out onto the ramp to instruct this wayward pilot he would need to leave. To my surprise and shock, I saw it was George! He was busy unloading his Aztec and leaving the bags of cargo near his cargo door as usual, and the totally empty ramp space indicated he was the only pilot and plane to get in.
“George, how the hell did you get in? The field’s been closed for 15 minutes,” I asked.
George stopped what he was doing, pointed to the approach end of runway 15 and said, “The approach to runway 15 is still in the clear. I just followed the estuary up and turned final and landed.”
“But George,” I exclaimed, “How the hell did you get clearance to land?”
He again stopped what he was doing, looked at me as if I was totally clueless and said, “If I can’t see them, they can’t see me.”
I stood there, flabbergasted, and watched as George finished unloading his aircraft, secured the controls, tied the plane down, grabbed his flight bag, and began to walk into the office to go home. I followed, not knowing what the hell to say. I knew I had to somehow get the driver for George’s load to now come to Oakland instead of Hayward to complete my dispatcher duties. I was upset that George made more work for me, but was somewhat amazed at his brazen flying. That was George for you—old and bold.
Another anecdote showing George’s ability to “make the run” was relayed to me from another pilot. George was due to take vacation and was checking out another pilot during the summer months. Now those of you familiar with the West Coast know the marine layer is a near constant summer occurrence along the coast: a fog bank 800 to 1500 feet thick and usually starting about 800 to 1000 feet AGL.
Murray Field in Eureka, California (EKA), at the time had no instrument approach, so when the marine layer was in, the procedure was to shoot the ILS into Arcata, California (ACV), that lay ten miles further north, and land. This made the delivery of the cargo late for up to two hours while the drivers relocated to Arcata, picked up the cargo and then drove back to Eureka.
This pilot relayed how George would do it instead. Listening to the ATIS at ACV while en route to Eureka from Ukiah (UKI), George would learn how low the ceiling and visibility was at ACV or if there was a ceiling at all. He then descended early and made a touch and go at Kneeland Airport (O19) that lay well above the top of the marine layer. While rolling along the runway at Kneeland, George would set the altimeter to the field elevation 2745 ft (now he had a “local” altimeter setting), pour the coals to the engines and take off again, turning sharply left. He would leave the gear down to head to the Fortuna VORTAC that sits at sea level about 2.5 miles from the coast. Tracking the 280 degree radial, once overhead the Fortuna VORTAC, George would reduce the power while trimmed to 120 knots and descend at 1000 feet per minute into the top of the marine layer heading out to sea.
Needless to say, this pilot getting checked out wondered, “What the hell have I got myself into?”
Pretty soon, the bottom layer of the overcast appeared, the coast was still ahead and George turned north to follow the coast while under the overcast and over the water. After two minutes, George pointed to the smoke stacks that extended 310 ft above the ground and extended the first bit of flaps. Passing the smoke stacks, George turned landward over Arcata Bay and there lay the runway 12 at Eureka! George landed as if nothing untoward had occurred and taxied to the ramp.
After this example of airmanship, George would make sure to go to the competition’s business locations and mention, that, “If you used our company, your work would be here now.” Pretty bold if you ask me.
Okay, now every aviator know how this is going to end, right?
George killed himself on a Tuesday morning, July 31, 1984. He flew a perfectly good airplane into the terrain somewhere between Ukiah and Eureka in VFR weather. Why? How?
George was being George, flying extremely low over his route “inspecting” what was occurring on the ground at that time. There was a Campaign Against Marijuana Plantations (CAMP) action on the ground using helicopters and ground support to raid a golden triangle of Mendocino County marijuana grow operation. The officers involved reported they could see George as he flew down the valley, looking at them out his left window—he was that close.
What George didn’t see was the tree and rock that extended from the far right side of the valley that George managed to stick between his fuselage and right engine. The post impact fire consumed George, his cargo and his baby airplane.
We all liked George, we all learned stuff from George, and his last act of instruction has stayed with me all this time: don’t be like George!
In aviation, you need to always be learning; if you don’t learn something after every flight, you’re not paying attention. The attention that George lacked on his final flight was diverted elsewhere, the flicker of regret I’m sure he experienced should instruct us all.
An old and bold pilot does not exist.
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