Flying Boeings and Bells was how I crossed paths with Charles Lindbergh, Mustapha Chafik, the Shah of Iran’s nephew, Mohamed Ali, Leonard Bernstein and Richard Nixon. Geopolitics and the ups and downs of the airline business played a hand as well.
Preliminary findings in Kobe Bryant’s helicopter crash tell me things haven’t changed much in over a half century. Today, as back then, instrument rated pilots flying IFR capable helicopters continue to tempt fate by pressing ahead at low altitude in low visibility. And mostly they make it to their destination! But it’s an insidious gamble, particularly in hilly areas.
It’s becoming more evident that the 737 MAX Lion Air and Ethiopian Airlines crashes implicate airplane design, flight testing, and certification. And regardless of how crew performance in these events is eventually adjudged, there’s a growing consensus that airline pilot training is an important issue that needs addressing.
In the spring of 1965, my turn came to hit the boat in the T-28C, a burly trainer with a 1425 horsepower two-stage supercharged R1820-86 radial engine and performance comparable to World War II fighters. Up to that point, flying T-34Bs and T-28Bs, we had mastered aerobatics, instrument flying, two and four plane formation and night flying.
Flying 727 shuttles out of New York’s La Guardia Airport to Boston and Washington in the 1980s and 90s was a hands-on, back-to-basics operation: steam gauges, hand-tuned VHF navs, one or two low freq ADF, no FMS and an autopilot that had to be tended to get you where you were going.
With only a few instructional hours logged, I had virtually no flying instincts. Mac, my instructor, called “power” and simultaneously shoved the throttle forward. It was all that kept us from cutting a swath through a cornfield bordering the runway’s approach end. The Cub wallowed ahead, barely above a stall, bouncing down on the grass just yards beyond the stalks.
On December 1, 1984 a remotely piloted Boeing 720, loaded with specially formulated anti-misting Jet A, was intentionally crashed at Edwards Air Force Base to determine if the fuel would preclude or suppress a post crash fire long enough for occupants to escape. It was a bold but ill-conceived experiment that went up in smoke.
Ask airline pilots where they want to be during the Christmas to New Year holidays and most say… home with family and friends! In December 1982, we split the difference; being with wives and kids, but on a 707 odyssey to Tianjin, China, celebrating Christmas Eve in a frigid airport dining room with the leaders of China’s airline, CAAC.
I was headed to Pan Am’s flight dispatch center in Hangar 14, grateful for the quick ride in from Jersey because we had a long day – and night – ahead. The year was 1989, and I was picking up dispatch papers for a 4pm 727 ferry flight to Frankfurt with a fuel stop in Keflavik.
Luxury hotels line the idyllic beach today. Forty-eight years ago, it was a bare sugar white expanse of sand and surf and the site of our crude Marine Corps helicopter base known as Marble Mountain Air Facility just east of Da Nang by the South China Sea. Our Marine CH-46 helicopter squadron had flown ashore ten days earlier.
That night in the spring of 1967 our mission was to transport about 15 wounded marines from the Phu Bai marine base, nine miles southeast of Hue on Vietnam’s coastal plain, to the hospital ship USS Repose about 15 miles off the coast in the South China Sea.
Years of crew coordination training went out the window on an unremarkable New York-Washington shuttle flight. Just as our 727 lifted off La Guardia’s runway 04 and the number three engine silently died, it was obvious that a deviation from the integrated crew response to the emergency was the best course of action.
Back in 1968 I was the relief copilot on Pan Am’s Boeing 707 Rome to New York morning flight. I was doing pre-departure checks when the purser entered the cockpit with news that Charles Lindbergh would be traveling with us in first class.