“Laughter And Heartache”

Greetings folks, First of all, a sincere wish for a Happy New Year to everyone! Secondly, here’s hoping that any recovery from the residual trauma of the holidays is coming along nicely. It’s too bad (IMHO) that as we get older, most of us lose our sense of innocence and joy for that time of year. I vividly remember one Christmas finding a big, red fire engine under the tree, and the rest of that day was spent in little boy heaven. It seems a bit sad that we see those once magical days through older eyes.

A personal note before the next “Logbook” entry.

As that big, sparkly orb touched down in New York City the other night, I sat wondering just what the next 365 days have in store for this weathered old aviator. About a month ago, I awoke to a strange medical issue and as of yet, the dudes in the long white coats don’t really know why. It’s not life threatening (so far as I know as this time), but it is serious. The good news is that (in most all cases) it reverses itself, the bad news is the cause leaves a ton of questions unanswered (with regards to the FAA, my career, my future, etc).

My faith, my family, my friends, and my love of aviation in all its forms (“real” and virtual”) will get me through this. However, as I think ahead to that night just a shade under a year from now (when I find myself again counting down the last moments of another calendar), will I still be a pilot employed by a major U.S. airline? As the previous “Logbook” entry noted, I’ve been down this road many years ago, and it’s not pleasant. It’s a long trip full of sleepless nights, blank stares, and lots of unanswered questions. But as I’m fond of saying, “life is a journey”, and if my journey as a pilot is finished, then I thank God for a most unbelievable trek through the skies.

I’ll keep ya in the loop. Here’s the tale…

“Laughter and Heartache”

Aviation is a wonderful thing, but at times it can be nothing less than a schizophrenic mistress. Some of the most outrageously humorous things I’ve seen have been in and around aircraft; and conversely, some of the most sad and tragic. While paging back through my old flying logbooks, I stumbled onto the following stories.

To start on a humorous note, we’ll travel back to a time when life seemed to be more simple and straight forward. There was no such animal as the internet (oh my God), Ronald Reagan had been elected barely a week hence, and it looked like the hostage crisis from the other side of the planet might be coming to a conclusion.. The date is November 9th, 1980, and yours truly has just been blessed to fly as an honest to gosh airline captain. OK, maybe not for a major airline, that wouldn’t come for another 14 years, and although it was just for a “commuter” (or as they’re known nowadays; a regional), it was nonetheless a rather big deal in my life.

The aircraft was the venerable Model 99 from those great folks at Beechcraft; basically just a B100 model King Air, but without the usual “airliner” amenities like an autopilot, pressurization, a flight attendant, a cockpit door, etc.. She was configured to seat 15 passengers, but to me it might as well have been a 400 passenger Boeing 747. The training was done in the middle of the night, for we had no simulators, and the aircraft were far too busy during the daylight hours to pull off the line. The checkrides with the FAA went very well, and now on this very date I was to finally be in command of an “airliner” filled with trusting souls. It was a big day for me, I was paired with a very competent First Officer, the weather was beautiful, and I was as ready as I would ever be…now, all I needed was to just do it.

December 20, 2000 (3)
(Newly minted “Capt. BBall”. 30 years and 30 pounds ago…lol.)

I was tasked to fly the “second shift” that day, and it was looking to be a long day in the cockpit. We were scheduled to leave my home base of Fayetteville, Arkansas at precisely 1:10 pm, fly to Little Rock, Memphis, back to Little Rock, up to Fayetteville, then to Kansas City and finally return to Fayetteville just before midnight. I reported in early (just like that first day of Kindergarten), and walked down to the flight line feeling a bit nervous (hoping my jacket with the “new” four gold stripes on the sleeves didn’t look too obvious). Again, nervous, but ready to tackle whatever the day had in store. However, something important to my day was missing….N749A, the aircraft I was scheduled to fly. Before leaving the Flight Operations Building heading for the flight line, I had checked the computer to see if it had left Ft. Smith enroute to Fayetteville, and it showed it had indeed left the gate on time.

Odd…Ft. Smith lies roughly twenty minutes flying time due south of home base, and after doing the math, I expected the bird to be landing about the time I had walked the 500 or so yards to where it would be parking. It was nowhere to be seen. Being both puzzled and concerned with their tardiness, I checked the “crew orders” to see who was flying it inbound. Here the mystery began to unravel a bit, for in command of this ship was the “other” new Captain on the block, “Tony”. He wasn’t a bad pilot, more like he had a bit of a black cloud following him around (that and the fact that he was kind of a “nervous Nellie”). Couple the two, and it left him with the tag of “unlucky”. He and I went through Captain upgrade training together, so I got to see his operation up close and personal, and at times it wasn’t pretty, but then everyone has a bad day every now and then.

Time was really starting to tick by. My F/O showed up, and we both began to ponder what was happening. How could Tony leave the gate on time, and now almost an hour later STILL not be here? Had they suffered some mechanical difficulty? The weather was “severe clear”, so that wasn’t a part of the problem. Heaven forbid the thought, but had they gone down somewhere? I was on the phone to our company flight controller (our version of an airline’s dispatcher), and both he and myself were getting very concerned. At about this time, I looked up to see that beautiful red and white, twin turbine touching down on runway 34….I was relieved to say the least, but I was still curious as hell. What on earth would cause an airplane to take over an hour to make a :20 flight?

Company procedures for this machine dictated that upon reaching the parking spot, the Capt. would shut down the left engine, leaving the right one running at idle, using the residual thrust to balance the weight of the passengers deplaning from the aft left door. The First Officer would make his way back through the cabin, open the aft door, deplane, and assist the passengers as they made their way down the airstairs. Well, this day Tony was doing things not at all according to our SOP.. I noticed that when they came to a stop he didn’t secure the left engine, nonetheless the F/O opened the door, made his way to the bottom, and began to assist the passengers. I was fairly close to the aircraft, and when the F/O looked at me, I pointed to my watch to signify a WTF?; all he could do was roll his eyes (and try to yell over the noise of the Pratt and Whitney PT6’s to tell Tony to “shut down the left engine!”….Tony wasn’t hearing him). The F/O was having a devil of a time fighting the prop wash, and as each and every passenger got deplaned, they were fairly blown off the steps. I noticed they were all mumbling something about a “moron, idiot, jerk, etc”…I noticed something else….something very different for most passengers. Many of them had their hands and sleeves covered in dirt and grease, and they weren’t looking pleased about it! What the hell had happened?

When the last person had deplaned and was walking toward the terminal, the F/O fairly launched himself back up the steps, went forward to the cockpit, shut down both engines, then got his kit bag and deplaned. He looked mortified….or was it pissed off…I couldn’t tell.  Here, the mystery began to unfold.

Beech 99big
(I truly loved flying the Beech 99.)

He explained that upon taking the runway for departure down in Ft. Smith, Capt. Tony began his “nervous Nellie” routine and started to fiddle with the “condition levers” on the throttle quadrant. For those of you that have never flown a turbo-prop aircraft, the condition levers are roughly the equivalent of the mixture controls on a recip powered aircraft. For takeoff these are positioned in the “full forward” position, but for some reason Tony had decided it was time to “adjust” them. Somehow he inadvertently moved them far enough aft to SHUT DOWN BOTH OF THE ENGINES! Yep, you read that right, he’s sitting on the runway, take-off clearance received, and he shuts down both engines. According to the F/O, in the process of restarting one of them (remember all the aircraft radios are on, transponder on, landing lights on, etc., so in other words he’s a bit “overdrawn” on the battery now with no engine generators online), he ran the frikken battery dead! Keeps getting better.

They now find themselves on the runway, both engines shut down, and a dead battery which means no way to tell anyone, like the ATC Control Tower. I’m pretty sure we did not cover that scenario in Capt. upgrade training (maybe we did and I just wasn’t listening). So I guess he did the only thing he could think of at the time….gotta move this machine off this active runway, but how? Well, we got an F/O, and about a dozen “able bodied” passengers in the back. You got it, “folks, this is your Capt. speaking, it’s time you got off your big fat asses, get out and push this baby off the runway!” (Probably not what he said, but I couldn’t help myself). So that’s what he did. He somehow got all the passengers to deplane, and then he steered while those that could push did! At about this time in the story, the First Officer was about to boil over at the retelling, so he just shook his head and marched off toward the employee parking lot.

I made my way up the stairs and headed for the cockpit. I found Tony still in his seat, staring at his lap, and pretty much just in “la la land”. I helped him pack up his stuff, went through the “shut down and securing checklist” with him, then generally just herded him off the aircraft and pointed him toward the Flight Operations Building (I’m sure he was going to have a bit of explaining to do). I guess somehow at that point, I realized that no matter what my “first day” was to throw at me, it was gonna be a breeze compared to that….I did spend most of the day just chuckling at the image of a dozen businessmen pushing an “airliner” off the runway…hehe.

As mentioned above, it seems that for every “rib tickler” that the world of flying machines throws at you, it always brings you back to earth with a big dose of reality. On this particular day in 1976, I was a twenty year old student living in Oklahoma attending an aviation college….life was good. I was working on my Commercial License (this entailed a ton of solo flying, which was ALWAYS better than flying under the microscopic eyes of an instructor), and was also working part-time washing and waxing the universities aircraft. I was bicycling the ten or so miles to work everyday after class (I didn’t own a car until my senior year), and generally thought that nothing in life could be better.

As I made my way down the two lane blacktop highway to the airport, I noticed lots of traffic headed for the airfield….then that nightmarish vehicle raced past….an ambulance. A horrible feeling hit me square in the gut, “Oh shit, someone’s crashed” I thought. Unfortunately, that horrible feeling would prove to be right. As I got to the buildings at the flight line, I noticed a group of vehicles at the end of the runway 17, including the ambulance. I asked the first person I came to, and they said there had been a mid-air collision. It was the horror that we all feared at this little airfield, for we had no ATC facility. All traffic was strictly just a “do it like the book says, report in the blind over the unicom frequency, and keep your eyes OUTSIDE the cockpit at all times”. So far it had worked like a charm, this time it hadn’t.

(Sectional chart showing my home field…KDUA.)

This accident was a tragedy in the truest sense of the word (all accidents are tragic, this one just seemed more so somehow). It was a Friday, and one of our students that lived in Dallas, was flying his Grumman American AA-5 into town to continue his flight training, thus fulfilling his degree requirements. At the same time, at an airport about twenty miles away (just across the border in Texas), a group of airshow pilots were practicing for a show that was to be held that weekend. As fate would have it, we were the only airport in the area that sold 80/87 octane avgas, so lots of the airshow guys were flying up to top off their tanks.

The student (who was an acquaintance really, not an actual friend) had entered the traffic pattern from a 45 degree heading to a downwind at the correct altitude (just like the book said), had reported over the unicom frequency (by the book again), had turned a base leg, turned final (reporting both over the radio), was suddenly hit from above by something, spun into the ground and died….simple as that…but by the book. It seems that one of the airshow hotshots had flown over the field above pattern altitude, flown an irregular traffic pattern, pulled the nose of his Pitts Special aerobatic machine sharply up, entered a multiple spin descent with the intentions of recovering a few hundred feet above the ground, and land. You can see what happened. As he was in his “airshow mode” spinning descent on the final leg, he spun right into the Grumman. Lady Luck was smiling on one aviator this bright sunny day, for he was able to recover and land safely. I’ve often thought however; was he lucky or not? He would have a lifetime to think about how his little “airshow” had cost another person their life. In shock, I made my way to the crash site, but I won’t tell you what I saw. Thank you “Mistress Aviation”, one more dose of reality in a long line of many.

The next “giggle-fest” I’ll retell also took place at the “commuter” airline. For some strange reason, I was paired many times with brand spanking new First Officers for their first few weeks on the line; but for this day I drew one of the “old head” F/Os. He was one hellava good pilot, and just happened to be my old college roommate and lifelong friend. Oh, did I mention it was New Year’s Eve 1980, AND (I swear) there was a full moon? Have you ever decided NOT to go out on New Year’s Eve because you just didn’t want to mix it up with all the “amateur” drunks? Well, in this case we had no choice.

It was nearing the end of a very long day. Buzz (real name Steve, but he gained the moniker “Buzz” in college after returning from many a solo flight with grass hanging from various parts of the landing gear and fuselage) and I had already flown six legs (apx. 6+ hours in the air). Before we could take this horse to the barn, we had to fly from Memphis to Springfield, MO, then the 30 minute or so flight to Fayetteville. Sounds pretty simple…. yeah right, remember the “amateur drunks” I talked about? As the passengers filed out to board the Beech 99 as flight 485 in Memphis, I could tell that something was bothering Buzz. Finding myself rather busy in the cockpit being as vigilant as I could be with “civilians” around the aircraft and the right engine running (we pulled the same residual thrust trick enplaning that we did deplaning), I didn’t get a chance to recon who we had drawn to fly with us on the flight to Springfield this winter evening, but you can bet that Buzz noticed. As soon as he had the door closed, and was seated in the cockpit, he put on his David Clarke headset and began to give me the rundown on the characters for this little “ship of fools”.

7 Bill
(My dear friend Steve “Buzz” Baker [R] and yours truly on a charter flight during those crazy 1980s…sadly I would lose him to cancer a few years ago. I miss him to this day.)

He started by again, confirming that somewhere in the universe there was indeed a full moon. We had drawn about a half a dozen “daredevils” to accompany us this New Year’s Eve, and I’m not sure any of them were completely sane. First up on the our manifest were “the sisters”. Seems that they were in their mid teens, were identical twins escorted by Mom, and obviously weren’t seeing the same I-Max movie that the rest of us were. His exact statement was something to the effect of, “when they filed past me at the boarding door, they looked at me like I was DINNER!”….not good, probably too many viewings of “The Silence of the Lambs” (shudder). Next we had the two or three redneck/truck driver types headed home for a day or two, your usual young couple trying to not be too terrified, and then we had HIM. He had to be in his late sixties, had the requisite “John Deere” tractor hat on, the big “won this at the rodeo” cowboy belt buckle (I sure with some sort of excrement still on his boots), cussing and bitching the whole time about who knows what. He got on last, sat in the last row of seats, and off we went. As we taxied out, I snuck a quick peek through the curtain into the cabin, and muttered “ol’ Lordy, it’s gonna be one of those flights”.

After an uneventful departure we climbed into an incredibly clear, star filled night sky. N8099R was humming like only a well functioning flying machine can. Memphis Center was quiet and accommodating (they had already given us a radar vector for a direct routing for Springfield), and life was looking very good indeed. Then it started. Someone, not really sure who but I have my suspicions, had boarded with their own libations, and was proceeding to pass the jug around and get a BIG start on that time honored tradition of getting “butt faced drunk” on the eve of a new year.

I’ve never been a fan of mixing airplanes and alcohol, especially unsupervised, but at this point all I could do was get on the P.A. system and advise them to hold off on their little celebration until after we landed in Missouri. This didn’t go over too well, in fact I think that even the “sisters” told me to “eat feces and expire” (or something to that effect). The farther west we flew, the more toasted they became. EVERYONE in the back of the plane was getting pretty drunk, especially Cletus (my new name for mister personality that boarded last). He was becoming very loud, and seemed to be directing his tirade at us in the cockpit. I pulled back an earpiece on the headset to hear just what he was pontificating about….it went something like this: “Why I was a tail gunner in a B-17 back in the BIG ONE, and I’m gonna come up there and kick your two young asses and show you how to fly one of these things!” Great, apparently Cletus was not your basic “happy drunk”.

December 20, 2000a
(The view that “Cletus” may have had…only at night and much more blurry.)

At this, Buzz gave me the “ok, Boss, what we gonna do now?” look. As I saw it, we had two choices, either wait until he made good on his threat (and whack him in the head with the fire extinguisher), or get this bird to a higher altitude and try and put them ALL to sleep. “Hello Memphis Center, Skyways 485 requesting higher”, “Skyways 485, you’re the only airplane over northern Arkansas, what would you like?” Again, we were unpressurized, so we had to either stay below 10,000, or for anything higher for more than 30 minutes, we had to be on oxygen…..which we didn’t have. “Memphis Center, Skyways 485 requesting 12,000 for about 20 minutes”, “Skyways 485 climb and maintain 12 thousand feet, let us know when you want to descend”. Great, just hope it worked like the books said it would.

To make a long story short….it worked like a charm. By the time we got to altitude, and started our gradual descent back below 10K, they were all off to dream land. I would guess the “sisters” were dreaming of a “Buzz dinner”, the truck drivers were dreaming of home (anyone’s home), the young couple….let’s not go there, and Cletus? I’m just guessing he had “visions of Flying Fortresses dancing like sugarplums in his head”. I also bet that noggin of his was pounding just a bit as he woke up on short final into Springfield…..happy NEW YEAR Cletus!

Gordon Shattles is (and always will be) my favorite flight instructor, bar none. He was a few years older than us in college, married with lot’s of kids, and was in the mid ‘70s a true “geeks geek” (he actually wore the black horned rimmed glasses, and had a pocket protector with about four thousand pens in it)….but he was one incredible flight instructor. He would spend hours with us peering over Jeppesen approach plates, Low Altitude Enroute charts, SIDs, STARS, etc, and all at his dinner table (you know what a home cooked meal is like for a bunch of college kids?). Everything we needed to learn the nuances of breaking out of the confines of being a VFR only driver, and becoming a “real pilot” with that coveted Instrument Rating in one’s pocket. And he was damned good at it. For anyone that’s ever gone through any formal IFR training, it’s like learning 1) a new language, and 2) how to fly all over again, only this time within a gnat’s ass of BEING PERFECT. It’s difficult to say the least, but with the right person in the right seat teaching you, it’s also a huge amount of fun.


(VOR/DME approach to runway 35 at my home field. Gordon taught us this new language.)

I’ll never forget one flight he and I took during my IFR training. It was an early Fall evening, when the Oklahoma air just before sunset is smoother than a baby’s bottom. Gordon and I had been in the Cessna 172 for over an hour doing the usual things…holding patterns, basic airwork, NDB approaches, etc (all flown by me while wearing “the hood”, a plastic device you fit over your head such as to make only the instrument panel visible to the student). At this point Gordon began to give me “vectors” to line us up for a straight-in approach to our runway 17. He relayed that I was doing so well, that he was going to give me a “simulated” ASR approach (this is just like in the movies where the ATC guy gives you headings and rates of descent to fly an imaginary localizer and glideslope all the way down to an altitude whereby you look up, see the runway and “take over visually”, usually about 100-200 feet above the ground….tons of fun).

As we neared what I thought would be our “decision height”, he said to stay under the hood with these words (I’ll never forget them)….”you’re landing your 747 at Heathrow, it’s just gone “zero-zero” in the fog….so you’re gonna take this all the way to touchdown”….I remember asking him if he really wanted to do this. He just calmly gave me SMALL heading changes, SMALL rate of descent changes, and within a few minutes….wham, a fairly soft touchdown on the runway….ALL UNDER THE HOOD. Now I couldn’t decide if this guy was totally crazy, or the best damn instructor I’ve ever seen. The only thing I DIDN’T like about all of this, is that he continued to give me headings to have me taxi to the gas pump STILL under the hood (remember Heathrow was “socked in”). Well, my buddies were working the gas pumps and I think they all got a Texas-sized giggle out of watching me taxi up with that big white plastic thingy strapped to my head.

The Mistress we all loved (and hated) would not favor Gordon for long. His young life came to an end a few years later over my hometown skies of Dallas, Texas. He had taken a job flying a Cessna Conquest turboprop for a small corporation, and I’m quite sure was doing a super job as their pilot. On this day, he had filed his IFR flight plan, had departed into one of the busiest air corridors in the world, and promptly collided with a student on his first solo cross country. This person had inadvertently wandered into the DFW Class B airspace (back then it was still known as a TCA), was on a VFR flight plan, but wasn’t talking to any ATC facility whatsoever. So Gordon, his passengers, and this student pilot came together at exactly the wrong place and exactly the wrong time in the vast Texas skies. There would be no survivors. Again even though he was operating by the book (I’m absolutely sure he would do it no other way), FATE was the hunter this day, and my instructor and good friend paid the price.

An addendum to the first story. Roughly a year had passed since my first day as a Captain at the little airline, and I had completely forgotten about the “pushing the airliner” incident. I was in Memphis between flights one afternoon, so after lunch I was spending a few peaceful moments before my next flight gazing out of the terminal window daydreaming. Within a few minutes, I noticed a group of people strolling past my six o’clock. They seemed to be there meeting “grandma” who had gotten off of one of our flights, and as they passed behind me, all I could hear was the old lady saying, “Yeah, that’s right, the last time I flew this airline, we all had to get out of the airplane and help PUSH IT OFF THE RUNWAY!” I started laughing so hard I almost spewed my Coke…thanks Tony, I needed that.

’til next time…


4 thoughts on ““Laughter And Heartache”

  1. Thanks for sharing these Bball. You have certainly had a lot of interesting experiences, both funny and sobering… I’m looking forward to reading more as you keep adding them!


  2. Pingback: “A Tale of Two Steves” | BBall's Logbook

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