I’m still not on flying status with the airline, so that leaves tons of time to do things like this (and bug the heck out of the wonderful “Mrs. BBall”…poor woman). The problem that’s keeping me from the cockpit (diplopia) seems to be getting better all on its own (as the doctor advertised), and “if the good Lord willing and river don’t rise”, I’ll be back to work in a couple of months (or sooner hopefully).
This next tale was born of a suggestion (always open for those…IMHO, some of my best topics were hatched from another brain).
We all remember our firsts.
From the immature things such as a first “love” (Laurie R. in elementary school…first kiss too…lol), to the first purchased automobile (1969 Pontiac Firebird), the first job (paper delivery boy Ft. Worth Star-Telegram), to the serious and earth moving events. Wonderful things like a first child (James and Barbara came in a packaged deal with my amazing wife Debora), to the inevitable and heartbreaking first death of a loved one (my dear sister when I was 27). We are all blessed with “firsts” in our lives, and my professional world is not immune.
After a terrific suggestion from a friend concerning the subject matter for this entry (thanks again Todd my good friend and fellow Texan), I began to let the ‘ol memory banks wander back in time to some of the pinnacles of my aviation career (the faded brain cells ably assisted by my old Logbooks…lol). He suggested that I scribe about some of the “firsts” in my aviation journey….events like my “first solo”, and “first solo cross country”. I immediately liked the idea, for you see, my friend Todd is in the early stages of his flying adventure, so his sky story has just begun. However, as I began to ponder my own “firsts”, I quickly realized that a 42 year history of a life spent as a birdman (mostly for hire) includes far more initial events than the two he offered; in fact, they’re almost too many to mention. I’ll offer two that stand out…
My first flight as a brand new airline captain, and my first solo flight as a Student Pilot.
As the hotel van left the parking lot that quiet Sunday morning, the sun was just beginning to rear its ugly head on the eastern horizon. Sleep had not come easy the night before, and after besting the alarm by almost an hour, it was obvious that coffee would not be needed to get me going. The six weeks of ground school and simulator training had been successfully completed, the five day trip with a “Check Captain” had gone well, and now it was time to prove my mettle as a commercial aviator. The date was the 5th of June in the year 1994, and I was to fly my first line trip as an airline Captain.
The last time I had “captained” a commercial flying machine was approximately 11 years past, and back then it was on a small turboprop “commuter airliner” that held a grand total of 19 trusting souls. Today would be a vastly different experience in many ways. The ride would be one of commercial aviation’s iconic inventions from those wunderkinds at Boeing, the 727-251, or “3-holer” as we knew her in the business. It was not only a complicated airplane (a crew of 3 pilots, with almost nothing being automated), but also a supreme joy to fly. She’s been called everything from “sexy” to “beautiful”, and many have said that she appeared to be going “Mach 1” just sitting motionless at the gate. I had to agree.
(The amazing Boeing 727.)
She offered one hundred and forty-six passenger seats, again was crewed by three pilots (Captain, First Officer and Flight Engineer), employed three flight attendants, had a range of roughly 2000 miles, and was able to cruise just under the speed of sound, six miles above Mother Earth in living room comfort. By comparison with today’s fleet of uber fuel efficient jets (thanks to a mix of composite materials, engines with the thirst of a camel, and cockpit technology that allows maximum aviating bang for your buck), the 727 was the equivalent of the Ford F-150 to today’s Honda CRVs. What she lacked in finesse and fuel efficiency, she more than made up for in raw power and strength. I’ve seen some of nature’s worst weather from all three cockpit seats on the 3-holer, and more than a few times it had me sitting ramrod straight and being very much “in the moment”, but I never lost sight of the fact that I was in a Boeing jet. The old adage, “If it ain’t a Boeing, I ain’t going” rang true to many an airline pilot during her time in our skies.
I had drawn two experienced fellow pilots to share this day, Ian and Brian, and although we had never laid eyes upon each other previous to meeting at our Flight Operations center in Detroit, we quickly settled into our routine of pleasantries and business. Each airline pilot learns this dance from their earliest days with the company, for we fly with a new crew literally on each trip. Fortunately, we are all (for the most part) pretty much stamped out of the same mold. We’re a bit “type A”, we have thousands of hours in many different cockpits (I’ve flown with every type of pilot…from ex-crop dusters, to ex-Blue Angels), we are tasked-oriented individuals, we hold ourselves to a high standard (we’re used to successfully accomplishing the mission), and we all share a passion for aviation. Plus, 99.9% of us are just plain nice folks and we seem to be able to go from total strangers, to co-workers, to friends very quickly.
As First Officer Ian and I began our routine of checking the weather and filling out our flight plan for the first leg to Milwaukee (yep, in the “old days” we actually filled out a paper flight plan, doing all the time/fuel calculations manually…nowadays, it comes off a printer ready made for us at the departure gate), the Flight Engineer Brian (or Second Officer as my line referred to them) left for the gate to make ready the jet. He would do the cockpit preflight checks, the exterior “walk around” inspection, investigate any mechanical irregularities for this machine, and generally get things ready for when Ian and I showed up.
By now, I had (according to Company policy) briefed both of them that they would be flying with “a new Captain”, and I’m sure they were pondering just how much baby-sitting I would require on this little two day trip. Restrictions abound for a new Commander (both Company and FAA) for they are not only required to do most of the flying for the first days of the trip, but are limited to higher weather landing minimums for the first 100 hours as Pilot-in-Command. Plus, before each launch, a call must be made to “Mother Dispatch” for a pre-mission briefing . You’re kept on a pretty short leash, and watched like a hawk when you’re a “noob”, and that’s maybe not a bad thing.
Although the weather was breaking fine this morning in Michigan, a small cold front was blowing across Wisconsin and would offer my first challenge as the boss. The jet for my inaugural leg as a Captain (N277US) was in fine form, the cabin crew had been briefed, and due to the low overcast and rain forecast for Milwaukee, the Dispatcher and I had elected to board extra fuel and list Detroit as our alternate airport. The day had us scheduled to do a “Milwaukee turn”, then down to central Florida for our layover. In plan-speak, that would be the short hop over to “Brew Town”, an hour on the ramp, then back to “Mo-Town”, another hour break, and finally end the day in Orlando …I guess that would be “Mickey-Town”. To be sure, it looked to be an easy day on paper, but every pilot will tell you that sometimes the days that look the easiest, turn out to be anything but.
(The “front office” of the big Boeing.)
My landing on runway 25L in Milwaukee was not great, but not bad. Again, first time in the batter’s box without the help of an instructor in the F/Os seat. The wind and rain made for a good excuse (in case it truly sucked), but I didn’t need one, and I was glad for that. Anyone that’s flown the 727 knows that it can be a bear to land smoothly, and the results of a REALLY bad landing (meaning hard touchdown) can be the dreaded “rubber jungle”. This is when the oxygen masks above each passenger seat become dislodged and pop out upon the impact with the runway. It can be disconcerting for the customers (ya think?), but can be really embarrassing for the person that did the landing. Accepted procedure is for that person to stand at the deplaning door and take the “chin music” from the passengers as they exit. Have I ever plopped a 727 down so hard that I got the “jungle”…yep…once. Funny thing, it was on RWY 25L in Milwaukee a few years later, and we had an FAA inspector on the jump seat! LOL…I only got a couple of masks to drop, and he just laughed.
Fate would shine on me this day, for we did our Milwaukee turn on time, and after dodging a few summertime thunderstorms at the Georgia/Florida border, we landed in Orlando shortly before dinner time. Many parts of the day are a blur, for I was tasked with about a thousand decisions that (in the past as the trusty F/O) I was accustomed to just reviewing…not making. Now I was the one MAKING those choices, and I would be the one to answer to them and/or suffer the consequences. Such is the daily turf of the ship’s commander.
I distinctly remember having some sort of minor mechanical issue with the jet when we returned to Detroit from Wisconsin. As the agent was talking to me at the gate, she queried me as to whether or not she should delay boarding the passengers for Florida. I clearly remember ALMOST saying to her, “hang on, let me go ask the Captain…”, then it hit me like a ton of bricks. I was that guy! All the heads would be looking at ME for answers from now on, for the “buck” truly did stop here. It’s a weighty burden to carry, and I’ve been asked many times over the years about “the pressure” of being responsible for all those lives. I always go back to some advice that my dear father once gave me regarding such…”learn to take care of yourself, and everyone sitting behind you will be just fine.” Good advice to be sure.
The airspace around Ft. Worth’s Meacham Field is some of the busiest on the planet, and this statement was as true in 1973 as it is today. Several hundred machines of all types transit this rather large “general aviation” airport each day. Everything from small trainer aircraft, to large corporate jets, up to and including the occasional airliner flying a charter or ferrying in for some contract maintenance. So why on Earth did I pick this busy place to begin my flight training way back then? One reason. My best friend Randy C. had joined the Civil Air Patrol and had recieved his training there, so I figured if it was good enough for him then it would be good enough for yours truly. Ft. Worth School of Aviation had a brand new Private Pilot student.
(My dear friend Randy C. at the controls of a Cessna 150.)
I was most assuredly NOT “born a pauper to a pawn” (“…on a Christmas Day, when The New York Times said God is dead, and the wars begun…” sorry, my favorite Elton John lyric…), but our family of seven hung to the tag of “middle class” by our fingernails. We didn’t actually do without the essentials, but there were scant few extras and frills under our roof. Mom’s sewing machine logged hundreds of hours fashioning clothes for us (mainly my sisters), and Dad busted many a knuckle as our chief automobile maintenance officer (and I saw countless weekends with my head under a hood with him). Fortunately for me, by the time I began my training in the summer of 1973, I was twice daily delivering several hundred newspapers (at 0400 and 1600 each day), and was raking in almost a thousand dollars profit each month. A king’s ransom for your average 17 year old, and the lion’s share of it wasn’t spent on every-day, normal things,… like girls, cars, dirt bikes, stuff like that. Nope, it was spent on a little blue and white Cessna 150 by the name of “N5305Q”.
My first Logbook entry reads:
“6/14/73 / C-150 / N5305Q / FTW-LCL / Famil/ JD 1930144 CFII / Total flight hours = 1.0”
Although I had logged time in many cockpits as a child (see previous blogs), I had never actually maneuvered a machine in the air before. This one small, seven block entry, “sentenced” me to a life of excitement, thrills, wonder, and yes, even (a few times) disappointment and heartbreak. It began a career that only few dream about, and fewer still get to experience. Thank you my dear Dad for introducing me to flying machines, thank you Randy C. for taking me up and showing me Ft. Worth from the right seat of a Cessna 150 (and getting me bitten by the flying bug…lol), and thank you “JD” (my first Flight Instructor), for teaching me how to be a Student Pilot.
(Randy and I having fun doing some “zero G” on one of our flights).
“JD”, or John D. was a trip. Young guy (mid 20’s), personable, good looking, and lots of fun to fly with. When I would show up for a lesson, he would ALWAYS be on the phone with one of his girlfriends, and of them he had lots. Again, young, good looking dude, in fact he looked more like Joe Namath than Joe Namath did, and this kept him in high demand with the fairer sex. For you young bucks not in the know, Joe Namath was a Super Bowl winning QB for the NY Jets in the late 60s, and by the time I met my instructor John, Namath was world famous as an uber “ladies’ man”. This was all fine and dandy, but I was often met with a toss of the airplane keys, and a “go ahead and preflight, I’ll be out in a minute” greeting from John. This usually meant a long, in depth inspection of the machine, plopping my butt into the cockpit, going over checklists and procedures, and then waiting for another 20-30 minutes before he would finally arrive. But arrive he would, and off into the wild blue we would launch together…but not many times it would seem.
The coveted solo flight.
For a student to be given the reigns and allowed to fly by themselves (solo), several things have to come together. Within a few years of my student status, I would be working as a staff flight instructor at the university and would be tasked with making sure each Primary Student was indeed ready for this big step. Make no mistake, it is a VERY big step in the life of each pilot.
Each student must not only know how to aviate the machine (take-offs, landings, climbs, descents, stalls, emergencies, etc), but must also be proficient with the use of the communications and navigation radios, and in a busy environment like Meacham Field, this can be a daunting task. They must know the airspace structure around the local airports, the FARs (Federal Aviation Regulations) concerning the type of flying to be done, possess adequate knowledge about the weather (current and forecast), and have more than just a hint about a million other things. With all that said, they must also possess one other thing; a thing so rare and devoid of “Earth bound” folks that it would seem alien to them. We call it “air sense”, or as the military folks say…”SA” (situational awareness…as it pertains to airplanes obviously). Some come by it naturally, some struggle to get it (all pilots eventually attain it), but unfortunately some that wish to be aviators never do, and it WILL make the difference between becoming a pilot or “washing out”. Remind me to tell about the time I had to inform one of my students that he just didn’t have what it takes to become a pilot…an interesting day to be sure.
Back when I began my flight training, the average number of hours for each Student Pilot to fly with their I.P. before being ready to solo was in the neighborhood of 15-20 flight hours (I know this because I looked it up). Each student dreams of that day, probably secretly dreads it just a little (am I ready?), but knows that until that moment happens, they are not “really” a pilot, just some yokel sitting in the left seat of an airplane while the “real pilot” tells you what to do.
This particular Friday morning seemed like all the others when I pulled into the parking lot. Light winds out of the south at 5 knots, visibility a beautiful 10 miles, and a scattered layer of fluffy white clouds lazily drifting overhead. It was summer in Texas, which meant that later in the day it was going to hotter than the blue blazes (high in the 90s with a humidity that would dampen any armpit), but when we stepped to the machine, it was a “cool” 77 degrees. John was “doing his thang” on the phone when I walked in, so I had pre-flighted my little blue and white friend slowly and carefully. I checked many things that morning (like every other lesson); the oil/fuel levels (draining the sumps and making sure I got a little 87 octane on me so I would smell like a real pilot). I moved all the control surfaces, checked tires/brakes, flaps, and fuel caps, antennae and light housings, propeller and spinner…all the while trying to keep a hand on the skin as I walked around the little Cessna. Call me crazy, but it’s a habit born of those days, and I do it to this day. I just love the connection between bare metal and epidermis.
Did I know what was in store for me that morning? Not a clue. John climbed in, we briefly chatted about the lesson (same ol’ stuff…”practice area”…which means stalls, simulated emergencies, etc…then back to the field for more “touch and go’s”), we then ran the checklists, I started the little Lycoming engine, and we began our taxi. Meacham Ground Control was unusually calm and quiet that morning, and after our magneto check run up at runway 16, we switched to the Tower frequency and noticed the same. John made some comment to the ATC dude about it being “kinda dead this morning…” and off we went northbound for more learning.
After about forty five minutes of more learning (John seemed distracted), we turned back heading south for Meacham. I took the few minutes for us to transit the 15 miles or so, to just gaze around and enjoy the view. North Texas can be as ugly as scrub brush, scrawny longhorn cattle and mesquite trees, but to me this morning, it was lush with green fields, clear creeks, and the freedom of wide open skies. Ahead of us lay the two vibrant cities of Dallas and Ft. Worth, but their million or more souls seemed far removed from me and my little Cessna. The air was smooth, the machine purred like a happy kitten, and life was good…until he did it.
Yep, as any student pilot knows, when you least expect it, your instructor will yank the throttle back to idle, announce you’ve “had an engine failure” and see how you react. I was a bit startled (only because John didn’t seem to be 100% in the moment), but he had done this exact thing on all of our earlier lessons (except the first “Famil” flight…lol), and I started through my progressions of aviate, navigate, communicate. I picked a suitable field, set up my glide, started into the Emergency Procedure for an engine failure, and all seemed right with the world (well, except for the “engine has quit” thing). Then he did the unexpected…at about 1500’, he “gave me the engine back”…meaning he announced the engine failure was complete and I could add power and keep flying toward the field. He had never done that before. Usually, he would let me glide down to a much lower altitude (sometimes just a few hundred feet above the field I was aiming for), then let me “recover” and be on my way. Today he was acting a little different, but I shrugged it off.
This was fine by me, and since we were at the appropriate altitude for the traffic pattern at Meacham, and I was nearing the “highway interchange”, I called the tower to announce our position and that we were inbound for some touch and go’s, and we were told to follow another inbound student pilot. Meacham at this time in history had MANY foreign students…mostly from the Shah’s Iran…and sometimes it seemed the airspace was filled with students that one could barely understand on the radio. We located the other traffic, manuvered behind them and entered the landing pattern for runway 16. After a successful landing and take-off (I’ve never forgotten one of my Dad’s favorite sayings about such, “any landing you’re thrown clear of is a good one”…lol), we entered the left hand circuit for 16 again. Once on the downwind leg, John took the microphone from its holder and requested a “full stop” landing on our next approach. This didn’t really register with me, for I kind of put “2 and 2” together and figured his distracted behavior and the lateness of the lesson all meant that he was enjoying some issue with one of his “harem”, and we had to land so he could attend to it. Oh well, another fun day in the sky with John…
I touched down, rolled to a taxiway turn off, exited the runway, and then he said those fateful words, “Pull over, I’m getting out, take her around for 3 take-offs and landings…I’ll see you back at the ramp”. The smile on his face must’ve reflected the shock on mine! I was dumbfounded. This was totally unexpected! Was I ready? Could I handle it? What happened if something went wrong? What the hell do I do now? Oh, yeah…first…DON’T RUN OVER JOHN, then get on the radio and ask the Ground Controller for a clearance to taxi back to runway 16…lol. I picked up the mic and did just that.
The rest is a blur. I remember how “light” the airplane felt without that extra body strapped in (the Cessna 150 seats a grand total of 2 humans…so subtract one of those, and it’s a big difference). She climbed like a “homesick angle”, and I was at pattern altitude way before I was expecting it! I settled down, got her back to the correct altitude, and made my three landings (on the first one, I forgot to activate the “carburetor heat”, and scared myself when the engine did the slightest “hiccup” when I pushed the throttle forward…only did that once…lol). After the 3rd landing, I taxied back to the ramp, and John was there to greet me. Smiles all around, and he then performed the “time honored” tradition of clipping my shirt tail, and stapling it into my logbook. It was a great flight and a great day, but there is a rough edge to this story.
(The clipped shirtail is a cherished part of my Logbook history.)
(Looking back after departing runway 16 at Meacham Field, circa 1973.)
When I got home, I excitedly informed my Dad about my first solo flight, and he hit the roof! He was on the phone to John immediately, and was reaming his ass out left and right! I couldn’t believe my ears (or my eyes), for I thought that I had crossed that Rubicon and was now a “real pilot”. I also thought that my “Army Aviation winged “ dear ‘ol Dad would be nothing but proud and happy for his little boy! How wrong I was, and as it turned out, how totally correct he was in both his assessment and his actions! You see, “JD” had soloed me probably just a TEENSY-WEENSY bit early in the program. I had no doubt that since I had grown up nursing on the teet of all things aviation, I was a shoe-in for the “ace of the base” award. In reality, I was nowhere near ready to be in the air by all by myself.
How many hours did I have logged when this “first” happened? I suspect that I still hold the record for “fewest hours logged before solo flight” at Ft. Worth’s Meacham Field.
“6/29/73 / C-150 / N5305Q / FTW-LCL / “Practice area, touch and go’s, first solo. JD 1930144 CFII / Total flight hours to date = 3.8”
Yep….three point freaking 8 hours total flight time. I barely knew enough to kill myself. Thank you JD!.
(Page 1, Logbook 1…this is where it all started…lol.)
After landing in Orlando on that “day of days” flying Captain on a jetliner for the first time, I announced to the crew that we would be meeting for dinner and ATTENDANCE WAS MANDATORY. I also told them to leave their dollars in the hotel room, for drinks/dinner would be on yours truly. They all showed up (go figure…pilots and flight attendants passing up a free meal…not on your life!), we enjoyed a great night at a terrific restaurant, and later we found a pub with nickel shots…thank God we were not scheduled to depart until the next afternoon! To this day, I routinely run into “Russ” (the cabin purser on that first flight) and we have a good laugh about that trip. It was a long day, but a really good one.
I sat in my car (that beautiful Pontiac Firebird), and waited for the Star-Telegram truck to deliver my newspaper bundles like it had done a thousand times before. The alarm at 4 a.m. came way too early that rainy Saturday morning, but thank goodness I now delivered my route from the sanctity of my auto and not walking (or on my dirt-bike) like I had done for many years. June of 1974 saw me as a spanking new graduate from high school, but college was months away, and my job of twice daily delivery of the news was still a big part of my life. This was going to be just another wet, crappy morning, and as I worked the bundles into my car, I glanced down at the front page and was stopped in my tracks.
John’s picture front and center…along with five others.
They had departed at 2 minutes past eleven the night before from Lubbock, bound for Meacham, but never made it. John had moved on from his life as a flight instructor, and had taken a job flying a twin Piper Aztec for a small oil company in west Texas. The weather the previous evening had seen an especially violent line of thunderstorms march across north Texas, and I remember watching the dude on the 10 p.m. KTVT weather report announce that the “radar tops” of this monster were over 50,000’! Without doubt, funnel clouds had ripped fields apart that night, and this deadly storm had also ripped something else. It had pulled the wings off of N777AV… the airplane that John was flying.
(Piper Aztec PA-23-250.)
Excerpts from the NTSB report:
“Location- Cresson, TX…Fatalities, CR- 1, PX- 5… Type of Accident- Collision with ground/water: uncontrolled… Probable Cause- Pilot in Command- Improper in-flight decisions or planning, Spatial disorientation… Factors, Weather- Thunderstorm activity, turbulence associated w/clouds and/or thunderstorms… Sky condition- obscuration… Ceiling at accident site- 100’… Visibility at accident site- 3 miles or less… Precipitation at accident site- thunderstorm… Temp- 66 degrees… Wind 300/ 13 knots.
Pilot Data- Commercial, Flt Instructor, Age 27, 3000 Total Hours, Instrument Rated.
REMARKS- PENETRATED AREA OF FCST SEVERE THUNDERSTORMS.
This seems hardly a fitting epitaph for a young man that took me from a student to a SOLO pilot (albeit a bit too soon…lol), and he would perish before I would get my wings as a Private Pilot. That would happen 12 days after his death. He taught me many things in our time spent aloft, and I remember him as a young guy very full of life (maybe too much life when it came to the ladies). In the end, I’ll never forget the smile and the look of joy on his face when he gave me little N5305Q to fly alone for the first time.
THANK YOU JD… she was my “first”.
(Yours truly in my little friend…N5305Q…shortly after recieving my wings.)
(Forty years and a few million miles later… 🙂 )