(January 25, 2014)
Exactly 30 years ago today I did something that was better for my flying skills than any lesson I had ever taken- I took my first flight in N989B.
"So what?" you may ask. The answer to that question can be found in the back-story of me and 989B.
1982 had sucked for me, I was working at the Daytona Kmart and was spinning my wheels financially while I tried to pay off my bill at the Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University and get back into school. Living in a house with roommates who were often short of cash (until it came time to buy their pot, of course- then they had plenty of cash), I often ended up taking what money I should have sent to the university and using it to make-up the difference between our “house” having the power or lights shut off and keeping them on. 1983 was shaping up to suck worse until I moved back to Michigan to live out of my folks basement and work and save and actually pay down my account at school. By January of 84 I was laid-off from my job in Michigan and looking for work in a state ravaged by Jimmy Carter’s recession. To make matters worse, I had not touched an aircraft in two years. Depressed, I contemplated climbing onto an ice-flow on Saginaw Bay and just floating away.
Then my younger brother interrupted my consideration of a short cruise on an ice cake. He worked as a line boy at Tri City airport which was nearly in our back yard and said that there was a guy who flew night cargo in an old Beech 18 and that same guy sometimes took people on his trips as a poor-man’s autopilot. My bro. suggested that it may do me some good to go flying with the guy. Of course I knew that flying night cargo in the Michigan winter was rough and that Beech 18s could be pilot-eaters, so I figured- “Hey, it beats an ice-flow.”
That same evening I went over to Hangar 6 and met Tom, the Beech 18 captain. He said he’d be happy to take me along “once in a while” provided that, “the ice was not too bad.” I asked, “How ‘bout tomorrow?” and he told me what time to show up and to wear something warm.
On the evening of January 25th, 1984 I showed up at Hangar 6 once again, and I was dressed warm. Tom greeted me and we walked around the aircraft and talked as he pre-flighted. He had no idea that I had been training at ERAU and seemed much more comfortable once that information came out. Apparently, unlike some other folks that he had taken along on flights, at least I knew my way around an aircraft. Before long my brother showed up, opened the hangar door and tugged 989B out onto the ramp where the Emery Airfreight van was waiting. We hustled the boxes aboard, stretched a net over them and I had to climb over top of the pile to get to my seat in the cockpit.
If you want to retain a shred of your hearing while flying a Beech 18 you need to stuff foamy ear-plugs into your ears and then clamp a David Clark ear-cup headset. Tom had me read the checklist as he started the Pratt & Whitney R985 radial engines. Then we taxied out and blasted off as Ace Air flight 721. Climbing to altitude the night was so clear that you could see the airport beacons almost all of the way to our destination, Dayton, Ohio. 989B was built in 1962 and started its career flying people rather than boxes. At least one person on the field told me that it had been a corporate aircraft, but now she had cargo doors in her side and worked hauling freight for Ace Air, a Cleveland based cargo feeder for Emery. The route was from Saginaw, Michigan to Dayton, Ohio and back every weeknight.
Tom and I chatted over the intercom and he found out more and more about my flying experience. Then he offered to let me, “fly her” for a while. Considering the aircraft and its load, as well as those big radial engines I expected her to be heavy on the controls- I was wrong. Instead, flying 989B, for me- then a Cessna 172 pilot, was very much like trying to balance a broom horizontally in the palm of your hand… while standing on a bowling ball… on top of a beach ball… while riding an escalator. It was nearly impossible to get it steady, the instruments started swimming, my fancy “instrument scanning pattern” went straight to shit and it seemed as if I had never flown instruments before. My basic attitude instrument training from ERAU simply did not seem to work. Tom just smiled and said, “We’ll work on it.”
Landing at Dayton we taxied to the completely empty expanse that was the Emery freight ramp. Tom explained that he was always the first aircraft to arrive; it was scheduled that way. We were met by the ramp agent and although we were about 60 feet from the terminal door, we had to wait for a bus to take us there. The bus than drove a quarter mile route that ended up taking us right back to the terminal door. I remarked that that was a bit silly and Tom assured me that in a few hours it would all make sense. We adjourned to the crew lounge where there were a score of recliner seats and a couch. Tom flopped on the couch and told me to catch some sleep. Picking a recliner I eased it back, pulled the brim of my hat down over my eyes and proceeded to beat myself up for not being able to stabilize that aircraft- it was just after 11:00 pm.
Through the night Emery pilots came in and flopped as each tried to grab some sleep. Outside the constant whine of jet engines beat at the walls making it clear that a lot of aircraft were gathering on the ramp. Then, at about 4:20 am it seemed like everyone’s watch alarm went off at once. Pilots jumped up and headed out, Tom and I included. Walking out of the terminal I was astounded. The ramp was packed with cargo aircraft of every sort, 727s, DC-8s, DC-7s, 580s, 404s, and every inch of the ramp was full of activity moving boxes and containers. Again we had to wait for the bus to drive us that 60 feet to the 989B, but this time it was not silly to me, it made sense because it kept us from being run over by the crews moving the boxes! “Ya’ see.” Tom quipped. Oh yeah, I saw.
Since Tom had me working the radios on the way down, I asked if he wanted me to get the clearance and he said “Okay.” At least I could do that part without looking like a pre-solo student pilot. On the return leg to Saginaw we were Ace Air flight 722 and again Tom let me take the controls and again 989B kicked my ass. After we landed and taxied to the ramp outside of Hangar 6 we were met by the Emery “pick-up” van and its driver. Tom asked how I liked the flight and I remarked that the bird was a handful and really kicked my butt. “Don’t worry about it,” he smiled and then asked if I wanted to go again. I said “SURE!” Tom smirked and said, “You can fly with me anytime, no matter the ice,” then he added, “come on out a half hour earlier tonight and I’ll teach you how to preflight her.”
In the nights ahead I learned how to properly preflight an 18, including a case of oil, WD40 on the bicycle chain that ran from the main gear to tail wheel and all of that stuff. In fact after a few “supervised” pre-flights, Tom started showing up just in time to check the load and depart- trusting the pre-flight and loading to me. I learned how to lean the engines in flight by looking for that stiletto-blue exhaust flame; once you see it, you never forget it. I learned that the brakes have a shuttle valve in the system so if one pilot is on the brakes, the other pilot’s brakes are useless and I learned how to correctly do the weight and balance.
From my second flight on, Tom had me flying nearly all of the time and he stayed right on me every second. He wanted me to get my instrument work nailed and every time I let 989B squiggle out of line I heard about it. He wasn’t bitchy or commanding, he would simply say “watch” this, “watch” that and keep me on my toes. Every night that I flew that machine I told myself, “Tonight I’m gonna get it perfect” and 989B would always dash my hopes. Then came the night that on the way to Dayton I was working my ass off and I finally had 989B totally under constant control. The secret I found was that there was no instrument scan “pattern” that could be used, you simply had to take in the entire panel all at once and watch the whole thing. Nearly an hour went by and Tom said not a word.
“I must really be impressing him.” I thought to myself.
Then I decided to steal a glance over and see how impressed he was. Tom had his head back and was snoring his ass off.
Terrific… I finally mastered the damned aircraft, and he slept through it!
Of course, the Beech 18 will always have one aspect of its operation that I never did master. I could never, I repeat- NEVER, got the hang of doing the taxi. To this day, I can taxi airliners and corporate jets, but I cannot taxi a Beech 18.
Tom and I flew together off and on into the month of March. We loaded a lot of odd stuff and flew it Dayton- the strangest being a giant gear for a draw bridge. We had a lot of fun as well. Once we had boxes stacked nearly to the roof and as I was pinning down the net Tom slammed the side door shut and shouted, “See ya’ in Dayton!” I spent a good deal of time clawing my way forward to the cockpit that night. Eventually Tom got hired by a corporate operation on the field flying Falcon Jets and that ended my days as his poor-man’s autopilot. I was gratified, however, to have the fellow who owned Ace Air tell me that if I had my commercial certificate he would have trained and hired me to replace Tom. Unfortunately, I had a lot of ERAU ahead of me before I could do that. Instead I settled for a new job in a local hardware store and managed to pay off the university and get back in just five months later.
What I did not realize until years after my nights fighting with 989B was that what it and Tom had done for me was to sharpen and highly smooth my skills in flying. When I entered the advanced multi-engine flight phase at Embry-Riddle, the Cessna T-303 Crusader was a kitten compared to the 18. My instructor for two of my three courses in the T-303 was a former Beech 18 instructor and so we got along well, in fact it was like being in an exclusive club. When I interviewed for my first airline job, the Director of Operations saw that I had 18 time in my logbook and quickly forgot about asking me any technical questions about instrument procedures and the like. Instead he asked me questions that only a real Beech 18 pilot could answer. After I answered correctly, he grinned and told me he was an old 18 pilot too. I was his first interview for the new class, and I was the first one hired for it as well. Out of all of those lessons that I paid big money to receive and all of the check rides and hours built as an instructor, it turned out that those hours as a poor-man’s autopilot were some of the most important for me. One day, while in the university library and thumbing through a book about Beechcraft, I found a terrific picture of 989B when she was new. I had it copied and framed.
Somewhere toward the end of my nights of flying 989B in the winter of 1984, I pulled my dad’s car into a local gas station to take on a little fuel. Then the Emery Airfreight van pulled up at the next pump and the kid who loaded us every night hopped out. He had a helper riding with him and as that guy went to grab the pump, the driver stepped to the window washing bucket. We saw each other and exchanged a simultaneous, “Hi! How’s it goin’” and he asked if I was on tonight. I told him “Nope” but I’d be there tomorrow night. He smiled and turned to his helper and said, “He’s one of our pilots.”
That statement, although mistakenly only half true, meant a lot to me. I’d been working, literally, for a lot of years to be able to fit into that role and I still had a long road ahead. So there was something very sweet about me being referred to in that context. As I drove away from the gas station, I was feeling pretty good, until 989B reached out with its wing, tapped me on the back and said, “Yeah, but ya’ still can’t taxi me asshole.”
Cincinnati, OH (CIN)
THE CARGO FLT DPTD CINCINNATI ENRT TO WICHITA, KS WITH AN INTERMEDIATE STOP AT KANSAS CITY DTWN ARPT. THE FLT PROGRESSED NRMLY TO A VOR RWY 03 INSTRUMENT APCH, CIRCLING TO RWY 01. THE PIC HAD BEEN CLRD TO COMMENCE THE APCH. TWR PERS SUBSEQUENTLY ADVISED THE PIC OF A LOW ALTITUDE ALERT, TO WHICH THE PIC RESPONDED HE HAD GROUND CONTACT. THE PIC SUBSEQUENTLY DECLARED A MISSED APCH, THEN SAID, 'I GOT IT ALL RIGHT,' AND HE REQUESTED A 360 DEG TURN AND LDG ON RWY 01. WITNESSES OBSERVED THE ACFT APCH FM THE WEST AT A LOW ALTITUDE. THEN, WHILE OVER airport PROPERTY, THE ACFT TURNED SHARPLY. THE LEFT WING DROPPED QUICKLY AS THE ACFT BANKED NEARLY 90 DEGREES. THE ACFT IMPACTED THE RAMP AREA 400 FT RIGHT OF RWY 01, IN FRONT OF A FIXED BASE OPERATOR AND BURST INTO FLAMES. THE ACFT SLID ABOUT 200 FT BEFORE COMING TO A STOP. THE COMPANY CHIEF PLT STATED THAT THE PIC WAS DEFICIENT IN VOR APPROACHES. CAUSE:
Author's note: The pilot was not known to me. I heard about this accident in the summer of 1988 while I was flying DNR flights out of MBS. "Somebody cartwheeled it across a ramp in Kansas." was what I was told.