N204JP... a classic


Anyone who knows me can tell you that I freely admit that I am a Falcon Jet person. Some people have a thing for horses, or motorcycles, or pop tarts, or sailboats, or blonds or bridges… for 40 years I’ve had a thing for Falcon Jets… especially the classics.

When you attend any professional pilot’s school such as UND, or Embry-Riddle (which was my school) as you go through the program everyone seems to pick up a favorite aircraft that they dream of one day flying. Sometimes you’d make it to that cockpit and other times the eddies in the industry sweep you into a different direction. When I started ERAU I really didn’t have a specific bird that I wanted to fly- I just wanted to survive the place and graduate. Yet during that first year in Daytona Beach, we all had our sights set on Eastern Airlines who regularly flew in and out of Daytona International Airport (DAB). Of course during the decade that it took me to work my way through that place Eastern went from the place where you had it made, to the place to avoid at all costs. So too did the types of aircraft evolve. During my freshman year I had a friend who was totally enchanted with the DC-9-10 “baby 9” that EAL flew in once a day. He said it was like a little sports car. I don’t know if he ever made it to the cockpit of the baby 9 or not. “The Ultimate,” however, was always to be flying your dream aircraft into DAB someday, some way-  it was the freshman’s fantasy. By the end of my freshman year, I still hadn’t set my sights on a dream bird, I was just happy to have gotten through that first year… alive.

That summer break I got a job at MBS (Tri-City) Airport just a mile from my parents home in Freeland, Michigan. I had been given the prime bottom feeder position as a car-hiker for National Car Rental. It was a highly technical position where I had to get the cars coming in, clean them inside, wash them outside, gas them up and park them for customer pick-up. Hardly a brain cell was needed. I did that chore until June 30, 1978 when the owners gravity-challenged daughter screamed at me for losing a set of keys that I didn’t lose. That incident inspired me to walk across the airfield to Hangar 6 and the local FBO, a place called “Air Flite and Serv-A-Plane.” Their receptionist was my 11th grade girlfriend’s mom and so she knew me well. She introduced me to Tim Alexander the no-nonsense hangar ram-rod who supervised the aircraft maintenance department. Tim hired me on-the-spot to work in their parts department. This place was a certified Falcon Jet Service Center and it was there that I got to get up-close and personal with those fine flying machines for the very first time. Between 1978 and 1985 Tim would hire me three different times.

Air Flite wings

Compared to the nonsense of National Car rental, Air Flite was low pressure and a great place to work. There was plenty of opportunity for a budding professional pilot to stroll out into the hangar and visit the assorted aircraft, most of which were corporate jets, in various states of disassembly and inspection. It was there that the hangar’s A.I., Bill Crowler, introduced me to the Falcon Jet. Sure, I’d seen them fly over my house countless times- I lived right under the final approach path to Runway 5 and Dow Chemical, which was based at MBS, had two Falcon 20s and two 10s, plus Dow Corning had a 10. Considering that Hangar 6 was a service center, Falcon Jets from all over the nation came in for inspections. Yet, although I’d seen them, I’d never touched one. One day I was ogling Mrs. Dow’s Lear 35/36 when Bill and I started talking about other jets verses Falcon Jets.

“Le’me show ya’ something,” Bill led me over to the Lear Jet. Pointing at the top of the wing he instructed me to, “Knock yer’ knuckles on here.”

I did so, and heard a tin-like metallic echo.

“Ya’ hear that?” he asked instructively.

“Yeah,” I replied.

Then we turned and took a dozen steps to a Falcon 20.

“Do the same thing here,” he indicated to the top of the 20’s wing.

I knocked on the wing and it was like armor- the difference was night and day.

“Holy shit,” I heard myself sigh.

Bill just stood there and grinned having given me the first of countless lessons that he would pass along in the years to come.

“Which one would you rather fly when yer’ picken’ yer way across a line of thunderstorms at 35,000 feet?”

At that moment I’d found the bird.

A brief history of the Falcon 20 needs to be added here so this story can go beyond the “it’s cool and Wes likes it” phase.

On May 4th, 1962 Dassault (pronounced “duh-so” for those Americans  like me, who cannot speak a word of French) Aviation rolled out their Mystere 20 mock up. Just 11 months later on April 1st, 1963 the prototype of the aircraft was rolled out and made ready for its first flight.

Mystere 20

 That flight took place three days later in front of some very important spectators from Pan Am Airways. Pan Am was seeking to enter the business aircraft jet market and had been hunting for a suitable aircraft since 1960. Originally they had their eyes on the De Havilland DH125, but had come to Dassault to check out the Mystere 20. Chief among the Pan Am aviation delegation was world famous aviator Charles Lindbergh. He had been assigned, by Juan Trippe himself, the task of finding the exact right aircraft for the company’s biz-jet needs.

The Pan Am gang... Lindbergh is in the hat, Mr. Dassault is holding the model.

Following a detailed tour of the Mystere 20, the Pan Am delegation witnessed the aircraft’s maiden flight. Originally equipped with Pratt & Whitney JT-12 engines the prototype flew like a homesick angel. Once the flight was concluded, the numbers were reviewed and the test pilots debriefed, Lindbergh sent a telegram to Juan Trippe that read simply, “I’ve found the bird.” Pan Am requested that the engines be changed to the GE CF-700 and then on August 2nd they placed an order for 40 of the aircraft with a first option for 120. Marcel Dassault was very happy.

Interestingly, “Dassault” was not the name that Marcel had been given at birth. He was born Marcel Bloch in Paris on January 22, 1892. His entry into aviation came as an engineer doing design work during World War I. In 1930 he set up his own aviation company producing military and civil aircraft. When the Nazis occupied France in 1940 he refused to collaborate and was sent to the infamous Buchenvald concentration camp. With the end of the war he wanted to make a fresh start and with that changed his name. He adopted the nick-name Dassault given to his brother, General Paul Bloch- the French resistance fighter. The name was “char d’assault” which is a reference to the general’s preference for battle tanks.

Before going for U.S. certification a few minor changes beyond the CF-700 engines took place in the manufacture of the Mystere 20. The wing area was increased  from 1,271 square feet to 1,448 square feet and the fuselage was lengthened by 23.5 inches. It is sometimes said that the Mystere 20 has the same vertical stabilizer as the Mirage F-1 and Mirage G fighters. In fact the Mystere 20 was designed and constructed more than two years before the two fighters; so it is the fighters who have the 20’s vertical stabilizer and not the other way around. Certification came in both France and the U.S. on June 9th, 1965, but there was just one problem; customers in the U.S. had no idea what Mystere meant or how to pronounce it. It was a marketing stumbling block. An advertising executive in New York City, whose name is likely lost to history came up with the name “Falcon” and Pan Am’s director of Business Aviation Jim Taylor loved it! Marcel Dassault agreed and the Mystere (Mystery) 20 became the Falcon 20. Like it’s builder, it changed its name and went on to success.

At the same point in time that I was busy flunking the third grade, test pilot Jacqueline Auriol set a speed record in a Falcon 20- the date was June 10th, 1965. Over a 1,000 Km closed course she piloted the aircraft at 534.07 mph, (yeah- I know that’s mixing metric and English units, but it’s how Dassault published it) from Istres to Cazux and back to Istres, France. Five days later she broke the record for 2,000 Km closed course between the same cities flying at 508.98 mph. Both records were without payload. A year later Marion B. Burton set a record for speed over a recognized course on September 26th, 1966 by flying from Boston, MA to Gander, NF at 639.75 mph. That is an official Falcon Jet speed record that stands to this day!

Jacqueline Auriol after her record setting flight

When Embry-Riddle informed me that I would not be allowed to register for the Fall 1979 term because I owed them too much money I needed a job… in a hurry. I contacted Air Flite and Tim had me working there the following day. I was the “hangar rat” and my job was simple, “Mop the hangar floor, empty what’s filled, fill what’s empty and everything else paint yellow.” Of course I’m a worker bee and Tim knew it, so soon I was given the task of dropping panels on aircraft for inspections, removing seats and crawling into spaces that the other guys could not fit into. Additionally I took on washing aircraft and, since I lived so close to the airport, Dow Corning contracted the company to have me on call to turn around their aircraft when they needed a quick turn after business hours. That still wasn’t enough for me so when I heard that one of the mechanics who was in charge of doing the engine runs on the Falcons hated to talk on the radio, I volunteered to go with him and do the radio. It all added up to not only overtime, but a rapidly growing knowledge of the Falcon Jets. I even reworked the wood work on Dow Corning’s Falcon 10. By the time I went back to ERAU I was a raving Falcon Jet fan.

By the summer of 1985 I was on track to finally finish ERAU and my financial problems had been tamed, but I still had to work a summer job. Of course the first place that I went to was Hangar 6. Tim was no longer the ram rod there, so I found myself interviewing with Bob Handley. Bob knew me from way back, but said that he really didn’t need anyone right now. I asked if it was okay if went out in the hangar and said hello to the guys? He said that was okay and so I strolled out among the jets on the jacks. There at the far side of the hangar was Tim! He was working for Steelcase now and was in with their jet. It was great to see him and I casually said that I’d come in looking for a job, but Bob didn’t need anyone. We chatted, joked and he wished me the best. Getting on my bicycle I made a leisurely ride back to Mom and Dad’s house. When I got there my Mom told me that Bob from the airport had just called and I was supposed to call him back right away.

Answering the phone in his normal deadpan tone Bob said, “We’ve got this big “D” inspection coming up that’ll take all summer and Tim says I’m a dumb ass if I don’t hire you because you do the work of three of these guys- you start tomorrow at eight.” I was hired for the third time at Hangar 6 which was now owned and operated by Aero Services. This time I was a mechanic working under the shop certificate. Our big project was the first ever “D Inspection” of a Falcon 20!

Aero Services crowded Hangar 6 in May 1985. The blue and white Falcon 20 in the foreground is the bird that we would take completely apart for the first ever "D" inspection on a 20. A note about this photo... it appeared in an Aero Services pamphlet for the MBS station... I shot the photo! The company had contracted a professional photographer to shoot the busy hangar. He came and set up the lights and started to take photos. I went up on the deck and with my own camera took this shot. When the photos came back from the pro. I showed the boss my shot and he used the professional's images for all of the outside and people working shots, but liked my in-hangar shot better... so they used it.

The job involved nearly a complete disassembly and re-assembly of the aircraft. Everything came off and came out. Delicate and tedious tasks such as removing the wing bolts (which required dental tools to remove the hardened sealant that had been placed there during factory construction) was part of what I did. If we put the smallest scratch on one of the existing bolts it had to be replaced. We ended up replacing more than a dozen- most from corrosion. All the while the people from Dassault Falcon Jet watched over us and took notes. At one point all of the cockpit windows had to come out. They were sealed in so well that a mechanic with a 12 pound no-bounce sledge hammer had to stand on top of the cockpit and smack the windows repeatedly to get them to break free. We asked if Falcon Jet representative if that was a good method? He replied that he had no idea because as far as he knew, no one had ever done it before! The removed windows were thrown away. One of the mechanics, the guy with the no-bounce duty, asked if he could have one of the front windows? Hell, they were junk anyhow, so sure. He took it home and shot it at close range with a .357 magnum. The slug went half way in and just mushroomed! When the Falcon Jet representative saw that he asked if he could have it? He ended up taking it back to Dassault for study.

Toward the end of the inspection I was picked along with one other guy to re-seal the wing bolts. Dassault had engineered a better sealing method where a Styrofoam cover was pressed into the area surrounding the wing bolt after we had filled the space with something called Mastinox Compound. It was sort of liquid rubber paste that never hardened. We had to wear disposable cloths and once we started the job we could not stop, for anything, until it was finished. Weeks later I was back at college and still picking that yellow stuff out from under my fingernails.

After college, my pilot career later took me into the airlines rather than corporate flying where I really wanted to go, but fate played in my favor. One day my climb up the airline ladder came to sudden and unjust halt. I found myself without a job and doing the ignored resume thing. Eventually my wife decided that I needed to get out of the house and she took me to an airport were a youth event was being held on the corporate ramp. As she manned the table for the company that she represented I strolled around. Spotting a King Air 200 I asked the lady sitting at a card table under its wing what kind of time someone needed to fly that thing? She started giving me the standard new pilot line of, “Our new hires have to have 1,000 total time, 200 multi…” I stopped her and asked what kind of time do REAL pilots have to have? She asked what kind of time I had and when I told her she nearly jumped out of her seat. She told me that they also flew Falcon 10s and 20s and I told her I’d been a mechanic on Falcon Jets- she wanted a resume… right away! 

The "Corporate Bullet" the Falcon 10

Soon I sat with the owner of the company and after talking to him I got home and found a message on my machine asking me to come in on Saturday, fly the Falcon 10, do three take offs and landings to see how I did on it. The 10 was my old pal from way back in my hangar rat days when I used to sit in Corning's 10 and study the cockpit. We flew together like I'd been driving her for years.That afternoon I returned home to find a message on my machine asking me to come in the next day to fly the Falcon 20 and see how I did on it. By the time I got home from that flight there was a message on my machine to report the next morning at 0830… they had a trip for me. Just that easy, I was a corporate pilot flying my dream aircraft.

That first trip was as First Officer on 204JP the immaculate Falcon 20 that was the personal aircraft of MCI President John Porter. She was a beautiful and classic aircraft- finely adorned inside with gold metals and white leathers. 

Aboard N204JP

On the outside she was spotless clean- a far cry from filthy junk they had at TWA.  As I walked around giving 204JP my personal once-over I suddenly came face-to-face with Mrs. Porter. She wanted to know all about my qualifications and experience. After about three minutes she was satisfied that I’d be their new pilot. Just like the 10, this 20's seat was exactly the same shape as my ass. Even though I'd never been to "class" on this aircraft, I was totally at home aboard her. I knew every system and every switch... we were made for each other. 


I loved every second of flying Mr. Porter and although many hated his guts after WorldCom went under because it swallowed MCI, he was always great to me. On one of our flights, after he bought into a NASCAR team, I got to do “the ultimate” flight.

It was speed week at Daytona Beach and we were flying into DAB so Mr. Porter could watch “his boy race.” Turning onto final for runway 25R there was ERAU out my window. As I contacted the tower and told him we were on final he surprisingly said,

“Does it feel good to be back again?”

Mr. Porter had never had his jet into DAB before- but I just went along with the conversation.

“Just like old times,” I quipped back and he cleared us to land.

My captain, who was the owner of the company, looked at me and asked, “Does he know you?”

“Aviation’s a small world babe,” I replied wanting to stretch out my boss’ misconception that everybody involved with ERAU knows everyone else, “and I was flyin’ out of here for a long time.”

We landed and when ground came up it was the same controller.

“You goin’ to the Riddle ramp today?” he asked half joking.

“Old habits die hard,” I replied, “but we’re goin’ to DBA today.”

“Cleared to DBA, and welcome back,” the controller retorted.

My boss spent the rest of the month in total amazement that we flew into my old stomping grounds and the controller appeared to recognize my voice. Actually it was probably just a good guess on the part of the controller. That day we went over to campus and I got a hold of my former director of flight ops. and had him come over and see 204JP. He was amazed that it had a skylight in the lavatory. For me that trip was full circle- I came back to Daytona piloting my dream jet.

Thus, I’ll always be a Falcon Jet guy- after all, I got to fly both of the classics- the “Mystere” 20 plus the “Corporate Bullet” 10- I loved it! I wound up my pilots career flying the Falcon Jets and I still keep buying the T-shirts… much to my wife’s dismay.

I’d found the bird and flew it back to my old nest.

If you enjoy my writing... try one of my books! Lots of airplanes in there.

No comments:

Post a Comment