Pelican's Perch #69:
Two years ago, AVweb's John Deakin wrote about taking Gulfstream IV training and the start of his move from airlines to bizjets. This month, John chronicles the long and challenging process that still hasn't quite settled down.
Before we get into this month's column, a little "housekeeping."
I'd like to remind readers that my old email address (firstname.lastname@example.org) is no longer valid, as the new owners have done away with AVweb email for columnists and other staff. My current addresses are my "Old Faithful" for more than 20 years, email@example.com, and my newer one, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Some readers complained about my last effort, concerning colonoscopy. Some said this is an aviation forum, not a medical one, and some thought it out of place in public, anywhere. With apologies to the squeamish, I'm very pleased with the results: Most approved, many reported getting or scheduling the procedure as a result of my column, and one reported a serious condition that would not have been discovered if he hadn't read my column. I am well pleased.
Now, back to airplanes!
From Boeing to Gulfstream
This is not a pilot report in the usual sense; rather it is more personal account of my journey from the airline world and the 747 to the corporate/charter world of the Gulfstream IV. There will be some "pilot stuff," of course.
To be truthful, I didn't think much of the (then Grumman) "Gulfstream G-I," the turboprop screamer, for the engines were capable of destroying the hearing of every dog within a mile. I guess it was a good airplane, but it never turned me on. I know of none left flying, today, and I haven't seen (or heard) one in years. But the G-II, III, IV and V got rid of the props, a major improvement.
By the way, Gulfstream has chosen to change the entire product line to new designations, in order to confuse everyone. The G-IV is now the G-400, the G-IV is the G-500, and the new G-VSP is the G-550. I'll use the older designations here, thank you very much. I cannot bear to call it a "Boeing DC-3," either. Tradition dies hard for us old folks!
For the last ten years of my airline career, I used to look at every Gulfstream that taxied by, and always thought that would be a nice way to fly on after age 60.
Well, that just proves the old adage, "Be careful what you dream, it might come true." I'm pleased to say I'm now fully checked out and flying as a PIC on the G-IV, and enjoying it, very much. It is everything I thought it would be, and more.
Some ask, "Why?" Well, there was no retirement plan at JAL (we were always "Christmas Help"), and like many pilots, my investment strategies over the years have not been good. They say for every seller there is a buyer, and all I can say is that anyone on the other end of a deal with me did very well. I'm not alone, either. A lot of airline pilots who previously thought they were set for life suddenly find themselves in the same leaky boat, now still making payments on that boat that they cannot afford. I take no joy in that. There have been a lot of very harsh economic lessons, lately.
A Slow, Hard Road
The road to the G-IV was not easy, there were a few missteps, and it took me nearly two years. I thought it might be interesting and instructive to tell some of the story from a personal viewpoint. With the airline industry in shambles, and getting worse every day, with highly qualified pilots out of jobs, many are looking for "alternatives." This is one, though not an easy one.
My first and biggest mistake was moving to the right seat with JAL in October 1999. Not exactly bad, but in retrospect, I'd have done better to cut the cord at 60, and get on with it. My timing would have been perfect for the "market," for there was, by all reports, a severe shortage of G-IV pilots, and anyone with a type rating was in tall cotton. By leaving the airline world in June 2001, I came "on line" just in time for 9/11, and the economy tanking after that. Surprisingly, the terrible events of 9/11 may have been a boost for corporate and charter flying, helping business aviation to take only a relatively minor drop, compared to what it usually does in sour markets.
Through a quirk in the rules, pilots flying under the FAA cannot fly either pilot seat as of their 60th birthday (although they can move back to Flight Engineer, with no age limit). But I operated under Japanese and ICAO rules, and the language is a bit looser, saying that no pilot may serve as PIC (Pilot In Command) after the 60th birthday (there are some variations on that now, depending on the situation, and the country). When I hit 60, I had the opportunity to move to the right seat, remain domiciled in Los Angeles and continue flying the trip between Los Angeles and Sao Paulo, Brazil. Since that trip took me away from home for less than 48 hours, with 24 hours of flying time, I only had to do three such trips a month, leaving a very firm schedule, and the rest of the time free of all duty. I enjoyed that pattern from 1994 through 2001. But then that trip went away, and I would have had to be domiciled in Hawaii, fly the Orient again, and be away from home from 20 to 25 days a month. That sounded too much like work, something to which I've always had an aversion, and so ended a 33-year career with the airlines. I'm having too much fun to miss it.
While I remain adamantly opposed to the age-60 rule, and have been for 40 years, it was undeniably time for me to make a change. I'd been on the 747 for 27 straight years, with 20,398 hours in it (18,721 as PIC, possibly a record), all over the world. I was bored, complacent, and lazy. I've always thought the airline system was terribly inefficient, where pilots can bid one airplane this year, another the next, at will. But there is something to be said for it. I think pilots do need continuous challenge.
A Bigger Challenge Than Expected
When I decided to take on the G-IV, I took on a challenge I did not fully appreciate until much later!
I have previously written about the G-IV training, the course from hell. I stand by what I wrote, and will only add that I was probably too hard on the FAA, and too easy on SimuFlight. Otherwise, not a single pilot has disagreed with anything I wrote, and several executives at various flight departments have also agreed entirely. But many of them said that no matter how true it was, I shouldn't have written it, and that it would cost me, personally.
They were right. The operator who was previously willing to hire me dropped me like a hot potato, in spite of the fact they were having major problems with the training organization they used, and they soon changed training organizations because of those problems. Apparently they felt that I might be something of a troublemaker, and they wanted nothing more to do with me. Several other operators that might have hired me also stated that the column, while being entirely true, was not a good career step. That column was also probably instrumental in the FAA forcing me out of the examiner ranks.
As many people have told me, "John, every word was true, but you just can't say that!" They were right. But if not me, who? If no one ever says anything, the problems won't be fixed. But enough of that, I'm not on a crusade, here. As with the insane age-60 rule, someone else will have to carry on that fight.
While I had a few bad moments after not being hired, another operator was willing to take a chance (they probably hadn't read the column), and I got several very good gigs out of them as a contract copilot. Then 9/11 hit during one of them, while we were in Amsterdam. Amazingly, charter operators, and charter operators only, were allowed to fly back into the USA, while hundreds, if not thousands, of corporate aircraft were stranded outside the USA, unable to come home. Crews and passengers were stuck too, because not even the airlines flew for a few days.
Almost immediately after 9/11, the management company/charter operator also lost the management contract for one of their G-IVs, and I got no more contract work from them. Pity, because I enjoyed working with them, and wish them well. Several of the regular pilots there were very kind and helpful when I needed it the most, and I learned a lot from them.
I then started getting some contract work with a really good operator, the best I've seen so far, flying on a daily rate. That was very sporadic, and not enough to justify the training costs, which contract pilots usually pay themselves. My efforts to find other contract work bore no fruit.
Trying Not To Sell Out
My biggest problem is my lack of marketing skills. I hate to beat my way into a chief pilot's office, and try to sell myself. I called dozens of people all over the west coast, anyone who had anything to do with one or more G-IVs. All were courteous, though some were probably a bit weary of having to field calls like mine, probably many per day. All told me they didn't need anyone; most just suggested I send them a resume. I sent out dozens of resumes, and never got a call back, except for one, which resulted in the job I have now. I followed up with a few who had seemed friendly on the phone, and most of them didn't even remember me, just "Fax me a resume." I always refrained from the obvious, "I've already done that a couple of times."
It finally sank into my thick skull that I wasn't going to make it as a contract pilot with little or no time in the airplane, no contacts in high places, and no "rep." Several operators had asked me about working full time, but I really wanted to go the contract pilot route for the freedom it offers. There are a very small number of pilots who have made a success at this, but most have extensive Gulfstream experience, and know a lot of people. They also help each other out, calling around for a substitute pilot when they have too much work. Several of them were very helpful, but I was unable to hold out long enough. Training costs are very high, and contract pilots usually pay their own way, hoping to make it up with lots of flying. The FAA is now pushing hard to attend full five-day recurrent courses every six months, and that exactly doubles the training costs for a contract pilot. Part 91 pilots have it much easier; most attend annual recurrent training, which is enough, in my opinion. (But no one asked me!)
Finally, the operator for whom I'd been doing a little contract work had a full-time opening, and I accepted their offer to work full time as a "rover," or "floater" pilot, filling in on any of the Gulfstreams they manage. There are just under a dozen, plus several dozen other types. I fill in when one of the regularly assigned pilots goes sick, or needs time off, or goes off for the usual five-day recurrent training at Flight Safety (every six months).
The Rarified World of Business Jets
It's a very secretive world, reminding me of my days with Air America. The people who own, charter, or fly these aircraft are paying big bucks for super-safe, extremely comfortable, and very discreet travel. There are very legitimate fears of kidnapping and ransom, industrial and political espionage, and now terrorism. Those fears translate into a willingness to pay several times the cost of an airline ticket for travel. The smart pilot will never talk about passengers, or even suggest who is on board, or where they are going. Readers will note that I haven't mentioned company names, pilots' names, or N numbers, and I never will. I will say that in two years and close to 300 hours of flying, I've not had a single unpleasant experience with other crewmembers, or passengers. Some are very demanding, but they're paying for the best, and by golly, they get it.
While stockholders may be distressed at the thought of high-level executives jetting around the world at their expense, what I've observed has not supported this attitude. On one trip all over Europe, sometimes two moves in a day, the sole two passengers worked hard during every flight. They would clean up on board, and hit the ground running, selling some sort of very large international buy-out. It would have been totally impossible to do any of that, using the airlines. One very impressive frequent customer works with an intensity that is frightening. Food is placed nearby, and if he eats, fine. If not, it quietly goes away. How much productive work do you suppose he'd get done on the airlines?
The flight attendant on these airplanes can make or break the flight, and the business, possibly making her (they are overwhelmingly female) the most important crewmember on the flight. We pilots have very little exposure to the clients, other than meeting and greeting, and saying goodbye. One pilot usually does baggage duty, not meeting the passengers at all, except when coming forward through the cabin for takeoff.
But the FA is right there in close proximity, the entire time. She orders the catering, and must be acutely aware of the needs and desires of the customers, with no fallback if they don't like what she has ordered and prepared. One group asked for "BBQ" on the way home. The FA found a local famous BBQ, and the three of us went to lunch there, to check it out. She ordered take out for the next day, quite an assortment for eight, but no pork. When asked, she just smiled gently, and said, "Our passengers are Jewish." I never would have thought of that! Catering is extensive, and expensive, for some passengers really want what they want, right down to the brand name of bottled water. Others just say, "Oh, get a couple deli sandwiches, or something." It is a job I could not do. The in-flight portion can be easy on the FA with just one or two passengers, but with any more than that, it's a nightmare for the FA, and she'll be working hard the entire flight. All of ours attend annual emergency training, and are fully equivalent to airline FAs in that regard. Other operators stint on that training, call their FAs "Stewardesses," and place all the responsibility for emergencies on the flight crew. Since the airplane cannot hold more than 19 passengers, there is no legal requirement for anyone in the cabin at all, and some of the smaller airlines take advantage of that, too. I'd much rather have a well-trained FA back there, thank you very much. In any emergency, the pilots are going to have quite enough to do up front.
The early G-IVs eventually gave way to the current model, the G-IVSP. All are essentially the same airplane, but the SP is a bit heavier, with a higher gross weight, 75,000 pounds on the ramp, ready to taxi. That includes a 400-pound allowance for startup and taxi, and a maximum takeoff weight of 74,600. It is FAA-certified for 19 passengers, plus two pilots (minimum) and one flight attendant, for a total of 22. Very few are outfitted with more than about 15 passenger seats, and most have around 12 or 13, with no two airplanes alike.
Interiors give new meaning to the word "luxurious," with butter-soft leather, thick pile carpets, entertainment centers at each seat, multiple phones (including SatPhones), fax, and data connections. Most airplanes have berthing capability for sleepers, and with nine-hour flights, many take advantage of those, arriving rested, refreshed, and well-fed (Gee, just like the airlines, right? Riiiight!). Most airplanes have a large lavatory in the back end, and a smaller one forward. Flights to Europe from the west coast are common, needing only one stop for fuel, usually at Gander, Iqaluit (Frobisher), or Bangor, all reminiscent of Ernie Gann's "Fate is the Hunter." Flights to Australia or the South Pacific need a stop in Hawaii, and flights to the Orient stop in Anchorage or Cold Bay.
(The G-IV's larger brother, the G-V, will make most of those non-stop, for it has a much bigger wing, a lot more fuel, and much more efficient engines. It also has a full crew rest facility for extra crewmembers, and costs another ten million, at about $45,000,000.)
International operations are not the only part of G-IV flying, of course, I would guess that most trips are within the USA. When more than half a dozen business people travel to locations where there is no direct airline service, chartering a G-IV makes a lot of economic sense. On one charter, the group worked all morning in the West Coast office, hopped on the G-IV, lunched, got a lot more work done on the way to an East Coast destination in the evening, got a good night's sleep, put in a full day of business the next day and evening, took off early in the morning and got home in mid-morning, to put in nearly a full day at the West Coast office. All totally impossible on the airlines. Consider too, this trip came up only a day before we left. You can't even get reservations on the airlines that late, even for a couple of people, much less ten!
While the G-IV is not the "hottest" corporate/charter aircraft around, it's no slouch. At first, I found acceleration shockingly quick at sea level, full thrust, cool day, and a light airplane! It took several dozen takeoffs before I was fully up to speed with the airplane; it's a real rocket. It's now routine, of course, but there are a lot of things going on, several calls to make, and it's easy to get behind. At high-elevation airports, heavy, on a hot day, the takeoff is more "stately." If you hear a Gulfstream pilot whine about poor performance when high, hot, and heavy, please understand, he's whining about less than 1,000 feet per minute on one engine. I sometimes feel like slapping a chokehold on, and dragging one of these guys out to the old C-46, loaded, on a hot day, and make him do an engine failure on takeoff, where he'd be lucky to get 50 feet per minute. 500 fpm up is pure LUXURY! It's all in the perspective, I guess.
Luxurious But CrampedThe luxury in the back end is matched up front, in the "office." The airplane is highly automated, and built with incredible redundancy, for reliability. One design goal was for an aircraft that could be dispatched to the remote regions of the Earth (Christmas Island, Siberia, the Seychelles, New York), and if something breaks, it won't matter; there will be a backup system, with further backups for that. Gulfstream did a great job, in my opinion. My only complaints about the airplane are two. The cockpit is too small, and the emergency exits are too hard to use, being both small and difficult to get to. I am long in the legs, and short in the body, and I end up with the rudder pedals fully forward, the seat fully back, fully reclined (fully reclined is only another inch, or so). I'm quite comfortable there, but there's no further adjustment left for changing positions in flight, and it's tough to get any sleep in the seat. It's also a real challenge getting in and getting out, even for a small skinny person, which I am not.
Invariably, my first sound on sitting down in any airplane is, "Awright, who's the skinny rotten &*(*^%% who left this seatbelt all cinched up?" When I get to be king, my first action will be to add a checklist item right at the very last, "Seat Belts --- LOOSE." It's even worse at the CAF, because we often wear parachutes, and those need to be adjusted, too!
One nameless, motherless turkey out there at the CAF decided to fix me, one day. He knew I was about to give someone a ride in the old AT-6, so he quietly climbed up and let all the parachute and seat straps out to the full length. What he didn't know was that the "passenger" was also a pilot, and a very, very small one. I climbed into the rear seat, went into my usual good-humored rage, screaming about "too tight" straps, only to hear the person up front saying, "Gosh, someone REALLY BIG must have flown this last."
Meanwhile, of course, the jokester had gathered a small crowd to witness his trick, and while it didn't happen precisely the way he intended, he recovered nicely, yelling, "Deakin flew it, last!" Why is ever'buddy always pickin' on me?
But, I digress.
There is no room for a flight kit or briefcase of any kind, in the G-IV cockpit. In fact, there's no room anywhere, we end up putting anything personal in the forward lav, and piling it in the aisle by the entrance door to use the lav for its intended purpose. I end up carrying only sunglasses into the cockpit, there is room for nothing else. One 2" looseleaf notebook with all the paperwork for the airplane and the flight will tuck in behind one seat on the floor, and a 1" Jepp binder will fit behind the other seat. It is necessary for pilots to pull all the Jepp plates for the entire trip out of the big binders, and put them in the 1" "Trip Book," as part of the preflight preparation. Full USA Jepp coverage in the usual binders will fit inside the step into the cockpit, but it's hard to reach in flight, and there is often something else sitting on top of that (a briefcase, crew meals, etc.) As the trip progresses, and as time permits, pilots will carefully refile the Jepp pages back where they belong. It is mandatory to remain very well-organized, and to plan well ahead, in this airplane!
Other Jepp binders are stored in various nooks and crannies of the airplane, some surprisingly well-hidden. Since I am a "rover" pilot, or a "floater," flying any of the managed G-IVs, it's often like an Easter egg hunt to find the right Jepps. Most carry full USA, Canada, and Hawaii subscriptions, many have full Europe coverage, and a few just have the full, worldwide coverage, costing well over $12,000 a year, and untold hours spent doing revisions. It's not unusual to be sitting for a few days somewhere, and suddenly get a call to do a quick charter, and it might well be anywhere in the world.
We are just now starting to see "Paperless Cockpits," with all the Jepp stuff in the computer, but I've not yet had the pleasure. It cannot happen too soon, for me. It's a much better, much safer way to fly, although the equipment is expensive (up to $50,000), and the subscription price is even higher. I know, that doesn't make sense to me, either. As much as I admire Jeppesen, and love their product, I think they desperately need competition to get these monopoly prices down.
Next month, we'll get into the systems a bit, and what it's like to operate this magnificent machine. I really do like it, and I'm liking the automation more and more as I become ever more fluent in its use. I still like the old stuff for sport, but this is a new and challenging experience for me, and that's good. I figure I've only got about 27 years more of professional flying in me (90 seems a good time to retire), so I want to make the most of it.
Be careful, up there!