The Pilot’s Lounge #134: Gear Up, Good Night – Flying Freight in the Not-So-Good Old Days


Here at the virtual airport, a number of the regulars in the Pilot’s Lounge fly charter under Part 135 of the regs. Having done so as well, I greatly enjoy spending time with charter pilots and listening to them tell of some of the more, ah, interesting trips they have.

As I listen, I find that I am glad that the majority of charter operators make a pretty good effort to follow the regs; actually giving training and doing maintenance rather than faking the logbook entries as was so widely done back in the 1970s and early 1980s. I like the fact that the accident rate has gone down since then because I like my friends and want to keep them around.

While it is fashionable in some circles to assert that society is falling apart and that if only we could return to the ways of yore, all would be well, in the world of Part 135 flying, it simply isn’t true. The cowboy days of operators cutting every corner possible trying to make a buck while the FAA looked the other way killed way too many people.

We sure aren’t perfect today, but it just seems to me that a pilot who has had some real recurrent training and is about to launch into foul weather in an airplane that has had its squawks fixed stands a lot better chance of arriving at the desired destination alive and well than if the training had been lousy or nonexistent and maintenance just some entries in a logbook. I think it is appropriate to open a page of aviation history, look at it objectively and recognize that there were definitely some “bad old days” in professional aviation.

I’ve not talked about this era much outside a small circle of friends, which includes some FAA inspectors, and whatever statutes of limitation there may be on the myriad of regulations my compatriots and I so routinely violated have long run. I happened to come into the Part 135 freight hauling scene at a time when the FAA chose, for whatever reason, to not enforce its regulations on the charter operations at one of the busiest freight airports in the country.

I was like many other professional pilots at that airport, young, burning with desire to fly and didn’t much care about how well the airplanes we were to fly were maintained because we not only figured we could fly anything, anywhere, anytime, we also knew that if we didn’t go because of weather or condition of the airplane, we would be fired and someone else would go in our place. I only differed from the group in that I was luckier than some. I survived. Not all of my contemporaries did.

By the mid-1970s, Willow Run Airport, created by Henry Ford on one of his farms west of Detroit to build B-24s for World War II, had become the center of the universe for airplanes hauling components needed for the manufacture of cars. The Big 3 auto companies were so huge that there was always an assembly line somewhere that was in danger of shutting down because of a shortage of some part. It meant that any pilot who could scrape up a down payment on a clapped out Beech 18 with a cargo door and could obtain a Part 135 Air Carrier Certificate could promise traffic managers at the car makers lower air freight prices than anyone else in hopes of getting the call to haul auto parts on short notice. It was unbridled capitalism with constant price wars, minimal training for the pilots, little maintenance for the airplanes and an FAA that was looking the other way.

During law school I had hauled freight out of Willow Run in piston twins. About the time I graduated and began studying for the Bar exam, a number of the operators which had been flying Beech 18s discovered that the per-mile operating cost of a well used Lear 23 or early 24 was about the same as the Beech, and the Lear got the freight delivered much, much faster.

Suddenly there were Learjets at Willow Run, almost all of which were being operated by folks who had previously done nothing but run single-pilot airplanes.

They weren’t exactly sure what to do about the requirement of a copilot in a Learjet. The regs said that the copilot had to go through some training and make three takeoffs and landings in the airplane. However, there simply wasn’t the money for any training, or to pay more than a pittance for a right seat warmer and by gawd, the Learjet 23 panel was set up for single-pilot operation anyhow, even if Lear couldn’t convince the FAA to grant single-pilot certification.

The reactions among Lear operators varied. One was reputed to simply tell the lineboys that fueled him that he needed a copilot for a trip and one of them would go. As he never let his copilots do any flying it worked out fine until the night the lineboys put a guy who’d never even been in an airplane before into the right seat, promising him an airplane ride. Eventually the Lear operators hired and trained copilots, paid them a living wage and put them on the path to upgrade to captain. But in the interim, where I came in, the practice was for an operator to find some pilots he trusted and pay them a small amount to fly right seat time in the Lear as needed. Training was on the job – no classroom, no books, no three takeoffs and landings before the first revenue trip and certainly no checkride.

After getting a call from one of the operators who needed another part time copilot, I found myself sitting sideways in the “barrel chair” right behind the copilot’s seat of a Model 24B Learjet as we taxied out for 27R at Willow Run. Behind me the rest of the seats had been stripped out and the cabin wrapped with heavy gauge plastic to protect it from the sharp edges of freight.

In short order I learned that all ground ops were on one engine because the fuel burn of the GE CJ610 engines was higher on the ground than in cruise flight (as all Lear pilots, I rapidly became obsessed with fuel). The second engine was not started cleared for takeoff. Moments later I learned that the acceleration of a Lear on takeoff was as nothing I’d ever experienced and that it might well be investigated for its deeply addictive properties. Grabbing the partition behind the copilot’s head in a death grip, certain that I would otherwise be hurled aft and pulverized against the rear pressure bulkhead by the stunning acceleration, I knew I was going to like Learjets.

On the second leg of the trip I was assigned to the right seat where I was to talk on the radio, call airspeeds during the takeoff roll and final approach and, upon the captain’s command after we broke ground, raise the landing gear and flaps, turn on the yaw damper, turn off the landing lights and generally make myself useful while learning by doing and trying to avoid causing catastrophe. This time takeoff acceleration was a physical entity that shoved me back in my seat, accompanied by view similar to that from a go-kart.

Seated eyes low to the ground, the sensation of speed was vastly amplified as the Lear went scorching down the runway at something approaching a million miles per hour (conservative estimate) and I, overwhelmed, did my best to gasp out “airspeed alive and cross check”, then “V1” and finally, sharply, “rotate!” With that we pitched up at an improbable angle and tore our way into the sky as sensory overload caused me to struggle to do my simple post-launch tasks. The VSI pegged at 6,000 fpm, a rate I had never seen and my brain, doing its best to keep up, informed me that the vertical vector of our climb was, stunningly, more than a mile a minute.

Intellectually I knew that the speeds and operating altitudes of the Lear were old hat, for jets had been going far faster and higher for decades, yet the visceral reality of those first flights created a burning excitement that penetrated every level of my being, so much so that it would take me hours for the euphoria to drain away after the trip. On the first flight in the right seat, as we cruised at FL450 (45,000 feet, the max legal altitude for the airplane and where we routinely flew to minimize fuel burn), I, who held an ATP, was so effectively mesmerized by the concept of being that far above the planet that I was unable to utter the simple phrase, “Flight Level 450,” in response to an altitude query from ATC, managing only after a number of stammers and halts to utter, “forty-five hundred feet.” I thought the captain was going to hurt himself laughing at the rube to his right.

As I came to know the airplane the captain I most often flew with, who also owned the company, and whom I’ll call “Ben,” would put me in the left seat every other leg. He wasn’t being generous, he was tired and utterly pragmatic.

Once he was reasonably certain I wouldn’t kill him, he engaged in what had come to be called “gear up and good night.” Going through about 10,000 feet following takeoff the copilot’s workload dropped off to talking occasionally on the radio. Thus, because we so often ignored crew duty time limits and kept flying so long as there was freight to be hauled, we were frequently deeply tired, so upon passing through 10,000 it was not uncommon for the right-seater to unbuckle and head aft to spread out the sleeping bag wherever there was room, and fall asleep instantly upon becoming recumbent. Invariably the pressure change during the descent would wake him up at about 15,000 feet or so and he’d be buckled in and ready to take over copilot duties when descending through 10,000 feet.

Even when things settled into what passed for a routine, there were events, good, bad and funny, that made each trip its own adventure. Once, when light on fuel, we broke ground at O’Hare and passed through 10,000 feet exactly one minute later, a rate of climb of nearly two miles per minute. Ben carried an HP calculator that could provide great circle routes from latitude and longitude inputs. Coming out of Van Nuys for Willow Run one night I asked Los Angeles Center for “060 degrees, direct Detroit.”

When I was asked if we were carrying inertial nav, I said we had Hewlett-Packard. We were cleared direct Detroit. We made it, too, but with maybe enough fuel to go around the pattern once after a balked landing.

There was the 3:00 in the morning out of Fairfax (Kansas City, now closed) bound for Teterboro. I was cleared to fly a heading until receiving Cleveland, then direct Cleveland. With Captain Ben asleep in back, I dutifully flew the assigned heading, vainly waiting for the “off” flag on the VOR head to disappear and the needle to come alive. After some time Center asked me where I was going. I confidently read back my clearance, only to hear a laconic voice respond with, “You’re over Joliet.” I was so tired I’d put the wrong frequency in the nav radio. I shuddered to think what would have happened had I been on an approach where there were things to hit.

There were all sorts of creative electronic warning noises to alert the crew to the fact that all was not right in their little world aloft. I slowly learned where to look for information when one of the high decibel alerts activated. When I heard the noxious beeping akin to the French fries being done at McDonalds, I knew that I’d let the speed slide a little over the barber pole on descent. A “bing!” alerted me to wandering off altitude.

Then, one morning, again at about 3, when I thought I’d heard all the noises the airplane could generate, I was trying to move a bit to ease the discomfort of being 6 feet 4 inches tall in a cockpit built for smaller humans when I heard a sharp “Yelp!” Adrenalin poured into my system. I urgently scanned the panel trying to figure out what was wrong, what system was malfunctioning, and what I must do to set things right. What goes “Yelp!?” All needles were firmly where they should be.

I had to find what was wrong because at FL450 any problem can become huge in a frighteningly short time. Nothing. All seemed in order. I pulled the flashlight from its holder and started a complete exam of the cockpit. Its light revealed Ben’s small dog, who frequently rode with us, curled up, asleep, around the base of the left hand control column. As I’d stretched, I’d inadvertently kicked him and he’d given a single, loud announcement of my transgression before going back to sleep.

Ben’s dog was the source of enjoyment for us, as he had a universally pleasant personality. He never fussed when the flying pilot would err and have to shove forward on the yoke to avoid blowing through an assigned altitude and float him off the floor. He would not bark, just start running as fast as he could in midair, which usually caused him to invert (I never figured out why) and whoever was in the right seat would reach out and cradle him to his chest until gravity returned, and then set him gently between the seats.

There was, however, the night we stopped for fuel at Flower Aviation at Pueblo, Colorado while carrying eight, count ’em, eight Camaro door panels from Cincinnati to Van Nuys. Any Lear looks great from outside. The scantily clad line woman waved us into parking as Ben advised me that on a fill up for a jet, Flower gave the crew a box of steaks. As we shut down the young lady spread a red carpet in front of the door. I went back and opened it. When she saw that the guy coming out of the airplane and asking that it be topped off looked to be a bearded reprobate in a lumberjack shirt, blue jeans and boots and who certainly had no business in a Learjet, her welcoming smile disappeared. When Ben’s dog jumped out behind me and relieved himself on the left main landing gear tires, she picked up the red carpet and drove away in her little golf cart. While we were fueled, we never did get our steaks.

There was terror as well: Late night over the Grand Canyon, again at FL450, above a thunderstorm, Ben asleep in the back, and sudden, sharp turbulence that caused both the autopilot and the yaw damper to shut off. A Lear at FL450 without a yaw damper will yaw in one direction while rolling in the other and then reverse itself with the magnitude increasing (true Dutch Roll). It is akin to being in a very bad skid on ice, in slow motion, in three dimensions. Unless you have received training for handling it, there is a good chance of loss of control of the airplane. I had not received such training.

I shouted for Ben. He couldn’t hear me. My control inputs did not seem to be helping the situation and I suddenly couldn’t recall where the yaw damper switch was. Good grief, I’d only been turning it on after takeoff for some time now, but as I’d turned the lighting down to enjoy the light show from the thunderstorm, I couldn’t find the switch. The combination of fatigue, increasing terror and that I was used to activating the switch from the right seat did not help my increasingly frenetic search. I realized I had to go to plan B because I couldn’t find the damn switch.

I turned on the autopilot, hoping it would fly the airplane better than I. Things got better, as the oscillations were not as profound. The autopilot was a model that had indicators showing the actions of its control servos. I could see those indicators moving nearly to their limits. I didn’t think that was a good thing. I had to find the yaw damper switch. I grabbed the flashlight, turned it on and pointed it where I thought the yaw damper switch lived. The light made the difference. I found the switch and flipped it on. Instant return to sanity. The rudder pedals were again seemingly encased in concrete, the fear-inducing roll-yaw coupled cycle stopped and the Lear was serenely cruising the heights. It took some time for my pulse to return to double digits.

I was luckier than some of my contemporaries who went to work for companies that had either no scruples whatsoever, or no understanding of high speed aerodynamics combined with high altitude meteorology. Those operators were the ones who put “go fast switches” under the panel of their Learjets. The switch disabled both the overspeed warning and stick puller. The 20-series Learjets have so much power they can exceed redline airspeed in cruise flight. Doing so is an exceedingly serious affair because at some speed past redline it induces what is known as “Mach tuck”. When that happens the airplane begins to pitch down, eventually uncontrollably until the airplane violently comes apart. There is a very limited time for a well trained crew to take precisely the correct action to save the airplane and themselves. While I was flying as copilot there were some inflight breakups of Learjets, notably freighters. It was later discovered that go fast switches were to blame in at least some of those tragedies.

It was a time of certain adventure, generated by characters behaving as humans will when no one is watching. I was lucky. There were too many deaths and too many publicized close calls for that time to have been sustainable. As the Marshalls came in and cleaned up the wild west, the FAA eventually paid attention to the smaller operators at Willow Run, although it was not until after the Michigan economy had undergone one of its periodic collapses, this time in the winter of 1978-1979 and Ben’s company went under.

When the FAA started inspecting for real, one operator had to junk some half-dozen 20-series Lears because it had never conducted required maintenance and the cost to make them airworthy exceeded their value. A lot of pilots found themselves facing violation actions. It took a few more years before the cowboy days ended. Flying with another operator, Ben died about that time in what I always thought was purely a fatigue induced event. It was a time of walking very close to the aeronautical edge even though a heck of a lot of us did not understand that the edge existed or where it was most of the time. The times the abyss suddenly made itself known to me were terrifying. Looking back at some of the events with the knowledge I have now sometimes causes me to break out in a cold sweat. I got lucky. Too many of my peers went over that edge.

See you next month.

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