My first "evaluation" flight took place in Hawaii at an airport named Dillingham field. The location, on the northwest shore of Oahu, is an ideal place for this kind of flying, as trade winds blow in off the Pacific and race up the face of volcanic mountains creating updraft currents of air.
That short but memorable flight was in a glider like this one, a Schweizer 2-32, pictured here at Dillingham, though many years after my ride. The embarrassment of that day would stick with me for a very long time but would be vanquished one night in a most implausible way.
Photo: Jonathan Konrath
Creative Commons License 2.0
This model, a two-seat trainer, and I would cross paths more than once. My parents arranged the first meeting at a time when I thought I really wanted a chain saw. (I was wrong.)
Like many young pilots, I soloed in the C-150 and the one I flew on that day is pictured here: N7904F. It cost me a nice shirt in the process, but I was grinning from ear to ear.
Photo by Author
This aircraft, dubbed the "Liki Tiki," was involved in classified research for the Department of Defense and supported by the Lincoln Laboratories of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. My father (standing at left) was tasked to fly on it as part of his work for the lab.
Dad's assignment would be the genesis of my lifelong ties to island aviation. Many of the significant memories and milestones of my career had Hawaiian roots, and recollections involving this aircraft is a reminder of how that all began.
Photo by Author
Canadian blood and this airplane have a long, intertwined history, but my experience with it was a bit different. Although I come from a line of fishermen (so to speak), and Beavers equipped with floats are the flying taxis to untold lakes in the provinces, I never had that kind of thrill. I was hired to fix them at a shop near Boston and my old stomping grounds as a child.
My first job as an apprentice mechanic taught me that my formal education meant little without mentoring. One of the fortunate souls in my career first became my guide and then a lifelong friend. We worked together on the airplane pictured above.
Photo by Author
Even among classic aircraft, the Cub stands alone. I learned a lot by piloting and maintaining this taildragger and others like it, particularly on a long, round-robin cross country trip. Flying it was trial by fire, a consequence of my boss looking around and discovering I was the only one available for the job.
This plane was a slowpoke but that didn't meant you couldn't quickly find yourself in trouble. You could. I did. So did others.
Photo by Author
After seeing my boss fly one of these, I had a new found appreciation for what it means to be a test pilot. Somebody has to get in there for the first time, right? Well, it was the first time for him, anyway. You remember what they say about "a little knowledge" and "danger," I suppose.
The aircraft pictured above looks quite similar to the one we picked up in Missouri, ironically enough known as the "Show Me" state. It fits.
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Accidents happen. But why?
When you're a mechanic who worked on an airplane that ended up on its back, in a ball, or otherwise in a mess, the question distills to something heavier, darker, more ominous. Who is to blame? Or what? If you maintain airplanes and want to sleep at night, be diligent while the sun is shining.
Photo: © Derek Heley, used by permission
Seeing black and red creatures unexpectedly invading your domain can make for a nasty surprise. A different 310, though painted in a similarly evocative scheme, almost bit me one time at a place I wasn't expecting it - an airport! Had it done so, I doubt there would have been an antidote.
Photo: © K. West, used by permission
Getting to fly this aircraft was both a surprise and a godsend. Acquiring mult-engine (ME) time is an important square-filler for the civil pilot hoping to get to the big leagues. Surprisingly, once you are trained to fly twins like this, it often leads to a conundrum that is very hard to solve.
Photo by Author
This was the second multi-engine aircraft in which I earned valuable time for my log book. Like flying the Duke, being the pilot was just part of the job description and in this particular case, those other duties had nothing to do with aviation.
This plane was pretty good for my physique, but bad for my sleep. Its owner had some creative ideas about maintaining it that kept me up at night.
Photo by Author
An airplane like this almost killed a student pilot and his instructor, the latter a future author. Guess who?
For aircraft accidents to occur, it usually takes multiple unrelated factors to line up in just the right way. Like tumblers of a lock, any one of them that refuses to align with the others will keep something bad from happening.
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Some airplanes are just a joy to fly, and these single engine Beech models were ones I really liked. The "TC" designation means the engine is turbo-charged, a particularly handy capability for operations at the high elevation airports which are plentiful in New Mexico.
Using good equipment also contributes to reliability, a concern not just for airline operations. For a time, aircraft like these used to criss-cross the skies at the behest of financial institutions. Many of us built hours doing this kind of flying and others which filled a niche.
Photo: Bob Adams
CC BY-SA 2.0
"How many pilots does it take to..."
It sounds like the start of a joke but in practical terms, it was no laughing matter. In my case, the question was "How many pilots does it take to fly a King Air?" The answer to that rather simple question was surprising and complicated.
Obviously, this kind of flying isn't unionized work, and the only "protections" you are afforded come from playing by the rules as defined by FAA regulations and something to be found elsewhere: good, old-fashioned, common sense. Surely, that would be in ample supply around a multi-million dollar corporate airplane...right?? Not so fast, cowboy.
One thing that must be understood about aviation in any kind of airplane, under any kind of conditions, is that situations can rapidly develop which will test the limits of your awareness and ability to respond. Sometimes the threat is mechanical, sometimes weather related, sometimes pilot-induced. Sometimes, it's all of these at once. In an airplane like the one pictured above, I got a dose of that reality "up close and personal."
Photo: Bernard Spragg. NZ
Back to Hawaii, this time to join a small inter-island carrier. Mid-Pacific was my entry into the airline world and like most upstarts that tried to find space between the local juggernauts, Hawaiian and Aloha, it ultimately found survival to be impossible.
Photo: © A Fying History Ltd, used by permission
Upward and onward, this turbo prop was my first assignment after being hired at Hawaiian Airlines. It was a fine bridge aircraft for further developing my skills and an appropriate stepping-stone for what lay ahead. I wrestled with the YS-11, but found this a much tamer animal.
Photo: The Peter Keating Collection © A Fying History Ltd, used by permission
In terms of making memories, this aircraft packed a lot of bang for the buck. The training was arduous and punitive thanks to a couple of unforgettable instructors.
It was in this very aircraft, N8970U, that I completed my training as a Second Officer / Flight Engineer. Each of the aircraft types pictured here would play a significant role later in my career.
Photo: © The Graham Dinsdale Collection, used by permission
In many ways, the TriStar experience was a lesson in contrasts. For the first time in my airline career, I didn't feel like a rookie, but a peer. It would also challenge me in ways I did not expect.
I was able to mitigate that by following a path of my choosing in response to circumstances not of my making. Navigating the uncertainties of the airline industry was difficult and analysis of past performance was a poor crystal ball through which to see your way forward. Ask any airline pilot you like, there is no oracle that can yet predict the future of this industry.
I flew this particular ship, N763BE, many times as a second officer / flight engineer and then as a co-pilot. Here it's getting ready for departure from Los Angeles International airport.
Photo: © George Hamlin, used by permission
The L-1011, or "L-Ten" for short, was a great flying airplane. This is a shot of me flying the jet out of LA. Can you see me? I'm the pixel in the co-pilot's window facing you!
Brian grabbed this picture as the plane was getting ready to cross the shoreline headed west. He and I were on parallel career tracks for a while: same plane, same training class, same base. At the time of this photo, we were both assigned to LAX and living in El Segundo. I wonder...how he was able to hold the camera and his nose at the same time??
Photo by Brian Parks, used by permission
By the time I got to Northwest Airlines, I had a fair amount of air carrier experience and had run the training gauntlet several times. But for many a new airline pilot of the day, this is the aircraft through which they entered into that life.
Part of the work is learning how to get the pilots functioning as a team, no matter what happens. One day, flying out of Memphis, a major malfunction on the aircraft pictured here, N729RW, put that preparation to the test. That incident taught me that safety does indeed have a price.
Photo: © A Flying History Ltd, used by permission
Once you start getting bounced around in an airline career, who knows where you might end up. KLM Airlines is where I hung out for a while, riding out the stormy weather of the US airline industry in the mid 90s. (The route I took to end up there would take the better part of a book to explain - really!)
Those of us who went to Holland were supposed to fulfill a two year commitment to the carrier before returning back the the States. One night aboard this airplane, The City of Calgary, I came close to having my contract cancelled when that magnificent flying machine nearly became a coffin. How that came to be was a terrifying incident that still has the power, in one form or another, to haunt even decades later.
Photo: Frans Berkelaar
CC BY-ND 2.0
From this vantage point, the bulbous Antonov looks almost cartoonish. But I can assure you, the last time I saw it like this, it wasn't the least bit humorous. In truth, I could barely see it at all - just enough to be certain that I was about to die due to an impending midair with it.
An odd irony is that improvements in technology have made certain aspects of aviation potentially much more dangerous. For example, modern navigation systems are so accurate that airplanes are routinely in a position where the only thing that separates them is a difference in altitude. Take away that, and it can more than ruin your day, it can take your life.
Fortunately, there are many safeguards in place to provide the necessary separation. But on that dark night those failed. It came down to the last few seconds and the last line of defense - us, the pilots of The City of Calgary.
Photo: Master Sgt. Keith Brown
For a time, Northwest Airlines operated more DC-10s than anyone else around, flying them to Asia and Europe as well as domestically. It was a growing fleet, and I grew with it, becoming involved at the highest echelons of hands-on training and oversight. By becoming a representative of the FAA, I was charged with making certain that new flight engineers could do the job on an aircraft that operates worldwide.
Another bout of economic headwinds, the timeless nemesis of the industry, ended the grand run of the '10 at NWA. This particular aircraft, N237NW, was the last of the line at Northwest, and the last DC-10 I ever flew. Its final mission for us was to carry customers from Honolulu to Minneapolis, landing on January 8, 2007.
Photo: Konstantin van Wedelstaedt
Airlines are entities sharply focused on costs. Expenditures are endlessly dissected on spreadsheets lighting up the computer screens in cubicles far away from where people live and the action takes place. Case in point, the Airbus 330. It's a modern, intercontinental jet that shed two "third wheels" of its predecessor: one fuel-hungry engine, and a compensated, highly-skilled aviator, the Flight Engineer. This aircraft's birth benefitted from 30 years of advances in electronics, aerodynamics, and manufacturing as if it arrived with a silver spoon in its mouth versus the aging DC-10 it replaced. When one new darling shows up, yesterday's is unceremoniously dismissed, cast aside and then recast as some other metallic object not nearly as fine.
My fate as that displaced crew member was somewhat different. I felt atop a runaway train and up ahead, a bridge was out. Another train, moving faster still, would be coming on a parallel track, but I would have to jump. I'd have one shot to make it and, appropriately enough, pilots, like gymnasts, are often graded on how well they "stick" the landing.
Planning my leap had to take into account an emerging physiology akin to wearing concrete shoes for the event. Adding to the dilemma was the voice inside my head that kept reminding me about previous experiences as a co-pilot and things seen that cannot be unseen, all peppered with thoughts of self-doubt. I had prepared well and did my best to plan for any contingency I could think of. When the time came to jump, I was exhausted in every sense of the word but leapt anyway. For me, there was no other choice; I didn't come this far only to resign myself to an abyss.
The '330 pictured here, a long-range version seen at Japan's Narita airport, is getting ready for pushback. Ironically it sports NWA's sleek, contemporary livery and paint scheme devised to project a confident, forward thinking image. Yet it was to be the last look before extinction: the loss of corporate identity that ensued from the eventual merger with Delta Air Lines.
These pilots' destination isn't known here, but more than likely they will fly back to the US, through the darkness then the dawn before arriving in the afternoon of the calendar day following their departure. Depending on the time of year, they might see the northern lights over Alaska or have to dodge a line of thunderstorms gloriously illuminated by dancing but ominous lightning. Almost always, though, there is the chance for a spectacular sunrise and perhaps the fleeting sight of a "green flash." Soon after, the morning coffee arrives as the sunshades are installed, and they keep pressing eastward as has been done countless times before.
Photo: © David James Clelford, used by permission