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Sunday, June 5, 2016

Rice Rocket

Someone in the Florida Express management pilot group came up with an innovative idea about the time I became a check airman.  We had lots more check airmen than we needed, so that we could rotate duties.  We flew the line 2 months of 3.  Then we did one month of checking duties.  Part of the duties is Intitial Operating Experience (IOE), which is training in the airplane.  Therefore, the month you were on duty, you could be training or checking in the simulator at USAir in Pittsburgh, or actually flying the line with a new first officer (co-pilot) or an upgrading captain.  This helped prevent our check airmen from getting burned out.  It is a rare pilot who enjoys year after year of only doing the training and checking stuff.

Dixon had a group of pilots he consulted with.  I was a member of this gang, which became known as Dixon's Mafia.  I think he was smart in doing this, because he was able to draw on a tremendous wealth of experience and knowledge about the airline business.  This is why I have always considered him the best boss I have ever had.  I have already mentioned several of these pilots - Information Victor, Warren, Dave, Tomcat, Pepe were among the "insiders".  There were also the 2 original check airmen, Jay and Mike.  There were Bobby Z and Bob H.  Later, several of these pilots would end up being directors of training, chief pilots (during a time when Dixon wanted to relax and enjoy flying the line) and ultimately, directors of operations.

The down side was, that some of the other pilots began to see themselves as "outsiders" and in some cases, it was true.  I tried to talk to Dixon about that and he seemed to acknowledge the point I was trying to make.

One of the things I didn't like about being a check airman was that I was seen as "management" by some of the pilots.  In other words, if they had a complaint about something, they thought they could unload their opinions on me.  I only had the ability to try to influence those who really were at the controls with persuasion.  Sometimes that worked, sometimes it did not.  I hated having to defend policy I had no part in making, but happily defended anything in which I had involvement.

Dixon always had a way of finding some basis for firing a pilot who needed to be fired.  You may remember the story of Harry Larry, the guy who was number one on the seniority list, but could not get anyone to recommend him for a captain check ride.  After doing some research, Dixon became aware that H. L. had been fired from a couple airlines before and failed to reveal that in his hiring process at Flex.  Lying on an application will get you fired every time.  (Of course, telling the truth may prevent you from getting hired in the first place.)  I had some involvement in some of the other cases.

We hired a guy who had flown for one of the contractors for UPS, it might have been Orion, the one I had interviewed with (can't remember which one for sure).  He made a big splash when he first showed up.  After only flying for us for a few weeks, he stood up at a pilot meeting and said all the pilots were not landing the BAC correctly.  I wasn't there, but heard all about it for weeks.

At that time, it was policy for jump seaters to wear a shirt and tie.  This guy showed up with a Magnum P.I. shirt one day.  That was all the buzz for a month or so.  Then there were several captains complaining to Dixon or Bobby Z about this guy.  Dixon asked me to fly with him for a month and write a report on the experience.

Aside from telling me several times about how big his son's penis was, there was not much to complain about.  However, it just seemed that he had no idea of what was or was not appropriate to say in several different situations.

He could fly the plane well, but he was an annoying guy and I began to understand what people were complaining about.  The thing that annoyed me the most, was that he was always lobbying to ask the controllers if we could land straight in, even when the airport was operating in the opposite direction.  He had been used to flying in the middle of the night and I was quite certain the controllers would not allow opposite direction landing traffic when they were busy during the day.  

That didn't stop our boy.  He would talk about it every time we were approaching an airport, even though I had discussed it with him in great detail and told him I didn't want to make us look like private pilots by making such a request.  It was like being tapped on the head by a hammer after a few weeks, but he wouldn't let up. This and his comments about the way the group was landing the plane and disdain for the dress code for jump seating indicated that he had contempt for Florida Express.  

One afternoon, during a very busy time at Miami, he wanted to ask if we could land east when the airport was operating west.  I was flying, so I said, "Go ahead and ask."  He had a look of victory on his face.  I wish I could remember exactly what the controller answered, but if you could read between the lines, it was something like, "What the ____ are you thinking, you stupid ____ing ___hole?"  I don't believe the subtlety had any effect.

So, after a month, I wrote my little report.  I did not write about the repeated discussions of his son's genitalia.  I said he was a good and safe pilot, but he had this thing about repeatedly wanting to go against the flow at busy airports and being a general pain in the captain's ass about it.  No is no, dude.  STFU.  (I didn't put that last part in.  I thought my wording was pretty mild as a matter of fact.)

I didn't realize it, but the head shed guys were looking for any reason to dump this guy, so they called him in and began the process of telling him he was canned.  He started crying and told the 2 Bobs, Dixon and Z, that he didn't realize what a pain in the ass he was and offered to seek counseling with a shrink.  They declined and said adios.

That night, he called me at home and said that report I wrote got him canned.  I said, "Hold on there.  I have been hearing negative stories about you since you first came onboard."  I mentioned the meeting, I mentioned the shirt on the jump seat, I mentioned the many complaints from other captains.  I said I didn't know they were spring loaded to dump his ass, but thought they might talk to him and give him another chance.  They had had enough.  I told him I didn't mention our intimate discussions about his son, but I told him how inappropriate that was.  I told him that he needed to learn how to be more humble at his next place of employment.  That was the best I could do for him.

Then there was the story of Perry.  He was a first officer who was getting lots of complaints, because he did not appear to be able to fly the freaking airplane.  Dixon briefed me and assigned me to fly with him for a month and try to get him straightened out.

Normally we alternate legs flying and non flying.  I started out with Perry following that pattern, but soon saw that it seemed the intervals between each were causing him to not get the duties of each nailed down.  He couldn't even get the non flying stuff right.

I decided to fly several days and let him do the non flying stuff, leg after leg, to kind of get the hang of it through repetition.  When he seemed to be doing well enough on that, I had him fly each leg repeatedly, while I did the non flying stuff.

When he flew an approach to land, I had to take the plane away from him.  I did so at the point where I thought the passengers may be able to sense that things were going wrong and were getting scared.  With repetition, I was able to work him closer and closer to the runway.  The landings were always an adventure.  I'll bet most of you didn't know this kind of stuff was going on up there, did you?

He couldn't get anything right.  He messed up all the FO ground duties, like copying clearances and preflight inspections.  I had to go back over everything he did to find all his mistakes.  One time, as we were beginning to taxi from a gate in St. Petersburg, I tried to turn the steering tiller to the right and it wouldn't move.  I slammed on the breaks before I hit anything and started trying to get to the bottom of the issue.  The BAC had a steering tiller on both sides and now I am understanding why they don't do that on every airliner.  Perry had this big clip board and laid it on a little fold out table over there in a way that it blocked his tiller, and therefore mine, from moving to the right. It was just one thing after another.

BAC 1-11 cockpit.  Notice the partial wheels on each side.

One night we were flying to Middletown Pennsylvania for an overnight.  That is the airport for the state capital, Harrisburg.  As we were descending, the weather went below our minimums.  The dispatcher and I agreed that we needed to go to Philadelphia.  Philly was not one of our regular airports, but was an alternate for Harrisburg.  You may remember my discussion about off system airports and how I hated going to them.  

We had a book in the ship's library that supposedly gave us all the information we needed at an alternate airport.  Where do we park, who fuels the airplane, stuff like that was supposed to be in there.

I had to park the plane on a taxiway, as I looked through the book for the pertinent information.  There was an FBO there, that I had visited during my general aviation days and that was listed as the company that would handle us there.  I called their frequency and they didn't know anything about us.  Long story short, I finally found a place to park.  We let the people off the plane on the ramp and they all wanted to know what was in store for them.  I didn't know until I called the company in Orlando and they were not at all prepared for this situation.

Normally, when things like this happen, the company puts everyone in a hotel, but we worked for an el cheapo airline.  They decided to hire enough buses to take the people to Harrisburg that night.  They were not happy, because it was already very late.  I was the only representative for the company on the scene.  Perry was useless.

My brother, Kevin was working in Philadelphia as a controller and I called him.  He came over to say hello and laughed at the mess I was in.  That's what brothers are for.

Next morning, the company wanted me to fly the plane to Harrisburg to position it for the normal flight back to Orlando.  We would be very late, but we could get those passengers and the plane back in the system.  However, my headaches were not over.

With tail mounted engines, the BAC is a tail heavy plane and requires ballast in the forward baggage compartment when there are no passengers onboard.  Sand bags are used normally.  We had no one who had any spare sand bags laying around, so I had to use my creativity.  I called USAir at the PHL airport and was connected with the man who was in charge of all their ramp workers.  I tried sucking up to him by telling him I had worked for USAir for 3 years and that I was in a bind.

He said he had no sand bags to spare, but he had many cartons of inflight magazines that he could bring over and they could be sent back from Harrisburg on a USAir flight later.  Brilliant.  He brought them over and had his guys load them and off we went to Harrisburg.

While I was flying with Perry for the month, I began to learn what he had said about his background before getting hired at Flex.  He had been a flight engineer at TWA, but had never upgraded there before he was furloughed.  He claimed to have flown the Mitsubishi MU-2, known as the Rice Rocket, after he was furloughed.  It is a turbo prop airplane that is very short coupled and is a very squirrely airplane.  I know, because my old pal, Weber was flying one and I had read about it.  It is challenging for good pilots, for lots of reasons and I could not imagine Perry being able to handle it and then looking so pathetic in the 1-11, a relatively docile airplane.

Mitsubishi MU-2

Dixon started digging around and there was reason to believe Perry had not been completely honest with us.  Orlando was his home town and he thought, because we were a tiny company, he could pull a fast one on us.  At the end of the month, he was called in to the office and he never showed up.  Adios II.

The third part of this story involves the pilot I mentioned earlier, who called in sick more than all the other pilots combined.  This particular pilot had busted a simulator check ride in Pittsburgh while doing a go around from a non precision approach.  I was assigned to go to USAir with the pilot and train to proficiency.  I read the notes and discussed what happened with the pilot.  It involved a simple misunderstanding, but I couldn't believe that a pilot had gotten this far and could still have this particular misunderstanding.  We discussed it, then went in the sim. and just kept doing one non precision approach after another with go arounds, until I saw one that was good enough to pass.  Badda Boom, Badda Bing.

I had been a check airman for about a year and a half and realized I did not like having these career effecting situations as much as I was having, so I returned to the line. Adios III. 


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