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Friday, January 22, 2016

Captain Twirly

I just came across the pictures and video above recently and thought they were fitting in light of some of the things I have said previously.

The air taxi and pilot service business was building at Graham Aviation in the 70s.  I think much of the credit goes to Jim Weber.  He was a real promoter and started habits that the rest of us began to imitate.  I'm talking about getting a thermos filled with hot coffee on the way to the airport and buying donuts or pastries for the passengers.  Finding an early morning edition of a newspaper was one of our practices.  We were always talking to our passengers about buying planes and/or taking more trips.  It was fun to work out the numbers for a multi-stop trip and compare the cost and time to going on the airlines.  

We were having several customers who bought nice, new planes - Senecas, Navajos.  With these, we were able to deal with the weather better than we had been able to with the older twins and singles.  They had seating that was better for the passengers to have meetings and discussions while traveling.  They were faster and more reliable for business trips.

You would think that this would have been welcomed by the ownership and management, but we sensed that it was not.  Mr. Graham owned another business, which was his cash cow and we came to believe that Graham Aviation was never intended to do as well as we were doing for tax purposes or something like that.  At least, that is what it seemed like to the pilots.

As I said, Jim and BS left and Dave and I were the senior pilots, as we were bringing on new guys.  We were almost always gone from the airport every day from oh dark early to oh dark late.  We had to make several calls back to the office each day to talk to the office people about our future schedules.  Remember, this was long before cell phones.

The man who owned our old twins, the Twin Comanch, the Aztec and the old Navajo sold them and bought a used Pressurized Navajo.  I loved that plane.  At first, Dave, who we called Captain Twirly, was the only pilot checked out on it, but you know the old axiom: Necessity Is The Mother Of All Qualifications.   Eventually, I was checked out and learned that this plane was a real challenge.

First, it was difficult to start.  It had 6 cylinder, piston engines that produced 425 horsepower each.  They were fuel injected and turbocharged and were pushing geared propellers.  When they started, they sounded like the engines of very powerful cars at the drag strip, but you had to be good to get them started.

My memory is not perfect on this, but I think Dave might have gotten his Captain Twirly name while sitting on the ramp trying to get 2 of these beasts running.

It involved a very precise fuel priming process and you usually had one attempt on the first engine, before the battery was dead.  Once you got the first one running, the second one was started from the alternator of the first one.  If you drained the battery, you needed a power cart to substitute for the plane's battery.  This took time and made you look like a bozo before your passengers.  Not good.  If the air temperature was cold, you had to preheat the engines, but this was true of all the planes, just more so for the P Navajo.

Once you got it running, you were really enjoying the sound of those 2 big engines that were taken about as far as you could take a couple air cooled 6 cylinder engines with any level of reliability.

Then you started thinking about taxiing and notice how tiny the wind screens were, compared to the other Navajos.  This was certainly because of the structural requirements of pressurizing the airframe.

When you passed people on the outside, you know the sound of your engines made them turn to see what was passing.

Once airborne, you noticed that it did not have the nice, stable feel of the other Navajo models.  It was a little squirrely and required much more attention to hand fly.  The engines required a much softer touch also.  They were very sensitive to rapid throttle movement.  This could cause big internal temperature changes and crack a cylinder head.  It took some planning to descend, because you could not just pull the power all the way back.  We started a descent with the power set at cruise power, then slowly reduced it a little, while watching engine temperatures.

I think the plane was certified to fly as high as 25,000 feet, but it was more practical to fly it in the high teens.  This gave you more options than the non pressurize planes, but was not nearly as bullet proof for flying over weather as a jet or turbo prop.

The owner of the plane wanted to send Dave and me to the Piper facility in Lock Haven PA to attend the school on the Pressurized Navajo.  This would include both ground school and flight school.  

This is where our old friend, Sky Prince comes back into the picture.  He knew and was friends with the guy who owned the plane. Prince had somehow talked the owner into letting him attend the school with us. The only problem, is that our boss, Jack, did not like Prince and did not want him going with us.  At the time, we only guessed this was the situation, therefore we decided it would be better to ask for forgiveness than for permission.  As we were loading our bags into the plane on the far side of the new hangar, Prince sneaked in and off we flew.

On the second or third day of ground school, Dave was called to the phone.  It was Jack and he told Dave to fly the plane back to Butler immediately.  School was over.

This is when it gets a little crazy.  You may remember I told you Wild Bill McCowin had been chief pilot and was fired for being unreliable due to a drinking problem.  He was fired by Jack.  However, McCowin was pals with Mr. Graham and had somehow convinced him that he was now fit to return to duty.  He had been telling Mr. Graham and many other people that we were "running our own little air force".  There seemed to be some resentment about this.  I guess Jack felt he was out of the loop.  We just thought we were doing our jobs.  

Dave was demoted from chief pilot and McCowin was reinstated.  I cannot tell you more about how that went down, but it did.

Dave quit.  I stayed and tried to get along with McCowin, which was not all that hard for me.  I do think they thought I would be the one who would get pissed off and quit.   We were all very surprised by the way things turned out.

It seems we had been ratted out by the head line boy, Clarence Foringer, who was actually a geezer and had seen Prince boarding the plane as we left.  I never trusted that sneaky little bastard, but I will never understand why the plane owner could not have insisted that Prince go with us.  I think he was paying for all the training.

McCowin had been out for maybe 4 years and I'm guessing when Jack talked to Mr. Graham about the Prince situation, his wishes wrt McCowin were over ridden.  He kind of opened the door for that move.  This is just my speculation.

Any way, the stage was being set for my departure from Butler Graham Airport.

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