29. January 2006 · Comments Off on Air Taxi · Categories: Good God, Pajama Game

The automotive industry throughout the late seventies and into the eighties underwent a major shift in it’s supply practices, outsourcing many products and services that it had traditionally built and performed in-house. One consequence of this was that the suppliers were required to attend frequent on-site meetings at various auto maker facilities, many of which were located in steel belt cities such as Detroit, Toledo, etc. This presented somewhat of a logistical problem for our company, which is located in the corn belt, over 100 miles from the nearest major airport. Not only was the travel inconvenient, but fielding the appropriate number of troops (believe me, numbers mattered in some of these meetings) was not inexpensive when considering airfare, lodging, etc. Another issue was that glitches in the then-new supply chain management technique of just-in-time delivery often meant that delivery of critical components was needed in a matter of hours to avert a line shutdown. A friend and local entrepreneur earned a pilot’s license, leased some ground for a small airstrip, and bought two or three Piper Aztecs to provide the solution to these problems.

The Piper Aztec is a twin engine (five passenger + pilot) plane that, although not terribly fast with a cruising speed of around 180 knots, was virtually indestructible and could fly even when considerably overloaded. Our pilot, we’ll call him Charlie (not his real name), was a partying sort who often flew on just a few hours sleep (I know this for fact; we often closed the bars together). Generally, he would take off, check all of the instruments, set the autopilot, and take a nice nap until we got about 30 minutes from our intended destination – he had a pretty remarkable internal alarm clock. Charlie also viewed weather advisories with a grain of salt, leading to a number of rather interesting trips with often some spectacular views of major storm cells in close proximity. Believe when I say that a cloud formation that rises to thirty or forty thousand feet, when viewed at ten thousand feet altitude and only a mile or two away, is very awe inspiring. Being sandwiched between two of them is downright terrifying.

Throughout much of the eighties I made an average of 50 – 75 air taxi trips per year. Each trip was about 4.5 – 5 total hours in the air and 5 hours on the ground, for the price, as I recall, of about $1,500 per trip. My colleagues generally perceived that, because I was a former airman, I was the best candidate to ride in the copilot’s seat. I suppose I could have landed the plane if necessary, having a basic understanding of how a plane works and the benefit of closely observing Charlie’s flying techniques. I very definitely could determine where we were at any given time, which was of considerable value given the fact that much of the flight time was on autopilot with the pilot sound asleep.

Although there were a number of trips that brought us to question whether the mission was worth the risk, one trip was particularly memorable. We flew into Detroit City Airport on 28 January 1986 for a meeting at Fisher Body (then a division of G.M.). On our way back to the airport we heard a news flash that the space shuttle Challenger had exploded upon takeoff, but that no additional details were available. We arrived at the FBO (fixed base operator) soon after, and immediately boarded our plane for the trip home. I asked Charlie to use his headphones for his tower communication so that I could pipe the ADF radio through the speakers and listen to the various newscasts. As we were rolling down the runway I found a station broadcasting a very emotional eye witness account of the event – I remember at the time thinking of the similarity to the account of the Hindenberg explosion made famous by Les Nesmin in WKRP in Cincinnati. (Oh the humanity of dozens of live turkeys being dropped from the sky … God as my witness I thought they could fly).

At that instant I glanced out the side window and noticed a vortex of avgas being sucked from the wing tank – not a good thing. I frantically grabbed Charlie’s arm to bring it to his attention. He nodded at me and pointed to the port wing, which also was leaking fuel at a prodigious rate. All the while, the voice on the radio is describing this huge fireball as the Challenger exploded – imagery not especially useful to me at that moment. Charlie explained that we were going to have to land, but that he did not want to declare an in-flight emergency because “it would lead to a lot of paperwork and delay and we would never get out of there that day”. His plan was to inform the tower that we had left a piece of luggage behind, and that we had to come back around to pick it up. He then told me that we would park at a location out of the tower’s view but did not want to shut the engines down (risk of a backfire detonating the gas that was all over the wings and fuselage). I was to climb out of the plane with the engines turning and properly secure the fuel caps, which I proceeded to do. The remainder of the trip home was uneventful except for an unscheduled stop to buy more fuel.

Charlie, thankfully, does not fly planes anymore. Our company eventually bought a small business jet and hired pilots who are more inclined to wear neckties than silk scarves. The various lawyers and doctors who kept the airport going soon lost interest in aviation as a hobby. For my part, I long ago gave up the belief that I was indestructible, and go out of my way to avoid placing myself in those types of situations.
Each year though on the 28th of January I think of the astronauts of Challenger, and how close I came to being an ironic coincidence that very day in 1986.


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