Maverick pilot



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ONCE MORE A CAPTAIN


The whirly beds stopped. However, I still had to brace myself against the shower-wall when washing my hair. I couldn’t look out the cockpit window without the earth undulating. The dizziness was replaced by a loud ringing in my ears that I hoped would gradually fade.

Norm Smith was assigned as my copilot; he was a first-class new-hire from another airline. Norm was rated in the ‘9 and had flown captain for the previous carrier. We hit it off immediately.

Our scheduled trip was from Warner Robins, to San Antonio, to Fort Worth, to Oklahoma City, to Las Vegas, and finally Ogden, Utah where we would crew-rest for twenty-four hours. From the other pilots I’d learned a lot about what Balsey expected; I felt confident the check ride was going to go along smoothly.

Privately I said to Norm, “On this ride I’m going to do some things you may take issue with; trust me, I know Balsey, and I know he has certain idiosyncrasies so grin-and-bear-it.”

“No problem Dave; your wish is my command – all you gotta do is ask and I’ll deliver.” I knew I had a first officer I could count on.

Balsey showed up late, I’d already checked the weather, reviewed the load manifest, ordered the fuel, filed the flight plan, and was getting ready to head out to the plane to perform the walk-around. “Sorry to be late. There were some scheduling problems at Kennedy I had to take care of; one our pilots had to be replaced because his car spun out on the parkway.” Balsey been made system chief pilot over the entire DC-9 operation; he was a clever politician.

“No problem sir; I’ve gone ahead and filed, we should be off the blocks on time,” I hadn’t spoken with Captain Balsey DeWitt since my initial training and I wanted to keep it as formal as possible.

Turning to Norm, who was finishing the Weight & Balance form, Balsey said, “I almost washed this guy out when I first met him and now a year later he’s up for command.” Addressing me he continued, “Well let’s see if you’ve learned anything since we last met. What altitude and mach did you file for captain?”

“Two-eight- zero and mach eight-oh,” I replied. Norm gave me a sly grin before returning to his paperwork.

“That’s excellent. Too many new captains get themselves in trouble by flying too high. Coffin corner’s a mighty dangerous place for an in experienced crew. Eight-oh is good too; that’ll get us there fast and save fuel. The secret is to go low and fast in a jet; it saves kerosene and doesn’t waste time. Dave, somebody’s been teaching you the right way.”

I learned this trick from Dickie Stevenson after Captain DeWitt had chewed him out for filing the same route at thirty-one thousand feet. (In fact thirty-one thousand and mach seven-eight was the most economical parameter to start out on, then as the plane lightened from fuel burn, it was climbed up to thirty-five thousand. Coffin Corner, the critical altitude where the plane was squeezed between mach-buffet and stall speeds was up past forty thousand feet – a height where we never operated.)

The trip seemed to be going along smoothly; Norm and I worked well together. I’d get the weather for the next leg, giving Norm the fuel load after reviewing the load manifest. Norm would do the weight & balance calculations presenting the form for my signature. We’d actually gotten a few minutes ahead of schedule.

It was a long day; five legs and over eight hours of flying time. We were a couple of tired pilots when we landed at Hill Air Force Base, taking a cab to the hotel. “Captain I’d like you to drop by my room before you retire; there are some items I want to review with you,” Balsey’s voice reflected he was giving me an order.

“Yes sir, I’ll be there as soon as I drop my bags off.” I thought I’d done fairly well but he obviously had some issues he wanted to discuss.

His door was ajar; nevertheless, I knocked out of courtesy.

“Come in, come in. Here grab that chair there are some things I want to talk over with you.”

“Yes sir,” I replied as I took the only chair while he remained standing.

“Case, there’s no question you can fly the plane; you’ve improved a thousand percent since I last observed you in San Diego. But there’s more to commanding a flight than just being a good stick – many copilots are good sticks but will never see a command.”

“Where’s the problem?”

“The problem is how you handle your crew – or I should say how your crew handles you. I didn’t see any command from you – I want to see you giving orders. You two acted like you were out on a Sunday drive. You’ve got to take control of your first officer or quite frankly I don’t think you’ll make the program.”

Norm and I had put in over fourteen duty hours, flying in excess of eight hours with five stops. We did this in a relaxed cooperative manner that ensured a maximum of safety and efficiency and a minimum of useless stress. “Okay, I’ll tighten things up tomorrow. Thanks for the comments.” I stood up to go.

“I can’t continue with you; I’m turning you over to Captain Skala who will be looking forward to you being more forceful and showing some balls and acting like a captain should.”

“Thanks, I’ll do my best.” We shook hands and I went back to my room where I called Norm on the phone. “Norm this is Dave, I’ve got some bad news.” I let him in on what Balsey had said and said that tomorrow I’d be doing a John Wayne. I also promised to buy the drinks after acting like something from The High & the Mighty Movie.

“Don’t worry about it; it’s a game you’ve got to play. We’ll get through it okay. Thanks for clueing me in – if you’d blind-sided me tomorrow, it would have blown my mind.”

I couldn’t have asked for a better copilot, I was lucky.

Captain Skala met us in the lobby and accompanied us out to the plane. He asked to see my license, medical, and radiophone license even though that license was no longer required. “I’ve spoken with Captain DeWitt and he tells me you can fly the plane but there are some issues I need to carefully check,” he said in his best check airman’s voice.

“Captain DeWitt went over his concerns with me last night.”

“Well let’s see how you do on this portion of your examination.”

“I’ll give it my best.”

There really wasn’t much I could do; I made it a point to lower my voice, speaking with authority. Norm and I continued to work as a team; I couldn’t find any fault to exercise a command issue. I felt like a fool play-acting like a grade B film actor. The paperwork was completed and we boarded the plane. I called for the checklist which was completed with a more-than-normal formality.

“After Start Checklist complete,” Norm finally said. Both engines were running and the ground marshaller was waiting for us to give him the signal we were ready to taxi.

“Call Ground Control and tell them we are ready to taxi,” I said in a clear, clipped voice.

“Roger. Hill Ground; Logair 9-3-4 ready to taxi, IFR to McChord Air Force Base.”

“Logair 9-3-4 you are cleared to taxi to runway one-four; standby for clearance to McChord.”

“Roger,” Norm said as he confirmed with me, “We’re cleared to go.” Turning his head to look out the right side-window he announced, “Clear Right” and started to move the Flap/Slat handle to the takeoff position as I advance the power levers to begin taxiing. This is something routine and done oftentimes with a closely working crew – it was not out of the ordinary.

We hadn’t rolled a yard when I slammed the throttles closed and stood on the brakes, rocking the plane on its nose strut. “Retract those flaps and slats mister,” I said in my most fierce command voice. Norm looked like I’d hit him in the face with a wet towel.

“Sure Dave,” he said as he returned the Flap/Slat lever to its stowed position.

“Now listen up Mister Smith; when I want clear right – I will command, Clear Right. When I want Flaps fifteen – I will command Flaps, one-five. You do not move, or initiate anything until I specifically give you an order; do you understand that?”

“Sure Dave.” He looked awful.

“Further, in this cockpit, and on-duty, you may address me as, ‘Captain, or Sir.’ Henceforth we will save the familiarity for the layovers; do I make myself clear?”

“Yes sir.”

“Good; now – Clear Right?”

Norm looked once more out the side window before answering “Clear Right.”

“Extend the slats; flaps One-fife.”

“Slats extended, flaps one-five – indicating one-five.”

“Logair 9-3-4 are you experiencing any problems?” came over the radio.

“Tell him no problem, we are continuing to taxi.”

“Hill, 9-3-4, no problem we are continuing to taxi.”

“Are you ready to copy clearance?” the controller continued.

“Yes sir – go ahead,” Norm acknowledged.

I glanced back at Rick in the jump seat; he was beaming. I felt like a complete ass.

The trip was finished in silence except for conversation necessary to the flight.

In the hotel Rick was all smiles as he shook my hand, “Well captain, you certainly showed command. I’ll tell Balsey that you have what it takes. You know, you have to keep these first-officers in check, or they’ll take over the cockpit; I’ve had problems with several of them. I don’t believe Smith will be addressing you as Dave while on duty anymore. I think it’s good that copilots show respect to their captains. Did you know Pan American Airways used to have the crews stand at attention for the captain to review them before a flight? That’s the way it should be here. Respect is something we could do with more of.”

“Yes sir; thanks for the ride.”

“No problem; glad to be of help. Keep a tight reign on your first officers.”

“Yes sir,” leaving the room I felt like a prize jerk. The date was February 21, 1968, thirteen months from the day I first strapped on the jet; my logbook reflected eight hundred and forty-seven hours in the right seat. Bob Love was true to his word.

I walked down to Norm’s room and knocked on his door. Profuse apologies were followed with pizza and a couple of pitchers of beer.

“Jeez, you scared the shit out of me back at Hill.”

“Sorry, I had to do it; Balsey had primed Rick to bust me if I couldn’t play Captain Bligh. What a bunch of bullshit.”

“You did that all right.”

We remained friends until he moved on to another carrier.











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