Maverick pilot

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Bill was a military helicopter pilot before hiring on with ONA as a first officer. He participated in the battle for Khe Sanh; one of the fiercest fought clashes of the Vietnam war. Because of the terrain it was a helicopter shooting gallery. Many a mother received a letter from the Department of Defense that her son would be arriving in a flag draped box. The devastating experience of such a human trauma affects people in different ways; some withdraw, others have bouts of depression. Bill became a happy-go-lucky extrovert – he was just glad to have survived the carnage and wanted to live every minute to the fullest. He and I became close friends flying the line.

We both fought our private demons by being the lives of the party. Layovers were for blowing off steam drinking, dancing, playing jokes, and generally raising hell. I pretty much managed to keep my goblins at bay until it was time to turn the lights off and pull the covers up. I think Bill must have faced the same sad night-songs as I, that was why we hit it off so well on layovers.

Where we differed was; when it came time to strap on our uniforms. I was a Jekyll/Hyde; light and easy on the layover, becoming deadly serious in the cockpit. I truly enjoyed the art of flying, treating it with great respect; knowing even little mistakes could lead to tragedy. Unfortunately, Bill could not separate his layover image from his flying persona. He treated flying as a light-hearted game designed to take him to the next party.

We were completing a scheduled three-day round-robin flight that had started-out at NAS Alameda, running through eight stops and two layovers, covering the United States from east to west, and north to south, before terminating back at Alameda. It had been an enjoyable three days, telling stories, and generally being with someone else who had been-there-done-that.

Now, we were headed home, I was looking forward to spending a week sailing with Vickie. Bill, being single, was thinking of his next conquest in Alameda.

Our next-to-last stop was North Island Naval Air Station, near San Diego, where we trans-loaded cargo, and fueled within forty-five minutes, putting us fifteen minutes ahead of schedule. Buttoning up, we were ready for the last sprint towards God’s country. It was ten o’clock on a clear, sunny morning when the marshaller signaled the all clear, I cranked up the big, powerful engines. Bill and I quickly completed the Before Taxi checklist. I told him to call Ground Control for our ATC (Air Traffic Control) clearance.

Picking up his mike Bill said, “North Island, Overseas National 9-3-7 clearance on request, please.”

The North Island ground controller confirmed, “Overseas National 9-3-7 clearance on request.”

While we were waiting for our instrument flight clearance Bill commented, “You know Laurie, the cocktail waitress at the Blue Knight; the one with the great butt? I think she likes me and I sure like her. Where’s a good place to take her for dinner?”

“How should I know? Take her to the City…”

North Island’s ground controller broke in with, “Overseas National 9-3-7 – clearance.”

Grabbing his pencil out of his shirt pocket with one hand Bill prepared to write down the instructions on the mini-clipboard attached to the control column while his other hand juggled the microphone, “9-3-7 – go ahead, sir.”

I listened on my headset. It was very important we both hear, and understand the instructions the ground controller was about to impart: “Overseas National 9-3-7 is cleared as filed. Maintain one-four thousand feet. Maintain runway heading one-eight-zero for radar vectors to Victor two-seven. Departure Control Frequency will be one-two-seven point seven. Squawk zero four-zero-zero prior to departure.” Using shorthand common to all flight crews, Bill expertly copied the clearance as the controller spoke it. When he finished writing, he picked up the mike and read back the clearance to the controller, “Okay, 9-3-7 cleared as filed, maintain one-four-thousand, maintain runway heading one-eighty for vectors. Departure twenty-seven-seven. Squawk zero four-hundred.”

The controller acknowledged, “Overseas National, read-back correct.”

Bill pressed the button on his mike twice, making it click-click.

The read-back was technically correct in content; however, it was not correct in accepted style. Bill’s read-back of the clearance should have been exactly as the ground controller gave it to him. With this simple clearance Bill’s abbreviated return didn’t make much difference, but with a more complicated clearance it could cause a mistake that would later lead to a problem. Further, while it may have been accepted under some circumstances to click the mike twice, a verbal “Roger” was proper, and “Okay” was also poor technique. I made a mental note to talk to Bill about the importance of using the correct terminology. “Tell them we’re ready to taxi,” I ordered.

“Ground, Overseas National 9-3-7 – taxi.”

“Overseas National 9-3-7 taxi runway one-eight. Wind three-zero-zero degrees at ten. Altimeter two-niner-niner-four.”

“9-3-7 ­– okay.”

Dammit, I thought, why does he use such unprofessional language on the radio? While I knew we were buddies, and about the same age, for-sure I was going to bring this up once we reached cruise altitude. “Clear right – flaps, one-five.” I commanded as I gave a visual thumbs-up to the ground marshaller and advanced the throttles.

Moving the flap lever to the fifteen-degree position Bill looked to his right, making sure there were no obstructions. “Clear right,” he acknowledged.

“Taxi checklist,” I barked.

“Comin’ up as soon as I get my map folded.” He should have taken care of that as I was starting the engines, I thought. Bill busied himself with his map before reaching for the checklist and starting to read, “Flaps?”

“One five” I responded as I confirmed the handle was at fifteen and locked in the detent. After the next few items requiring both our responses were completed, I told him to finish the checklist on his own.

Bill was humming a song while he performed the checklist, doing a little dance with his hands as he confirmed everything was as it should be. This was too much; we were going to have a lot to talk about once the plane was at cruising altitude. His unprofessional attitude was going to get him in serious trouble with some of the other captains who would not stand for his lack of cockpit discipline.

There was close to two miles to taxi before reaching the end of the runway, so once the checklist had been completed it was normally quiet in the cockpit, except for a few casual comments by the crew, but not today.

“You know, I think Laurie has the hots for me; she asked Chuck if I was married. Don’t you ever stop in the Knight for a quick one?”

“No, when we get back to Alameda, I head for home – I like going home.”

“Yeah I don’t blame you, Vickie’s a swell lady. Hey; how about the four of us going out to dinner or something?”

Vickie is a swell lady; however she is also a bit of a snob. There was no-way she would want to go out with a cocktail waitress from that raunchy bucket of blood. “Yeah, I’ll ask her when we get back.”

“Hey – why don’t we both stop by for a quickie after we get in? Laurie’s got a terrific body – you ought to see the tops she wears.”

“Yeah.” I didn’t want to waste my time going to some bar to stare at some broad’s body and come home smelling like a brewery. It’s odd; a copilot can be a terrifically fun-buddy on layovers, but not someone you want to fraternize with once you get home. I must be getting to be a snob, too. “Call the tower and tell ‘em we’re ready to go.”

“Tower, Overseas National 9-3-7 is ready to go on one-eight.”

“Overseas National 9-3-7 roger. Position and hold runway one-eight.”


“Finish the checklist” I groweled as I guided the plane to the end of the runway. “Rog, Dave. Daa-da-dant-dant. Daa-da-dee…”

“Knock off the song and dance and do the checklist right.” I was irritated.

“Sure Dave, I was just trying to put a little life into it…”

“Forget the life – just do the checklist” I was getting angry over Bill’s clowning around. Bill finished the checklist in silence.

“Checklist’s complete. We’re ready to go.”

“Call ‘em and let them know we’re on the roll.”

“You got it, ol’ buddy. Overseas National 9-3-7 is on the roll.”

I was pissed at Bill’s lack of professionalism. There is no place in the cockpit for levity. I turned on the landing lights (Landing lights were turned on in daylight as another safety item.) and advanced the throttles to maximum power. The bird started to pick up speed as we rolled down the runway.

“Airspeed is alive.” Bill sang out.

“On the left.” I responded.

We were accelerating through one hundred and twenty knots when out of the corner of my eye I saw a small twin engine, propeller-driven Navy plane landing on the cross runway. He scooted across my line of sight, not thirty yards in front of me! As my hundred thousand pounds of metal and fuel, being driven by twenty-four thousand horses swiftly charged across his prop wash. It all happened in an instant, but it seemed to have taken place in slow motion. We just missed what would have been a very fiery collision at the intersection of the two runways.

“Oh shit, what was that?” Bill yelled.

My mind shifted into high gear. Dammit! We had not been cleared for take-off! I screwed up. I was thinking about Bill’s sloppy attitude and how I was going to ream him a new gromment instead of concentrating on the job at hand – too late to stop now. “We screwed up!” Aborting the take-off was out of the question. We would have slid off the end of the runway and into San Diego bay. “Let’s keep her going.”

“Vee one.” Bill barked.

I took my right hand off the throttles and placed it on the control wheel.

“Rotate,” he called out.

Using both hands I applied a smooth back pressure until the plane rotated to fifteen degrees nose up starting a three thousand foot per minute climb and acceleration to two-hundred and fifty knots – what a sweet plane, she was.

“Overseas National 9-3-7, North Island tower.”

We both looked at each other, knowing full well what was going to be said next. Bill picked up his mike and responded, “9-3-7.”

“When did you receive take-off clearance?”

I motioned to Bill to take over the controls and I would respond to the tower, “Tower 9-3-7. I’m sure sorry. I – ah – thought you cleared us for take-off. My apologies – my fault.” My heart was pumping gallons from my adrenal glands that had kicked in at the near-miss with the other plane.

“We had an S-2 touching down on runway two-niner. It looked kinda hairy at the intersection.” The tower operator’s voice reflected his stress; I didn’t blame him one bit.

There wasn’t much time for conversation; we were headed out over the bay and towards the Mexican border. “I caught that – I’m sorry – my apologies to the S-2.” The tower had to switch us to departure control for vectors.

“Roger 9-3-7, frequency changed approved.” There was no belligerence in his tone – that was good; maybe he was going to let me slide. I thought a violation of this magnitude could mean my career; I was thoroughly shaken.

“Thanks. I owe you one.” I would have to report this to Mike, the chief pilot. There was no sense bringing Bill into the matter; I was the captain – therefore, it was my fault.

The company together with ALPA, the pilots union, negotiated a two-week suspension. Nobody, except me thought it was a big deal; I served the grounding on my days off. Bill and I remained friendly but there became a distance between us that never quite went away.

I vowed not to ever get caught in a situation like that again – and I haven’t.

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