Maverick pilot



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THE STRAW


I was called back out after spending one day at home; it was an emergency, a copilot had become ill and I answered the phone. It had been three weeks since I’d seen my family; Vickie was planning a weekend camping trip to the gold country. She wasn’t happy when I told her I had to commercial to Paris to fill-in for the sick pilot, “How come you’re the one they always call?”

“Maybe because I answer the phone.”

“I wish you’d stop answering the phone; we never see you anymore.” It was true; I seemed to always be in a plane, or hotel room waiting to get in a plane. I was lucky to get ten days at home out of the month and that was often split into three periods, which meant by the time I’d caught up on my sleep and jet lag it was time to head out to the airport. I was living two different lives; a family man with a wife, child, and the appearance of a successful marriage and the happy-go-lucky worldwide airline pilot. I’d been with ONA for almost eleven years, except for the twelve months spent flying the Navy contract out of Alameda, I’d been away from home fully eight-months out of twelve. Birthdays were missed, Christmas was seldom attended, school activities were out of the question, only occasionally would Vickie and I celebrate our anniversary together. I was fortunate to be able to demand Thanksgiving off; but it was usually followed by a return to duty the next day. It was no-wonder many pilots married and divorced; they became strangers in their own home.

I’d made repeated requests for a leave-of-absence but it was always turned-down because it meant I would lose FAA currency and have to be retrained and tested at company expense. They were not about to bear that cost just because a pilot became homesick. Depression was a topic never discussed on the line; whatever the problem, scotch became the answer.

Arriving in Paris I just had time to check in to the hotel, raid the mini-bar, take a shower and go to bed before putting on my uniform to look bright-eyed and bushy-tailed for the 350 tourists returning to Los Angeles. I met the captain and crew at the curb when we boarded the limo that took us to the airport. He was a most-senior good-old boy who’d been with the company since their inception in the early fifties and stayed with them through their many reorganizations; a pleasant fatherly figure liked by all. The engineer was one I’d flown with on the DC-8s and was top-quality. I don’t recall the stewardess, but the ten cabin crew members were all first-class. I felt that while it was a long over-the-pole, eleven-and-a-half-hour flight, it was going to be a good run.

Unfortunately, problems started as soon as we settled in our seats with the paperwork. “Captain, it looks like we may have to put into Gander for fuel; I’m showing seventy-thousand pounds of passengers and baggage, plus catering and CoMat.” (An abbreviation standing for Company Material; which could mean anything, from a spare hydraulic pump, to an extra tire.)

“Let me look at that.”

I handed him the paperwork reflecting we could not fly non-stop from Paris to Los Angeles with our load and the negative-wind factor. He studied it for a while, I was in hopes of learning a pearl of wisdom from this oh-wise-one as he came up with an answer I’d missed.

“We can’t stop at Gander, I’m on over-time, they’ll pull us off the flight because we’ll exceed our twelve-hour maximum flight time. What did you use to figure the weight of the passengers and baggage?”

“The standard numbers; one-sixty for the passengers, forty pounds for the baggage.”

“Try one-forty for the passengers and twenty pounds for baggage, take a couple of thousand pounds off the CoMat and catering; that’ll save us sixteen thousand pounds.”

I looked up at the passengers staring down at us from the glass terminal; they all appeared over-weight, and loaded with hand-carry baggage. They were returning from two weeks’ vacation; my original estimate had been very optimistic, there was probably another five thousand pounds that I let-go using standard weights. The captain’s numbers were going to put us at least twenty thousand pounds over the maximum designed weight of the aircraft. Nevertheless, I ran the numbers that confirmed we were legal using his revised numbers.

“The ‘10 is like the ‘8, it will fly a little over-gross and you won’t even know it,” he gently chided me.

“Yes sir,” Nevertheless, I wasn’t at all comfortable with his explanation; 20,000 pounds was not “a little over-gross.” ONA had wrecked two DC-10s in less than a year, would this one be the third? I reminded myself to shut-up, I was the copilot, he was the captain, and more experienced in the plane than I; he must know what he was doing. Although, I hoped that Overseas National’s Dispatch would catch the jiggle and refuse to sign-off on the required shared responsibility flight release as was required. Instead, they automatically approved what the captain signed.

The passengers were loaded, we pushed-back, started engines, and I copied the clearance to Los Angeles as we taxied down into position for take-off; maybe it was going to be all right.

“Runway heading checks left.”

“Checks right.”

“Checklist complete,” the engineer responded as he put down the plastic covered letter-sized document and adjusted his position to back-up the captain on the throttles. I made one-more survey of the outside before looking down on the instruments to call-out the speeds. The captain advanced the three big General Electric CFM engines to their maximum power; there would be no reduced-power takeoff that the company always demanded this time. He released the brakes; there was none of the normal sudden feeling of acceleration as the aircraft slowly began picking up speed – she was heavy.

“Eighty-knots.”

“Elevator checks,” the captain answered.

It seemed to take forever for the plane to get up to the hundred fifty-five Vee-one speed; the end of the runway was a lot closer than I’d ever seen it. There was no-way we could ever have successfully aborted as procedure required in the event of an engine failure.

“Vee-one – Rotate!”

The captain smoothly lifted the bird into the air as the end of the runway flashed by, Jesus, that was close!

“Vee-two – positive rate.”

“Gear Up!”

I reached forward and smartly positioned the handle to its Up position. We were airborne and climbing but she wasn’t demonstrating the performance that was normal for the DC-10. The captain continued to fly the plane while the engineer and I completed the various checklists and I handled the radios through the departure. He finally engaged the autopilot and throttles and leaned back to light a cigarette, “That was a bit tight back there.”

“It was tighter than I’d ever seen it. There was no-way we could have aborted…”

“Yeah, well General Electric make excellent engines; they seldom quit.”

“If one of them had decided to take a dump back there, we wouldn’t be here talking about it.”

We were assigned an initial cruising altitude of thirty-one thousand feet; but we had to level off at twenty-eight thousand to burn-off fuel, lighten the load, and reduce the power-demand on the engines. From thirty-one thousand the flight plan called for two-thousand foot step-climbs to thirty-seven thousand as the plane burned fuel, becoming lighter. Due to our over-weight we remained one segment behind the flight plan; when we were supposed to climb to thirty-three, we made thirty-one, and so forth.

This meant we were burning much more fuel than was called for on the flight plan. Our position report every forty-five minutes reflected this fuel burn; we were down one thousand pounds, then five hundred, and again five hundred, and again five hundred. Our great-circle course took us as far north as latitude seventy-five before we began a downward curve towards Los Angeles. Both the engineer and I were concerned we would not have enough fuel to make LA with legal reserve, but the captain wasn’t bothered in the least.

Approaching Edmonton I suggested we re-file for Spokane to fuel. “Dave, I’ve told you before; we can’t do that without running out of duty time. The company would have to hotel the passengers; that would cost a bundle.”

“We’re running low on fuel…”

“We’ve got plenty left – did you worry this much when you flew the DC-8s?”

Abeam Reno the engineer passed a note to me on my right side, away from the captain’s eyes. It read, ‘I estimate we’ll be landing with less than seven thousand pounds remaining.’ That was about thirty-five minutes to dry tanks, barely enough to make a missed approach and do a Mayday to a ninety, two-seventy return to the airport.

“Captain, we can put into Oakland and to hell with the over-duty time, they (the FAA) may not find out about it.”

“I’m not going to get a violation the last year of my career. Get the weather at LA.”

We were one hour out and scheduled to arrive at three in the afternoon, the beginning of the rush-hour arrivals from the East Coast. “They’re reporting runways 2-5, one mile haze and smoke, wind calm, expect an ILS.”

“Damned smog, well it’s okay we’ll get a straight-in approach from over Ontario.”

The guy was a nut; if we got any delay or hold we were screwed; there were 350 people back there and he was acting like it was a fun-flight in a light plane. If things truly turned to shit, we could Mayday into Ontario, I dug out the instrument approach plates – just in case. The engineer passed me a note saying that was why the other copilot went on sick leave; the captain scared him.

We requested to remain at altitude as long as possible to conserve fuel. When approach control finally insisted we start down, we were cleared straight-in with no delays. The ILS was perfect with none of the usual speed restrictions or delays Los Angeles was famous for; somebody was definitely looking over our shoulder. The landing was normal and there was no delay getting to the gate. The engineer told us we landed with fifty-eight hundred pounds remaining; barely enough for a missed approach and a Mayday return. I was a nervous, exhausted, wreck; I wanted no-more part of this captain, he was an accident waiting to happen.

Our ground representative was all smiles, telling us how happy the passengers were that we arrived, on-time. He announced we were ticketed to commercial to Denver where we would crew-rest before flying back to Frankfurt, then ferrying to Paris for another LA return.

“Now, that wasn’t so bad, was it? It looks like we’re going to have a good month for overtime, I need the money.”

“Captain, we had less thirty-minutes of fuel remaining…”

“We made it, didn’t we? Come on, I’ll buy you a drink.”

I didn’t know what to do; for-sure I didn’t want to fly with this guy again. If I complained, I doubted anyone would take it seriously. They would take the attitude that I was a captain reduced to copilot, so it was sour-grapes. Besides, he was a senior old war-horse and even-though I had over ten years seniority, I was looked on as one to the new fellows. No, complaining would gain nothing.

Walking up the passage towards baggage claim area I spied the pay-phone. The answer was simple; I put down my flight bag and dialed the eight-hundred number connecting me to Crew Scheduling in New York.

“Scheduling, Sam speaking.”

“Hi Sam, this is Dave Case…”

“Yeah Dave, what do you want?”

“Sam, I quit.”

“What?”


“I quit – I don’t want to fly anymore.”

“Dave is this some kind of joke, you can’t do that. You’ve got to go to Denver…”

“No I don’t – I quit. Get someone else, tell ‘em I’m sick.”

“Dave, you can’t do this – you’ll get fired.”

“Sam listen; I quit – I don’t care.”

“Where are you? Where can we reach you?”

“I’m in LA, at the terminal. I’m going home – goodbye.”

Bill Hobbs, the new chief pilot kept me on the seniority list for six months before one-day I convinced him I really wasn’t going to return; I had turned a page in my life. ONA ceased operations three months later, so I wouldn’t have missed much anyway.

That was it; the ballgame was over. I was forty-three years old, except for the time in the Air Force I’d been more-or-less flying steadily since I was sixteen. My daughter had grown-up without me, I’d spent less than a third of my married life with my wife, and I was bone-tired. Fortunately, there were a few bucks in the bank, I had been writing articles for a yachting magazine. I was putting the finishing touches on a twenty-nine foot sailboat we both thought it a good idea to take little trip around the Pacific, to get to know each other. Our daughter had graduated from high school and moved out on her own so, why not?

We sailed out the Golden Gate for Mexico and the South Pacific a year after I had made my decision to quit. Quark, our little boat, carried us 14,000 miles in less than two years; followed by a book, “Sailin’ South.”



I was to learn the ballgame wasn’t over; it was just the sixth inning stretch. There was going to be another fifteen years of flying the world; the Fat Lady hadn’t sung, she’d just cleared her throat. Is life good, or what?

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