Never Again:

Putting the paycheck first

March 1, 2011

Never Again: Putting the paycheck firstAlthough it seems ridiculous to an outsider, operating in less than marginal VFR weather is common in the Louisiana oil field. I was in a Cessna 185 amphibian, engine idling, pointed into the 30-plus-knot wind, holding position in the ship channel southeast of New Orleans. Unfortunately, in the chaos that led up to this point, I forgot about the fist-sized hole in the right float.

I wasn’t even scheduled to fly that day, and it was a day I was glad not to have a flight. Even though Louisiana floatplane flying went on in all but the worst weather, there were days when a silent phone was your friend. I was flying for a Part 91 corporate flight department, so our weather rules were not as strict as those of a charter operator. Company rules prohibited single-pilot IFR, so we did quite a bit of scud running.

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Because of the broad, flat expanses of marsh and water, we were able to routinely fly in conditions that would amaze VFR pilots elsewhere. Intimate knowledge of every obstacle higher than a cow was essential for survival.

A strong low pressure system was on its way from the Gulf to its appointment as a Nor’easter. We snugly ate lunch in front of the TV at our base at Lakefront Airport in New Orleans. Watching the noon news, we saw that there was a large mass of rain and embedded thunderstorms south of New Orleans moving north. High winds and low ceilings added spice to the weather gumbo.

Mary was the only pilot flying, working the fields around Venice, about 60 miles south of New Orleans at the mouth of the Mississippi. About that time, she was on a trip to one of the facilities that had the luxury of a seaplane ramp. We normally liked going to a ramp. It was usually easier to run the airplane up a ramp, since you landed next to the ramp, put the gear down, and taxied the amphibian out of the water, parking on the flat top of the ramp. It was more common to tie up to a boat, barge, or dock that was not designed for seaplanes. Playing the ever-changing wind and current made this a constant challenge. Any mistake meant possible severe damage to one of the soft edges of the airplane.

This was not a good day for taxiing up a ramp. The slime below the waterline is always very slippery. With the big Continental roaring at high power, Mary hauled the Cessna 185 up the steep ramp. The high wind caught the nose-high amphibian and she slid sideways into the concrete curb that was the only thing preventing the airplane from falling wing-first into the brown water. This punched a hole below the waterline. By spending a very short time taxiing, Mary got the 185 airborne and flew it back to Venice. Mary is one of the few women that have flown seaplanes in Louisiana, and she is a truly gifted aviator. It was just bad luck that she was the one to damage the airplane.

Our supervisor was not the most understanding or practical individual. Even though Mary was scheduled to return to New Orleans in a couple of hours, our supervisor wanted me to take her another airplane and recover the damaged amphib.

I took another 185 down the Mississippi River to swap out her damaged airplane. Dodging the heavier showers and patches of low ceilings, I worked my way down to Venice and taxied up the ramp at the shore base. But by the time I got there and we had fueled both airplanes, the last group of passengers was ready to go back to New Orleans. The management commuted to work on the floatplanes. They knew we needed to leave early to try to beat the weather.

Leaving the undamaged airplane for transporting the passengers, I took off about 10 minutes before the other 185. I kept Mary informed about where the holes were between rainshowers. I almost turned around a couple of times because of heavy rain and steadily lowering ceilings. Almost to New Orleans, I finally could not go farther. I landed in the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet. Known as Mr. Go, it is a wide shipping channel now infamous for being the source that funneled the water flooding New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina.

Mary came overhead and said, “Hey, dude, you’re sinking.” I had forgotten about the hole in the float! Thank goodness I was light; with the high wind, I was able to haul the airplane with one flooded compartment out of the water.

We formed up to try to get into Lakefront as a flight of two on a special VFR clearance. We picked up the shoreline of Lake Pontchartrain over the marsh east of the city, since we could not cross a populated area at low altitude. After a wait to get our clearance, we finally headed toward the airport.

Shortly after we received our special VFR clearance, we ran into extremely heavy rain. With the rain pounding on the windshield the visibility got so bad that Mary and I became separated. We could no longer see each other. We had to abandon our special VFR and exit the controlled airspace. In order to do that, we each had to execute a careful 180-degree turn away from the other. We were at high risk of colliding. We finally cleared the worst of the rain and headed for another airport on the north shore of the lake. With darkness nipping at our heels, we landed at the Slidell airport.

Between the pride of getting the job done and management that was good at making life difficult, I allowed myself to get into a ridiculous situation. I have heard so many stories over the years about management pushing pilots to go, when everyone knew the risks were way beyond what was rational. As a pilot, it’s sometimes tough to balance what management asks you to do with what you know to be safe. Ultimately, though, if it’s a choice between a paycheck and survival, you have to opt for survival.

Dale Longmire, AOPA 1026935, is a captain for a major airline. He has 23,000 hours, including 10,000 in seaplanes, and owns a Cessna 182 landplane.