Right-seat confessions

Can't we all just get along? Guess not.

January 1, 2013

I knew life was going to be sweet after successfully passing my Cessna Citation III (CE-650) type rating checkride in 1998. It meant I’d be flying my first sweptwing jet. Surprisingly, my first day at my new job would also be the first time I’d actually been up close to a Citation III since all the training—even the checkride—happened in the simulator.

From my research, though, I knew the 650’s cabin was roomy for up to eight and its rocket-like performance was nothing short of spectacular with a VMO (maximum operating Mach) of Mach 0.83 near 39,000 feet on a standard day. Out of our Chicago Executive Airport base (called Palwaukee back then), the airplane performed well enough to make the West Coast nonstop with four people in back. I also learned the 650’s awesome performance meant staying much farther ahead of an airplane than I ever had to in the much slower Citation II (CE-550) I’d been flying in a 12-pilot charter department.

This Citation III was owned by a private company and I was the junior of three pilots. My boss and chief pilot had worked in a number of flight departments, while the other pilot—call him Tom—well, I was never really too sure where Tom had come from, because the guy kept to himself as much as possible and simply wasn’t the chatty type. I learned a three-hour flight becomes really long when much of the conversation at FL390 ends with “yes,” “no,” and an occasional shrug of the shoulders.

But who cared what the people were like, I thought. I was there as a service employee to learn how to best fit into a flight department that needed another pilot on the team. Our goal, I learned early on, was to always keep the folks in back happy, skills I’d honed as an on-demand charter pilot before accepting this job.

Of course, the quick 10-minute interview with the chief pilot before he offered me the job should have been a tip off that maybe the place was a tad odd, but with a four-year-old daughter growing up at home, the chance to dump a pager that regularly rang at 2 a.m. for a schedule beckoned hypnotically.

Line training began right off with me flying legs in all kinds of weather, where I regularly rotated flying with the chief pilot and Tom. Having flown left seat on the Citation II, I wasn’t brand new to jets, just speedy ones. After a few months, however, I began to notice things that started making me wonder—sketchy flight planning and questions that were sometimes answered with annoyed expressions. If I appeared not to agree, someone might ask, “Had I finished all the Jepp revisons yet?” The best solution seemed to be just shut up and fly the airplane, although I started paying closer attention as I became more comfortable in the airplane.

For instance, on one of my left-seat legs back from Cincinnati, the chief pilot in the right seat overruled my fuel request at Greater Cincinnati Airport by explaining, “We’re fat on fuel.” I didn’t like it, but I didn’t say anything. Back home, I flew the ILS approach to minimums, but my scan included the fuel gauges every few seconds. We taxied in with 700 pounds of Jet-A, not much for an airplane that burns about 1,800 pounds an hour down low. What if we’d missed at Chicago Executive Airport and needed to run for Chicago O’Hare International Airport? We’d have arrived on fumes. The boss looked at me after we shut down. “Don’t tell me that whole thing bothered you. We’re fine aren’t we?”

On another trip, Tom and I were headed to Los Angeles from Chicago. Tom was all about going fast, all the time. But on this trip, he pushed it too far when he pulled the circuit breaker on the Citation’s overspeed warning. This allowed the airspeed indicator needle and the barber pole (the striped warning needle on the indicator) to cross in a way that was not intended. The goal of flying jets is always to nudge the airspeed indicator needle just up to, but short of, the pole. Crossing that line meant we’d become test pilots and I didn’t like it one bit. “That bother you?” Tom questioned at FL410 and some airspeed beyond the pole. “Yeah. It does, Tom. Put the #@*&! circuit breaker back in and pull the power back,” I demanded. After a short argument, he complied and didn’t speak to me again for the next two and a half hours of the flight. I told the story to the boss when we got home and he told Tom not to do that anymore, although he’d joke about it from time to time when he thought he could.

I’d worked at this department six months when Tom and I took another trip out West, ending in an overnight at San Jose (SJC). The next morning the passengers showed up early. But the weather was good and I’d already started the APU and run most of the checks we needed before startup. Tom was flying from the left seat as I called ground for taxi. As they rattled off instructions for a northwest runway, I heard that the clearance included a standard departure procedure with a tight climbing right turn eastbound, followed by another turn at an intersection down the way. At least that’s what I realized the SID looked like later, because we never briefed the departure procedure before we took off. As we taxied out, Tom’s cellphone rang and he picked up. I’d never watched anyone try to steer a jet on the ground with the tiller, manage the throttles, and talk on the phone at the same time. I kept waving to him as we approached the end of the taxiway and he kept waving me away, finally telling me to call the tower and tell them we were ready. “But Tom, we haven’t looked at the SID.”

“Just tell ’em we’re ready, will you!”

I complied, thinking it’s his certificate— a big mistake on my part.

We blasted off the runway and as the gear came up, Tom looked over at me and said, “Which way am I supposed to turn?” I honestly didn’t know at the time other than east because I hadn’t looked at the SID either. I grabbed the paper and looked. “Turn right to east for now,” I yelled. I tried to scan the SID for the most important information but departure kept calling traffic and I couldn’t keep all the plates spinning.

As we approached the critical intersection Tom said, “Which way do we turn when we get there?” I had no idea because it was only then I realized how confusing that particular SID looked at 250 knots. “OK,” he yelled, “we’re turning left up that radial.” Ten seconds later, the San Jose departure controller asked what in the world we were doing because we were expected to make a right turn at the intersection and continue climbing in a bit of a teardrop pattern before eventually heading north. My skin began to tingle with sweat as I realized I was just as much at fault as the guy in the left seat. When the controller said he had a phone number to call when we got back to Chicago, I imagined the torn pieces of my certificates floating down from the cockpit ceiling. My flying days were over.

Not surprisingly, Tom and I didn’t say much on the way back except that he blamed me for the screw-up while I pointed at him. Unbeknown to Tom and me up front, the passengers in the cabin had witnessed the entire show. When we arrived back at base, I helped the passengers off the aircraft and brought them their bags. If they sensed any of the seriousness of the near calamity, they didn’t let on to us that night.

I looked at Tom and walked back into the office inside the hangar. Somehow, the chief pilot just happened to be waiting, even though it was a late-night arrival. Had one of the passengers called? When I saw the boss, it must have been clear I was upset. He asked about the flight and I told him we needed to call ATC in San Jose about a possible violation. I wanted to make the call but the boss gave the job to Tom. Somehow a few minutes later, Tom appeared and explained that the supervisor at San Jose was going to let us off with a warning. I was in shock, but it only lasted a few seconds.

The boss got Tom in the room a few minutes later and sat us across the table from each other, with him in the middle. He looked to Tom. “What happened in San Jose?” Tom pointed to me and said that we’d almost gotten a violation because I hadn’t handled my co-captain duties correctly.

I lost it. I tried to climb over the table to reach for Tom’s throat. I have no idea what would have happened if the boss hadn’t climbed between us. I pointed to Tom and said, “I’m never flying with this idiot ever again. Period.”

I knew the job was over, but at that point I didn’t care. I just wanted out as I thought about the fuel planning issues and the pulled circuit breakers, talking on a cell phone while taxiing a sweptwing airplane for departure from a busy commercial airport, and a dozen other crazy events.

I looked at my boss and said, “I’m done here.” And I never went back to that madhouse. The good news was that the passengers, my certificates, and I had lived to fly again. The flight department dissolved about a year later. Tom? Yup, he got a job flying a bigger airplane for another place on the field.

The experience taught me that no pilot should ever keep his mouth shut when he sees others taking risks like I had. Sure, the airplane never actually got broken, but who knows how close we might have come—and for the silliest of reasons.

Robert P. Mark is the editor of the award-winning aviation blog, JetWhine.com.