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Turbine Pilot: Asleep at the wheel

On-demand flying in the old days

Turbine -- Asleep at the Wheel

A long, long time ago I flew a Cessna Citation 650 for a company that no longer exists. The people I flew with have all scattered to the four winds by now, too. So much for the disclaimer.

By today’s standards a Citation 650 might seem like old technology. However, it was Cessna’s first swept-wing jet and could smoke along in the high 30s at 450 knots. It was my first swept-wing type rating, too: proof I’d made it to the big time. We flew the airplane on demand pretty much everywhere west of the Rocky Mountains. Day or night, good weather or bad—even a zero-zero takeoff or two—and the airplane never let us down. After six months or so in the left seat, I felt pretty comfortable—perhaps a bit too comfortable.

On-demand flying always seems to happen in the middle of the night—or in this case early one morning. It was just past midnight when dispatch rang. My co-pilot, Jerry, and I were to fly the Citation empty to Atlanta, pick up four people, and deliver them to Orlando Executive Airport. “OK,” was about all I could think to say at first since dispatch had just woken me out of two whole hours of a deep sleep. “Can you tell me about the trip again?” I asked. I climbed out of bed and got a quick shave and shower before climbing first into my uniform and then my car, headed to the hangar.

After takeoff, we climbed southeast from Chicago under a brilliant moon and stars and touched down at DeKalb-Peachtree Airport about an hour and 30 minutes later. Jerry assisted the passengers while I dealt with the fuel. It was only then, as I stood on the ramp watching the fueler hook up, that I began to yawn. My watch said it was about 3:30 a.m. Chicago time. The line guy had to ask me twice before I acknowledged the fuel load, but I shook my head to snap out of it and climbed aboard for the leg to Orlando. Before engine start I looked over at Jerry as he was fastening his shoulder harness and slapped my face a few times gently to let him know I was sleepy. He just nodded and began to run the before-starts.

Once airborne, the barest beginnings of dawn were appearing. Jerry asked for lower and we saw Orlando from about 20 miles out. The controller cleared us for a visual approach. “The tower’s closed, so you’re welcome to stay with me for advisories all the way down.” I nodded approval, but Jerry just sat there. I watched him for a minute before Orlando asked if we’d heard the clearance.

“Hey, Jerry, approach is calling.” He snapped up as if he’d been dozing, except his eyes had been open. He answered approach, we landed safely, and soon we were helping the passengers transfer their bags to a waiting car.

As they left, my dispatch pager went off. I yawned again as I headed inside for the phone. “You guys have another trip,” said the same dispatcher when she answered my call.

“You’ve got to be kidding me,” I replied. I was exhausted just thinking about the trip back to Chicago from Orlando. She confirmed the next leg was up to Savannah to pick up three folks and drop them at LaGuardia before returning to Chicago. I sighed. It was already light in Orlando, but just before 6 a.m. in Chicago. I’d had two hours of sleep in the last 24 hours and Jerry about the same.

The New York area weather was calling for thunderstorms and rain by late morning when we’d arrive, so I called dispatch and acted like a captain, explaining that my co-pilot and I were both exhausted and probably shouldn’t be flying back to Chicago. I explained that we sure weren’t going to make three more landings, one of which was going to be in marginal weather, when I’d had very little sleep in the past 30 hours. She agreed and told us to gas up and come home.

Jerry and I were relieved to be on our way home 20 minutes later and, because we were almost empty, we climbed northwest directly to FL390. On autopilot, there wasn’t much to do except sit back and wait to be cleared for the arrival in a few hours.

We talked to keep each other occupied because even ATC seemed a little slow, as most everyone else’s morning was just beginning. Then we started talking about how good our beds would feel when we got home. That was a mistake, because a few minutes later we were both yawning hopelessly. I wished we’d added some fresh coffee before we departed Orlando, but we had skipped it to save time. There we were in cruise, watching the miles click off knowing we still had an hour and 30 minutes before we’d start down. Jerry and I both ran out of things to talk as I found myself staring ahead through the windshield.

Suddenly, my head snapped forward as I heard some kind of animal grunt. I blinked two or three times before I realized I’d been asleep and the animal was me. I shook my head and said to Jerry, “Wow, I’m really sorry, man. I must have been way more tired than I thought.” I looked over at my co-pilot and realized his head was resting against the right cockpit window as he softly snored. I looked out the ahead and around the cockpit, but all seemed normal, so I gently shook my co-pilot to bring him back to life. I told him what had just happened, and his eyes grew wide as I’m sure mine already were.

I keyed the microphone and asked Atlanta Center for a time check. The controller responded nonchalantly with a hack confirming it was about 8 a.m. back home. Apparently they hadn’t needed us for anything. Jerry and I could only guess at how long we’d both been out, but we had no trouble at all staying awake for the rest of the trip.

Rob Mark is the publisher of JetWhine.com

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