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Career Pilot: A Very Close Call

Drifting at 130 knots

People love to ask airline pilots, “have you had any close calls?” I guess they assume since I’m standing in front of them and I’m still employed that I must have survived something juicy. So here’s my closest-call story that I don’t mention often to nonpilots. More on why later.

Many years ago while flying as a British Aerospace Jetstream 41 captain for a now-defunct regional airline, I showed up for duty and noticed that my co-pilot was senior to me. Not an unusual occurrence, as some pilots choose quality of life over the captain’s salary. But “Jim” sauntered up to me also in a captain’s uniform. Since our airline sometimes plucked captains to play co-pilots when first officers were scarce, I wasn’t too surprised.

“Since you’re senior to me, it’s your call if you want to be the PIC,” I said as a courtesy to Jim, assuming there was some scheduling snafu.

“No, that’s OK, I have a deal with the training department to fly with all the new captains,” said Jim. With a raised eyebrow and my bull meter coming off the peg, I told Jim I wasn’t a new captain.

“Well, sometimes I just fill in where I’m needed,” he said, furthering the weirdness. Was this guy a check airman? Was I getting a line check? Either way, we had 29 people to fly to Pittsburgh in some horrid weather.

I gave Jim the choice of leg and he chose to take the first leg to Pittsburgh. The weather there was pretty bad with blowing snow, a 20-knot crosswind, and braking action that was reported poor. Because of the poor braking action report, I requested the longer runway.

Jim briefed the approach chart, landing configuration, and the (higher) icing VREF reference landing speeds that we were to use. I added that we had a very long runway, a stiff crosswind, and slick conditions, so there was no need to use brakes or reverse thrust initially. Besides the fact that one propeller could enter reverse before the other and set up a swerve, I also didn’t want the reverse thrust to blow snow forward and blind us as we slowed. “You’ve got two miles of runway, so spoilers and beta [idle thrust] only,” I reiterated.

The runway looked as ugly as advertised after we broke out and Jim made a decent crosswind landing. After that, things went crazy as he yanked both power levers into full reverse.

“Easy!” I yelled. It was too late. The Jetstream yawed to the left and began skidding at what seemed to be 30 degrees left of runway heading at about 130 knots. I knocked Jim’s hand off the power levers and took “control” of a now out-of-control airplane.

This is it, I thought, I’m going to ball up my first airplane. The picture is burned in my mind of the runway-edge lights whizzing right to left out the windshield. Right rudder deflection wasn’t correcting the situation so, against company policy not to use it above 70 knots, I grabbed the tiller and turned the dual nosewheels into the skid.

The tiller trick worked but I overcorrected and started seeing the other runway edge lights going from left to right. At least we’re still on the runway, I thought. A few more swerves came with decreasing intensity as we slowed and the tires finally got a grip on the runway. We still had full reverse thrust in and soon a cloud of snow began to envelop us from behind. I went back to beta thrust and we rolled clear of the cloud and onto a high-speed taxiway.

“What the hell was that?” I said with alarm. “I said spoilers only.”

“That wasn’t that bad,” Jim said as he went through his after-landing flow. His hand trembled as he reached for the switches. I was incredulous that he was trying to minimize what just happened. Realizing our flight wasn’t over yet, I checked my temper and taxied to the gate.

Long story short, Jim had been in a serious accident as a captain in the J41. He ran one off the runway and careened over a steep berm, an accident that resulted in several injuries to passengers and destroyed an airplane. I was aware of the accident but didn’t know who the pilot was until after my near disaster in Pittsburgh. Jim was cleared to fly after the investigation into his runway excursion, but only as a first officer. The “deal” he claimed he made with the training department was a face-saving fabrication. Having run off the runway once, he vowed in his mind to use full reverse every time, no matter what any captain briefed.

My report to our union’s professional standards committee—and what I later found out to be many other reports—were enough to have Jim terminated soon after this incident. I don’t mention this incident to nonpilots because it was the result of the very rare occurrence of an airline pilot who slipped through the cracks. I don’t want to scare people into thinking that this type of thing happens often, because it really doesn’t. It was just my lucky day.

Peter A. Bedell
Pete Bedell is a pilot for a major airline and co-owner of a Cessna 172M and Beechcraft Baron D55.

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