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Flying with a speed demon

A crew member’s bad habit

By Rob Mark

My transition from the left seat of a Cessna Citation 550 to the captain’s cushion on a Citation 650 was like the switch from summer weather to winter.

Illustration by Alex Williamson
Illustration by Alex Williamson

Gone were flight plans with filed true airspeeds of 335 knots combined with fuel stops to make it from the Midwest to the West Coast. Most times the 650 could make those trips nonstop at flight plan speeds with much more serious Mach numbers, proving yet again that business aviation users choose airplanes for convenience, but mostly to save time.

Pilots switching from a straight-wing jet to a swept-wing one quickly come face to face with a bevy of new topics such as swept-wing aerodynamics, high-altitude weather, and of course, the general safety issues surrounding cruising 10,000 feet higher. I like to think I was an eager student from my first day as a swept-wing pilot at Palwaukee Municipal Airport (PWK), now called Chicago Executive. There were just three of us to crew one aircraft. The other regular line pilot, I’ll call him Tom, promised to teach me everything he knew about flying the 650. It would take a few months of flying together before I learned that some of Tom’s lessons were not just quirky, but downright scary.

I sat left seat on a trip back from western Iowa. Chicago Center cleared us direct to Northbrook VOR (OBK) and switched us to Chicago Approach. As we descended through 10,000 feet I hauled back on the throttles to ensure I didn’t bust the 250-knot airspeed restriction. The airspace around the VOR was notoriously populated with training airplanes from PWK and Waukegan (UGN). Approach knew we were headed for PWK and kept us inside the Class B as long as possible. About 15 miles west of OBK they dumped us to 3,000 feet and told us to plan a visual approach to the airport. As we descended below the shelf of the Class B, I again pulled the throttles back to meet the 200-knot restriction. As I did, Tom yelled at me. “Why are you slowing down?”

“We’re under the Class B,” I answered matter-of-factly. “It’s 200 knots down here as we mix it up with the little guys,” I said with a smile. Tom would hear none of this.

“Do you really think there’s a cop up here?” His facial expression could only be interpreted as angry. “I’d like to get home before tomorrow.” I kept the throttles where they were until I needed to slow further for the approach. Tom liked speed, something I would soon learn when he drove the crew car back to the FBO at the Teterboro airport one morning following an overnight stay.

The most insightful part of Tom’s lesson—or lessons as I would come to later realize—cropped up during a long-distance trip. One chilly winter morning, our destination was Los Angeles (LAX) from Chicago with two people in back. Since the trip took place in the years before standard terminal arrival route (STAR) procedures were common, I made sure I brushed up on the profile descent procedure into LAX the night before we departed. It was Tom’s leg out there, which meant I’d be busy typing the waypoints into the FMS.

Happily cruising westbound in the low 40s, Tom grabbed my attention for another piloting-a-jet-lesson. “Have I showed you the go-fast button yet?” I simply shook my head indicating I was clueless. “Watch this,” he said as his hand moved to the circuit breaker panel that lined the left cockpit wall. His fingers stretched to the upper right side of the Warning System group. He pulled one of the circuit breakers and said, “There we have it.” I shook my head because I still didn’t get it. Tom said, “Now we can go faster.”

“Faster than what?” I asked.

“Than the barber pole,” he said, pointing to the airspeed indicator. He pushed the throttles forward a little bit at a time. Slowly, the indicated airspeed increased until the pointer moved past the barber-pole overspeed warning. First five knots, then 10. It took me a couple of minutes before I realized what was really going on. “What the heck are you doing, Tom? That’s not even legal, is it?” I asked.

“So, who’s going to know?” he said with a big grin.

I didn’t know, but the whole thing made me uncomfortable. He tried it a few more times on later flights before I asked another pilot back home what he thought of it all. As I explained the go-fast button the other pilot’s eyes grew wide as he explained that what Tom was trying was indeed illegal since we forced the 650 to exceed its limitations. “But there’s more to it than that, Rob,” he told me. “This guy’s turning you both into test pilots. Who knows how the airplane is handling the stresses encountered at those higher speeds? It might not be a problem on the next flight, but it might be down the road when that Citation says you’ve pushed me too hard way too often. Except you won’t know it’s coming until it happens. That might be the time an elevator or an aileron lets go. Then you’re in deep trouble.”

I finally realized the risks Tom had been taking with both of us, the passengers in back, and of course the airplane. On the next trip that Tom tried to pull the breaker again, I told him to knock it the heck off. That didn’t slow him down. “When you’re over here you can fly the way you want,” he told me. I called the boss after the next trip.

“I’m not flying with that guy anymore if he continues pulling the overspeed warning,” I said. Tom quit pulling the breaker a few days later. But he also refused to speak to me any longer when we flew together, except for essential communications. That made those LAX trips grueling.

Rob Mark is an aviation journalist and the publisher of JetWhine.com.

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