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A fateful SID

A personality clash leads to a career decision

By Rob Mark

Like most pilots who began climbing the ladder to a turbine cockpit a few decades ago, it took me years to earn enough money to cover the costs of my private, commercial, and airline transport pilot certificates, as well as my instructor certificates.

Illustration by Taylor Callery
Zoomed image
Illustration by Taylor Callery

Together, my training took seven or eight years. Type ratings came later.

On a drizzly Thursday morning in the late 1990s, I was sitting right seat in our company’s Cessna Citation 650 for the nonstop leg from Norman Mineta San Jose International Airport (SJC) to Palwaukee Airport (now Chicago Executive Airport—PWK). While I was type-rated in the aircraft, I’d logged many fewer hours than the other pilot who was designated PIC for this trip. As a co-captain I could easily have been sitting in the left seat that day. Just before the San Jose departure controller switched us to Oakland Center, he said he had a phone number he wanted one of us to call when we got to Chicago. I knew we were in deep trouble. By the time we were taxiing back to the hangar at PWK later that afternoon, I believed both of us were about to have our certificates yanked, or at very least suspended.

The flight had begun earlier that day pretty much the way most flights did when I flew with this pilot. When he was PIC, he handled everything—flight planning and filing, the fuel order, even twisting in the radio frequencies. He was not known for sharing much information about a flight. We’d had a few personal difficulties getting along before this flight, but I knew we had to try and work together. We were flying the boss and his wife back to our Chicago base and the one item I was responsible for was ensuring the right flavor of Snapple drinks was on board for his wife. The rest of the flight, well, I was pretty much expected to figure that out myself. I tried talking to our chief pilot about my experiences, but this being his first managerial job, he was a bit overwhelmed.

Just before the San Jose departure controller switched us to Oakland Center, he said he had a phone number he wanted one of us to call when we got to Chicago. I knew we were in deep trouble.Once the APU was running, I called clearance delivery. Of course, I had no idea what had been filed, so I jotted down everything, including the standard instrument departure (SID), they expected us to fly, something akin to the current San Jose Three. The other pilot made that finger winding movement that said he wanted to get moving, now. Impatience was this guy’s trademark, so I immediately switched to ground for taxi.

In those days, we parked on the east side of the airport, so the route to Runway 30 Right would be quick. Just as the other pilot released the parking brake, his cellphone rang, which he quickly answered. That was a surprise to me. What I did not expect was him bringing up the power a few seconds later. Somehow, he figured out a way to steer the tiller while holding the phone under his left chin. I whispered across to him rather loudly, wondering what he was doing, but he ignored me until he disconnected the phone call.

Approaching the runway, the PIC told the tower we were ready to go. I tried to intervene because we’d skipped most of the pre-takeoff checks, and we never got around to details of the SID of course, even though I had the chart out. I did at least verify the speed brakes were stowed and takeoff flaps were set before I heard the engine rpm increasing as the Citation swung around the corner. Tower cleared us for takeoff via the SID.

Seconds later the gear was coming up as we climbed via the runway heading, one of the few pieces of the SID I remembered from my quick look before takeoff. About two miles after liftoff, we broke though the marine layer as the PIC began a slow right turn. I had no idea what his final heading would be. I just remembered there was another turn coming up somewhere east of San Jose where the airplane was expected to turn to either a northeast or a southeast heading depending upon the transition.

As we rolled out headed east, the pilot looked my way and asked, “Which way am I supposed to turn up here?” I repeated the transition we’d been given. “Sooo…which way am I supposed to turn then?” he repeated, his voice now much louder. Everything was happening so fast. “I don’t know,” I responded. There were only two options, and unfortunately for both of us, he chose the wrong one as I fumbled for the correct answer. Perhaps 15 seconds had elapsed when the controller uttered those intimidating words, “Citation 250CM, where are you going?” All I could think to tell the controller was “Stand by.” I grabbed a pen and copied down the phone number.

For the next three hours, the PIC and I argued about who should have done what and when. I realized I should have been more forceful about slowing things down before takeoff for safety reasons alone. Other than necessary communications, the two of us did not speak for the rest of the trip.

Once the engines were shut down at Chicago, I helped the passengers with their bags and noticed the chief pilot waiting to meet the flight. The PIC quickly disappeared to make that call back to the SJC Tracon. Once the passengers had departed, my boss asked me why I looked so upset and pointed to the conference room where the other pilot soon joined us. “San Jose let us off with just a warning,” he said.

Sitting at the table, I freely admitted to our boss that I’d been too complacent on the ground, but that both of us had made a mess of things that day. What I wasn’t prepared for was the PIC shouting me down, claiming I was responsible for everything. Co-captain or not, I was still the junior pilot. After a heated argument that the chief tried in vain to referee, I realized the professional thing to do—if anyone could even use that word to describe how any of us flew—was to leave, so I did, for good.

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

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