on a “shoestring” cargo flight operations
“Inadequate Maintenance and Inspection” read the summary of the NTSB aircraft accident report. A Lockheed Electra(L-188) crashed shortly after takeoff from Lambert Field in St. Louis, Missouri on July 6th, 1977. The aircraft was operated by Fleming International Airways, it was on a return leg to Detroit’s Willow Run Airport (KYIP). The Captain, Co-pilot and Flight Engineer died in the accident. It was the airline I signed up to work for after my great escape from Saudi Arabia in late 1977.
The specific aircraft N280F was one of a fleet of cargo aircraft that I had flown, during my previous employment at Overseas National Airways, only a few years earlier. My former Chief Pilot at ONA hired me; I would be based at Ypsilanti, (KYIP) Detroit’s Willow Run Airport. Unfortunately, as it turned out, I could only remain grateful for a short while.
Robert P. Fleming, the namesake of Fleming International, I never knew personally but his resume speaks for itself. An Airline Captain at age 23, the specific airline unknown; has held almost every job title (that I know of) in the industry from grunt to CEO, but more CEO than grunt for sure. His latest occupation of record is with Ariana Afghan Airlines, from March 2013 to July of 2015 in Kabul, as CEO. It would be easy to categorize him occupationally as a fixer or organizer rather than long term operator. Within his resume it is obvious he is proud of his cost cutting abilities and accomplishments, perhaps a hired gun more or less. When an airline is in trouble financially men of his ilk are called on to provide the special needs required; a turn-around specialist. Labor contracts, generally the result of labor unions, are sometimes the first to go.
Hired by Swiss Trust in 1987 to resurrect the fortunes of Trans International Airlines, once a major air carrier in the United States, he (according to his resume) “Personally negotiated new wage and work rules beneficial to both employees and company, resulting in having the Teamsters Union dismissed as the collective bargaining agent for the employees.” Bob left TIA in June of 1989 when the identity of true owners was determined by the United States Department of Transportation (DOT) to be Syrian Nationals (non U.S. citizens). Non-citizens are forbidden to hold controlling ownership in United States Air Carriers. TIA ceased operations in late 1990.
This information is not to be a knock on Fleming International Airways in particular, but rather a statement of how I experienced that segment of small airline cargo operations in general. They all suffer the same flight operations model with an inherent hazard affecting safety of flight. It concerns how one is paid for flying the airplane. It sounds reasonable that being paid by the hour or miles flown for wages would be a natural choice. What is often not part of the transaction is a contract. So pushing a few limits, related to safety of flight, in order to get paid becomes a matter of a pilots personal economic situation. When you are flying boxes around, instead of people, the concern about hurting someone that purchased a ticket to ride isn’t usually in the equation. Some Operators take advantage of this little known fact. Aircraft maintenance in other words can take a backseat and often does.
A pilot without a contract can be instructed by his employer to fly an airplane he deems unsafe to fly. Make no mistake, it is the pilot in command (usually designated the Captain of the airplane) that is responsible and has final authority by law, but an employer can say fly it or I will find someone else that will. If a pilot doesn’t have an enforceable employment contract, stipulating he has a right not to fly an unsafe aircraft, he is at the mercy of his employer. If you are the passenger instead of a box… you are also at the mercy of the airlines administration and not necessarily the owner. An owner can’t always know what the chief pilot asks of his pilots. Personally, I wouldn’t want to fly on an airline where pilots don’t have a voice concerning their aircraft’s airworthiness. If the rent is due or baby needs a new pair of shoes sometimes safety is compromised… advantage airline.
Our pilot groups’ ground training took place at what is commonly known, even today, as corrosion corner at the Miami Airport. We stayed at the Travelers, a popular hotel for airline crews located across the street from the airport. Our instructor, Roy Harrison (also from ONA days), was our former Electra chief flight engineer when I worked there. He was very knowledgeable about the aircraft… especially when it came to its propeller. Hydraulically, it was as complicated as any other component on the aircraft, including the engine. Its operation was not to be misunderstood if you had any intention of survival.
Flight training took place in the middle of the Everglades out west of Miami International Airport alongside the Tamiami Trail (HWY 41). Sitting on 25 thousand acres of alligator habitat is a 10,500 foot long runway with swamp as far as you can see. Thankfully it had runway lights even though it was daylight. The cargo version of the Lockheed Electra had no bathroom facilities… at least for what I needed that day. We were doing touch and go’s, landing and taking off again without stopping. After touching down and during rollout it involved placing the four throttles at idle while retracting the flaps from landing configuration to their position for flight again and adjusting the Elevator trim settings. It was a monkey motion of hands flying about the vast cockpit of the L-188. There were four or five of us doing the transition training that day so it was time consuming. After finishing my portion of training a sudden desire overwhelmed me that I suspect was from having eaten a bad fish the night before. There wasn’t a building in sight that might house the facility I needed at the moment. I explained this very definitively to the check captain Lee Dee as in… “you need me to get out of here as bad as I need to get out of here!” Bringing the airplane to a stop the number two engine was shut down and the cargo door opened and I climbed down the ladder provided me. I headed for the only thing insight that would be of any assistance… “The Runway Light.” While I straddle the light doing my business I notice the ladder has been retracted, the cargo door is closing and the number two engine is beginning to rotate back to life. So, I’m thinking… WTF? It’s always the economics that drives most of the decision making process when it comes to operating large aircraft and rightfully so. It is expensive to have four engines running while some guy is out doing his business sitting astraddle a runway light. Lee’s thinking was we can finish this up while Ron is out trying to find something to wipe himself with.
It was time to go to work. We were to position an aircraft back to Detroit’s Willow Run Airport in Ypsilanti. Captain Dee was the pilot in Command and I would fly the aircraft from the left seat. It was considered what is called a line check. Captain Dee signed the log book accepting the aircraft, he was the pilot responsible, I would be the pretend Captain; a pretty normal circumstance but one fraught with uncertainty. It was noted in the aircraft logbook there had been a number of false engine fire warnings with engine number three on recent flights. These sorts of maladies don’t go unnoticed. But, they are also sometimes hard to duplicate once back on the ground. Such was the case… “unable to duplicate” was the maintenance sign off.
We departed Miami northbound near midnight and while climbing through twenty thousand feet or so, of course, the number three engine fire warning goes off. It is hard not to notice. While I begin a shallow turn back toward Miami our seasoned flight engineer, I believe it was Jack Howell (also from our ONA days) silences the bell. I look at Captain Dee and he is looking at me and while in the middle of this looky loo that is going on… Jack says, in his not to unfamiliar Oklahoma drawl… “do either of you guys think we should be doing something about this?” I’m guessing if we hadn’t been pre-conditioned with the logbook entry that “doing something about this” would have already taken place. We shut the engine down and the fire warning light went out, but I do not remember who told Jack to do it. That was almost forty years ago. We returned to Miami and something was changed in the fire detection loop and we went on to Detroit early the next morning.
The Helicopter ride
A few weeks later we were consigned to haul a load of freight to New Jerseys Teterboro Airport by one of the forwarders operating at Willow Run. It was a day trip which then was highly unusual. The additional unusual was, due to some financial difficulties by way of non-payment for previous services, we were alerted to the fact we would have no ground support available at the New Jersey Airport; as in no refueling and use of a start cart. We could get away with carrying enough fuel for the return but we needed a start cart… or so we thought. The solution was, on arrival, we could leave the number four engine running while the freight was unloaded and use the bleed air off of the engine (in place of a start cart) to crank up again for the return flight to Detroit.
Off we went and midway through the flight our flight engineer, Bill Sieg, yet another ace former ONA flight engineer, mentioned that one of our former ONA pilots, Bill Gregory, was flying a helicopter for someone based at Teterboro. We all agreed we should call Bill to say hello when we landed. Now parked in the transit area at Teterboro, after setting the parking brake and shutting down numbers one, two and three engines, we called Bill. Bill answers and says “I will be right there.” It wasn’t long before Bill arrives with his Bell Helicopter… he had flown them in Viet Nam I believe? How about a little ride out around the Statue of Liberty he offers? Well… I’m thinking, who do we leave behind with the engine running? It could have been one of those Captains decisions I could have regretted but I decided we would all go for the Helicopter ride. It could have been a once in a lifetime opportunity and as it turns out, it was, I was never to ride in a helicopter again. Good decision and only good luck on my part.
Which way you Heading?
My wife Chris reminded me recently, while I was recalling some of the events during my season of flying with Fleming (early 1978), of the lengthy debriefings we crews had at the Howard Johnson Hotel in Ypsilanti before heading for the airport to fly. She remembered the inbound crew would bring a laundry list of items that were wrong with the aircraft we were to depart with and our debriefing of the information usually took the better part of thirty minutes. Chris and I were newlyweds at the time and she showed some concern. She would stay with me at the hotel when not flying and commuted to JFK where she was still a flight attendant employed with ONA. We especially looked forward to Ho-Jo’s fried clam night… it was an all you could eat Wednesday night special.
This next trip would be my last with Fleming but I didn’t know it at the time. Our trip was to be from Willow Run to Los Angeles with a good number of flying hours involved (there and back), which meant a nicer payday. Money was the ultimate motivator… flying jobs were scarce then. The Airline Deregulation act of 1978 was on the horizon, and would change all of that for me. Our exchange of aircraft discrepancy’s before leaving Ho-Jo’s included an item that involved the aircrafts compass system. The directional gyro didn’t appear to be slaved to the Flux Valve; a remote magnetic sensor that provided updates to the cockpit instruments that let you in on the direction of the aircraft with references to magnetic north. A highly desirable pulse of information for an airplane; wouldn’t you think?
We were seasoned veterans so we made our decision… go for the money. It would involve our resetting the directional gyro every few minutes to the standby; often referred to as the whiskey compass that was mounted on the center-post of the windshield. This instrument had a few drawbacks; but we learned how to fly, some of us in our Cessna 150’s by doing just that, which was resetting the DG every few minutes to the whiskey compass reference. It was irksome but doable.
The weather was forecast to be good on the west coast and we would be landing in morning daylight so off we headed into the night. Watch out Hollywood here we come. It was winter in the Midwest, cloud covered with a snowstorm dealing its wrath on the Rocky Mountains; nothing really unusual about the weather for that time of year. The autopilot, if it was installed, wasn’t working. Most of our aircraft didn’t have them and if they did they were unreliable. Hand flying a large aircraft at altitude can be a handful, literally. A ping pong ball floating in the ocean would be a decent analogy; bobbing here and there on the whims of an ocean of air. Crossing the Rockies and dealing with the compass issue I wasn’t looking forward to. Hand flying for six or seven hours with two pilots taking turns can and did become tiresome. It was time to put the flight engineer to work. Most of ours could fly the airplane; some were licensed pilots and Jack Howell was one of them. Tom Huff, who we referred to as Smutley (for all the reasons you might guess), was the co-pilot and had more experience in the airplane than I did. I had a good crew or we wouldn’t have just gone for the money.
“Where you going Fleming?” came through on the radio from the air traffic controller. We had been given a radar vector and apparently our heading didn’t jive with his needs. Small wonder that. We decided we had more of a problem than we suspected. Landing somewhere in the middle of the night might be problematic if we had no dependable heading reference. I asked ATC what our ground track looked like and we reset the DG to that, our new heading source. We explained our situation to them and our need to continue west to better weather; if they didn’t mind supplying us with ground track? We really had no other alternative, continuing west to visual flight conditions was our best option.
We three managed the night and welcomed the sun coming up behind us as we slipped over into the desert southwest. Fortunately our engines and radios stayed on par with our needs and we could visually confirm our headings… now referenced to section lines on the ground and our standby compass; more reliable now in smooth air. We realigned our gyros to the runway heading visible ahead and landed at Los Angeles in the early morning without incident. After touching down we taxied the aircraft to the freight ramp near the approach end of runway 25 Right and searched for some bed rest and a compass mechanic.
I don’t remember much about the return to Willow Run other than the realization it was time to find a new flying job. Rosenbaum Aviation operated DC-8’s out of Willow Run and had just acquired a wet lease agreement (providing aircraft and crew) with ALM Antillean Airlines operating out of JFK to Curacao, Aruba and Bonaire in the Dutch Antilles. I was offered and took the job as a co-pilot; I had jumped out of the frying pan and into the fire. Fortunately, that job didn’t last more than a month. Another crew had slid the airplane off a snow covered runway in Buffalo and I chose not to join in on the Rosie cargo operation at Willow Run. Theirs were a scary bunch of pilots that had been doing it way too long.
The Airline Deregulation Act of 1978 was a miracle out of nowhere for those of us in search of gainful flying jobs. It allowed for small intrastate airlines to now fly outside of their states boundaries. In other words interstate. Some airlines expanded and needed experienced pilots. For the next twenty-three years I would be employed by an airline that had a pilot contract. I would now not have to fly an airplane I thought was unsafe just to pay the rent.