Tag Archives: Overseas National Airways

Fleming International

Fleming International

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.

The Namesake

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.

Training

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.

Line Flying

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.

HO-JO Debriefing

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.

My Great Escape

My Great Escape

leaving the” Wind, Sand and Stars” behind

I was sitting in the airliner cockpit when the armed security policeman stuck his head inside the door. He looked us all over carefully, nodded and then backed his way out of the cramped quarters. It was only then that I could exhale, he hadn’t recognized me. The aircraft was a stretched DC-8 belonging to Overseas National Airways (ONA), one of the many airlines contracted each year to fly Hajj pilgrims visiting Mecca, from (and back to) their native countries. How I came to be there, sitting in the jump seat behind the Captain, is the story of my Great Escape.

My dream job had ended in the mid 1970’s along with my marriage. I decided, by way of encouragement from a dear friend, to finish my art education by attending the Academy of Art College in San Francisco. But, my formal education in the art world came to a screeching halt in early 1977. I should have seen the head-on collision coming. My GI Bill and unemployment benefits had dried up. I had alimony and child support obligations to uphold; all without hope of making a wage in my alter ego’s fantasy world. Fortunately, I had more than one fantasy… be it Airline Pilot or Artist; one, left brain driven and the other right. I came to the fork in the road and as Yogi Berra instructed us to do; I took it. I needed a paycheck. Dreams don’t have a time stamp on them so I set the right brained idea aside.

The ad in the help wanted section of the San Francisco Chronicle read; Airline Pilots Wanted, Career Opportunity with fast growing international flag carrier. Call Ahmed.

I needed a job and had international flying experience. I myself spent seven years previously employed with Overseas National Airways, prior to being furloughed in 1976. I called Ahmed and was hired on the spot to fly the Boeing 707 for Saudia, the national airline, the flag carrier of The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. I would be based in Jeddah on the eastern shore of the Red Sea.

The meager belongings from my studio apartment on Stockton Street in San Francisco were packed up and stored and promised to be shipped to Jeddah, once I arrived there. I then flew to Kansas City where I was trained by Trans World Airlines (TWA) to fly the Boeing 707. The training was good but uneventful; I was looking forward to having a paying job once again.

I arrived in Jeddah in the spring of 1977, an eight hour flight from London. The trips I flew in the 707 were mostly to Europe; London, Paris, and occasionally to Rome, Italy. Cairo was big on the schedule as well. There were day trips to Amman, Damascus, Baghdad, Riyadh, Khartoum, Sanaa in Yemen, and to the east as far as Karachi and Bombay. I did them all.

As you might expect it was a hot summer in the desert. My household effects shipment hadn’t arrived and our promised accommodations didn’t materialize. It wasn’t a deceit on the airlines part as much as it was a factor of their growing pains and inability to construct the housing needed in a timely manner; not to mention the difficulty in my acclimating to the culture. It wasn’t unusual to fly a scheduled trip to Rome for example and return to the airport the next morning to find members of the Royal Family had acquired the airplane for their personal use. We would then fly them to Morocco, Paris or wherever they desired; a fine way to run a scheduled airline. The saving grace… the royal family members were always generous with tipping… it was called baksheesh.

I soon realized there wasn’t a desired future for me in Saudi Arabia and began communicating with fellow pilot friends back in the United States. It wasn’t long before I learned of a cargo airline starting up in Miami using Lockheed Electra’s, a popular four engine turboprop well suited for the purpose. I had been an Electra Captain at ONA and was rated in the aircraft and was offered the job. But, the kicker was, I needed to get there soon. I had signed an employment contract with Saudia but they hadn’t delivered on their housing promise and the prospect of getting it anytime soon wasn’t looking good. So I wasn’t feeling any guilt and the planning for My Great Escape began in earnest.

An escape was necessary because, upon arrival in the Kingdom, your passport is confiscated until leaving for your next trip. Getting my passport back could be problematic if I wanted to leave on my schedule and not theirs. It was fortunate for me to need to leave during the season of the Hajj. There were many international carriers contracted to fly Hajj pilgrims in and out of Saudi Arabia. The remnants of my former airline ONA, was one of the carriers contracted for the 1977 Hajj. They had a few airplanes and crew still operating across North Africa.

The Hajj

theHajj_5x2The gathering during Hajj is considered the largest annual gathering of people in the world. An annual Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca, is a mandatory religious duty for Muslims that must be carried out at least once in their lifetime by all adult Muslims who are physically and financially capable of undertaking the journey. The numbers of people making the pilgrimage each year has grown substantially, especially since the advent of air travel. For example in 1920 there were slightly over 58,000 making the journey mostly arriving by steamship. In 2013 there were over 3 million. In recent years, because of the numbers of deaths due to stampedes, the number allowed on the pilgrimage has been reduced to nearer 2 million. Even with the restrictions in place in 2015 there were 769 deaths attributed to the Hajji stampedes. They’re working on it.

The Plan

I was able to locate and make contact with old friends, the ONA crews I used to work with that were still employed working the Hajj and now laying over in Jeddah. They were operating trips to and from Dakar, the capital of Senegal located on the west coast of Africa. One crew was leaving again the next morning and I asked if I could ride in their cockpit jump seat to Dakar. I needed to be placed on the manifest as an ONA crew member and they agreed to do it. Fortunately, I still possessed my old ONA ID card and had it with me in Jeddah. I also borrowed a pair of ONA uniform epaulettes to change into once on board the aircraft. On a fairly regular basis there would be ferry flights positioning back to New York’s Kennedy Airport, the airlines home base. I was going try and make that connection once I got to Dakar.

Getting past immigration in Jeddah while purloining my passport could possibly get tricky. The plan was to suit up in my Saudia pilot uniform and go through customs and immigration, picking up my passport and proceed as usual to a ramp shuttle bus just like I was heading for Saudia’s flight operations. However, I would remain on the shuttle and get off at the ONA airplane parked further out on the ramp. The tricky part would be when the loading agent presented the passenger count to the cockpit and got a glimpse of me in the jump seat. He may, and hopefully wouldn’t, recognize me as a Saudia pilot and create a little foo-faa there in the cockpit. A foo-faa in Saudi isn’t a pretty sight; it could involve gnashing of teeth and very sharp blades being tossed about. The last hurdle of the three, as I saw it, would be the final check by the security police. That would be the guy with the gun.

A good bit of luck is involved here; I am happy to report all went as planned and off into the sunset I rode to live happily ever after back to the culture of which I was born. All of the faces in the picture below, as far as I know, are alive and well and still smiling. It is a picture of me (on the far right) with an ONA cabin crew dressed in their Hajj adapted work uniforms, taken some weeks before my escape. The smart looking blonde girl standing to the right of me is Christine whom I married the following year. We took our vows standing in Harrah’s parking lot, on the California side; at State line South Lake Tahoe. We have been together now for 38 years. On the right is another picture of Christine(circa 1976) in her everyday ONA Flight Attendant uniform. I was, and still remain, a lucky man… wouldn’t you say?

jeddahCrew_1

A Heavenly Story

A Heavenly Story

The Here and There

I died yesterday. Though it could have been the day before… I seem to have lost track of time. I’m not sure whether I am here or there? Passing thru maybe? I needed to make a choice and wasn’t sure where I was supposed to be. No one briefed me on choices.

The neon signage at the gate explained (and there was a lot of neon going on); all earthly matters are to remain here and all spirit matters are to go there. This is beginning to make sense I thought, although barely. The dust you left behind will be ingested by creatures unknown hopefully to regenerate into some newer life form, TBD. If unlucky enough you may become a bug, eaten by a chicken which ends up in the Krispy tray at KFC. Use your imagination on the protein cycle coming down the road.

The Accommodations

Where I’m staying now is very nice in an off-white sort of way. The building has no name with floors ad infinite m, and an elevator that will take you where you need to go. There is but one button to press and it is labeled “Yes.” Once inside yet again, only one button, it says “Home.” Everything seems to know the question… the elevator, sporting an Apple Logo, just knows and it lifts you to there. The exit points you in only one direction and when nearby your Home door, it opens as if on command. No fighting with the damn magnetic keycard. Once inside, a pleasant sounding murmur begins, and pretty soon you begin to hover… I like this part a lot. I notice there are no beds or bath and no entertainment distractions. As I am now (a non-life form) I assume correctly the old conveniences won’t be necessary. I rather enjoy this floating about the room; it reminds me of my joyful years spent aloft.

Finding Friends

Going back to the Krispy tray at KFC… with my newly found energy, the source unknown, maybe it is time we explore this there place. So, in search of the elevator that parked me at level Home, off I go. Reappearing, the elevator button says “Friends,” which again answers the question without my asking. I know who I am looking for and the lift takes me to where I need to be. It is several years up and the button is labeled “J.” J is for Jimmy Jet.

My friend Jimmy made the transition from here to there several years earlier so enjoys some seniority on me in this new environment. Jimmy and I, airline pilots of long ago, became intimate in our time with buckets of KFC. We were pilots of airliners that had no inflight food service so were left to our own devices. Flying long haul transcontinental freight runs we had an issue with long haul nutrition. It was our practice to wager on who would pay for the bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken at our first fuel stop, wherever that happened to be. Generally, on our westbound trip, it would be Indianapolis. We were flying a military chartered freight run from Navy Norfolk, Virginia to the Alameda Naval Air Station in the Bay Area in Northern California. Frequently, it involved our flying explosive ordinance in support of the Viet Nam war effort.

Our Aircraft was the Douglas DC-9, and our airline was Overseas National Airways (ONA) and the time was early in 1970. The challenge for our wager was hand flying the jet airliner at cruise altitude. Leveling off at 35 thousand feet we then disengaged the autopilot and off to the races we went. It was much like letting a bull out of the chute at a bull riding event at the Rodeo. What most passengers don’t realize is the necessity of having a functioning autopilot for their safety and survival. Hand flying a jetliner at cruise altitude can be troublesome to say the least. Flying at as high an altitude as the jet will climb is a matter of economics. The jet engine performs much more economically in rarified air but the aircraft’s wing doesn’t do quite so well. The wing of an aircraft can quit flying by either going to fast or going to slow. That margin is very wide at lower altitude and extremely narrow at typical cruise altitudes for jet engines. We refer to that area, where the margin can be a mere 10 knots, as coffin corner. If you are flying ten knots too fast the wing stalls and the same happens when ten knots too slow. The wing literally quits flying. If, as a passenger, you are quietly sipping on your cocktail prior to being served your inflight meal, and you notice a slight rumble from outside your window, that is probably the result of either a high speed or low speed buffet, the precursor of the wing actually stalling. You are not to worry if the autopilot and auto throttles are functioning properly as they will right the matter.

It was always fun competing with my friend Jimmy Jet. He always won of course… even if he lost. He was that kind of competitor. If you skunked him playing ping pong for example, he would still claim to have beaten you to a pulp.

I am still in a search of my friend Jim and I will find him one day. There are many stories yet to come of our adventures in the realm of the High and the Mighty. As for the buckets of chicken we consumed in that era I am hopeful that Colonel Sanders was as appreciative of our contribution to his success as he was to ours.