Chronicles of a Corporate Pilot
By Mike Forth
Flying Home for the Holidays…or a Limousine, a Dirt Strip and a Cowboy!
Flying for a corporation can be fun, boring and at moments terrifying, but around the end of the year during the holiday season it was always fun.
I have written in the past about a flight I was obligated to make each Friday and Sunday during school months to a short, dusty strip somewhere in Arizona. To this day, I couldn’t tell you where it really is, and if it wasn’t for R-Nav being invented, I would still be out there looking for it. I do know that it was about 3,000 feet in length, scratched into the top of a small plateau, rising above the valley floor. Other than the 3,000 feet of dirt, the “field” had an old Quonset hut that marked the airport border and a lone cowboy who acted as the airport caretaker.
The purpose of the weekly trip was to pick-up and return the CEO’s son to and from his school.
Once we made it onto the ground, we were greeted by the old cowboy. He was always seated in a rickety, old, wooden chair, leaning at a precarious angle against the front wall of the hut. In all my trips into and out of that place, he never left that chair and always had a cigarette burnt down to within seconds of his lips. He wasn’t much of a talker, but always asked the same three questions each time we stepped out of the airplane. I’ll give you those questions in a moment, but first I’ve got a gift for you.
PIC in a Cheyenne II
My gift to you is the opportunity to act as PIC in a Cheyenne II flying into that short, dusty strip. In order to accept it, you’ve got to crank up your imagination for a moment and sit down in the left seat. Picture looking out of this beautiful machine, equipped with a monster turbine engine mounted on each wing. Gear is up, flaps are up as you descend into a low, very fast approach over this old field. You’re making this pass to check for a clear field.
As you look over the instrument panel, out the front windscreen you see the light colored desert sands, littered with pale green cactus and scrub brush, surrounding a cleared patch of sunbaked earth. The Quonset hut flashes past on your left, your wingtip marking the height of the structure a mere ten feet away.
A constant crosswind chases the loose sand and gravel off the landing strip while doing its best to slide you off centerline. At the far end of the field, you pitch the nose up about 30 degrees, reduce the power and roll into a steep left climbing 180-degree turn. As you slow and begin to roll out, you ask your co-pilot for the gear that will further slow the plane.
Now downwind the airspeed is telling you you’re slowing, but you feel that you’ve been transported instantly to 45 degrees off the threshold and must start the turn to base.
“These questions and actions streak through your mind so quickly they barely register as real, but you can feel the moisture begin to gather on your palms, giving witness to the reality.”
Descending slowly now, you turn from base to final while keeping the runway in sight through the left window. As you turn to final, it is beginning to feel as though you’re still moving too fast and your mind is beginning to wonder if you can get this thing stopped once on the ground. You call for a second notch of flaps. These questions and actions streak through your mind so quickly they barely register as real, but you can feel the moisture begin to gather on your palms, giving witness to the reality.
On final now, pre-landing check complete, gear down and locked, flaps set. Set the power to establish a 500-foot-per-minute descent, keeping a sharp eye on your airspeed and the runway centered in the windscreen. As you near the threshold, the ground seems as if it’s being pulled, if possible, even faster beneath you while simultaneously the crosswind continues its attempt to push you aside. Your hand gets a little tighter on the yoke, and you can feel the tension in your knees as you work the controls to keep the airplane in line, all the while you’re being bumped and jarred by the uneven heating of the earth. Stay calm, you’ve got this. Descending through 50 feet, your eyes remain glued to the end of an all too short runway; your co-pilot calls airspeed and descent rates. You struggle with the thoughts prompted by the illusions depicted outside. As you increase the back pressure on the yoke, the nose raises slightly as you reduce the power a bit in order to maintain your speed and check your rate of descent. That’s it! Hold it right there! Keep the left wing down into the wind with a touch of right rudder to remain on center. You feel the left main gear touch firmly on the ground, followed quickly by the right. As the power comes off, the nose wheel settles in. You bring the props into beta (reverse), and at the same time slide your feet to the top of the rudder pedals in order to activate the brakes.
The airplane slows… at first with a force that causes you to strain against the seat belts. Lessening as your speed bleeds off, you stop mere feet from the sandy floor of the desert beyond. You’ve made it. Good job! The world becomes real again.
Moving the props out of reverse, you add power to the right engine and tap on the left brake to bring the airplane around in a 180-degree turn. The scenery outside remains unchanged in the windscreen until the Quonset hut comes into view.
After landing check is complete as we approach the Quonset hut. You see the lone figure (Marlboro man, complexion well-worn from 70 plus years of sunshine). He sits in his chair, leaned against the wall smoking a cigarette, unmoved… unconcerned.
Shut down check complete, props still winding down, the dust begins to settle as you step out into the afternoon heat. Looking into the valley below, you see the trail of dust from the approaching limousine, making its way up the hill with our cargo. The cowboy greets us with the same three questions as if he’s a coin operated caricature, bolted to the wall of the Quonset hut.
How fast she go? How high she fly? How many kin ya git in there?
The landing becomes a distant memory as you answer his questions, and your mind begins to plan the departure.
Our eight-year-old passenger climbs aboard and begins his holiday celebration by destroying the cabin with a combination of candy and holiday gift wrappings.
Hope you enjoyed the flight, you did a great job…