It has been eight months now since the ink dried on my ATP and Learjet type rating, and I am just now getting my feet damp. Though I had some wonderful introductory flights in Elite Air’s Lear 31A this past summer, it hasn’t been until a recent spate of trips that I have really gotten a sense of the airplane and the life of a Part 135 first officer. What a ride it has been.
FlightSafety in Atlanta took this turboprop pilot of a certain age and introduced him to the wonders of the two-pilot cockpit and speeds and altitudes with which he possessed no actual familiarity. I spent most of those two weeks in awe and a flurry of memorization. I was dimly aware of the first officer to my right, but had no idea how hard he was working to make me look like I knew what I was doing. It wasn’t until last February that I got to make several trips and find out what this is really about.
Trips to Oklahoma City (KOKC) and Dallas (KADS) from home base in St. Petersburg, Florida, (KPIE) have been my initiation at the patient and tutorial hands of Capt. Jason Hepner. Jason’s a natural talent and a terrific instructor. During the before-taxi checklist, he had the nicest way of saying, “Jeez, Dick, that altimeter setting you’ve got has us 50 feet below sea level” without a hint of derision. Regrettably his observation in this case was correct.
Lessons learned on the KPIE to KOKC to KADS trip included a renewed sense of wonder at the capabilities of the Lear 31A. A cold front stretched across Alabama, but at 43,000 feet, we just looked down at the thunderstorms. After sitting at the FBO for six hours, during which I was so pumped up that I just roamed the place looking for people to talk to, we headed to the Dallas metroplex at night — a very clear winter’s night. At 17,000 feet with the carpet of Dallas’ lights below us, Jason nudged me to point out a meteor at 2 o’clock high. What a sight it was, lasting several seconds and prompting several calls on the frequency, including one from a guy in a Cessna 172 who claimed it was below him. The TV news at the Hilton Garden Inn that night had a report of the sighting, as did the newspapers the next day. It was that spectacular.
Perhaps the shooting star diminished my vision, because I could not pick out KADS from all the other lights and the highway that runs alongside it. Only by cuing the ILS could I spot the field, long after Jason had it in sight. This daytime pilot was learning already.
A week later we flew to KDWH in Houston, Texas. Headwinds taught me about stretching the Lear’s endurance, and a failed inverter taught me about in-flight planning, customer service and safety. Jason had the power slightly back, doing only Mach 0.78, when the right inverter fell off-line. Following the checklist, we recycled it and it came back on. For a little while. After this happened again, we proceeded to tie the AC buses together and rehearsed what to do should the remaining inverter fail. (Some Lear 31s have three, but this airplane doesn’t.) The consequences were significant. The checklist sent us to the airplane flight manual, which noted that we’d lose the autopilot, Mach trim and nosewheel steering. Jason was the perfect captain. When I said, “You know, in the sim, the answer might be to divert,” Jason said, “The checklist doesn’t have that ‘land as soon as practical’ warning. If you are uncomfortable with proceeding, tell me.”
I looked at our charges in the back and said, “We’ll be close on fuel at our destination, and if we need to do an instrument approach with little to go on, that would make me nervous. So, how about we continue as long as an airport within 200 miles is VFR?”
A call to flight watch reassured me. Our destination was clearing up quickly and was headed toward solid VFR. We subsequently wrote up the discrepancy and it was promptly fixed. This experience gave me a great lesson in crew resource management, good captains and backup planning that takes into account that this is a business.