Dream Date for a Turboprop Pilot

I have never been more reluctant to pull back the power levers and start descent than I was on that remarkable Sunday afternoon. It meant that the trip of a lifetime was coming to an end and that my dream day was finite. You see, I was in the left seat of a brand new Cessna CJ1 at 41,000 feet, and I didn't want to ever come down.

I knew right where to come down, though. The Collins Pro Line 21 equipment showed me exactly where the TOD (top of descent point) was, what the relationship between our proposed arrival route into Tampa and the thunderstorms was, and what our airspeed, groundspeed, wind speed, and air temps were. That wasn't the half of it, but I'm getting ahead of myself.

The whole magnificent event started when Jessica Myers of Cessna pointed out to me that it is still a few years before I can get my hands on a Mustang, so why not take a trip in Cessna's current entry-level jet, the CJ1? She then arranged for me to fly one from Lebanon, New Hampshire, to Tampa, a trip that my wife and I often make in our Cheyenne. Almost always make with one stop, that is.

So Dan Grace, Ross Schoneboom and Jessica showed up one beautiful Sunday afternoon in 508 Charlie Juliet, a pristine new jet with barely 200 hours on her. A cold front had pushed through New England, and it was absolutely gorgeous late summer flying weather. To make things even sweeter, we had a tailwind, an unusual event for a trip that basically heads 220 degrees. I had wanted to experience what the CJ1 could do over this route on this day because it is long (1,100 nm) and because thunderstorms often bedevil us on Florida summer afternoons. This was the hardest test I could think of that had elements familiar to me.

The first thing we did was to let my mother sit in the cabin. Her white hair looked great in the tailored elegance of Cessna's interior, but she popped back out quickly, acting as if the owners might show up and find her trespassing. Dan walked me around the airplane, and I was immediately impressed by how much thought has gone into making an elegant machine simple to maintain and to operate. There are a lot fewer items to check than there are on a Cheyenne, and they are easy to see and interpret.

I stood awkwardly by the door, hoping to be invited to the left seat, and I was. After getting settled and fastening the airliner cockpit type seat belts, Dan did his "This is really easy, you're doing great" imitation, and we fired up. No complicated start on this airplane. Just hit the start button and when you've got eight to twelve percent N2, bring the throttle up over the detent to idle and watch the Williams FJ 44-1A spool up. That is the whole start sequence.

Once the air conditioner was going, we reviewed the trip that had been filed by Cessna's flight planning service. Dan and I immediately agreed that there was no chance we'd get the route filed, and as soon as he called clearance delivery we exchanged knowing smiles as the controller announced that he had a full route clearance for us. It wasn't so bad, though: direct Carmel, J-75 Taylor, LZARD arrival into Tampa. I looked up J-75 on the high altitude en route chart and saw that the first fix after CMK was Solberg. By the time I had done this, Dan had consulted the Universal UNS 1L Flight Management System, entered the simple term "J75," and the entire route popped up.

The taxi out was easy, although I went very slowly, in part to savor the experience and in part to be careful. "You break it, you buy it" was not going to work for me. The thrust deflectors deployed whenever power came to idle, so I'd get going, retard, slow down, then bring in a little power and get going again. Once cleared to back taxi on 36, the tower told us there was a Mooney on a two-mile final and that we'd better get going. Dan said, "Roger," and I turned the airplane around for takeoff. The V speeds were comfortably slow. V1 = 107, Vr=107 V2= 111, Venroute 127.

I was way too hesitant on the power, probably because over-torquing or over-temping the PT-6s on our airplane can be a costly mistake. Dan's firm hand fell on top of mine and pushed us up to takeoff power. I kept my head out the windshield and Dan called off "Airspeed alive, 80 knots cross check," and then "V1," at which point I ceremoniously lifted my hand off the throttles and placed both hands on the yoke. No matter what happened next, we were going flying.

And fly we did. By the time the gear was up I looked down to see my family in their traditional waving place, but the airport was long gone behind us. We shot through all those V speeds while I was just rotating, it seemed, then contacted Boston Center and started up, 220 knots indicated and 2,000 feet per minute. What a ride. And easy to fly, too. The four of us and full tanks put us right at gross for takeoff, but there was nothing sluggish about our initial climb-out. We were successively cleared direct to Solberg, then, a minute later, direct to Modena. We passed over New York City at Flight Level 370, momentarily resting there to burn off a little more weight before going on up to 390. The city was resplendent in the fresh clear air, and I couldn't stop looking at it as it disappeared beneath the leading edge of the wing that glinted like a knife blade.

It was quiet. Dan and I spoke without headsets. Soon we were given 390, which took a while at 300 to 400 feet per minute, a symptom of an outside air temperature that was 16° warmer than ISA. Just west of Baltimore we were given direct Taylor, the VOR on the Florida-Georgia border and the beginning of the arrival into Tampa. Think of that: in Maryland we were cleared direct to an arrival fix in Florida. By now I was extremely comfortable in the airplane but exhausted from the exhilaration. Dan showed off the Collins Pro Line, and the two Garmin 530s chronicled our rapid race down the East Coast. Our flight plan called for a trip time of three hours and five minutes, shortened a bit by the unusual light tailwind.

For a turboprop pilot who has only once been able to go nonstop on this same leg, these speeds and altitudes were mind-boggling. On the one occasion when we did make it nonstop in our airplane, we were greeted by Tampa Approach with the news that they weren't accepting any arrivals because of thunderstorms. Low on fuel, we retreated ignominiously to Ocala for gas and to wait for the dissipation of afternoon storms. In the CJ1 I was just so amazed that we were going high enough and fast enough to make the 1,100 nautical mile trip in just over three hours.

As advertised, an hour and 38 minutes into the flight we reached the halfway point. Ahead lay the phalanx of thunderstorms that were the product of the cold front that had delivered such glorious weather to the Northeast. Dan explained that he deals with this kind of weather almost every day. "Usually, up high," he said, "such an array of storms is rarely a problem." I took him at his word, thinking how concerned I'd have been in the Cheyenne slumming along down in the 20s. He requested and we were rewarded with Flight Level 410, where it looked like we might just clear everything. The engine deice and wing deice are run off bleed air from the engine, and the horizontal stabilizer has boots. "You don't get ice at these altitudes, usually. We don't deploy the smart boots on the tail at these low temperatures because ice is not a problem and they're too brittle. I looked at the MFD and noted that the outside temp was -55°C. The MFD showed cells to our right and to our left, and we spent several minutes concocting a plan to keep us well clear of all the nasty radar returns.

Under Dan's guidance I switched the autopilot from nav to heading mode and we started our skirting dance. We entered high stratus clouds and experienced a little turbulence but no ice. In turning on the engine heat, I accidentally hit the back-up alcohol windshield deice and sprayed the windshield. Dan acted as if this was the most natural thing to do and thanked me for demonstrating this additional feature of the CJ1. I was tempted to ask him if he wanted any additional mistakes committed, but decided to stay quiet while the obscuring booze cleared from the windshield. I was just hoping it wasn't taking any paint off. (It doesn't.)

After almost 30 seconds of actual IFR flying we were in the clear and could see all the way to Florida, where more storms were preparing for their usual late afternoon appointments with arriving flights. At 410 we were burning less than 700 pounds of jet-A an hour, indicating 183 knots and chewing up Georgia real estate at 389 knots. Dan told me he estimates fuel burn at 1,000 pounds the first hour and 800 an hour thereafter, just to be on the safe side. Since we started with 3,220 pounds, we had lots to spare.

Way too soon we were picking up the Tampa ATIS, which was reporting 4,000 broken and light winds. Then we got to that dreaded top of descent point and started down for the arrival. We calculated Vref and rehearsed our approach checklist. Flaps to 15 below 200 knots, gear extension below 186, full flaps at 161. We were next cleared to cross MARVI at 13,000. Ominously we heard a Falcon get thrown into the hold at MARVI. Coming down at 2,000 feet a minute we turned on the windshield heat to prevent the inevitable fog that collects on cold airplanes descending into humid warm Florida air.

Sure enough, we were told to level at 14,000 and enter the hold at MARVI as published, 10-mile legs. Dan dialed this up on the Universal and, smooth as silk, we turned right on time back to the north whence we'd come. Dan got the latest Tampa weather: visibility three-quarters of a mile, heavy rain, wind shear and thunderstorm in progress. Our expected further clearance was an astounding 55 minutes away, uncomfortably close to the time we would have to land and past the time we would have to make a decision about diverting. As we headed automatically back south in the hold, the radar showed storms all around Tampa, Lakeland and St. Petersburg. I had suggested Lakeland as a good out for us, but Dan wisely pointed to the radar and vetoed the idea. This was a very savvy move. He was using real-time radar rather than hour old recorded weather to make a key decision.

Dan asked Ross to get out the approach plates for Lakeland, then St. Pete, then finally, after conferring with Jacksonville Center, Ocala. In this beautiful jet I was about to end up just as I had in our 23-year-old turboprop: glad to see some runway at Ocala, Florida.

We were cleared to descend to 6,000 and direct Ocala. While Dan fed the approach information into the FMS, I cranked the altitude knob on the pedestal for descent. Inadvertently, I was busy cranking the heading knob. This resulted in no descent and a course directly toward a big white thunderstorm. "Hey," I said. "What happened to the heading bug?" Dan glanced up from his furious typing and got me back on track with one button push.

As Ocala came into view, we slowed to 200, got the first 15 of flaps out, then the gear and the next thing I knew we were all set up on final with Dan telling me what a good job I was doing. We were right at Vref plus 10 and looking good. The airplane floated some on flare but the touchdown wasn't bad. I was surprised, though, when the nose gear came down with a bang. Our touchdown deck angle was higher than I thought, and I was not attentive enough after touchdown. We stopped easily and taxied in for fuel. In 3.3 hours, we'd burned 2,270 pounds of gas and had 950 left.

Forty minutes and 150 gallons later, we fired up and I got another chance to take off and land. The antiskid brake warning light wouldn't extinguish, and I was consumed with guilt that my rough handling of the nose after landing had broken the airplane. After recycling the switch and the circuit breaker, we still had a caution light. Ross read the AFM aloud to us: leave the switch in the "off" position and recalculate the balanced field lengths by adding 40 percent. This was not a problem, as our shortest runway was over 6,000 feet, plenty of room even without the antiskid brakes. This time I wasn't so timid on the power, and our takeoff was pretty much by the numbers. I hand flew the airplane up to 9,000 and we wiggled around a gaggle of smallish cells.

Tampa was landing to the south, so our trip was going to be short. Too short. In what seemed like an instant we were on final again. This time I flew the nose gear down more softly after a sweet touchdown and we turned off right by Raytheon. I was very much looking forward to our arrival there. I wanted to see the linemen's response when they saw me taxi up in such an elegant machine, and I was not disappointed.

As Ross, Dan, Jessica and I deplaned, one lineman said, "Hey, you look good in that thing." He pointed both thumbs upward. Another held the door for Jessica when she got in our car. I sensed a different level of respect had been conferred on me by this shiny white jet and the handsome company in which I found myself.

I didn't want to leave the airport. We had dinner that night, all four of us. I didn't want to let them go; I didn't want the magic to end. As I dropped these nice people off at their hotel, I thought, "If I win the lottery tonight, I'd send them all home on the airlines and keep 508 Charlie Juliet. Better yet, I'll fly them home in my new airplane."

Dick Karl
Dick KarlAuthor
Dick Karl is a cancer surgeon who appreciates the beauty and science involved in both surgery and flying. Dick’s monthly Gear Up celebrates the human side of flying. He writes about his enthusiasm for both the machines and the people who fly and maintain them.

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