FARs ‘Save’ Medical Mercy Flights

Looks like you guys will just have to put those type rating dreams on hold for a while. My "sure-thing" deal to buy the DC-3 from a museum imploding with internal conflicts, unpayable bills and looming bankruptcy kind of evaporated. Maybe they found an angel to pay off the loan or maybe somebody made a better offer. Yeah, I know, in this economy it's a good thing. I'd be wearing cast-off shop rags and siphoning avgas to stay afloat … or aloft. But, oh, how I wanted that airplane. Worst case we would have spun into bankruptcy smiling. Maybe in a few …

Actually, last week I got a DC-3 "fix" … and then some. Spent a really long time in the Goon but this isn't a pitch for sympathy. Too much time flying a DC-3 is like having too many men in your life or too many chocolate Tootsie Pops in your pocket. It was just a little intense … lots of ground schooling and aviating that culminated in a seven-hour check ride marathon. The intercom went south about halfway through so we shouted and gestured and, by the time I left the 'drome, I was so tired I forgot not only the name of the motel but where I was. So I used the old drinker's trick and checked a newspaper stand: The Knoxville News Sentinel. Some guy walking his dog (they're usually not serial rapists) gave me directions to a Shoney's restaurant next to a tattoo parlor I remembered near my motel. But I was so glad to be back in the airplane I loved every sweaty, oily, deafening and exhaustingly glorious minute.

For over 15 years Stan Brock's Remote Area Medical has operated a DC-3 and a Beech 18 on lease from Mike Hogan for a buck a year. In fact, everything at RAM is donated or leased by somebody for $1 a year. Nobody's salaried, nobody's "important," nobody's trying to outdo, convert or impress anybody else. It isn't about religion and it isn't a well-known "professional" charity. RAM is just a bunch of volunteers doing their best to help people who need medical care … from the working poor in Appalachia to the Indians of Guyana. They're a hands-on, generous and talented collection of people who work their buns off and have a good time doing it. RAM is my kind of operation.

You need to know that DC-3s operated by museums, schools, charitable and relief organizations -- even sky diving groups -- have been operating under plain vanilla Part 91. Because of its size, weight and useful load the airplane technically falls under the complex (read "costly") Part 125. But these are noncommercial ventures and 125 was written for large airplanes (mostly business jets) on lease to one or several customers for profit. Don't get me wrong. I'm a devout capitalist and I'm in awe of guys smart enough to make a profit operating airplanes. But the reg simply wasn't "built" for the volunteer not-for-profits.

Things changed, I suspect, when Congress recently authorized Flight Standards to hire a bazillion inspectors … Cincinnati FSDO went from 22 to 70-something in two years. But a bunch of 121 air carriers tanked or merged, and air taxis as well as corporate and GA operators nosedived in this economic downturn. Meanwhile the FSDOs are crawling with fledgling inspectors and downsizing a government agency just ain't gonna happen in our lifetime. So, if you've seen inspectors suddenly doing ramp inspections at general aviation airports, or taken a practical test from an examiner who's being observed by three FAA inspectors, or had your repair station inspected by a team of seven from the local office … that's why.

So can you see this office at 800 Independence Avenue with a balding bureaucrat exclaiming, "Holy Administrator! Do you mean these 'Exempted Not-For-Profiteers' are operating 70-year-old airplanes under Part 91? The flying public is clearly in jeopardy. We'll immediately rescind those exemptions and task our field offices with oversight responsibility, ensuring compliance with Part 125."

That's FAA-ese for "put the screws to the 'RAM' kinds of operators and give these inspectors something to do."

** Stan Brock and RAM's DC-3.**

Stan Brock is a Brit who's lived three -- or maybe 13 -- lives as a cowboy and rancher in Guyana, a wild animal handler on TV's Wild Kingdom, a movie maker, an actor and heaven knows what else. But whatever else, he's a tremendously dedicated humanitarian, a tireless worker and simply an elegant man. It's just that sometimes Stan's not totally, well, "in" the real world, like when he kept telling me how "very nice and helpful these FAA chaps were." As the expiration date for RAM's 91 exemption approached, manual revisions and inspectors were still making frequent trips between Knoxville and Nashville. I kept saying, "Forget the 'nice chaps' stuff, Stan. Life's gonna be miserable until they're through with you!"

Then he called with, "We're nearly there, Martha, except they say we need flight checks … and will again every six months. But, you know, they're very helpful, very nice chaps [grrrr] and they're quite agreeable to designating you as our check airman. I told them we were quite ready anytime so they're trying to locate an FAA inspector to come and observe you doing the checks."

Great Scott! I haven't taken an honest-to-goodness, flunkable flight check in a DC-3 since I was type rated 23 years ago. FAA's recurrent training program was huge fun but hardly challenging. Oh, hell, they'll just watch me give Stan a ride ... maybe ask me for an approach or two. No sweat. But, just in case, out came the books … everything from my 1942 Army Air Corps C-47 manuals to 1959 models from Lake Central and United Airlines and armloads of Part 135 freight manuals. Everybody's numbers are slightly different … as is every DC-3 you'll ever meet. So I wandered around again, muttering hydraulic, oil and fuel temperature and pressure limits … even the charming "inner-inner, outer-inner, outer-outer" deice boot inflation sequence.

When the red tape being generated to find a qualified inspector threatened to strangle the whole operation, I nudged Nashville with the name of a qualified inspector I knew of just down the road in Orlando. Larry Enlow was available in a couple of weeks, so I cranked up the 180 and headed to Knoxville's Downtown Island Airport where Stan and I went to work. Stan is tireless and takes one break each day for rabbit food. I promptly lost three pounds.

It was wonderful and I was right back in 1985 … Opa-Locka Airport, Don Chalmers' Tursair and a legendary guy named Hector Villamar.

The FAA needed a DC-3 "specialist" for Rhoades Aviation in Columbus, Indiana, and I was working in the Indianapolis FSDO. The decision about who got "typed" came from a guy named Leo Wonderly in the Chicago regional office. I think Leo had closed his eyes to a deliciously spicy extramarital affair going on in the Cincinnati FSDO when he was a supervisor there. So, in time-honored FAA tradition, he was promoted to the regional office. Leo was a good guy and he knew I had Beech 18 time and a Lodestar type rating.

I've never really convinced myself I'm the hotshot I like to project, so I was a little worried when I arrived at Opa-Locka, home of the legendary Burnside-Ott and legions of fly-by-night freighters. Tursair operated a couple DC-3s out of an old hangar and our classroom was a junk-filled loft upstairs so I felt right at home. Four new-hire copilots from Four Star Aviation in San Juan and an attractive but arrogant, know-it-all FAA inspector from the San Juan FSDO were my classmates. The instructor was a stocky, dark-complexioned man named Hector Villamar.

Hector taught ground school in a thick Cuban accent ("PahMELah, 'splain to me the reduction gearing on theese enyin …") and I would learn he'd been a Cubana Airlines copilot when Castro took over. He walked off his flight in Miami, leaving everything in his homeland behind. He taught school and worked to earn U. S. pilot certificates, then flew some risky CIA operations in Southeast Asia and eventually got his family out of Cuba and safe in Miami. Hector is a great teacher, a skilled pilot and an excellent person.

North Miami was a curious place … almost like another country since nobody outside the hotel spoke English. I went to confession one Saturday (there was nothing else to do but study) at a Benedictine church where the priest couldn't speak or understand English. It was great … I wish I could find that guy again. Anyway, I think we had a day or two of ground school and then started the flying part just as a hurricane was approaching the Keys. The surface winds were pretty brisk … no, they were pretty awful. You need to understand that flying a DC-3 isn't hard. Taxiing a DC-3 can be hard. Taxiing a DC-3 in strong, gusty surface winds is a bitch. At one point I had both feet on one rudder pedal fighting that barn door of a rudder. I would learn to use differential power more aggressively, the copilot more commandingly and, with my butt firmly planted against the seat back, my thigh and leg muscles more effectively.

I guess we made it into the air that day with Hector in the right seat and Renee, the other FAA student, on the jumpseat. But Hector shut things down when the winds got even higher and the hurricane closer. He decided to suspend flying for a couple days and said he was driving to the Keys to batten down the roof of a house he was building. The Four Star contingent, led by Pamela who had been a carpenter before signing on as a copilot, offered to help and I wasn't about to miss out on the adventure. So the six of us piled into Hector's van and drove to Tavernier Key where we hammered boards on the roof and covered up the windows. "PahMELah" put all of us to shame; I can't even drive a nail straight but I gave it all I had. And I'll always remember how vulnerable I felt up on that roof in the wind with the wild Atlantic on one side, the Gulf on the other and a solid line of traffic snaking north on U.S. 1.

Fortunately the hurricane veered off to the northwest so we headed back to Miami and the business of learning to fly a DC-3. The Four Star copilots finished their training and then it was just me and Renee … which didn't work at all. Hector patiently and wisely told me to get lost for a couple days while he finished this guy alone. And then, magically, he taught me how to fly a DC-3 -- the art of it -- and how to manage a two-pilot crew. Hector was no pushover. I remember a session where I was acting like a wimp, helplessly shaking my head as I screwed up a single-engine ILS. He said, "Stop shakin' your head and fly 'theese' airplane." I quit acting helpless and flew the airplane.

At the end, with time still to use up, we flew out over the Everglades, which Hector said looked just like Southeast Asia. We flew down through the Keys, descending over the water low enough to kick up spray. And on the last flight we came back from the west at night with a full moon and the lights of Miami in the windshield. You know how it is when something is so beautiful your soul aches because it will pass. You can't hold onto it … can't keep it forever.

Back to RAM and the Knoxville adventure. I was surprised and oddly pleased when Mr. Enlow put me through a Part 135 check ride (no 125 checks exist) before watching me play check airman with Stan. The real hero of the venture was Larry Harris, RAM's director of maintenance, who rode with us all day long. I choose Larry, hands down, as the guy to be marooned with on a desert island (sorry, Mrs. Harris). Not only skilled, resourceful and unfailingly cheerful, Larry can diagnose and cure or improvise and glue together anything on a DC-3 (even the intercom).

It was late and we were over at the big airport with just one more copilot ride to do … the inspector had gone back to his motel. But when we cranked, the left tachometer died and no amount of instrument tapping or cursing would fix it. We shut down and Larry hauled out the ladder and crawled up to uncowl the engine with -- I think -- a can opener. I was on the ladder behind him with a flashlight and somebody held another light from up on the nacelle. Larry fiddled with the canon plug and then opened a metal box filled with a nightmare tangle of electrical wiring. He sorted through the strands of spaghetti in the dim light, a cold wind blowing, and saw one that didn't look just right. So he crimped it with some makeshift tool and a mighty grimace. Bingo, we were back in business. (Yeah, you can mark the quadrant with a pencil and fly with one tach but it's not real legal).

Stan, the copilots, Larry Harris, Karen Wilson (who runs the "business" end) and hundreds of other volunteers, everybody from health professionals to retired housewives, are the reason Remote Area Medical works. And me? Well, my sister, Mary, donates my travel expenses and I contribute my time in the DC-3. OK, even I'm ashamed. So I guess I'll go to the coal country of Kentucky this weekend and help park cars for RAM's hazard medical expedition.

Martha Lunken is a lifelong pilot, former FAA inspector and defrocked pilot examiner. She flies a Cessna 180 and anything with a tailwheel, from Cubs to DC-3s.

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