Finally, the Pick Up

Back in business after six months without an airplane.

Read Let’s Try This Again to follow the full story.

We’re all set, then. We’ve agreed on a price, the airplane has undergone multiple inspections  at Stevens Aviation in Nashville, Tennessee, and the title is clear. I have sent the remaining impressive dollar amount to the escrow people. I’ve asked Eric Engstrom, who’s actually been the pilot for this exact airplane, to fly with me for two days to get me up to speed on the Universal FMS and any of those quirks and idiosyncrasies that just don’t get talked about in initial or recurrent training. I have that low-level excitement/anxiety that you might feel on the eve of a second marriage. What could possibly go wrong?

On an early October evening I find myself on a Southwest flight to KBNA, where the airplane, a 2000 Cessna CJ1, is waiting for me. This is not the first marriage for either of us. An old flying mate from JetSuite, Dan Clarke, now with Southwest Airlines, meets me at the terminal and we have a great dinner while catching up. Dan agrees to come to Stevens in the morning to see me off.

The plan is for Eric to fly into KBNA on the airlines at 11 a.m. and for us to depart to Lebanon, New Hampshire (KLEB), at noon. This gives me time to “close” before he arrives and to at least sit in the cockpit and order some fuel. The next day we’ll fly to Tampa and put Eric on the 6:30 airline flight back home.

Closure goes smoothly, thanks to the expertise of the folks at Elliott Jets. Afterward, Dan and I drive to the terminal to pick up Eric. When we get back to the airplane and hook up the ground-power unit, two glitches become glaringly obvious. We’re leaking fuel from the left wing, and the air conditioner does not work. Also, the sidewalls in the cabin are stained and the seat belts are dirty. She’s not as pretty as I remembered, but I am immediately grateful for the professional pilot I hired to fly the airplane to Nashville for inspection. He had documented no leaks and a functioning A/C on the inbound trip. Now what?

A call to Eric Meitner of Meitner Associates, that’s what. He has been my maintenance guru on this purchase. He knows I want to get going, that I’ve hired a pilot on a day rate, but that I don’t want to accept a flawed airplane. For the fuel leak, the Stevens technician is offering to order a new wing panel, have it installed and painted within 24 hours, or to just remove and reinstall the existing panel. I have no clue as to what is best, but Eric Meitner does.

After a blunt phone conversation both squawks are fixed, but too late for us to fly. I’m not going to make a first trip in the dark into mountainous terrain. Safety pilot Eric and I check into a hotel and hope for better luck in the morning, when we will try to do two days’ worth of flying in one.

The next morning is cool and clear. We scramble to get started early as we have three legs of more than two hours each and an hour time change to negotiate. We start up and taxi out to Runway 20C at KBNA. The CJ1 feels an awful lot like the CJ3 in which I spent more than 1,000 happy hours. Line up and wait. I tell Eric I want to do as much of this as possible as single pilot because that’s how I am going to operate this airplane. He agrees to alert me if he spots something dangerous. After rotation we are immediately given a heading change and a frequency change. When I go to respond, Eric tells me he can’t hear me. We switch to the overhead speaker. Is there a problem with the radios? We’ll sort this out once things settle down. Though the airplane was certified for RVSM yesterday, it is no longer today, so we level at FL 270 and hope tailwinds materialize.

We sort out the headsets. I had forgotten that the push-to-talk switch on the CJ is a three-position affair and I’d mismanaged my side. Good. Nothing wrong with the airplane, just something wrong with me.

Already the cost of a safety pilot has been justified.

Level and quiet, I look around. The airplane is 80 knots slower than the Premier my wife, Cathy, and I owned briefly before a bird strike took it out. Cathy never felt comfortable in the Premier. “Too fast and made of carbon fiber,” she said. This airplane is making book. I hope she likes it. She hasn’t seen it before and is, after all, a lifetime fearful flyer. I might not be the ideal mate for her.

KLEB is reporting 4,000 overcast and 400 scattered. I’m hoping for a visual to save time and I spot the airport before Eric sees it. I click off the autopilot, roll us onto the downwind for Runway 36 and start to configure for landing. I got this. This is home base and the airplane feels like an old friend. Touchdown is that characteristic sweet kiss made possible by trailing link landing gear and slow-ref speeds. While I race by crew car to pick up Cathy and the dog, Rocco, Eric supervises fueling and gets the clearance. Ninety minutes later we’re in the air, fighting headwinds but otherwise content. It will be two hours to Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina (KRDU), for fuel. We’ll need a quick turn if Eric is to make his airline flight.

This doesn’t happen. We get multiple vectors on the approach because of traffic. We land on 5 Right, which is nowhere near the FBO (5 Left is closed). The fuel truck pulls up and the line guys can’t get it to start fueling. Turns out the truck is empty. The other truck is somewhere else. Eric will now definitely miss his flight home out of Tampa. I call Delta Airlines. As usual, they couldn’t be nicer. For an extra $200 they will send Eric home from KRDU instead of Tampa. (I am subsequently charged $250, but by then I didn’t care.) I was pretty sure I could get the airplane home by myself, though my skills with the Universal 1K FMS were nascent.

Off we go, directly into the sun. We get step climbed to FL 280, then fly the well-worn path to home. I know the arrival by heart and I rejoice in the good weather and comfort of being together alone in our new airplane.

It might be slower and need some touch up, but it’s a jet and we own it and I am a very lucky man. I call home base — Signature Flight Support — and hear Virginia’s voice. I’ve based an airplane in these hangars for more than 30 years. We’ve gone from a Cessna P210 to a Cessna 340 to a Piper Cheyenne to the Beech Premier and now to the CJ1.

The line guys nod their approval. Cathy says she likes this airplane better. We’re home.


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