Gear Up: Eight Days on the Road

The sights, sounds and smells of charter flying.

Gear Up Dick Karl
Eight days of charter flying can take you clear across the country and back several times.Dick Karl

When starting a rotation as a Part 135 pilot on the Cessna CJ3, I really have no idea what’s coming up. I might spend eight days shuttling around the Northeast or I might cross the country three or four times. A recent trip touched all the bases when it comes to the fanciful and the mundane.

My first officer, Jason, met me at Teterboro Airport on a Sunday afternoon. After some preliminary chitchat (Jason had been hired out of the Part 121 world, flying a Saab 340 in the Northeast), we plotted our schemes for safely getting to Gaithersburg, Maryland, which features a mix of traffic in a nontowered environment, multiple TFRs in the Washington, D.C., area, and a downward-sloping runway. A quick meal near the hotel was in order, as we needed to be up at 0400 for an 0445 cab ride to the airport and a “5 o’clock show for a 6 o’clock go.”

It is hard to make yourself go to sleep at 8 p.m. just because you have to be up by 4 a.m., and I slept fitfully. The cab was (thankfully) out front of the hotel and the lineman (thankfully) was at the FBO, as previously arranged when we arrived. All ready to go by 0500, our passengers showed up at 0540. The AWOS called for deer and wildlife at the airport, so we asked the lineman to drive the runway while we taxied out, so as to avoid any Cessna-venison interaction.

We launched to the southeast and made an immediate, commanded turn to the north, watched the sun come up over Philadelphia and arrived early at Teterboro. So early that we all stood around making awkward small talk on the ramp while waiting for the client’s next ride, a helicopter.

Next up: Keene, New Hampshire, with its fall foliage still glorious, even in the first week of November. From there, we took two passengers and a handsome Labrador retriever to Charleston, South Carolina. All this went on schedule and as planned. The crew hotel was one of the less attractive ones, and we were done early due to our very early start, so we got an Uber ride into Charleston to sample some of the best restaurants in the country. Soon we were eating fabulous fried chicken at Magnolia’s and discovering that Jason and I both liked the same kind of offbeat music. When he told me he had a video of Junior Brown doing “You’re Wanted by the Police” and “My Wife Thinks You’re Dead,” I almost passed out.

Day 3 was a crew swap day, and Jason departed as Jon arrived. It was an airport standby day for me, made more tolerable by getting to know another new hire, this one from FlightSafety Academy. Jon had just finished his initial operating experience and was good to go on the line. What Jon lacked in experience in jets, he more than made up for with his enthusiasm and dedication. It was good to have a day to talk things through. Once released and assigned to a much better hotel, we went into town for another good dinner at ­Blossom. This luck would not hold.

Day 4 featured a leg to Saranac Lake in the Adirondack Mountains of New York, arriving at dusk. I elected to fly the RNAV approach even though the weather was clear, given the ubiquitous nature of mountainous terrain. As we flew the long downwind, I could see the airport. I almost clicked off the autopilot and headed for the runway, but I rationalized that Jon could use a genuine RNAV ­approach. In retrospect, was that for me or for him?

The FBO at Saranac Lake was a homey affair. We were in the company of hearty northerners accustomed to coming to work at 0400 to plow the winter runways so that Cape Air’s Cessna 402 could get out at 0600.

We sat on the couch as the line guys ate reheated dinners and chortled at the TV news. Seems a local had stolen a tractor and used it to ram a local ATM in an effort to get some cash. It didn’t work.

We were soon off to North ­Philadelphia (PNE) in the dark, no moon. By the time we got to the hotel it was almost 10 p.m. Hungry, we hiked across the street to a shopping mall where we found a bad Thai restaurant, and then back to the hotel, which smelled like a foul mixture of Lysol and vomit.

Day 5 started with an empty leg to Rockland, Maine, to pick up three pax and take them all the way down to Marathon, Florida, in the Keys. This was a flight that makes the CJ3 shine. It was Jon’s day to fly. We anticipated three bags weighing about 60 pounds. Turns out there were multiple bags, some smaller, some larger, all of which I weighed on a scale as Jon ran to get us a sandwich. In the end, we took 200 pounds less fuel than I had hoped, but we were still legal for the trip. It was just another one of those curveballs that keeps you alert in this line of work. Three hours and 30 minutes later I’m looking at boats in a Florida harbor all lined up dutifully into the easterly wind, like troops in formation.

“You guys can forget the Florida Keys overnight,” said Patrick from mission control. “You are to head up to Charleston for a flight in the morning.” And so it eventuated in that we checked back into the good ­Charleston hotel less than 32 hours after we left it, grateful beyond ­measure now that we had been to that joint in North Philadelphia. No dinner in town tonight, though; we were cooked.

Day 6 we were to fly to UOX in ­Oxford, Mississippi. A big football weekend was in the offing. But UOX doesn’t have a forecast, so I was stuck with Tupelo or Memphis as alternates. Neither advertised promising weather, and I had let the company know that we might end up in Memphis. “If I wanted to go to Memphis, I would have saved the money and gone on the airlines,” said the passenger, not unreasonably. In the end, the best I could do was put our chance of ­arrival at UOX at 95 percent and offer a bottle of Silver Oak cabernet as a consolation prize if we didn’t make it.

We landed in rain at Oxford, and I think our passengers were pleased. I was; I’d saved myself a few bucks. The FBO was alive with passengers. I imagined them all to be eager to return to the college town of their youth. Getting a clearance to depart involved keying the mic four times on a designated frequency, which dialed a telephone that put you in contact with Memphis Center. It took us almost 25 minutes to get going westward to Lubbock, Texas, and then on to Oxnard, California, where impressive turbulence gave Jon a taste of winter to come. From Oxnard we flew at dusk to Monterey, California.

I couldn’t resist taking Jon to a fabulous Carmel restaurant, Grasing’s Coastal Cuisine. We had flown clear across the country, landed in IFR weather, landed on “shortened” runways, gotten banged up in turbulence and found Monterey at dusk. Four legs over seven hours, it was time for a good meal; Philadelphia had taught us to get one when we can.

On Day 7 we were assigned a flight to Boeing Field in Seattle to pick up passengers at 2030 that night for a flight to Las Vegas. It was Jon’s day to fly, and I wanted this young, eager, devoted aviator to get as much “real” flying as possible, but I must admit to a certain hesitation to fly into Seattle, with its low ceilings, icing and busy airspace at night, with a new hire in the left seat. I explained all this to our mission control, and it approved a 1500 takeoff from Monterey, making our arrival in daylight a reality.

Jon did, indeed, earn his pay on the arrival. After his touchdown, best described as a kiss, we parked in steady rain by 1730 with nothing to do but wait until 2030. This was ­closer to 2330 on our East Coast biological clocks. A trip to Smarty Pants restaurant with a crew car made us feel like we were definitely in the ­Pacific Northwest. Denizens of this part of the world are fiercely proud of home. All the male patrons had scruffy beards, wore watch caps, and had prodigious collections of keys attached by large hooks to their jeans. Craft beers abounded. With our short hair and uniforms, nobody mistook us for Kurt Cobain.

Our passengers were late, which raised the time-honored Part 135 dilemma as to when to call “fatigue.” Sure, it was only 9 p.m. on the West Coast, and we only had a 2 plus 21 flight to go, but to our eyes and guts that would put us into Vegas at 0300 on our biological time.

The company wants to make money, and our jobs depend on it doing so. There is the subliminal desire to please the company that attends to us all. The assignment was legal by all measures, both in terms of the FAA and company policy. But just a few days earlier I had gotten up at 0400.

In the end, we went; the rest was easy. We tumbled into a Vegas hotel that, thankfully, had no slot machines in the lobby. The next day, we airlined home, completely satisfied. I did the laundry, ruminating on how proud everybody seemed to be of that place they call home.