Gear Up: Unexpected Turnaround

A quick change of plans in busy, unfamiliar airspace spells trouble.

Gear Up Unexpected Turnaround
The initial segments of this departure were the only relevant parts, which contributed to our confusion.Flying

“OK, Dick, we’re gonna have you drop the plane off in Orange County.” It is Kevin in mission control (known most places as “ops”) on the phone. What? Like I’m dropping some shirts off at the dry cleaners?

The day had been long enough as it was, given that I had planned to be home in bed in Tampa, Florida, that night. Instead we had just delivered two passengers from Cabo San Lucas at the southern tip of the Baja Peninsula in Mexico to Van Nuys (VNY) near Los Angeles. Despite the unpleasant chop associated with a front barreling in off the Pacific Ocean, the delay we had while waiting for a stamped “gendec” in Midland, Texas, before we left for Cabo that morning, and the usual uncertainties associated with flying into Mexico, we landed right on time for our U.S. Customs and Border Protection appointment. The customs guys were great, and our passengers were on their way when I got the news.

We had landed at 1342 local Pacific Standard Time, and my phone showed I called mission control at 1415 to get the news that our Cessna CJ3 was needed at home base to demonstrate to a potential customer. The customer was to meet us at 1500. I’ll admit that my biological clock was still set to Eastern Standard Time, so I didn’t quite get the impossibility of the timeline. To get going, I needed to organize a ground power unit, file a flight plan, calculate how much gas to buy and get it, do the performance numbers and get a clearance.

Another crew was just buttoning up its Phenom 100 and said it might be commuting with us to SNA. Having once driven from SNA to VNY at rush hour, I could easily understand why the two pilots would be glad for CJ3 transport.

Fueled, filed and powered up on the ground power unit, we waited for the other two pilots to finish restocking their airplane. I knew the incoming crew would appreciate that. When I called for the clearance, the controller said he had nothing for me. I looked at the printed flight plan in my hand. I had entered an incorrect departure time, probably mistaking EST for PST on fltplan.com. This should have been my first alert as to my diminished performance, the so-called “red flag.” The first officer and I were tired, and now we were surprised with an additional leg — a short one. Sometimes this can be the most challenging kind.

A more experienced professional would have immediately twigged to the risk of fatigue, unfamiliar airports and busy airspace. I was only dimly aware of the combination. For me, the toughest hurdle was the surprise nature of the trip. Once we had landed at Van Nuys with that gusting crosswind, I was mentally done for the day.

Now I was piloting an airplane with other crew members as passengers, in their backyard yet. If we were going from Teterboro, New Jersey, to White Plains, New York, I would have been much more comfortable. VNY has a departure procedure involving a quick turn to the west. The airport is in the shadow of the Class C airspace at Burbank’s Bob Hope Airport (BUR).

The Van Nuys ground controller kindly re-entered a flight plan for me. As he read off the fixes and airways, one of the commuters jumped on, gave me a big hello, and I found myself completely distracted. “Please repeat,” I said lamely.

“Cleared via the Newhall 8 departure, IPIHO, TWINE, KIMMO, Victor 459, Seal Beach, direct. Maintain 5,000 feet.” I had to ask for the spelling of each fix. After I finally got the box loaded, the FO and I reviewed our route, the legs, altitudes, communication frequencies, squawk and runway heading. We briefed the takeoff, procedure in the event of an engine failure, immediate turn to 250 degrees after departing Runway 34L, runway length and condition, our weight for return landing, weather, and minimum equipment list and special considerations. What I did not say was that I had fallen off the intellectual power curve. I didn’t even know that I had; I saw none of those red flags.

Our taxi out and pretakeoff checks went per routine. We advised our giddy passengers. I reminded them that this was not a Phenom, so buckle up. I’ll admit, the two of us up front agreed we’d let the airplane show its stuff up to 5,000 feet — another flag of crimson.

I ramped the power up, and we climbed out at 4,500 fpm for, oh, 40 seconds or so before “ALT CAP” appeared on the PFD. The FO swung us to the west. Soon the controller gave us a heading of 090 degrees. “Was that a right or a left?” I asked. “He didn’t say,” replied the FO. “I think it’s a right.”

And so I committed a serious mistake. Without keying the mic and asking for clarification, I swung us around to the right, keeping our indicated airspeed at 250 knots, showing off. There was no need to fly right at the speed limit, but I was not going to disappoint our knowing passengers. The frequency was busy — we weren’t in rural Iowa, after all.

A quick query from the controller as to our intentions woke me up. We were instructed to make a left turn. It was all me. I had failed to verify and sent us hurtling the wrong way in busy airspace. Would we get a phone number to call when we landed?

I quickly admitted to the chagrinned FO that this was my fault. I did not query the controller, nor did I ask him to do so. The first officer is a first-rate pilot and was fully aware of our mistake.

We headed to the left, picked up the airway, flew the cleared route, and I actually made a pretty decent crosswind landing. Then, more confusion. Rather than taxi to our home base FBO, we were to go to another one. Unfortunately, this FBO had facilities on both sides of the airport, and we didn’t know which one was the right one. Stopped on a taxiway, I asked to maintain position so one of us could call the company to find out where to go. Once sorted out, we taxied to the proper FBO. There was no instruction to call a phone number. Whew. The potential client had left, so we showed the airplane to his chief pilot. No joy.

That evening I got a phone call from headquarters asking why we missed our appointment to show the airplane. The caller prefaced his question by saying, “Dick, you did nothing wrong.” Little did he know.