Gear Up: First Day for the First Officer

Running the “before start” checklist.

(December 2011) It is ungodly hot. Sweat cascades off of me; rivulets of perspiration form at the temple, and when I look down, they coalesce into drops that drip into my glasses. I am raining myself into a pair of bifocals. As an unhappy result, I can't see, much less organize, the flight management system on the Lear 31.

This is a shame, as it is my first day at work.

I joined my captain, Mike Bronisz, an hour earlier than usual for him and his regular first officer, and he patiently walked me through the preflight. I am in uniform, resplendent with three bars on the shoulder. The night previous my airline friends gave me some hints on how to dress. I had naively asked them why pilots wear short sleeves and an undershirt. “Well, it can get kind of hot” was all one of them said. No kidding.

All this sartorial instruction proved to be hugely valuable for the first day as a dream-come-true Learjet FO for EliteAir, based in St. Petersburg, Florida. We were to fly empty from KPIE for Lakeland (KLAL) — a grand total of 35.8 nautical miles — to pick up two passengers and a dog for a trip to Asheville, North Carolina.

After that the plan was to airline back to Tampa and get up the next morning and take another Lear to Asheville, and then airline home for the weekend. On the following Monday, we were to airline back to Asheville and pick up one of the Lears and return with passengers to St. Pete.

All of this would be fine if I could get the simple matter of KPIE direct to KLAL loaded in the FMS. Mike has to help me with this — and with the bug speeds and with the pitch trim setting and with how to use the radios. That type rating seems like a long time ago.

I’m reminded that 41 years ago a young intern showed up early on the first day of surgical training. The case was a simple one, sort of like a PIE-LAL leg, and the intern had hopes of handling the knife and getting going on a career in surgery. Only it was hot. So hot that when he walked into the operating room, full of prepared confidence, that heat had left his hands so sweaty that the patient’s hospital chart slipped from his hands and clattered to the floor, whereupon all the careful notes and graphs fluttered around the room like so many unhappy pigeons. And so it is again, this many years later as I embark on another career, this one in airplanes. With almost 4,600 hours as PIC, I am not an intern, exactly, but the parallels are easy to trace.

We are finally in and have started both engines. I am wiping my glasses on my EliteAir tie. I am reading the “after start” checklist. As we run through the deice portion, a current limiter light comes on. We recycle to no avail. We call the maintenance crew on a cell phone. They say shut down, so we do. After 10 minutes of mechanical intervention, we’re good to go.

We’ll be departing off of 35R and will be immediately under the shelf of the Tampa Class B airspace. “Be prepared to switch to the departure frequency quickly, ” Mike says. I nod. Of course. I depart KTPA in Tampa in our Cheyenne all the time. Naturally, we’ll contact the departure frequency, I think, not fully recognizing the difference between departing into Class B and departing into the airspace below Class B, where our airspeed will be limited to 200 knots and our altitude to 1,600 feet. No problem in the Cheyenne, but I am soon to find out how quickly these simple limits can be exceeded in a Lear.

I do manage to call ground and get a clearance and taxi permission. I am not accustomed to the callsign, though. With takeoff clearance, Mike wheels us onto the centerline and brings up the power, and we jump down the runway. With great ceremony I call out V1 and a millisecond later “rotate.” This all seems like a dream, as these are words I have spoken only in a simulator. Unfortunately, this proves to be my last involvement in the flight. Stunned, I sit there, watching the airspeed and altitude increase at a surreal rate. The next thing I know, Mike is acknowledging the tower instruction to call departure. I have totally missed the call. I look at Mike, who, I think, has just realized that he is in charge of a Lear 31 all by himself.

Minutes later, we’re vectored around to land on 27, and next thing I know, Mike has greased it on and we’re going to Columbia Air Services to pick up our passengers.

Mike shows me how to compute the weight and balance, and sends me out to the cockpit to enter the flight plan into the FMS. Once again, it is raining inside my glasses. In a few minutes, Mike will discover that I haven’t recomputed our takeoff speeds or set the bugs. He may be beginning to understand exactly how long a day this is going to be.

Our passengers show up. A delightful couple and a beautiful dog along with several plastic containers. By now I know who is in charge of stowing the luggage. More sweat. I have brought along some dog treats for the dog. My wife and I have a large yellow lab and I like dogs — I think the biscuits will be a nice customer service touch. This is before I understand how completely occupied I’ll be.

Loaded up, we taxi out, and, seconds later, we’re long gone. Too soon, we’re at Flight Level 410 doing 470 knots over the ground — twice as high and twice as fast as the Cheyenne, but the experience is way more than twice anything — it is in a way unbelievable, yet the instruments before me aren’t lying. As we climb out, Mike shows me that the outside air temperature is ISA plus 17, but once we get above 35,000 the temperature stays right at ISA. I conclude that there really is a tropopause, just like Martha King told me in that ATP course.

I start to look out the window and to savor this experience. We are way above the cumulus clouds that define summer in Florida. It is quiet. I take a deep breath, but before I can exhale, Mike points out that we’re only 200 nm away from Asheville and isn’t it about time to pick up the ATIS? What? 200 out? I can’t believe it, but at 470 knots, we’ll be there in less than a half-hour. Man.

I get the ATIS, struggle to get the approach into the FMS and brief the approach. Mike has done this a million times, and even though he’s figured out that he’s single pilot, he seems to be enjoying the trip. He sure is patient with me. I vow to be more patient with the next surgical intern I come across.

Mike briefs the turn-off taxiway that will deposit us right in front of the FBO. Jeez, that is pretty advanced thinking for this first officer. Soon we’re on the ILS, and I notice that our airspeed varies by maybe a knot from our Vref plus 5. One thing is for sure: I am going to learn a lot about flying from Mike Bronisz.

Now, you are wondering if I could land this thing if something happened to Mike. My cautious answer is “yes,” and I bet it wouldn’t be that bad. Like any other craft, aviation is part book learning, part experience and part passion. At the moment I can claim two out of three.

Mike greases us on again. We taxi into the waiting arms of the line guys, and before I can get unhooked from my seat belt, an SUV pulls up. I manage to open the door without falling out (a major peril for novice Lear pilots). To make myself useful, I head to the back to wrestle the luggage out to the waiting line guys. One thing I never learned from flying my own airplanes is how much a Lear crew is dependent on the line crew; from coffee to baggage to a quick turn, my first day at work made me a better tipper.

As our passengers disappear around the corner, I place the tail stand in the proper location and affix the pitot covers. I close and lock the Raisbeck locker. I’m exhausted.

Once in the FBO I enjoy being in uniform. It reminds me of my first day in the Army when I put on my captain’s uniform for the first time. I feel like standing a little taller. Dehydrated, I consume about 3 gallons of water and a few hot coffees despite the ambient temperature that pushes 90 degrees F. In a little while we’ll take the van ride over to the terminal and begin our 6½-hour trek to retrace what we just did in an hour and four minutes.

But wait. Mike is on the phone with our dispatch folks. There is a chance we may deadhead the Lear back to KPIE. Instead of arriving at Tampa across the bay from PIE at 10:30 at night, we may take our private jet right back to our waiting cars in time for dinner. Next month I’ll tell you how it turns out and what the education of one FO is really like.

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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