Gear Up: The Swarm

Two hundred airplanes were planning to depart from a small airport at the exact same time: midnight. Most were jets. There was one ground power unit available for the entire lot. One of the field's two runways was closed. This gave us something to think about. In fact, we had all day to contemplate the intricacies of Part 135 flying, duty hour limitations and cold coffee.

What was the occasion, you ask? Florida State was playing Notre Dame in Tallahassee, Florida, on Oct. 18. RJ Bruland and I were to take six Seminole fans back home to Kissimmee, Florida, after the game. Another crew was to take them to Tallahassee midafternoon before the game. The game was scheduled for 8 p.m., according to ESPN. We and the other crew were to wait for the outcome of the contest to come out and then fly everybody home. The other crew, which was scheduled to rest at a day room in a Tallahassee hotel, was destined for Trenton, New Jersey. It looked like a late night for all of us.

The day started innocently enough. I awoke in Bath, Maine, to a beautiful seaside autumn tableau. I took a walk down the main drag, listened to some music, and admired the high color of the maple trees. We had a leisurely breakfast. We weren't scheduled to "duty on" at the airport until 12:15 p.m., so the morning had a genteel, unhurried feel to it.

As serene as the setting was, I had some sense of the impending challenges. It is hard to make your body rest up for an anticipated late night. Just because you might be up until 3 a.m. doesn't mean you can will yourself to wake up late in the morning. In fact, the anticipation often makes for a restless night prior to the big night. I find this a common phenomenon when I plan a trip to Europe, even though I know I won't sleep on the plane; the idea of transiting an entire ocean in one leap isn't compatible with somnolence for me. It is just too exciting.

RJ and I had several things to discuss. We knew that we were bound by regulation to a total of 14 hours of duty time. We still had a Brunswick, Maine, to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, flight to accomplish. With headwinds, this was going to take almost four hours. If we took off at 1:15, we'd be on the ground by 5 p.m. or so. Plan 30 minutes to clean up the airplane and get fuel. A bite to eat should take an hour or so, leaving almost four hours prior to our scheduled repositioning leg to Tallahassee at 10 p.m. I was beyond grateful that the company sprang for a rest room at a local Ramada Inn. I was not to sleep for the reasons listed, but I was to get some rest. In the back of our minds was the drop-dead time of 2:15 a.m., by which we had to be done flying for the night.

RJ and I agreed that we'd "fuel through" in Lauderdale, meaning that we'd have enough gas to finish the night in Kissimmee without needing to compete with other airplanes for the fuel trucks in Tallahassee. These calculations included the weights of our six passengers for the late night leg. We'd have enough gas for night flying with a cushion for taxiway congestion without so much gas that we'd be above max takeoff weight once the passengers were on board.

We talked about our need for a power cart to start. Ordinarily the CJ3 starts by battery without lament, but RJ had had a hot battery start a few days earlier on this airplane, even though the battery voltage was above 24, our minimum. And just the day before, while using a standard power unit in Ithaca, New York, I had seen the GPU (ground power unit) kick off and an unusual rise in ITT (interstage turbine temperature) during the start sequence. It didn't qualify as a hot start and I didn't shut down, but it wasn't normal. After a lengthy discussion with maintenance, we decided we'd do everything we could to use a GPU in Tallahassee. Having to abort a start after midnight in Tallahassee with six people on board just seemed like a bad way to end the day. Besides, we knew there wasn't an available hotel room within a hundred miles. This was a big game.

And so to work. Our one passenger from Maine to Florida was a delightful, low-maintenance man — the kind that makes this type of flying really fun. We were off on time and pretty much spent a good part of the three hours and 45 minutes talking about the "what ifs" in Tallahassee. The trip time from KTLH to KISM was calculated at 43 minutes at Flight Level 190 on We set 1:15 a.m. local as our drop-dead time for wheels up. If the game was over by 11 p.m., we reasoned, that should be doable. The notams included this: "High volume traffic expect delays 1600-0600Z."

We landed at KFXE on time and were greeted by Pablo Garcia, Flying magazine reader, who kindly gave RJ and me Banyan Air Service golf shirts and a crew car to borrow. Our passenger wasn't so lucky; his ride had gone to KFLL by mistake. All this he took with good grace.

After a hurried bite in Lauderdale and a few hours in the hotel during which I rested and watched the hype for the game on national television, we were back at the airport. We called the other crew. They confirmed that the Tallahassee airport was well stocked with visiting jets. Our flight at 10 p.m. was serene. Night flying, with which I have only recently gathered any experience, is often calm and quiet. We flew over my home in Tampa; I could see the bridges and airport. It was a magic carpet ride evening.

We could see Tallahassee from 20 miles out and landed on Runway 36. A truck came out to greet us. We were parked on the "North Ramp." I checked the engine oils and bypass pins. We rode in the bus to Million Air.

It wasn't pandemonium, exactly, but the two-story space was packed to the rafters with crews. Though the live television coverage was to start at 8 p.m., the game didn't actually start until 8:30. The huge national audience meant lots of advertisements during the timeouts. Though it was after 10:30, the game was still in the third quarter.

We milled around with the crowd. The game was tight, so nobody was expected to leave early. We chatted with the other crew, commiserated about the late night, and tried to force some coffee out of the dispensers that had been set up. By this time only cold decaf was left — not really what we'd hoped for.

RJ and I agreed that I would head out to the airplane and that we'd try to get that precious power cart to start one (the right) engine. With one turning we knew we could cross-­generator-start the other. Timing was the issue. We didn't want to sit there burning gas and putting time on the engine, but we didn't want that hot start, either. In the end it worked out. The cart was miraculously available after the game was over, and I was able to get the clearance and put it in the FMS. Soon our passengers, festooned in Seminole finery, were clambering on board after the FSU victory. The other engine started without difficulty.

Taxiways Alpha and Papa meet at a right angle at the departure end of Runway 36. The ground frequency was crowded. Finally, the ground controllers instructed crews to alternate at the Alpha-Papa intersection and to call the tower when number two for takeoff. We joined the parade.

Airplanes were still trying to get to the two main taxiways from various ramps, and we could hear crews report that "we can't get by on Juliet, but we can on Kilo." We inched along. It looked like we might not get off by our drop-dead time. I was in the left seat. We were number six or seven by 1:15 a.m. RJ said, "You good with another 10 minutes?"

"Yes," I said. We had come this far.

At 1:23 we heard "Red Stripe 040 cleared for takeoff." I pushed the throttles up and we rocketed into the still-calm fall atmosphere. "Keep the power up," counseled RJ. Cleared direct PIGLT, we raced through the night. We landed straight in to Runway 15 at 2:02. A tired ramper was waiting for us. It was 2:05 when RJ called the company with our times. Ten minutes to spare.

When I got into bed with my Holiday Inn welcome snack at 3:05, I was suffused with a sense of pride. We had, in the end, got 'er done.

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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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