Jumpseat: An Airline-Owned Airport

In 1973, the end of American involvement in the Vietnam War signaled the end of the draft. A few months prior to leaving for college in 1975, the Selective Service System no longer required me to register. It wasn’t long thereafter that the Air Force dramatically reduced its demand for pilots. My secondary alternate status as an Air Force ROTC scholarship candidate made it unlikely that the U.S. government would pay for my education or my pilot training. Undaunted, I maintained my ROTC enrollment.

It wasn’t until an introductory lecture given by a junior with premature aspirations of second lieutenant status that I reconsidered other flight training options. Among various subjects, the junior informed us of mandatory participation in a campus orientation march to begin at the armory. When I inquired as to the necessity of an 08:00 march on a Saturday, my fellow ROTC freshmen rewarded me with the “he’s-not-a-team-player” stare. I spent a grand total of two weeks in ROTC and resigned from the program. The resignation was probably beneficial to both the Air Force and me.

Most likely as retribution for my nonconformist attitude, the fiercest competition for an airline job was always the guy or gal with wings from the military. It can certainly be a tricky task to fly airplanes with challenging circumstances related to weather or mechanical abnormalities. But flying an airplane when bad guys are aiming missiles in your direction adds an additional element of difficulty. Many of my colleagues are veterans of the Gulf War or are still serving in the Reserve or Air National Guard. As the years have passed flying side by side with pilots from all branches of service, I have developed a fond respect for my colleagues.

A few 777 trips ago, I had a discussion with my copilot, Jon Spare. Col. Spare is the vice commander of the McGuire Air Force Base 514th Air Mobility Wing in New Jersey. I thought it impressive stuff for me to be sharing the cockpit with royalty. Our discussion involved a visit to the base and the possibility of observing an air-refueling sortie.

I added a fun twist to the idea: What would be the chances of me flying my Cherokee Six in from Connecticut? Jon smirked, replying, “Might be possible. I’ll work on it.”

A few months later, true to his word, the good colonel put me in touch with his friend Lt. Col. Dean Owens, the 514th Air Mobility Wing chief of safety. As luck would have it, Dean was in the process of organizing the second annual midair collision avoidance (MACA) civilian fly-in.

The primary purpose of the MACA program is education. Sharing airspace with military equipment presents some challenges. Much of the flying at McGuire involves training. And that training is done with airplanes technically classified in the Heavy category, namely KC-10s, C-17s and the National Guard’s KC-135s.

In addition to combat simulation, a major portion of the operation includes air refueling. Although much of the airspace is protected through the designation of restricted areas, the military jets still have to transition through the civilian environment. And with the three major New York airports to the north and Philadelphia to the west, McGuire has its own unique challenges.

The MACA fly-in afforded us civilian types the opportunity to exchange notes. An interactive understanding of both sides of the flying equation afforded everybody an appreciation of their respective operational requirements. And what general aviation pilot wouldn’t jump at the chance to land their favorite toy on the runway of an active Air Force base and live to tell about it? The experience would give me the chance to get a comparative glimpse of the military environment versus the airline environment. After all, I hadn’t really flown out of an airport that an airline actually owns.

As an added bonus, Dean offered me the opportunity to share the MACA experience. I extended an invitation to a gaggle of friends from Connecticut. Our gaggle consisted of a Pitts Special, an Acro Sport, my Cherokee Six and a Citation Mustang. The only requirement for participation was the completion of a military hold harmless agreement. Our group had a half hour arrival window. About 25 other airplanes would participate. We departed at the appropriate times for our respective airplane speeds.

Aside from having to fly some vectors away from the active runway, in theory to avoid the arrival of the Mustang, all proceeded according to plan. (The vectors smelled of a prearranged conspiracy, but all who were questioned pleaded the Fifth.) Once the airplanes were parked and our group assembled with other participants, we were shuttled off via buses to a base conference room. After treating ourselves to complimentary donuts and coffee, Dean began the presentation.

Standing before us in his olive-green flight suit, Dean’s energy and enthusiasm was infectious. The shine of his bald crown beneath the room’s fluorescent lighting accented his often self-deprecating humor. He immediately put everyone at ease. A former United Airlines pilot, he spoke a familiar vernacular.

The MACA presentation was tailored mostly to McGuire’s operation. It emphasized the need for radio communication. As an example, when a C-17 crew is practicing high descent rate battlefield approaches into ridiculously short landing zones, their focus is not on traffic watch. But if the crew is aware that a 172 is in the vicinity of their practice airspace, another element is added to situational awareness. And if the 172 maintains its own traffic watch, the conflict threat is further reduced simply by having contacted McGuire’s approach controllers, even for an overflight above the affected airspace.

With a C-17 and KC-10 both weighing in at around 600,000 pounds max gross weight, maneuvering is limited. It becomes more incumbent on the little guy to see and avoid. And if there’s one C-17 in the area, then most likely there are more.

Lively banter ensued between Dean and C-17 Capt. Holly Nelson regarding the attributes of her airplane and the KC-10. Dean argued for the superior speed and the air-refueling giving and receiving capabilities of his KC-10. Holly argued for the advance technology and versatility of the C-17. The battle remained a stalemate. That being said, rank notwithstanding, Dean probably won the war. Dean had been Holly’s career mentor.

After wrapping up the MACA presentation, our tour took us first to the McGuire tower. The twenty-something ages of the controllers contrasted with the maturity of their professional demeanors. They were confident but not cocky. The tower facility itself was not that much different from its civilian counterparts. The perch allowed us a bird’s eye view to appreciate the expanse of the base.

We drove to the ramp and began a much-anticipated visit of a C-17. The ramp location held a sentimental value for my friend and Mustang owner Tom Torti. It had been 42 years before when he had waited in the nearby arrivals building. New to the Air Force, his brother had flown a T-38 to the base on a practice cross country sortie with his instructor. The event had not only endeared him to his brother, who became a Southwest pilot and director of flight training, but it endeared him to aviation forever.

I performed a pseudo walk-around inspection of the C-17, making mental comparisons of the airplanes I had flown over the course of my airline career. Other than the massive real estate of the flaps that could be extended to near 90 degrees, much of the design structure appeared similar. The battleship-like passenger/cargo area was cavernous enough to leave you with the impression that it was a separate airplane in and of itself. Military warfare electronics notwithstanding, the cockpit held an array of familiar components. Even the HUD was familiar, part of my airline’s 737 cockpit on the captain’s side, and installed as standard issue on both sides of the 787 cockpit.

In contrast to the C-17, the KC-10 made me feel as if I were climbing back into history. Although I had never flown the civilian equivalent — the DC-10 — I reminisced with a grin, scanning the round steam gauges and the flight engineer panel. The two rows of passenger seats clustered just behind the cockpit door were reminders of the airplane’s original design roots. A visit to the Captain Kirk-style seats in the refueling station at the very aft end of the KC-10 brought me back to the reality of the airplane’s mission.

During our tour of RAPCON, we were given a more detailed presentation of surrounding airspace, impressing upon us the need for increased vigilance. The darkened radar console room was a smaller version of civilian facilities.

Although sequestration kept me from observing an actual inflight sortie, the McGuire experience was still impressive. The major difference from airline operation was the support people. No matter the job description, they took tremendous pride in their work. As a patriotic American, that fact was reassuring to me.

If airlines owned their own airport, perhaps the operation would be more efficient. Just another one of my unrealistic thoughts.

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Les Abend
Les AbendAuthor
Les Abend is a retired, 34-year veteran of American Airlines, attempting to readjust his passion for flying airplanes in the lower flight levels—without the assistance of a copilot.

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