Gear Up: Day Trip

A day trip to Georgetown provides some remarkable experiences.

Learjet cockpit

Learjet cockpit

** Aloft in the dark over the Gulf, the only visible
reality comes from the instruments.**

The moon seemed to take itself so seriously that it paid little attention to us. Though less than a quarter of its full self, it looked down with indifference at our little ship as it hurtled through the cosmos. This lack of concern was a boon, it turned out, for the low moonlight allowed the stars to come out, both above and below us. We were sailing through the heavens, or so it felt. The stars below us were brighter than those above. That was because they were oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico, brightly lit in the dark night. That sprawling nebula to our far left was the whirl of lights marking New Orleans. It was a surreal sight; only the steady competence of the HSI with its over-lying map and the rock-solid airspeed indicator with its numerical announcement of .78 Mach brought some semblance of reality to the scene. That is, of course, if you are accustomed to flying in a Lear 31 at 45,000 feet over vast stretches of water in the dark. If that is your reality, then this would seem normal. For this new Learjet pilot, normal is not a word that comes to mind; remarkable is more like it.

A day in the life of a working Lear can be something to behold. Elite Air, for which I have had the privilege to fly occasionally over the past 16 months, operated this one. The first leg, an empty one, from St. Petersburg, Florida (KPIE), to Fort Myers (KRSW), was mine. I am getting better at taxiing and more precise at the callouts. In the car on the way to the airport, I reminded myself to announce "gear up, yaw damper on" when Capt. Jason Hepner said "positive rate" and to say "flaps up, afters" when he called 400 feet and V2 plus 20. I love the sound of these words, and I could not wait to say them. KRSW was landing on Runway 6 and, though the weather was clear, Jason set up the ILS as backup. For some reason, I got behind the glideslope, and it wasn't until about 500 feet above the airport that I got it all together on speed and glidepath. The touchdown was good, though.

We filled up and waited for our two passengers. They arrived right on time, bearing breakfast for us. Their warmth and clear respect for the privilege of flying to Texas for the day in a private jet made me want to provide them with the best possible service. The older of the two gentlemen was to see an old Navy buddy whom he hadn’t laid eyes on in 55 years. That alone made this seem like a historic trip. Our flight plan called for us to join Q100, the airway over the Gulf that extends from Sarasota, Florida, to Leeville, Louisiana (LEV), at Flight Level 430 on the way to Georgetown, Texas (KGTU).

Twenty-four minutes after takeoff, we leveled at 43,000 feet, “dripping” fuel from the “trunk” into the main tanks. The Lear 31A has a fuselage tank in the back of the airplane (hence the “trunk”), which fills the mains while in flight. It was ISA minus 3 degrees, and Jason had me look up long-range cruise speeds so as to maximize our range. This trip upwind required such planning if we were to land with 1,000 pounds of jet-A. So we loitered along at Mach 0.74.

The arrival to KGTU involved skirting Houston and approaching Austin. A buildup on our path necessitated a request for a deviation to the north, which is where we wanted to go in the first place. Somehow I got all turned around as we approached the airport in VFR weather. I called a base leg when we were actually on the downwind. This made me wonder about my persistent inability to think like I do when flying my own Cheyenne turboprop. Is it the speed of the jet, or is it the unfamiliarity with another pilot in the cockpit? Do I defer too much, become too passive? I was still fretting about this as we pulled up to the Gannt Hangars, where Aimee was videotaping our arrival. The Navy friends were soon reunited.

The Gannt Hangars proved to be an FBO in the making. While Aimee got us a rental car, Mark and Larry assembled a popcorn machine for the lobby. The place was redolent with the anticipation of a new enterprise and great hospitality. Since we had a six-hour wait, I suggested to Jason that we drive 70 miles to Llano, Texas, and have barbecue at Cooper’s. Hey, this was Texas, and a 70-mile drive for lunch is not thought to be unusual.

Cooper’s is a one-of-a-kind place, and Jason didn’t believe me when I told him the meat is retrieved directly from the smoker and plopped on a lunch tray, which you carry inside to be weighed. There are no plates, and there is no regret when you eat at Cooper’s.

We made it back to Georgetown with time to spare and visited with Larry and Mark. By now the popcorn machine was completed. On this day, Elite Air had two Lear 31s there. Our passengers arrived, announced they had “made a few bucks” and piled in the jet. We were soon at the end of Runway 18 with the engines up to takeoff power and the brakes firmly applied. When Jason let go, we shot down the runway and were soon going direct Navasota, Texas (TNV), then direct Leeville and out over the Gulf.

Then for the magic. As we leveled at Flight Level 450, the sun set over my right shoulder. I could crane my neck and just see the purple and orange hue beyond the winglet. I could hear our passengers behind us; they were obviously enjoying the evening, though I don't think anybody was having more fun than me. I thought back to a flight in a slower airplane at a lower altitude almost 30 years ago, when I had my first night flight over the Gulf of Mexico. In that case, it was a Cessna P210 full of family that cut across a portion of that great body of water. My youngest child, then maybe 6 years old, announced from the very back seat, "Hey Dad, we're flying over the stars." On this night, I thought of her and smiled.

Eleven hours after we picked up our passengers in Fort Myers we are on final to the same runway from which we departed. You have seen pictures of the view on final at major airports all lit up at night, but the real thing is 100 times more impressive. We were soon at the FBO and saying good night. One of the passengers crossed Jason’s palm with a $100 bill. We took on 120 gallons of fuel and prepared to get to our next stop, Brooksville, Florida, where the airplane was scheduled for a new interior. The tower there, a brand-new one, closed at 10 p.m., so we wondered if we’d make it before then.

This was my leg. I lined up on Runway 6 among a bevy of runway lights; it was late, and we were light. As I pushed up the power, the visual effect came to resemble a science fiction movie where a kaleidoscope of lights rush past you as you travel backward or forward in time. It was like being shot down Broadway at night. Cleared to 4,000 feet, we climbed at 6,000 feet a minute, making my “gear up, yaw damper on, flaps up, afters,” one long, slurred sentence. I flew this leg just east of the coast of Florida at 12,000 feet on a dark, smooth, cloudless night — an invitation for contemplation.

Aloft on our carpet, we cruised quietly, breaking our silence only to inquire of Tampa Approach whether the Brooksville Tower was still open. It was 21:51 local, and we were 10 minutes out. “Contact Brooksville, 118.55,” were our instructions. When we did, the tower man said he was leaving soon, to which we replied we’d key the mic to turn on the lights. By then we could see the rotating beacon.

The only trouble was, the runway lights went out and we couldn’t key them back on. Since the tower was new and we weren’t sure if the correct keying frequency was the new tower frequency or the old unicom frequency, we tried both, to no avail. Jason called the tower again and, luckily, the operator was still there and he agreed to stay the few minutes until we landed — whew.

With no precision path indicator approach lights, Jason dialed up a GPS with VNAV guidance approach for me, which was very helpful. On speed and on glideslope, I did way better than I had that morning. Still, I felt I wasn’t exactly lined up with the runway. “You’ve got a 30-knot crosswind here at 1,600 feet,” counseled Jason.

Though the approach was stabilized and looked good, the landing was another matter. I was slow to come off the power, and we sailed along a few feet in the air, allowing some significant portion of the 7,000-foot runway to pass behind us. “Got to get her down,” said Jason, and I did. It was not the smoothest landing, but no harm was done. We felt our way along the taxiways to park in front of the hangar where our rental car awaited. I shut down and clambered out. While Jason did the paperwork, I cleaned out the cabin and put our stuff in the rental car, including an untouched “vegetable party tray.” I put the tail stand on and the pitot covers while listening to the tick, tick, tick of the engines as they cooled down.

The next night I feasted on the vegetable platter.