Gear Up: Learning from Weather Decisions

Trial by snow and ice on the airways.

Gear Up CJ3 Cheyenne

Gear Up CJ3 Cheyenne

** Will flying the CJ3 diminish my love of our
(Photos by Dick Karl and JetSuite)**

It is a Saturday night in Ithaca, New York. The temperature is 7 degrees, and the gusts of 26 knots blow snow across the ramp. The only available evidence of this blowing snow is provided by powerful floodlights attached to the hangar that make for a scene that is both bright white and, just beyond the lights’ reach, the deep, dark black of winter. Our passengers are due back at 10:30 p.m. for the short flight to White Plains, New York.

I used to stand just a few feet from here in the old terminal looking at exactly this type of weather while waiting for airplanes to arrive. That was 50 years ago. I was a student at Cornell University, and I had a job at the airport renting Avis cars and driving the airport limousine — an eight-door affair, a stretched Pontiac of some sort. Some nights, I would wait for the last Mohawk Airlines plane to arrive in just this kind of weather. It was due in from Kennedy around 11 p.m., but it would often be delayed and arrive at daybreak or canceled altogether.

The question now is whether the weather will permit us to take off. As a relatively new first officer at JetSuite, I am learning a lot about Part 135 flying, the Cessna CJ3, aeronautical decision making and customer service. Tonight, I am with the best: check airman Fred Pollino. Fred was my initial operating experience captain when I started. He was the first captain to welcome me to JetSuite, and I liked him instantly. Experienced, funny, calm, possessed of an immense knowledge base and a good stick, Fred is the kind of guy you want to be with when tough go/no-go decisions are made. I would pay for this sort of instruction, but JetSuite is apparently unaware of this, as they pay me.

Fred is totally comfortable in the jet. His approach to tonight’s decision making is not about whether he’s up to the takeoff but rather about whether the weather is up to our very carefully spelled-out operating requirements and about the comfort of our passengers. I watch as he sifts through the weather information and talks to our company’s support personnel. He has me call the tower. The controller announces that he’s leaving at 10 p.m. I notice in the notams that the AWOS is out of service. After 10, we will have no weather reporting. The line guys put us in touch with the men plowing the runway. “Pretty clear over patchy packed snow, but the wind is howling,” they say.

The passengers arrive at 10:10. They are already aware of the possibility of a canceled flight; JetSuite’s guest relations group makes the Ritz-Carlton look like Motel 6. As the wind makes the door to the FBO vibrate, Fred explains the situation. The two men are accomplished Cornell graduates. They wouldn’t be flying with JetSuite if they weren’t. This also means they have had at least four years of experience with this type of winter storm, as have I.

I am struck by how much I have seen since I was a student here. It was here I got hooked on airplanes. Six years after leaving Ithaca, I was back in a newly purchased used Beechcraft Musketeer. I was in the Army then. I have owned five airplanes since, and each one of them has landed at Ithaca. Tonight, I landed a jet in blowing snow. In the dark. Ithaca has been a touchstone in a way.

Has all this experience made me less appreciative of airplanes and flying? Does the Cheyenne turboprop that my wife, Cathy, and I own seem less of a machine now that I am riding around at Flight Level 450 doing Mach .737? Will I ever be as comfortable as Fred in this situation? Am I becoming a better pilot, or am I becoming more dependent on all the CJ3’s bells and whistles? How do single-pilot operations seem to me now that I have become accustomed to another set of eyes and ears and, most importantly, the presence of another pilot with much more experience with these conditions than I have?

One thing is for sure: I would never contemplate a takeoff in this weather in our Cheyenne. A sturdy turboprop is, I suppose, up to the mission; “fully deiced,” powerful and relatively fast, we’d be in the clouds all the way to White Plains at 15,000 feet. The real question would be icing. It is forecast everywhere along the route. The CJ3, with its heated wings and windshield, sheds ice like a dog shaking off water after a swim. Turn it on, and off she comes.

I am learning to appreciate the power of two when it comes to operating a complex airplane. With Capt. Miles Jones, I sweated out the weather for departure on a snowy night in Appleton, Wisconsin; a month later, I worked and reworked the fuel/headwind/unfavorable routing/maybe-stop-for-gas puzzle with Capt. Andy Lemons. In each case, these experienced airmen included me in the decision making. No, they did more than that; they solicited my opinion. In these two examples, we got the job done for our passengers on time and on schedule. In both instances, I was mightily reassured by the discussions and proud of the outcome.

“How ya gonna keep them down on the farm after they’ve seen Paree?” goes the post-World War I song. Has this remarkable experience at JetSuite made me impatient with the Cheyenne? Am I frustrated by its shortcomings? Not yet, it seems.

On an upwind leg in the Cheyenne from New England to Florida, our groundspeeds rarely topped 200 knots, and a fuel stop was required. Still, I wasn’t upset. I have done this trip many times before, and what strikes me most is that even with these headwinds the Cheyenne can still make it. It may take awhile, but we will be home for dinner. In fact, when confronted by 157-knot headwinds, the CJ3 will have Cheyenne-like groundspeeds of 260 to 290 knots. All airplanes are subject to the laws of physics and headwinds, no matter how fast the brochure claims they are. This fact, that even jets are humbled by headwinds, reassures me.

I know that most pilots think big is better, that size does matter. I know I used to apologize when talking to airline crews for owning “only” a Cessna 210, though it was a pressurized one. As I went from that airplane to a Cessna 340 to the Cheyenne, I got the sense of what bigger airplanes felt like, but until the CJ3, I wasn’t in the jet leagues. Now I am. I am reminded of one generous Delta captain, who, after praising the 210 and lavishing it with envy, said, “You know, they are all airplanes, even this Boeing 777.” And so I vowed never again to apologize for my ride in the sky. All airplanes are magnificent — some just a little more magnificent than others.

Am I emboldened by the jet experience? Might I assume one dark and restless night that the Cheyenne, with its turbine engines, is equal to the CJ3? Could I forget that one airplane is a jet fewer than 10 years old and the other is a turboprop older than 30? So far, this hasn’t happened, though I am more comfortable flying at night than I have been in the past. Up until now, all my flying has been personal, and I arranged most trips so that they could be conducted in daylight. At JetSuite, some customers travel very early or very late. (My latest scheduled takeoff was at 2:15 a.m. from Boston to Teterboro, New Jersey.) I am no longer a stranger to the night. There is good evidence that general aviation Part 91 flying at night is way more likely to result in harm than flying during the day. Am I in that category, or are my ATP rating, recent night experience and the basic capability of the turboprop enough to make me pretty safe for personal flying?

Tonight, coming up the hill from dinner in the blizzard, Fred said, “Are you sure you want this leg?” I knew what he meant, and I readily accepted his offer to take the controls on this night. Though I was off the hook, I was eager to see how this played out.

All this ricochets through my mind as the snow piles up at the FBO door. Fred completes his consultation with our dispatch people. We aren’t flying tonight. Guest services has a hotel for our passengers. (It will be different from ours!) Truth be told, I am relieved.

Our passengers are terrific. They get it. The next morning is clear and a million. The cold front has swept away all precip. The trip to White Plains takes just over half an hour. Fred and I have Augusta, Maine; Newark, New Jersey; Nassau, Bahamas; and West Palm Beach, Florida, to go. What a great day — what terrific lessons.

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