Gear Up: A New Kind of Flying for a Turboprop Pilot

Fourty-four years after his first solo, Dick hits the big time.

Learjet 31

Learjet 31

** A Learjet 31 is down low for show**

(January 2012) It has been a long first day as a first officer. We're in Asheville (KAVL), North Carolina, about to airline back to Tampa, Florida, via Charlotte, North Carolina. My captain at Elite Air, Mike Bronisz, is on the phone with dispatch. I watch as the corners of his mouth turn up and his eyes take on a certain glow. He gesticulates with his free hand: thumb up. "We're deadheading the Lear back to St. Pete," he says. Oh, boy. We've already flown from St. Pete (KPIE) to Lakeland (KLAL), Florida, and picked up passengers to bring to Asheville, and this gift from dispatch means we'll be home in time for dinner. Not to mention that we get to fly back empty, a good thing for an FO on his first day.

I scurry to file a flight plan, and Mike orders up 150 gallons of jet-A. I’m starting to get the hang of the flight management system and the calculations for bug speeds, so I am proud to attend to these matters. Just like that we’re taking our private Lear 31 back home.

Talk about gypsies in the palace. With free bottled water (cold) from the very kind folks at the FBO, an empty airplane and the sense of already having worked a bit today, I am giddy with anticipation. I’m better on the radios now than I was this morning on my first two flights. We taxi out.

Mike asks me, “Have you ever been on a max performance takeoff in a Lear before?”

“No,” I say, wondering what that will feel like.

Our clearance is to 10,000 feet, almost 8,000 above the runway on which we’re lining up and waiting. I finish the lineup checklist. Mike brings up the power but stands on the brakes. At 95 percent N1 fan speed, he cuts us loose. I am uncertain as to what happens next. I can’t read the vertical speed indicator. Next thing I know, Mike is coming back on the power and I’m checking in with departure level at 10,000.

We step-climb to FL 400 and head toward the Taylor VOR. We deviate slightly to the east by looking out the window. The radar didn’t look that bad, but there was a thunderstorm with pretty impressive overhang and Mike was definite about steering clear of it. For the first time today, we’ve got a minute to catch up. Mike is a patient teacher, a very good thing since this is my first go as a jet pilot and my first time in a two-person cockpit. It isn’t the aviation so much that has me confused; it is the speed at which things happen and the call-outs expected between two pilots.

Mike points out some obvious things that I had done out of sequence due to lack of familiarity. For instance, when departing KPIE that morning, he called for the after-takeoff checklist. In my desire to be the good FO, I missed the handoff to the departure frequency. Mike pointed out that there isn’t anything critical on that part of the checklist — it can be done later, after altitude, speed and direction have been nailed. I was beginning to see that priority-setting was a crucial part of flying a Learjet.

On the other hand, there are times when the FO needs to be right there in the loop. First flaps in the Lear 31 are limited to 250 knots, flaps 20 to 200 knots. When Mike calls for flaps 8, he expects me to say, “Speed checks, flaps 8,” and when the flaps are symmetrically deployed to the desired setting, “8 indicated.” This is all new to me.

Drinking cold bottled water at FL 400, I cannot deny a sense of well-being. Mike throws his empty water bottle over his shoulder into the passenger cabin with elfinlike flair and encourages me to do the same. We both know who will be in charge of picking them up, but the sense of owning this airplane is unmistakable and unmistakably pleasurable. We’re soon on the ILS 17L at KPIE, and Mike shows me the power settings that just seem to pin down the glideslope as we deploy flaps 40. Soon we’re at a local restaurant with friends of mine and Mike’s wife to celebrate the day. I go home exhausted to wash and iron my shirt.

Next morning, we’ve got another Elite Air flight to KAVL. Our customers own the airplane, so this is a Part 91 flight. The owner is delightful. He knows friends of mine. His wife, pretty and friendly, has a bouquet of roses. When I ask if they are from a centerpiece from last night’s formal dinner, she tells me no, “I grow these and like to brighten up our house in North Carolina with them.” They look florist bought to me; they look that perfect. Soon the owner’s son, his wife and two little girls arrive. They will join their grandparents, making eight of us and lots of baggage for the trip. Once we’re all loaded up, I look back to see Grandpa sandwiched between a granddaughter and a basket full of flowers. He looks like the happiest man alive.

The flight to Asheville mirrors the day before, but I am a little bit more with it today. An hour and seven minutes later we’re loading up the SUVs just like yesterday. One really remarkable thing: The son of the owner, a Bonanza owner himself, is totally into this adventure. He helps with the luggage; he’s like one of us. I came away impressed with the owner, not because he has made the money to buy a Lear, though that is extraordinary enough, but because he and his wife have raised a son with such obvious core values. This is really fun.

We button up the Lear and head for the terminal. Mike is airlining back to Tampa and I am heading to New Hampshire. Here comes another surprise. I check in at the US Airways counter and the agent, seeing my uniform, rips up my middle-seat coach boarding pass and hands me a window seat on exit row one. Wow.

When I get to LaGuardia, more benefits become obvious: I get 20 percent off on a hot dog. I begin to think that maybe I should wear this uniform all the time. It doesn’t end there. I get the same royal treatment on the shuttle to Boston. When I get there, I board Cape Air, which flies Cessna 402s to Lebanon, New Hampshire. I get to sit next to the captain, he with his four bars, me with my three. Captain John is young and I am old. It is dark; this is the last flight of the day to KLEB. We’ve got a full boat. I don’t have a headset on, so I can only guess as to what John is hearing, but I have owned a Cessna 340 and the cockpit feels familiar. As we climb out of Boston, we settle into a 500 fpm rate. I can’t help but tell John about the max takeoff in the Lear. He doesn’t seem jealous, just happy to hear about it. We fly on into the clear smooth night, one young aviator and one old one with a new experience under his belt, silently inches from each other. I am suffused with contentment.

When we land, my wife, Cathy, greets the flight, smiling and laughing at seeing me in my uniform. Though it is late, she guides me to our favorite restaurant, where she has colluded with the proprietor to celebrate my first days as a real pilot. As I come back from the men’s room, where I changed my shirt, I see that there’s a balloon affixed to my chair.

After a weekend of tall tales by the Learjet pilot, I make my way back to KAVL on US Airways. On the turboprop from KCLT to KAVL, the flight attendant walks past 40 customers to my seat and gives me a bottle of water. This uniform is magic. Susan from the FBO picks me up and I tell her I am brand-new and in charge of preparing the airplane for today’s flight. I want everything to be perfect when Mike arrives and I tell her so. She smiles; she’s new on the job too. We have a bond, we new persons.

I have written down a catalog of my errors, misdeeds and indiscretions on the first few flights to discuss with Mike. Besides the obvious failure to catch the tower’s instruction to contact departure on the first trip, the failure to set bug speeds on the second, my assumption that KAVL is at sea level (it is at 2,000 feet), my inability to find the outer marker for the ILS at KAVL in the FMS and my general bewildered state of altered consciousness, I had done an admirable job, I think. At least I hadn’t fallen out of the airplane when opening the door, a fate that has befallen many a rookie Lear pilot. Mike smiles at all this. He is used to flying with Jason, whom he has mentored since his first solo, and now he’s stuck with this 65-year-old newbie.

We’re taking the owner’s son and his family back to St. Pete in the late summer afternoon. This means thunderstorms, and we are vigilant. Direct Taylor looks good and we’re rocking along at FL 400 when Jacksonville Center asks us to recycle our transponder. Sure enough, we’re not getting a reply/interrogation light. Mike knows, and I do not, how to switch to the other transponder, and we’re soon back in business. Will I ever make captain, I wonder?

On the LZARD arrival into the Tampa area, JAX gives us permission to deviate as necessary and to proceed to DADES when able. Mike dials in DADES and we don’t see much of anything on the radar. Why, I wonder, does JAX give us this deviating permission if there is nothing out there? Do they see something we don’t? Does somebody else see something? We don’t see anything but weak returns, but we get a rough ride. Mike disconnects the autopilot, we turn on the anti-ice and deice, and he cradles the yoke in his two hands like he was carrying a newborn puppy.

After a good 10 minutes we break out into that very weird smooth, quiet air. After the rain, it sounds as if the engines are deceased, but I see the instruments before me speaking of modest thrust and cool temperatures. We maneuver around for the downwind to 35R and I acknowledge the 10- to 15-knot crosswind. Mike says as much on final, and for a second the right wing dips into the wind. Mike straightens the airplane and we end up making the usual soft landing and customary turnoff.

Our charges have not been frightened by the turbulence, though we are solicitous about it. The young couple are aviators and the girls like the bumps. For me, it is the end of my first real spate of commercial flying. I couldn’t have asked for better legs, a more patient captain, nicer passengers or a greater thrill. Forty-four years after my first solo I have finally made it.

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