Alphabet Blogs, Aviation

L is for Late

See what I did there? Because “L” was supposed to be posted yesterday? Uh, yeah, anyway…

Don’t be late!

During freight operations, timing is everything. Everyone – couriers, loaders, pilots, dispatch, even maintenance – works together to complete our deliveries within five minutes of the scheduled arrival time because, in many instances, being late can cost our clients money.

Some delays are unavoidable, such as weather, traffic, headwinds, and unexpected mechanical issues, and we would do our best to work out a viable solution. On one such occasion, I was lucky enough to propose a solution that not only worked, it allowed me to end my work night on time instead of two hours later.

Every so often, due to additional freight volume destined for St. Paul, MN, my captain and I would have to fly that overflow directly out of Columbus, OH, instead of heading home to Chicago, as was our normal route. We were never pleased to have to tack on the additional two hours to our already long twelve hour night, and, in most cases, were unconvinced of the necessity.

On one such night, while we were grudgingly on our way to St. Paul, two other jets were enroute to Chicago. One would continue on to end their shift in St. Paul, and the other would head west to Kansas City. On this night, though, the Learjet destined for Kansas City had mechanical issues which would lead to it being grounded in Chicago and unable to deliver its plane stuffed with freight to its home base.

While dispatch and the captain of the Kansas City plane were discussing options on the company frequency, I had an idea. I keyed the mic without even consulting my captain – bad form, I know, but I couldn’t stop myself – and said, “What if we go direct to Chicago and swap planes? We would be home with a broken plane which could get fixed during the day, Kansas City could take their cargo in our aircraft, and I’m positive we can fit our freight in the St. Paul plane. What do you say?”

Dispatch only hesitated for a moment, before responding with a crisp, “Do it.”

With a whoop of joy, I asked ATC to change our destination to Midway and received a clearance to fly directly there.

Once safely on the ground in Chicago, all the pilots worked diligently with the ground crew to swiftly unload all three jets, sort the cargo according to its final destination, and then reload the two aircraft heading for Kansas City and St. Paul. I was lucky that everything did, in fact, fit in the St. Paul jet, and even luckier that we were able to scramble fast enough to send them both on their way on time.

In all honesty, however, all I really wanted was to not be late for my bedtime.

Alphabet Blogs, Aviation

J is for Justified

Sometimes, there’s a good reason to break the rules.

Following the horrific events of September 11, 2001, the freight company with which I was employed was one of the first airlines permitted to return to the air. We carried canceled checks for the Federal Reserve, and were subsequently an important part of keeping the economy running. In addition to canceled checks, we were entrusted to transport other time sensitive objects, such as radioactive medications and donated blood.

Late in the evening on September 12, 2001, I was part of a crew which delivered a jet full – and I mean completely full – of boxes of blood for the Red Cross to the New York, NY area.

1976 Learjet 35A, S/N 073 configured for freight operations

A Learjet configured for cargo operations is essentially gutted of all seats, with the exception of the two in the cockpit, and a small bench seat opposite the entry door. There is a net that spans the interior of the fuselage, separating the cargo from the seating area, and keeping the door clear as an emergency exit.

When we picked up the blood destined for New York, there were too many to fit them all in the cargo area. The thought of leaving those few boxes behind was unacceptable, as the schedule had been thrown into such chaos that we had no idea whether another flight would be dispatched to take them.  So, we agreed to break the rules.

We instructed the ground crew loading the plane to pile the extra boxes on the floor, the bench seat, and up to the ceiling, before securing the door behind us, sealing us in.  Had anything gone wrong and we needed to exit the aircraft quickly, we would have been in serious trouble.  However, in this one instance, we felt that the ends justified the means.

I cannot say for sure that we made a difference that night with our small act of rebellion, but I believe in my heart that we did. And, in my opinion, that’s really all that matters.

Alphabet Blogs, Aviation, Musings

C is for Controllers


One of the unusual things that I learned as a freight pilot is that air traffic controllers play an important role in whether you get your job done on time. In the night freight world, time is money, and subsequently, job security. Any number of things can put you behind schedule – mechanical issues, weather delays, etc. – but by simply being pleasant on the radio, you can minimize one of those variables exponentially. Controllers can either help you by vectoring you to land in front of slower traffic, or they can screw you over by slowing you down and making you wait for the commuter 15 miles out.

When you fly freight, you have the same call sign or flight number every night. The benefit to this is that it allows you to form a sort of symbiotic relationship with the controllers. They understand what you can do for them, and in turn they will do what they can to help you. If you’re not a jerk, that is. No one is going to want to cut you some slack if you’re a jerk.

One of my favorite examples of this give-and-take was during a flight from Milwaukee into Midway airport, my home base. I was flying south along the shore of Lake Michigan, and the controller wanted to know if I would like to land on runway 22L, which is the fastest way for me to get to our hangar on the south ramp.

When I told him, “Heck, yeah!” he asked me to keep my speed up, because he was sequencing me to land before a jet inbound to a crossing runway. “No problem,” I told him, excited to have a chance to make up a little time. Even though I was in a twin engine prop, I could easily outpace an airliner on final approach, and had the maneuverability to decelerate very quickly in order to land. 22L is one of the longer runways. There was plenty of room for me to make a fast approach, decelerate on short final, land and then just coast down to the end of the runway to taxi in.

When I checked in with the tower controller, the pilot of the inbound jet noted my callsign, “Starcheck,” and asked if he was racing a learjet to the airport. I’m pretty sure I made the controllers’ day when I answered in my best little girl voice, “No sir, I’m in a Baron” because I could hear them laughing in the background when I was cleared to land.

Still makes me giggle.

I guess the moral of the story is don’t be a jerk to anyone, but especially not to air traffic controllers.