I had just completed five years of active duty as an OH-58 pilot and headed off into the world of civilian aviation. I knew my 2,000-plus hours of helicopter time were going to open a lot doors to me. I was sure that within a week or two I would be driving 747s around the world.
Imagine my surprise when American Airlines informed me, rather rudely I thought, that my rotary-wing time was of no value to them. “OK,” I though, “I’ll move on to Plan B.” I went to the local airport looking for a way to build fixed-wing time. The only requirement I placed on my instruction was that it had to financially conform to the budget of a newly unemployed CW2 with a wife, two kids and no real savings. In other words, it had to be free. This requirement limited my options.
I stumbled across a run-down hangar with open doors and two glistening Beech 18s sitting regally among toolboxes, old tires and junk that had obviously accumulated over years of service. Beneath one of the airplanes was a mechanic working diligently. After what seemed like an eternity, he finally recognized my existence and asked if he could help me. I explained my situation and asked if there was any way I could pirate some flight time, offering, of course, to earn my keep by mowing grass, waxing airplanes or cleaning up the hangar.
It turned out the mechanic, Al, was also the owner, pilot, janitor and a new father of an infant daughter, so his plate was full. After our conversation and an initial rebuff, Al had a change of heart. This gruff, intimidating old man of at least 38 or 40 told me to be back at 5:30 p.m. and I could fly with him. He went on to explain that he was a loner and did not really like people in his cockpit. That set the tone for the next week. He ran a night freight operation and I would be allowed to log flight time on any of the empty legs.
As 5:30 approached, I stood patiently by the hangar door. Al arrived late, as I learned would be his habit over my next week of flying with him. We quickly wheeled the Beech out and he fired up the two rumbling radials, taxied out and fire-walled the throttles. The next thing I knew we were sailing through the Midwestern skies, bound for Chicago’s Midway Airport. It became apparent that flight plans, run-ups and checklists were optional in this strange world of the night freight dog.
We landed at Midway and enjoyed a strong cup of coffee in an operations center teeming with other freight dogs as ground personnel crammed package after package into the airplanes filling the ramp. As we returned to the Beech for our leg to Cleveland, we had to climb up the wing and enter the cockpit through the escape hatch because the cabin was jammed full. Off we went — no weight and balance, performance planning, run-up or flight plan.
Al was not much for conversation. In fact, he never said anything. His method of operation was quite unique. He would climb to cruise altitude, set a heading, match the props, trim the airplane and go to sleep. Being a 1940s-era machine, the 18 had no autopilot, so it would not hold its cruise setting. As we began a gradual descent, speed would increase and the props would come out of sync, causing that familiar “waaa waaa waaa” of the engines. It was this disturbing sound that doubled as Al’s alarm clock. He would wake up, climb back up to altitude, retrim and go back to sleep. Aware of his lone wolf attitude, I sat like a statue, afraid of invading Al’s space.
On the fifth night, I couldn’t take it any longer. I made a conscious decision to take command of the airplane at the first opportunity. It was a dark, moonless night as we climbed westbound out of Flint, Michigan, and, true to form, Al was sound asleep as the eastern shore of Lake Michigan slid gently past 8,000 feet below. I silently reached up and firmly grasped the yoke, quite proud of myself, as I set a course for home. Somewhere about mid-crossing in the darkest, blackest place I have ever been, I was jarred from my smugness by a severe lurch to the left as the No. 1 engine came to a sudden stop. Before I could grasp what had happened, a hard lurch to the right followed as No. 2 followed suit.
To Al’s credit, the professional in him came alive. He woke from his deep sleep and in an instant, as his new co-pilot sat in confused shock, began turning valves and manipulating mixture levers. In a matter of 30 seconds, both engines were purring like kittens and spitting blue flames from their stacks. No words were spoken for several minutes.
Al broke the uncomfortable silence by mentioning that someone had been flying his airplane. With only two of us on board, we both knew who that someone was. It seems that Al was burning off the auxiliary tank and planned on switching to mains after a short rest. By flying the airplane, I had inadvertently canceled his alarm service and run the aux tank dry. His embarrassment was obvious. He went on to say, “I bet you think I am a real jerk. I do this all the time. I went to sleep in the pattern at Kenosha one night and woke up in Milwaukee.”
The remainder of night, my last with Al, was uneventful. I never saw him again after that, but I walked away with many lessons. You get the quality of training you pay for. Never let your guard down because in the crowded skies we work in, the other guy may not be doing what he should be doing. And never, never do anything unannounced in a cockpit. You may be turning off someone’s alarm clock.