April 4, 2013

The Last Flight Curse

I don't know what it is with me and last flights.  My last flight as a freight pilot?  Nightmare.  My last flight as a regional airline pilot?  Nightmare. I flew my last trip as an MD80 First Officer yesterday and it was...no big surprise...a total nightmare.  Here’s the story of all three.

My days as a freight pilot were mercifully few. I worked for a small company that primarily flew cancelled checks around for the banks. I had a nightly run in a Beech Baron that departed around 8pm from Corpus Christi, Texas and made stops in San Antonio, Dallas, and Austin before landing back in Corpus about the time the sun was coming up. It wasn't a great job, but it was a fast way to build the twin engine time I needed to make the next step in my career, and at $18,500 per year, I felt like a Rockefeller.  It may not seem like much money now, but it was a fortune to me back then.

I flew single pilot with no radar, storm scope, autopilot or flight director in airplanes that I wouldn't let my worst enemy in today. The planes were pieced together and poorly maintained and over the door to the flight line hung a sign that read "Don't be late, penetrate."  They were, of course, referring to thunderstorms and the company's desire for pilots to take the shortest route possible in the interest of saving a dollar.   They convinced the Principal Operations Inspector at the FAA that the sign was a joke, but we all knew better and were constantly reminded of the line of pilots waiting at the back door to fill our shoes.

On the last leg of my last night, I was turning final approach to Corpus Christi when I moved the landing gear handle to the down position only to have it come off in my hand.  I was tired, flying in poor weather conditions, low on fuel and the wheels were falling off my chariot...so to speak.

I executed a missed approach and turned circles in the sky while I performed the emergency gear extension procedure. The gear had to be manually cranked down and I can tell you from experience that the process is no easy task for a single pilot in nasty weather. I was very happy to say goodbye to that job.

Thank you sir, may I have another?

My last day as a regional airline pilot was like a perfect storm...almost literally.  I was an EMB-120 Captain with a scheduled layover in Lynchburg, Virginia for my last night on the job.  The next day was supposed to include an early morning flight from Lynchburg to Atlanta, Georgia before continuing on to Meridian, Mississippi, Alexandria, Louisiana, Dallas, Texas, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, followed by one last leg back to Dallas.  It was going to be a long day even if everything went smoothly...but that wasn't going to happen.

The perfect storm I mentioned before was a hurricane that traveled up the eastern seaboard of the United States and moved out to sea before reversing course, making landfall for a second time and stalling-out near Lynchburg where it was eventually downgraded to a tropical depression. We arrived at the airport that morning in a driving rainstorm, strong gusty winds and a plane-full of bright shining faces looking to us for some reassurance that it would be safe to fly. It would be safe or we wouldn't go, but it was not going to be pleasant.

With no known air traffic delays, we boarded the passengers, loaded the cargo and, as we were closing the door for departure, a light illuminated in the cockpit warning us of a potentially dangerous leak in a bleed line.

Many airplanes, the EMB-120 included, are equipped with an Auxiliary Power Unit. The APU is a small jet engine used to provide air and electricity when the engines are not running. Air, commonly known as bleed air,  is taken from the compressor section of both the APU and the engines and is very hot, often described as a blow torch and easily hot enough to start a fire if a leak developed in just the wrong place.

The passengers, already wet from their first walk across the ramp, were escorted back through the rain to the terminal. Two hours passed before my airplane was repaired and ready for another attempt at flight. During that time, many of my passengers were rebooked on another airline - they didn't have any better luck than we were having. Their flight taxied out to the runway, but was unable to achieve takeoff power on one of the engines and was forced to abort the takeoff. Back to the gate they went and through the rain the passengers walked...again. But all was not lost, as my airplane was all signed off and ready to go. Rebooked onto my flight, these poor people traipsed through the rain one last time on their way to my airplane.  Hopefully things would go better this time. 

We closed the doors, started engines and taxied out to the runway. Unlike the competition...I really have no justification to brag...my engines produced the power we needed and after a short roll into a strong headwind, we were airborne.  I asked for "landing gear up" and the First Officer raised the gear handle. There were no complicated gear door assemblies to be sequenced open and shut on this airplane, so the gear usually came up both quickly and quietly. This time, as the nose wheel rose into the fuselage, one of the gear doors came loose from its hydraulic actuator and began slapping loudly against the nose of the airplane.

Did I mention we were basically flying through a hurricane?  The rain was coming down hard and the air was so turbulent that I was constantly testing the limits of my seat belt and having a difficult time focusing on the flight instruments. We notified the departure controller of our situation and requested an immediate return to the airport. Unfortunately, there had not been any arrivals yet that morning, so the controller working our flight was unaware...that was his story anyway...of a 50 knot tailwind on final that sheared to a 25 knot quartering headwind at around 1,000 feet above touchdown. Since he wasn't planning on such an unusually high groundspeed, his first attempt to vector us onto the localizer failed miserably and we were forced to go-around. The second attempt was more successful and we managed to get our broken plane back on solid ground.

Needless to say, the passengers had had about all they could take. Honestly, who could blame them, I was pretty frustrated myself. The airplane was small, and even with a full load of passengers, I was able to walk to the cabin and speak with them face to face about all that had transpired during the last few hours. I tried to lighten the mood without appearing unprofessional and jokingly explained that everything that had happened was my fault as it was my last day on the job. "Murphy's law strikes again," I told them.

Somehow, I was able to convince everyone that I was not incompetent, that the airplane was not a hunk of junk, and that they could trust me to provide safe, but unpleasant, passage to Atlanta. To my surprise, only one person decided not to go and that was only because he had already missed a business meeting.  Off we went...again.

This time we made it to Atlanta without incident, but arrived so late that my connecting flight had long since departed with another cockpit crew. My last paid leg as a regional airline pilot was deadheading in first class on a Lockheed L-1011. I couldn't have planned it better if I had tried.

Thank you sir, but I've had enough!

As if tearing a page from an old play book, I woke to a driving rainstorm yesterday. I sincerely hate to complain, we need the rain and I was happy to see it, but oh how I hate the smell of my old polyester uniform when wet!  I got drenched walking from the house to the car...got even wetter in the employee parking lot...and by the time I finished with my walk-around inspection there was hardly a dry place anywhere on my person. It was not a great way to start the day.

Unlike the last story, we got the flight out on time, taxied to the runway without incident and were burning a hole in the dark morning sky in short order. It was the Captain's turn to fly and in spite of the rain, the ride was relatively smooth. But then, as we climbed through 5,000 feet, my instruments went blank. Let that sink in for just a minute... It was a dark and stormy morning with the clouds below us reaching almost to the ground and at least 25,000 feet of cloud cover above us...and I had nothing to look at but blank CRT screens and an array of orange OFF flags. Thankfully, within a few seconds, my CRT screens came back to life, but I was still left with failure flags on important instruments including the altimeter, airspeed indicator, vertical speed indicator and all navigation instruments. At least I could tell which way was up!

This is how it looked after the screens came back to life.  I took this picture at 35,000 ft.
Honestly though, I'm building this up like we should receive a medal or something, and the truth is it really wasn't that big of a deal.  I glanced at the Captain's instrument panel and was relieved to see that his instruments were working just fine. The problem on my side was caused by a failed Central Air Data Computer (CADC) and with the flip of a single switch, the Captain's information could be displayed on my instrument panel. Crisis averted. As long as whatever had afflicted my instruments was not somehow contagious, the flight would continue as if nothing had occurred.

Also in the interest of honesty, this all occurred on my last trip, but not my last day.  I  enjoyed my last layover before school starts later this week when I'll be forced to take daily rations from the proverbial fire hose. I've done a lot of preparation for my upcoming transition to the Boeing 737 and last night was the last no stress night I will enjoy for at least a month.  I brought along a good book, watched some TV and drifted off to sleep early.  Today is my last day as an MD80 First Officer...and unless you hear differently, I've broken the "last flight curse" and the day went off without a hitch. Wish me luck!


I'm adding this after the fact to let you know that the "last flight curse" has NOT been broken.  I flew the MD80 for 13 years and put just over 9,000 hours in my logbook during that time.  In all my years on the plane, I only saw the failure described above once...now I've seen it twice.  On my last flight, I was at the controls and had just intercepted the localizer course on an ILS approach when a very similar failure caused my Primary Flight Display (top screen) and my Navigation Display (bottom screen) to go blank.  (I took the picture below after landing, but you get the idea.)

Again, to be perfectly honest, this is a similar, but different problem.  You might notice that the first failure caused all altitude and speed information to disappear from view...caused by a failure of the #2 Central Air Data Computer.  The problem I encountered on my last flight kept all air data information in view, but removed all heading and attitude information...caused by a failure of the #2 IRS system.  There were two ways to get information back on my screens.  We could either display the Captain's information on my screens or select a degraded attitude mode on the #2 IRS.  With the flip of a switch, we chose to display the Captain's information on my screens and I was able to complete my last approach and landing.

As bad as it was, I must admit it was bitter sweet to walk away from the MD80 for the last time.  You may think differently after reading this post, but the MD80, while old, is both exceptionally reliable and safe to fly.  I'm not convinced that I won't be back to the fly the old girl as a Captain before the fleet is retired, so I guess I'll be holding on to all my old notes and manuals.  Until then, I will admire this plane from a distance.


  1. The last flight curse. None of this surprises me. It tells me that the Universe wants you to know that it's time to move on and never look back. While there were many good days... you are being pushed on to bigger and better things.

    You'll love the 737, and this will be a super easy check out. Have fun!

  2. I'll join in and also wish you good luck, I thoroughly enjoy your posts and expect you'll go quiet for a while but I hope you find time to share some of your transition experiences with us...

  3. Congratulations on the 737! Wow what a story. Be safe my friend i know you will be find.

  4. Best wishes! Congratulations!

  5. Why are you changing planes? Wouldn't the MD pay more?

    1. No, the MD80, B737 and A320 are in the same pay band at my airline. Click on the link below for a better explanation of why I'm making this move now.


  6. Good luck with that fire hose! ;-)

  7. Wow, very, very happy that you are moving on to the B737. Great way to break the news. Whatever I have understood, I felt it was unfair that you have remained a junior First Officer even after more than 20 years at the controls. But again I have understood from your blogs that in the airline industry, seniority is everything. And that at American, the seniority pool is huge. Hope one day you will move on to the 777, your favourite aircraft right? Thanks to you, we know so much about the MD80. Will look forward to your blogs on the 737. All the best. Pranesh

  8. Great posts! If you have any spare time would love to hear about initial on the 737!

    All the best.


    1. Thanks Tom. As I'm sure you're aware, I'll have to focus my attention on school for the next month or so, but I will definitely try to carve out some time to share how it's going.

  9. Thanks for writing that post! Like Karlene, not too much of that surprises me... the universe is telling you it's time to move on haha.

    Hopefully you'll have some better experiences on the 737. I can't wait to read about what you think of your new plane! I'm sure it'll be nice to get some new routes and fly something "new."

    Let us know how your training goes!
    Best of luck,
    Swayne Martin


  10. Haha your stories sound far too familiar! I'm sure Karlene would agree!

    Take note, Swayne: "Last flights from hell" and "drinking from a firehose" are definitely in your future! ;-)

  11. PS: Good luck moving from the Mad Dog to the Guppy!