Confessions of a New Corporate Co-Pilot

By Robert Mark on December 7th, 2020

By Rob Mark

I knew life was going to become sweet now that I successfully passed my Cessna Citation III (CE-650) type rating check ride. It meant I’d be flying my first swept wing jet. Surprisingly, my first day at the new job at Chicago Executive Airport (PWK) would also be the first time I’d actually been up close to a Citation III since all the training—even the check ride—happened in the simulator.

From my research though, I knew the 650’s cabin was roomy enough for eight and its rocket-like performance was nothing short of spectacular with a VMO (maximum operating Mach) of Mach 0.83 near 39,000 feet on a standard day. That meant we could make the West Coast out of PWK with four people in the back. I learned pretty quickly too that the 650’s awesome performance meant staying much farther ahead of the airplane than I’d had to in the much slower Citation II (CE-550) I’d been flying in a 12-pilot charter department.

This Citation III was owned by a private company and I was the junior of three pilots. My boss, the chief pilot brought experience from a number of other flight departments, while the other pilot—call him Tom—well, I was never really too sure where Tom had come from because the guy kept to himself as much as possible and simply wasn’t the chatty type. That made three-hour flights really long when the entire conversation at FL390 ends with “yes,” “no,” and an occasional shrug of the shoulders.

But who cared what one guy acted like, I thought. I was there to learn how to fit into a flight department that needed another pilot on their team. Just like in charter flying, my job was to keep the people in the back happy. I just came to know these passengers much better. They’d invite us to their home in Nantucket when we overnighted there.

Looking back on this, I guess the 10-minute interview the chief pilot and I engaged in before he offered me the job should have been a tip-off that maybe something was a little odd, but with a four-year-old daughter growing up at home, the chance to dump a pager that always seemed to ring at 2 a.m. beckoned hypnotically.

Cessna Citation CE-650

Line training began right away with me flying in all kinds of weather, where I regularly rotated flying left seat with the chief pilot and Tom. Having flown left seat on the Citation II, I wasn’t brand new to jets, just speedy ones.

After a few months, however, I began to notice operational oddities that started making me wonder—sketchy flight planning and questions that were sometimes answered with annoyed expressions. If I appeared not to agree, someone might ask, “Had I finished all the Jepp revisions yet?” (In those days there were no electronic subscriptions. Updates were handled by hand) I found the best solution for getting along seemed to be just shut up and fly the airplane, although I was able to start paying closer attention to the little things as I became more comfortable in the airplane.

On one flight back from Cincinnati (CVG), I was flying left-seat with the chief pilot in the right. I wanted to add fuel before we left since the Chicago weather was questionable, but the boss overruled me explaining, “We’re fat on fuel.” I didn’t say anything, but back home, Chicago Approach dumped us early so we ended up burning more fuel than planned. I flew the ILS to minimums, but my scan uncomfortably included the fuel gauges every few seconds. We taxied in with 700 pounds of Jet-A, not much for an airplane that burns 1,800 pounds an hour down low. What if we’d missed at Chicago Executive Airport and needed to run for Chicago O’Hare International Airport I wondered? We’d have arrived on fumes. The boss looked at me after we shut down. “Don’t tell me that whole thing bothered you. It all turned out fine, didn’t it?”

Note the barber pole Overspeed Warning on this airspeed indicator

On another trip, Tom and I were headed to Los Angeles from Chicago. Tom’s flying philosophy was simple … go fast, all the time. But on this trip, he tried something I’d never experienced when he pulled the circuit breaker on the Citation’s over speed warning. This meant the airspeed indicator needle and the barber pole (the striped safety warning needle on the indicator) crossed in a way that was never intended and of course removed the safety protections. Sure everyone flies jets nestled up to the barber pole, but not past it. Crossing that line meant we’d become test pilots too and I didn’t like it one bit.

“That bother you?” Tom questioned me at FL410 at some airspeed beyond the pole. “Yeah. It does. Put the #@*&! circuit breaker back in and pull the power back,” I demanded. After a short argument, he complied and didn’t speak to me again for the next two and a half hours. I told the story to the boss when we got home and he told Tom not to try that again, although they’d both joke about it from time to time.

Maybe six months later, Tom and I flew a trip out West with an overnight at San Jose (SJC). Headed west I flew left seat into LAX and SJC which was a great experience for me. The next morning the passengers showed up early. The weather was good and I’d already started the APU and run most of the pre-start checks. Tom flew left seat as I called ground for taxi. As they rattled off taxi instructions for a northwest runway, I learned about a standard instrument departure that included a tight climbing right turn eastbound, followed by another turn at an intersection down the way. At least that’s what I realized the SID looked like later because we never briefed the departure procedure before we took off. I barely had time to find the SID in the Jepp book because as we taxied out, Tom’s cellphone rang and he picked up. I’d never watched anyone steer a jet on the ground, manage the throttles, and talk on the phone at the same time. I kept waving to him as we approached the end of the taxiway and he kept waving me away, finally telling me to call the tower and tell them we were ready. “But Tom, we haven’t looked at the SID.”

“Just tell ’em we’re ready, will you!”

I complied, thinking it’s his certificate — another big mistake on my part.

We blasted off and as the gear came up, Tom looked over at me and asked, “Which way am I supposed to turn?” I honestly didn’t know anything at the time other than east because, of course, we hadn’t looked at the SID. I grabbed the paper plate and confirmed, “Turn right to the east for now,” I yelled. I tried to scan the SID for the most important information but departure kept calling traffic and I couldn’t keep all the plates spinning.

As we approached the critical intersection Tom said, “Which way do we turn when we get there?” I had no idea because at 250 kts. I was simply overwhelmed while I worked the radios. “OK,” he yelled, “we’re turning left up that radial.” Ten seconds later, the San Jose departure controller asked what in the world we were doing because we were supposed to make a right turn at the intersection and continue climbing in a bit of a teardrop pattern before eventually heading north. My skin began to tingle with sweat as I realized I was just as much at fault as the guy in the left seat. When the controller said he had a phone number to call when we got back to Chicago, I imagined the torn pieces of my certificates floating down from the cockpit ceiling.

Not surprisingly, Tom and I didn’t say much to each other on the way back except that he made a point of blaming me for the screw-up while I of course pointed at him. Unbeknown to both of us, the passengers in the cabin had witnessed the entire show. When we arrived back home, I helped the passengers off the aircraft and brought them their bags. If they sensed any of the seriousness of the near calamity, they didn’t let on to us that night at least.

I looked at Tom and walked back into the office hangar. Somehow, the chief pilot just happened to be waiting, even though it was a late-night arrival. Had one of the passengers called I wondered? When he saw my face, it must have been clear I was upset. He asked about the flight and I told him we needed to call the ATC supervisor in San Jose about a possible violation. I wanted to make the call but the boss gave the job to Tom. Somehow a few minutes later, Tom appeared and explained the supervisor at San Jose was going to let us off with a warning. I was in shock, but I breathed a huge sigh of relief.

The boss got Tom and I in the office a few minutes later sitting across the table from each other, with him in the middle. He looked at Tom. “What happened in San Jose?” Tom pointed to me and said that we’d almost gotten a violation because I hadn’t handled been paying close enough attention.

I lost it. I tried to climb over the table at Tom, but the boss got between us. I pointed to Tom and said, “I’m never flying with this idiot again. Period.” I knew I was wrong for losing it, but the way the other guy so cooly pointed to me as the problem just blew my personal circuit breaker.

I figured this job was over, but I just wanted out as I thought about the craziness I’d experienced, fuel planning issues, pulled circuit breakers, talking on a cell phone while taxiing a sweptwing airplane for departure from a busy commercial airport, and a dozen other nutty events. I looked at my boss and said, “I’m done here.” And I never went back to that madhouse.

The good news was that the passengers, my certificates, and I had lived to fly again. The flight department dissolved about a year later. Tom? Yup, he got a chief pilot’s job flying a bigger airplane for another company on the field.

I learned quite a bit about flying at this place, not all of it good of course. But the experience did teach me that pilots need to learn when to keep their mouths shut and when to speak up. Sure, the airplane never actually got broken, but who knows how close we came to an accident — and for the silliest of reasons. Luckily, corporate flight departments have become much more professionally run since I flew the 650 which is why their safety record has improved.

This story is reprinted here by courtesy of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association where it originally ran in January 2013.

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4 Responses to “Confessions of a New Corporate Co-Pilot”

  1. Derek Says:

    WOW, Rob! Really disturbing story, but sadly, not so surprising. As I read about some of the shenanigans corporate/charter pilots have pulled, some fatally, I count my blessings. As a corporate passenger I was always comfortable with our flight department, and perhaps more importantly, our CEO that I frequently flew with. His motto was “Let’s do whatever it takes to arrive alive.” – which resulted in more than a few delayed flights and unexpected overnights.

    Anyway – great story sir. Thanks for sharing!

    Derek

  2. Warren Collmer Says:

    Yup….been there. In my 37 years as a corporate pilot, I got to experience some of the same shenanigans by other pilots in a few of the flight departments where I was employed. Most of the operations were very professional and everyone followed SOPs and we were never pressured to do unsafe things, but there was always that rogue who placed mission over safety.

    I also flew a C-650 at one point and will never forget the trip where the PIC decided to top a line of thunderstorms. In a block altitude FL470-490, we were still in the tops picking our way through, teetering in a narrowing envelope. Circumnavigating the whole mess would have been the safest thing to do but my concerns were ignored. It seemed that every time he got away with this kind of nonsense, it just reinforced his resolve to try it again.

    I’ve been retired for five years. Late in my career things were much better but it seems that no matter what, there will always be those marginal pilots – and yes, they are the ones who seem to end up as the chief pilot somewhere.

  3. Bonita j lehto Says:

    Hi Rob, love this take on pilots….don’t know the specifics of flying but I’m guessing it’s another learning experience, fortunately that turned out right.
    Great writing!

  4. Rod Rakic Says:

    Wow. Good story.

    Thanks for sharing!

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