We land, call ground control and then head for the FBO keeping a sharp look out for the “line guy,” who is usually some young fellow wearing a uniform shirt and holding a set of orange wands. With signals practiced at home in front of his bathroom mirror, he expertly directs us to a tight spot on the crowded ramp, chalks the tires and gives us a fists-together sign that the brakes can now be released.
Next, he places a red carpet by the airplane’s door and while the engines are spooling down, waits patiently for the door to be opened. Later after happily unloading our passenger’s heavy suitcases, dealing with our fueling needs, and seeing us depart in a rental car, he tugs the aircraft to long-term parking or into a hangar. As we depart through the security gate and our airplane disappears from view, we tend to assume it will be returned in the condition we left it. But that does not always happen.
Although most line personnel are excellent, reliable people, experienced pilots have stories about the afterhours adventures and mishaps their airplanes (and other vehicles) have suffered at the hands of the line guys. Here are three of mine, all true.
Flying Adventures of Jim
Jim was a recent high school graduate and a 10-hour, recently soloed student pilot with professional aviation aspirations. At about the same time he was employed, a new maintenance customer brought in a pristine Cessna 180. He was an older fellow and the airplane was his highly cherished baby.
It was Jim’s job to reposition the various aircraft in the hangar, placing those scheduled for an early flight near the door. Because the owner intended to fly the 180 in the morning, it was the last aircraft to go back into the hangar. So, after all the other aircraft were safely put away, the 180 was still sitting out there on the ramp with the key hanging from the magneto switch in an extremely inviting way. With no one else around on this moonless night, and in a moment of youthful insanity, Jim decided that having never flown a tailwheel before, perhaps just taxiing it around a little bit would not hurt anything. Besides, no one would ever know.
The Cessna’s carbureted Continental started immediately and so down the taxiway he went with great care. Compared to the tailwheel horror stories he had previously heard about, he was surprised how easy it was. This led him to think that since he was obviously gifted at this, maybe he should try taking off. His takeoff was indeed a bit wobbly but with the prop pulling forward and the airplane very light, he was airborne before anything too scary happened. Once airborne, he discovered that the tailwheel airplane behaved exactly like a normal one, causing him to have yet even more confidence in his outstanding abilities as a pilot. So around the pattern he flew, setting up for a long final with the airplane’s landing lights off, partly because he couldn’t find the switch, and also because he did not want to be noticed.
The touchdown was main gear first with a huge bounce. Following what seemed to Jim as an eternity, the airplane finally returned to the runway, but this time the wings were not quite level. The left wheel touched first probably because Jim in his now suddenly anxious state had his arm muscles flexed tight pulling the wheel slightly down on the left side, while his feet firmly found their way to the brakes. When the left wheel touched down first with its brake locked, a 720-degree ground loop immediately occurred with the outboard wing making two very artistic circles of scrapped paint on the runways pavement.
Desperately hoping no visible damage was done, Jim slowly taxied back to the hangar and carefully put the airplane away. In the morning, the fastidious owner arrived to fly his airplane, and soon noticed the damaged wing tip. Jim was the obvious culprit and duly confessed his sin. He was fired, but the sheriff was not called nor anything reported to the FAA. We did not see much of Jim at the airport after that. As it turned out, he used the time to attend an out-of-state aviation school. Today, he is flying Embraer jets for a commuter airline and prefers that his life as a line guy not be discussed.
The Unforgivable Sin
A new line supervisor (age 23 and recently out of the Army) was hired to specifically watch out for Jim’s kind of behavior. One morning as I was driving to the airport for a 9 a.m. Learjet 40 departure, Gary, the head mechanic, called me and asked, “Hey Kevin, did you pre-flight the Lear 40 before you guys left Reno last night?”
Gary’s worried tone of voice suggested something was wrong. I replied, “Yes I did, Tim was PIC, he was filing the flight plan, I supervised fueling and did the preflight.”
Gary cleared his throat a bit, waiting long enough to significantly increase my anxiety, then says the airplane is damaged, and they are trying to figure out who did it. As a result, it is not flyable for the trip.
Twenty minutes later, I arrived to the maintenance hangar where the Lear 40 was surrounded by concerned-looking mechanics. I walked around the airplane and when I looked up at the elevator to count the number of static wicks, it was pretty clear that about four inches of the tip of the left elevator was bent down, almost at 90 degrees. The mechanics already had a tall ladder in place to look at the damage, and after climbing up I saw that in addition to the bent part, there was a scrape of red paint along the upper surface of the horizontal stabilizer.
Gary surmised the line guys at the Reno FBO did it when they pulled the airplane out of their hangar for us the day before. But if so, how did I miss it? I told him I don’t think I did – counting static wicks is a standard preflight procedure on a Lear 40, and I am almost certain I would have spotted that bent elevator. Besides, the airplane handled fine on our trip back, and I could not imagine that would be the case if the damage was done in Reno.
From his expression, it was evident that is not what Gary wanted to hear because it could only mean one of our two line guys who were working last night (neither of whom were saying a thing), must have done it.
This prompted Gary and I to take a trip to the hangar where the Lear spent the night. It was a rather tight fit that requires turning the airplane once the wings are inside the hangar door. We inspected the red metal beams at the level of the Lear’s elevator. Lo and behold, we found a smear of white paint that matches the Lear’s color on one of the cross beams at the exact height of the Lear 40’s elevator.
Now the question was which of the line guys put the airplane away and why did he not say something about it? It turned out it was the new line supervisor, who after being specifically queried said he thought he heard the Lear’s tail it hit something, but he did not think any visible damage had occurred, therefore he had not mentioned it. Later that day, the Lear’s left elevator was removed and the factory contacted which estimated the repair to be more than $80,000 with a down time of three weeks. Thankfully, the Lear’s owner is a patient, considerate fellow, and his insurance agreed to pay for the damage. As for the line guy, he immediately lost his job. Damaging the airplane was forgivable, but failing to be up front about it was not. We have not seen him since, but rumor has it he is now working at a Part 121 airport moving airliners.
The Flying Cadillac
José was the next line guy to suffer a similar fate. He was a college-bound high-school senior with high grades, a good work ethic and a great interest in all things mechanical. What more could you ask for?
Shortly after José was employed, a CJ owner-pilot decided that it would be handy to keep a spare vehicle in his private hangar to be used on the rare occasion he had no other transportation. And so, he purchased a brand new $80,000, big-engined black Cadillac. Our CJ owner parked this impressive machine, with 78 miles on the odometer, in the corner of his hangar with the keys left on the seat so he would not have to look for them.
Late one night, the CJ owner returned from California and asked José to put the airplane away in his somewhat distant hangar. Although José was relatively new to the job, he was known to be fastidiously cautious when moving airplanes, so the owner was not in the least worried. And, consistent with his conscientious reputation, José moved the CJ over to the owner’s hangar, even carefully positioning and chalking the tires exactly on the marked positions on the hangar floor before disconnecting the tug, just as he had been trained to by the FBO’s owner.
But then, on his way to push the button that controls the hangar door, he could not help but notice the brand new black Cadillac eying him in a most seductive manner from the hangar’s corner. Out of youthful and innocent curiosity, José opened the door and sat in it. He had heard that you could hardly hear the engine run on these luxury cars, and with the key sitting right there on the passenger seat, his mechanically oriented mind could not help but wonder if that was really true. So, he started it up. Once that far, with the engine silently running and the hangar door still wide open, he thought a little drive in and out of the hangar would certainly not hurt anything. Once on the ramp with no one around, he decided it might be harmless fun to just take a short drive down the empty, unlit taxiway. Having safely accomplished that, the next inevitable question was, how fast does this thing go? And so, our sober, straight-A student line guy, sets off like a drunken drag racer down the unlighted taxiway with the throttle floored.
Doing well over 100 mph, and with the paved terminus of the taxiway not at all visible in the dark, he runs onto the grass. Fifty feet off the taxiway and not at all visible on this dark night, there is a four-foot high berm of grass covered dirt. The berm launches the high-speed, black Cadillac about 20 feet into the air vertically, and sends it flying down range nearly 100 feet before it finally touches down with a very high-G landing. The vehicle’s undercarriage was not designed to handle this kind of load, and so the car bottoms out, tearing off the exhaust and breaking the suspension.
José also suffers a high G-load impact, which takes him 10 minutes to recover from. Once again alert, he discovers the previously spotless car is covered with grass, clods of dirt and white mud. With the optimism only youth can provide, he decides that if he takes it back to the FBO’s airplane wash rack and carefully cleans it off, and quietly puts it back in the hangar exactly where he found it, then maybe everything would be okay. Unfortunately, while the wash is underway, an arriving pilot noticed the wheels were splayed and the frame was scraping the pavement. The $80,000 brand new black Cadillac was trashed on its very first flight.
The next day, the owner was quite gracious, provided that it is the FBO’s insurance that replaces his black Cadillac with a brand new one. Josés employment was terminated, and on his way home, he missed a stop light and rear-ended another new vehicle, this one incredibly belonging to his uncle. Since no aircraft were damaged, the FAA was not notified, and out of consideration for José’s outstanding future, neither was the sheriff.
José of course has not been back to the airport even for a visit, but story is he has a scholarship to attend a big university next year with plans to major in mechanical engineering. All the pilots at the airport wish him well.
From these events over the past several years, those of us with plenty of experience and some grey hair have concluded that we never want to be 18 years old again. We have also learned it pays to very carefully preflight the airplane anytime it has been moved by the line guys and to never leave keys in a unique airplane, or for that matter a fancy car, particularly a flying black Cadillac.