Old Dogs & Old Airplanes

Old Dogs & Old Airplanes

Old Dogs & Old Airplanes

Airplanes can be like an old hunting dog – very much liked and appreciated, but after years of faithful service, they regrettably need to be “put down.” This was recently the case with our old Lear 35.

Knowing it was to be our Lear 35’s last trip before its final flight to the “vet’s office,” fellow pilot Rick and I conducted a sort of airplane “memorial service” on a return trip from Spokane. For a moment, I thought I might even need to hand him a Kleenex to wipe his tears as we discussed all of the places we had travelled in this particular airplane. But of course, the airplane had no idea what its future held, so with an empty cabin and a light fuel load, it performed more like a young greyhound versus an arthritic old hunting dog. We zipped up to FL360 at 5,000 feet per minute, went two miles above the cloud layer and settled into a cruise at Mach .78. All of this was easily accomplished as we reflected on the flights we had taken in the airplane.

Just the previous week, we were in Minden, Nevada (KMEV) ready to depart with the airport surrounded by thunderstorms and lightening, making an IFR departure along the mountains impossible. Airline traffic out of nearby Reno was delaying departures left and right, but while sitting in the Lear 35, we could see an area of blue sky and sunlight to the southwest along with a clear but narrow visual corridor. It was nowhere near the published IFR departure routes, but the only thing required to depart VFR was the ability to climb at a good 5,000 feet per minute after takeoff in order to clear the mountains and remain in visual conditions until reaching FL180 and coordinating IFR with Oakland Center. We knew the old Lear could handle it so after advising Reno Departure of our intentions, we took off VFR. Four minutes later, we were climbing through 17,000 feet, 10 miles west of Lake Tahoe in bright sunlight – well clear of the thunderstorms back on the east side of the Sierras. We gave a pilot report to Oakland Center, were told we were the only traffic that had departed and promptly got our IFR our clearance back to Portland, direct no less.

We reminisced about other trips like Valdez, Alaska in the middle of a freezing winter snow storm. Ice was on the runway and braking was so minimal that we had to keep the reversers armed until shut down. A week after that, we took a trip to intolerably hot Palm Springs, with its high-end hotels, pools and golf courses. The old airplane took us to these places of extreme contrast without a single complaint. Hot or cold, it was always patiently waiting on the ramp ready to go. But, in spite of its continued performance and attractive appearance that made the cover of Twin & Turbine in 2013, it was time for the old cover girl to permanently be put away.

The problem with airplanes as they age is that although they can still fly fast and high, they need more and more trips to the “veterinarian.” Their avionics can become very outdated and prohibitively expensive, if not impossible to fix. In a 1980 Lear 35, there are no glass screens, autopilots with altitude pre-select, or even a flight director on the co-pilot side. And parts for that equipment are almost impossible to find. Another sign of age is the fuel control panel. Lots of tiny switches with the same white cover and located on the center console such that in order to make any changes, you must take your eyes off the instrument panel for an inordinate amount of time. Plus, you have to be very careful about what changes you make because hitting a couple wrong ones can easily result in the engines shutting down due to fuel starvation. Then of course there is the solitary fuel gauge with its rotating selector to tell you how much is in each of the five tanks. Even old piston twin Cessna’s have more fuel gauges than that.

Another quick sign of age is the required paper performance charts. In a jet aircraft, the speeds for takeoff, approach and landing all vary with the aircraft’s weight, runway condition and temperature. Aircraft of more modern vintage have computer systems onboard to calculate these numbers. But those like our old 35’s vintage just has a bunch of charts and tables, all in very small print from which the pilots need to glean the appropriate information. Typically, it is pretty simple because we create our own smaller versions of the tables for the most common conditions. But depart slightly from those, and it is time to dig out the long-eroded 4-inch-thick flight manual and turn to the pages in the back, which often seem thinner than those of an old bible.

Back in the cabin, refurbished upholstery may give passengers a false sense that the airplane is not that old, but there are strong hints to the contrary – like when the only baggage area is behind the aft cabin seat. This means everything must be boarded through the cabin door and hauled aft along the narrow corridor. The rear seatback then needs to be tilted forward by releasing a hidden handle that is old engineering even by the standards of a 1955 Chevy. Once all of the baggage and passengers are boarded, then the cabin door itself has to be closed with a most cumbersome locking procedure. It involves lifting the heavy lower door via a T-handle, bringing down the upper one, running a small electric motor controlled tightening device, then throwing the door handle into the locked position and finally running the locking devices motor backward to release that lock. Pilots avoid being the last to board simply because of the door closing challenge.

And you better hope that after closing the door, none of your passengers decide they need to make a bathroom trip for the remainder of the four-hour flight. Not an option in these old “plumbing free” jets. Astute passengers know about this and cut back on fluid intake the night before. For the less sophisticated passengers, the pilots learn to discreetly have a couple of old plastic coffee containers onboard. In the older airplanes, you also hope your passengers came dressed for the conditions…it can be too hot or too cold depending on where they sit. Given the air distribution system, one might be feeling just fine, while his fellow passenger feels as though they are either in a sauna or deep freeze. Smart passengers board with a variety of clothing options at hand.

Often, the unlucky passenger sitting behind the cockpit gets the duty of dealing with the onboard hot coffee dispenser – a task which should have its own full page checklist. The problem in an old airplane like the Lear 35 is the coffee spout has a button on the end that opens the valve to allow the coffee to run out via gravity. The distance from that button to the cabinet door is just fractions of an inch when the door is closed. While pouring coffee, if the container and coffee spout get moved just a tiny bit and the cabinet door is closed, it can press the button and over the next half-hour, two quarts of potentially corrosive coffee will silently leak out onto the carpet and down into hidden fuselage spaces containing complex (and difficult to replace) electronic parts. For some
reason, whenever this occurred on a trip, the frustrated mechanics always seemed to blame the co-pilot. One of the few persons in a Lear 35 that cannot even see or reach any part of the coffee system.

By comparison, the other Lears and Citations we have in the hangar are a good 20 years newer. They have single-point refueling, glass gauges for each tank, nice baggage compartments outside the cabin, simple door mechanics and a flight management system which completes all of the pre-takeoff speed calculations on large computer screens. Not to mention, the coffee dispenser is designed such that anyone can operate it without spilling a drop, the cabin temperature is individually zoned, and finally, there is a nice bathroom in the aft end with both hot and cold running water. In spite of these nice amenities however, we still have an affinity for the old Lear, just like one might have with a faithful old dog.

So, after returning from our Spokane flight, we did our best to avoid the hangar the next morning. We almost felt like traitors as a strange crew showed up and flew the old Lear away to a place from which it will never return. It turns out the engines will be removed and sold separately, then very slowly it will be surgically dissected for its parts, with any unwanted remains finally being melted down – sort of an airplane cremation.

Inanimate object or not, as the airplane left, we felt similar feelings as if we were watching our old dog enter the vet’s office for its final time – very sad and just a bit guilty.

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