Three-day trip provides a new perspective on pilot-versus-passenger perceptions.
It seemed very strange sitting in the back of the new Gulfstream 280 (G280) at FL430, on a fine leather chair that moves in a dozen different directions, sipping coffee made from a genuine French espresso machine located in its own custom cabinet in the aircraft’s galley. I think there must have been some confusion on seat assignment, and maybe the guys up front will soon realize that I am in the wrong place and promptly direct me forward to the much tighter and noisier section at the far front end of the airplane. Not so today. Rather, myself and fellow corporate pilot Scott are deadheading to the Bahamas in the company’s new G280 to retrieve a CJ2 and return it to Washington state for maintenance. On the return, our duties will also include making stops in Texas and California to look into some other aviation related business matters for the company.
The G280 can easily cross the country westbound without refueling, and so four hours later after drinking yet more espresso and having a very nice airborne lunch we arrive at Manassas, Virginia (KHEF), where an overnight stop is planned. There is a frontal system passing the airport as we make the approach to runway 16L, and from my new perspective in back, it appears there is a lot more work to this business of flying airplanes than I realized. In the gusty conditions, I can see the pilot flying making continual adjustments to the control wheel, and the co-pilot’s left hand seems to never stop messing with the radio control knobs, or the flight director’s altitude selector. Then more there is a fair amount of keyboarding on the console between the seats by both pilots, and shortly thereafter the diagrams on the screens on the instrument panel mysteriously turn from white to green. Finally, there is some pulling at various levers which results in a series of alarming mechanical noises from somewhere under my fine leather chair.
As we come down the ILS, there is a 20 knot, 90-degree crosswind, with the autopilot plugging in a significant crab angle. From where I am sitting in back looking down the fuselage tube through what looks like a very small and distant windshield, it appears we are headed somewhere well off the airport, which itself can be more easily seen from my passenger window than the glass out front. Finally, as the runway numbers flash by my window, the power levers are pulled suddenly back, which is followed by a strange silence and disconcerting sinking sensation. The G280s wing tips are close enough to the ground that care must be taken to not use too much of a slip technique when landing in a cross wind or the wing tip will ding the pavement. As a result, the airplane is deliberately landed in a crab, with things being straightened out once the main gear is on the ground. Even though as a pilot I theoretically know all about this, it still seems very odd to be looking forward from my “first class” passenger seat to see the airplane pointing toward the grass, rather than the runway when the tires touch down. This is followed by a definite sideways lurch and a slewing sensation with some screeching of rubber as the crab angle is taken out by a kick of the rudder and the nosewheel planted on the white line with a definite thump.
With the nose wheel is down, the airplane’s autobraking and reversers come on in a very serious fashion, with empty espresso cups rolling down the aisle toward the cockpit we rapidly decelerate. Slight left to right movements are felt as the guys in front keep the airplane on the white and the autobraking cycles on and off. Finally, with one last grinding grunt, the brakes are released, we roll off the runway onto the taxiway and stop. There now follows another whole flurry of hand movements from both pilots as frequencies are changed, flaps pulled up, spoilers disarmed and transponders set on standby mode. At least I know what is going on up there, but to the non-pilot “newbie” business jet passenger, unaccustomed to being able to see the flight deck from their passenger seat, it must seem like very mysterious and urgent business.
The next morning Scott and I again board as passengers, but as pilots we still feel obliged to at least help with some of the preflight ground duties and cockpit set-up. The G280 has a long pre-start checklist on the center MFD (multifunction display) that does not permit any advancement toward engine start until all previous items are taken care of. Luckily, there is an APU, so with that running, Jim (one of the company pilots actually working this trip) and I work our way through the list. Frankly, it seems to be more complicated and drawn out than it needs to be, taking us a good 30 minutes before we get to the engine start section. When we call for the clearance, we are assigned the GABBE ONE departure, Greensboro (GSO) transition. This will take the airplane well to the west of the direct course to Freeport, which is out over the Atlantic off the Georgia and Florida coasts. Apparently, there is some NASA type activity going on near Cape Canaveral, which keeps us over the central part of the state with its frequent building and bumpy cumulous clouds until in the Miami area. Not my problem I remind myself. I am sitting in back.
With engine start I return to my very comfortable leather seat curious as to how much of the flight plan we laboriously entered into the FMS was going to work out. From where I am sitting, it looks like we get as far as GSO before a completely different and even less favorable routing gets punched into the keyboard, as the airplane at that point makes a slight right turn, and heads somewhere toward southern Louisiana. Seeing that the airplane is heading off for a time-consuming dog leg to the west, I take a walk to the nicely decorated bathroom, wash my hands and face with warm, running water, then leisurely return to my seat and fall asleep – all perfectly safe and acceptable when sitting in back.
An hour later I wake up to hear the engine sound changing, and look over the side and see we are leaving Florida’s east coast headed in a southeast direction, and making a slightly bumpy descent through the expected cumulous clouds. In another 20 minutes, we are passing through the broken layer that usually seems to be at about 4,000 feet over the Bahamas, as the whine of the flap motor activates. This is followed by a firm clunk and slight jarring sensation as the landing gear go down. All clues to the folks sitting in back that we are approaching the destination. The airplane enters what appears to be a left base entry to Runway 06 at MYGF, and shortly thereafter crosses the island’s shoreline on final. The landing is followed by the now expected flurry of arm and hand movements by the guys in front as we taxi to the customs office. A couple of 90-degree turns, followed by a 180 are required during the taxi over to the customs office, during which I note from my fine leather seat that the view out the front windshield just seems to whip by horizontally. Yet I know the guys up front are very conservative and always their keep their taxi speeds low and turn rates quite modest, so I conclude it is another one of those odd perceptual distortions that occur, when sitting in back.
The next day we are out at the airport and preflighting the CJ2 at 0800 in preparation for our return flight to Seattle. We board and squeeze our way past the center console to the sheepskin covered seats in front. As I tighten the five-point harness, I think this location is clearly not as comfortable as the seat in back I came down on yesterday. The seat movements are quite limited, up, down, forward and back. Seat back angle or firmness not quite right? Sorry, those amenities are reserved for those sitting in back. We run the checklist in what by comparison to my mental images from yesterday is actually a very simple business, and the turns as we taxi out to the runway appear through the windshield now just 2 feet from my eye, are all very gradual.
Following an uneventful takeoff, using our overflight permit we head directly across Florida and then the Gulf of Mexico to land for a customs and lunch stop in Houma, Louisiana. We descend across what seems like endless bayous filled with muddy-looking water, which from the front seat are clearly visible while some 20 miles offshore, and land on runway 18 with a stiff salty breeze blowing from the south. The residents of Louisiana always seem to be a relaxed and congenial bunch and the local U.S. Customs and Immigration officials that meet our airplane are equally polite and friendly. The FBO then lends us a rusty old 1970s-vintage, brown Jaguar sedan with cracked tan leather seats, to go for lunch at the “at the best Cajun restaurant in the state” just 10 minutes away. There we find a chalk board advertising the day’s fare, which confines itself to what the local fishermen have just brought in. No reference is made to “gluten-free” or “low calorie” meals on the entire menu. We have a sampling of some great spicy seafood dishes while sitting on picnic tables covered with white paper from a long roll, surrounded by oil platform workers drinking American label beer from cans, then return to the CJ2 and depart for Fort Worth, Texas.
An hour-and-a-half later we land in FTW to inspect an APU unit which belongs to one of the company’s airplanes and is being repaired. But, given we only have a street address we really don’t know where on the airport the repair facility is located. As it turns out, neither does the ground controller, so we wander around in the little jet, while she finds the business on Google, then directs us down a steep ramp on the southeast corner. I cannot help but wonder however, what the perception of that seemingly lost and purposeless wandering would have been, if sitting in back.
APU repair business completed, we depart for Camarillo, California (CMA) where we intend to look at a CJ3 that is for sale. Shortly after landing, we are met by some Hollywood types who represent the non-pilot movie business owner. The contrast in personality and cultural types between our new California acquaintances and those from the Bahamas to Louisiana, then Texas is remarkable. In 10 hours, we have gone from faded cargo shorts, old T-shirts and flip flops in the Bahamas, to oil field worker overalls and steel toed boots in Louisiana, to laid back cowboy boots, Wrangler jeans and old American pickup trucks in Texas, and now in California, we see an impressive display of untucked flowery shirts, laundry pressed jeans, designer sunglasses, garish-looking running shoes and very polished expensive cars of foreign make. It’s almost like a different country. The airplane we are there to evaluate is immaculate as is the carefully selected color scheme in the professionally decorated hangar it is stored in. It seems that owners who sit in back, equate a spotless airplane with one that is also very safe and airworthy, an assumption which holds some element of truth. In the morning, we have breakfast with the same Hollywood bunch at a very busy airport restaurant with a large prominent “gluten-free” menu, and “low calorie” section sections, then depart for the 1.5 flight back up the west coast to Seattle. The weather is clear as we descend, and we can see nearly all of Puget Sound from our seats in front.
The contrasts between the trip in back on the way out, and the return sitting in front get me thinking. No French espresso coffee, leisurely trips to the bathroom or pleasant napping when sitting up front, and the CJ2’s pilot seat is not nearly as comfortable as that nice leather passenger seat in the back of the Gulfstream. But, my view out the front window was much better, the disconcerting noises from flaps and gear operation seemed much more distant and purposeful, and the amount of hand work with frequency changes and FMS inputs, seemed a lot less when you are the one doing them. All in, the outbound trip out while sitting in back was very nice, but the return trip sitting in front … much better.