A seemingly simple Lear 31 trip turned into a journey fraught with frustration,
inconveniences and unexpected risks.
We were to pick up two of our regular passengers, one of them a teenager, the other his mother in her 40s. They were going to Palm Desert for three to four days to get some sun and meet with friends. Even though the coronavirus panic was in full swing in Seattle 60 miles south of us, there were no reported cases in our area. And with just four people in the little cabin all known to each other, we felt reasonably comfortable about the decision to fly.
The airplane itself is a somewhat dated Lear 31 at 30 years old with that peculiar mix of old fashioned switches and early electronic display instruments. However, with a maximum gross weight (MGW) of 15,500 pounds and 3,500 pounds of thrust put out by each TFE 731-2 turbofans in back, it is one of the better performing Lears, with the ability to climb well over 5,000 feet per minute and reach a ceiling of FL510. With the little airplane’s Mach .81 cruise speed, the flight to the airport nearest our passengers’ destination (Thermal, KTRM) was to take just under two hours.
We departed home base with full tanks and deadheaded the 20 minutes to the airport where the passengers were going to meet us. We then drank coffee while the line crew topped our tanks even though we had just flown for less than a half-hour. One of the problems with a Lear 31 is that it has very short legs. About 3.5 hours in the air, even in the high flight levels, is all it’s good for. If you cannot enter the high flight levels, or have to flight plan to an airport in low IFR conditions requiring an alternate, all the extra fuel requirements limit the airplane to about 2 hours in the air. Given these limitations, we thought replacing the 200 gallons we burnt on the way up a good idea.
Our passenger arrives with her teenage son, both looking happy and healthy, and we escort them to the aircraft and load their baggage behind the back seat. That is another peculiarity of an older Lear. The baggage is stowed behind the back seat, with a seatback release device seemingly stolen from a 1950s vintage Chevy. All very awkward.
We run the start checklist and get the little jet going. I call the tower for our clearance, only to be told they have nothing on file for us. This occasionally happens at this airport because it is a contract tower without direct access to the FAA’s computer system. Plus, it is technically within Victoria’s airspace being just 10 miles from the Canadian border. We ask them to call Victoria departure control and see if our clearance got stuck in the Canadian system. They do so and come back saying they have nothing for us either, then suggest we call flight service by cellphone. My co-pilot, Josh, dials the number only to get an eternal hold.
With the engines burning over 100 gallons per hour while just parked on the ramp, we need to get going. So, with Josh still on hold, I call flight service on their local frequency. They say there is nothing for us in the system, so I start filing a flight plan with them the old fashioned way, one item at a time over the radio. In the meantime, Josh gives up on the phone, calls the ground controller, gets a taxi clearance out to the runway, and starts the airplane rolling that direction running the taxi checklist by himself. Flight plan now filed, we call ground control and they still do not have a clearance, so we decide rather than burn more fuel sitting on the ground, we will depart VFR and deal with the problem with Victoria once airborne.
As you might have predicted, shortly after takeoff, we find the departure controller’s frequency jammed up with airline traffic coming out of Vancouver and cannot get a word in edgewise. With the Lear’s climb rate, we really have to power back to stay below FL180 just three minutes after leaving the runway. And traveling at 250 knots we are rapidly reaching the end of Victoria departures airspace and entering that of Whidbey, the naval air station just to the south. Finally giving up on Victoria, we call the Navy controller, who appears to have been waiting for us and immediately reads our clearance to Palm Springs, gets us to change to Seattle Center, then clears us to FL410. Ten minutes later, we are finally up there and getting some decent fuel economy out of this thirsty and short-legged little airplane.
The sun sets as we cross the Oregon/Nevada border about 45 minutes into the trip. A half-hour later, we can see the lights of Las Vegas off to our left, with that narrow vertical shaft of white light that comes off the roof of one of the hotels. Now about a half-hour from landing, we find we have “made fuel” en route and have about 1.5 hours remaining despite our long ground delay prior to departure. The ATIS comes up 10 minutes later stating KTRM is clear with 10 miles visibility and the winds calm. We request radar vectors to a visual approach, and about four miles out, say goodbye to the radar controller and switch to Unicom. Two miles out, we think we can see a red rotating beacon, motionless and about a third of the way down the runway. After a couple calls on Unicom, we discover the beacon belongs to a Cessna 182 that is just stopped there in between making night currency landings and takeoffs. Stopping an airplane on an active runway, at night, faced aft to the incoming traffic at a non-towered airport is a very bad idea. But after explaining what he was up to, the pilot says he will get on the roll. We are too professional to say anything critical and just reply that we are less than a minute from landing.
The 182 breaks ground just as we get the 50-foot call out and we land without any problem. We taxi to the Lear’s local hangar, only to find another 182 out of its hangar with pilots pre-flighting the aircraft. As our noisy TFE 731’s wind down, they start to walk over in typical pilot-friendly fashion. After asking where we had flown in from, we reply Seattle, and they promptly stop dead in their tracks and ask, “Isn’t there a lot of that coronavirus up there?” At the time, a nursing home in Kirkland had the highest rate of corona deaths in the country, and it was making the headline TV news every night, so we reply, “Not that bad, except in nursing homes” and added, “But, we are OK.” You can almost hear them thinking, “Yeah, sure,” as they make immediate 180-degree turns and head back to their aircraft, all Learjet curiosity displaced by fear of the virus.
We hook up the Lear to the tug as fast as we can to allow our virus-avoiding 182 drivers taxi past, which they do with all their landing and taxi lights shining in our faces – maybe to sterilize the air. Finally, having put the little jet away for the night, we get in the crew car and make our way into Palm Springs proper. We check into the hotel then go out for dinner at a nearby restaurant serving Jewish food. The place is almost always full, but tonight it is nearly empty. Nevertheless, we choose an isolated booth and take care not to tell the waitress we just flew in from Seattle.
As it turns out, the owner wanted the Lear to stay in Thermal for the days he and his family were there, so arrangements are made to send the crew (us) back via airline. This happens frequently to executive jet pilots, and the reasons are primarily economical. If we stayed in Palm Desert, we would charge layover fees, which for two pilots amount to $1,500 per day plus expenses. If we flew the airplane back home, by ourselves, the hourly cost with fuel would be amount to $10,000 or so. But if we are sent back by airline, the tickets would cost less than $200 each on Allegiant, the local low-cost carrier. Thus, the next morning we make our way to Palm Springs Airport and check into our return flight home.
The airport is crowded with facemask wearing people, all trying to stay at least 6 feet from each other, even in the long, snaking Starbucks coffee line. Our flight boards early, and I find myself about halfway back in the cabin in a tight middle seat, which is not at all comfortable. Concerns about proper “social distancing” seem to go out the window as other passengers board and walk down the aisle, literally making body contact with the person in front of them, while they handle the back of every seat. I am hoping no other passengers will arrive to fill my row, but no such luck. Early on, a male who appears healthy sits to my right, but I am encouraged that the window seat to my left remains empty.
However, just before the cabin crew closes the door, an unwell looking elderly lady enters, obviously short of breath and with a face mask in place. She comes down the aisle coughing occasionally, looking directly at the seat numbers then back at her ticket, as slightly lost passengers often do. Then, yikes, without saying a word she stops at my row and points at the window seat right next to me. After some fussing around, she gets seated and I ask if the mask is to protect her from me or me from her. She does not find my inquiry amusing and just stares out the window silent for the next two hours as the A320 takes us back to Washington.
The A320 lands and a half-hour later I am in my car driving home wondering if I will get coronavirus. This business of piloting executive jets clearly has its frustrations, inconveniences and risks, but I was not counting on COVID-19 virus exposure to be one of them.
But then, by contrast, two days later, I am working as a physician at the Health Department’s COVID-19 testing site, all decked out in personal protective equipment (PPE) and feeling reasonably safe while doing viral testing on actively symptomatic patients. Maybe I should avoid any further Lear trips where I have to return via airline – that is unless I can board with the protective gear.