Flying Instruments (in Pilatus #2) to “The Rock”

So far my life in charter has been a pretty charmed existence. Piloting brand new planes with luxurious interiors for pampered part 91 owners is not too tough. Additionally, except for dodging a couple of TSMs and a bit of ice, we have been mostly in clear air. Today was a test by fire piloting the ancient “legacy” Pilatus on a  “bus run” to Nantucket with the weather “in the weeds”. This Pilatus was only the second one ever manufactured by the Swiss company and showed it’s 11,000 hours. The interior resembled a post Soviet “people mover” with diamond plate floor and school bus seats. This was also my introduction to Nantucket and the vagaries of the Atlantic coast weather (at least in charter flying). The two names I have heard for Nantucket among charter pilots are “The Gray Lady” and “The Rock.” Neither sounded especially friendly.

IMG_9109On the drive to NJ this AM the news was not good with 300 IMG_9112O/C and additionally blowing up to 30K. At first glance I thought the NOTAM said 06-24 was closed which would have been a stiff (over 25K) crosswind. The closing was actually the tomorrow so we were OK to proceed. Pre-flighting and readying “Never Ever” (comes from the NE in the tail number) was a wake-up call. The “legacy” Pilatus have many differences in addition to the rather Spartan interior and basic avionics. The electronics are not fully redundant with only a small back up generator similar to the Cirrus SR-22 system. There is just enough power to get you out of the weather with basic instrument functionality. Instead of a sophisticated well-arranged panel, there are basic toggle switches and weird arrangements of gauges. Additionally, there are time limits on the power and lower temperatures they eliminated in the newer models. This was clearly the “alpha” model (and not in a good way!) After enjoying the amazing Honeywell APEX in the NG models, this was a less impressive, but admittedly fully functional, suite of instruments. A Garmin 700 and 650 with a digital HSI and 3 axis autopilot is a pretty capable combination. Still, it would be a challenging flight adapting and figuring everything out. This was my partner’s first time as captain too; Game On!

As it turned out, no real stories to tell, just getting the job done.  And in the flying business, no excitement is a very good day. We dead headed out to KACK and IMG_9118parked in the confusion of jets and turboprops, all waiting together for our customers. People were schlepping everything from their dogs to espresso machines back home from their vacation houses on the islands. It actually reminded me of Marsh Harbor in the Bahamas on a holiday weekend with too many fancy planes and not enough ramp. For our ride, people had purchased “a seat on the plane” and our flight was probably the bottom feeder among all the planes. We were the Uber style on-line shuttle among the silver spoon crowd. Some of our passengers were clearly uncomfortable with the bumps but mercifully no one got ill. I found the avionics actually very workable and despite the rumor around the company “Never Ever” and I got along nicely. When you are used to old King KX-155s and even Narco flip/flops this is not really suffering! I think I could grow to like this plane.

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And overall, as you might suspect, a lot of this flying is EASIER than getting your Mooney or Skylane from here to there in the clouds. If you are good at flying instruments, this is just doing that same job faster, in a busy environment, with better equipment. A turbine engine start is just one button push, throw in the fuel at 13% NG and stand back. There is no priming, giggling, and required black magic to get some recalcitrant piston to fire and run. That amazing Pratt and Whitney would probably run fine on sawdust if you could figure out how to deliver it reliably to the furnace up front. There is no prop lever to adjust and tweak, and no mixtures to fool with, just put the condition lever to flight idle and push the power lever all the way forward…1200 ponies really do pull you into the air. It mostly runs at 96% power and you just make sure it does not run too hot. The greater challenge of charter is creating transparent efficiency through continual adaptability. This job requires ingenuity and resilience in the face of continual changes and challenges. You have to be savvy here to survive well, this is no place for the clumsy or clueless (though we all have our days). So far it’s a great job and a wonderful learning experience but then again I *do* like a challenge. (I’ll keep you posted)

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