It was January 1974 in Raleigh, North Carolina. I had returned home from Vietnam only 21 months prior and had since completed my schooling and earned a BS degree in Aeronautical Studies from Embry-Riddle.
Now, the country was immersed in a “fuel Crisis” where gasoline was so scarce it was being rationed to the gas stations and finding a station with gas usually required waiting in a long line. Sometimes the line of cars was a block or two long.
Needless to say, this wasn’t the best economic time to be looking for a flying job. So, I didn’t hesitate when offered a job flying an Aerostar for Wheeler Flying Service in Raleigh, North Carolina.
My job, it was explained to me, would be to fly each morning to Richmond, Virginia (RIC) and arrive by 6 am. Pick-up several big bags of cancelled checks and drop some in Roanoke, Virginia (ROA) and the remainder at Mountain Empire airport (MKJ) in Virginia.
I was typically back in Raleigh before 9 am after having completed my circuit: RDU –RIC - ROA – MKJ – RDU.
The Aerostar was a model 600 and it was fun to fly the same way a sports car is fun to drive. It was pretty fast and had a decent roll rate which made it feel responsive.
It lacked pitch stability so you couldn’t take your attention away for too long or you might be surprised.
I remember early one morning on the way to Richmond. I was flying in instrument flight conditions (IFC), and the air was smooth. I had the airplane trimmed for level flight as there was no autopilot. I looked down in my flight bag for a Jeppsen book or chart for no more than 10 or 15 seconds. When I looked up the airplane had smoothly begun a steep climb. So much pitch that I was surprised by the change.
As you might guess my job of only flying the early, cancelled check run and then going home soon evolved into a request to take this party to Pittsburgh or drop this package off in Asheville, etc.
It was one of those ‘emergency’ trips that I got called in to take. I was ‘asked’ to take the company’s Aztec and fly to Elgin, Illinois, pick-up a load of screws and nuts and deliver to Tarboro, North Carolina. The supplies ‘had’ to be in Tarboro before Black and Decker’s plant opened the next morning or their assembly line would be shut down.
Since I had flown the cancelled check run early that morning I was assigned a co-pilot to go with me. This flight would take close to ten hours of flying and we weren’t leaving until almost 6 p.m.
The flight from Raleigh to Elgin took about four hours as I recall. It was snowing pretty good when we arrived and two or three inches of snow had already accumulated on the runway so I planted it firmly to make sure I got the tires spinning. We had no trouble getting stopped.
The Black and Decker delivery truck was waiting for us but the fixed base operator (FBO) had already closed. While the co-pilot and the Black and Decker driver began loading the airplane I found a phone and called the number listed on the locked door of the FBO. The person answering said they would come out and sell us some fuel.
In total it took an hour or hour and a half to get the cargo loaded and the airplane fueled...all the while it had continued to snow.
I paid the attendant for the fuel and began my preflight. I should have noticed earlier, but the first snow that landed on the airplane had melted and then froze. So we could brush off a couple of inches of snow but not the frozen slush underneath.
By the time I learned the airplane was covered with ice, the FBO attendant had already departed.
Knowing how critical I had been told it was to get these nuts and bolts back to Tarboro before 7 am didn’t make me hesitate one second. I saw a Holiday Inn across the road and that’s where we went. I called the number given to me as an emergency contact number. It was around 2 am in Raleigh and the call was answered by an awakened elderly lady...my boss’ Mother.
We were at the FBO when it opened the next morning to have them push the airplane in a hangar so we could get the ice removed.
By 7:45 am, we were airborne and heading east.
We delivered the nuts and bolts to Tarboro just after noon and then flew back to RDU where we were based.
After securing the airplane, I was called in to the owner’s office and fired. Even though I explained we had an airplane at gross weight with a quarter of an inch of ice all over it and the runway had 4 to 6 inches of standing snow.
He understood he said, “But the Aztec is very forgiving airplane.” And that was it.
I didn’t feel bad in the least. I thought that if that’s what he wanted from his pilots, I wasn’t a good fit. I was very comfortable with my cautious approach to flying as I used up all my flying bravado in Vietnam.
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