The Worst Pilot (2001)
Photo: Santorini from FL430, from Eddie's camera several years before.
The Worst Pilot
Getting hired to fly a Challenger 604 for Compaq Computer wasn't exactly what I had in mind for life post-Air Force, but I was told it was quite a feat, starting life as a corporate pilot in the 604.
"You haven't paid your dues," the old heads would say, "You are supposed to start with a smaller jet."
"Paying dues is for chumps," I said in return.
"Embrace change," the rule goes. I would learn to love this job.
We had seven pilots, two of whom had an Air Force pedigree, two from the Army, the remainder were mostly pure civilians. Most of them were very good at just about everything, they would have given pilots at the 89th a run for their money. There were a few, however, that wouldn't have passed muster in the Barbers Point Aeroclub.
The boss pilot was okay, incredibly lazy, but okay. The number two guy was awful. Somebody has to be the worst and it might as well be Gary. Yup, he was the worst pilot I've ever flown with. The trip that iced his position was one we were flying the CEO of Compaq Computer and his family from Houston to Greece and a few places in between. Gary didn't know how to make a position report, didn't care to do any oceanic plotting, and couldn't understand anything on the radio not spoken in a Texan drawl. Every takeoff was an exercise in hauling the nose into the sky as rapidly as possible and every landing was a demonstration on how roughly the controls could be abused until all three gear finally came to a rest. How does a loser like that end up just about in charge of a flight department? I managed to make it to Athens without bending or breaking anything, Gary included. Now it was my leg to the fabled island.
"Let's go, let's go, let's go!" He was frantic, again. The passengers showed up early and he wanted to move now. I was in the left seat looking at a blank flight management computer screen. I didn't want to program it for him, he got upset last time I did that. He was in the right seat for this leg and it was his job. "Let's go!"
"You going to program the FMS, Gary?"
"Nah," he said while pulling up the engine start checklist on the number five tube, "I'll do that in flight."
"Gary," I said in the calm condescending voice that really pisses him off, "the flight is only fifteen minutes long and half of that is a departure with a bunch of turns in it that requires RNAV. If you are in such a rush, you start the engines and I'll program the FMS."
"Goddamit," he said, "how you ever got to be a damn colonel in the Air Force is beyond me." That was his usual reply after an hour, today he was ahead of schedule.
Gary started the engines in about the same time I got the FMS programmed and the departure plates pulled out. In another two minutes we were moving and Gary told the tower he didn't want to fly the Nevra departure, he wanted direct. Tower told him that he could very well fly the departure. "Goddamit," he said.
"Relax," I said, it's in the box.
"Yeah, but that's going to add another five minutes," he said, "at least!" In another fifteen minutes we were on final for Santorini...
After all these years of anticipation I had a list of things I had to see. Our hotel was right in the city of Fira where the best views were, so that item would be checked immediately. As we drove from the airport to Fira I named the "must sees" and Diane readily agreed. She was my favorite traveling flight attendant. While her whining and temper could be taxing, she was always willing to be a tourist and could walk ten miles a day without a complaint. Gary gave his usual answer, "maybe tomorrow."
Photo: Santorini Fira, from Eddie's camera.
Diane and I walked about Fira until sunset and then shared dinner with Gary. He said he didn't want to be disturbed the next day but to be sure and call him on the following day. Not even the famous Santorini sunset would coax him out for some touristing.
Photo: Santorini sunset, day one, from Eddie's camera.
The island of Thira became the caldera-island of Santorini when its volcano blew its top some two or three thousand years ago. What was left was the crescent of the main island surrounding a smaller island which the volcano itself became. Our first task was to visit that island.
Photo: Kameni island, from Eddie's camera.
You can get to just about any point of Fira by foot or donkey. We opted for the former and strolled down to the waterside where the less fortunate tourists arrived by boat. Not everyone has the luxury of their own personal jet. But now we would board the boats to visit the volcanic island.
Kameni Island is just a big lava rock in the sea, with a port on one side and rock everywhere else. Our boat deposited us at the docks and promised to return in two hours. We managed to scale the nearest peak in about thirty minutes and decided there was no need to go further. "You've seen one desolate moonscape, you've seen them all."
Photo: Kameni moonscape, from Eddie's camera.
We got on to the wrong boat for our return trip and found ourselves in a secluded cove where suddenly half the passengers disrobed and dove in to the blue water.
Photo: Kameni bathers, from Eddie's camera.
The other half stood along the railing to watch. The group had a tour guide who explained first in Greek, then French, and then finally in English. "It is well known that the waters off Kameni Island have restorative powers and anyone who bathes in them will be granted a healing of whatever it is that troubles them. You are all invited to join." Diane looked at me, daring me to dive in.
"There is nothing that troubles me," I said.
On the way back we got our best look at Fira.
Photo: Fira, from Eddie's camera.
After our donkey ride up the hill we spotted Gary sitting behind a dumpster with a trail of smoke emanating from his head. The telltale bulge near his ankle where he usually stashed his cigarettes made it clear he was smoking. None of our pilots smoked except Gary, who of course denied it. He managed to dispose of the cigarette before we reached him and he announced that he would join us for dinner. He wasn't interested in our Kameni Island stories and would have nothing to do with any touristing plans for the next day.
"Three thousand years old," I said once we sat down for dinner, "that's how old the city of Akrotiri is."
"Big deal," he said, "we saw plenty of old stuff in Athens." Of course Gary didn't join us for any touristing there either.
Photo: Santorini sunset, day two, from Eddie's camera.
The next day we found a driver willing to take us to Akrotiri for just under three hundred drachma, about ten dollars. It was about thirty minutes away on mostly good unpaved roads. The driver deposited us at the top of a hill and promised to wait for us for another three hundred drachma. It seemed like the thing to do.
Photo: Akrotiri ruins, from Eddie's camera.
The tour brochure in the hotel room said Minoan Akrotiri was a thriving city between 3000 and 2000 BC. The volcano's eruption completely buried the city in ash which ended up preserving it almost intact. Buildings, some three stories high, were unearthed about thirty years ago. They also found streets, pottery, and paintings. Much of the view from above was obscured with scaffolding and tarp, but I was looking forward to seeing one of the oldest standing cities on earth.
Photo: Akrotiri ruins, from Eddie's camera.
From underneath the corrugated steel structure the view was spectacular. Buildings, streets, stairways, all pretty much as they must have appeared thousands of years ago. It was quite obviously a thriving town.
College students were busy excavating pots and other artifacts. From a distance we could see wall paintings appearing as the centuries of ash were brushed away.
Photo: Akrotiri ruins, from Eddie's camera.
That night we repeated dinner with Gary who again didn't want to hear about the day's exploration. We instead were treated to stories about how uncomfortable his hotel room was, how hard it was to find a decent meal, and how eager he was to get the hell off the island.
Photo: Santorini sunset, day three, from Eddie's camera.
The next morning we repeated the events of every departure with Gary in charge. We rushed to the airplane and then sat in the hot sun doing nothing. Gary didn't want the APU started until thirty minutes prior to the scheduled departure time, even though these passengers were always early. When they showed up early, it would be a mad scramble.
Thirty minutes prior, on the dot, I fired up the APU and busied myself with right seat duties. I got the FMS programmed and everything was in readiness when our passengers showed up. Gary hopped into the left seat and started pushing buttons. Before I knew it, we were moving. The CEO's wife was sitting in the jump seat watching me frantically trying to catch up.
I managed to call tower who didn't seem to mind us moving without their okay and I got our departure clearance just as Gary rounded the last turn for the runway and said his first words since engine start, "Let's go!"
I reached over a pulled the throttles to idle and gently pressed the brake pedals and brought the aircraft to a stop. I locked my knees. "Gary," I said slowly and deliberately, "We've been given a different departure procedure than the one we filed. I need to reprogram the FMS, I need to pull the departure plates out, I need to study the route. I won't be ready to go for at least five minutes."
Mrs. CEO looked at me, looked at Gary, and smiled. At first I thought he was going to have an aneurism right there. Not that I would have minded that. But then he smiled at me - for the first time ever - and responded. "No problem, you just take your time."
In about four minutes I had everything done and we were airborne.
It was on that day, sitting on that island, that I resolved to get Gary fired one day. About a year later he was. But it wasn't my doing. It was his. Of course.