There are certain people society has taught us to trust and respect, like doctors, judges and the police. In my life I have found out the painful truth about these people one catastrophe at a time, and today am no longer able to just give them the benefit of the doubt-its now verify first, then trust. Also on the list of verify-then-trust for me are airline pilots and air traffic controllers, people at one time I had blind faith in, but after a half dozen near-death experiences with them they have joined the doctors, judges and cops on the suspect roster.
It was January 30th, 1982 and I was about to go on the fourth airplane flight of my life and my third lesson as a student pilot. Beside me was my instructor, a young man named Scott Kingman, a Tom Cruise look-a-like and natural-born pilot if there ever was one. I received a clearance for a standard departure from the tower and swung our two-seat Cessna 152 onto San Jose International airport’s runway three-zero right as I shoved the throttle in, and was soon climbing into the winter sky.
My attention was focused on the nose of the airplane and the instrument panel, but suddenly something caught my attention in the the corner of my eye as I simultaneously heard a high pitched whine coming from the same direction. When I glanced to my left I was horrified at what a saw-a big silver blur headed right for us! Reflexes took over and I tugged on the control yoke as hard as I could as I screamed “SHIT!” At the top of my lungs. The little Cessna stood on it’s tail as Scott yelled “I got it!” and pushed the nose back down hard as I looked over my shoulder just in time to see the face of an American Airlines 727 Pilot as he passed right behind us.
Scott and I watched as the three-engined Boeing headed to the south after it’s wingtip had missed our tail by a scant 30 feet, just as we were passing over busy highway 101. Scott called the tower and told them we had just had a near-miss with an airliner, and in a very rare departure from normal decorum the controller shouted at him “WHY DID YOU DEVIATE FROM A STANDARD DEPARTURE?” Scott calmly replied, “We didn’t,” and the tower told him to report to them on our return.
The 727 pilot had made his turn two and half miles too early and 3,000 feet too low, and two other pilots called the tower to report that an airliner had nearly collided with a Cessna in the traffic pattern. A formal report was filed and the airline pilot who claimed he was trying to save fuel was reprimanded by the FAA, but in spite of both planes having a mode C transponder that made our location and altitude clear to the controller and us being only about a half mile from it, no one in the tower was aware of any of this.
Strike 2 was also in San Jose, this time departing Reid Hillveiw airport. I was headed back to my home base in Sacramento, and was just south east of Mission peak when the controller said “Piper two-one Bravo frequency change approved”, which I had no intention of doing as I wanted stay on the tower frequency to know if there was inbound traffic in this busy piece of airspace. Sure enough, a couple of minutes later a Mooney pilot called-in to announce his intention to land at Reid Hillview, and immediately the red flags began to wave. The first problem was he was in front of me and descending in a very fast aircraft directly towards me, the second problem being it was clear from his radio work he was unfamiliar with the area.
Knowing our planes were headed towards each other at nearly 300 miles per hour I franticly scanned the sky for my traffic, when suddenly a black dot appeared directly in front of me! I banked hard and turned to the right and then back to level as the Mooney passed 150 feet from my left wingtip at the same exact altitude. The Mooney pilot had his forward vision completely obscured by an unfolded sectional chart, and probably never even saw me. I was utterly livid and wanted to scream at the controller, but between not being able to control my anger and shaking uncontrollably I wisely decided not to ask why the hell he didn’t warn the Mooney pilot I was headed his way and why he didn’t see we were on a collision course on his radar screen.
Strike three took place at Sacramento’s Executive airport, where I had just landed on one of the shorter runways after a brief pleasure flight with a pilot friend. We had to cross the main runway to return to my parking space, and reported to the tower where I was and where I wanted to go, and that I was “holding short” of the main runway. A 19 passenger Beechcraft King Air was starting his take-off roll on the main runway just then, and a few seconds later the tower called to say I was cleared to cross that runway-and then a couple seconds later he said “EXPEDITE” in a frantic tone. My pilot passenger and I looked at each other with our mouths open in a state of shock as the big Beechcraft roared past us, if we had not ignored the taxi clearance we would have certainly been broadsided by the twin engined mini-airliner. Its the only time I ignored a controller, and it saved multiple lives that day.
Then there was the time I was on a DC-10 departing SFO, after rolling a few hundred feet down the runway the pilot idled the engines and slowed to turn off at the next taxiway. As I looked out the window I could see the wing’s leading edge slats slowly extend, he had tried to take-off with them retracted-a certain disaster! Another time I was aboard a DC-9 leaving Reno, and couldn’t believe the captain was trying to do it ahead of another airliner on a short final approach. At the last second he changed his mind and slammed-on the brakes, causing the airliner to shake violently and make a variety of strange loud noises. Every passenger was mightily alarmed and some were crying as others demanded someone inspect the jetliner before attempting to leave, but the captain who shouldn’t have even considered taking the runway ahead of the other plane departed with no look-see first.
Now I know better than to trust any of these people just because of some mythology that has been pounded into our heads about their competence and professionalism, my trust has a price tag these days.