Monday, September 30, 2013

My Airplane Repo Episode

At one time in my life I did a lot of flying. Not commercially. Just winging it for kicks.

So naturally I get a special satisfaction out of Discovery Channel's Airplane Repo show.

I suppose it comes as a welcome surprise to many of that show's viewers to know that Learjet owners sometimes fall behind on their payments. But yeah, it happens. And the big toys get repo'd all the time, just like the little toys.
The Piper Seminole.

Watching Airplane Repo, I can't help but think back on the one time I played a small role in an airplane repo escapade myself (for real; not for TV). This was years ago, when I was a member of a flying club in Bridgeport, Connecticut. The club had a dozen or so planes, mostly Pipers. I was partial to one of the club's planes in particular, a Piper PA-44-180 Seminole, a small twin-engine four-seater that rented to club members for $100 an hour dry (meaning, fuel is extra). I suppose in today's dollars that'd be more like $250 an hour. I loved that little Seminole and took every opportunity to fly it. Flew it solo to Los Angeles on a lark once, in fact, stopping every 600 miles for gas, overnighting in Albuquerque, blasting into the smog-filled L.A. basin around lunchtime of Day Two. But I digress.

One Sunday afternoon, I was hanging out in the club lounge at Bridgeport when a short, stout, fortyish fellow wandered in wearing one of those Ahmadinejad-style Members Only jackets. He started chatting with Tony, the president of the club.

Before I knew it, Tony was motioning me over with elaborate hand gestures.

"So," Tony said. "You doing anything this afternoon?"

"No. What's up?"

"How would you like to get in a little Seminole time for free?"

My feculent grin told the story.

"This gentleman needs a ride to Groton."

The man in the Members Only jacket smiled and extended his hand. "Rich O'Malley."

I grasped his hand and introduced myself. (I don't remember what country Tony was from, but it was one where social ineptitude is highly prized, to the extent that you don't formally introduce people to each other unless it is absolutely necessary, such as after an exchange of goats.)

"I only need to be in Groton a few minutes," O'Malley explained. "Then we'll turn around and come right back. I'll pay the plane rental."

"Are you ready now?" I asked.


"Then let's go."

I grabbed the plane's keys and clipboard off the wall and we burst out onto the flight line, walking swiftly in the gusty October wind. There were some low cumulus clouds hugging the coast but it was obvious weather wouldn't be a factor for our short (60 nautical miles) flight.

"So," I said. "What's in Groton?"

"A Gulfstream Two. Hopefully. It might be there or it might not. Need to find out for sure."

A G-II is a 15-passenger bizjet, definitely what you call heavy iron, crew of two mandatory; a long-range jet but a huge fuel-guzzler; worth several million dollars in poor condition, $10 million or more in good condition (used).

As I did a preflight inspection of the Seminole, O'Malley fed me a few more details. He told me he was working for G.E. Credit and that he was type-rated in various jets, flew all kinds of equipment all the time; his specialty was bizjet repo. The plane we were after was some corporate board's playtoy. The note was in default and there was reason to believe the G-II was being moved around, airport to airport, to avoid falling into the hands of you-know-who.

Our goal this particular Sunday was not to take possession of the aircraft but merely to document its whereabouts so its proper confiscation could be planned out in detail, imminently.

Within a few minutes, we were wheels-up, banking east-northeast over Long Island Sound, the Seminole's 360-cubic-inch Lycomings roaring. I brought the power knobs back and we levelled off at 500 feet. Sailboats disappeared under our wings as we paralleled the Connecticut coast. On our right,  we could see all of Long Island, clear to Montauk.

After twenty minutes we had the Groton Airport at our eleven o'clock. I called the tower and got permssion for a straight-in approach to runway five.

O'Malley knew just where to park, and told me to stay with the plane for a few minutes while he went off to make some discreet inquiries.

He returned about ten minutes later, holding his camera up, saying: "Got it."

By this time, O'Malley and I had become quite chummy. Just as we were about to board the Seminole, he surprised me by asking if he could fly PIC (pilot-in-command) on the return trip. I quickly processed everything I knew about the guy—and said "Sure." (There were dual controls. Worst case, I could fly the plane from the right side.)

O'Malley seemed to know where everything was; he looked comfortable at the controls (always a good sign); asked the right questions; knew how to use a checklist; knew how to talk to the tower. Soon we were tracking the stripe, knobs cobbed.

"Mind if we fly low?" O'Malley asked.

In uncontrolled airspace (which we would be in, once we were over Long Island Sound), Federal Aviation Regulations require only that you maintain 500 feet of separation from any persons or property on the surface. It just meant we'd have to give pleasure boats a wide berth. Otherwise, we could fly as low as we dared.

And this guy wanted low. As in, 50 feet. Right on the deck.

Soon we were screaming over the water at 160 knots, the Manhattan skyline barely visible on the hazy horizon. It reminded me of the 1944 film 30 Seconds over Tokyo, about the Doolittle raid. Every whitecap was visible. They zoomed by in a blur. It was hypnotizing, exhilarating.

We slalomed around the occasional pleasure craft, staying just far enough away that no boat owner could read our tail number and report us to FAA.

And it was a delightful 15-minute trip back (with a ten-knot tailwind the whole way), until I saw a grey-white object—a bird—dart up and down, then up again, and KBANNGGG! I flinched instinctively, ducking down and to the left. Fortunately, the bird hadn't broken through the Plexiglas (which could've ruined my whole day). But there were entrails all over my side of the windshield. O'Malley and I looked at each other. Then burst out laughing.

"That's one gull that will never play the cello again," O'Malley said.

We were on the ground at BDR a couple minutes later, coasting into our parking space. A lineman came out with a fuel truck. We were exiting the plane when the young lineman, seeing the awful accumulation of blood and guts on the windshield of the Seminole, asked: "What the heck happened?"

Deadpan, I shrugged and said: "We hit a really big bug."