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Bloviating Zeppelin: Freight Dogs

Bloviating Zeppelin

(in-ep-toc'-ra-cy) - a system of government where the least capable to lead are elected by the least capable of producing, and where the members of society least likely to sustain themselves or succeed, are rewarded with goods and services paid for by the confiscated wealth of a diminishing number of producers.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Freight Dogs

I see them every day. I work on airport property, doing my day job, and am surrounded by nothing but Freight Dogs and a bevy of much smaller commuter craft. But the Big Dogs, the 777s, 747s, MD-11s, 757s and a smattering of 737s and the rare 727 (the longest-gliding aircraft ever in the Boeing inventory), they rule the sky and the lanes that I view every single day. Carrying freight. From ballpeen hammers to flowers to little statuettes of Kermit The Frog.

What have I seen where I work? Some decidedly crazy shit, let me tell you. Three people have already been killed in the past 8 years in the leaden skies surrounding my little training world. And of what does my job consist you may ask? With 33 years in law enforcement I am now the supervisor for my department's Emergency Vehicle Operations Course (EVOC), training new cops and old cops and fire personnel and motorcycle officers how to drive and ride. It's a great job that I love. Before that I was my department's Rangemaster and was responsible for everything that went bang or boom.

But here's the rub: my facility just happens to be on airport property, where once was located a part of this nation's nuclear fist. EVOC occupies the former Strategic Air Command (SAC) Alert Pad of the 320th Bomb Wing, where B-52Gs and KC-135 refuelers poured the coals to their engines, hauled ass down the Zulu Ramp and entered the firmament. Our driver training simulators and mechanical operations now sit in the building where once response vehicles rested with live .30-cal machine guns in two bays, and where our bathroom has a gunport.

Early in our EVOC lives at Mather Airport (1998), the abandoned and ransacked Air Force control tower was unmanned yet commercial freight traffic mixed with light private aircraft 24/7, right above our heads. Landing consisted of a verbal radio agreement between approaching aircraft of all stripes. If they were listening, that is.

Remember that four-word phrase early in this post that consisted of "some decidedly crazy shit"? Here was my first watertight exposure to uncontrolled airspace (begging that phrase):

On one clear morning of a May day in 1999, I was standing on the concrete alert pad which was a good 1/4-mile south of the main approach for 22L (11,300' long, 8' thick) teaching some troops about vehicle placement. I noticed a westbound 727, unknown livery, bank hard aport towards me and, clearly with throttles to the firewall, the pilot stood the craft on its left wingtip, damned near perfectly vertical, and pivoted directly over us not more than 500' above. I've not to this day seen the live rivets of a flying aircraft so closely or at a greater decibel level (with the exception of a hovering Harrier at 150 yards). If I shat my pants that morning I can well surmise the state of the pilot's lower clothing array; I can only guess he observed (at the veritable last second) an occluded runway.

Many years earlier, in 1982, Mather AFB was also the site of a B-52 crash from the 320th BW that many feared would release radioactive materials (the specific crash site was actually Mayhew Road and the Jackson Highway), wherein 9 crew members were killed outright -- and resulted in the calling of an actual Broken Arrow, wherein military security personnel sealed the scene then removed civilian authorities immediately from the site.

That being written, I have been witness to any number of aircraft at the Mather site.

I watched a Beale Habu shoot landings; numerous Beale AFB TR-1s have run by as well as the requisite weekly (still to this day) T-38 training runs (blackened aircraft from Beale piloted by TR-1 pilots keeping their skills and hours up).

Also consistently on board have been the C-5 people from Travis shooting landings, as well as some grayed-out ELINT Navy C-135 models festooned with short antennae, to include drop-nosed variants.

I also viewed the approach of an Antonov AN-124 one day some years ago -- an amazing sight.

But in the meantime: freight dogs. And the things they carry. From Flight Level 390:

Last night, I walked to my favorite freight dog hangout and saw some of those pilots I have not seen for months. These are the folks that fly old 747 freighters to the remote corners of the planet in all weather and political conditions. They do not make big salaries, as airline salaries go, but on the flip side, do not have to clash with political correctness and the New World Order of the airline pilot. Most of them are divorced three times, maybe four. One of those women was probably a Thai beauty, or a Germanic goddess. They are gone two to three weeks at a time, or longer, if crew scheduling can talk them into an extension.

These pilots are, for the most part, ignored by my fellow "major" airline types. Why? These are some of the most interesting pilots I have ever met.

One example: Several years ago, a pilot showed up in my flight deck asking for a ride to LAX. He appeared very familiar... I looked at his paperwork; Bill Lear's son. He looked just like his Dad, creator of many aviation advancements, including the Lear Jet. The son was a Diesel Eight Captain flying the Pacific routes out of LAX for a heavy lift freight operator. Holy Moly!

This morning, I decided to walk to the airport along the coastal trail and watch a few of my companeros take-off. After a 6 mile walk, I was at the end of runway 32 with camera in hand. The big Boeing turned onto the runway, shimmering in the sun warmed asphalt. Looking through my tele-photo lens, the acceleration is apparent, but still no sound. The wing tips begin to rise before the nose breaks ground. A few seconds later, the mains leave the runway and 750,000 pounds (or more) is airborne. Yikes! Still no sound, though. I can see the bottom of the fuselage start to disassemble as hydraulics force metal barn doors open in all directions. The huge landing gear assembly begins to rise into the belly of the beast.

The leading edge of the sound footprint washes over me when the aluminum overcast is three hundred feet above the asphalt. My finger pushes the shutter button and the camera starts a continous sequence of photos. I can feel the thrust in my body as they pass overhead. Go Baby, Go! The thrust feeling turns into thunder as they go feet wet over Cook Inlet heading for who knows where.

The last Bad Boys of Aviation? The last bastions of actual air freedom? Many seem to think so:

Freight dogs famously fly decrepit, "clapped-out," analog-only hand-me-downs from the passenger airlines, and brushes with the reaper, duly embellished, make for great table rants over pitchers of Watney's at dog hangouts like the Petroleum Club in Alamaty, Kazakhstan; the Cyclone in Dubai; Sticky Fingers in Hong Kong; and the legendary Four Floors of Whores in Singapore, which, according to the dogs who frequent it, is a model of truth in advertising.

It's an article of faith among freight dogs that George Lucas based Star Wars' famed cantina scene on the scuzzed-out cargo skippers at Bryson's Irish Pub, a flyboy Rick's Café adjacent to Miami International Airport through which generations of pilots have passed in a sort of demented finishing school. "We tend to be the rogues of the airline world," Tony Baca, a 747 cargo captain, told me recently. "The airline pilot is all prim and proper. We're not. It's a whole different culture."

And so it is. In the night, whilst I slept, Emery Airfreight Flight 17, a Douglas DC-8, crashed not more than 1 mile from my work site:

Despite the industry's competitive cutthroat culture, the FAA has repeatedly failed to stop unsafe cargo operations -- until tragedy strikes. Even then, it has yet to fully address long-term safety issues pushed by advocates.

A 2000 crash in California revealed shaky FAA oversight of a cargo operator blatantly skirting safety rules: Emery Worldwide Airlines.

In September 1998, Capt. Thomas G. Rachford, chairman of the Airline Pilots Association Council 110 and an Emery pilot, sent an FAA official in California a letter telling of "crews pushed to fly exhausted . . . cargo doors opening, engines flaming out, engines burning up."

"I can't say it any clearer: This airline is going to put a hole in the ground and kill someone. Please do not let this fall upon deaf ears."

In January 1999, the FAA detailed ''serious trends of noncompliance'' by Emery.

"Get the freight to its destination and quit griping or disciplinary action will ensue!'' the memo quoted an Emery director. The FAA vowed to crack down on Emery, saying it would require the company to fully comply with safety rules within 30 days.
Yet by September 1999, some pilots still were desperate. "Mechanics are forced to sign off items in the logbooks for fear of their jobs," Rachford wrote the FAA.

Emery crews, he wrote, ''are living on borrowed time."

In January 2000, the FAA placed Emery under heightened oversight. Inspectors would ultimately find more than 100 violations of aviation regulations -- a systemic breakdown including unairworthy planes, inadequate repairs and unapproved aircraft alterations.

The FAA has the power to ground a carrier, but the airline continued to fly. "Revoking a carrier's certificate is the most serious action we can take, and the agency has to have basically ironclad proof because we almost certainly will be forced to defend our action in court," the FAA said.

On Feb. 16, 2000, Emery Flight 17 crashed in an automobile salvage yard while returning to Sacramento's Mather Airport for an emergency landing, killing Captain Kevin Stables, 43; First Officer George Land, 35; and Second Officer (flight engineer) Russell Hicks, 38.

"Hey, you're hanging by that bolt, you know," the first officer said after takeoff that evening. The reply from the cockpit: "Yeah. Jesus nut."

Five minutes later the second officer said, "We're sinking. We're going down, guys," and in moments the giant DC-8 pummeled land filled with people hours earlier.

The NTSB said a loosened elevator bolt triggered a domino effect that forced the plane to fly in a severe nose-up position after takeoff: ''The disconnection was caused by the failure to properly secure and inspect the attachment bolt."

In December 2002, Emery returned its operating certificate to the FAA. Rachford is now lead plaintiff in a lawsuit that alleges Emery breached its contract with flight crews when it shut down and "deliberately permitted its maintenance operations to deteriorate." The company disputes the suit.

Since Emery Flight 17, 66 cargo planes have fatally crashed in the U.S.

"Nobody cares," said Rachford, still a cargo pilot. "Until we wind up wiping out a schoolyard, then all of a sudden everyone will be on board. Then everyone will say, 'We told you so, we told you so.' I swear to God, until we kill 250 or 300 people because a plane crashes somewhere, people won't do anything."

What I heard? First, that the individual bulkhead containers were improperly secured and, second, from a CSI Lieutenant that was on the scene: the pilot's severed hand and arm was found clutched on the throttle pedestal to its maximal stop. A "visual" I carry to this day, amongst many, many others.

One of my favorite movies is 1999's Pushing Tin with John Cusack and Billy Bob Thornton -- and a scene in which BBT is seen to be kicked all over the approach to an airfield by a Heavy. I didn't think that happened -- until I had an experience of my own, 2006 in San Diego.

Whilst having a BBQ at a military base adjacent to SD's Lindbergh Field, a 757, for whatever reason, happened to fly very low overhead, westbound. Absolutely nothing happened for a good minute or two. Then every one of us were smacked with a windwash akin to a hurricane; every burger and dog was pushed off the grille, paper plates and smaller accessories went flying. I could feel the wind literally push me down.

Last week, at 0500 one morning, I watched and listened as an obvious Freight Dog -- likely a former Navy pilot -- taxied his UPS 757 east towards Mather's 22L and then, directly in the middle of the turn towards the west, shoved the throttles to what he formerly called Full Military. He didn't stop, he didn't even pause faintly; he burned JP4 right to their detents.

That's just a smattering of what I see every day.

You think real flying, real danger is gone?

You need to appreciate the Freight Dogs.



Blogger TexasFred said...

Ya ever see the aftermath of a multi vehicle big truck crash??

Mon Apr 21, 12:45:00 PM PDT  
Blogger Gayle said...

Although there is some technical stuff and lingo in this post I didn't understand, BZ, it's still obvious that you have a pretty awesome job! Neither did I know about "Freight Dogs." At first I thought you were referring to real canines! LOL!

It was very interesting reading to say the least... and scary. Now I'll be praying one of those things doesn't crash on our house!

Mon Apr 21, 06:25:00 PM PDT  
Blogger Three Score and Ten or more said...

I have read your political rants in full agreement most of the time, but it never registered with me that your are a helluva writer. This post drew me in and squeezed me dry, and it ought to be somewhere with more readers (Not that you don't have a devoted readership)

Mon Apr 21, 08:31:00 PM PDT  
Anonymous sam said...

I do envy you being able to watch Blackbirds practice landings. Must be an amazing site to the aircraft fly in person.

Tue Apr 22, 04:24:00 AM PDT  
Anonymous sam said...

Shoulda previewed my comment.

Must be an amazing sight to watch the aircraft fly in person.

Tue Apr 22, 04:29:00 AM PDT  
Blogger Bloviating Zeppelin said...

TF: sure have; numerous times -- once with what was left of a deputy.

Gayle: thanks. Look to the skies!

3S10: thank you very much for the kind comments!

Sam: who knows what this place will bring from day to day?


Tue Apr 22, 07:11:00 AM PDT  
Blogger ABFreedom said...

Excellent post BZ!... what I wouldn't give to work in a place like that.. I'm around smaller aircraft a fair amount, and a lot of the pilots doing the northern runs are very similar. Haywire and bandaids, and if it don't go.... chrome it...

Tue Apr 22, 05:43:00 PM PDT  
Anonymous Phil said...

I am looking for some information on the crash of the B52 at Mather on 16 Dec 1982. It was my first day at the base and I was sent to the scene as security that evening. I never did get the crews names or any other info.

Thu May 08, 09:13:00 AM PDT  

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