O.J., Nixon, Vesco, and Me!
Before I start this chapter I have to give some background. I could have titled it, “Earning my stripes again,” or, “I can’t believe it.” The following is a true story about how a malfunctioning airplane can bring out the true character of a new boss, and his new Chief Pilot. But, it tied the two men together in many exciting adventures around the world yet to unfold over the coming years.
On this particular flight, our first together, I discovered two very important facts that would be a bond between us to last more than five years. It allowed me to get an insight into what made Robert L. Vesco tick because only he, and I, knew about his ‘Achilles Heal.” Perhaps we all have some deep, dark, secret we try to hide from our peers. Some are successful, some aren’t. He wasn’t! The first fact is, no matter how much a person tries to impress others with what I call “board room bullshit,” their true character only surfaces under extreme stress, like life threatening. And, on his first flight with me I discovered he was a “white knuckle passenger.” He couldn’t control everything and when he feared death, his true character popped to the surface. He had no choice but to put his life in my hands, and I saved it! And mine.
The second fact is that no matter how much information an aircraft manufacturer puts into its manuals for an operating flight crew, shit happens. Situations pop up that you can’t find an answer to in the aircraft flight manual and all the simulated training in the world can’t cover every possibility. You have to dig into your pocket and hope you come up with the right answer. I was fortunate, maybe even just plain lucky. I found the right answer and how I reacted to the situation cemented my relationship with Vesco. Join me on this true adventure on the day I became his surrogate.
Like any guy on a mission to get to the top as fast as he can, Robert L. Vesco wanted anything and everything yesterday. When he hired me to start his aviation department we had agreed on his policy and the way I would accomplish it. This included the type of aircraft we would have in the fleet because he had big ideas about the future. It also included that I was to have direct access to him at all times without any middlemen wiggling between us for any reason whatsoever. He thoroughly understood my terms before he hired me because he was familiar with the circumstances that prompted me to piss away fifteen years at Bethlehem Steel out of disgust of how the corporate game was played by up and coming opportunists using the company aviation department for personal leverage. Many times at my expense. Now the fun was about to begin. It just happened.
Less than a week after we shook hands and sealed our deal for me to start an aviation department for him at the end of 1967, I moved from Nebraska to New Jersey with everything I owned packed into my car, including a new wife. He was waiting for me in his office eager to get down to business and I was primed to give him answers.
“I picked out a house for you in Denville,” he said for starters. “It belonged to one of my lawyers I moved into the city. I think you’ll like it because it is on a lake and only ten minutes from my place so when we’re finished, take your wife out to see it and tell me if you agree. If you’re both happy, start furnishing it. I have good connections.”
He was right. My new wife, Barbara, loved the house. It was a beautiful two story stone 3/2 with a dock on Lake Arrowhead just twenty minutes from the airport in an up-scale lake community. With a fireplace, a den and full view of the lake, it was ideal.
After inspecting my new house I went back to his office to report. “It’s perfect,” I said. He was already ahead of me. “I knew you’d like it,” he said. “I’ve co-signed for your mortgage at the bank in Morristown. I’m on the board so you won’t have any problems.”
“Now, let’s get down to business, our first airplane.” I saw the brochures on his desk. One was a Sabreliner, one a Jetstar and two were Grummans, a G-1 and G-11. “These two are too small,” he said pushing the brochures of the Sabreliner and Jetstar across the desk to me. “I think it should be a Grumman Gulfstream. What’s the difference between the two models?” he asked. “I saw in your resume you’ve flown both models so what do you think?”
“Mr. Vesco,” I started to say before he interrupted me, “Bob,” he smiled. “When we’re in private it will be Bob and Ike. Otherwise it will be Captain Eisenhauer and Mr. Vesco. I liked that. We just established protocol and I was comfortable with it because there were many, many miles yet to be traveled together that would be filled with adventures and excitement for both of us.
I started the explanation with, “both Gulfstreams have almost the same cabin space. The G-1 is a turbo prop and the G-11 has two jet engines in the rear. The G-1 has a range of about fifteen hundred miles at a speed of about three hundred and the G-11 has a range of twenty five hundred miles at close to six hundred miles per hour and is considered to be the Cadillac of corporate aviation.
He thought for a moment. “What’s the price difference?” he asked. “Big,” I replied. “The G-1 would cost around a million plus, the G-11 around four or five million plus. But there is a problem. The waiting list for a G-11 is more than a year and if you really wanted one we would have to buy somebody’s position at a premium of about half a mil. That is, if they would sell their position. And, it’s a big IF because the G-11 is a hot item.
“Could we start with a G-1 and maybe up-grade later on?” “Yes,” I replied. “But we’d have to find one for sale because they are very popular too” “Well,” he said leaning back in his chair with a smile. “I’ve been doing a little homework on your behalf.”
He told me that he had been in touch with Ken Spinney from Atlantic Aviation in Wilmington, Delaware(Grumman Gulfstream distributors and maintenance center) and maybe they could come up with an answer. “You know,” he said, “it was Spinney who recommended you for the job.” “I know,” I replied, “he called me and said I should follow up on your search for an aviation manager. “Looks like things worked out for both of us” he said. “So let’s you get me an airplane.”
Vesco had a schedule and there was no way to get around it. He had made plans to go to the west coast for the Christmas season with a full load of relatives so I had to get him his airplane or I would have to pass on my new job. Failure of an assignment was not on his list of acceptable options for his insiders. I went to Wilmington, DE and met with Ken Spinney the next day. He picked me up and we went to his office to get down to work. We explored our options. “Ike,” he said. “we have one possibility, the CBS aircraft and I’ll tell you, it’s the best there is out there and it’s going to take some strong convincing on our part to pry it loose. You know they bought a brand new G-11 and it’s in the shop being modified but it won’t be out until after the first of the year.” I looked at the schedule and even considered leasing a G-1 to keep Vesco happy. But nothing was available. It had to be serial number 97, the CBS G-1 or Vesco would be out of luck. Nothing else would work. Time for some serious horse trading and I needed some horse power in this area.
Time for another player. Ralph Dodd was Vesco’s “can do” vice president. He was a likeable dude from the Elvis period and a long time associate of Vesco. Sometimes he was a pain in the ass for me, other times I was glad we worked together. This was one of those times I needed him to work with me. He did. There are times in the corporate game when you just sense who the insiders are and who the wannabees are. Ralph was the insider from the beginning. He cut a deal with CBS whereby we would cover their act until their new aircraft was delivered to CBS after the first of the year. But, WE needed it from Christmas until after New Year. Agreed. WE got it. It wasn’t cheap but we got a first class aircraft turnkey ready and I learned early in my relationship with Vesco he’d pay top dollar to get what he wanted. As usual in the industry I had a pre-buy inspection of the aircraft done whereby it was certified as having all the required inspections and repairs with no open items that had to be taken care of. This process was a professional requirement I insisted on because the buck stopped with me and I had to see all the records and sometimes do a “hands on look-see” to satisfy myself. On the first test flight I was more than satisfied we bought a first class aircraft and as part of the up-front agreement Dodd made with CBS’s Paley, my first mission was to take Paley and his wife, “Babe” to the Bahamas for Christmas before Vesco could have it for his personal holiday travel plans. This was actually a bonus for me because it gave me the chance to really check out the aircraft on a flight cross country before putting it in service for Vesco. But, GOD had other ideas as we will discover. I got tested from the git-go.
VESCO’S FIRST FLIGHT IN HIS NEW GULFSTREAM (The next day)
Put yourself in his position. You have just had your brand new airplane delivered to your own airport (Caldwell-Wright) in New Jersey and you’re itching to touch it, fly in it and show it off to your employees and staff. You can see it from your office window parked on the ramp a mile across the airport you own so you bring your staff to the ramp to ohh and ahh over this new toy but you can’t fly in it until it returns from taking the Paleys to Nassau. That was my job. Go to LaGuardia, load up the Paley clan and take them to Nassau. Checking my watch I told Vesco I had to get to LaGuardia to pick up the Paleys and head south. It was part of the deal Dodd made so we could have the Gulfstream. Vesco understood that I would return later in the day and we would leave the next day when he would get his first ride on his new airplane to start on this memorable flight. But, none of us knew just how memorable this flight would become.
Returning to Caldwell in time to keep Vesco’s schedule to Palm Springs, CA for family vacation and taking over a new west coast operation on the side, we put the Gulfstream in its new hangar and serviced it for the next day’s flight.
The flight to Nassau and back gave me the chance to really check out this beautiful aircraft and my new first officer. The aircraft was a dream to fly. Everything worked perfectly. I might take a step back to introduce my new co-pilot and first officer, Harry Werner. I hired him the second day after I started my job as Vesco’s aviation guru. I had my eye on Harry from the beginning because he was my kind of guy, and with his credentials I knew Vesco would be happy with my choice. Not only was Harry a retired cop from Philadelphia (which proved to be a great bonus for Vesco’s security) he was also a reserve flight engineer in the Air Force who had used his G-I bill to get the credentials and licenses for the job I had picked him for. He was a real winner so his first assignment was to complete a course from Flight Safety to qualify as a first officer on the Gulfstream. He had to have the training on this new aircraft to demonstrate he could do the job I hired him for. He aced this assignment and was raring to go, fully qualified and as happy as a hog in a mud puddle. I made a good choice selecting Harry. He fit. By the way, it was my wife, Barbara, who recommended Harry for the job. He had been her instructor when she got her pilot’s license and said, “he’s your kind of guy.”
It was a cold December day in New Jersey when we loaded the passengers. We had to have the taxiway and runway plowed to clear the snow before we took off. But, California, here we come!
Our first stop was going to be in Detroit to pick up more family, his sister, her husband and niece, Janeen. Now, all the seats were filled. After all, this was the family success story with Vesco wanting to share things with family so the show had to go on. He was the star.
One reason I was unique in the business of corporate aviation was my personal philosophy that the clients paid big bucks to be pampered. Not only did they want quality flight crews, they wanted quality personal service. One of the things I changed on the CBS aircraft, before we got it, was to install an up-to-date galley to cater to the culinary tastes of any passenger. This wasn’t going to be just a food service of dragging beat up galley units on board with warmed food in little containers (airline style). We would pamper our guests and have the ability to cook fresh food in our ovens like fried eggs and bacon in a pan, or pizza pie (Vesco’s favorite) when he wanted it. Or even broil steaks. This was my personal security blanket. I was known as the “flying chef” because I spoiled my passengers with anything they wanted. Anyway, my crew didn’t live on crackers and hot dogs. We went first class. I spoiled them too.
The flight to Detroit took two hours. We refueled and headed for Pueblo, Colorado, a four hour run. By now it was dark and the passengers went into the terminal to stretch their legs and relax before we would take off on the last leg to Palm Springs.
After servicing the aircraft everybody got back on board knowing that our final stop was going to be in beautiful Palm Springs, which was a hell of a lot warmer than New Jersey.
The takeoff from Pueblo was perfectly normal. I climbed to the assigned altitude of 24,000 feet for my flight to Palm Springs and Harry went back to take care of the needs of the passengers and spoil them. that’s one of the things a crew of two has to do. The Captain stays on the flight deck or when he changes with his partner he goes back aft and takes care of their needs. That’s WHY I always lobbied for a third crew member so the flight deck crew would not be compromised. But, that was to come in the future, not on the first flight when you are getting started. It was just Harry and me.
ALL HELL BREAKS LOOSE.
At 24,000 feet I was flying in clouds and could see I was flying through light snow. No problem because the anti-ice equipment was working properly and the airframe and engines were happy. Suddenly, something happened that got my attention. The red lights on the master caution panel suddenly illuminated. These bright red lights are designed to call your attention to the annunciator panel on each side of the instrument panel which identifies the culprit on an individual basis by name.
In this case, it said LEFT OIL PRESSURE. This meant that the sophisticated monitoring system saw something it wasn’t happy with. I immediately switched my attention to the left engine oil pressure gauge because this indicated the actual oil pressure. (Just like in your car when an idiot light comes on if you have a needle that indicates actual pressure you look at it). It was within normal range so my first observation did not raise my blood pressure because I had experienced faulty light indications before. That’s why you check the actual reading on the oil pressure gauge for verification that the red lights aren’t lying to you before you take any corrective action. But I noted that the props were slightly out of sync. This is the first indication that there is a slight problem because if both engines aren’t happy with each other it sets up a beat frequency easy for an experienced crew to identify because they aren’t exactly in tune with each other. Engine synchronization lets one engine (master) tell the other engine (slave) to make micro blade angle adjustments to stay exactly in tune so there is no out of frequency sound that’s very noticeable to the crew and passengers. That was my first clue something is wrong. Then the shit hit the fan. The oil pressure suddenly started dropping on the left engine and it started to surge causing the aircraft to yaw. (that’s a fish tailing effect on the aircraft). It’s not my intent to conduct a technical training session now but to share a serious problem that suddenly popped up that isn’t supposed to because of all the safety features designed into the G-1 aircraft.
The blade angles of the propeller go all the way from zero (flat pitch) to 85.5 degrees (feathered). These angles are controlled by oil pressure with physical spring loaded blade angle stops set at 20.0 degrees and 34.5 degrees to protect the aircraft/engine relationship. The reasoning behind these stops is to prevent a blade from doing something that would adversely affect its action on the airframe. This affect was about to happen because a blade that was not supposed to get below an angle of 34.5 degrees in flight obviously wasn’t paying attention and could go below this design safety factor. Maybe to the next stop or all the way to flat pitch. Since these safety features were controlled by several systems, both electric and hydraulic, any malfunction could be a problem and raise hell with my ability to control the aircraft. I was not on top of the malfunction fast enough to activate the flight safety lock switch in time, whether or not it would have done any good. Again, training concentrates on reaction to any of the eight prop lights and I wasn’t there. I was busy trying to fly the damn airplane and try to figure out what the hell was wrong all by myself. Shame on me! “Harry,” I said on the cabin loud speaker, “I need you on the flight deck right now.” He stopped serving the passengers and hustled up front. He felt and heard something wasn’t quite right. “We got a problem,” I said. “We just lost oil pressure on the left engine and I don’t know why. Buckle in and let’s see what’s wrong.” “Yeah,” he said as he climbed into his seat. Vesco came forward and asked me what’s wrong because he obviously felt the cabin swing from side to side so I told him, ”I didn’t know yet.” I reduced the power on the engine because I didn’t want it to auto-feather prematurely until I identified what was wrong. This was one hell of a mistake. I should have just left everything where it was and let the bastard auto-feather if it could. Maybe I would have had enough oil in the lines before they clogged up because the feather pump pulls its supply from another source. But that’s hind sight and history for the Monday morning quarterbacks to argue about.
“Get out the check list,” I said. This is to cover your ass because under stress you can forget things. And, this was stress! One of the safety features the Rolls-Royce/Dowty Rotol power train incorporated in the Gulfstream G-1 was if the engine lost power for some reason, and if the power lever was not pulled back and the engine torque dropped below a pre-set value, the propeller would automatically feather (turning the blades into the slip stream for the least amount of drag) and shut the engine down. This design philosophy was adopted for the most critical part of flight (takeoff). That’s the time if you’ve got a serious power problem with one of the engines you just follow the routine and keep her going on one engine. The Gulfstream is certified and designed to operate on one engine provided the failed engine is feathered. We train for it all the time. For routine engine shut-down (elective or precautionary like the situation I was facing) a manual feathering of the propeller and engine shut-down was discretionary and would solve any immediate emergency situation. Unfortunately for me, the unknown failure of the nose case reduction gearing bit me in the ass as the broken parts clogged up the oil line so nothing would work. I lost my option to feather it because we lost the working force to accomplish this task, the oil pressure. Without oil pressure, nothing works! The fire in the engine went out when I put the h.p. cock in the feather position. Pushing the feather button was also useless even though by doing this I was using an alternate source of oil pressure. But the speed of the aircraft caused the un-powered engine to spin wildly resulting in a yaw to the left. Think of a turbo-prop as nothing more than an electric fan. It will spin freely without anything more than a slight wind and if the aircraft is going almost three hundred miles per hour this free-wheeling propeller will cause the severe asymmetric drag I was faced with. I was satisfied the lights and gauges were telling me the truth so I had no choice but to attempt to feather the propeller to stop it from turning. But, nothing I did worked. Get ready for one hell of a big surprise. The drag caused the aircraft to turn to the left. No matter how much right rudder I applied along with trying to cross control by dropping the right wing to stop the left turn, I failed. We were going to turn to the left no matter how hard I tried to prevent it. We went through the normal precautionary shut down procedure plus trying to induce an auto-feather trick but it didn’t work. I just couldn’t feather the left engine. That meant I couldn’t stop it from rotating by making the prop blades align with the forward motion of the aircraft. Since this sudden drag effect took a lot of muscle and all my skill to control the aircraft, I had to slow down and yet stay above the stalling speed because I didn’t want to make circles to the left. This wouldn’t solve my problem. WOW! This maneuver is not part of the training program. I couldn’t hold altitude and we started to descend. Think of it as a barn door on the left side of the aircraft. At more than eleven feet in diameter it was like a huge speed brake actually a hundred and four square feet in cross section trying to turn the aircraft to the left and steal my airspeed. Something I didn’t need. The Grumman was not designed to handle something like this. We had to use our imagination. There was no record of a Grumman Gulfstream unable to feather a failed engine because it was designed to fly on one engine provided the other was feathered.
“Son of a bitch,” I said. “I don’t believe this. I just can’t feather the bastard.” “What are you going to do, Captain?” Harry asked. “I don’t know, Harry,” I said. “I never had this problem in over five thousand hours of flying this kind of bitch.” I knew if it kept spinning without any oil pressure something had to break because any kind of engine needs lubrication to keep from getting hot and destroying itself and the oil pressure was reading ZERO! The odds were a failure would be one of the reduction gears in the nose case which would cause the nose case to come apart and throw the prop into the side of the fuselage. It’s happened before when a run-a-way prop came flying off the nose case and destroyed the aircraft. “Damn,” I thought, “is this my fate?” “Is this pride of the U.K. going to become another unsinkable Titanic?” Not on my watch! Silently I asked for GOD’s help and I’m not ashamed to admit it.
Fortunately, this wasn’t to happen. Maybe GOD actually heard my plea. The loss of oil pressure preventing me from feathering the propeller eventually worked in my favor. As I slowed the aircraft I noticed the engine tachometer was decreasing because the scream of the engine was getting less and the control forces were easing off. Suddenly the huge prop stopped turning and it froze with a vengeance. The jolt on the airframe almost tore the engine from its mounts but everything was still there. But now, the frozen prop created a new problem. The low pitch on the blades, even though they reduced the total drag on the left side of the aircraft, disrupted the air-flow and the aircraft started to pitch up and down and began a mild Dutch roll. I had to handle this new problem by finding the minimum speed I could control the aircraft because I had only one option, put the bastard on the ground ASAP at a reasonable speed so I could stop.
I contacted air traffic control and told them “I can’t maintain altitude,” I said. “Find me an airport I can land at or we’re history.” Air traffic in Denver said, “The closest airport is Alamosa, you’re fifty miles west so I suggest you make a one eighty and head back east. Are you declaring an emergency?” “Not if I can get to the airport,” I replied. I continued to lose altitude but not as fast as I did with the spinning prop because I had less drag. “Harry,” I said, “get out the approach plates for Alamosa and check with Denver what the weather is like at Alamosa.’’ It wasn’t the greatest but at least it was above the published minimums according to the latest weather report. So far so good.
Denver said, “We’ll give you radar vectors as long as you maintain minimum altitude.” “That’s my problem,” I said. “I can’t maintain altitude so you‘ve got to get me there quick.
“What’s the nature of your problem?”Denver air traffic asked. “Look pal,” I said. “I had a run-a-way prop and can’t feather it. I’m down to one engine keeping me in the air and the other one is seized so you know I’m coming down.”
As typical, the controller started with the usual questions like, “how many souls on board, what is your fuel state, and so on.” I simply replied, “fourteen and fuel isn’t my problem. Just get me to the closest airport I can land on.” He got my message and gave me a radar heading toward the Alamosa VOR located about five miles southeast of the airport. Harry tuned in the correct frequency and when the needle locked on I made slight heading adjustments and had precise distance to the airport plus the five miles added on the DME (distance measuring equipment). So if Denver lost my target on their radar I could still find the airport on my own. When we were twenty miles from the airport Harry tuned in the LOM and the ADF (automatic direction finder) needle pointed exactly at the spot I had to arrive at to make a precision ILS (instrument landing system) approach to the runway. Vesco didn’t know the kind of problem I had yet but he wasn’t stupid. What I didn’t know was that he was a “white knuckle” passenger that could go bananas. He did. When he felt the aircraft slew he got nervous and came up to the flight deck again. When he saw the snow covered mountain tops getting closer and caught sight of the red lights on the instrument panel as we descended he bellowed, “Do you see those f–k’n mountains below us?” I said, “yes, I see those f–k’n mountains.” He knew that there was no turn between Pueblo and Palm Springs and I didn’t have time to wet nurse my boss. “Are we turning around?” he asked. “Yes,” I said. “We’re going to land and see what the problem is.” He went back to the cabin probably to tell the passengers.
This was serious and I had to pull out all stops to solve it. Actually, I didn’t give a shit if he was upset or not. I had a job to do that not only included him and his family, it included me and my responsibility as aircraft commander. I wasn’t ready to cash in my chips.
He came back to the cockpit asking questions probably after telling the passengers we were going to land. “Boss,” I said, “I’ve got to put us on the ground in a snow storm at Alamosa. I’ll do it if you let me alone.” I turned to see his face. I saw pure panic in his expression. “Are we going to crash, can you get us down safely?” he asked in an almost board room tone of voice reserved for other times it may have worked under different circumstances. But he couldn’t hide the fear in his question and I couldn’t be bothered trying to find an airport and still get us safely on the ground with his whole clan if he kept yelling in my ear.
“Mr. Vesco,” I said in a commanding, firm voice, (what the hell, sometimes we have to be theatrical) “ go back and sit down, make sure everybody has their seat belt on and simply say that your Captain will get everybody safely on the ground. That’s my job!” He saw the look on my face and knew I would keep my word. After all, this wasn’t my first battle with fate. I’d been here a few times before and survived. This wasn’t going to be my last. I caught a glimpse of Harry’s face and got a good gut feeling when I saw a look of confidence on it. “Thanks, Harry,” I said. ”We’ll do it. Now let’s brief on the approach procedures to get us into Alamosa.”
Denver air traffic said if I got much lower they would lose radar contact so I urged them to just stay with me as long as they had contact with me. It was getting tight. At 16,000 feet I was under the clouds and in light snow but I could see the mountains underneath me. I knew Vesco did too.
“One November Charlie,” Denver said, “Alamosa is twelve o’clock twenty miles and they know you’re coming but we’re losing your target. You should be able to pick up their beacon.” I did. The VOR at Alamosa gave me a heading, the LOM came in shortly thereafter giving me a point to intercept the ILS for an approach.
We changed communications frequency and checked in with Alamosa at the airport. The weather report wasn’t exactly what I wanted to hear but aside from light snow and minimum visibility I was advised braking action was poor because of ice and snow on the runway and they had a strong crosswind/tailwind on their ILS runway 2, which would be a little problem for my approach but I had no other option. I had to stay clear of the mountains, remain above the ten mile MOCA (minimum obstruction clearance altitude) and keep my rate of descent on final approach with gear and landing flaps hung out without going below the glide slope. My work was cut out for me.
The ILS had a FAF (final approach fix) of 9300 feet five miles from the runway elevation of 7500 feet. There was no missed approach possible. I had to make it on the first try. I couldn’t circle the airport to line up with a better runway. There was no better runway! I had to use what was available because I only had one shot at it! As Vesco saw the snow covered mountain tops close to the runway he yelled from the back, “Are we going to make it?” “Yeah!” I shouted back. That’s all I needed to disrupt my concentration But, on short final, still going like a freight train because of the tail wind, I knew we would make it to the runway. But, “COULD I STOP THE BITCH?” I knew I had 8500 feet of runway to play with but would that be enough? As soon as the wheels touched down I was on the brakes feeling the anti-skids doing what they were supposed to do. Slipping and sliding on the frozen surface I still had ground fine on one engine to help me stop. “Stop you bitch,” I said to the Gulfstream. We did stop, barely. The end of the runway was right under the nose and the snow bank at the end of the runway had to be negotiated carefully so the right prop would not hit it as we turned left and taxied to the ramp on one engine. We fired up the APU (aux power) to keep the passengers warm as we taxied to the terminal building. If this were a Hollywood production, the passengers should have clapped and cheered, everyone was safe.
I’ll always remember the look on Harry’s face as we came to a stop. He raised himself out of his seat to look over the nose at the snow bank right under the nose. We had stopped perhaps fifty feet short of it. He looked at me and said, or rather squeaked, “That was damn close Captain, but you did one hell of a job.”
“Yeah,” I said. “I don’t want another one like this. You can have the next one.” He just laughed and said, “No thank you.”
When we got to the small terminal building we met some airline employees who took care of our passengers and arranged to transport them to a local motel. Vesco was the last one to leave the aircraft and commented on the cherry red brakes. (Heated to that color because of the need to use them to their maximum effectiveness to stop the aircraft). He never said another word like, “nice job.” It would have been appreciated at the time.
I stayed on the cold ramp expecting a tire or two to explode from the heat. But none did. However, I had a pressing need. I had to take a leak and didn’t want to go into the terminal because serial number 97 and I had some unfinished business. So all by myself to get it out of my system I simply went under the nose, unzipped my trousers and pissed on the nose wheel sending a strong message to this particular airplane. “You just screwed with the wrong guy,” I whispered. I’ve always talked to my airplanes. It’s why I’m still alive. They listen! I’ve always believed that.
Inside the terminal I saw Shirley Bailey, Vesco’s secretary, on the phone. She motioned to me. “Captain Eisenhauer,” she said. “I’m afraid this is the end of our aviation department. Mr. Vesco will want to talk to you but he wants to know if you can arrange for us to get to Palm Springs?” What did she know that I didn’t? I knew in the short time I had spent with Shirley that she had assumed too much self appointed authority. And, even though I listened to her comments about many things I wouldn’t take her doom and gloom as being the last word about my future. It would have to come from Robert L. Vesco, or at least his front man, Ralph Dodd.
I got on the phone to my former boss, Ned Heppenstall at Gates Learjet in Denver. I told him what happened and after he got a brief explanation agreed to have two Lear 25’s dispatched to Alamosa as soon as he could round up a couple of crews. “It’s Christmas,” he said. “Give me a little time and I’ll get back with you. I won’t let you stranded. You just pulled off one hell of a trick.” We liked each other so I trusted him and left the number for him to call me at. I got his call less than an hour later and he told me the Lears would be in Alamosa within two hours to take my passengers to Palm Springs.
The passengers were resting at the local motel and when everything was ready they returned and got on their way in the two Lears. As Harry and I moved the passenger baggage from the Gulfstream to the two jets Vesco asked me what it would take to fix his airplane. He had obviously recovered from his stressful experience and was back to being, “all business.” I told him “another engine” because when I tried to turn the prop it was locked up tight and I knew the engine was trashed. He simply said, “buy one and get it fixed and then come to Palm Springs,” like changing a flat tire. “We’ll be waiting for you. Keep in touch.” I told him I would and as he boarded one of the Lears he said, “call Ralph.” Now I had my work cut out for me, fix the damn airplane and see what’s next. After I saw both Lears get airborne I called Ralph Dodd fully expecting to hear the rest of Shirley’s sad news about the end of a program that never really got started. Instead I was greeted with, “Ike, Bobby thinks you’re a f–kin’ hero. He said he won’t fly with anybody except you. Get the new engine put on the airplane and get your ass to Palm Springs. You’ve got a lot of flying ahead of you so whatever you did it sure impressed him.” I was almost in shock. Shirley had sounded like a prophet of doom and now everything was looking bright for the future. So much for the last word of a private secretary.
I located a new engine at Southwest Airmotive in Dallas and arranged to have it shipped to Alamosa the next day on a DC-3 with a maintenance crew. Three days after the exciting arrival in a snow storm I departed and headed west. Changing engines at twenty below zero is another story. Instead of going directly to Palm Springs I went to LAX (Los Angeles) to a maintenance facility to clean up a few ends we couldn’t do on the frozen ramp in Alamosa. One of the things I needed were all new brakes and tires and when I was satisfied that number 97 was all ready she went to Palm Springs and stood by to serve her new owner for years.
One of Vesco’s questions was, “How could a low time engine on a low time G-1 with all the glowing credentials and perfect records fail on her maiden voyage?” I didn’t have an answer because there was no history of a failure of this nature on record. With thousands of the Rolls-Royce Dart engines flying all over the world for years, who’s to say when one can’t simply “shit in her bonnet” at the wrong time. One November Charlie, (an unusual name for a lady in those days), never again gave us cause to worry logging tens of thousands of miles across the U.S., Europe and South America. She was followed by a G-11, and then the “Madame” of the fleet, Silver Phyllis, a magnificent Boeing 707 which you have no doubt read about and will hear more about. A one-of-a-kind aircraft.
However this particular G-1 might just have been reacting to “her time of the month” or she simply wanted to ensure her unique position in the adventures of Robert Vesco by scaring the hell out of everybody on board that day. Who knows? Never ask a woman why, just enjoy the experience. And One November Charlie was one hell of an experience, the bitch!
Aside from the engine problem, my first trip with Vesco provided a couple of other memorable events. We got to go to the 1968 Rose Bowl game in Pasadena seeing O.J. Simpson play his last college football game for USC and witness Vesco sitting on the other side of the field on the fifty yard line with, President Richard Mulhouse Nixon. Something he just casually mentioned when he gave me the tickets.
Captain A.L. “IKE” Eisenhauer, is a World famous author, speaker, instructor, adventurer, and currently a regular featured columnist for Airliners and Airports Magazine and master Aviator. Captain “Ike” as he is known to aviators worldwide, flew the only privately owned multi-million customized Boeing 707 for renegade genius financier Robert Vesco. Names like Nixon, Juan Tripp, Howard Hughes, Arthur Godfrey, King Juan Carlos of Spain were no strangers to “Ike” and the “Silver Phyllis” (the moniker Ike hung on the 707).
In the days of the presidency of Richard Nixon, shady characters like Bebe Rebozo, a Tampa Banker, Robert Vesco owned politicians and controlled countries. That whole world started to unravel in March 1973 for Vesco when many of his inner circle testified in front of a grand jury in New York city and Vesco fled in his Boeing to parts unknown.
Supported by Costa Rican leaders and even Fidel Castro of Cuba, Vesco was insulated from the jurisdiction of American courts. But In 1995 Castro threw Vesco in Jail and the “fugitive financier” vanished. However, the Silver Phyllis had been hidden and Captain Ike Eisenhauer was contracted by the United States government to find the Boeing and return it to the United Sates by “hook or crook.” Like an undercover agent, a spy, and a swashbuckling buccaneer “Ike” found the airplane and like Mr. Phelps of Mission Impossible, formulated a plan and executed it, to finally recover the multi-million Boeing 707 and brought his beloved “Phyllis” home. He did and the rest is history and it is all in his book “The Flying Carpetbagger” (Captain Ike is currently working on another book)…