Elvis, John Denver and me
©Hal Stoen, Stoenworks
"Cessna 57 Golf, you have traffic at your 4 o'clock, passing right to left. An Air Force AWACS, level at flight level 190." "Air Force 123, your traffic Sir, is a Cessna 421, 12 o'clock and 5 miles, level at flight level 230." I wouldnít be able to see him from behind and to my right, so I watched for him to appear to my left as he passed at roughly a 45 degree angle to our flight path.
We were enroute to somewhere in the Southern United States and were currently over the State of Missouri in cruise configuration. It was that time in a flight when all of the work was done and the pilot became a "systems monitor". Fuel flow had stabilized at 118 pounds per engine with a 63% power setting. True airspeed was 205 knots (237 mph), but the winds aloft were pushing us along nicely, giving a ground speed on DME 1 of 255 knots (292 mph). I would pay the price for that free ride on the return trip. All temps looked good on the gauges. "George", the autopilot was flying the plane- at this stage, I was just along for the ride.
"Air Force 123, your traffic is at 12 oíclock and 2 miles". I looked out the side window for him to appear below us. The Cessna 421 had marvelously large windows in the front office. The front and side ones curved into the overhead so you could look straight up. Looking down was a little more difficult. "Cessna 57 Golf, your traffic is passing below you Sir, right to left, level at 190."
The nose of the silver Boeing appeared below my wing, followed rapidly by the rest of the aircraft. It was one of those "radar dome on the top" Air Force planes with a huge black racing stripe going along the top of the radome, splitting it in half. The dome was slowly rotating. It was quite a sight, looking down at what really is a curious-looking aircraft.
"Air Force 123, clear of traffic, climb and maintain flight level 390." The black smoke coming from his four engines increased a bit as he climbed out of sight to my left, leaving a strong visual image in my mind of this bird's eye view I had received of such a strange looking aircraft.
A good friend of mine was a pilot for a Midwestern company that operated a Lockheed Jetstar. This aircraft was originally designed for the Air Force to transport upper level personnel and was then modified and released in civilian clothing for the corporate market. The JetStar had four turbines mounted on pylons on the aft end of the fuselage. A distinguishing characteristic of the JetStar were huge "slipper tanks" mounted under each wing that held fuel for the four thirsty engines. You don's see this type too often anymore, with increasing fuel prices the economics caught up with the model.
This particular aircraft was a former movie star. It had appeared in the James Bond movie "Goldfinger" as Pussy Galore's personal aircraft. Inside, things such as the coffee urns, food service trays, and other items were still stenciled with the airplane's movie designation: N007.
My friend's time for a flight review came due while I was visiting him at MSP and I had a chance to ride along. After climbing to 15,000 feet or so they practiced air maneuvers such as steep turns and stalls- both power on and off. It was the first time I had ever experienced this type of operation in an aircraft that large. The word "awesome" comes to mind. After the air work was completed it was time for touch and go's. A medium-sized town, St. Cloud, that is North of Minneapolis was chosen as it was an "uncontrolled" airport and had a runway 5,200 feet long. A call to Unicom established that there was no local traffic and the crew set up for landing. I stood in the doorway watching. At touchdown the nose was was not lowered. Instead, full power was advanced to the four turbine engines as we rolled along on the mains. Airspeed never got below 100 knots, and the acceleration was phenomenal. They did this six times. It was a delightful experience.
On another trip in the JetStar, one I wasn't on but wish I had been, the flight crew had the rare chance to look down at a very unusual aircraft- the SST. For a brief period of time, Braniff Airways had an interchange agreement with BOAC to operate the SST over the Continental United States. BOAC would fly the Concorde supersonic across the Atlantic, landing at Washington Dulles Airport. At that point a Braniff crew would take over. The British registration numbers were covered up with American "N" numbers and the graceful bird would depart for Dallas, Texas with its American crew.
Sub-sonic operations only, thank you.
The Lockheed JetStar was at cruise, heading West. "November 90 Uniform, are you gentlemen in a hurry?" "No, 'guess not. What's up?" "November 90 Uniform, turn right 20 degrees, say your new heading. I have a treat for you." "90 Uniform, look ahead about ten miles, about your 2 o'clock position. You should see the Concorde at cruise, passing from your 2 o'clock to your 8 o'clock position." And there it was. They flew right over it.
My friend used to like to say that they were one of the few people that ever looked _down_ at the SST while it was at cruise altitude. BOAC is now British Airways. Braniff, a proud old American airline, is no more. Nor does the Concorde operate into American airspace, except for scheduled flights into the East Coast, and special charters and air shows such as Oshkosh.
My friendís timing was excellent.
Air Force One
I was heading home, level at flight level 200, in Indianapolis Center airspace. Once again I was doing what a highly trained professional pilot does best: monitoring the aircraft's systems. We all know that definition of flying:"Hours of boredom, punctuated by moments of sheer terror."
"Good morning Indianapolis, Air Force One with you at 240, looking for lower." "Roger, Air Force One. Stand by for lower. You have traffic at your 12 o'clock and 15 miles. A Cessna 421 at 200. I'll have lower for you Sir after you clear that aircraft."
I was holding up Air Force One.
"Ah, roger Indianapolis....we really would like to have lower as soon as possible." "Stand by Air Force One." "Cessna 57 Golf, turn left 30 degrees. State your new heading." "Left 30 degrees, heading will be 250." "Roger 57 Golf, maintain that heading until further advised." "Air Force One, descend to and maintain 10 thousand. Contact Indianapolis Approach on 120.8. Good day."
A few minutes later Air Force One had passed through my altitude and I was cleared back on course.
But for a brief moment in time, I held up the President of The United States.
Richard Milhous Nixon.
I arrived in MSP after a flight and was directed to parking. There, on the Northern Airmotive ramp, was "The Black Bunny": Hugh Heffner's Playboy DC9. It was painted totally black except for the white Playboy bunny logo on the vertical tail fin. It had caused a minor stir when it first flew, as many felt the all-black paint job would make it difficult to spot in the air by other air crews. The FAA made them install extra strobe lights.
After my passengers were off I looked for my friend, he of the Lockheed JetStar, to find out why "The Black Bunny" was at MSP. In his office was one of the "Bunny Stews" trying to borrow some sugar for the ships' galley. She was dressed up in one of those Playboy bunny costumes, minimal cloth was wasted on it.
My friend was very accommodating to her.
We went out to the ramp and struck up a conversation with the "Black Bunny" flight crew. They said they would give us a tour of the aircraft, but that Elvis was in town for a concert and was supposed to arrive shortly- sorry. We stood at the base of the airstair door, talking to the crew. A line of black limousines pulled up and disgorged a large group of "hangers on" and "groupies". A larger limo pulled up and out came The King.
He looked like crap.
He was fat, had jowls and puffy bloodshot eyes. As we stood at the base of the stairs he passed hardly a foot away from me, and boarded the aircraft along with his seamy looking entourage- not a very pretty sight.
We said our good-byes to the flight crew, the aircraft fired up and departed MSP with all of its strobe lights flashing.
Carrying Elvis on his date with destiny.
After Elvis departed, I was ready to do the same and get home after being on the road for several days. I glanced around the lobby and saw, what I thought, was a familiar face. He was just standing there, all alone, no entourage.
Could it be? It sure looked like him. Well, only one way to find out.
I walk up, and with the classiest line in the world say "Excuse me, aren't you John Denver?" He smiles. As soon as I see the smile, and all the teeth, I know who it is- and feel like an idiot. Now what do you say? "Gee, thanks for all of the great music." I utter, feeling more and more stupid by the minute. He is very gracious to this hick from the Midwest and says he is waiting for his father to arrive in the Learjet to take him back to Colorado. (Anne, his wife, still lived in Minneapolis at the time.) We chatted for a few minutes, his dad arrived, I thanked him, apologized for intruding into his life, and left.
On my drive home I thought about the contrasts: Elvis and his groupies, John Denver and his dad. I decided that I was a John Denver fan.
Sadly, he had his own date with destiny, off the California coast in a home-built aircraft with a badly placed fuel selector.
It was a far out day.
© Hal Stoen
June 26, 1999
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