Thursday, April 8, 2010

South of the Border or How to Repossess a 727 circa 1968

You can always tell when an aviator is about to tell you a tall story. His preamble is usually, “Now this is no sh*t.”

I won’t preface this story with the Aviator’s Preamble. However, I knew the principals in this story from the late Sixties and they were usually very truthful if not somewhat evasive about all the facts. After all, they would never tell the Federal Aviation Agency any more than they had to.

The call came from the Boeing Commercial Airplane Company’s Sales and Contracts office in Renton to Ernie Campbell, a lead flight instructor in Boeing Flight Training.

“Ernie, we need a crew to pick up an airplane.”

“Sure,” said Ernie. “Just tell me when and where, and I’ll get right on it.”

Ernie Campbell was then, and until he died in 1997, a fixture in the aviation world. An old Strategic Air Command B-52 pilot and General Curt Lemay’s personal pilot prior to his retirement, he joined Boeing long before I met him in the Seventies. Everyone knew and respected Ernie and he was a star at the many Customer Conferences and Road Shows held all over the world. He could tell a good clean joke, hold his liquor and stay up late enough to put most of the clients to bed. He was a pilot’s pilot and an aeronautical engineer’s source of experience-based information and a laid-back flight instructor’s nemesis; he would always have a job for some idle hands hanging around Flight Crew Training. Instructor pilots usually fled at his approach and headed for the Cafeteria or out the door.

“Well, it’s in Mexico and we’ll send some of the Contract lawyers with you to make sure it’s all legal, but Aeronaves de Mexico has fallen way behind in their payments and we’d better bring this bird ‘home’ to Seattle and put it back in the nest till they feed us some more pesos.”

The flight crew, Ernie, Bill Conine and Don Boyd as flight engineer, coordinated their arrival in Guadalajara with the arrival of the Aeronaves’ 727-100. As the Contracts lawyers had already taken care of the legal niceties of repossession and enlisted the aid of the local policia, the group proceeded to the arrival gate.
But the airline had been tipped off that their shiny 3 Holer was about to be snatched and had quickly moved it to from the arrival gate. Ernie and the Boeing contingent in hot pursuit, found it at the far end of the field in the hard-packed dirt ramp and behind two of their decrepit Lockheed 749 Constellations.

The Lockheed Constellation in flight is a beautiful airplane, and at one time, the Queen of the Skies, but these two had been abandoned and were now looking quite un-regal sitting on their landing gear stubs the wheels having been recently removed to preclude their being towed -two very immovable objects.

Ernie accessed the appropriate panel and lowered the rear stairs. The crew and the lawyers climbed aboard. Bill Conine and Don Boyd checked the cockpit and started the auxiliary power unit while Ernie surveyed the surrounding terrain. One of the Queens of the Sky was parked with its tail cone almost touching the radome of the 727; the other was parked just ahead of the first ensuring that if they were able to move one, surely they couldn’t move the second.

Normally to back up an airplane requires a tug, a tractor like vehicle with a tow bar and you've all seen how it works at our local airport prior to departing the gate area; lots of signals by ground support crew complete with red wands and hand waving warning of obstructions such as other airplanes, baggage carts or catering trucks. But there was to be no help from Aeronaves. Nada!

Ernie conferred with his crew and decided they would use the engines’ reverse thrusters and back up into hard packed dirt and sagebrush until the could clear the Connies blocking their way out. With the lawyers chewing the ends of their ballpoints and sweating profusely in their Brooks Brothers suits, Ernie carefully backed up the Boeing with Conine outside giving suitable hand signals and surrounded by the dust storm kicked up by the reversers.

Free of the Lockheed relics and with the surrogate ground crew leading the way, Ernie, closed the reversers and taxied across the dirt and over several mounds until he found a paved taxiway. Using the now available, built-in stairs, they collected Bill, shut the door and got taxi clearance. En route to the runway, they filed a flight plan and taking a quick glance around were cleared for takeoff. Yes, they were light on fuel but there seemed to be enough left from the incoming Aeronaves trip and sufficient to reach Seattle if all went according to plan.

As the passed over the Southern ADIZ, (Air Defense Identification Zone) and were handed off to Los Angeles Center, the communications with the U.S. FAA became rather puzzling: “Say pilot’s name, Say airplane registration, Say destination, Who owns your airplane?”

The same questions were asked when over the San Joaquin Valley, Los Angeles center handed them off to Oakland Center. “Strange” thought Ernie, “I told ‘em that already.” About the same time, Don was getting a little nervous about the fuel supply. After all, the Mexicans had not offered to refuel them and Seattle was looking not quite CAVU (Ceiling And Visibility Unlimited).

“Oakland Center this is Boeing 727, we’d like a radar vector to San Francisco International.”

“Roger, Boeing 727, Oakland Center, turn left heading 300. Contact San Francisco Approach Control over Woodside. Descend at pilot’s discretion and Cruise Flight Level 180.”

After touchdown at San Fran, they turned left and approached the Executive Terminal - the old San Francisco terminal and were greeted by a Follow Me jeep, their first indication that something was amiss. They proceeded beyond the Terminal, were stopped in front of a large closed hangar, and given the signal to shut down.

Immediately the hangar doors opened. Police vehicles, an ambulance, two fire trucks and several unmarked but obviously government cars surrounded the airplane. Depressurized, Ernie opened the window to see shotguns and pistols pointed in his direction and a bull horn announced, “Get out of the ‘plane, keep your hands in sight.”

The lawyers insisted that seeing as he was the captain, Ernie should descend first, so taking off his flight jacket, he descended the stairs with his hands above his head.

“Who are you?” said a plain-clothes man, “You are under arrest, you have the right to remain silent, you may….”

“Just a minute,” said Campbell, “why am I under arrest?”


“You’re mistaken. This is a Boeing airplane we have repossessed and are on our way back to Seattle. You wanna talk to my lawyers?”

“What,” said the Fibby. “You have your lawyer with you?”

“Lawyers, plural,” said Ernie. “You don’t think I’d hijack an airplane without legal help, do you?”

“Don’t get smart with me,” said the man with the badge. “This airplane has been reported stolen by a Mexican airline and the State Department alerted us to arrest the perpetrators.”

Ernie slowly turned around to the airplane’s forward door and saw open jawed several faces looking down at the on-going drama below.

“C’mon down fellers, it’s O.K. They won’t shoot.”

Briefcases in hand, papers under their arms, the lawyers descended the Airstair under the careful scrutiny of the FBI and the airport police. By now the assemblage had grown and several newspaper reporters were pushing through the crowd.

The Feds hustled the nervous lawyers into one of the cars, motioned to Ernie and the other two crewmembers to stay where they were. There were still many drawn handguns and shotguns pointed at the trio. But the law was now looking less nervous.

“I guess we’ll wait,” said Ernie, as the car drove toward the nearby terminal

Twenty minutes later, the lawyers reappeared with smiling faces and only one Fibby.

“The next time you pull a stunt like this, you’d better clear it through channels,” said the Fed.

He turned on his heel, and drove away.

Guns were lowered, pistols holstered and the crowd dissolved.

“We still need fuel,” said Ernie. “Anyone seen the fuel truck?”
And yes, they were back in Seattle for a late dinner.

From a story told to both myself and Bruce Jones in 1994

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