As a non-pilot I have rarely found myself in the cockpit of a jet airplane in flight. In fact, I have been afforded this distinct privilege exactly twice in two distinctly different aircraft. The first came several years ago in a USAF C-17 Globemaster III on a one-way biofuel demonstration flight from McGuire AFB in New Jersey to Andrews AFB outside Washington, D.C. I endured takeoff wearing standard-issue earplugs in a stiff, pallet-mounted seat strapped to the deck of the cavernous, unsoundproofed, windowless cargo bay, along with my fellow journalists. I assumed we were aloft when the majority of the bouncing and creaking subsided and soon an airman stopped by to invite me to visit the cockpit if I wished. In a shot I was at the front of the cargo bay and up the ladder to the flight deck. As I slid into the jumpseat behind the pilot, the first thing I noticed was that even a beast of burden like a C-17 has a head-up display. I sat back and savored the view as the pilot pointed out waypoints such as Atlantic City and Baltimore, before I had to return—reluctantly—to my seat in the dungeon.
The second time came last month under entirely different circumstances. I was part of a media contingent touring Bombardier’s Learjet facilities in Wichita and Querétaro, Mexico, and one of the company’s Challenger 850 demonstrator aircraft had been detailed to carry us there and back. Once we distributed ourselves around the spacious and well appointed cabin (no earplugs necessary on this baby), the flight attendant asked if any of us would care to sit in the jumpseat for takeoff from a stormy Westchester County Airport.
Careful not to body check any of my peers in my haste, I settled in behind the crew as they went through the preflight checklist. Already mindful of the sterile cockpit doctrine, I said nothing until the copilot acknowledged me and said they would be happy to answer any questions once we reached 10,000 feet. As soon as we received clearance for takeoff, the twinjet hurtled smoothly down the runway and was quickly swallowed up by the low overcast. Any thoughts of seeing anything of my home county from the air were quickly dashed, but I was fascinated watching the actions of the pilots and listening to the confident, seemingly effortless interaction with ATC.
In the soup without any visual horizon, I closed my eyes to see how aware of the banking motion I was. Having covered the accidents beat for several years for AIN, I often wondered about how crashes occurred as bewildered pilots failed to detect changes in the attitude of their aircraft as they spiraled in in IFR conditions. Now I had a little personal insight as I gazed at the attitude indicator.
Sure enough, once we reached a safe altitude, Phil the copilot turned to me with a smile and said, “What can we answer for you?” He had earned his wings through the commercial route, flying CRJ200s (the airline equivalent of the Challenger 850) before joining Bombardier’s flight department. Chris, the pilot, was former USAF, having flown fighters and attack aircraft before leaving the service for civilian aviation. I remained glued to my seat for about the first two hours of the flight, even earning my keep relaying breakfast dishes and beverages back and forth between the flight attendant and the crew.
On the remaining legs of the trip, my peers enjoyed their own jumpseat experiences until our return flight into Westchester County Airport the next day. I was again perched behind the crew on a crystal-clear night, watching the panorama of lights pass beneath us. We were vectored out over the eastern end of Long Island and back over Long Island Sound, and just after passing Bridgeport at about 4,000 feet, as we anticipated the lights of HPN, there was a dull thud on the windshield as we took a bird strike. I have seen pictures of shattered windshields, so I assume whatever it was that was unlucky enough to meet its demise in a midair with the big bizjet at night was relatively small. Had it been a Canada goose, the pilot probably would have been wearing it.
As we landed, the crew called the incident in to ATC, which launched a brief questionnaire: “Was there any damage to the aircraft? Was it a flock or a single bird?” Even the questioner had to apologize for asking: “I know it was dark, but do you know what kind of bird it was?” On the ground, I joined the pilots at the nose of the aircraft, where their flashlights told the tale. An initial bloody impact stain on the nose and a large smear (described as “snarge” by the pilot; I learned a new word) caked on the side of the left windshield. Feathers could still be seen protruding from beneath the windshield wipers. As the crew stood there pondering whether they would still be able to get their engines checked for debris ingestion at that late hour to depart for their home base that evening, I thanked them for the smooth, pleasant flights as well as their courtesy and left.
It was the first time I had ever ended a business jet flight with luggage, but while I was surveying the scene at the nose of the aircraft, an overeager limo driver had loaded my bag into the wrong car, necessitating a chase down the Hutchinson River Parkway. As I sped after my prey, I found myself wondering if any Fortune 500 CEOs had ever found themselves in that very same situation at the end of a flight.