Tag Archives: 580

Prop It Up: Ball Peen Hammers and Earth Worms

Guest Editor Dave Nichols

Ball Peen Hammers and Earth Worms

By Dave Nichols

I was on the jump seat of a 727 shortie operated by a major carrier.  We were on a regular passenger flight from Houston to Cleveland, then on to Buffalo and New York-LaGuardia.  Ah yes, the days of point-to-point flying.  During 1976, many air traffic control facilities were doing reciprocal arrangements between pilots and controllers.  Each would walk a mile in the other’s shoes.  I was spending the day with this crew.  Next week, they would come to approach control in Houston and “plug in” with me and closely observe radar air traffic control.  I participated in a lot of these programs.  As a pilot and controller, I enjoyed both sides of the fence.  About 20% of the controllers at Houston Approach were active pilots.  Six of us were dyed in the wool, over the edge aviation addicts.  When we weren’t controlling we were flying light planes or jump seating with air carriers to broaden our knowledge.  As a commercial pilot I did not get a break with a major air carrier.   Jump seat privilege helped me fill my personal jet gap.

The flight today was going to play chicken with an easterly moving squall line, somewhere west of Cleveland.  The captain was hoping it would move fast enough to rumble across CLE before we got there.  Not to be:  the line of thunderstorms was 20 miles west of Cleveland when we arrived, so we were assigned a holding pattern 40 miles west.  The stack was filling up – about 10 aircraft, all 1000 feet apart vertically, flying the racetrack pattern.  Above us was a Northwest DC-10; I remember this because it seemed like only 500 feet due to its size.  As we sliced in and out of small cumulus clouds I could see the wide-body up there just ahead of us.  It looked like we were maneuvering to perform in-flight refueling.  Just below our level was a North Central Convair 580.

Airline captains have a common thread:  they like to be in charge and in control.  I don’t blame them.  When holding in time consuming and fuel eating stacks they become antsy.  The schedule is flitting away and the fuel remaining starts gnawing at the planning side of their brains.  They are stuck on a treadmill.  Transmissions to controllers become more frequent.  “Has that squall line moved east of the airport yet?” and “Say surface winds now,” and the infamous “Could you vector us around the end?”  Impatience is present in all professions and at all levels.

What I have noticed through the years about holding pattern etiquette is it only takes one airliner to leave the hold and several others will follow.  After a few minutes, some remaining captains feel they are being shuttled to the rear of the line and they start requesting to head inbound.  Sometimes this chain of events happens too soon.  The controller knows the heavy weather will not be gone before the first airplane starts the approach.  He has the big picture.  On today’s trip it was the DC-10 above us who asked first to leave the mundane pattern and be vectored for the approach.  I could tell by the controller’s voice inflection that it was too soon.  All of us were in the clear, away from the mess.  The storm would move past CLE in about twenty more minutes.  Why would anyone want to bore into that gray mass and shoot the approach?

Within seconds, a 737 pilot asked to follow the DC-10 “in”.  The momentum quickly built.  Our captain was the third to leave.  As we banked away I saw the Convair 580 below us.  He stayed.  I whispered:  “You are the wisest of them all.”  The approach controller warned every one that final approach was covered in heavy rain.  He reluctantly turned us over to the final approach controller.  Just in case you didn’t know, controllers do not have the right to deny an approach to a pilot as long as the airport is still there.

Our altitude was about 7,000 feet when we penetrated the blackness.  As we came up on the new frequency, the DC-10 called out “picking up hail at five thousand”.  His voice was high pitched.  In the same breath we were in it, too.  Ball peen hammers were glancing off the windshield.  This was my first encounter with hail at 230 knots.  I couldn’t believe how the windshield was able to hold up.  The cracking sound of the hail on the glass was startling.  I expected the windshield to be in my lap any second.  I never even had the presence of mind to think about the engines;  Those poor compressor blades.  Our captain asked for a 90-degree turn to the left but the radio frequency was hopelessly clogged with people stepping on each other.  In one full minute we were out of it.  It was still solid IFR with turbulence but no hail.  The thunder was as loud as an explosion.  I now know what submariners felt during a depth charge attack.  The lead dog DC-10 plowed on, beat up but undaunted.

When we turned a 12-mile final the turbulence stopped.  All we had to contend with now was just torrential rain.  The 737 ahead of us was quite concerned about the rain at the airport and braking conditions on the runway.  The controller said, matter of factly, “Braking action reported fair to poor due to standing water and worms.”  “Worms?!” blurted the 737 first officer in a non-humorous voice.  “That’s affirmative, we haven’t had a landing in a while so the ops car did the braking test.  He said there are thousands of earth worms all over the runway.”

Despite the experiences of the last ten minutes, boyish smiles were passed around the cockpit.  Now it was time to get this three-holer on the runway.  The rain was inundating, engulfing.  The DC-10 called a missed approach.  Quick glances were shared.  Windshield wipers on “full” did not buoy my confidence.  A blurry landing flare was made and our machine plunked down firmly on the mains.  When the nose wheel lowered to the soaked, worm covered pavement we “shlipped and shlided” ten degrees left and right.  The rudder was all the captain had to maintain directional control.  Brakes resulted in nothing but anti-skid thumps but he got it slowed down with just reversers.  We exited the runway in good shape.

After parking at the jetway, the rain stopped and I went outside with the flight engineer.  He was going to do a thorough walk around.  The ramp guys were laughing pretty hard despite the fact that they were soaking wet.  All over the belly was a slimy coating of brown mush.  The ground crew thought it was poop from the forward lav but it was thousands of night crawlers, reduced to organic pulp.  The flight engineer yelled for a hose down.  As we completed the fifteen-minute walk around, the mechanics went up in a cherry picker to look at the engine intakes.  I saw, out of the corner of my eye, that beautiful Convair 580 taxiing in without a drop of water on it.

Copyright Photo: Bruce Drum. Convair 580 N4810C (msn 100) of North Central Airlines prepares to taxi from the gate at Central Wisconsin Airport.

Write Dave Nichols at propitupblog@gmail.com

Read Dave previous articles:

A Day With Aspen Airways: CLICK HERE

Nostalgic Tickets: CLICK HERE

Spring Break with Lake Central: CLICK HERE

What Allegheny Meant To Me: CLICK HERE

A Day with Southern Airways: CLICK HERE

Mohawk’s Incredible Weekends Unlimited: CLICK HERE

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Prop It Up: A Day With Aspen Airways

Guest Editor Dave Nichols

A Day With Aspen Airways

By Dave Nichols

The Convair 580 lurched to the left followed by the nose bobbing up and down, then a quick unexpected jab to the right.  How much abuse could this airliner take?  And we were just taxiing…  Seriously, though, Aspen Airways Convair-Liners took a daily pounding over the Rocky Mountains and came back for more, year after year.

Being intrigued by Aspen’s (AP) operation, I put in for jumpseat authority in September 1977.  Linking up with the flight crew at the Aspen hangar in Denver, I met captain Bill Rosquist.  An immediately likeable person, Bill was in his mid-30s, slim with sandy hair.  He introduced me to the 580 Convair that would be assigned the Denver (DEN)-Aspen (ASE) round trips for most of the day:  N73133.

Copyright Photo: DDM Photos – Dave Nichols Collection. Convair 580 N73133 (msn 70) rests between flights at Los Angeles. The airliner at this time wears the 1972 two-tone blue scheme. It would later wear United Express colors.

Since it’s “all about the airplanes”, Bill told me the history of this airliner.  Manufacturers Serial Number 70, N73133 had been originally purchased and operated by United Airlines in 1953.  One of the last Convair 340s flying with UA, Tex Johnston Inc. purchased the airplane in 1968.  That company modified it to a 580 but it was a bare-bones conversion with no flight director, updated avionics nor updated panel.  N73133 then went through two owners and some desert storage when liberated by Aspen in 1975.  The aircraft had always kept its original N number.  This Convair-Liner was kind of an orphan with AP.  Not equipped like the other 580s in the fleet – purchased from Allegheny and Frontier – N73133 was used almost exclusively on the DEN-ASE run.  Today, the airplane was still in the older color scheme of white fuselage with orange cheatline, the last to be repainted.  The other nine 580s were resplendent in the super sharp aspen tree leaf design.

Aspen Airways 2-tone logo

The summer and fall are quieter months for Aspen Airways.  The airline was adept at wet or dry leasing their excess capacity to other carriers during the slack months.  Aspen was also dabbling in scheduled Lake Tahoe and Yellowstone National Park flights from California locations.  Two other 580s were rotated into Denver-Aspen service this month and they were at the ready in Denver:  N5814, an ex-Allegheny machine and N73126, a former Frontier aircraft.

I would experience three DEN-ASE round-trips today with captain Bill and N73133.  I started at 9:00a.m. and would finish at 2:30 p.m.  The 110-mile flight took 40 minutes and was flown directly over the mountains; such was the climb performance of the marvelous 580.  The turnaround time in Aspen was 25 minutes and at Denver-Stapleton a quick 15.  The captain, first officer, flight attendant and I taxied the 50-seater from the hangar to the terminal to start the day’s operation.  During my initial cockpit scan I could easily see the economy of this particular aircraft’s conversion.  The flight deck layout and goodies did not even compare to the Allegheny 580s I was familiar with.  Boarding was quick and basic through a lower level non-jet bridge concourse.  Eleven people joined us and we briskly taxied to the active runway.  Flaps set at 15-degrees.  A reduced power take-off was made.  Yes, reduced power, just like the big-boy jets.

During the initial climb, Bill explained that the airplane would need only six minutes to be high enough to clear the mountain peaks which run north and south on the west side of Denver.  The east side of town is flat prairie.  The skies were completely clear and cobalt blue – it was a great day for flying over the Continental Divide.

One never tires of watching and feeling the Convair 580 perform.  It’s like a sled dog musher behind 12 well-trained and fed Alaskan Huskies.  When you holler “lets go” the experience is always enriching.  Our 580 was climbing at 2500 feet per minute showing 185 knots indicated airspeed.  It was purring.  As soon as the Convair left 14,000 feet, we were vectored westbound to intercept the airway.  Once level at 20,000 feet, our indicated airspeed ticked up to 240 knots yielding a true airspeed of 290 knots.  The airspeed indicator needle was in the yellow arc.

Carrying on a conversation in the 580 is doable; it’s not as loud as the 440.  Bill reminded me that the airframe of a 580 is pretty much original Convair 340/440.  Our speed was much faster than originally performed in the recip version but the design was able to withstand it.  Even in the mid-70s, Convair 580s had ten years of exposure on them.  There was an Achilles Heel:  turbulence.  If mountain waved induced turbulence was encountered at an intensity of “severe”,  he would have to throttle back to 170 knots.  Bill added: “We Always get knocked around on this route but I can maintain 240 knots until it gets nasty.”

At 40-miles west of Denver it started.  Even though the skies were incredibly clear, the turbulence was ever present.  I could see the great Continental Divide ahead through the windshield; a devil’s backbone of north-south mountains clustered tightly together, all peaking around 14,200 feet.  We had been flying over mountains already but the great divide is the mother lode.  Even though we were 5,000 feet above the peaks, there was no immunity.  The area was sprinkled with the carcasses of unfortunate airplanes that did not make it over the ridge or through a few mountain passes.  I also knew that directly off the right wing, near Loveland Pass, was the final resting place of a chartered Martin 404 that ended most of the lives of the Wichita State University (Kansas) football team a few years earlier.

The bumps were mostly hard and jolting.  Deep potholes in the airway pummeled us at irregular intervals.  Clouds would actually have helped the crew know more about the location and severity of the turbulence.  Rocky mountain-based pilots know how to read clouds.  Occasionally we experienced that thermal drop where the bottom falls out and everything goes zero-G for several seconds.  The flight attendant said that’s when some white knuckle passengers start upchucking.  Can you imagine what the Frontier F/As went through with a whole propeller fleet crisscrossing the Rockies?

North of Aspen, captain Bill banked the Convair to the left and set up for the visual approach to runway 15.  We would have a 40-degree crosswind at 11 knots.  Bill turned his head and with a quick grin said:  “No one enjoys flying into Aspen-Pitkin but it’s not terrifying.  You can see how close the mountain bluffs are to the airport.”  The first officer pointed to two locations of former wrecks.  The shards of aluminum and Plexiglas were frequently visible, winking from ledges.  Aspen Airways crunched-in their first Convair 240 (N270L msn157) when the gear collapsed on this airport in 1970.  Trying to approach and land from the southeast requires a steep descent.  It was done more recently with the BAe146 jet but in the 70s it was not the norm.  I could see some of the ski runs which are powdery white and contoured in winter but now were rocky and brown.  Captain Rosquist made a top notch landing using 28-degree flaps.  The 580 does best touching down with only a slight nose-up flare.  Reverse pitch is so productive it’s like throwing out an anchor.  We deplaned and walked around the ramp.

The turnaround provided Bill a chance to give me a condensed history of Aspen Airways.  Founded in 1968 with a base in Denver and a sole route of DEN-ASE.  The first aircraft was the ill-fated CV240 purchased from Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad.  A replacement 240 – N91237 (msn 140) – was hastily purchased in 1970.  The model 240 was barely suitable for the mountainous routes and loads, so CV340/440s were added from 1970-72.  All were ex-Delta.  The recip fleet totaled four and they gave solid service up to 1978.  At the time of this story, AP was using the piston Convairs on charter work away from Colorado.

Copyright Photo: Bruce Drum. Formerly operated by Delta Air Lines in the Deep South, Convair 440-38 N4816C (msn 118) (converted from a 340-38) moved west to serve with Aspen Airways. N4816C is parked at Aspen, Colorado in the summer of 1973.

Needless to say, the 580 Convair was the machine they had been praying for.  CV580s were purchased in 1973 and would eventually number 13, with aircraft being bought and sold as needed. Aspen experimented in scheduled routes to various Colorado seasonal ski areas.  Charters were quite successful.  By 1977, the fleet was at eight airplanes, with four coming from Allegheny and three from Frontier at more than a million bucks apiece.

Time to press on, we enplaned 15 pax and rocketed out of ASE.  Taking the safe way, we retraced our inbound track starting with a take-off on runway 33.  Flight 418 would have a snack service and on afternoon runs the airplane offered wine and cheese to the folks in the back; very popular and unexpected from a small airline.

Aspen Airways, at the time, was truly the air bridge to the City of Aspen.  A long and twisting mountain car drive was reduced to a scant 40 minutes on board AP.  In 1977, the walk-up fare was $32 one-way.  Blocks of tickets were available to locals for a nice discount.  Being a fan of old timetables, I noticed that AP only raised fares an average of 4% a year.

Aspen Airways 1980 Route Map

1980 Route Map: Aspen Airways expanded outside of its traditional Denver-Aspen Colorado route west to California with its growing Convair 580 fleet in 1979. Due to Deregulation, Air California, PSA and United Airlines abandoned a lot of local routes, especially to Lake Tahoe. Burbank became the short-lived hub of the West Coast operations.

The well muscled 580 is a kerosene binge drinker, even by 1977 standards.  Three hundred gallons an hour goes into the burners at 20,000-foot cruise.  At low altitudes, the beast swigs 420 gallons every 60 minutes.  This is about double the avgas a CV440 goes through.  The piston sister has a max gross weight of 49,700 pounds.  The 580 tops out at 53,200 pounds.  Wide-open throttle garners 2500 horsepower for the 440 and a whopping 3750 for the beefy 580.  The 440 cruises around 190 knots indicated, with the 580 blowing by at a cool 250.  Is it worth the much higher purchase price and fuel costs?  In the 60s and 70s, the answer was a resounding “yes”.  By 1985, it was “no”, even for many of the freight dogs.

The return flight to Denver placed us going in the same direction as the flow of air.  Once near the Continental Divide I could feel the airplane surfing the invisible waves.  After a while, you could sense climbing over a swell, riding the crest and then rushing down the forward face: “hanging ten” on a 51,000 pound piece of aluminum.  This was all cool and such but occasionally the Convair would sink into a trough between two large waves – hello breakfast.  From the cockpit, I could easily hear the passengers groan under the force of negative Gs.

As an epilogue, Aspen Airways became a United Express affiliate in 1986, still operating those incredible 580s.  N73133 was donated to a museum in Alaska in 1986 but was later freshened up and put back in service with Kelowna Flightcraft in Canada as a freighter during 1992.  Conversion to fire fighting air tanker took place around 2000 where it was flown by Conair as C-FKFM.  Air Wisconsin purchased Aspen Airways in 1991 and quickly disposed of the Convair-Liners, bringing in their BAe 146s.   The other former Aspen 580s found work right away:  nine of the thirteen were still active around the world up to 2003.

Copyright Photo: Jacques Guillem Collection. BAE 146-100 N462AP (msn E1017) is seen in action at the Denver base. The jetliner is painted in the orange version of the 1971 livery.

Many flying people will remember Aspen Airways fondly and perhaps a little scarily.  I’ll bet you have an Aspen Airways story, too.  The giant rolling river of air moving eastward over the Rocky Mountains is still there, every minute of every day, waiting to challenge whatever flying machine wishes to traverse.

Write Dave Nichols at propitupblog@gmail.com

Read Dave previous articles:

Nostalgic Tickets: CLICK HERE

Spring Break with Lake Central: CLICK HERE

What Allegheny Meant To Me: CLICK HERE

A Day with Southern Airways: CLICK HERE

Mohawk’s Incredible Weekends Unlimited: CLICK HERE

Aspen Airways: AG Slide Show

Daily Airline News: AG World Airline News

1985 Route Map: In 1984 the company entered into a market agreement with United Airlines and began to add more feeder routes from and to the Denver hub, abandoning the West Coast operation. On September 1, 1986 Aspen Airways became a full United Express carrier and therefore abandoned its unique and colorful liveries for the traditional United brand.

Aspen Airways 7.1985 Route Map