Monday, July 6, 2009

To Arizona and back

So my last post might have left you hanging...but it very well could have been my last ever.
Sitting at an obscure gate of the Phoenix Airport, I was waiting to board my mini double propeller plane, watching the pilots joke around with the gatekeeper (the same person who checked me in at the front desk - FYI: it is not a reassuring sign when the airline has only one employee in the entire airport). As our boarding time approached, I wondered when the pilot was going to go out and inspect his plane, but he kept yakking away. Eventually, he did go out, and a group of us 11 passengers followed about five minutes later. Most of the passengers were going on to New Mexico after the plane dropped three of us off in Page.
I had to duck to get into the plane. Not a good sign. Inside the plane was so small - about a midget's wingspan. It had a narrow aisle, with a seat on each side. The plane wasn't very full, so I ditched my seat in the crowded back end of the plane for a seat in the middle, on the right side wing.
Sitting back, I looked up the aisle and could see right out onto the runway. Apparently, Great Lakes Airlines doesn't believe in cockpit doors. All I was thinking is, "Sure hope the Taliban doesn't find out about these planes."
I watched (and tightened my seat belt) as the pilot taxied onto the runway and shoved the throttle forward, and then looked out my side window like I do on most flights. We rose above the clouds and I enjoyed the scenery for a while before noticing some liquid streaming from the top of the propeller engine. It was flicking off of the forward most, highest point of the engine and making a little river down and off the back of the wing. I thought it was a little odd, but then again, maybe it was just condensation...
Most planes don't offer the luxury of seeing clearly out of both side windows, but since this one did, I looked out at the left wing to see if it was also developing "condensation." It was not.
If there had been a stewardess serving ginger ale and pretzels, I might have brought the liquid to her attention. If the ride weren't so bumpy, I might have unbuckled and stumbled up the narrow aisle to tap a pilot on the shoulder. All this I might have done, but instead, I stayed buckled and prayed that the plane would make the hour long flight without running out of fuel. Yes, I had figured it out to be fuel because of the gas cap that said "auxiliary fuel tank" and the second stream of liquid coming out of it.
When we landed (thank the Lord!), I breathed a sigh of relief and began to gather my camera back into my bag. As I was doing so, the co-pilot stepped out of the cockpit and addressed all of us (no PA system needed). Apparently, someone at the Page Airport had noticed a puddle forming underneath our plane, and we all had to get off immediately.
When the co-pilot informed us of the "mechanical difficulties," all of those seated on the right side of the plane nodded in agreement, all speaking at once about how we had seen something leaking. The co-pilot got a little pissed that we hadn't said anything about the leak, and we all filed quickly off the plane. As we were getting off, this old guy in front of me goes, "Nobody light up," as we could instantly smell the potent jet fuel outside of the plane.
I was thankful that Page was my final destination, and as it turns out, everyone on that plane who were headed to New Mexico had to stay overnight in Page while the airline flew out a mechanic to fix the plane.
Looking back, I probably should have done a little research on this Great Lakes Air. A simple Google search turned up some interesting (and frightening!) things.
In 1997, a U.S. Representatives committee was held to determine if the FAA had been correct in grounding Great Lakes Air. The FAA determined that Great Lakes Aviation's operations had serious, systemic safety problems and informed the carrier that it could cease operations voluntarily or wait for the FAA to shut them down. During 1996, the number of questionable or unsatisfactory inspections recorded during routine surveillance of GLA more than doubled, increasing from 72 in 1995 to 159 in 1996. The airline was apparently re certified when they met regulations. On February 10, 2001, a Beechcraft 1900D (which is what I rode in) operated by Great Lakes Aviation crashed on landing at Chicago O’Hare Airport when the pilots neglected to lower the landing gear. The failure occurred due to improper checklist procedure of the pilots coupled with inoperative warning systems resulting from the poor mechanical condition of the airplane. At least seven people were injured.
Needless to say, I won't be riding on Great Lakes again. On a somewhat lighter note, here's an incredible view I had from the plane of the dam. This is where the Grand Canyon starts!






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