Friday, July 15, 2005

Life and Death on AMF132

While I'm on the subject of my freight doggery, I should write about the route I flew for most of my full-time Ameriflight career: Amflight 132.

At the Burbank base, every Ameriflight new hire started out in the Piper Lance, a 300 horsepower single engine airplane. At the time, expected upgrade into the Chieftain was around two months. I did indeed upgrade into the Chieftain within several months, but due to a number of circumstances, including the incident I'll relate below, I was unable to hold a Chieftain route until just before I left for my current company.

At Burbank we had four Lance routes. The layovers were Bakersfield, Calexico, San Diego, and Mammoth Lakes. The Mammoth Lakes run in particular, AMF 132, had a nasty reputation, so as the youngest and most junior member of my class, it was the route that I ended up with. I stuck with it later because neither Bakersfield nor Calexico appealed to me. AMF 132 was my route from October 2003 to April 2004.

AMF 132 has a bad reputation at Ameriflight. The routing was from Burbank to Inyokern to Bishop to Mammoth Lakes each morning, then the same airports in reverse in the afternoon. This took you up and down the middle of the Owens Valley, a deep depression bordered by the escarpment of the Sierra Nevada to the west and the Inyo Mountains to the east. When fronts pass through the Sierras, especially in winter, 80+ knot winds howl over the peaks and through the canyons, resulting in legendary turbulence in the valley. It's one of the premier wave-soaring spots in the world. In the 1950's, the Sierra Wave Project studied the then-unknown phenomenon of mountain waves using beefed-up sailplanes based at Bishop. One of them was lost when torn apart by rotor turbulence that induced wind gusts estimated at well over 100 mph and loadings around 16 Gs (the pilot miraculously survived, and still hangs around the Bishop airport). Ameriflight has had pilots quit on the spot during harrowing days in the Owens Valley. Other pilots took along football helmets.

Most days, I enjoyed flying AMF 132. The scenery was stunning, and the layover in the mountain town of Mammoth Lakes was enjoyable. When the weather was bad, though, it was miserable. At best you'd spend a few hours slogging through moderate turbulence. I can honestly classify the turbulence on several occasions as being thoroughly severe. On really bad days, you'd fly the route at 500 feet off the valley floor, keeping most of the rotor above you. If it was bad down there, you'd go back up and cinch down your seatbelt until it hurt, and slow the plane down.

The really ugly thing was that you knew exactly where the next blast would come. You'd see the next canyon outlet coming, and you could count down the seconds until you hit the shear. Three, two, one, BAM! You be holding on to the yoke with one hand and the instrument panel with the other, and would be thrown violently up into the seatbelt, often smacking your head on the headliner or side window. The severe beating would continue for several seconds, then settle down to a mild thrashing until the next canyon. I came away with bruises on several occasions, from the seatbelt as well as the headliner and side window.

Besides turbulence, the route had other weather hazards throughout the winter, including high ground winds, low ceilings, and snow. The company had a high amount of flexibility - whatever I wanted to do went unquestioned. If I saw ugly stuff moving in, I'd have the couriers show up early, or else reposition further down the valley and have them drive part way. On one particularly ugly day, the weather chased me down the valley on three different repositioning legs, and I finally flew into Burbank empty rather than have weather strand the plane in the high desert. I got trapped on only one occasion, when a unpredicted snowstorm socked in Mammoth Lakes before I could race to the airport and take off for Bishop. I was actually taxiing out when the fury hit; I simply turned around, shut down, and called the company to tell them I wouldn't be making it home. At the time, I was "cross-training" another Ameriflight pilot, Mike Ahn, on the route. We settled in at the company's condo in town and watched two feet of snow bury the town.

In January 2004, I was pulled off the route to do training in the Chieftain. Mike Ahn was my replacement pilot during training. The first several days, it was poor weather in the valley. I felt bad, knowing he was taking a beating in my place. January 21, however, dawned clear and bright, with little wind. I flew a Chieftain run to Oakland in the early morning and was done by 9AM. The next morning, I checked in for another training run when my eyes caught a posting near the dispatch desk:
1/21/04

Ameriflight regrets to announce that AMF132, a PA-32R, crashed near Big Pine, CA, this morning. The pilot, Michael Ahn, was killed instantly....
It was a boot kick to the stomach. Before I got to the part about Mike, AMF132 jumped out at me, and my first thought was "that's me!" A millisecond later I realized it was Mike, and that's when I read that he was dead. I'd known Mike for a while. He instructed with me at ADP, and also was hired to fly freight at AEX at the same time I was. He left AEX shortly before I did, and was in the class after me at Ameriflight. And now he was dead. And I had to go fly. As I preflighted, I called Dawn and told her the bad news. Then I called Mark Webster at ADP. He'd already heard. My training captain arrived, and I took off to fly ILS approaches and holding patterns through tears.

It was good weather on the morning he crashed. His last communication, about 15 minutes before the crash, was when Joshua Approach cancelled VFR flight following just north of Owens Lake. He flew straight ahead, at around 6500 feet, and impacted an old volcanic cinder cone just south of Big Pine, CA. The wreakage indicated straight and level flight. Although the final NTSB report isn't out yet, everybody's best guess is that he simply fell asleep. Mike wasn't a morning person at all.

Going back on the route was tough. The first day, there were lots of hugs and tears from the couriers. Subsequent days, they were on the phone to company if I was even 5 minutes late. By this time, I was familiar to a lot of people in Mammoth Lakes, and the next time I saw each of them, it was like they were seeing a ghost. They'd heard of the crash & assumed it was me. When the local librarian saw me, he went white and muttered an expletive. He'd also met Mike, so I then got to explain that while I was alive, Mike was indeed dead.

I stayed on the run, flying over the crash site twice a day. Mike's absence, as well as several junior pilots washing out of training, meant that they needed me to keep flying the Lance, so the Chieftain routes remained out of reach. I renewed my efforts to get hired at my current company. I got an interview in March and was hired for the 8 April class. I flew the Mammoth Lakes run for the last time on April 1.

I made some good friends on that route. I especially miss talking to Greg and Elise at Hot Creek Aviation. I still call on Unicom occasionally when flying over. I'm hoping to go skiing at Mammoth Mountain next year. Maybe I'll jumpseat to Burbank and catch a ride with AMF132.



The wreakage of AMF132, Lance 8701E.

23 comments:

Anonymous said...

Sam,

I've flown into Bishop and Mammoth Lakes a few times with the Sierra Nevada Cardiologist Association(SNCA). I've seen the Lance and the Beech 99 in Bishop and wondered why AMF wouldn't combine mammoth w/ the 99's routing.

Andy KRNO

Anonymous said...

Sam,

Sorry. . .forgot to mention this was in a Cheyenne and I hit my head on a couple of occasions.

AndyKRNO

Ron said...

Damn that's a crazy story.

A fellow instructor at the school where I teach was recently hired by Ameriflight to fly the MMH route, though I thought he said he was going to be flying a twin and not the Lance.

--Ron

Sam said...

Andy,

The Be99 is a UPS route that originates out of Ontario; besides BUR being more convenient for the banks, I believe that the entire Be99 is reserved for UPS. They also fly to Tonopah when the Lance is flying to MMH.

Ron, it's quite possible that they've replaced the Lance with a Chieftain. The MEA's around there are like 16,000, making it a strictly VFR route for the Lance, but the Chieftain would have more options. I also believe that AMF sold most of their Lances & are subcontracting out most of the former Lance routes.

Sam said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Hamish said...

Wow -- that's a sad story. I know the area very well from the ground, and the crash site is familiar to me from my photo trips in the Owens Valley; I was there at the nearby fishery a couple of months ago, but had no idea about the crash.

I've often wanted to fly out there to Bishop and Mammoth, but as you say, the winds can be atrocious, and without careful planning and a lot of luck, the flying could be disastrous, or at least bloody uncomfortable. And strictly VFR for something like the 172, unfortunately. And not to mention the occasional stray F16s going up the valley at 250 KIAS, 200' AGL, straight out of China Lake... (I used to watch them going almost vertical out of Big Pine Canyon. Quite the sight).

Sam said...

Hamish, it's a tough flight from SanFran if the weather isn't good. If it's good, though, it's a nice flight through the canyon to Mammoth Mountain, and not particularly hard for a C172.

I had F18s buzz me on several occasions. I'm sure they knew I was there, they just felt like messing with the guy who dared to trespass in "their" MOA.

Yellowbird said...

Gripping story, Sam. Worthy of Ernest K. Gann...

Anonymous said...

Operators like Ameriflight transport medical specimens and my private practice is very dependent on the services operators like Ameriflight provide. Whenever you go to the doctors' office to get bloodwork done, it doesn't go to the local hospital (except in very rare circumstances). Instead, it gets transported to a centralized lab. The lab it goes to is dependent most of the time on the insurance plan you use. For example, your plan might mandate that your blood tests that I draw be processed by Quest Labs and their centralized processing facility is up in Kansas City (Lenexa, KS, I believe).

The next time you're at your doctors' office, have a peek at the back door on the outside. You'll probably see several lockboxes out there. That's where we put the medical specimens at the end of the day and a courier comes to pick them up (each laboratory has their own courier pick up). For example, at my office, the courier comes by around 530-545pm. Those specimens ultimately end up on a cargo GA bird (here in Dallas there are lots of Cessna 401/402s that do that out of Denton Airport) where they're whisked to whatever central lab there is.

At any rate, when the national airspace system was shut down after 9/11, that meant medical specimens weren't going anywhere and things ground to a halt in our office when it came to getting the sorts of blood tests a family practice doc like me gets. And I get a lot of blood work done on my patients when you consider that I'll see around 25-30 patients a day average. So after 9/11, it disrupted things for most doctors in private practice and it honest to God took nearly 2 weeks to sort out the mess it created when the lab companies couldn't fly their specimens to their various central processing facilities.

So my hat is ALWAYS off to the guys and gals who fly for operators like Ameriflight. They make the delivery of good medical care possible and that's something a lot of my physician colleagues aren't very aware of!

JP

J. said...

Hi there, I saw your site because you may have visited my site. What is an FO? (you describe yourself in your job as one?)

Anonymous said...

Sam,
I am the BeavEx courier in Bishop. I'm sorry to tell you that Dottie in Ridgecrest passed away this last weekend. She mentioned you, Mike Ahn (she took it really hard when she had to confirm with the coroner that he was the pilot on his illfated flight. She was the last person to see him alive). I think the Alta One bag for BIH to IYK will always be "the Dottie bag".

Bill
05/22/06

Anonymous said...

Sam,
Ameriflight discontinued the Lances in January of 2006 and are now using Chieftains and Navajoes for AM 132.

Bill in Bishop

TxPilot0878 said...

My last flight at Ameriflight was out of Phoenix was in N8701E(AMF309)....my first flight in it was my 1st flight during initial on Sept. 28, 2000(AMF161)....sorry to hear of the loss that is tragic. She was a good bird and treated me well I am sure she gave your buddy the best she could....

Contrails,

Tex

Anonymous said...

Sam,
The last flight of AMF 132 will be May 31, 2007. B of A, Union Bank of California, Beavex, and AmeriFlight don't seem to be able to come to an agreement that will keep AMF 132 in the air, especially as "Check 21" continues to be implimented. So, I guess that is life - and this is the death of AMF 132.
Bill in Bishop

Anonymous said...

J - an FO is a First Officer aka a co-pilot, as opposed to the pilot or Captain.. An FO is often a student pilot.
Bill

Sam said...

Bill- very rarely is a First Officer a "student pilot." At Amflight, most of the FOs *are* paying to sit in the right seat to build experience, but they do already have their commercial pilots license.

I actually answered J's question, just in a separate post. Thanks for telling me about the end of AMF132...guess I won't be using them for a lift to Mammoth next winter after all.

Anonymous said...

My name is Brett and I was the Captain fortunate enough to fly the last day of AMF 132. It was a surreal feeling as I picked up the last bags in Inyokern and departed to the southwest for Burbank.

jesse said...

Sam,

I'm a new pilot and boarder from San Diego. I like riding Mammoth. Any advice on flying the valley? I Wouldn't go in bad weather, but on an average winter day, did your experience there leave you with any secrets for me? Like early mornings are better? One side or the other of the valley that is smoother? I fly C 172 or 182. Thanks

Sam said...

Jesse-

Time of day doesn't really matter as most of the turbulence is mechanical rather than convective. Your best indicator is going to be the winds aloft forecast, pay particular attention to the 9k and 12k levels at BIH, FAT, and WJF. If they're showing 30 kts or above you can count on the ride being pretty sporty. I've been down that valley when BIH was forecasting 70 kts at 9k and don't care to repeat the experience. As you enter the valley from Owens Dry Lake, look for telltale turbulence clouds like standing lenticulars up high or rotor clouds just downwind of the peaks. If you suspect any gnarly stuff slow down below Va right away. I found the best air to typically be low (below 6500') and along the upwind side of the valley. If the ride has been bad coming up the valley, there will likely be a pretty good crosswind at MMH. Be VERY careful landing with a strong wind out of the northwest, the flow over the hill just north of Rwy 27 causes a nasty sinker on short final, almost got me once even with immediate application of full power. BIH is usually calmer and is still only a short ride up to the ski hill. Have fun!

Anonymous said...

Nice to find your blog.

I spent six years flying for AMF... starting out (like most others) in a Lance, and flying a BE-1900 for my last couple of years.

Looking back on my time there, I've got mixed emotions.

To be sure, I learned a hell of a lot. The experience made me a genuinely capable IFR pilot. Thankfully, I can still laugh about my successful approaches into places like Montague, Weed, K-Falls, and other iced-up locations.

In retrospect though -- I find the lax attitude (on the part of both AMF and the FAA) towards Part 135 operations atrocious. In my time at AMF, I'm convinced that the majority of accidents and incidents were caused by inadequate crew rest (#1)... or by other factors like pressure to complete a flight. Of course, there was never any "official" pressure to get to your destination... but there was an unspoken culture in management that made it clear that if you defaulted toward safety rather than completing a flight, your career at AMF would be a short one.

Sam said...

Anonymous 12:15, good to have another former Amflighter on here. My own feelings towards Amflight are somewhat more positive, mainly because I was there for a far shorter stay than you, I was in the "fishbowl" (Burbank) where there was more oversight and maybe even the kernel of a safety culture, and I came from another Part 135 carrier that was worse than Amflight. Also, the fact that the Mammoth run was so "out there" with a rather inadequate aircraft generally made the "go/no go" decision pretty black and white, so the company never questioned my decisions. I definitely found the PDX base to be a different case when I flew for them Part Time On Call while at Horizon, though.

Martijn said...

Good morning,
Can you help me out? I was a dutch student that flew for 6 months from North Carolina ILM to CVG Cincinnatti on a beechhcraft 1900C with a pilot named Bill in 1996. I dont remember his last name. Iwould like to get in touch with him, because I learned a lof from gim and had a good time. My name is Martijn Damad, email: martijn.damad@telenet.be .
Thanks, greetings from Belgium

Martin said...

I did a 10 year stint at AMF. Only flew AMF132 once, however I did fly AMF1902 during the winter of 2000. One foul weather day, I remember Bishop airport having only two landings - mine! Despite flying the bigger plane, the turbulence felt the same.