Monday, September 18, 2006


I hadn't been back since last year; since then I'd heard rumors from several aquaintances but didn't know for sure. Only this week did I get proof that my old flight school had finally gone belly up: the phones have been disconnected and the website no longer exists. Air Desert Pacific is no more.

Air Desert Pacific was well known not only at Brackett Field but all throughout Southern California. It was not a complimentary reputation. Wags joked that ADP stood for "Another Downed Piper" or "Another Dead Pilot." The several notable fatalities in the school's history were due to pilot error, but the decrepit appearance of the aging planes contributed to ADP's sullied reputation. It didn't help that half of the flightline was occupied by crashed, scrapped, or partially stripped airframes being used for parts to keep the motley remainder of the fleet flying.

I first heard of ADP in the spring of 2001, when I was an intern at (also now defunct) Trans World Airlines in St Louis, MO. I was looking for flight instructing work for the summer, once the internship was over. A Chautauqua captain staying in my crashpad had built time instructing at ADP and suggested I give them a call. After emailing the manager, I jumpseated to LAX on a TWA 767 and showed up at the flight school unannounced. The interview lasted about five minutes and ended with the promise of a job after I completed my CFII/MEI training the next month.

My very first hour of dual given was on the same day that I passed my CFII/MEI checkride. It's a long story that can wait for another post - but the highlight was finding myself just above stall speed, 50' above the runway, with the panicked student hauling back on the yoke in a death grip. It was an omen of things to come. My first multi-engine student attempted to kill me twice on the same flight in IMC, and ran off the side of the runway the next day during a low-speed engine cut. I had no less than 15 near-midairs in the crowded SoCal practice areas.

I wore myself to the point of exhaustion that summer. I flew morning, afternoon, and night, seven days a week; my few hours of sleep were on a couch rented for $150/mo at a 2-bedroom crashpad shared by seven bachelors. My car gave up the ghost halfway through the summer, and I commuted to the airport on roller blades. It was a meager, pathetic existence, but I was building those all-important hours.

The school was a very busy place back then. A good many of our students were foreign nationals - Japanese, Chinese, Brits, Germans, Greeks, and more than a few Egyptians. The last group, in particular, broke airplanes and provided drama well out of proportion to their numbers. Most of them came from extremely priveleged backgrounds in Egypt and viewed their stay as a vacation, a few months to relax and party. There was often little interest in learning or even in flying. In one incident, an Archer was found tied down at a nearby airport with the engine running; the student, supposedly on a long cross-country flight, was found at the adjacent strip club. In another case, two Egyptian students set the parking brake on a Seneca in Phoenix and crawled in back to play chess with the engines running; the idle speed in 115 degree heat cracked several cylinders. After 9/11, the Egyptian students quickly disappeared; the loss of income contributed to the school's subsequent downward spiral.

That first summer, I didn't have a single primary student. Most of the students were working on single and multi-engine commercial tickets, with a few instrument students thrown in. Almost everyone was there for accelerated training; they expected to complete a multi-engine commercial in three intense days, or an instrument rating in two weeks. The reality is that maybe half actually showed up with the required preparation to do it in that time. Even when you had a sharp student who was prepared, and the weather was cooperative, it could be tough getting an airplane. The scheduling was done on a big ledger, with one row for every airframe, and it wasn't uncommon to find your student's entire training scheduled for an airplane that'd been sitting without an engine for the last month. More than once I also caught instructors erasing and repenciling the schedule to give their students working airplanes and my students broken ones.

I got to know the various airplanes intimately. For weeks I was the only instructor flying N15379, an abhorrently ugly Piper Arrow II with paint flaking off all over and an interior patched together with foam and duct tape. Despite the appearance, I much preferred it to N47455, an Arrow III with beautiful paint and interior but inexplicably abysmal performance. N2925Q was the best performing Piper Archer we had, a favorite mount for trips to Big Bear Lake. I flew it from Minneapolis to LA after the cross-country renter's check bounced. N8295L had radios with a bad tendancy to glitch out; twice I called the tower with my cell phone when that plane's radios stopped working.

N74SA was my very favorite of the ten Senecas until it suffered a prop strike; the right engine was always screwy after that. Two years ago it was totalled in an accident that surprised nobody familiar with ADP. An instructor shut down an engine in the practice area and was unable to get it restarted (forgot to turn the fuel back on). They returned to the airport with the engine still feathered and the student pilot flying. When he got low and slow on final, the instructor told him to go around - and predicatably, the airplane got below Vmc, rolled, caught a wingtip, and cartwheeled down the runway. The pilots miraculously walked away.

By the end of the summer, I had given over 400 hours dual instruction in three months, doubling my flight time. More importantly, I felt that I had greatly improved my breadth of experience: the airspace, the traffic, the frequent IFR weather, and the ratty airplanes were all a long ways from the protected confines of UND. That said, I had no plans to return to SoCal when I drove out of LA in mid-August. I had two semesters left to finish my degree, during which time I would instruct part-time. Regional airlines were hiring first officers at well under 1000 hours. I figured that I'd paid my dues that summer, and it'd be smooth sailing from there on in. How I underestimated the humbling abilities of the aviation industry!

Tomorrow: RIP, ADP Part II - Sam comes back to ADP, and things go downhill.


Ron said...

Wow, what a horrid sounding experience! My CFI'ing in the L.A. basin has been the exact opposite. Of course, I'm not getting any multi time, but that's ok. Even the mention of ADP used to scare the heck out of me.

I don't think the FBO I work at has lost an airframe since I started flying there in 1998. Actually, there was a plane that swallowed a valve at 400', but the instructor got it down and stopped on the airport property.

Not bad for a fleet of 35 airplanes, including eight tailwheels and numerous aerobatic mounts.

socaldude said...

the boneyard is still there at brackett i was just there yesterday...

Anonymous said...

Did my commercial in 99 on N15379, was already ugly but a good horse at that time, was trying to contact ADP and found your blog, ADP seems to have been going down the drain since 1999

Anonymous said...

Ah, N15379! What great memories -- NOT! I owned N15379 for 7 months until I ran out of money stopping oil leaks and fixing the gear system. I sold that bucket of bolts to ADP around September 1994. At that time the paint wasn't looking bad at all. In fact, it looked quite good from 10 feet. Closer inspection revealed it was painted with a brush! But I liked the light gray color a lot. The interior wasn't bad either -- but putting a plane like that in a rental fleet can do wondrous things to vinyl. Incidentally, I bought the plane from a guy in Santa Monica (may he rot in hell) and was based in Carlsbad (CRQ) at the time.

Anonymous said...

I had an engine failure in 74SA near bishop a number of years ago... then I learned that the mechanics referred to it as "the red death".

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