Lost a Good Friend – Rick Groth

Rick-GrothOne of my long time friends passed away this week. I begin to see one of the horrible downsides of growing old. I’ve lost so many friends, family members and close acquaintances recently …

Richard Groth, died peacefully in his sleep Thursday night, July 30th at the age of 50. Rick was my boss when I was Chief Pilot at Air Orlando Charter (AOC) from 1997 to 2004. He was also my friend. Even though we fought a lot, were often at odds, with him firing me or me quitting every couple of weeks or so, we always remained friends. Amazingly, two people with strong, abrasive personalities learned to live together in a temporary trailer for 8 to 9 hours a day.

Early Skirmishes

I first met Rick at The Mill, a Winter Park microbrewery on Fairbanks Ave sometime in early 1990. We were both watching one of our favorite bands, Derek and the Slammers. We found out we were both pilots and told each other all of our “hangar tales” well in to the night. I was a strict, straight, by the rules CFI and he was a freight dog, wild man. We were immediately friends! I couldn’t believe all the stories he would tell me of rolling Aerostars, or looping a Cessna 210, even a great story about landing a 210 one night when the elevator cable had snapped. If you are a pilot, and you had to lose just one primary control, it would not be the elevator. Talk about the one control that keeps you from becoming a smoking hole in the ground …

We stayed in touch the next few years, mostly seeing each other at Townsend’s Fish House on Friday nights, which was a popular place to go hear rock music. I was often playing there, either as bass for Derek or with my own band, the Dogs. He introduced me to his sister Robin and said “You should date her. She needs a nice guy like you.” Robin didn’t agree.

The Campaign Trail: Air Orlando Charter

In 1997 I was a first officer at Mesa in the Beech 1900. I knew I was only a few short months away from captain upgrade when Rick asked me to quit the airlines and come be chief pilot for him at AOC. “Not gonna happen” I told him, but later on, once I upgraded to captain, I did agree to do it part-time.

The FSDO Savior

The local FAA office (the FSDO) had high hopes for me right from the beginning. Rick’s paperwork was always in disarray and they hoped my professionalism and airline experience would help straighten out the mess. All of the inspectors assigned to AOC were impressed that an actual airline pilot was helping Rick keep track of his paperwork. And boy, he really needed the help. I never saw such a mess.

As our first records inspection came up I was spending every free minute I had in the office straightening out pilot records. Rick warned me, the FAA would come in and look at everything for hours, then walk in to the office with all the binders having hundreds of yellow stickies hanging out of them, all of which had to be addressed. Each yellow sticky addressed an error or discrepancy in the records.

He was shocked when we only had two yellow stickies. I remember him looking at me and saying “Wow you really do know what you are doing.”

Affairs of State

The next series of paragraphs will delineate various capers, affairs and incidents, and even some chronicles, of the crazy, goofy, and sometimes downright weird things that happened to Rick and I while we worked together at AOC. These are all absolutely true. If I felt someone would be hurt by adding their name I changed it but most of the time I use their real names, or as best as I can recollect anyway. After all, I am old.

The Voyeur Dorm Incident

Rick at his desk acting like he's not watching the Voyeur Dorm website

Rick at his desk acting like he’s not watching the Voyeur Dorm website

We had some crazy times. One day, Rick was playing around with a website he found called “Voyeur Dorm” where there were live video feeds from a girls dorm at some college. For the record, I never visited the website but I did look over his shoulder a few times. Anyway, this time Ray’s wife Shirley had come in the office from behind me and I was frantically trying to get his attention to close the website. Too late. She looked at his monitor and slapped him on the shoulder. “Rick what are you DOING?” she screamed. He turned all red and started stuttering. I wish he was here right now so I could needle him about it.

The Preheat Episode

One of our earliest clients owned a Cessna 414A (nice plane) and wanted to be flown back to Orlando from Aspen, CO. While Rick and I always thought we were experienced pilots who had seen the world, we discovered on this flight that we were strictly warm weather pilots. I’m getting ahead of myself …

We arrived in Aspen after a LONG flight that involved one fuel stop in Ft, Mill, AR. We checked in to a very nice hotel. Rick rousted me out of bed and said “Let’s go see the town.” I was an airline pilot, used to living on the cheap, and not used to traveling with a corporate expense account, so I had already bought some junk food and was ready to hunker down for the night. Rick had other plans. He took me to “The Rathskeller”, an excellent steak and brew house in Aspen. We ate A TON. I had a prime rib that must have been 24 ozs. We loaded up on salads, breads, dessert and of course a couple of beers.

As we walked outside and the cold air hit us we immediately knew our “night out” was finished. Something about the cold air just makes all the food and beer expand in your stomach. We remarked in the morning that we went to bed feeling pregnant. In fact I remember looking in the mirror and actually watching my stomach grow.

When we arrived at the FBO at Aspen airport, a real snooty place with lots of “upper crusters” around, they asked us if we wanted “preheat”. “Preheat? What’s that?” we asked. “Oh, we’ll hook a space heater up to your engines and heat them up. It makes them easier to start. You probably want it since you declined the hangar last night” (The hangar charge was exorbitant and we had said “no way!”)

Rick and I looked at each other. I had flown in Colorado but only in turbo prop and jet airliners. Never in a reciprocating engine plane like the 414. Rick said “nah we’re good” and we started to head out to preflight the plane.

“Are you sure?” the FBO guy asked. “Yeah we’re sure, what’s the big deal?” “Well it might be a little hard to get those engines started. It went down in to the teens last night.” “Nah we’re good, we’re good, no problem” Rick said.

Once the passengers arrived we loaded them up and tried to get the engines started. These engines usually turn right over. Not today. They would fire and diesel a bit but wouldn’t stay running. We tried all kinds of things, priming them, leaning the mixture, switching to the other side first, etc. Finally we got them going but there was a huge pool of AvGas that had leaked out of the engines (as we over primed them) all around the aircraft. We left as fast as we could, not wanting to face the FBO guy. When we returned to Orlando our mechanic told us we had burned out both starters, badly. Rick got the company to pay for them but we learned something that day.

When the FBO guy says “Preheat?” you say “Yes please!”

There were a lot of other Aspen adventures and I will add them in here when I remember them all.

The Southwest Jump Seat Affair

One of my favorite Rick stories happened when he wasn’t even around. My wife and I were traveling to New Orleans one night to visit her family. Kathleen got the last seat in the back of the Southwest flight so I had to take the jumpseat with the pilots. While exchanging pleasantries early in the flight it happened to come up that not only was I a pilot at Mesa but I was Chief Pilot at AOC. They looked at each other with odd expressions. “That’s the place isn’t it? That’s where that guy worked.”

“What guy?” I said, “What are you talking about?”

“Oh we were out about a week ago here in Orlando on an overnight at some bar in Mercado (a place on International Drive) and there was a pilot there, in full uniform drinking.” the captain told me.

“And he’d been drinking a lot” the First Officer added. “He was plastered. He wouldn’t tell us who he worked for but someone said it was Air Orlando Charter.”

You have to understand that for a pilot to be seen in a bar, drunk, in uniform, is one of the worst things to be done and violates the Code of Professionalism of airline pilots, both written and unwritten. At the time there was some bad press about pilots drinking and flying and we went out of our way to avoid any more bad press.

I rapidly made excuses that we used to have a pilot that would do stupid stuff like that but we had fired him but of course in my mind I was thinking “Dammit Rick! What the hell did you do this time?” I knew it had to be him. He never had any intention of working in the airlines so of course he just didn’t care. The rest of the flight we talked a little but mostly it was awkward silence.

On Monday, when I walked in to the AOC office, I asked Rick about it. “So Rick, these Southwest guys saw someone drinking in full AOC uniform in a bar in Mercado.” At first I thought he was going to deny it but then a look of recollection came over his face and he continued …

“Oh yeah about that” he said. “Boney and his friends picked me up after a flight and made me drink in uniform. They wouldn’t let me change clothes.”

“Change clothes? You were in full bars, tie and pin! You couldn’t have at least taken those off?”

“They wouldn’t let me! They thought it was funny!” He made excuses.

“Oh yeah funny alright, I’m NEVER getting hired at Southwest now. They’re talking about us!”

“Oh is that who they worked for? The Flight Attendants kept asking me who I worked for. I said ‘Delta!’ but I don’t think they believed me.”

I’m embarrassed to say that by this time we were both laughing hysterically and shaking our heads. Only you Rick. Only you.

The New Girl Caper

At one point Rick wanted to hire a new girl in the office to help out with the paperwork, and maybe some sales. Yes, he wanted to hire a girl. I know I know, it’s sexist, but Rick and I had to sit in that trailer all day and he wanted somebody he could look at besides me OK?

Several girls applied. I had a friend from Church, Angie, who was attractive (to me anyway) and I brought her in to interview. She definitely wanted the job even after I warned her about all the crap she would have to put up with from Rick. She was a super nice girl and I thought she might be a good influence on him. He thought I was just bringing a girl so I could date her. (There may have been a smidgeon of truth to that but to this day we remain friends and only friends.)

I argued her case. “What’s wrong with Angie? She’s smart, she knows what we need done and she’s reliable. Why wouldn’t you hire her?”

Rick got a little confused as Shirley walked out of Ray’s office and in to the room and what he meant to say was “Oh sure I’ll walk in and you and Angie will be having your ‘Bible Study’ (air quotes implied) on the desk” (obviously meant with a sexual innuendo, of course) but what came out was “I’ll walk in and you and Angie will be fornicating on the desk.” Ray screamed from the back office: “RICK! Come on!” He stopped suddenly and realized that Shirley was about to hit him again, so he ducked under the desk. “That’s not what I meant to say! That’s not what I meant to say!”

I think she missed him with the swat but the memory is fuzzy.

The Banana Smoothie Incident

At some time Rick and I both settled down and got married, and both of us married way above our station. I was stunned that Rick landed Wendy Brazell, the Queen of Orlando Executive. She was way above my level so naturally she was way above his. Still, they not only stayed together, they flourished and even reproduced, a beautiful daughter Sydney who is about the same age as my daughter Grace.

I think one of the reasons Wendy was able to tolerate Rick was that they had the same kind of wacky, dark and sometimes evil sense of humor. Wendy started working with us more and more and she gradually left Air Orlando and transitioned over to charter and maintenance. One day she volunteered to run down to Smoothie King to get Rick a smoothie.

“Hey I’d like a smoothie!” I said. “Oh really? What kind? A Holy Water Smoothie?” (She liked to make fun of my faith now and then.) “Ha ha no I think I’ll just take a banana smoothie if you don’t mind.”

To my surprise she agreed to get me one. When she came back to the office she walked over to my desk and dropped it off to me:

“Here’s your bull semen smoothie.”

Rick began laughing hysterically. I’m not sure how exactly a banana smoothie looks like bull semen but to this day, I can’t drink a banana smoothie. It grosses me out because of that incident.

The Irritable Bowel Affair

Like any aviation office, we were plagued with low time pilots walking in and handing us resumes. The charter rules required pilots to have a minimum of 1200 hours total flight time to be a charter pilot. And yet, they would still keep coming in and taking up my time. This always amused Rick. I’d had enough of it so I put a sign on both doors to the trailer saying. “Less than 1200 hours? WE DON’T WANT YOUR RESUME! KEEP OUT!” I think this annoyed Rick as he had revealed to me when we first met that he had lied about his hours to get his first job at Cherokee Express. “Just made up a fake log book” he told me.

So anyway, in walks this guy in his 30s going through a career change. “Hey who do I see to apply for a job as a pilot?” I looked at him. “Do you have 1200 hours?” “Uh, no not yet.” I dragged him to the front door and pointed at the sign, “Can you READ? Do you SEE THIS SIGN?”

Well Rick decided to “flex his management muscles” for me and said “Hey hey! Cut that out! Come in here an talk to me.”

He ended up hiring the guy. He didn’t like him but he wanted to annoy me. I can’t remember the guy’s name but it may have been Rob? Bob? Call him Rob.

Karma has a way of paying back. Rick took him on a King Air charter in the next few weeks and spent 8 long hours waiting in the crew lounge in Montgomery, AL listening to all the problems Rob had with his irritable bowel. I understand he even had to go back and use the potty, right in front of the passengers, on the return trip. Slightly embarrassing as the King Air only had a curtain, which might have kept him somewhat out of site but sure didn’t cover up any smells or sounds!

In the years to come I used to look at Rick and say “Still glad you hired Rob?” Rick would shake his head and say “OK OK You were right about that one.” It never got old.

The Naieem Incident

One morning I walked in to see a portrait / head shot of an obviously Indian young man stuck up on the wall with a resume tacked underneath it.

“What’s this!” “Oh dude you missed it. This kid came in with his father, looking for a pilot job, both of them talking the whole time like Apu from the Simpsons. I almost crapped myself trying not to laugh at them. Naieem would say ‘I am the pilot!’ and his dad would say ‘I am the father!’ I had to put my head in my arms to keep from laughing.”

I’m sorry I missed Naieem but we enjoyed his picture for several months before Ray made us take it down. He was worried about us being accused of “racial profiling.”

The “Stars in your Eyes” Caper

One of my assigned tasks at AOC was to increase monthly revenue from the barely $10K it had when I got there to $100K a month on a regular basis. A daunting task but I managed to do it by networking with all of the other charter companies in the southeast, sending them a fax-blast every week telling them what planes we had and where, and inviting them to do the same. We ended up making more money brokering other companies’ planes as flying our own.

A trick photo - mirror image of a couple of Lears and some King-Airs on our ramp.

A trick photo – mirror image of a couple of Lears and some King-Airs on our ramp.

One company, DJ Ullrich Enterprises, was being promoted by our long time friend and fellow rapscallion Rich Boney. They had a bunch of very nice airplanes, including Lears and King-Air 200s. They were also on a current charter certificate so we were excited about getting our pilots checked out in them and having several of them positioned at our airport. Rich agreed that it should be done.

After meeting with DJ and his team (who all had mullets by the way, amused Rick to no end) it was agreed that we would start pilot training classes and hire 10 new pilots to anticipate the need we expected with the new aircraft. Naturally, Rick and I included ourselves in the class so we could be legal on both charter certificates and fly the new airplanes.

Ray had a fit. “No way” he told me. “You are not getting trained on two certificates. It’s illegal.” (Really? He didn’t seem to mind when I was flying for Mesa and AOC at the same time. It’s not illegal, just have to be careful about time limits.)

“But Ray, we want to fly the King Airs and Lears. They are higher end aircraft and we can make some serious money with them.”

“Uh no. If you and Rickle think you are going to be going off flying those planes you got stars in your eyes. You want to fly those you have to quit here and I advise you not to do it. I’ll never hire you back. Their insurance is probably terrible anyway.” (Ray always played the insurance card. It’s a way out of saying ‘I don’t want to do it.’)

I told Rick about the conversation later and he was furious of course and stormed off to have a pow-wow with Ray. It seemed that Ray felt his turf was being encroached upon by Boney, Ullrich and friends and he was drawing a line in the sand to avoid losing control of his business. It was a control freak thing to do, and probably cost us some money but it’s part of dealing with business owners who want to run things. If they weren’t control freaks they wouldn’t have started a business in the first place.

From then on, whenever Rick and I got stopped from doing some new venture we looked at each other and said, “I guess we had stars in our eyes.”

The Sexy Models Affair

sexy models ad

The “Easter Egg” of the early Air Orlando Charter website. You had to look in a certain place to find it.

While expanding our charter network Rick and I would meet a lot of interesting people. One group was Air Charter Professionals (ACP) out of Palm Beach. It was basically two guys on cell phones, doing a lot of brokering. They were constantly under fire from the FAA for not having an aircraft on their certificate (the FAA requires a charter certificate to be attached to at least one aircraft at all times to be current.) They would find someone who would let them put their plane on the cert and go for a while, until the owner realized that it was costing them more to keep it on the cert than they earned (due to increased maintenance requirements mostly.) One time we even talked about “lending” them a plane.

At any rate, they would broker our airplanes fairly often, enough so that even though we never met them in person they became good “phone friends.” One day one of the guys emailed us up the picture you see to the right. We got to talking about the photo as Rick and I were looking it over.

“There is something about this photo” they told us “that people just can’t take their eyes off of it. We’d put it on our website but we are afraid of upsetting the conservative customers we have.”

Rick and I both agreed, but we loved the photo for obvious, male, sexist pig reasons. With ACP’s permission, we added our logo to it and hid it on our website. Only by clicking certain links and by remaining on the page long enough would someone see the photo. One of those people was Rick’s mom, who found it by accident and called up to complain.

“I guess we better take it down … ” Rick said with a note of reluctance in his voice.

“What if I just hide it better?”

“Can you do that?” he asked. “Of course I can! Let me place it somewhere that only people who are really looking for it will really find it.”

The Air Orlando Charter website is no more, but the photo is still out there, and those who know where to look will find it. We never got any complaints so I guess I did a good job of hiding it.

The NumbNuts Chronicles

In the flurry of hiring we did in the Stars in your Eyes Affair (see above) we pulled in some pilots that were … well let’s just say “interesting.” I can’t remember this guy’s real name but Rick called him NumbNuts. He lived in the country to the east of Sanford on a farm with numerous weird animals (his wife collected them), 8 kids (I guess she collected them too) and was always a source of drama for our company. Below are some of the incidents we “enjoyed.”

1: The Dukes of Hazzard Incident

Rick had to do a 2-pilot King Air charter to Ft. Myers one day, and he brought NumbNuts along as second-in-command (SIC). We really didn’t have SIC training or approval at AOC but the FAA realized that some customers preferred two qualified pilots in the front seat and they allowed us to bring along a second pilot, and to log time as “instruction received.”

This flight involved a lengthy “layover” at Fort Myers Jet Center, now defunct, but at that time was a very comfortable FBO with a nice pilot lounge including cable TV. Rick and NumbNuts were the only pilots there most of the day and Rick (of course) took over the remote for the TV. NumbNuts got upset and said “Hey why can’t we watch something I want to watch?” Rick replied “because I’m pilot in command!”

“That’s bullshit!” he said and acted like he wasn’t paying attention to the TV any more.

Anyway, Rick dozed off (a usual event for pilots on a layover) and woke up to hear the theme song of Dukes of Hazzard playing from the TV. “Give me back the remote.” Rick said. “No! It’s my turn! You had it long enough. Go back to sleep.”

Rick was incredulous, and even still stunned when he told me about it the next day. The quote I remember was, “This jack ass was ready to fight me for the remote, all so he could watch Dukes of Hazzard.”

We laughed about that just a month ago, last time I talked to Rick.

2: The Alpaca Caper

I was awakened at 3am one morning by a call from Rick. “Get the Navajo, go down to MCO, pick up some parts and 2 mechanics from Continental and go up to JAX.”

I slowly started to wake up. “What? I’m not on call. What happened to NumbNuts?” “He can’t go, one of his Alpacas is sick.” “Alpaca? He passes a flight off to the chief pilot, when he needs hours, because an Alpaca is sick? That’s a real career move there.”

From then on, whenever we called him, the first question was “How are the Aplacas” or “All the animals OK?” etc.

3: The Single Engine Incident

Jamie was one of our better pilots who had the misfortune to be paired frequently with NumbNuts on two pilot flights.

Jamie was one of our better pilots who had the misfortune to be paired frequently with NumbNuts on two pilot flights.

One night Numbnuts and Jamie were repositioning the Navajo back to ORL after dropping off a one way charter in Key West. At some point past Key West but certainly before Fort Myers, they experienced engine trouble. NumbNuts was the senior pilot as Jamie was pretty new and still getting up to speed. He decided to fly it back to ORL even though there are perfectly good maintenance facilities in Fort Myers, and even Lakeland (all on the way back from Key West. Jamie was against the idea but he was junior, so he followed orders.

Jamie called me when they landed (around 1am) and woke me up. “John, I know you were sleeping but I’m nervous. We had an engine failure on the way home and NumbNuts flew it all the way back. I was against it. He didn’t want me to call you or Rick, and in fact wants me to say the engine quit on final approach in here but I’m too scared to lie about it.”

I was initially mad at him for waking me but I realized he did the right thing and said so. “It’s OK Jamie. Get some sleep and come in tomorrow afternoon to talk to me and Rick about it. Be prepared to tell me exactly what happened in your own words. It doesn’t sound like you are in any trouble.”

The next morning I told Rick about it and of course he was as furious as I was. “OK that’s it. Fire that guy will ya? Get him out of here.”

I knew it had to be done but at the same time I knew that doing this improperly could bounce back on us, especially if the FAA got involved. So when Jamie came in at 3ish we listened to his story. Rick said “You know what to do. I’m leaving. You’re the bad cop this time. Take care of it.”

I called NumbNuts and told him to “get his ass in here.” We had meetings with both of them together. We talked separately. I even kept Tom, one of our senior pilots around as a neutral party. Finally around 11pm I told Jamie to go home, and report in when ready tomorrow.

I pulled NumbNuts in to my office, with Tom, and told him. “You have committed an unsafe pilot action that shows faulty judgment. What should I do with you?”

“Hey I brought the plane back here and saved us a lot of money. You should be thanking me!” He told me.

“I don’t think so. You were single engine in a twin engine plane, at night, over remote areas. If you had gone down it is very unlikely you would have found a safe landing spot and not only would you destroy an airplane, you and Jamie would probably be dead. At the very least you are removed from pilot status. Is there anything else useful you can do around here?”

It went back and forth for a while but finally he agreed that he would just quit and we would accept his resignation with no notice required. I never saw or heard from him again.

The next day Rick thanked me and said “That’s why I hired you, to do all the shit jobs I didn’t want to do. Good to know I can just say ‘Fire that guy!’ and you can take care of it.” We laughed about the incident for years.

The Gabe Moreno “I’ll Never Work for the Airlines” Caper

A lot of pilots pulled this caper but none were so “open” about it as Gabe Moreno, Gabe was a fellow instructor with me over at CAP Flying, but he wanted to move up to charter. As part of our interview process we always asked people what they wanted to do in the future, what their career aspirations were. Of course, they would all tell us “I have no intention of going to the airlines and see a career for me as a charter pilot.” We were worried about guys staying with us just until they had enough hours to apply to the airlines then whoosh they were gone.

Gabe made a plausible argument that he had a steady girlfriend, wanted to settle down, have kids and be home nearly every night and yet still fly. All good reasons not to go to the airlines.

He had some capers which could be paragraphs of their own here, such as when one of his passengers took a dump in the drink cooler and he had to clean it out, but really this story is about Rick.

Well one day Gabe comes in the office and tells us he got hired by Delta Connection (Atlantic Southeast I think) and would be leaving. Rick was furious. “You told us you didn’t want to fly for the airlines!” “I lied! You wouldn’t have hired me otherwise!”

They both started laughing. Rick was shaking his head and laughing to himself for a while after that. Finally he looked at me and said “We have to stop this bleeding of pilots to the airlines. We spend a lot of money to train them and then they leave. From now on John, we only hire pilots with a ‘stain’ on their record, like a DUI.”

From then on we always asked the question in the post interview evaluation which he and I would do together, “so what’s his/her stain?” We only wanted “stained pilots.”

Post AOC

During the entire time of writing this article I have wanted to call Rick, just to ask him a pilot’s name, clear up some details or just relive some of these events. We stayed in touch even after I left the aviation industry. We would always just call to say hi and end up laughing and telling stories on the phone for much longer than originally intended. God, I am going to miss those calls …