Early in my airline flying career I flew for North Central Airlines. Based in MSP, North Central had a fleet of DC-9s and Convair 580s. The route structure was a spider web of connected cities and towns in the upper midwest. A really long way west for us was Denver, Co. To the east we stretched to LGA . The deep south for us was Kansas City International.
These were the days of a regulated airline industry. Airlines like North Central, Ozark and Southern Airways lived off of the scraps of the big airlines and provided essential service to many small towns across the country for a subsidy. North Central was a dominate airline in South Dakota. This Story takes place in Mitchell, South Dakota, also known as the home of the corn palace,
Being a relative new hire I was very junior which meant that I was a First Officer on a Convair 580. This plane held 48 passengers and a crew of 3. The Convair was a comfortable old airplane and in these smaller towns looked like a Jumbo jet when it came in to land.
Although it was a relatively small airline North Central operated under the same regulations as big airlines like Delta and United. That meant for one thing, when we operated into an airport without a control tower, we had to have trained traffic observers in radio contact with the flight crew while operating in and out of towns like Mitchell.
On this particular day the weather was good and the approach to Mitchell was uneventful. We taxied to the small terminal where we shut down the engines. The agent lowered the airstairs so the Mitchell passengers could get off the flight. These stops were very short. The agents who worked the ticket counter also worked at the gate and loaded and unloaded the bags from the aircraft. They worked very hard while a flight on the ground.
After the Mitchell bound passenger bags were unloaded and the new passenger’s bags we onboard, 2 or 3 people were escorted out of the terminal to board the plane. The new Mitchell passengers got settled in their seats and the main cabin door was closed. We were given the all clear to start the engines. After the engines were running, the captain gave the marshaler the thumbs up signal indicating everything was normal and we were ready to go. The marshaler snapped to attention and gave us a salute which meant we were cleared to taxi away from the terminal.
The checklists were run and we had our clearance from the air traffic controllers so on to the runway we went. Takeoff power was applied and the Convair quickly started to accelerate. A voice came through our headphones telling us to come back to the terminal. Instinctively the captain pulled the thrust levers to idle and applied the brakes.
Aborting a takeoff is a big deal in jet. A high speed abort can be very dangerous and is something pilots train extensively for in simulators. There is a long list of things that can go wrong during an abort. For the Convair 580 with it’s large propellors which reverse, the abort procedure is pretty benign. This day we weren’t going very fast when the abort started so it was really no problem. We stopped quickly and turned off the runway.
As we taxied back to the terminal, the captain and I were trying to figure out why the company had us abort a takeoff. The weather was good. Everything was working well mechanically from our perspective. The only thing we could think of was maybe we were the target of a bomb threat. Although rare, they did happen and maybe this was our day.
After we parked at the terminal, the agent waited for the giant props to stop spinning. He lowered the airstairs and turned to go back to the terminal. What was going on we thought. The agent quickly reemerged from the terminal with a little old lady. He escorted her to the plane and up the stairs. She stopped by the cockpit door and said “I’m awfully sorry boys”. It seems this little old lady saw the ship number painted on the nose of the aircraft while she was in the terminal. The ship number wasn’t the same as the flight number so she didn’t board with the other passengers. She thought this was the wrong plane. (see the ship number painted on the nose below?)
In 35 years of airline flying that is the only time I have experienced or even heard of a flight getting called back to the gate after starting the takeoff roll to pick up a passenger. Isn’t that a fun story? It was a kinder gentler world back then.
Captain Dan’s Tip: As you can see from this story the number on the nose of an aircraft is the ship number, not the flight number. You are not riding the bus even though it may seem like it some times. Ship numbers are used for logbook entries and maintenance records etc.
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