That was MY thought process when I first took up the challenge of learning to pilot aircraft. "This will be the coolest thing in the world!” I dreamt of dashing heroes casting themselves across the sky with fearless abandon. THIS… this aviation thing… I wanted a piece of THIS. I wish I had known back in 1985, when I took my very first flying lesson, just how engrossing and rapturous a skill I was beginning to acquire. I had not begun to even guess at the extent of the training that would be necessary or to imagine the depth of rewards that lay ahead of me in the process of acquiring this elite skill.
In 1985, I was a factory worker in an orange juice production plant in Bartow, FL. My aviation avocation, the drug that wormed its way into my soul, began a few years previously for me. In 1982, I had been invited to fly along on a private airplane trip with my brother, Buddy, and his friend, Aubrey. We met for the flight at a little airport near Houston, TX, called Pearland Airport (KLVJ). The flight took us from Pearland to Houma, LA (KHOM), and back.
Aubrey encouraged me to take a hands-on approach to the situation by allowing me to take command of the aircraft for a period of several minutes. I did not realize the extent of my exhilaration with this opportunity until we were back on the ground; when I had a moment to reflect upon the fact that I had actually PILOTED an airplane. During this adventure, I was nervous, excited, and had absolutely no idea what in the world I was doing! I managed to keep the shiny side up, and Aubrey even complimented me on my "skill." Great googly-moogly! Man, was I ever hooked. I didn't yet realize just how “bitten” I was.
I have never had a lot of money in my life. I mention this now to dispel the common misconception that aviation is a “rich person’s hobby.” While the economically advantaged individual has a natural attraction to this avocation due to the amount of free time and discretionary income which aviation will wrest from you, flying is also a rewarding experience which can be shared by persons of any economic background. Perseverance and a desire to accomplish self-imposed goals are two of the necessary character attributes of the aspiring pilot on a budget.
Well fate, or the Higher Power, or God (call Him what you will; I call Him God) had plans for me in the realm of flying. Three years later, in 1985, I was in Florida working a night shift at Orange-Co sitting in the break room with a co-worker named Billy. I happened to share with Billy my desire to learn to fly. Billy and I are both former Marines, and there are no artifices and few layers of societal nicety intertwined in our relationship. In other words, we have a “No-B.S.” friendship. As our break ended, and the two of us got back to the daily grind at Orange-Co, I thought nothing more about our conversation. However, later that day, I had occasion to pass through the breakroom once again. There, on the wall-length chalkboard written in letters about three feet high, was the terse communication: "Bartow Flying Service" and a phone number. It was a direct challenge as only could be issued between two good friends. In essence, Billy was telling me to "put up, or shut up."
I dropped by Bartow Flying Service when I got off work the very next morning at 7:00 a.m. That December morning, I began a journey that has been more rewarding than I could possibly have imagined. I intended to simply investigate the airport and see what costs would be entailed in pursuing my dream of flying. That brisk morning, I quickly determined that it was something that I could physically and economically accomplish. What I did not realize at that moment was that within the next half-hour I would step into the cockpit of the ubiquitous Cessna 152 with a very skilled flight instructor by the name of Mik. That’s right, I actually flew on the morning I was only going to find out the “scoop” on this “flying thing.” Thank God that I soon realized it doesn’t require a degree in rocketry to simply pilot an airplane. Far from being beyond my capability, I was delighted to soon learn that I excelled at this new undertaking.
I was very fortunate that Billy had picked Bartow Flying Service for his challenge. The folks there run an excellent flight school with above average facilities and great attention to one-on-one service. I worked hard at it, and through sacrifice and determination (and the sale of my computer, my car, my hunting bow, and several other “luxury” items) attained the Private Pilot, Airplane Single-Engine Land (ASEL) certification, in approximately three months. I spent many of the first few years after becoming a Private Pilot in search of the elusive "perfect" airport lunch. Those among us who are certified pilots (Student, Private, or otherwise) understand that I used “lunch” as the perfect excuse to rent an airplane and fly somewhere with friends or family to eat a sometimes digestible and always expensive meal. As the years passed, I began to explore the boundaries of my passion for aviation.
Aviation unquestionably is an addiction; ask anyone that flies. Much like the gentler sports of golf and sailing, aviation produces a series of internal rewards for skillful execution. This skill is exhibited in the act of piloting a manmade machine through the ephemeral air. As a person becomes more adept at golf, for instance, that person gains a series of emotional rewards. To make that small white orb sail through the air to a point hundreds of yards down a manicured course to a place that you have predetermined through skill, wisdom, and sagacity is extremely pleasurable.
The internal reward for successfully accomplishing this small feat is profound. Golf and flying are not unlike sailing upon a nearby lake or venturing upon the high seas with wind and sails as your tools of choice. The internal reward of laying a plot line to follow a course chosen by learned skill, through wind and weather to a predetermined outcome makes an imprint upon your very soul, and imparts confidence and self-esteem, as few other skillsets do. It is always rewarding to be tested and found competent.
Aviation, and flying in general, is like golf and sailing, or the pursuit of art for that matter. The act of creating art or simply appreciating artistry in its various mediums is another example of an internally rewarding pursuit. Unlike golf, which has a ratio of reward to effort of about two to eighteen (in my case, at least), or sailing which can be monumentally beautiful but spiritually validating only rarely, flying is an almost brain-blinding series of self-encouraging rewards from start to finish. A pilot must exhibit extraordinary skill from the start of each flight to its safe culmination.
In those fledgling years while expanding my aviation skill, I became so dedicated to flying that many times I would run classified ads in the local paper to sell off my accumulated possessions so I could afford the next flight. While the lessons were not terribly expensive, I was a “worker bee” on an hourly wage, and that made each lesson a choice between luxuries. These lessons required a small sacrifice that I never hesitated to make.
I further accumulated flight hours and ratings to the point where I finally became an Airline Transport Pilot (ATP). The skills learned and practiced in the pursuit of “stick” time were enough to make the journey and the expense worth the sacrifice. It was not only worth it, but also as icing upon the proverbial cake came the eventual realization that there were other equally dedicated pilots in the world. The world is made smaller by our little airborne machines. These fellow aficionados magnify the experience to an almost mystical realm. This association with, and encounters amongst other pilots is almost as rewarding as the complex act of manipulating the machine through the air. What a bold, adventurous, honest, and self-effacing bunch these people are. I am proud to be amongst them as an aviator.
I wrote those preceding paragraphs many years ago, prior to having earned my current 10 type ratings on turboprops and jets, as a newly minted ATP. I have not lost my love for this aviation obsession, not even a little bit. My perspective has changed over the years toward those willful and self-directed individuals that earn the title “Captain.” I know now that each of us will stamp our individual personalities on the job, as our experience dictates the importance of the accumulated minutia of our aviation education. There are phases to our ongoing educational process… Gosh, I just want to fly; anyway, anywhere, and with anyone I can get in the air with, to ultimately… no matter who I fly with, or with whom I fly… let’s just make it safe and enjoyable. Safety is ALWAYS the priority, and always has been the priority. Safety is why we brief each approach before accomplishing it. Safety is why we prioritize the use of checklists and standardize many of our procedures. We use standardization to prevent the fallibility of our humanity from creeping onto the flight deck. There ARE things we will eventually refuse to fly with: complacency, unprofessionalism, and unpredictable behaviors to name just a few.
My first “real” job as a pilot was that of a flight instructor. I was in heaven! I was being paid to introduce new aviators to my passion and had the benefit of learning from those around me that had been flying for decades as they passed through AvSat, my home base at the San Antonio, TX airport (KSAT). I loved that little Piper Cherokee… oh MY, I had no idea how good I would eventually become at flying that little plane! The experience of being an instructor truly taught me to fly. Eventually, I moved on from instructing and accepted a position with Flight Options (at the time a relatively new segment of the aviation industry, 14 CFR Part 91 Subpart K).
Hard work is the best description I can give to flying the Beechjet and the Hawker at Flight Options. The company was an extraordinary mix of management and owners that truly looked after their pilots. The CEO of the company, Ken Ricci, would make a point of speaking to each new employee; whether they worked a phone, a computer, or a jet, to make them each understand the “life on the road” which the pilots were subjected to each day of our working lives. What a rare thing in this industry of dollars and cents. What a pleasure to have been able to experience this rarity of philosophy – I was blessed. There were disappointments sometimes, of course. Union talks generated discord amongst the pilots and management, but through it all… what a GREAT JOB! My first jet type-ratings were acquired at Flight Options. I had never heard the terms “EPs and LIMs” before my first jet type ratings. Knowing that memorizing the Emergency Procedures and Limitations on a new aircraft type would get me through a fierce oral exam was something that has helped me very much through the years as each successive type rating was earned.
I ultimately ended up flying cargo on a Boeing 767 for a Part 121 air carrier. What an experience that was! The difference between Part 135 (on demand charter) and Part 121 flying is hard to describe in some ways. The regulations are very similar, but the philosophy and practice of flying under these two sets of regulations is strikingly different. With an airline, a pilot gains the protection of union representation. The perfect recitation of each aviation phase of flight through VERY standardized checklists is the hallmark of an airline pilot’s life. Depending upon WHICH charter operator you fly for, the experience can be very similar or very dissimilar to that of an airline pilot. The larger charter operators tend to be very standardized, and some are even union protected. The smaller operators lend themselves to a bit more self-expression, while maintaining only the very highest of safety standards (as mandated by the FAA).
I know that each of us who obtain the title ATP, Captain, SIC, FO, or SkyKing, has truly EARNED those titles. We have earned those titles through successfully planned and skillfully executed flights, with happy passengers and beautiful experiences. We have earned those titles by flying a Metroliner, single-pilot with a full hydraulic failure into Addison, TX (KADS), while pumping the landing gear down on an approach to minimums (which I had to go missed on and fly over to Dallas Fort Worth, TX (KDFW) for a landing). We have earned those titles by successfully descending from 41,000’ as the cabin altitude alert sounded loudly in our headsets, and as we subsequently sent the passengers on their way with a smile on their face after a successful landing. We earn those titles by understanding what it means, in our hearts and in our souls, to fly aircraft safely and successfully for many years.
People say that if you do anything for 10,000 hours that you will be considered a professional and an expert. So, I say to you, as you earn the Private Pilot certificate and use it to continue to craft your skill toward professionalism that the ATP is also a launching pad for stamping the love of aviation and all things aviation related upon your soul. The stamp of aviation on your soul is seen by the people around you, whether they understand what they are seeing or not. It is apparent in your bearing, your demeanor, and your stride through life. You are a pilot.