The following was written by Captain Matt Ringen. The article was originally published on the EAA website and has been republished here with the consent of both Captain Ringen and the EAA. We hope you enjoy the article as much as we did!
“We’re going here to there, up then down. Any questions?” Humorously, this old briefing joke is usually followed by a more proper dictation of the flight at hand. We have all used comic relief in our industry to help lighten the seriousness of the day’s sometimes taxing events. It redirects your mind to realize that, despite the challenges of aviation, we’re capable to carry on. We are still supposed to be having fun! We love this stuff — right?!
Take note, I said the joke above is usually rectified. But, imagine being in a flight deck preparing for the next departure and your trusted partner-in-flight barks, “We’re going here to there, up then down. Before Start checklist and shut that *bleeping* door!” Wham! That’s the end of that. Do you feel that cringe, too? It lands like a brick on tile. When these “jokes” hit too hard and sarcasm drips as thick as engine oil, it’s my belief that you’re hearing a cry for help. You’re in the presence of an aviator that has lost that lovin’ feeling.
I’ve flown with numerous different pilots. I'm paired with a different pilot nearly every time I start a new trip. Commercial aviation allows you to meet plenty of people and hear their stories and their backgrounds. The career perspective of these coworkers runs a wide spectrum, and I started to take notice of a particular sliver of
pilots. There is a category of commercial aviators that, over time, appear to be in the business simply, and perhaps only, because it pays the bills. For days, they make no mention of the flying we’re actively engaged in together. They couldn’t care less about even the slightest of wonders we are privileged to experience, day in and day out. It is as if flying itself isn’t occurring at all.
When I first jumped into the airline industry, this demeanor befuddled me. Why did this person run the gauntlet of testing required to be here? Why inflict that amount of stress and perhaps financial investment on oneself? This career is demanding, you’re tested often, tough choices are common. There is a myriad of professions that provide lower dosages of stress. So, why here?
I know why I’m here, I think flying is straight-up thrilling. I savor it. One of the first captains I flew with declared on each takeoff, “Yeah baby, we’re flyin’!” I sympathize with that feeling. I could do this for a long, long time. I have even accrued my own secondhand jokes too. “You’re telling me someone is going to toss me the keys to their multi-million dollar flying machine, pay for the gas, and pay me to fly it to new places? Sounds awful.” As a young and eager professional pilot, it is nothing less than the dream come true. But why doesn’t this joke make that grumpy and indifferent pilot laugh?
Because to them, it is awful. They’ve been doing it for so long, and it is so repetitive, it simply is no longer fun. To them, the environment is sterile, the flights are woefully scripted, the company is “after them.” They don’t see it any other way anymore. They don’t enjoy the fine excitements of this incredible career because they’ve become fixated on the infuriating parts. They may even feel trapped because of “seniority” or that their skillset has become so narrow and specialized that they don’t feel qualified to do much else. So they believe they’re slated to “ride this sinking ship” to the end. Yes, I’ve heard it become that negative and worse. I ask these coworkers when the last time they flew something other than an airliner was. They don’t respond with a day or month. They respond with a year, and not a recent one, not even close. Even more heartbreaking are the ones that respond with their beloved military model of their younger flying days, “1995, Legacy Hornet. Got hired straight to this place after that.” The flame is extinguished. It makes me want to put my hand on their shoulder in empathy.
As my brain zoomed out and I grasped the bigger picture, my blood froze. I did the math to my own hire date and I, myself, hadn’t flown in anything but airliners for eight years! How did that time go by so fast? Not one Cessna door slam in eight years! I could feel the fear swelling. “Am I destined for this as well? Am I already there? No, not me,” I thought, “Never.” Yet, I couldn’t shake the thought. I always joked with crews that if I turn into “that guy,” the crew has a solemn duty to poke me in the chest and call me out. However, I realized that, indeed, I’ve already made some salty comments and I’m already guilty of bringing home that edge unnecessarily. In 10 more years, would I be growling around a terminal somewhere getting snippy with the Starbucks barista for not filling my coffee cup to the absolute brim? I didn’t think I would, but that’s like wagering against a serious illness. Can you really be confident? I came to the only conclusion: I needed to follow the pilgrimage back to the local airport, come hell or high water, and seek out the whimsical beacon of wisdom: the Airport Geezer.
I looked up the nearest and soonest EAA chapter meeting and put it on the calendar. As the meeting began, the chapter member in charge asked if there were any newcomers. I hesitatingly raised my hand, stood up, and admitted my concerns. “Hi everyone, my name is Matt. I’ve been flying professionally for a few years now and I’m missing the local airport community. I’m here hoping to get back to my flying roots so I don’t burn out down the road. I look forward to meeting everyone here. Thanks for having me.” The first response was immediate, “Well…I trust you’re coming to the barbecue at Stan’s hangar next week then, right?” I looked over to see a wrinkly, sun-spotted old man wearing a heavily worn ball cap with the words Slick Mags still barely legible. The legend himself. He wasn’t hard to find, and, really, are they ever? At the meeting’s break I spoke
with this gentlemen for a while and found out that we share the same airline on our resumes, but generations apart. Through his guidance, I met many of the other members. He left me with the phrase, “Come back, Matt. See us again,” and smiled and winked. Geeze. I stood there, as a grown man, feeling like a child in the presence of a warm grandfather.
Since then, and through the help and generosity of the community, I’ve become current again in single-engine aircraft. I am now helping to build three different kit projects and I helped in the flight testing of one of them and plan to help in more. I’m constantly bouncing around from hangar to hangar meeting enthusiastic people who share excitement about a wide variety of flying things. People ask me questions about advanced avionics, and I, in return, ask questions about engineering or grass strips or composite work or mountain flying. The only mountain flying I’ve done was with cheat-mode enabled: Tens of thousands of pounds of thrust! There is so much to learn and the freshness of it all feels invigorating. I’ve gotten to fly solely for fun again. I’ve gotten to fly alone again. I’ve shared the euphoria of pulling more than 1.1 g’s. We’ve had contests of who can fly the slowest ground speed. And on, and on. I went eight years without watching the sunset from a crappy lawn chair in front of an open hangar, in the company of aviators sharing their stories and a beverage. Remarkably too long. I am restored.
If this article ever makes it into EAA’s publications, I firmly intend to leave my copy in that
pocket of the flight deck that gathers the outdated reading material for passing time. By
leaving it there, I hope it reaches the eyes of a coworker that might see how they too can exit the hold. Therefore, this message is directly to you, sir or ma’am. I know that you got into this career for a reason. Go back and find it. Wear more than one hat. When you half-joke that, “The last thing I want on my days off is to get in an airplane”, I think you’re flat mistaken and kidding yourself. Find something that is the polar opposite of your daily driver and take it for a spin. Fly outside of the system. I, too, was intimidated to get back into that game. I was afraid I’d make a fool of myself without triple-redundant computers washing my ham-handed inputs. Believe me, it all works out. You’ll thank yourself and those around you will too. In the meantime, check your FMA’s, comment on the moonrise, and buy your First Officer a coffee.
Special thanks to Todd, Lee, Cliff, Gary, and Aaron who gave me a chance on the bucking bar, to the wise elders of every airport, and thanks to all of you for establishing this beautiful machine that lifted this flying soul.
Captain, Major U.S. Airline
Loyal Man-Hour Minion