Captains are not born; they are made, mostly from the school of hard knocks and with a copious amount of seasoning. As part of this process, being in the right place at the right time is as important as avoiding the wrong places. Along the way, the people, planes and places encountered all help give definition to the shapeless pilot and a captain is the result. As AVweb's Linda Pendleton writes, that captain is sometimes a mere reflection of one's former self.
I've been lucky. I mean REALLY lucky. For the past 25 years, I seem to have been in the right place at the right time and every job I've cared about has been offered to me -- sometimes before I was even aware I was looking!
It All Started As A Hobby
This odyssey all started on April 20, 1974, when I took my first hour of dual. I had wanted to fly for as long as I could remember, but every time I called for information it became clear to me that it was going to be a long time before I could afford to make the dream come true.
I was in an automobile accident in Baltimore in 1972. The driver of a lumber truck fell asleep at the wheel and plowed into the back of my new car on the Beltway. I ended up in the hospital in traction and eventually had to have back surgery. At the time I thought it was the worst thing that had ever happened to me. Then the insurance company gave me a nice settlement and all I could see emblazoned across the front of that check were the words FLYING LESSONS!
So, on April 20, 1974, I took my first hour of dual and, shortly after that lesson, I decided to buy my own airplane. No sense letting all that money just sit around and get moldy when there were airplanes available, so I became the proud owner of a 1969 Cherokee 140 by the name of N8236N. Since she was on leaseback to the FBO where I was flying, she did generate some income. (Until I was almost ready for my private check ride the owner of the FBO preferred that I not fly my own plane for practice since it was their instrument trainer and they didn't want it bounced around too much. Bounce was a word usually included in descriptions of my landings in the early days.)
It seemed to me that my lessons and practice were always getting cancelled by weather or instructor time conflicts but since I got my private certificate with 89 hours 89 days after I started, that can't have been true. I immediately began working on my instrument rating. In mid-October my instructor mentioned that the FARs were due to change on November 1, 1974, and perhaps I should put my efforts into getting a commercial certificate before then so I didn't have to take the ride in a retractable-gear plane which wasn't available at the airport where we were flying. So, I did and on October 28, 1974, I became a commercial pilot.
By November 16, 1974, I had an instrument rating on my commercial certificate. I was happy. I had achieved my goals, I had a good government job, a nice apartment, a new car and I could fly any time I wanted to. Life was good.
In the spring of 1975, I met a pilot flying a U.S. Mail contract run out of the local airport and I convinced him to let me ride along a couple of times a week. It didn't take Bob long to figure out that even though I didn't have a multiengine rating I was a pretty good pilot and he could let me fly and take a couple of naps every night. I was in my glory. One night the impossible happened. While we were having rotten machine coffee (Rotten machine coffee? That's redundant, isn't it?) in the pilots' lounge one of the other mail pilots approached me and said, "Gee, if you had a multiengine rating and an instructor's certificate, you could fly co-pilot for me on that turbine Beech 18 and instruct at my little country airport during the day."
My mind snapped. After determining that Jesse was serious, I accepted and resigned my government job the next day. I used my two weeks accumulated leave time to get my multiengine rating and CFI. I was on my way! I was going to be a pilot flying the U.S. Mail in the middle of the night. In my mind I could see the long line of aviation pioneers who had gone before and I was excited to be joining them. After all, commercial aviation in the U.S. was built on those early mail runs.
The Glamour Of Aviation...
I got right into the glamorous part of aviation right away. Throwing 70-pound mailbags around sure is glamorous, all right! I was responsible for loading 3,000 pounds of mail at the start of the run, off-loading that and loading another 3,000 pounds at the intermediate point and the destination. Then we turned around and came back. Oh, yes, I did get to operate the radio!
...Captains Come And Captains Go
After only two weeks, the company terminated Jesse and I got a new captain. Turned out the new guy was a Chicago pilot I'd met before, and he became -- and still is -- my instructor. Two weeks later, Dave left to fly DC-3s for a freight operator back in Chicago. It was starting to look like I was really hard on captains!
My next captain was a former crop-duster who was bored by the whole mail thing. That was great as far as I was concerned because Bob let me do everything! He would usually stay awake until we got to the runway for takeoff, but sometimes not. I was in pilot heaven. Here I was, a 700-and-some-hour pilot (I had 689.6 hours when I started the job) running the whole flight. No longer just a mail slinger and radio operator, I was now an aviator. To be sure, I was still throwing mail -- to the tune of about 24,000 pounds per night -- but it was worth it to be able to fly the Beech and be in charge of my own destiny.
Thunderstorms are often a consideration in the Midwest and we dealt with our share of them. I'd pick my way through the holes and around the cells and I'd look over to the left, and there would be Bob, snoozing away. I got pretty good at reading the weather from the cockpit and keeping us out of the worst of it. Bob got some pretty good zzz's. He thought he really had it made -- I think he originated the phrase "snoozing for dollars." But I wasn't complaining. I was doing what I wanted to do.
The Beech 18
The Beech 18 is a marvelous machine. I doubt that there are any two that are exactly alike (except for the SMB Stage Lines fleet) since they've all been continually modified so each one you flew was a different challenge. The model we flew -- the Hamilton Westwind IIIB -- was an 18 with an extended nose and PT-6 turboprop engines. There were only about 30 of them converted and they were a challenge. The engines were very reliable but they were on an old airframe.
Beech 18s come in various other landing gear configurations also. I don't mean the difference between a taildragger and a tricycle-gear airplane. No, the Beech 18s we flew were all conventional gear, but there were the walking gear and crosswind gear variations. The walking gear moved fore and aft on the struts to take some of the shock -- and some of the propensity to bounce -- out of landings. The crosswind gear actually swiveled so that the tires tracked straight down the runway while the nose pointed into the wind. It is a different sight picture out the window and takes some getting used to.
Each night the '18 would present you with a different problem to solve, a different thing going "bump" in the night. But I was up to the challenge. I'd troubleshoot the problem and decide how to proceed and whether or not to disturb Bob's nap. Every time I looked over to my left he looked so peaceful that I just did what I thought was best and let him sleep. I often wondered just how soundly he was sleeping. I was certain that he was not about to let me kill us, but I still felt in charge. I was in command!
When you're in an airplane eight hours a night, you get pretty familiar with it. And, over the weeks and months of day-in and day-out flying, you experience pretty much all of the routine weather and airplane issues you're ever going to see. I was learning every night, but I was also building confidence. I was in command and making the decisions about the conduct of the flight. And every night I'd look to my left and there would be Bob, sleeping.
Another Co-pilot Job, But No Mail To Load
The mail job ended and I moved on to a co-pilot's job on a Federal Express contract run. This was certainly a step up in the world for me. Oh, to be sure, I was still a right-seater, and I still had to stay awake all night, but I didn't have to load the airplane. We left Chicago Midway every night, flew to Memphis and then came back through Peoria to Midway in the morning. I dodged the thunderstorms, flew the route and generally did everything except sleep -- that was the captain's job, and Jeff did it quite well.
This airplane was also a turbine conversion of a Beech 18, but it was one of only four converted by the Dee Howard Company. The engines were still PT-6s, but they had neither beta nor reverse. That, coupled with the inherent power lag of a turbine engine, made this particular variety a challenge to taxi. The drill was to come up to the intersection where you wanted to turn, advance the power on the engine you wanted to turn into and tap the brake on that side. The brake would start the airplane turning and about the time you needed power to stop the turn, the engine would spool up and you'd be home free!
I got invaluable experience during those nights. Those were the times that taught me how to stay alive in an airplane and those were the nights when I learned most of what I know about weather. I still believe that the only way to really learn weather is to fly in and around it and observe it. I'm an avid reader and buy books on all subjects that interest me, but I've never found a book that could teach what a look out the window of an airborne perch could. Just correlating what the forecast said was going to happen with what was really happening was the most valuable part of my education.
I was still free to make my own decisions, but I always knew that if I had looked to my left there was another pilot on board with more experience than I had. All I had to do was wake him up and ask. However, I prided myself on never waking the captain up.
A captain's job with another company opened. I had the time and experience so I applied and got the job. Captain Linda! I felt that I had paid my dues and was ready for the responsibility and pay that came with the job. After all, I had been making all the decisions and had been acting as pilot in command for several hundred hours. A switch in seats wasn't going to be that much different.
This airplane was a standard issue Beech 18 -- or at least as standard as a Beech 18 ever gets. It wasn't a turbine conversion. This beast was powered by the original Pratt & Whitney R985 radial engines. I still love these old fire-belching monsters. There can be lots wrong with an old '985 and it will keep on plugging along. Leaning was an art -- art because it depended upon color. To accomplish optimal mixture at any altitude and power setting was simply a matter of easing back on the mixture control on the left engine until the flame from the exhaust was a beautiful blue-white color. This could be observed from the side window. The right engine was a bit more of a challenge. The mixture was brought back to approximate that of the left engine and then fine-tuned by observing the exhaust flame reflected in a corner of the right side of the wind screen.
The first few nights on the chief pilot rode along to check me out and give me the required FAR 135 PIC check. My first captain's letter! I was excited. Finally the night came when I was to go out on my own. God surely protects dummies, drunks and new captains! I had great weather for my first three days as a full-fledged captain and the airplane purred along (purr may not be quite the right word -- this was an old BE-18 with Pratt & Whitney R985 radial engines) in total contentment.
The fourth night was different. There were thunderstorms all over the Midwest and the winds were strong and gusty. Lots of fun in an old tailwheel airplane with no weather avoidance radar! I picked my way around and amongst the CB's and just generally got the tar pounded out of me, but the one experience I'll never forget is looking to my left to see how the captain was riding out all this weather.
All I saw was my reflection in the side window.
Then I knew I was on my own.
Linda D. Pendleton is Manager of Computer Graphics and Animation for King Schools. She is also author of a book, Flying Jets, and scriptwriter for several of the training videotapes published by King Schools, including "Navigation from A to Z," "METAR/TAF Made Easy," and "Handling Emergencies." Linda is an ATP with Citation 500 and Learjet type ratings, and a CFI with airplane, instrument and multiengine ratings. In her 10,000+ hours of flight experience, she's flown U.S. Mail, freight, corporate, charter, commuter, and served as an FAA-designated examiner for the Citation 500.