Could there be a better job than being an airline pilot? Actually, the CEO of the Cockpit once had an even better job in aviation: He was a lineboy, the CEO of the Flight Line. Free flight time, free fuel, free cigarettes, few cares, and fewer cynics.
July 5, 2002
I don't always fly airliners. Based on years of seniority and the fact that people don't think we fly much anyway, it isn't surprising that I was enjoying a day off and was spending it at the local tennis club.
I have always said that if rejection and loss bothered me, I wouldn't still be married after 27 years and wouldn't be playing tennis longer than that.
My wife, who deserves a congressional commendation for putting up with me for over a quarter of a century, wasn't at the club today. I've had too many days off lately, and she was across town at another tennis location taking a short vacation from me.
That is a problem with having so much time off, and almost any airline pilot will tell you that occasionally going away for a three- to six-day trip has saved their marriage more than once.
Bill, my doubles partner, flopped down on the deck chair next to mine by the club's pool, popped the top on his beer, and slowly bled on the pool deck next to where I was seated.
To give Bill his due, not many tennis partners would continue to play after scraping a huge gouge out of his arm on the chain link fence while fading back to handle a lob. We had won the match today, so I decided not to complain about him bleeding so close to my frosty brew that was residing in its foam-rubber can wrapper the one I got at last years Sun 'n Fun that says: "If you ain't a pilot, You ain't Schlitz!"
As we both gazed out on an olympic-pool-sized area of water inhabited by young ladies of legal age not wearing much at all, I waited for Bill to begin his weekly complaint about his job. He works for a Japanese-owned vacuum-cleaner-making company, and has never been a happy elf in his work.
The CEO is Surprised
"We had a big surprise this week," he began. "They are closing the plant in three months and gave us the voluntary separation song and dance. If we don't 'volunteer' to leave, we'll be fired without money and benefits. If we do volunteer, I get a year's salary and health coverage. I'm so happy about this that I can't believe it! I've been thinking about quitting that stupid job for years but couldn't bring myself to give up the money and the insurance. Now I don't have a choice and am finally free.
"But then," he added, "you are already in your perfect job and probably wouldn't understand how I feel."
The CEO Shares His Feelings ...
Bill, I would be the last one to complain about my job. Noting the fact that you just did a spit-take with your beer indicates you don't believe me, but it's true.
Flying turbo-powered Spam cans around the middle reaches of the atmosphere has been great and has put beer and chips on the table for over 20 years. When I go to work, I get to sit down, it is air-conditioned, doesn't involve using a shovel or suggesting french fries, and people still occasionally call me "Sir."
I don't seem to go to work all that much, and when I do work, I work very hard; sometimes with 14-hour duty days. The beauty of it though, is that when the trip is over, it really is over.
Unless I kill people and have to prepare for an NTSB hearing, I can leave all the work stuff behind and concentrate on losing at tennis and drinking beer when I get home.
Bill nodded his head and almost missed my next comment, which I was sure was going to shock him.
But, I added, the airline job is nowhere near the best, most fun job I've ever had. I've had a much, much better job in aviation. I was a lineboy.
"I can't imagine any job with the term, 'boy' being a good gig," said Bill, as he daubed his bloody elbow on my tennis towel. "You're kidding, right?"
The CEO of the Flight Line?
Many people in the real world of Japanese vacuum making may not know that the lineboy, or to be more politically correct, the line person, is the backbone of aviation. General aviation literally would not exist without the lineboy.
I was a lineboy in Lakeland, Fla., for my high-school years and the first year I was in college. They offered me a job as a CFI the first year in college, but I turned them down because an instructor job would have meant a huge pay cut. Besides, as a lineboy, I got some really cool flying that the CFIs weren't offered.
CFIs, for example, couldn't take time away from their schedules to fly the Lodestar to St. Pete for engine work. I could.
At the height of my earning power as a lineboy, I was pulling down $2.50 an hour, plus a half-cent jet-fuel bonus for each and every gallon I pumped. This doesn't even include the bonus I got for selling Prist to Lear jockeys.
Bill, who is a private pilot and tools around regularly in his mighty Skyhawk, hadn't heard of Prist, so I found myself explaining this concept to my bleeding buddy, and even included how difficult it was to work the tube with the clippie thing on it into the Lear's tip tank.
Feigning interest, Bill asked, "Was there just one FBO in Lakeland? And was Sun 'n Fun going on back then?"
There were two FBOs at LAL in the 1970s: Lakeland Flying Service, and Roberts Flying Service. Through a combination of luck and the fact that I was fired by one or the other from time to time, I worked both sides of the ramp.
Roberts was owned and run by Les and Johnny Roberts, good people and very solid guys to work for. Lakeland Flying Service was run by Mike Hynes and later Jerry Staffney. Roberts was steady work and fun, but you could get away with more at Lakeland.
Sun 'n Fun hadn't started yet, and the other side of the airport where the S&F fairgrounds are now was just some scrubby brush and some old WWII bomber hard-stands inhabited by armadillos and the occasional Hippy doing drugs. The Piper plant was open and was actually producing Pipers. Avgas was 49 cents a gallon, and Roberts still sold freezing-cold Cokes for a dime in the hangar's vending machine.
Jet fuel was so cheap back then that one of the big parts of our business was the big corporate jets from up north. Companies like Phillip Morris would fly their JetStars or G-IIs down to Lakeland from Chicago, or wherever, and play a round of golf. Then, they'd jet back to Illinois in time for dinner. Some of my very first "jet time" was sitting in the cockpits of these biz jets on the ramp while the owners were shagging balls.
The corporate guys were great and were good tippers. Phillip Morris would give each and every one of us lineboys a carton of cigarettes.
Most of our business was your basic 182 driver. "Top off the tanks, check the oil, and do the windshield, won't-cha?" Not a bad bunch of mokes, but there was no tipping involved, and some of them were dangerously stupid to boot.
Bill Wakes Up and Defends GA Pilots
Bill, who had been pretending to listen to me while he was watching Heather two deck chairs away put on way too much sunscreen in places that rarely saw solar radiation, noticed my slam on General Aviation pilots and sprung to their defense, almost knocking over his beer.
"No wonder us little plane drivers think you airline pilots are arrogant. So you think 182 drivers are stupid, huh?"
Yes, some of them, and it isn't limited to Cessna operators. I've met stupid Maule drivers, dumb-as-a-post Cub owners, idiotic 421 jockeys, and moronic multimillionaire Citation guys. There are some really stupid airline pilots too, Bill, but I didn't get to meet them until well after I'd been a lineboy.
"Do you have some real examples, or are you just jacking me around?" Bill asked.
Okay fine. Here are just a few of the amazing things I saw when I was a teenage lineboy:
I was putting oil in the right engine of a Cessna 411 one day when the owner started the engine with me still behind the prop and an oil can still sticking out of the cowl. As I scurried under the wing to safety, he pulled out. He needed all the power he could muster to break free because his plane was still chocked and tied down. He took off with ropes trailing off both wings and the tail and the oil can still sticking out of the engine. The same individual more than once told me that he didn't bother to practice engine-out procedures because he expected the plane's ARC autopilot to save him if one of the fans quit.
A guy who owned a Commander Darter was untying his plane just as a line of severe thunderstorms of "Wizard of Oz" proportions was bearing down on the field. We begged him not to fly through the weather to just wait 30 minutes until it passed. After telling us to mind our own damn business, he took off and flew right into the maw of the storm. The aircraft hit the ground at a 110-degree angle, and they later found his brains behind the radio stack.
A young guy who owned a beat-up Luscombe thought it would be fun to throw lit cherry bombs at our fuel truck while we were fueling a DC-3. Two of the bombs exploded on top of the truck's 2,000-gallon tank. What fun!
I won't even begin to tell you about the druggies and other thugs who, from time to time, graced us with their presence.
Oh, the Fun We Had
"So," said Bill shaking his head, "If people were so stupid, why was being a lineboy your favorite job?"
Everybody wasn't stupid. As a matter of fact, most of them were really sharp people and were a joy to be around.
What other teenage job would allow a guy like me to work on a Corsair or get a ride in a T-6? Wayne Thomas owned both the T-6 and the Corsair project and was one of my heroes right up until he died. Richard Bach also based his P-51 in our hangar and I got to play pilot in it.
As long as we showed up and didn't damage planes or property, we were mostly left alone by the FBO's owners (especially at Lakeland Flying Service), because it was too damn hot to follow us around all day. From 7 a.m. until 9 or 10 every morning, I was the only person there, and I owned the place. From opening until the boss drove up a few hours later, it was just me, a big airport, lots of cool airplanes, strong coffee, the morning paper, and some Phillip Morris cigarettes.
We lineboys got to fly a lot for free, especially after closing. We were accused of taking out the Hobbes one-amp fuse (on the firewall, just behind the battery, for you modern-day line people) from the flight school's 150s and then flying formation and dogfighting until after sundown. We would never admit to this, but you ought to come by the farm some time and see some of the air-to-air pictures I took back then ...
"You paid for gas though, right?" asked Bill.
Cha right! We were also accused of draining the fuel hose into the tanks after we were done flying. (Just have your friends hold the hose up way high there are gallons of free gas, again for you current airport employees). Even though I would never admit to doing this, I would say that you had to be careful who you fueled first in the morning, because they would pay for an extra 10 to 15 gallons when the PTO (power take off) was pulled and the hose filled back up.
I was young, I wasn't half as cynical as I am now, and I learned something new every day. There weren't too many responsibilities, they paid me money for going to the airport, and I got to fly a lot of cool airplanes while my high-school classmates were working in the orange groves or washing cars for a living.
If I could do the same job for the money the airline is paying me now, and if I could regain my youthful attitude, I would go for that job again in a heartbeat. I know that being an airline captain is a fine job, but in terms of pure fun, you just can't beat buzzing the field in a Cessna 150 you didn't rent, burning gas you didn't buy, while smoking a cigarette you didn't buy either.
| With apologies to Oliver Wendell Holmes, who wrote The Autocrat of the
Breakfast Table, and P.J. O'Rourke, who penned The CEO of the Sofa.