CEO of the Cockpit #46: Sidelined From Summer Sub-Sonic Fun

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For the first time in his flying career, AVweb's CEO of the cockpit has the summer off. It wasn't his choice, but he's enjoying it better now with a little help from his friends.

Every pilot will tell you that summer flying is very different from aviating in the winter months. Wasps in the pitot tubes are absent in January. There are no chunks of airframe ice keeping your stabilizer from working during July; and in the Northern Hemisphere, your gloves will never freeze to a jetway as you walk down the steps in July to do a walk-around.

Thirty-one consecutive summers as an active professional pilot ... not a bad record when you think about everything those years contained for this flyer. Births, deaths and divorces never kept me from flying though the months -- hot or cold. Sometimes my devotion to flying went too far. With a kid in the hospital during the 1980s, I swapped so I could fly turn-arounds that month and slept quite a few nights in the hospital with my kid. It was a dumb mistake and one that I'll always be ashamed of. Imagine: valuing a four-hour ride in the third seat of a 727 over an afternoon with a suffering child.

Thirty-one summers: Junes, Julys and Augusts doing exciting things like instructing in the "heavy Cessna 150." Hour after searing-hot hour flying forestry missions, towing banners, spotting fish and throwing ashes of other people's dead relatives out of C182 windows.

Later, summers spent on hot ramps and taxiways waiting for ATC to catch up with the world, overheated packs, hot passengers, diminishing supplies of catering ice and layovers that were scheduled short and became even shorter.

Change of Venue

Summer number 32 is different. I'm on the beach. Surgery did what no line of thunderstorms, weak checkride result or too-high-density altitude could do.

The story of the surgery isn't important. Something like this happens to everybody somewhere down the road. It is only a matter of time, opportunity and chance. Whether the grounding from airline flying is permanent is up to the gods, the economy and the FAA. It's too early to worry about that stuff and too late to do any thing about it anyway.

After two weeks at "hospital camp" I was grateful to have some visitors that I could relate to come over to my house.

Mark, Jeff, Tony, and Matt -- classmates from good old "SO-A '79" (second officer class A of 1979) -- thought I might like to have my flight bag back from the pilot lounge, so they brought it along with some beer, some memories and something of even more value than all the get-well cards, flowers and pious head-dipping my other, non-pilot visitors were wont to do.

Guys, really, I appreciate the beer but I can't drink any of it.

"Who said it was for you?" said Mark. "I know you are the center of your little universe right now, but the only way I could get these other guys to come down for the afternoon was to promise them some free suds. You just suck on your apple juice box and shut the hell up, OK?"

True Friends

Ah, finally ... the special sympathy that only a true friend, layover buddy and international-pilot-about-town could give me. Up to this point I had been prayed over, fawned over, overdosed and overlooked but I hadn't been cussed out. Thank god these guys showed up!

Jeff kicked my old flight bag across the floor to my feet. "Thought you'd like to have a chance to go through your flight bag and remove any incriminating evidence before you croak and they send it to your wife and family," he said.

What? I didn't leave anything in there after my last trip besides the usual peanut wrappers and fish wrapper (USA Today).

Tony mumbled, "You better look again, Hoss ..."

I did, and dumping out the bag brought forth the following along with the expected Jepp binders and legal pads:

  • One box of 144 Trojan-brand prophylactics;
  • One 45-caliber, semi-automatic pistol;
  • Three boxes of 45-caliber ammunition;
  • Two packages of Zig-Zag wrapping paper;
  • One smoke grenade;
  • The phone numbers of every flight attendant in the system;
  • Some sort of very exotic underwear;
  • An 8 x 10 color glossy of our Senior VP of Flight Ops naked; and
  • One hundred dollars in Iraqi currency.

It took a while to get over the pain that laughing that hard did to my stitches. Wow! You guys saved my life! If my wife had discovered that I had that Iraqi money and didn't tell her, she'd really be pissed!

I'm Not Dead Yet

"We weren't sure if you wanted to have an airplane picture yet or not," said Marc, referring to the fact that all retiring pilots get a free picture as a parting gift. "You are about the only pilot over the age of 50 who hasn't retired yet, but we figured it would be a month or two and you'd like to have your flight kit back along with the contents of your mailbox."

The contents included a letter I had forgotten from the company telling me that I was unreliable and was being watched. Apparently, if you were sick enough to need serious surgery, that made you a bad person in the eyes of the HR people and put you on "double-secret probation." This little program of theirs had been found to be illegal as well as in poor taste, but I still plan on framing it and putting it on my "wall of fame" of old airline letters I've gathered over the years.

The few I already had on my wall included the one from 1986 that our system-wide chief pilot sent to our homes telling our wives that he knew they were staying with us on layovers all the time and would they please pony-up the extra cash?

Another favorite of mine was a letter from a previous CEO telling us to conserve paper and paper clips to save the company's finances ... two weeks before he bailed with $84 million.

I can't waste too much time thinking about management silliness. They have spent exactly zero minutes on me. Except for the letter telling me I was off of the payroll due to illness (at least for now), they have not noticed at all. Twenty-six years of captaining comes down to a letter and a request for my ID back.

In any airline, in my never-to-be-humble opinion, it isn't management that matters anyway: It is the guys and gals you fly with, layover with and visit with when they need you. Before I got too teary-eyed and nostalgic, my visitors came through once again with a few "certificates of merit" of my career so far.

An Old, But Never Bold, Pilot

Jeff presented me with an award for being the "Biggest Weather Chicken on the Airline." This is an award I accept with grace and honor. It is true that I never saw a thunderstorm that I didn't want to run away from screaming like a slaughtered rabbit. If I fly to be a hundred I'll probably always maintain the title of "weather chicken." Funny title -- but then again, I've had a few pilot friends over the years that were braver and are now deader.

The next award came in the form of a plaque. According to the 10 x 10-inch wooden sign, I would always be welcome at the Hooters of Fort Lauderdale and my beer mug would never be retired. Good thought and I look forward to my next FLL layover, when I plan to sit next to my major award and quaff brews while considering the flight characteristics of owls.

The final award, this one from Tony, choked me up a little bit. It was a poorly done drawing of a pilot furtively looking over the shoulder of another pilot in ground school, copying off his test paper. Any idea of who was copying off of whom?

This "missing summer" will be important for quite a few reasons. Airline flying may or may not be over, but Flying with a capital "F" will never be over for me. If nothing else I can always cop an airplane ride with my buds, but I expect that summer number 32 will only be a blip on an otherwise charmed existence as a pilot.

For all the carping, complaining and cynicism, flying for me has been more than a job or a reason for complaint. It has been a life, a love, and a way to competence in something that few are allowed to gain competence. In the final analysis, though, it isn't the size of the jet or the length of the route or even the quality of the beer at whatever Hooters you find yourself laying over near.

It is your friends. They are the ones who won't allow you the luxury and toxicity of feeling sorry for yourself. They remind you that you never were that good so why complain about things now. Just shut up, enjoy their visit and drink your juice box.


Want to read more from AVweb's CEO of the Cockpit? Check out the rest of his columns.