It was a tough approach to a landing and I was all by myself. No co-pilot to help me and no company dispatcher to ask for numbers or advice. I was fairly low on fuel -- about two and a half gallons left -- and the air pressure in my left main gear tire was clearly a little on the underinflated side, for a 6.00 x 6.
I had to use my throttle hand to reach up over my head and put in just a tweak of nose-up elevator trim as I came careening down short final to an even shorter runway. Left wing a tad low to counteract the left crosswind, and I touched down completely away from any kind of pavement, ILS, building, airport lighting, or hold-short lines. I landed just like God intended an airplane to land: on grass.
It would shock and awe the airline I fly for to realize that I have been teaching little pilot munchkins for years and years. Boggle their minds is what it would do. Imagine an old, crusty captain who has more bitch than pitch left in his flying life teaching youngsters how to fly airplanes and become professional pilots.
I never taught at the airline. It wasn't because I was against the idea. In older times, an airline flight instructor enjoyed the same days off as a line pilot, was in his own bed (if he wanted to be) every night and had time to run at least one full-time, outside business when he worked for flight training. It was a good deal if you didn't mind flying a box.
Today, the seniority-list flight instructors who are left labor like sled dogs on a short lead and keep awful working hours. Not to mention the fact that they are still flying boxes, not airplanes. Most of them have been replaced by retired pilots who had to return to some kind of work when their pensions disappeared. The replacements are just as good and cost a third as much as your average seniority instructor.
I don't teach people how to fly 767s ... well, in a way I do, but I do it through nothing larger than a Champ or a 172. We use pencils, not FMS units, and maps get drawn on, not displayed on flat-screen TVs.
"Outside flying" is what the airlines call what I do. Seriously, that is the exact term used in the flight operations manual when it describes aviation that differs from Point A to B autopilot navigating for the company. You see, there is only so much outside flying an airline pilot can do for money. You are only allowed a hundred hours a month of commercial flying and the airlines, quite rightly, want all of it.
Airlines are egotistical enough to think that any flying that isn't in one of their barges counts as "outside." Having never been a military guy, I don't know if they feel the same way, but many airlines look upon outside flying as more of a problem than a blessing.
It officially only counts as outside flying by the Feds in the FAA if you get paid for it, so I'm in the clear with my little instructing experiments: I instruct for free. I might accept the odd, free motorcycle from a grateful student, or perhaps a few hundred gallons of auto gas, but I would never fly for money outside of the airline. Plus, they get pretty damn close to a hundred hours a month out of me now, anyway.
On our airport, which has mostly paved runways by the way, a large percentage of pilots scaring themselves in the pattern can be found flying Boeings and Canadairs during their work weeks. On their days off, they can be found slouching around here, wiping grease off wheel pants, sweeping out hangars, and sitting in the shade watching me screw up landings.
Thinking that airline jocks only fly airliners is like kids thinking that mommy and daddy only "did it" once before they were born and stopped completely after. Where do you think airline pilots come from, junior?
Seeing me try to squeeze my more-than-ample buttocks out of the door of the Champ, my friend Chuck sidled up and asked, "Hey, need a spatula and some grease to get out of that thing?"
When I was a young pup, I could extricate myself from a Champ with a certain amount of panache. Today, with my large behind and tennis-abused knees, it looks more like a water buffalo giving birth. I straightened myself up and started tying the bird down while Chuck kicked in some chocks and then helped me put the windshield cover on.
Chuck had spent a large amount of his 10-year airline-piloting career on furlough until he finally gave up his seniority number and went to law school. He now practices law and owns the airport. Not a bad trade-off, but I can tell he still misses flying the big jets more than a little. Of course, flying his Citation makes up for it a little.
I was then introduced to my latest victim -- a 16-year-old guy named Ted who wanted to fly more than he wanted to eat. I know that "fly more than eat" phrase is a cliché, but in many cases it is true. Ted looked like he was short about a dozen meals. I began to remedy that by taking him across the field for a hamburger.
Now, before you ask, we don't have hundred-dollar hamburgers at our field. They cost about two bucks. As Ted ate and I sipped on my Diet Coke, he began to tell me all about how much he wants to be just like me and be an airline pilot.
I had to stop him in mid-munch.
Ted, I said, nobody starts out wanting to be an airline pilot ... nobody sane, anyway. You are young; you should be aspiring to be a fighter jock, an adventure pilot, a bush pilot, a gawd-darn astronaut on the first Mars mission. Airline flying is a great career for men and women with kids and responsibilities, but trust me, none of us started out looking at flying as a straight-and-level, when-are-we-going-to-get-to-Pittsburgh kind of thing.
In my generation, we all began thinking of flying when we read books about airships and over-the-pole flights by heroes flying Ford Tri-Motors with sled dogs as passengers. I drew pictures of fighters during school when I should have been paying attention, not airliners.
I dreamed of saving pretty girls in peril with my flying skills, not getting 300 angry people into Denver during a snowstorm. I had a vision of getting picked up for my job at the airport by a passing friend in a helicopter. He would simply drop a rope ladder into my back yard and I would climb aboard. No bicycle trip to the field for this kid!
This is why you very rarely see airline pilots flying airliners on their days off.
Pilots do lots of things totally outside of flying. Heck, Glenn Curtiss set the land speed-record for motorcycles before he even built his first airplane. Ernie Gann wrote books and hated commies, Richard Bach sailed boats. Others collect guns, race cars, or even preach on their own time. Trust me: Being an airline pilot is great and is a wonderful career if it happens, but there is so much more out there in the world of aviation for you to sample and taste before you settle for eight hours of straight-and-level at a time.
Ted put down his hamburger and said, "Well, my Uncle Rick was an airline pilot and I want to be like him. He died two months ago."
I'm sorry you lost your uncle. What did he do before he was an airline pilot?
"He flew F-4s in 'Nam, dusted crops, flew Lear Jets for Executive Jet Travel, and had a Ford dealership." Ted brightened up a little. "I think I get it. He was an airline pilot but he was much more than that; he was a by-gawd pilot first and foremost, right?"
You definitely are getting it, Ted, and you are really ready now to start learning. It isn't about being an airline pilot. It is about being the best possible pilot you can be. That is why you are going to know dead reckoning and pilotage as navigation techniques long before you enter your first waypoint into an FMS. That is why you'll deal with the little bit of power a 65-horse engine gives you way before you operate your first General Electric GP7200 engine on an Airbus A380.
When I am done with you, you are going to have just as much fun, if not more, flying that beat-up old Champ out there than you do captaining the most expensive airliner in the world. Flying isn't a job, Ted ... it's an honor and a way of life.
Now, let's go scrape some bug guts off of a windshield and put some air in a 6.00 x 6 tire!
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