The Old Aviator Speaks
"There are two kinds of fliers in this world: pilots and aviators," says the arthritic old instructor to his 19-year-old protégé who is about to take his CFI checkride. And in this beautifully written story, the wise old man goes on to explain to the youngster what it really means to be a professional flight instructor. [If reading this article doesn't bring a tear to your eye, you're not an aviator. — Ed.]
The old man stooped and opened the door of the old wood burner. The handle sent a flash of heat through his hand and into his arm. As he swung the door he became enveloped in blazing heat that felt comfortable for some seconds before becoming sweltering and then painful. The logs were against the wall on the far side of the stove. He reached for two and threw them one at a time into the inferno then closed and latched the door.
Standing straight his back ached and he groaned. He reached around and massaged it the best he could as he tried to remember how many years ago it was that he had been able to do a simple thing like bend over without having his back bother him. He shook his head and sighed as he reflected on too many years gone too quickly.
He walked over to the picture window that allowed an unrestricted view of the whole field. 2800 feet of pavement, marked and lighted. The 50 foot tower on the other side of the runway supported the rotating beacon, a guiding light to the airport at night. One which had saved many a young pilot and a few old ones too, he thought.
He remembered that day thirty-some years ago when the city council offered to buy him out. They wanted to make it a city airport. The runway would be lengthened and paved. More land would be bought and a huge terminal building built. He would be the airport manager. He would oversee airliners, charter, maintenance and the whole works. They wanted people. Lots of people coming in and out of the city through his airport.
A smile came to his face and a tear ran down his cheek. He turned them down. They built their monster airport on the north side of the city and never talked to him again. That made him very happy. As did teaching people to fly and tinkering with his J3 Cub or Taylorcraft.
The flight instruction business had changed over the years especially when the FAA got into it and told instructors how to teach their students. The old man never changed his methods. Instead, he just told the FAA inspectors that came around from time to time what they wanted to hear so they would leave him alone. He had turned out thousands of pilots over the years and he knew each and every one of them was the best they could be. He never put up with laziness or those who wouldn't learn what he told them to study. He told them to get to work or go somewhere else.
The airplanes changed also. His heart became heavy when he thought of the open cockpit Stearmans and Wacos that he had first instructed in all those years ago. He used hand signals to tell the student what he wanted done. Then after the war came the Cubs, Taylorcrafts and Champs. Great airplanes to fly and teach in. With those airplanes he could talk to his students albeit in a voice loud enough to overcome the din of the engine. If he lost his voice he would use the old hand signals which people who wanted to fly always understood.
Today's trainers were Cessna 150s and 172s. Gone were the tail wheels of yesteryear to be replaced with a nose wheel mounted under the engine. The manufacturer claimed more people would learn to fly in this airplane because the new configuration of the landing gear made it easier and safer for his students to learn. He told them he didn't want to make it easier to learn to fly. He wasn't after numbers, just quality. When he saw their ads suggesting anyone who could drive could fly he told them it was hogwash. But in the end the Cubs, Taylorcrafts and Champs got tired, and he had no choice but to go with the newfangled airplanes.
He had six of them in his hangar now parked next to the last Taylorcraft he owned. His students flew the 150s but also got 3 or 4 hours in the taildragger. It had no radios or instruments other than those that were required.
The old man watched Robby Parrish close the hangar door and walk toward him. Six years had gone by since the boy had come to the airport for the first time. It was his thirteenth birthday and he wanted to fly. He paid for a half hour lesson, and it didn't take long to see that the boy was a natural. He flew the airplane smoothly with little instruction. When he was told how to complete a maneuver he did it right the first time. Robby's first half hour ride lasted an hour and a half. When they were back on the ground the boy didn't want to get out of the airplane. He sat there touching the control wheel, the instruments, the switches, and the trim wheel. He said nothing for the longest time. Finally, the old man told him to come back after school the next day and he would find some work for him to do around the airport in exchange for flying lessons. He would never forget the big grin and moist eyes when the boy looked up at him.
He soloed on his sixteenth birthday although he was ready long before that. He got his private license on his seventeenth, commercial and instrument on his eighteenth and tomorrow, his nineteenth birthday, he would be going for his flight instructor rating. The old man knew he would pass. He had it in him.
Robby came through the door to the office and walked over by the wood burner letting the heat radiate through him. Everything about him was average, thought the old man, except the way he felt about airplanes.
"We gotta talk, boy." The gruff old voice rumbled.
"What did I do wrong today, Jonesy? I thought everything went real well."
"It did. You done a good job today and you're ready for the checkride tomorrow. That's why we gotta talk. Sit yourself down in that chair while I get some coffee. You want some?"
"Hot chocolate." The boy said, knowing what would come next.
"That stuff'll rot your gut before you get to fly your first student. Git up and make it yourself."
"Aw, come on Jonesy. I'll be drinking this stuff when I'm your age and my stomach will be every bit as good as yours. How long you been drinking coffee?"
"Since I was in diapers, and I don't want no guff outta you. Just rest your backside on that chair over there."
They took their drinks and moved over to the old mismatched furniture that for years had served as a "hangar flying corner" when the weather was bad, or just between flights.
"Now, Boy, what I gotta say to you," the old man began, "I've only said to a handful of my students in all these years. I wantcha to listen up and remember this.
"You know I've been flying for a lotta years. Sometimes I lose track of how many and sometimes I just don't want to remember. Lot of men, women, and even a few know it all kids like you." He said, heckling his listener who smiled warmly. "Watcha gotta realize, Boy, is that while no two people are the same when they come through that door there are only two kinds of people. It took me my first five years of instructin' to realize it myself but after that it was always the same."
The old man sipped his coffee very slowly pursing his lips around the cup and staring intently at Robby. Then he continued.
"There are two kinds of fliers in this world. There are pilots and aviators. A pilot is someone who comes out to the airport and sees the airplanes and thinks it would be fun to take one of them machines in the air for a joy ride. Or a pilot is someone who flies cause he can make a lot of money for little physical work."
He paused and looked up at the ceiling as though he were lost in thought for a few seconds.
"Yep, they're all of them things and more. Pilots fly cause their business demands they get from place to place quickly, or just for personal reasons. Pilots enjoy flying. It distracts them from the humdrum of everyday life, and it makes them more confident in everything they do. Pilots are good people to be with. My second favorite group of people to be around."
Robby, hunched forward in his chair and holding his cup in front of him, his full attention devoted to every word.
"Now, aviators...." The old man said with a definite softening of his voice which Robby seldom heard. ...."Aviators are people like you'n me. We were born with all this in our blood." His free arm swept in a semi-circle in front of him. "There is somethin' in you'n me that makes us come here and makes us take that machine up yonder, and whatever that is it will be with us forever. It is here." The old man held his hand over his heart. "And here." He pointed at his brain.
"Aviators are special people. Not better people but special. We are special 'cause we know down deep inside where we belong. Two places. At an airport or up there drilling holes in the sky. We are not truly happy or comfortable anywhere else. That makes us special 'cause there aren't many people in this dang world today who are that happy."
The old man paused and Robby looked directly into his eyes. His mind drifted. He was three years old and his family had gone to the big airport to welcome his grandparents back from a trip to the west coast. The giant, triple-tail Constellation was burned into his memory and he relished the picture. He knew that occurrence had flipped a switch that made his soul live for aviation. He had often wondered whether that had been a catalyst that brought him back to aviation from perhaps another life or world.
"Now, Boy." The old man continued, his voice returning to its normal, gruff tones. "The reason I am telling you this is that tomorrow you will become a flight instructor. Being a flight instructor is the most important position you'll ever have in aviation. And, dang it Boy, I don't care if you wind up flying one of those 400 seat monsters that are trying to drive us from the skies. The most important thing you can do in aviation is be a flight instructor.
"You will be a new student's first impression of aviation. If he likes what he sees when he looks at ya he'll get in the airplane with ya. If your spirit comes through when he talks to ya and flies with ya he'll be back for more. If ya treat him poorly and don't pay attention to him, don't listen to him, toss him off or push him out the door after his lesson, if he's not an aviator himself, he will quit flyin' an' go out and buy one of them new fangled computers, or a new car or somethin'.
"Your students will look up to ya and trust ya no matter who they are or how old they are. Be a perfessional all the time and never let one of 'em down. Teach 'em to be quality pilots like I taught ya, and ya'll have more students 'n ya know what to do with.
"You're gettin' older now, Boy, an's time ya thought about life a bit. To me life is nothing more than being happy with myself. I been at this airport a long time and ya know I had the chance once for it to be what 'City Airport' is now. I couldn't a been happy with it. Big planes ain't for me. I'm happy knowing I trained a lot of them guys that fly those big birds.
"Some day soon ya gonna have to make a decision which way to go for yourself. You got a special talent for instructin', Boy, and I sure would hate ta see it go ta waste. Your spirit for flyin's just like mine was when I was a kid. I didn't have the choices ya have today so I stayed with instructin' cause it made me happy to see a first solo student climb out of an airplane still not believin' he did it himself. Or to see the world tumble and whirl and roll when we did aerobatics.
"I never made much money at this game. I know a lotta guys gone bust. But inside, deep inside, where it really counts to no one but me I been happy, Boy. I been happier than most of them folk that come out here in their big Mercedes and live in them big houses up in Applegate Orchards.
"Well, Boy, that's about it. The rest is up to you. I got yer first student all lined up for ya. Name is Cindy. An' I taught her mother and father to fly long time ago. She's about the same age and I think you'll get along good. Teach her right, Boy.
"An' Boy," the old man's voice dropped to a very soft, uncharacteristic tone. "You'n me are a lot alike. Only difference is my time is almost done an' yours is just startin'. All I hope fer ya is that whatever it is ya decide to do or whichever way ya decide to go you'll do your best. You're a real aviator, Boy."
Robby stared into the old man's eyes for a long time and finally got out of his chair walked over to where the old man still sat and put his arms around the wise, old aviator.