CEO Of The Cockpit: Time To Face The Change


“And these children that you spit on

 As they try to change their worlds

 Are immune to your consultations

 They’re quite aware of what they’re going through.”

                          David Bowie

My voyage from the then of me being a crusty old airline captain to the now of me being a crusty and older airport bum was filled with gigs at AOPA teaching bored weekend course CFIs, pilot examining for my second airline and flight instructing at various parts 141 flight schools and single-airplane Champ and Cub academies.

Sitting in a booth at one of the last real general aviation lunchroom/burger joints, I find myself reflective as I gaze over a ramp filled with airplanes that I used to fly in high school almost half a century ago. Nobody can afford a new aircraft these days, but that may be because the cost of a 50-year-old Skyhawk is about equal to four years at Harvard.

My onion rings were a little soggy, but they were salty enough and were guaranteed to extinguish my “low grease” level light. I gazed past them and over my cheeseburger to view an old classmate from my brown hair days when I began airline flight.

Jeff had scoffed at the law of gravity and flown his RV-10 in for our lunch date. He was sharper, fitter and a way better pilot than I was or am. He was also my roommate when we were new hires. I never would have made it through that first initial school without his help.

We shared a history of flying three-engine Boeings, laying over in seedy places and drinking too much at various dollar buffets during happy hours when we had the money for beer but not food.

“Things have changed,” he said.

Yeah, I know, I said. They used to have ketchup bottles in this joint and now only have those stupid packets.

“Not what I mean,” he continued while he dipped his last saltine into his chili. “I mean, the world of flying has changed, and I don’t recognize it anymore. It seems like the world we flew in has gone crazy or has at least taken the fun stuff out and thrown it away.”

Give me some examples, but could you flag the waitress before you do that?  I’m going to need more coffee for this.

The signal for a refill was given, and he began to list some of the things he missed from what boomers like us like to call the “good old days.”

He detailed the usual stuff about pilots no longer piloting via the expert use of stick and rudder. Especially rudder. He wondered aloud why manufacturers still put rudder pedals in new airplanes since nobody seems to use them or know what they are for.

Jeff then listed grievances that included the lack of decent ramp service, the spread of self-serve gas pumps that never seem to work and the razor wire chain-link fences around airports that seem to be growing faster than the national debt. 

He finished by wondering why they built all that impressive fence and then usually left the gates open. 

I wondered if Jeff was getting grumpier than me. That sounds impossible, but he is six months older than me and deeper into incipient geezer-hood. 

My plate was cleared away by the restaurant staff during Jeff’s diatribe, so it left me room to sip my coffee and fling my arms around as I presented him with a counterargument.

OK, my friend, I began. I acknowledge all the complaints you listed in your harangue, but I have a short list that will convince you that even though we are apparently out of touch, things haven’t really changed in our world of flying.

“Well,” Jeff said, “If you convince me, I’ll pay for lunch.”

A challenge worth my time! Here is my list: 

  • Young flying students are the same as they were in the twentieth century. Eager, gangly and clueless.
  • There are still a lot of pilots around our airports with more ego than skill.
  • Airport dogs are still the same.
  • Ditto for airport bums, hangers-on and pilot wannabees.
  • Rich people still buy way more airplane than they can safely fly.
  • Every airport has an old “crank” who flaunts every safety and logical rule yet still survives.
  • Each generation of fliers thinks they invented aviation and are living in the good old days.
  • Old pilots like us still think that our flying lives were the best and happened during the best and final years of real aviation.
  • The soda and coffee machines in FBOs have never worked properly and never will.

Jeff grabbed the lunch check and headed to the cash register.

Kevin Garrison
Kevin Garrison is a former airline captain who continues to spread his wisdom of the ages as an airport bum. He shares his thoughts twice a month.


  1. As my old friend and colleague Gordon Baxter once wrote (name-drop!), “Learnin’ to fly today costs the same as it did when I started…all ya got.”

    • I always loved Gordo’s stuff. I pitched myself as his replacement at Flying, and they said I only lacked three things: Talent, Wit, and Humor, or I would have made it.

    • Me too, bagofsuds. Great time (early ’70s) learning all I could about this magic aviation stuff, especially at an FBO run by pioneers in the field. Those great guys passed along loads of the intangible lessons that end up in that mixed bag of knowledge/skill best described as “airmanship.” And I cleaned lots of windscreens, too.

      By the way…great article!

  2. As a line boy, week ends because I was still in high school, I cleaned a lot of windshields and wash more than a few planes, all for a bit of flying time. Image an FBO hiring a HS kid these days. Got checked out to taxi some great old planes. Even to taxi one was a thrill. More of a hazard was driving the fuel trucks, for which I did have a real license, but was no fun if occasionally more thrilling.

  3. Airspace has changed considerably. TFR’s ruin a lot of flying. Cell towers are no fun if you like to fly low and slow. I like to fly low and slow. You can still simplify flying by throwing all of the glass out and some analog too for that matter. It makes flying a lot cheaper also. It’s an eye opener and so much more fun. You are so much more aware of your surroundings because you have to be. It’s a survival technique. Try it, you’ll like it.

  4. Kevin, thanks for reminding me how much fun I had in the late 60s and seventies. And you guys who were line boys reminded me of the massive amount of “air sense” you could pick up listening to the old heads in the pilot lounge. By the time I finished college and got a Macnamera scholarship to SE Asia by way of Air Force pilot training I was having way too much fun. So much that they almost threw me out for being a smartass. Some how the military guys didn’t think a “student” maverick should be smiling so much though my crusty old T38 instructor who was an F-100 combat vet laughed at and with me.

    • I recall with great fondness, sitting in the squadron ready room smiling because soon Capt. Umptyfrantz is gonna walk in here and tell a bunch of twenty-something “butter bars” to jump in a beautiful supersonic jet and go wring it out for and hour. And “bring it back in one piece!” And we got paid to do it! But somewhere today there is a young Lt. doing exactly the same thing.

  5. Every generation views the past with a yearning for simpler times, when things–they believe–were somehow better and easier. I find myself in the throes of nostalgia every now and then, and I’ve come to realize that things haven’t (yet) changed fundamentally, it’s me that’s changed. The patina of youth makes the past sparkle, effectively hiding the flaws and blemishes. Things WERE better in my youth, mainly because I was young…

  6. I was born at the end of the baby boom and as such I have been able to enjoy the tail end of every good thing society has to offer. Got a job in the electronics industry at the tail end of the electronics boom, learned to fly at the tail end of the GA boom. So I pretty much watch it go from great to “meh” in a few years time and never truly got to enjoy the fullness of anything. But even going out to the airport now, flying a borrowed Champ and enjoying the sky… I wouldn’t trade now for anything. And I’ll always have “back then” to look back on and remember.

  7. Being an old crusty airline Capt. I view your short list as very accurate and describes the fly-in community in which I reside. The thing I miss the most is the comradery of accomplished pilots, most of my classmates have gone west. The more qualified pilots I come in contact with have an ATP in a 172 ( which I have never understood)?
    You are lucky to have Jeff.

  8. I’m an AARP-card-carrying member of this Brotherhood of Oldfarts. I soloed my uncle’s Cub in ’62. I wanted to fly choppers so bad that I was going to let the guys at Fort Rucker teach me (for free!), until my grandmother (blessed be her wisdom) insisted that I stay in college. I’ve never stopped flying, so I’ve got over 60 years of the exquisite pleasure/pain of multiple aircraft ownership.

    I don’t think that things have changed all that much. What everyone is seeing is the urbanization of the country. That sleepy grass strip you remember fondly is now buried under condos or an Interstate cloverleaf. The “big” paved airport where we went (because they had 80 octane) is now the center of a Class Bravo and surrounded by metastasized subdivisions. There are whole states where you really need a radio to safely transit.

    But on my annual trips half-way across the country to Airventure, I still fly over a lot of America that is (with the exception of cell-towers) practically indistinguishable from the rural farmland I saw out the crazed windscreen of a ’46 Champ. The strips where I land now are pretty much the same, except that they have self-service pumps instead of having to know the secret location of the key to the pump’s padlock. The pilots lounges are still uniformly “well lived in” with recycled furniture which can, if necessary, be put into service to wait out weather overnight. A few (shout out to Cynthiana-Harrison County 0I8) have cheap fuel, shirt-off-their-backs friendly people, excellent overnight pilots lounge, showers, kitchen, courtesy car, and snacks. We discovered it on a trip to Oshkosh several decades ago when wx forced a diversion and an overnight. We stop there twice every year now.

    Even if you live in an area best described as a “metroplex”, you can find such gems, and the codgers that make them memorable, all over the country. You just have to turn off the moving map and its optimal magenta line, and look outside. And those codgers can’t, for the life of them, understand why you’d want to live in such a crowded, aviation-unfriendly, place.

  9. A friend asked his granddaughter, who is learning to fly but hasn’t soloed yet, what she likes best, so far, about learning to fly and she replied “learning to use the autopilot “.

  10. Thank you Kevin; this article is one of your very best.

    We seniors have selective memories; the “good old days” were in fact not as good as we remember. New C172 for $40K? Sure, but think about the cost of everything else and what salaries were at that time. Avgas at $1.75/gal? Even I remember paying that at a few small town airports as recently as 2000-2001.

    The current cost of a new or relatively recent used SR22? Ghastly, but new ones are selling briskly with a nearly two-year waiting list. At our ages incomes become more or less fixed while inflation, especially in general aviation, marches on.

    And yes, the fraction of the younger population that feels the call of aviation is about the same as it was “back in the day,” and learning to fly is just as difficult for them to fund as it was in past generations.

    And now for my own grumpy old pilot thing: to quote Mike Busch, “the piston general aviation maintenance infrastructure is crumbling.” Finding reliable and competent maintenance was the main—not the only—reason I sold my plane and “retired” from flying. That was 11 years ago. And Mike Busch said what I quoted in an aircraft ownership class he was teaching (and I attended) 18 years ago.

    Yet little of this seems to deter the younger generations from learning to fly and, if they have the means, buying and owning a plane.

    May it always be so!

  11. My daughter got her license last year and her instrument checkride is in a few weeks. Her training has been much more tightly scripted and controlled than mine was 30 years ago — and she’s a better student than I ever was. She’s almost certainly a more skilled and better trained pilot than I was at that stage but coming up on 150 hours TT, she also has far fewer hours of just going places and PIC decision-making than I did. I don’t think either track is inherently better than the other. I’m thrilled she’s found a passion in the challenge and accomplishment of learning to fly and getting the ratings and even more so that we can occasionally do it together and that she simply loves to fly. The more things change…

  12. I have to agree with Jeff. The airport bums around my airport are gone. On any given day you can drive to the airport and all you’ll see is an occasional small plane land and leave again, or the medical helicopter go out on a mission. Airplanes are too expensive for my budget, the days of hanging around are met with a “why are you here” in a condescending flair. Nice airport with lots of FAA money spent. This was once a booming flyer’s airport. I don’t see what for now, but to look expensive. I’m a boomer, but not able to fly any longer, but still love flying and like to hang around the airport, but not this one, nothing going on. I used to manage this place, and now it has nothing to offer me but a quick drive by to see only memories. It’s also my voting pole. About all airports are fenced in now, so no sitting around and watching and talking aviation. I don’t feel I live in a very aviation-oriented area any longer. To quote a song, “The thrill is gone”. The next airport over is the same way, but at least they offer flight training.

  13. Another 50+ years of “experience” here, most in the flight levels, and still beating the airways now and then. Thank God you can sometimes fill up your bucket of experience before your bucket of luck runs out. I have a nephew who used to be amazed riding right seat with me in a Citation who in a few short years now drives F-22s around. He’s done some amazing things but I’m not sure if he has any balloon kills yet. I also have a son-in-law who just closed on a new SR-22T G7 that I hope to fly some. So, I guess things aren’t that out of reach yet. Their selling them faster than they can make them. I hope to pass on some of my hard earned experience so that he doesn’t have to make all the mistakes I made. I wouldn’t change a day of it. Great article Kevin!

  14. ✅All of the above
    ✅I got your book “Flying in Congested Airspace”, going into a shadow box.
    ✅My wife thinks you write cute little articles
    ✅During the 9/11 aftermath, as a CFI, I washed plenty of aircraft to make ends meet, but the thrill lingered. However things change. Now I have a bunch of TSA friends.🎉

  15. For those of us old enough to remember, just off the top of my head we used to have:
    -4 fuel choices at airports of any size
    -Fully staffed FSS stations at many airfields
    -New airplane models coming out almost every year
    -New plane prices were 4x the cost of a new car (now it’s 12x)
    -3 times as many airfields in the USA
    -few(if any) restrictions on landing in public lands or on beaches
    -kids riding bikes to airports and taking $5 intro rides w/o parents knowing

    I would not call GA today either inviting nor better.

  16. I learned to fly in the mid 1970’s at a little airport near Montreal and was taught by the Nephew of the legendary Jack Schofield, my fathers instructor in the 1950’s. After the Department of Transport eased the vision rules I was eligible for a Class 1 medical and did my commercial training and then my instructor rating with another local legend, who spent many years teaching RCAF pilots in the Harvard (T6 to you Americans) before sharing his experience teaching at my flying club.

    I flogged a Navajo, Seneca’s and Islanders around the Pacific Northwest in the pre GPS day’s on a wobbly ADF needle and some heartfelt prayer. I then got my big break joining a company specializing in fixed wing aerial forests fire suppression. With 3600 hours I was one of the lowest time pilots they ever hired. It has been so long since the company has hired a pilot the HR folks were not sure of the process.

    I got to fly the mighty Douglas DC6 at what was the very tail end of the big piston era. Before moving to Turbine tankers

    The reality is that the new generation of pilots won’t have the range of experience I had, but they also will likely not know the same number of pilots killed in airplane crashes or if they were not white males, the passive or in some cases active discrimination.

    The good news is that I still many young men and women that want to fly more than anything else, just like me.

  17. Excellent curmudgeonly thoughts from one crusty retiree to another! Thanks for the wisdom!

  18. why manufacturers still put rudder pedals in planes. I know the answer to that, courtesy of some CAP Cadet student pilots. Airplanes have rudder pedals to give the flight instructor something to say!

  19. Wanna have some real fun at the next airport liars meeting. Start up a conversation with one of today’s CFI’s or pilots and talk about flying by; Needle / Ball & Airspeed. ADF Approaches. Approaches using crossing radials or the ones with “Real” accuracy using an LOM. Overhead aircraft speakers and hand mikes. Airport benches. VOR / ADF / Dead Reckoning / Time – Speed & Distance Nav. Sectionals. Plotters. Control Zones. Can someone find Mable for my bill, walker and Rayban’s.

    52 year CFII and still at it 🙂

  20. Much truth, and a little hyperbole in here as well. The more things change, the more they stay the same. I do worry however, primarily for the NUMBERS. The numbers of money. The inflation of every ingredient that goes into an hour of time. When a new experimental IO-360 advertised for 51K is touted as a bargain at 30K less than a certified product. Fuel has come down some recently. Still, it averages ~ $5.00/gal country wide and the spectre of another 2/gal for ULL is coming sooner than later. Nevermind, there has been ZERO hard evidence the lead added to the environment by avgas burned nationwide is even measurable around the busiest GA airports. $500K and up for a 50*60 foot metal box on leased land. Inflation is a fact of life, but the line items on the cost of an hours flight time goes on and on and far outweighs that of inflation in other sectors. The NUMBERS of airports and pilots. Every year airports are shut down by real estate developers in search of their next cash jackpot. How many airports are being added to the roster? How many once great GA airports are becoming increasingly unfriendly to GA and the new pilots that once populated them because of fences? KCFO here in Denver is the latest victim. When my students can’t come out to the airport on their time, if for no other reason than to drive around and see who’s out and what’s going on, how long will the airport hold its charm for them? The numbers surrounding GA do not inspire confidence in the future of this activity. Sure, we can rationalize it however we want but the numbers do not lie. For now, this old curmudgeon still enjoys my forays out to the flying field to meet with friends new and old as well as partake in an activity that was introduced to me by my dad in the 60’s. I often find myself wondering how long will this activity exist, especially once those of us who remember what it was are no longer around?

  21. I remember folks telling me about when they learned to fly for $30 or $40 an hour. That was when I was only paying $80 an hour. Now look at it. One that I really have a problem with besides all the security making being an airport bum almost a thing of the past is the FBOs that want exorbitant ramp fees. A friend warned me about that after taxiing his 150 up to Signature one day.

  22. There’s a lot more intimidation in razor wire held ten feet up by a chain link fence then you are realizing. A large red and white sign saying keep out or go to federal prison is not very inviting either.

    Kevin, I envy you. The Norman Rockwell airport you describe is not common anymore and every year there’s less of them. Millionaire type FBO’s populate the airports that survive and the most ambitious teenagers are not comfortable hanging out in their ritzy lounges.

    Enjoy every minute of your hometown airport while you can. Many airports that don’t service jets are considered a high liability and loosing their insurance. Communities are always facing budgetary problems, that has never changed but, cutting airports out of their budget is the in-thing these days. Regulations say you have to pay federal money back to shutter an airport but, the rules also say the airport need be insured. That’s what a councilmen shared with me. Like always, it never changes, the folks that use the airport are the last to know they’re being cut.

  23. So lucky to have learned when I could get ah hour of flying time for cleaning the pipeline patrol airplane on a Sat morning, getting an all expenses paid trip to see Vietnam from the front seat of a Huey & Cobra. Surviving on tuna & crackers while working & building time instructing, flying air ambulance, endless hours in a C-182 on fire patrol after lightning storms, all for $5/hr. hoping for an airline job & more $$. Did lead to 28 years of airline flying & owning a nice DGA-15P for attending Oshkosh several times. Yep, flying is expensive. Fuel was twice the cost of car gas back then (now pretty close in price), it was much easier to hang around the airport & meet local pilots & check out hangars. Biggest complaint I hear today is that younger people want instant gratification & lack basic stick & rudder skills. Through all of this I have learned the only thing that is constant is change. mostly good but some not so enjoyable. Welcome strangers to the wonderful world of flight, hopefully a few will find what many of us “old guys” have cherished.

  24. Great article, and the comments add immeasurably to the charm, making me downright damp around the eyes to compare now with then. It’s true, the older I git, th’ better I wuz…however, it’s also true, “nothing gold can stay.”

  25. This is one of the very best columns–AND THE VERY BEST RESPONSES in the history of AvWeb!

    This is my 62nd year of flying, and 58 as a CFI (single and multi-engine, instrument–and Ground Instructor basic, advanced, and instrument. I’ve been in the FBO business for 57 years–ATP–5 jet type ratings–Commercial helicopter, glider, balloon–single and multi-engine sea. I’ve owned and sold over 500 airplanes, and brokered about twice that many more. Aviation has let me fly over 350 unique aircraft types, taken us to 83 countries around the world (plus Antarctica–mostly in single-engine aircraft). At age 76, I still fly a King Air for a living, plus all of my “toy” airplanes.

    I mention this because Garrison–and the writers above–accurately describe the evolution (or perhaps “devolution” of aviation). Where the object of aviation used to be “adventure and discovery”–all too often, it has become simply the pursuit of a job. I still look forward to coming to work (my understanding wife tells our friends “Jim doesn’t live here, he lives at the AIRPORT!”)

    That’s as it should be–that’s where all of my friends are!

    Let’s see MORE articles like this!

  26. I’ve been in aviation for some 58 years, half that time as a flight instructor and flight school owner/operator. I relate with a one-eyed smile. The piece captures a sense of nostalgia and reflection on the evolution of the wonderful world of aviation. I like.