CEO of the Cockpit #62: Garden Party
I don't usually travel by boat, but I found myself crossing the rough waters of a Midwestern, middle-size lake. I was on my way to a friend and co-pilot's 50th birthday party. It was to be held on the hallowed picnic grounds once cavorted upon by this person's forebears and ancestors. A sort-of old-time, traditionally driven excuse to drink and play music in a place only accessible by boat or airplane.
You know you are getting older if your co-pilots are hitting the half-century mark. In defense of my youth, I have to say that the half-century-old pilot in question, Mike, was a very senior co-pilot when I flew with him on the MD-88 and had the bidding horsepower to be a junior captain on that bird.
He just had more sense than most and waited until he could hold a line of time.
My fiberglass, outboard-powered plebe barge was driven by a pimply-faced teenager of little apparent intelligence that was highlighted by his equally apparent attitude of not caring what I thought of his Ivy League college prospects.
He looked like a sort-of young me, if you take away the boat and replace it with a Tri-Pacer or Champ. I was sure he was one of the children of the pilots who I was about to party with, but since I doubted that he had the brains to move up from boating to running a deep fryer I decided not to ask.
Behold! The Captain!
My boat driver looked up from the stern perch where he directed the thrust of our outboard and beheld an aging pilot in a worn, leather jacket. He looked upon 35 years of flying experience bundled up in the rotund body of a person who had beheld too many sunrises, drank too many happy-hour beers in layover hotels, and poured way too much early pick-up coffee at the same institutions. In other words, I don't think I impressed him much.
His semi-focused eyes traveled up the body of this pilot until he came upon the baseball cap I was wearing. I wear this cap for two reasons, whether in the cockpit or while posing on the bow of a westbound pontoon boat: First, it covers two skin-cancer removal sites; and second, I got the cap for free.
There are many risks to flying for a living that they do tell you about: fire, engine-out emergencies, weird people who wire their toothpaste to explode and flight attendants who can remember your home phone number.
One of the risks they don't tell you about is that all those thousands of hours with your semi-bald head exposed to the high-altitude sun can lead to all sorts of interesting cancers and growths if you are lucky enough to outlive the stated risks to grow them.
Eat Your Heart Out Johnny Depp
I stepped off the slowing boat onto the dock with the élan of Captain Jack without the makeup or overacting and beheld my homies. The eyes behind my prescription, bifocal sunglasses beheld the guys and smattering of gals who I had aviated with during my 20-year tenure at our Midwest base. It was a great combination of retired pilots I hadn't seen in a few years, current guys like me who couldn't make their escape to retirement while there was still some retirement money that management hadn't stolen yet, and a few youngish-looking pilots who, while not having much of a clue, had the advantage of youth, intelligence and time in their favor.
Elk Love Comes To The Party
Mike was unavailable to greet me. It seems he had to fire up his guitar so that his semi-professional garage band, "Psycho Chic," could start their first set. He was wearing a new hat that said, "Old Fart" and a t-shirt saying, "Elk Love." I have never been able to figure out anything about Mike other than he could always out-weird me without breaking a sweat.
My favorite co-pilot of all time, Al, greeted me as I disembarked with a warm handshake and a cold beer. Al had given up on the airline flying business right about the time of the 50 percent pay cuts and pension grab and was now running a film production company with his wife. The specialty of the film production company, ironically enough, was films and videos for people wanting to secure a career as an airline pilot.
"I'm glad you're here," Al said. "Off to your left next to the beer keg is a group of people you'll probably remember. To the right, near the volleyball net, is a group of young people who want to be like the old people near the beer keg and right in front of us is what you will probably looking for after a few visits to the beer keg: the restrooms."
I sat down and settled with my beer in between the old and young camps, right next to Al's lawn chair. Why did you quit, Al? You were pretty close to captain, weren't you?
Al Gets Tired And, Subsequently, Very Rich
"Just got tired of it all," he said. "I liked airline flying a lot; not as much as you do but I still got a lot of satisfaction out of flying people around. Not being in the military and still being able to fly had its advantages, too. Nobody that I knew of shot at me while I was flying the MD-88s; a lot of people shot at me when I was flying the C-130."
This sounds naïve coming from me, but don't you miss the flying?
"The actual flying I do miss. The part where we are placed in danger every day to save a few bucks, the part where we pilots get blamed for every woe in the industry, and the part where the job became no fun and tedious I don't miss. Besides, just because I gave up flying people in MD-88s doesn't mean I gave up flying."
It was then that I saw exactly what he meant. The 3500-foot, paved airstrip that I could see behind the picnic shelters had various aircraft parked there for the party. Sticking out of the crowd of airplanes, I couldn't help but notice a Beechcraft Duke with Al's initials built into the N number.
Note to self: Send Al a resumé when you get ready to quit or retire.
The music cranked up pretty loud and that was the end of our conversation for a while. Besides, Al's production company was taping the whole musical set to provide "Psycho Chic" with a promotional video. Mike finished the latest of their new tunes titled, "Are We Going To Do It Or Can I Have The Remote Back?" and sat down with a whump right next to this aging, non-musical pilot.
You Knew It Was Only A Matter Of Time -- The Complaining Begins
"Tough trip last week," Mike began. "I totally lost it with the ramp people in Newark when they ran a bag cart into my left wing. Nobody minded me yelling at them. It turns out none of them spoke English."
It was then that a man who looked like a stranger but still had the appearance of somebody that I should know came up.
"Whine, whine, whine -- piss and moan. Is that all you fellas know how to do? Jeeze, you kids have been complaining from day one." The old man began imitating us in a whiney voice. " 'My military training was too hard.' 'Vietnam was the wrong war for me.' 'No airline was going to hire me so I had to fly night cargo.' Then you started complaining when a major airline did hire you because you thought you were going to have to fly engineer too long."
"And you," he said, pointing a gnarled finger at me. "You couldn't keep yourself from carping all about the 13 years you were stuck on reserve and about all the Christmases you had to fly. Well, boo frick'n hoo!"
Mike put down his plastic beer cup and said what we were all thinking.
"Who the hell are you?"
"You don't remember Jim Franklin?" the old man asked.
Oh crap -- of course I remember you. You flew with me on my second trip on the airline and it was your last year before you retired. You must be a hundred years old by now. How are you Jim?
"Better than you punks," he said. "That is because even though my airline career ended long ago, I remembered to have a good time when I was having it. All you guys do today is complain about how bad you have it. You still get to fly jets and drink beer, don't you? Nobody's shooting at you. Hell, I went though all of 1945 hoping and praying for a flying job where nobody was shooting at me.
"Sure we went though hard times back then, too. We had furloughs, bankruptcies and crashes. I guess we had seen things so much worse that we didn't spend as much time complaining as you guys do. Take an old man's advice: Enjoy whatever it is that you are doing right now, whether it is playing trashy music, flying a Duke or being a self-important, fat pilot in a leather jacket.
"Nothing lasts and when it is over it is really over with no do-overs. In other words, quit bitching and start enjoying. Like me -- I'm old but I've got my third wife who is only 40, a big, fat, hog motorcycle and most of my own teeth."
Jim wandered off muttering to himself and our little group got a whole new attitude. Sure, things are hard in the flying business. They are always hard. If there isn't a war there is a depression or recession. If it isn't criminally minded execs stealing the company money or mismanaging it into the ground it is bad political choices doing the same thing.
The important thing was we were alive, we had a nice day with cold beer and we still get to fly airplanes now and again.
The Gift Of Sight
Mike was about to get up and start his second set with his band when I gave him his 50th birthday present. The package contained six pairs of reading glasses of varying strength. They were labeled: "preflight, taxi, cruise, night cruise, approach and layover."
My group of friends from the airline is scattering to the four winds. Some have retired, more have quit, some are so old that I don't even recognize them when I see them and some would be dead before I could see them again. This one day in the sun, though, we were OK. We were a group of pilots drinking beer in the sun with nary a beeper, chief pilot or crew scheduler in sight.
Life is good.
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