Even though Mom would like me to sing my own praises, it’s not my style. But I’m often asked about the opportunities I’ve been fortunate enough to be afforded. Here’s one of my scripted responses for “How did you get that gig?” Answer: “I am grateful for low standards.”
Although my reply might appear glib, it’s genuine. I am surrounded by folks who appear eminently more qualified than me in both the professional pilot vocation and the writing vocation. It is an honor to be associated with such people. That being said, none of my opportunities presented themselves without a little effort.
The pilot dream started at six-years-old. A certificate presented to me after a visit to an American Airlines cockpit, sealed my fate. The certificate, signed by the captain, promised me an interview 20 years later. I had no time to waste in preparation. At fifteen-years-old, I literally broke a piggy bank and used the money for my first lesson.
The writing dream also began at six-years-old when I wrote a novella as an assignment for my first grade teacher. The novella was a true-life account involving capture of a deadly, two-foot Gartner snake in my backyard. But more on the writing stuff later.
After becoming addicted to flying airplanes, I had to find a way to support my new habit. Initially, I swept hangar floors and washed airplanes in exchange for flight instruction. Soon after, I was offered a line boy position at the local airport. My $1.85/hour salary disappeared directly into flight lessons.
I still haven’t determined why the family that owned the airport and a construction company allowed a 17-year-old kid to run the place. Maybe my cheap labor indirectly bought their new Lincoln Continental’s every year.
Not only was fueling airplanes part of my job description, but I was also taxiing and towing them out of hangars. In addition, on the weekends, I was managing the office. I rode a bike 10 miles uphill in both directions… and only once or twice in a snowstorm. Seriously.
The early sweat equity paid off with my first solo and then a Private Pilot license. I marched off to college and a four year degree in aviation at Purdue University. A flight instructor certificate earned in my last 18 months helped pay the bills, increased my total flight time, reinforced my convictions, added to my experience, taught me bravery, and kept me supplied with Domino’s pizzas.
After a short stint as a charter pilot, I parlayed my neophyte experience into employment as a commuter airline copilot for two separate companies, eventually increasing my salary from an affluent $650/month to $750/month. With an Airline Transport certificate attained at the age of 23, I became a captain, flying a 19-passenger airplane, flight attendant and autopilot not included.
My maturing flight credentials afforded me the opportunity to secure employment as a copilot with a cargo airline flying Boeing 727’s, operating under contract for UPS. Having heard that the cargo airline might be hiring, I made an unannounced visit, traveling from South Jersey to their headquarters in Portland, Oregon.
I was rewarded with an impromptu interview and hired shortly thereafter. I could officially call myself a jet pilot. That being said, I drank through a fire hose, transitioning from an airplane whose average cruise speed was equivalent to the speed at which the 727 required to become airborne. And in the vernacular of the industry, I was considered a bona fide freight dog.
After about the 100th submitted resume and application, American Airlines called and offered an interview. My dream job was closer to materializing. But it was not to be. Without addressing specifics, I was informed that a disqualifying medical issue allegedly discovered during an extensive examination, prevented me from being hired. I was devastated. Was my destiny to remain a freight dog?
Throughout my relatively short stint as a package hauler pilot, I had maintained contact with a captain from the now defunct Wien Air Alaska, the oldest airline in the country at the time. Out of the blue, I received a phone call that changed the course of my career. The captain informed me that interviews at Wien Air Alaska would begin in two weeks. If I refrained from picking my nose, and other such unsavory habits, there was a high probability of being offered a flight engineer position with a real passenger-carrying airline.
But I had to arrive prepared to begin training immediately after the interview. With no guarantees of being hired, I packed my bags for an extended stay in Anchorage, Alaska. I further sealed my fate by quitting the job at the freight carrier.
Fortunately, the interviewer took pity on me in various ways; he remains an old friend. The final part of the hiring process required me to consume a few pieces of freshly caught salmon offered by the director of flight operations. It was a difficult task, but apparently completed with success. I was hired.
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A few months later, I was presented with an unwelcome badge of honor that is experienced by many airline pilots at some point in their career. I was on the list to be furloughed. The writing had already been on the wall. And unfortunately, the airline itself would be come a casualty of the deregulated environment.
But as luck would have it, not only did American Airlines mysteriously rescind my earlier medical disqualification, Eastern Airlines also requested an interview. Life was back on track. In the interim, in order to pay for the beer in my refrigerator, I became the worst used Toyota car salesman in the greater Seattle area.
One of the questions asked at American during a phase of the interview process was whether I could tolerate the low, first-year pay of a probationary pilot. Smiling, I indicated that the new salary would actually put me in a higher tax bracket. And at Eastern, a friendly but frustrated interviewer reviewed an application that I had submitted years earlier that didn’t include my current experience. With a sigh, he suggested that I might want to provide him with a verbal up date. After reviewing my flight logbook, he made an immediate assessment, asking, “So, it appears that you are current on the 727 as both an engineer and a copilot; is that correct?”
Dutifully, I nodded, not having considered that revelation. He snapped the logbook closed, shook my hand, and thanked me for my time. I shuffled out the door, certain that I had just destroyed an opportunity.
My fear was unfounded. I was soon presented with the desirable dilemma of choosing an airline. Despite the introduction of a substantially lower B-scale pay structure at American Airlines, my gut told me to go for it anyhow. I rolled the dice and never looked back. I can’t tell you how very fortunate I have been.
Unprecedented for nearly 30 years of the airline’s history since the early‘ 60’s, I became a captain at age 33 after a little over five years of employment. Thirty-two years after walking in the front door of our flight academy, the cockpit of a Boeing 777 has now become my office.
Although the climb up the airline career ladder took precedent, I maintained a passion for writing. It wasn’t till after a small disaster that my prose re-surfaced in earnest. The 35-foot boat that I owned decided to sink at the dock while I was a way on a trip. Long story. Not important. My epic and protracted battle with the insurance company prompted me to write a tale of woe.
A prestigious boating magazine published my diatribe and used the article as a cover story, which now provided me with a resume of sorts. Revitalizing my interest in writing a novel, I considered my one-hit wonder good fortune.
Why not gain some name recognition by writing for a niche magazine to which I was reasonably well versed on the subject matter?
Enter FLYING MAGAZINE. I submitted a handful of unsolicited articles, and through the good graces of the editor-in-chief, asked to write more. I was invited to be a monthly columnist. Fifteen-years later, the rest is history.
Because of my exposure at the magazine, the Op-ed folks at CNN.com periodically ask me to contribute. And despite my long-standing fear of cameras, I agreed to provide insight regarding the disappearance of MH 370 in March of 2014. CNN has continued to ask for my participation in other aviation matters. It has been a great experience.
And now WildBlue Publishing has given me the opportunity to pursue my other dream of producing a novel. I am too embarrassed to reveal just how long it took for me to get the book out of my head and onto my laptop. I can only blame myself… and an undiagnosed case of adult A.D.D.
No matter. I am already formulating the ingredients for the next novel in the series. And that’s the rest of the story.