Sunday, January 2, 2011

The Decision

In the summer of 2010, one of the most celebrated athletes of our generation, LeBron James, was faced with the biggest decision that any NBA free agent had faced in recent memory. Would he resign with his hometown Cleveland Cavaliers, or would he jump ship in hopes of more lucrative endorsement deals, and, hopefully, a better chance at winning a championship?

What those who follow the NBA closely never saw coming was what ultimately unfolded: in a meticulously planned national television event, LeBron James proclaimed his decision to unceremoniously ditch the Cavaliers and sign with the Miami Heat. Using despicable phraseology that would ultimately tarnish his reputation beyond reconciliation, James would later admit that the entire process could have been handled with more grace. Watching from my living room perch, I made a mental note to handle future big decisions just like LeBron, only the exact opposite.

In my last post I spoke of the interview process as I began to transition from a flight instructing position in Atlanta to my first airline job. Despite getting an offer from the first company, I felt the need to continue the recruitment process and interview with another company, my hometown Pinnacle Airlines. After all, I love sports, and who doesn't love to pretend that they are a highly sought-after free agent like LeBron James? It was nice to be shown affection for my flying abilities and to be wooed by multiple companies, especially considering how poorly my flight instructing company treated me. The interview offers poured in: all together, I received letters from four companies seeking my piloting services, a humbling yet rewarding experience for how hard I labored throughout 2010.

A few weeks after receiving American Eagle's offer, Pinnacle called with their offer, igniting what would become some of the most agonizing and flip-flopping few months of my life. I had a decision to make. For those who know me well, it's something I'm not very good at. Longtime readers of this blog may recall my favorite motto, I guess we'll see what happens. I've used that more times than I care to admit since November.

I spent virtually all of the early winter months poring over the websites for each company. I asked friends, family, fellow pilots, even homeless people, what I should do. I solicited advice from those I respect the most, and each time came back to the same miserable conclusion: I had no idea what to do. I read internet forums and spent inordinate amounts of time daydreaming and visualizing myself flying for each company. Worse yet, I seemingly made final decisions on several separate occasions, even going to far as to text friends that I'd finally made a decision and was really excited about it. I went back and forth, changed my mind, talked myself in and out of one company, then started the whole process over again. Overnight, I had become John Kerry.

I don't know what the big deal was. One of my worst characteristics is that I am a worrier. I think I was terrified to making the wrong decision. I would wake up in the middle of the night and stare at the ceiling for hours. Looking back now, it's ridiculous, right? After all it's not like I was Truman weighing the consequences of the atomic bomb. This was supposed to be a good thing: an airline job, something I'd dreamed about forever.

I resigned my position at the old flight school, packed up my apartment and headed home to Minneapolis still not certain which job I'd take. I wanted to have the chance to talk to key people face to face. I wanted to benefit from another grueling cross country road trip where I'd have plenty of time to think. Mostly, though, I think I just wanted to procrastinate.

There were certainly appealing aspects to each: with Pinnacle, I could potentially be based in my hometown, meaning a 5 minute drive to the airport each time I'd be scheduled to fly. With American Eagle came the opportunity to work for a well-respected and very successful company. I didn't know what to do. I wished I could have BOTH jobs.

Both companies wanted me to start training on January 17th. Since I am not talented enough to be in two places at once, I finally had a deadline to make my decision. I would have to tell someone no, which is one of my least favorite things in the world to do. A few days after Christmas, while relaxing at home and finally spending some time NOT thinking about what to do, my cell phone rang: it was American Eagle, with an offer to begin training two weeks earlier than originally slated. In the airline world, seniority is everything, and the opportunity to move up 50 pilot slots was dangling in front of me. The words flew out of my mouth: "I'll take it!", I exclaimed, and in an instant, I was now the lowest number on the 2,900 strong American Eagle pilot list.

Less than a week later, I sit in my Dallas hotel room trying to muster up the courage to dial up Pinnacle and inform them of my decision. I used to think that life was unfair, but this process has now shown me that life is in fact completely fair: I would have never made it as a great athlete, because I would have completely self-destructed during the college recruitment process.

Throughout this blog I've been fairly candid and revealing in many of my posts. Hopefully, those still following this enjoyed that, but unfortunately, due to the nature of my position flying paying passengers around, and union restrictions being what they are, I'm going to be scaling this thing back a bit and generally share more of the boring and mundane aspects of my career. Also, regulations prevent me from saying anything about our company, so from this point I'll now refer to it as Big Bird airlines. Simple changes, but necessary ones if I want to keep writing. (quick note: anytime you have a chance to make up random names for companies involving Sesame Street characters, you really have to do it.)

I started this wild ride back on July 6th, 2009. Less than 18 months later, I'm sitting in ground school learning to fly a jet. My only regret through this whole process is that ESPN didn't televise my decision.

See you all in few weeks!

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Turkey Day Thoughts

Unless you are bitter, ungrateful, and hate the idea of cornucopias, Thanksgiving has to rank as the most enjoyable holiday currently on our calender. I say currently as it's important to leave space for potential future holidays, because you never know what might come up. For example, before Christ was born, there was no Christmas. See? Glad I'm here to help. Thanksgiving holds special significance for our country because it's one of the few holidays not attached to specific religion. Ramadan might be great for some, but not everyone can participate. Thanksgiving isn't as discriminatory. I love Thanksgiving more than most simply because I can eat more than most. Being gluttonous is not only fun but it's encouraged at the Thanksgiving table, and I plan on doing my part again this year.

But above all Thanksgiving is, well, a time to be thankful. Over the past 15 months of my life the common theme has really been one of inordinate blessing. Time and again hard work and dedication have paid off in ways I never could have envisioned. I can't help but sit here and feel blessed and fortunate to have landed in such a good situation less than two years after basically packing up shop and starting over in life. I'm now firmly entrenched in a career I love with plenty of exciting prospects on the horizon. I feel overwhelmingly thankful for the incredible amount of good fortune I've experienced, especially over the past few weeks. I'm thankful for a loving and supportive family who seemingly cheer on my every move. I'm thankful for the greatest collection of friends a guy could have. I'm thankful for a company that's provided me with endless opportunity. I'm not thankful for the return of McRib, but that's a whole other story.

I'm especially thankful for the exciting career advancements that are just over the horizon: In my last post I previewed my interview with American Eagle. I originally intended to write a lengthy blog recapping the day, but with my schedule has been out of control since I returned from Dallas. At the time it seemed to be a monumental event in my life, but really it was just another day. The trip overall was an enormous success with the exception of me igniting a bag of popcorn in my hotel microwave and nearly causing complete evacuation. No one on the pilot interview committee said anything about my suit reeking of burnt popcorn, so that's really all that needs to be said about that. So to summarize: I can safely fly airplanes all over the country in some of the worst weather imaginable, but cannot be trusted to successfully prepare a microwavable snack. Important note: there are few smells worse than scorched popcorn, especially in a tightly confined area.

Just one day after I flew back from Dallas, I hopped aboard another plane to interview in Memphis with an airline called Pinnacle. The whole idea with these interviews is to get as many in as you can and leave yourself plenty of options in case one company backs out. I don't have any manslaughter convictions in my past and my driving record's clean, so I'm fairly confident that my offer of employment from American Eagle will hold up, and that's where I'll end up. But just in case, it's good to have a Plan B. We're still waiting for official word from Pinnacle Headquarters, but I enter the holiday weekend with my mind already made up which airline I'll go with.

Receiving an offer to work for either company is icing on the cake: I know I'm one of the luckiest people on the planet, and anything I'm able to do in aviation beyond this year is gravy for me. I have a bizarre habit of looking up aviation accident databases and trying to determine what went wrong in fatal crashes; sometimes I think it could easily have been me and one of my students. I guess we never really know when our number will be called, so in this time of indulging myself in turkey and mashed potatoes, I also am allowing myself to count my many, many blessings like never before.

Blessed beyond measure: It's my mantra for this holiday season, and I hope and pray God continues to guide my path in the world of aviation. I'll be back with another post as I prepare to leave flight instructing and head towards the world of commercial airline transport. Happy Thanksgiving to all my readers, and see you again in a few weeks!

Friday, October 1, 2010

A Hundred To Go

"Should I put the flaps in now?"


"You want me to add the flaps man?"

More silence.

"Hey man, you AWAKE over there?!!"

I snap out of my daydreaming and shoot a quick glance at my student, who's puzzled as to why I'm suddenly not paying much attention. I give him the nod of affirmation, and he continues with the before landing checklist. Moments later, he lands us squarely on the runway centerline, advances the throttle to full power, and we take off for yet another lap around Athens' airport.

It's 3:30 on a blistering late August day, and I'm going on my sixth hour of instruction given for today, my twentieth hour this week alone, and for the fifth consecutive month, one hundred hours of flight time. I'd say I'm tired, but that would be like saying Chinese food contains a bit of sodium. Exhausted seems more accurate. So on a 95 degree day, just a few moments after I've plowed through my inflight spaghetti lunch sans flight attendant, I steal a few minutes of gazing at the distant clouds while pretending to flight instruct. The left seat pilot, my student, doesn't mind too much-he's preparing for his first solo flight a few days later- and so he actually welcomes my apathetic and disconnected demeanor. Still not entirely certain of himself, he poses questions like these, almost, I wonder, just to see if I'm still paying attention. I am, but barely. With this heat, a full stomach, and a competent student at the controls, staying awake in the cockpit should merit receiving nothing short of the Nobel Prize.

As a student, I encountered burnt out instructors very early on in my training. I can still recall flying with a guy who, from the minute I cranked up the engine, plugged in his iPod and, like a homeless man riding the city subway, slumped over against the window, reclined the seat, and snoozed for entire two hour duration of the lesson. It's true, and ultimately what cost him his job and his just-beginning aviation career. So, for the sake of any company VP's who might have stumbled across this blog, let's just go ahead and throw it out there: I'm not burnt out. Just tired. But thanks for asking. I'm certain one day I'll look back at my time with this company and be glad I worked here, but the seven days-a-week, jam packed flying schedule has started to take its toll. And because of that, I feel ready to move on.

I've recently surpassed 900 hours of flight time, a number that seven months ago, when I began instructing, seemed insurmountable. When I initially began my flight training getting to this point as an instructor was always on the backburner; I stupidly envisioned myself instructing for just a few months, then immediately being picked up by my dream regional airline and strolling into that shiny jet cockpit with all the graybeard captains applauding my achievements and welcoming me into that exclusive fraternity. I don't how I could have been so naive. There's been a few nibbles of interest from the regional airlines, but nothing concrete. I've seen the airlines gobble up many of MY instructors, making hearing their stories of fast jets, great layovers, and gorgeous flight attendants all the more excruciating. I want to be there with them. Adding insult to injury happens everytime I hear a rumor of an airline hiring someone with fewer hours than me. Did it really happen? Who do I need to call? What's wrong with me? But for every story of someone being hired, I see the other side of the coin as well: a few of my comrades around our Atlanta branch have well in excess of 1,500 hours, and are still waiting for that call. Gulp. That's another six months for me, easy. Could I make it that long?

For some of the crappier regional airlines, 1,000 seems to be the magical number. That's just less than one hundred hours from where I sit now. I'm watching the Hobbs meter closer than ever on my instructing flights, for with every tick gets me another fraction of an hour. While I'm eager to leave my current job and move on to the bigger, fast airplanes, I'm not in a hurry to live in some Newark slum crashpad apartment with eight dudes, one of who is going to inevitably be named Lenny and have horrible hygiene, eat PB&J sandwiches again three meals a day, and live off of $16,000 a year. I'll pass on that, and wait for a more desirable company to hire me. I've got my sights set on a few, and am furiously networking in hopes of landing that first big break. My resume is at their disposal and I fire them off a fresh copy every twenty hours I accumulate, Persistent much? Just enough to have them not become annoyed with me.

As I'm learning, there are no shortcuts to the airlines. It's a mantra I repeat everytime I step inside the Cessna for more pattern work with those rookie pilots. There's not much glamour to be found in flight instruction, and in those moments where I'm daydreaming about greater things, I'm reminded that my time here is not up yet. I've seen too many good pilots lose their jobs as they grow weary of the daily grind and the demands that are placed upon flight instructors. The good news, for me, is that my love for flying remains strong.


I started this post well in excess of a month ago. Actually, I forgot for awhile that I even have a blog. Like a barking dog that needs to be let outside to go to the bathroom, I need to be reminded. In the weeks that followed, I did the unthinkable and INCREASED my flying pace, pushing myself over the vaunted 1,000 hour mark and into realistic consideration for a First Officer position with a regional airline. Those hundred hours were some of the longest of my life, but I'd made it.

And then, on a gloomy October morning, just when I had stopped furiously checking my cell phone every 5 minutes for potential HR pilot recruiters' calls, I got one: a prominent regional airline based in Dallas, not far from where I trained nine months ago:

"Hello, Gabe?"

What do you say when the phone call you've dreamed about is actually happening? There's no manual for how to handle this, but I'm certain you're supposed to suppress your excitement, at least momentarily. I could not. My mouth immediately went desert-dry, and I stammered out a quick-but-nearly-silent, "Yes, it's me." A soothing voice introduced herself as the head of HR for American Eagle airlines, and soon calmed my nerves by offering me an interview date of November 8th, and soon the details were hammered out: I would be receiving a packet of paperwork via email in the next twenty minutes, and it needed to be filled out ASAP. All the minute details of my life, including driving record, education, complete employment history, and even the number of cavities I've had were to be faxed back to company headquarters prior to my interview. The amount of paperwork was overwhelming. Who knew that becoming a pilot would involve the decimation of several Costa Rican rain forests?

The days that followed became a frenzy of hunting and gathering: jobs that I forgot I'd had (Hello, Menards!) suddenly became vital sources of employment data. References from what seemed like the Ice Age were contacted. A complete residence history. Birth Certificate. Worst of all, I had to request my collegiate transcripts. Gulp. Will they care that I could only muster a D in Biology?Regardless, I threw myself into the great search with reckless abandon, and soon, a mound of data had been stockpiled. Now, a week from my interview date, the process is nearly complete. Apparently, at the airlines, it's important to avoid hiring Al-Queda or other people with a propensity to be untrustworthy. Chances are good that if you're a) family, b) a close friend, or even c) a fast-food employee whom I've had minimal interaction with, you'll be contacted for your impressions of me and my ability to safely pilot paying passengers on a big, shiny jet.

My nights now consist of pouring over my old textbooks and aviation charts, hoping to find any glaring weaknesses in my technical knowledge. A buddy and I have started grilling each other with mock interview questions, hoping to get out all the bad answers and polish ourselves up a bit. I bought a new suit. Got my haircut. And in the upset of the century, I'm even going to the dentist to make sure my pearly whites are who we thought they were.

One week to go. In a blog post that started 100 hours from my goal, it's only fitting that I didn't finish it until now, just past 1,000 flight hours. I'll be back in a few weeks to recap the interview and maybe a flying story or two. But for now, it's back to the interview prep. In the words of Bud Light, Here We Go...

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Dog Days

If you had 'Summer 2010' in the When Will Gabe Cease Writing Asanine Blog Posts pool, congratulations, you're today's big winner. I always knew in the back of my mind when I started writing this thing that one day I'd get so busy with other things, namely, flying airplanes, that the blog would the first thing to get neglected. What I didn't realize was just how quickly I'd actually forget I had one. It's true; without the help of a few key readers, we'd actually be attending this blog's funeral today instead of sinking out teeth into another 8-10 paragraphs of nonsense. In many ways, we might have been better off at the cemetery. We're almost 1/3 done with August, and I'm finally getting around to publishing a post I started in mid-June. I don't know how much more a blog can be dead without actually being dead.

For people who still stumble towards this site, it's been some fairly routine time in the air with scant moments of terror or otherwise noteworthy events. I don't really have any great stories from a summer's worth of flying, and since I'm on salary I can no longer provide details of my sandwich consuming escapades. So in fairness to all parties-you, the disgruntled reader, me, the overworked and underpaid fledgling blogger, and of course this kid-let's recap the last few months and crank out another post and stave off the inevitable demise of this blog for at least another month. Everybody wins right? I won't make any promises, but check back in a few weeks and maybe I'll have something else here too.

It's 8:15 A.M. and I have $23,000 in my pocket. Mine? Nope-if it were, I'd already be downing mai tais and basking in the Caribbean sun. The money in question is designated for flight training, given to me from a few students, and ultimately headed to my company, who by some crazy distortion of a job description, has entrusted me to transport said funds to the bank. I'm a pilot, but days like today my Silver Tauras is transformed into one of these babies for the 4 mile drive to Bank of America. It's one of the many duties that hardly pertain to flying airplanes, but yet are essential in order for me to continue cashing paychecks. Other tasks include, but definitely not limited to, emptying trash, mopping floors, scrubbing down sinks, and making sure I don't forget my glass slippers on the way out of the midnight ball.

Even if my life were as simple as just flying airplanes; I'd still be overwhelmingly busy. As I totaled up my logbook last night, I came away with some staggering numbers: in the past four months I've flown 392 hours, more than doubling my time to where it sits today at 730 flight hours. It's been a grueling pace and has taken its toll in ways too numerous to count. I honestly will never know or understand how I've been able to survive it. Countless days have been spent entirely at the airport, often arriving before 7AM and leaving well after midnight, resting in between each flight or ground lesson with barely enough time to eat a meal standing up, on the run, or, in the case of a few days, in the airplane. Any sembalance of a normal existence is long gone from my life; I said a year ago that I all I wanted to do was fly airplanes. Wish granted-it's all I ever do. Plenty of sacrifices have been made, and there's probably an infinite amount that I've yet to make. The good news is that I still absolutely love to fly airplanes. The same joy I felt on my first lesson is still the prevailing factor in why I do what I do. Even on the worst of days, when the temperature probe reads 105 degrees inside the airplane and I'm getting tossed around the air like a ball of Papa John's dough and my student is doing everything he can to try to kill me, there is simply nothing I'd rather be doing than flying airplanes. I still consider myself impossibly lucky to be a pilot.

The bad news is that I've decided I hate writing about flying. It's also possible that I hate writing in general, but mostly I loathe trying to recreate the excitement and drama that comes with having a job as an instructor pilot. It would be far more interesting if I were to mount a video camera on the windshield aimed towards capturing my facial expressions If there's any billionaire television executives among my readership, please email me; we're sitting on a gold mine. Our first episode would feature me rolling my eyes in disgust as I sit through another excrutiatingly painful story about how great of a helicopter pilot my student claims to be while botching a routine maneuver. Later, during our debriefing session on the ground, a computer could record my brainwaves as I drift off towards thoughts of pizza and tacos instead of focusing on teaching him the Federal Aviation Regulations. And finally, as he boats to the other instructors in the office about how great his lesson went, I'll be just a few feet behind, making repeated throat-slash gestures, warning the other pilots NOT to fly with him. This would be entertaining TV.

Please don't get the wrong idea: I am very fortunate to have the job I've got, and I especially enjoy the teaching aspect of it. There are, however, the occassional goons who sign up for our multi-engine training program and come in with a multitude of aviation experience, and thus, believe they are God's chosen gift to aviation. I've learned that it's the arrogant, cocky, and boastful pilots usually require my absolute full attention during their flights, as they prove to be among the weakest in terms of ability. My mantra from Day 1 as a student pilot was to be humble and teachable and soak up as much knowledge as I could from those willing to invest in me. The majority of my trainees are this way and it's a pleasure to bring them along in their aviation journey. But the others...make me almost not want to fly. Almost.

For now, I continue to plow ahead with my head down and focused on my goals. In a few months, I'll hit 1,000 hours, a milestone that most days still seems unbelievably far away. With my multi-engine experience, I should be in a decent position when the regional airlines start hiring again. While I don't want to get my hopes up, there are hints of an impending pilot shortage, talks of industry growth over the next few years, and a surprising optimism surrounding aviation that hasn't been around since well before I started flying. I reflect an awful lot, probably more than I should, but as I make the final rounds at the airport before heading home, emptying the trash and vacuuming the ground school classrooms, my prevailing feeling is just how happy I am to be established on the journey. And regardless of how it all turns out, vindication that I made a great decision.

One more random story from my life, and then we're done:

Sometime in May, we received notice of an upcoming meeting scheduled for early Friday morning. Begrudgingly we gathered at the airport and learned the bad news: our company had decided to close our downtown Atlanta location, meaning us flight instructors turned into professional movers, complete with U-Haul trucks, dollys, and standard issue moving clothes. It was possibly the last thing any of us instructor pilots wanted to do with our Friday. After spending the entire day hauling filing cabinets, desks, and even ferrying airplanes across the city to our newer location out in the suburbs, we were nearly finished as I grabbed two large glass picture frames in each hand, and proceeded to haul them across the hanger. A simple task, right? I reached the 3/4 mark point, and just as I looked down and noticed the sweat dripping down towards my right hand, one of the picture frames slipped from my grasp, and as I shuffled to try and prevent it from shattering on the ground, the other frame split open on my hand, gashing my thumb down the middle, spilling blood all over the freshly painted hangar floor. I was no longer a professional mover-I was now a professional idiot. My disdain for hospitals notwithstanding, I shrugged off the injury as needing only a Bandaid and I'd be good to go. After all I still had a flight to complete that night, and not even amputation would stop me from going. But in just a few minutes, it became clear the injury was more severe than I thought. By now the pool of blood on the floor was accumulating rapidly. Our Chief Pilot ran over and instructed another pilot to load me in his car and head for the ER immediately. What? Six hours later, I emerged victoriously from the Gwinnett County Medical Center, with 9 stitches and a bandage covering my entire right hand. I made my flight that night, but a few weeks later, when the injury hadn't healed properly, I earned a well-deserved week long vacation as my company implemented a forced rest period while the now-infected hand injury cleared up. Now, I've done some awfully crazy things so far in my career as a pilot. I've certainly flown through weather I shouldn't have, and without a doubt have been saved from a mid-air collision or two by mere seconds. Apparently neither of those things are as dangerous as helping your boss move a few boxes around. And so last month, when a few of the other instructors helped somebody move apartments, I was hardly surprised when a company memo surfaced, instructing me to sit this one out.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Getting My Reps

So much of life is about reps: The more we do something, the better we become. Think knitting, public speaking, or even juggling chainsaws. I'd like to think that's the idea behind my life right now-fly airplanes as often as possible to become as safe and proficient of a pilot as possible. Most days, this works out fairly well: I wake up, wolf down a few bowls of Golden Crisp, then head to the airport for 12-14 hour duty days. Fly all over the Southeastern U.S., head home, plow through some food, and collapse my exhausted body onto the bed and repeat. Not that I've become some type of flying cyborg, but somewhere between today and four months ago, I lost track of time and realized I don't really do much else besides fly airplanes or talk about flying airplanes. It's a good thing, because I'm accumulating flight time faster than Lindsey Lohan racks up misdemeanors. Around the hangar I've become known as the flight snake-if there's an unscheduled flight, I'm usually the one who willingly takes the trip. The more reps, the better. Right?

That's what I figured last week as I volunteered my services for a trip up to Bowling Green, KY. My student and I waited around for most of the day, hoping a line of thunderstorms southeast of Nashville would dissipate. As one can probably imagine, thunderstorms combine all the greatest possible threats to flying safely, especially in our little multi engine airplane: hail, severe turbulence, intense winds, and the possibility of a lightning strike. The overall rule is to avoid active thunderstorm cells by at least twenty miles, however, it may surprise you that lightning strikes in large jetliners are actually a relatively common occurrence. Although it's not recommended to request this to the pilots next time you fly commercially, if it does happen, expect a loud, explosive type noise and maybe to be jostled in your seat momentarily. Scour the internet for this and you'll find enough reasons to probably never choose to fly again. But the good news is that you will survive. In the meantime, here's your piece of aviation knowledge for today: all aircraft are equipped with static wicks, small, tube like devices attached to the trailing edge of the wings. Since the bulk of an airplane's exterior is composed of aluminum (hint: a very good conductor of electricity), there has to be a way for the charge to flow safely away from the aircraft in the event it is struck. Static wicks allow the safe discharge of the electricity away from the plane. Despite being a device of such small stature, we are not allowed to take off in our aircraft if missing any of our nine static wicks.

Back to my trip up to Kentucky. We waited until just after 6PM, when finally it appeared on radar that there was enough of a gap for us to make the flight. I assisted my student with the preflight preparation, checking especially to make sure our electrical system looked good and running my fingers across each and every static wick. We were good to go. With the help of air traffic control, we picked our way around a few of the cells and made a largely uneventful first leg of the journey.

A quick bite to eat and my student and I were back at the aircraft, prepping for the night return trip. By this time, most of the buildup had concentrated just north of Nashville and was headed east, giving us enough a window to make it back towards Atlanta. And this is where my night got a little interesting.

One of the intricacies of flying, is the various methods used to obtain an IFR clearance from different airports. (IFR stands for instrument flight rules and allows aircraft to penetrate clouds and fly with the radar assistance of air traffic control) At my home base, for example, we simply contact the control tower, who coordinates with Atlanta Approach our departure heading, route, altitude, anything else that may come up. At an 'uncontrolled' field, however, it's a bit different. Pilots have several options, with the best one usually being to dial up a Flight Service Station and obtain a clearance that way. On this night, we spoke with a very green sounding lady in Louisville. Tentative in her delivery, she seemed perplexed as to the directions she was dispensing: "Seminole 1221K is, uh, cleared to the, um, Gwinnett County airport, at, er, BWG, via the Choo-Choo VOR, and, climb to, hmm...let's see, 7,000 and contact, uh, Memphis on 133.85, squawk 1642." Most of the time ATC and the affiliated organizations do an absolutely phenomenal job with every aspect of their responsibilities. However, this was one of the choppiest clearances I'd ever received. Moreover, it was late, I was tired, and the rain was beginning to slap across our windshield. My student had fumbled through copying it down, so I gave a readback over the mic and prepared us for takeoff.

Our departure runway was 21, meaning we were positioned to fly a slightly southwest course. My plan was to continue that heading until we reached a high enough altitude for Memphis Center to pick us up on their radar, usually in the neighborhood of 2,000 feet. At that point, I was expecting them to give us the go ahead to proceed direct to Chattanooga, and then on in to Gwinnett.

A few moments after takeoff, the street lights below us began to disappear. I looked off to my left, and saw nothing but the bright flash of my anti-collision light pulsating against the thick, cumulus clouds that had now enveloped our aircraft. Through the intermittent bursts of light, I could see that the rain was coming down harder. Suddenly, our little airplane caught a huge updraft and we ballooned 1,500 feet in what seemed like a second. My heart pounded as I knew instantly what was happening: we had inadvertently flown into the outer portions of the thunderstorm. Memphis Center, oblivious to our plight, was busy diverting and repositioning aircraft inbound to Nashville. I gave quick thought to turning around, then decided against it. The rain splattered against the windshield with greater force. I gripped my seatbelt, searching for some sort of security. My student, who for the previous few moments was chatting about the trip excitedly, was now decidedly silent. Turbulence tossed us around, jolting the aircraft up and then down again in rapid succession. Back in my private pilot days, this was the type of stuff I'd read about, and vowed to avoid at all costs. But we were in it. I kept a careful eye on the instruments, focusing on indications I prayed would hold true: Airspeed? Good. Altimeter? Fluctuating, but acceptable. Flight attitude? Level. I turned off the anti-collision lights as they were serving little purpose now.

Rain came down implausibly harder. It was as though God was dumping oceans directly atop the airplane. I'd never seen so much water. I gave the engine gauges a once-over, hoping against anything else now would not be the time I'd experience my first engine failure. Complete darkness surrounded us. Each raindrop, multiplied by the thousands, cascaded against the aircraft fuselage, sounding more like gunshots than precipitation. This is what fear in an airplane felt like.

And then, inexplicably, we punched through the final cloud layer. The rain stopped. City lights reappeared. The aircraft steadied out. The loud pelting of rain on aluminum was replaced by the relaxing hum of the propellers. We made it.

A few moments later, a crystal clear radio transmission came through:

Seminole 1221K, Memphis Center....

"Center, 21K, go ahead sir."

21K looks like you guys pierced through a pretty good sized cell there, everything ok?

"Roger, a bit of heavy precip but not much else, 21K" (For whatever reason I always downplay things with ATC.) I should have said, "MAYDAY MAYDAY, we are actually submerged up to our navals in rainwater." That would have been more accurate.

21K glad to hear, just out of curiosity what was your clearance?

As I reached for my clearance sheet, it hit me: the lady up in Louisville hadn't been wrong. I was stupefied as I read back what I'd written down. I had unintentionally vectored myself and my student into the worst weather I've experienced yet. On takeoff I'd continued a 210 heading a few moments too long when, according to the sheet I held in my hands, I should have flown something in the neighborhood of a 170. Those forty degrees ended up being the difference between a nice relaxing night flight and a terrifying learning experience.

I waited for a response from Memphis Center, knowing I had just inadvertently deviated from an IFR clearance in a non-emergency situation. Fortunately, the gentleman came back over the frequency with a calming voice, assuring me there'd be no action against me. He was glad we were ok, and reminded us that in the event of any uncertainty, always request clarification. I thanked him, and he transferred us to the next controller, and that was it.

Reps. I learned something that night, and so did my student. A few hours later, back on the ground just outside of Atlanta, we were both weary but glad to have a story to tell. I'd survived my first thunderstorm and even picked up an extra bit of IFR knowledge along the way.

That's why I love my job: everything I do all adds up to experience. And ultimately, these reps are what's making me better. Experience counts. So while you're not on my airplane yet, one day you will be, and that's why I'm doing everything I can to ensure moments like this happen now and not while you're sitting in the back, relaxing and chowing down on those awful pretzels.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Happy Anniversary

It's 3:30 PM and the school day has just ended. A herd of adolescent boys are meandering their way out through the gymnasium doors, still licking wounds and applying ice packs from another infamous dodgeball beatdown courtesy of Mr. Gabe. My end-of-day routine over the past few years of teaching has not changed: gather up the scattered equipment, turn off the lights, shut the windows, and retreat to my office to plan the next day's events. Today, however, is different: I've got an appointment at a nearby flight school to take my first flying lesson, a discovery flight with a real flight instructor in a real airplane. I've been planning this day for a few months now, and in thinking that it's finally here has relegated the other events of today to the Land of Forgotten Priorities. It's a miracle I even remembered to show up to school today, much less teach lessons effectively. In just a few minutes, I'll be at the controls of a Cessna 172, the first step in what I hope to be an incredible journey. The entire day has been consumed with my head in the clouds as I anticipate the things to come. What will it be like? I can hardly wait. The minutes on my stopwatch tick ever slower once the afternoon comes, almost as though it were taunting me. Three times in the past week I'd made similar appointments with this pilot, only to be denied once because of weather and twice because of work commitments. If it doesn't happen today, I'm not sure what I'll do. I only know one thing: I cannot wait to find out what it's like to fly.

I sprint to my car and make it out of the parking lot ahead of the school buses, much to the dismay of my principal, who knows nothing of my ambitions to fly airplanes and even less about dodgeball. No matter; the lure of the skies is real, and I've got an appointment to keep. Each stoplight along the way is an eternity, each soccer-Mom minivan seems to go 5 MPH slower than the previous one. I'm driving in quicksand today. That's what it feels like.

With my Mapquest directions printout riding shotgun, I navigate closer to the airstrip and a few moments later I step out of my car and gaze out upon the runway. For some, airports hold the same level of appeal as pumpkin pie. To me, they've always had a certain mystique to them, like a forbidden world full of hope and excitement. Airports are, for the most part, a happy place: people are excited for vacations, for honeymoons, to visit family, or to see an old friend. Airports connect people. Who doesn't love that? Even disgruntled businessmen love airports and airplanes, if for nothing else than an excuse to guzzle scotch at 30,000 feet.

A few moments later, I step into the main offices and meet Eric, the pilot who I'm entrusting the next sixty minutes of my life to. I sign some paperwork, a formality really, saying that my family cannot sue his family if we somehow crash and become a flaming rubble. It wouldn't have mattered what the document said; the airplane's sitting just a few feet away, ready for us to climb in and takeoff. I would have signed over my life savings at that point, I would have signed over my allegiance to the Green Bay Packers-anything to get inside that plane and off this ground.

I don't remember much from that first flight. It was like being in a dream. Just a few moments after the landing gear lifted off, the instructor gave me the flight controls. Me. Flying an airplane. How are you supposed to act the first time you experience a dream come true? I did my best to stay composed, but inside I was busting. It was the best feeling I'd ever experienced. The entire hour was surreal.

In the weeks that followed, I began to detach myself to the elementary school and became more absorbed in the pursuit of my dream to fly. Soon I was bringing in pilot textbooks and reading them during my prep periods. Once I'd tasted flight, everything else became insignificant. I had to fly again.

This past week marked exactly one year ago that I decided to embark on what's been the wildest journey of my life. I would have never guessed it would turn out the way it has. I'm often asked if I have regrets. Would I, if given the chance, turn back the clock to last April and tell myself to forget about flying? Listen closely: there is something, inside each of us, that yearns for greatness. Lying dormant in some perhaps, but it's there. And had I let my fears or reservations about taking on this challenge dissuade me from diving in, I would have never discovered the drive that lay within me. No matter what happens from this point forward, I'm cool with my decision with no regrets. I've been incredibly lucky to have made it this far. I've still got light years to go, but I'm closer now than I was a year ago. By the end of this month, I'll have accumulated more than 500 flight hours and a lifetime's worth of memories from the skies. I'm a pilot now, but most importantly, I am living my dream.

Tomorrow, at 5:30 PM, I'm scheduled to conduct an intro flight for a prospective student. We'll take off and I'll hand over the controls a few moments later, vectoring us around to see the local sights. He'll get a taste of what it's like to fly an airplane. Forgive me if I get a bit nostalgic as I look across the cockpit and see ambitions come to life for the first time. Happy Anniversary...

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The Long March To 1,500

"Seminole 256AT, radar contact, climb and maintain 7,000, clear direct Crimson VOR."

It's just a shade past 9PM and my student and I are headed back to home base after a day chock full of flying. As cross country flights go, they really don't come any more pleasant than this: my student is, despite his minimal experience, competent at the controls and thorough in his checklist usage, allowing me a few moments of reflection as we enter our cruise altitude. The air is smooth as glass and the sky is devoid of other aircraft here in central Alabama. Our route is free of turbulence and clouds, making these absolute ideal conditions for some night flying. You can see the stars for miles and for that reason, the world seems smaller on this night. Aside from the occasional airliner Captain reporting in with a new altitude, our only combatant against the peaceful dark silence is the constant hum of the propellers. If we can keep our speed up and receive a clearance vector from Atlanta approach control, there's still a chance I can make it to my bed by midnight.

Two months in to full time instructing, moments as these are rare. The days are packed tighter than a blackberry crepe, often times with more obligations than hours needed to fulfill. A couple of scheduled flights, a few hours of ground school, maybe toss in a simulator session or two, and before I can say je suis fatigue it's time to prepare for the next day. Nevermind eating; usually I'm about two meals behind. The days blend together so much that I'm constantly asking my non-pilot friends to confirm what day it is. "Wait, it's Friday? I thought it was Tuesday." No kidding. Happens twice a week.

I'm not complaining. It's an observation, and I'm ok with the schedule. Actually, I never thought it was possible that one could truly love a job. I absolutely love to fly airplanes and feel fortunate to have the job I want in the location I want. I love what I do. And unlike dominating my former 4th grade arch rival students in dodgeball, it's tough.

Each day brings forth new challenges. Right now, I'm struggling to convey the intricate aviation knowledge that I only recently acquired into my students' craniums during a ground school session. If not in the classroom, then I'm in the air, where I deliberately fail engines at dangerously low altitudes, all part of FAA-approved and company mandated pilot training. No pun intended, but flight instructing really is a crash course in becoming a pilot. I'm safe enough to survive my students' mistakes and fly across the country, but am I a good pilot? It's the question that no one can answer now that I'm done with checkrides. If we follow the federal aviation regulations and make it safely from A to B, does that count? What about if my students' keep passing their checkrides? Any credit for that? The short answer is that I don't know. In other endeavors, success is easily identifiable. In flight training, it's a bit more ambiguous, and short of me preventing a student from slamming our aircraft into terrain, I'm not sure what parameters I could use. These are the things I think about.

I also think about the road ahead, and how with every hour of flying time I'm able to log, the goal is that much closer to reality. To be sure, it's still a long, long ways off: the benchmark of aviation experience is determined through flight hours. While I've achieved the necessary ratings to fly for a living and even instruct others, I'm still a rookie in the greybeard pilot's eye, and rightfully so. No airline worth a bag of salted pretzels would even consider touching a pilot with under 500 hours, with many airlines' hiring minimums well in excess of 1,000 hours. For me, I've set my sights on 1,500 hours, the minimum criteria to apply for what's known as the doctorate of aviation: Airline Transport Pilot. It's the highest rating a pilot can earn, and short of getting hired by a small freight company prior to that mark, I plan on flight instructing as a means to reach that end. A quick glance at the logbook shows I have light years to go, but with every botched student pilot landing I survive, I'm that much closer to attaining it. Ever save up spare change in hopes of one day taking a vacation? For every nickel and quarter you put in, it might add up to something great. Same concept here, only the road to 1,500 seems like a slow crawl some days. Maybe I need to quit making logbook entries after every flight. Maybe I need to snake more flights from the tired and experienced instructors. Or maybe I need to stop daydreaming and just enjoy the journey a bit more.

Perhaps that's why I enjoy night flight so much. The tranquility that the darkness offers allows me to relax and breathe easy, knowing that my student is straight-and-level at cruise altitude with minimal workload. The goals I have and the dreams I'm chasing-they'll come in time. For now, the drive to get there is a grueling one, yet it's the exact place I'd choose to be 100 times over. So tomorrow, as I embark on yet another long trip well after sunset, this time to Daytona Beach, forgive me if I take another moment or two to sit back, enjoy the air, and reflect. With one eye on my student, of course.