“Time flies never to be recalled…”
We are all born with a finite number of sand pebbles in that big hourglass of time. They drop relentlessly, and no matter what our thoughts or feelings, they continue their eternal trip from the top to the bottom. Our last day on this planet begins its march to meet us at the fateful moment the delivery room doctor slaps our bum, and we struggle to take that first sweet breath of air.
Wasting a single tick from the clock, wishing for days gone by, is a waste of a precious moment never to return. However, if those moments are spent recalling fond memories of people and places, then I offer that the minutes spent are certainly not in vain, but are added to our “Zen bank account of joy”…and that’s a very good thing. But wishing to be “back in the good old days” seems pointless, for chances are very high that they were not as good as we remember them to be. The evil twin sister to this “pining away for the past” program, the insidious and sometimes worse trickster labelled “yearning for days yet to be lived”, can be just as damaging to the psyche. Plus, it’s as much of a waste of those beloved ticks of the clock as the former, for the folly is a fool’s wish to be certain. That my friends, is the subject of this Logbook entry.
Newsflash. We are all guilty of it. I recall early childhood days, wishing for the end of summer vacation knowing that the money from all those hours spent mowing the neighborhood lawns, will finally end in the purchase of that glorious little blue Bonanza mini-bike. Flash forward to later in life, dreaming of that wonderful day when the company president hands you the golden watch, shakes your hand one last time, and hustles you out the door. Every human is guilty of the crime, for we all have “wished” for a future that pleases us, when we should be basking in the current tick of the clock known as “the now”.
(The object of many a 7th grade dream…the Bonanza mini-bike. The beginning of my love of the two-wheeled wonders.)
(The traditional way an old airline Pelican is greeted after his/her final landing.)
Nowadays I find myself often sharing the cockpit with men and women who are younger than myself. And by younger, I mean somewhere in the “half my age” mode of younger. Side note; I recently had a new First Officer, during some idle chit-chat on our flight to Anchorage, query me about the year I had been hired at Northwest Orient Airlines. I offered, “1983.” He countered with “What month?”, my retort “November”. (I could tell where this was going…maybe his smirk was a tip-off…lol) And his final question, “What DAY?” Oh, no…here we go. After my reply of “the 14th…”, he thought for a moment, and dropped the bomb. “You had been in new-hire ground school for two weeks WHEN I WAS BORN.” We laughed, and I “counter-bombed” him. “Oh yeah, well I was going to buy you a beer in Alaska, but CLEARLY you’re not of legal drinking age (he was), so I’ll spring for a glass of reindeer milk for you!”
So, it seems that these young folks are benefiting from a pilot shortage that I first heard about way back during the 1970s as I began the early days of my college career. You know “THE PILOT SHORTAGE” due to the Vietnam War, and its voracious appetite for aircrew members. Those gentlemen were now too old for the airlines, and that would benefit us young bucks greatly. In those days, there were three big “career killers” when applying for an airline job. No four-year college degree you say? Come back in four years with that new sheepskin in your hand. You lack 20/20 vision you say? See ya “four eyes”! Ever thought of becoming a librarian? And the one that killed many a prospective career; OVER THE AGE OF 30! Sorry Gramps, once you stop drooling on your chin, we have nice rocking chair on the porch out back for you. Oh, and we have a cuddly warm blanket for your lap too.
If you fell into any of those categories, you need not apply…period. But unfortunately for my generation, that shortage never happened. They are called “black swan” events; man-made or a freak of nature, they can hit the airline industry harder than Mike Tyson hitting Holyfied. We most certainly had one during the 1970s, it was called the “oil crisis”, and it hit the world like a proverbial maximum magnitude quake.
(Tyson v Holyfield)
Gas prices skyrocketed, and supply was way down. You couldn’t just drop into your trusty Shell station and top off your Ford Pinto. No, you had “even and odd days” (based on your license plate number) when you could fill your vehicles gas tank. When that magical day rolled around, you’d better not try it during your lunch hour, for the lines of cars at your gas station would literally wind around the block! Airport tarmacs were lined with parked Boeings, Lockheeds and McDonald Douglas products, and pilots were “hitting the bricks” (furloughed). My old college roomie Rick K. , within a year of leaving our campus, was hired by American Airlines to be an entry-level Flight Engineer on the Boeing 727. However, due to the jet fuel prices (and some very questionable management decisions), less than twelve months later he found himself hanging storm doors (among other things) for the next 3+ years.
(Gas lines at the Texaco. My Dad’s red Ford Pinto is in there somewhere.)
(Beautiful Boeing 707s to be put out to pasture.)
Shortage? Hell, the only real shortage back then was in the form of a gallon of “Jet A” kerosene that wasn’t being held ransom by the powers that be in the Middle East. Need a pilot? The dude bagging your groceries probably had an ATP and several thousand hours in the cockpit. Clearly, the forecast of a huge “pilot shortage” way back then was in error, but this time it actually seems to be accurate. I’m glad for the young pilots that are profiting from it…good on them, timing is everything in this industry.
As the crisis began to abate, and the carriers were recalling furloughs and hiring new pilots, where did that leave me back in the early years of my 20’s? It left me wishing that my training days would come to a quick ending, and I could get on with my plan of working for the major airlines. Somehow, with them over, I would be a slight bit older, far more “qualified” with a spanking new Bachelor’s degree, a laundry-list of ratings and licenses, and a few hundred more precious flight hours. The next vision in my “can’t wait for the future” fantasy, had me strolling onto a gleaming new jet airliner. Picture say, Leonardo Dicaprio. Tall, coiffed, adorned in perfectly tailored pilot garb, and worn to within an inch of its life. Yep, life would be good…no actually, life would be awesome! All my troubles would be over, I could sit back, bask in my glory, and spend the next 40 year career trying to figure out those deep, “Rubix Cube” type riddles. You know the ones… like…red Porsche or black? What a ignoramus I was…
With that said, I decided to write myself a letter. A note as it were, from “the now” person with four additional decades of aviation wisdom, to the impetuous, impatient, young man back “then”.
14 March 2020
Dear (younger, circa 1977) BBall,
You’re a moron. There, I got it out of the way early in the blather, and now we can get down to the reason for this letter (btw…[that means “by the way” in my time world]…the postage for this letter was more than the gross national income of Paraguay).
Give Mom, Dad and your sister Teriesa my love. Sadly, you will lose her less than six years hence, and both of them a scant ten years later. Fortunately, you won’t remember any of this paragraph, save the “give them my love” part. Selective amnesia is a good thing…just wait until you’re married…it’ll make more sense then.
I know your flight training is going well, for those memories may fade a bit with time, but they never leave. Your instructors are smarter than you (trust me), they’re better aviators than you (trust me), and they will teach you many things. Do your best to listen to them …actually LISTEN to them, for their yarns of personal success and failure will serve you well.
Remember the day of your first “real” emergency in a flying machine? I’m sure you do, for it was early in your college flying life. You were in the infant stages of obtaining your Commercial License, and most of the required 250 hours would be spent “solo” working alone on your Chandelles, Lazy 8s, Turns About a Point, Stalls, and the myriad other maneuvers you would be tested on at the regular “Phase Checks” with the instructor cadre.
You and your roommate, Dan F., launched into a bright-blue, clear Oklahoma morning headed toward the “practice area” located west over the confines of Lake Texoma. Unbeknownst to your instructors (back at the Eaker Field home base), you and he had hatched a plan to meet over the Texoma dam and do a little “dog-fighting” in your little Cessna 150s. (The non-aerobatic rated version…the 150K “Aerobat” version is rated at +6 to -3 Gs…these were definitely not rated for that) What could possibly go wrong?
(Cessna 150K Aerobat.)
You flew out in a “loose” formation, extended away from each other, did the “merge and the fight’s on” thing, and off to the races you went! Twisting, turning, pulling Gs (not many mind you), and it was all such a tremendous amount of fun! You were Manfred von Richthofen and Albert Ball, over Flanders fields, vying to send the other down in flames. You were Richard Bong and Saburo Saki, battling over the warm blue waters of the Pacific, each with respectful malice in their hearts. You were doing what those gladiators of the sky did, and it was amazing. You were their brethren, and you loved every second of it.
(Albatross DV, circa 1917 during “the Great War”…seems like the ultimate oxymoron.)
Then it happened. The loud “BANG!” and your heart skipped a beat. Did you snap a wing spar? Did you lose an engine mount? Your immediate thought of “maybe we better knock this stuff off, and get these little birds back to their nest” was the smartest idea you had all day. You moved the yoke to recover to a wings-level attitude and you found the issue. The cable in the wing had popped off of the pulley system and you had no aileron control! Elevators and rudder were fine, but with no roll control, this might be a bit tricky. OK, jam on a rudder pedal to level the wings, push forward on the yoke to get the nose down and let Dan know what’s happening. A terse “roger” was all you got on the discreet radio frequency you and he had agreed to communicate on earlier.
(Home base. Eaker Field, Oklahoma.)
Make a gentle skidding turn toward the field, start a slow descent and try not to panic (or cry, or wet thyself). Thank God the air was like glass, and after a very long final approach, you touched down on runway 35, and began the process of breathing again. After taxiing to the university maintenance hangar, and painting an “I have no idea what happened, I was just doing my maneuvers, and bang…it just happened…” picture to Denny, the mechanic, he told me to tell one of the instructors, and thanks for getting the machine home in one-piece. I don’t remember my instructor’s reaction, but I’d guess that he knew the story was B.S. (heck, I’m sure he did the same stupid crap when he was a young bird-man).
(Maintenance hangar at Eaker Field, Durant, Oklahoma. The “straight-tailed, tuna-tanked” Cessna 310A to the left was the machine that I did my multi-engine training in.)
Dan and I went back to the apartment, ate lunch, went to a bar, drank beer and played Foosball the rest of the afternoon. We didn’t speak of it (ever), for I think we both realized that things might have gone very badly over the lake. It looks like one of us dodged a bank of questions at an FAA inquiry, and the other probably dodged a grave marker. (Note; of the three famous pilots mentioned above, Saburo Saki is the lone person NOT destined to die in the cockpit of a warplane.)
You learned…thank God you learned. Fear is a great teacher, and it’s a good thing that you weren’t so stupid/ignorant/cocky that you felt immortal around those beautiful flying machines. You needed that day, you needed that lesson, and you needed the hundreds more that would come during the next 3 years of training in the skies over Oklahoma and North Texas. You were good back then (the awards on your office wall will someday attest to that), but you were most assuredly not “seasoned”. That would come in the ink black nights flying freight over the Sandia mountain range, and in the years spent moving turboprop “commuter airliners” across the Southern U.S. You would get that precious thing called experience (just a fancy way of saying “wisdom”) the hard way…you would earn it. I’m sorry to say this my young friend, but you will lose friends and colleagues along the way. The sky can be as cruel as it can be beautiful.
(SA-226TC Swearingin Metroliner flown by my first “airline”, Scheduled Skyways of Fayetteville, Arkansas.)
(A newly minted “baby Captain”. My first command came in 1980…maybe juuust a few years ago…lol.)
You will work very hard in the next few years, the studying, the testing, the “sweaty-palmed” flights with a University Staff Instructor critiquing your every move (you will become one of those instructors your last year of school), and then the pay off. Spending an entire afternoon with the dude sporting a badge reading “(insert name here), FAA Inspector”. They grilled you in the room, they grilled you in the cockpit, and your handling of the machine had better be AT LEAST as good as the “spot on” correct answers to their questions. You can “talk the talk” in the briefing room, but if you can’t “walk the walk” in front of all of those dials and gauges, in the high stress world of the clouds…then go home and maybe check into becoming that librarian we mentioned earlier.
As the ratings got more advanced (like the Instrument Rating, the Multi-engine Rating, the Certified Flight Instructor Certificate, the CFI-Instrument Certificate, the Multi-engine Flight Instructor Certificate), things got harder…really harder. More studying, and more stress. Thank God you lived/ate/drank and breathed this stuff. You saw classmates fade; their dream of the gleaming airlines simply wasn’t like yours. They wanted the prize; they just didn’t have “the fire in the belly” to get them through. You would see that later in your training when you moved to the right seat of the cockpit and became the Instructor Pilot. You saw those that were there because their Moms/Dads/Uncles, etc. worked for the airlines, and they were expected to also. They had loves and passions to be sure, it’s just that their dreams didn’t come with wings.
As the Instructor, you were now “the dude”. You will never (I’ll say it again, you will NEVER) learn something as well as when you have to teach it to others. You know your stuff pretty well, but this is not that. You have to truly know it, not just the answer, but the “why” of the answer. You learn the most grievous sin is to bull*hit the student. If you don’t know the answer, TELL THEM THAT, and that you’ll do some research and get back to them. No one likes a “poser”.
You will learn to become a resident “aviation expert”, a mentor, a friend, an antagonist, a psychologist, and a pseudo “life coach”…all rolled into one. You will praise, you will scold, and you too will sweat their first solo flight being anchored to the Earth (portable radio in hand) as they do their “3 circuits and a full stop landing”. You will sit by the phone after sundown anxiously waiting to hear if they’ve made it home from their first solo “cross-country” flight. Somehow when you did these things as a student, you never once thought that the Instructor might be WAY more nervous than you.
ALL of this journey you need, for you will not be the aviator you wish to be without it. Just as importantly, you must learn to APPRECIATE the walk through those days, it paints the picture of “perspective” that you will need to survive the next phase of your pilot pilgrimage.
One last thing…and this will fade from your memory (like the second paragraph) the moment you close this letter.
You will be blessed with an adventure through the skies that many in your shoes will never have. You will visit exotic places of beauty that God himself still marvels at, you will fly machines that you will love, and ones that you will most certainly not love. Your rewards will come monetarily to be sure, but the greatest gifts that your life in the sky will bestow upon you is the people you will meet. They will come in the shape of roommates, Instructors, students, First Officers, mechanics, Captains, doctors (don’t forget your journey includes the FAA medical folks…they have a BIG say in this story), passengers, and just the everyday folks you’ll spend a brief moment with on this passage of the next forty years.
(A couple of my all-time favorite machines that I’ve flown during my airline career. The McDonnel Douglas DC-10.)
(And the Boeing 767-300ER. I’ll have you know that I DID NOT taxi this thing into the gate that far off the centerline! We were towed in and the Tokyo tug driver porked it up…seriously!)
They will capture your heart, and they will add fun, spice, knowledge and joy to your life. Some will become life-long “brothers” (and “sisters”), and some will occupy but a scant moment in your life. I know you’re thinking, “Hell, I’ve been on this rock 23 years! Flying for 7 of the them, so don’t speak to me like I’m a total idiot old man!” I most sincerely am not. Just know that you have an almost indescribably wonderful life awaiting you (yes, you will have pain and heartache, but that’s all part of the package). This is a path that you are now just beginning, and it will be long, winding, and arduous at times. It will give you joy and stress, and it will most certainly try your commitment to your dream. Never let the dream of the prize get in the way of the love of the walk. You’ll get there. It takes time, it’s supposed to.
Love your life. Make it worth loving. It’s a long journey, enjoy every step.
BBall (from the future)
A scant few of the thousands of amazing sights I’ve seen along my journey:
(Some of the hundreds of active volcanoes along the Aleutian chain of islands.)
(Mount Fuji, Japan.)
(Over the South China Sea, following an Airbus 380 into SEL.)
(Sunset over Inchon, South Korea.)
(Circa 1989; Checkpoint Charlie, Berlin “West Germany”. This was a few months after Reagan’s famous “tear down this wall” speech and the demise of a divided Berlin. The Second Officer and I, flew up from Frankfurt on a 50 hour layover and crossed here into the old “East Berlin”. Very surrealistic to be sure.)
(The end of a long night. Sunrise through the cloud layers nearing the end of an Anchorage to Minneapolis/St. Paul “red-eye” flight.)
(A short video of departing Guatemala City bound for Los Angeles.)
Till next time…