The fourteen–and forty-something–wannabes.
A middle-aged guy comes up to me as I’m talking to my first officer at the gate while we wait for the inbound jet. He’s forty-something, a bit raggedy around the edges, needs a haircut and a shave. I think to myself, here we go.
“You the left seat guy for the Palm Springs flight?” he asks. The lame attempt at lingo—yeah, I guess as the captain, I’m “the left seat guy”—foreshadows one of those talks where equal doses of “I know the airline slang” and “tell me the inside scoop” become a tiresome game of cat-and-mouse: no, I won’t tell you what hotel we stay in, or how much I get paid, or any “scary” stories about flying. “Uh, yes, I am,” I answer, hoping to avoid an interrogation, but knowing that’s not possible.
“Well, I’m a pilot too. I fly Cessna-182s for fun.” And he’s off to the races. My first officer steps in where he knows I’ll probably fail: he smiles, nods at the guy’s flying stories, asks courteous questions, but looks for an escape.
The guy turns back to me. “Do guys like you who fly for a living ever fly small airplanes for fun?” “No,” I tell him, “I don’t. I pretty much get my fill of flying at work and when I get home, I don’t even want to think about it.”
But his question did make me think. Because I was that guy, many years ago actually to the day: as a 14-year-old, on this very day I flew coast to coast on a Delta jet by myself. It was about the biggest event of my life to fly without parents and family from our home in Orlando to my Aunt and Uncle’s in San Francisco. The rest of the family—there were seven of us—was driving, which I’d always hated. But more importantly, my whole life since age three was dedicated to the goal of becoming a pilot. Any opportunity to fly—and at that point, I hadn’t flown on a plane since age nine—was for me the best uber-Disney fantastic miracle ever. My Dad was happy to have a volunteer, which meant only six (yikes!) in the fam-wag trundling across country.
So as a fourteen-year-old pilot wannabe, I envied “the left seat guy,” the right seat guy or anyone allowed into the inner sanctum of the flight deck. Just the thought of doing that for a living, as the Cessna guy had said, was my life’s dream.
All of my close high school buddies at the time were the same way: we were all going to graduate from college, get commissioned in the Air Force, and win our pilot wings in flight school. Then we’d fly as Air Force pilots for a number of years until a big airline recruited us. We’d be hired, work our way up the ranks, fly coast-to-coast every week on cool jets with gorgeous stewardesses.
That was the plan. After high school, I chose The Virginia Military Institute for college. Knowing myself as I did—and I really haven’t changed all that much—I realized that if I went to a regular college, I’d party too much, likely founder academically and never achieve my flying dream. VMI, however, was a direct track to an Air Force commission, and if I could surmount several hundred other candidates, an assignment to pilot training. True, VMI also came with classes six days a week, no cars, no civilian clothes, no TVs, and no girls. Yes, that was a pain in the ass, but in the end, I got exactly what I went there for: a degree, a commission, and an assignment to USAF pilot training.
I was one of four out of a couple hundred from VMI to get into pilot training: one washed out, one was killed in a plane crash and the other guy now flies for Delta. We did our Air Force time—
that’s another story, a great adventure—then ultimately, married “stewardesses” (she’d smack me for using that term) and now, as the wannabe guy said, “make our living” flying.
There’s not a day that goes by at work, no matter how much drudgery is included with delays, bad weather, air traffic control hassles, airline management squabbles, that I don’t at some point realize that nonetheless, I’m pretty damn lucky to be “the left seat guy.”
None of my high school buddies, despite our shared plan, made it all the way through. Every one of them fell off the path at one point or another and are now like the wannabe guy, perhaps still a “pilot” on weekends, hopefully not killing themselves in a light aircraft.
When my favorite stewardess and I were disembarking from a Caribbean cruise last week, I told her honestly that I appreciate the fact that going back to “the old grind,” like most everyone on that ship was going to do, for me meant another year of flying jets, rather than a cubicle at Dunder-Mifflin, or worse. I guess I could have explained all that to the middle-aged wannabe guy still nattering on to my first officer. But I’m not sure that’s what he wanted to hear. Still, I smile just knowing that the fourteen year old wannabe sure would.