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Sunday, November 29, 2015

Lay Low

I have been laying low for several days.  I mentioned in my American Pie post under Launch, that I often don't know where my writing will take me and I wanted to think about where I was going with this thread.  I have brought the story up to the point where I was making the decision to be a pilot, with no going back.  It occurred to me that I hadn't said much about my family or close friends during these early years.  I've decided to continue to keep most of that to a minimum.  This is going to be about the development of my career.

April and I had been married for a few years, when I started flying at Graham Aviation at Butler Graham Airport.  We talked about flying full time and trying to get through all the necessary licenses and ratings as fast as possible.  Learning to fly would be my full time job.  She would be supporting us.  Jim Weber was the instructor who could work with me as his primary student.  The others had too many other responsibilities and Jim was building his clientele.

I had passed my private pilot check ride and could now take people with me on some of the practice flying I needed to do without an instructor.  There were lots of cross country trips that were necessary and lots of time flying a "complex" airplane, with retractable landing gear and constant speed propeller.  April and I took a trip to Norfolk VA, giving my cousin and his wife a ride home.  When we got there, the weather turned for the worse and we had to wait until it improved.  It took us a few days to get back to Butler.

Some time after this, April told me she wanted a divorce.  I tried to talk her out of it several times, but eventually went along.  I was surprised that she let me crawl out on that limb of not having a job and then cut it off, but I was working part time as a line boy at the airport and moved back into my parents home until I was able to get a full time job as an instructor.  I shared a room with my brother, Kevin, who is 15 years younger than me.  He was a very good baseball player and it was kind of fun working with him to improve his pitching skills, but the divorce was tough.

I put my head down and worked hard finishing the commercial license.  I took my check ride with Wild Bill McCowin, who used to be the chief pilot and was a designated examiner.  With that, I could be paid for flying, but there was not much I could do except give airplane rides when the weather was good.  The next step was the flight instructor rating.  That would really open the door to being able to be a professional pilot.

Jim was my instructor once again.  He was very thorough.  He was knowledgable about aerodynamics and was an aircraft mechanic also.  We spent lots of ground school hours going over all I needed to know when the weather was not good enough to fly.  Of course, we became good friends.  Many of the friends I was making at this time of my life and for the rest of my career have been the best I have ever known and have remained so until now.  There had been a few disappointments prior to that.

I think the things I learned from classes in the army and from that experience helped me in this endeavor.  However, I had to understand that I was no longer a platoon sergeant with a bunch of trainees.  In civilian life, I had to back down my Type A personality a little.

The conventional wisdom among the pilots at Graham Aviation was that no one passed a flight instructor check ride at the Allegheny County Airport FAA General Aviation District Office (GADO) on the first attempt.  I'm not sure if that had been their experience or if they merely told me that so that I would not be disappointed if I failed.

On the flight down to AGC for the check ride, I decided to do the best I could.  I felt that I was very well prepared and had confidence that I could fly and talk my way through most such challenges.  I was responsible for all the things a private and commercial pilot had to know and had to be able to "teach" the FAA inspector any of the maneuvers for those licenses.  I had to do this while flying the airplane myself.  The fact that I was rushing through those licenses and consolidated all that learning into a relatively short time was helpful.  It was all fresh in my mind.

The instructor ratings, unlike the private and commercial required a ride with an inspector who actually worked for the FAA.  This created a little more apprehension than taking a ride with a designated examiner like McCowin, whom I had known for several months.

Bill was about the same age as my father, nearly 30 years older than I.  He was the "Ol' Captain" around the airport.  He always called all of us Captain, unless we had screwed up somehow in his opinion, then he called us Lieutenant.  Remember, he had been fired from Graham Aviation, but was always hanging around, giving check rides and flying for some airplane owners who had him on retainer.

He was a tall, thin man, with long wavy hair, combed straight back.  I had seen a picture of him, when he was a young man and he seemed to be a good looking guy back then.  When I knew him, he looked a little rough around the edges, but he was a smart man.  He just had a drinking problem and let it get the best of him some times.

As the local designated examiner, a private citizen who had gotten the authority from the FAA to give check rides, he was the guy all the instructors at Butler Graham sent their students to.  Therefore, his philosophy of flying influenced all of us there.

When I met the FAA inspector for the instructor ride, he put me at ease and I remained so for the entire event, which included an oral exam and then the ride itself.  When we returned to the office, he told me I had passed and gave me my temporary certificate.

Wow!  I can't tell you how happy this made me.  Despite my experience in the army and all the confidence I had gained, I still had doubts about being able to succeed in life.  I didn't have anything to really compare my flying abilities with.  I was always flying with instructors with much more experience.  I didn't know where I stacked up against others.  Jim had been telling me I was doing well, but I thought he was just encouraging me to continue.  Passing that instructor check ride meant I now had the ability to fly for a living.  I could always be an instructor.  I had a profession.

While working for the super market, I was bored and thought I might just be lazy or something.  With the attempts at selling real estate, life insurance and cars, I felt that I was not a self starter and just couldn't push myself hard to do the work.

After that check ride and while flying back to Butler, I felt very motivated to spend long days building flight time.  The guys worked as much as 12 hours a day, when the weather was good in the summer.  I was so happy, I actually allowed myself to consider doing a victory roll in the Cherokee, but then decided against that.  Smart move.  I had never done one before and probably would have ended my career before it started, not to mention my life.

Jack Redman, the manager of Graham Aviation, gave me a job as an instructor.  Jim was starting to become busy flying charter and pilot service flights and someone had to pick up the slack with the students.  My next hurdle was going to be the instrument rating.

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