I talk to a lot of school kids during "career days" and one of the questions (from those that watch MUCH too TV) is if there is any danger in what I do. They also ask a bit about flying jets and why I left it.
The biggest danger on the job most days is forgetting why I gave up a much bigger income to go back to school for an additional seven years to pick up both the Dr. title and a badge. I show up for things one doesn't want to experience, representing something to some people that they don't like. They often don't hesitate to let me know in some fashion. I've been into many places where I felt about as welcome as a fox at a poultry convention. It's a difficult job, and in a lot of ways harder than herding a jet around. But in small ways, it makes a difference. It matters to many, and it matters to me. But like flying, my failures can be horribly real but they are more real life, in thought and emotion than anything you see on TV. Also, not even close to be interesting enough to be on TV, and if I dressed like the women on CSI, I'd never be taken seriously.
But there are times I miss the flying. I'd be lying if I said I don't. Many of those flying stories are mine alone, to only be shared only with trusted friends. The rest come up at odd times, and on the rare and odd occasion will be shared online.
On a trip out to see Dad not long ago, I flew into Spokane to visit a friend and then from there drove west, going by Moses Lake and Yakima, and one of those flying memories came back in rush of wind and the echoed perfume of JP4.
The little turboprop trudged on towards Seattle with the slow but steady efficiency of a tax preparer. Six a.m. and I'd already been up for 3 hours. With the luck of the quick-turn gods at SeaTac we'd be on our way to Moses Lake in time for an 8:30 am "dinner". Moses Lake airport had little scheduled airline activity, yet was a home for training for Japan Airlines and we'd sit in the little terminal restaurant watching the giant aircraft launch into another touch and go with all the grace of a drunken bumblebee. It was a regular run and we'd sweet-talked the breakfast cook into heating up the fryer when we called in to the station so we could have our only meal in our 14 hour day, two cheeseburgers and fries as the rest of the world headed off to the office. My Captain may not have been the most personable guy in the world, but he knew the value of a good cheeseburger after a 3 a.m.wake up call.
It wasn't the first job I'd held as a pilot. But it would give me enough hours to help finish college and college was required to open the door for most civilian, and pretty much all federal and military flying gigs.
It wasn't easy getting even here. There was one interview I went to, flying copilot on a large radial engine twin hauling cargo. An attorney who was also a private pilot that I'd worked for as a temp knew the owner and sent me off with a glowing written recommendation. I'd just put my initials on the resume and my last name, more to save space than to hide my gender. But as I walked in, the Chief Pilot took one look at me, and with a withering glance said "I prefer men".
I replied. . "So do I. . . but let's talk about the job".
Needless to say the interview was over at that point.
But this little commuter airline was willing to give me a chance, but it was obvious that women weren't the norm in the business. They had no bathroom for women in the hangar. The uniform hat just flat out didn't come in a size that fit me, and after using it for everything else, a repository for my keys and change on the counter, a chip container while watching movies and a shade in the tiny window in my bathroom, I finally told the Chief that my dog ate it, and no one asked about it again.
Though honestly, 99.9% of the pilots were great once they realized I was no different than they, except I smelled better and had big bumps in my uniform shirt. I only had one problem pilot. On an empty leg, he once unzipped his pants, level at 9,000 feet, and whipped out (insert HBO scene here) and asked me what I thought. I replied "oh. . sorry. . didn't realize it was so cold in here. . I'll turn up the packs" ( controls heat in the cockpit). He left me alone after that. If there were Playboy pictures hidden around the cockpit, I didn't make a fuss, I just got out my pen and draw little outfits on them. If the guys exhibited "guy behavior" that crossed the line, it was dealt with one on one and privately. We were a diverse bunch, poorly paid and worked hard, but we were brothers in the sky and we had to stick together.
It was a grand time, though I barely made enough for a crash pad with a couple other female pilots and to me, hell would be a small windowless crew room filled with the odor of sandwich-like products wrapped in cellophane and carbon dated for freshness. Yet I wouldn't trade that time for anything, the unheard poetry of the first sunrise from two miles aloft, those moments of understanding that you are truly alive, the world at your feet, your aircraft splitting the air as it passes, dividing it into rivers of wandering thoughts.
There was the flight where we only had two passengers to Pullman, college students, and enroute we suddenly smelled the odor of pot (not that WE knew what pot smelled like growing up in the 70's). Without missing a beat, the captain brought back one power lever just enough to trigger the gear warning horn. "beep beep beep". He then puts the PA microphone up next to the speaker, so the "BEEP BEEP BEEP" was blaring in the back of the plane. Then he gets on the PA with his smooth, authoritative Captain voice and said "Ladies and gentlemen, our marijuana detector has just gone off, please put it out and return your seats to the upright position".
There was the day where over the Cascade Mountains one of our cargo pods on the belly of the plane popped open, through no fault of ours, and the small pieces of luggage that were in it fell out. When we landed in Wenatchee, the ground people said. "uh. . where's the bags" and we were like. "Uh. . gotta go!!!. . bye!" I think there's a special place in heaven for ground service agents that have to work with the public.
There was the time we heard one of our planes coming in on priority sequence, after declaring an emergency after a flight up the Gorge in from GEG. We all waited, hearts in our throats, to see our fellow pilots safely on the ground, only to watch the 19 seat /no flight attendant/no bathroom plane pull up in one piece to the gate, the captain FLING the main door open and RUN to the bathroom. . .victim of another PDX crew cafeteria burrito "du jour". Scary times, fun times, times I will never forget.
Yet of all the benefits that come from those meager years of early flying, which we all have to endure, like childhood, are the moments of camaraderie, of pitting your youth and your skill against a temperamental piece of equipment and a landscape of mountains, sky and ice that has little patience for the uninitiated or unwary. At the end of yet another 14 hour duty day, stomach growling and shoulders clenched with fatigue from fighting the wind, you have a memory, of laughter and accomplishment and pride, a memory of the smell of jet fuel and exhaust, combined with the smell of crisp, high altitude air and clouds. Memories that will forever influence your life as a pilot, inside or outside of the cockpit.
It is only our sheer love of flying that kept us in a job like this, and although we may not have loved the moment, we'd love the memory of the moment, of that particular day, or that particular plane, even if the plane itself has long since been retired to the desert, left behind for something newer and faster. As the philosopher Homer said (though he worded it better), the journey's the thing.
The journey was long hot summers, the rationed coolness of fall, and short severe winters that saw no hope for spring. Yet Spring always came again, on that last conceit of winter, with blossoming wind, wings free of ice, and high above, the roar of a C-130, the deep throated rumble of a DC9, sounds that called to us. It was a journey we all take, no matter what our calling, moving in hot motion that is not the wind; strong young blood chasing after its long journey towards home.
Now - years later I stop near Moses Lake and get some lunch at a little ma and pa burger stand. The odor of meat and fries cooking takes me back to a book closed except to one finger, kept upon a page. The smell of cheeseburgers, made just for my Captain and I, trailing behind us, we scurry out of the terminal back to our little aircraft, for that final leg back home. If we were lucky, we could preflight out in some dry warmth. Just as often we'd do so hunched over in the slow , cold and opulent rain, tending to a spent horse with Pratt and Whitney engines.
We have no airplane cleaners, so we tidy up the cabin, I with a little can of air freshener and some mints to leave on the seats that I bought out of my meager paycheck for this regular group of passengers that fly this run with us on Mondays. We polish the windshield and check the gas, catching a quick glimpse of ourselves in the spinner of the prop, noting a smile of pride that even a clapped out Beech 99 and a $400 a month paycheck can't take off our face. We are airmen, and this is our journey.