By John Wyman, EAA 462533, Chapter 266 Montreal
Every now and then we are reminded about something that we may have taken for granted. This recently happened to me when a local airport friend, Pierre, reminded me for the 10th-plus time just how lucky we all are to be involved in sport aviation and GA — and in particular, of my career, how lucky I am to earn a living as an airline pilot. It never comes as a surprise every time he says this. He’s said it so often that it has become his signature sign-off to the day’s hangar flying banter. Its direct translation is “Are we lucky, or what!?!” The French language has a way of describing some things much more eloquently than other languages like, for instance, “C’est la vie.” It just flows better.
Pierre lights up when he hears my stories from the flight deck and after most of them he adds the expression, “Qu’est-ce qu’on a de la chance!” The other day, it finally got to me, and I realized he’s right! For all the times I have thought of the negatives (that most people never see) about the job of an airline pilot, there really are many more positives. One of them is the “perspective” it gives you of the world which I have already touched upon in another article. It’s my go-to definition when people ask what it’s like. The other has to be that there is no immediate boss looking over your shoulder at your every move. I’ve worked in other jobs like that, and there isn’t any substitute to being able to call your own shots. There certainly are rules to follow, but we do have the liberty to question their origins and why they work (or don’t). That is just part of the profession. That is another word to look at — that the profession is what makes the job a career. It remains an enticing one because it’s, well, just different than a lot of other “jobs.” I have never really thought of it as one because every flight has a lesson or something positive that you can draw from. You are always learning something new, especially if you take the time to reflect on the smaller things that would escape most people’s day-to-day interactions with one another. An example of this might be your conversations with your partner(s) for the day’s flight or pairing. For starters, there’s a better than 50 percent chance that your background or path to becoming a pilot will have elements of the same story as to how you got there. From the time you’ve introduced yourselves to the time that you’ve reached cruise, you’re likely starting on the same page with some facet of your respective backgrounds with regards to flight training, checkrides, and your individual work histories in the business. This might be where you learned to fly, what peaked your initial interest in flight, where you first earned a paycheque flying? You could say this is a form of camaraderie that’s just naturally there because many of the stories have similar origins. I haven’t met too many pilots so far that haven’t developed an interest in flight from an early age. Some of them get their licenses early on in their late teens while others have a tougher time and only break into the business much later on in their late 20s (in rare cases, their 30s) after working in other jobs. But they all have a story to tell, with most saying that they were drawn to it from a very early age which makes for some interesting conversations.
A lot of pilots end up following their colleagues into the airlines from their initial pilot training through to that elusive first job. The contacts you make early on can be lifelong relationships. Sometimes they are continuous from day one and other times they are rekindled after a long absence because you’ve ended up working for different employers. It is a big world out there but in flying circles, everyone knows or knows of someone else. It can be very tight circled and you never know who may be your next chief pilot, regardless of where they may now be on the seniority list. Those lists get merged. Companies form and go bust in a heartbeat. It pays to keep your bridges intact. Just the other day, I overheard some pilots talking about “so and so” who left for greener pastures and never even bothered to write a resignation letter to their chief pilot to say they had accepted a job elsewhere. That’s the kind of move that’ll come around to bite from behind. We may all be travelling long distances from continent to continent, but distance is only a physical separation, names are a mere conversation away and those in the know, know who to hire and who to avoid. There are times where this may not seem fair but it’s a reality that your reputation will always follow you and it’s smart to keep it in good standing.
Another example of this was a pilot I flew with a few years ago who was about 10 years senior to me and had once worked in Quebec along the lower north shore of the St. Lawrence (an area of challenging flying conditions) — who, after working for many years as a director of flight operations for an Asian carrier flying Airbus A320s, found himself next to me recalling all of his early experiences (well before my time) and his later ones on returning back to the industry in Canada. He initially went overseas after the Quebec company he worked for was on the verge of bankruptcy. He saw an opportunity and took it before his company went bust. He was basically able to pick up where he left off because he had a solid reputation before he left. People didn’t forget where he started and how he said goodbye. We drifted through about 20 years of stories in that short day’s flying. Those were enlightening flights where he offered up a wealth of information about his career and his flying experiences. I took a lot away from that pairing where he was able to impart his hard-earned experience on me. Again, another example of how you never know where your next lesson will come from and how you can learn something new from every flight.
Sharing the stories
Sometimes an ordinary day’s flight has some interesting things happen. A go-around is considered to be a normal maneuver, yet it doesn’t happen a whole lot with airliners (if you can help it). I shared such a story the other day with my friend when ATC requested that we go around because a fire had developed on the edges of our intended landing runway when the surrounding dried grass started to burn, ignited by some embers. We were number two on the approach, behind another airliner that was exiting at its end, when, I suppose the smoke from the burning grass was considered a threat to airplanes landing on that runway. ATC subsequently ordered us to go around, which does keep you busy in the flight deck (especially when it’s at a lower altitude), monitoring fuel consumption, listening attentively to ATC instructions (vectors to another active runway), executing your procedures. The only other available runway was soon swamped with traffic. We were now number seven for landing on a 32-nautical-mile final. I briefed the other pilot that if we didn’t make it in this time then we were at bingo fuel (minimum fuel) to proceed to our alternate — which was fortunately not too far away. I can’t say this happened to me before, so that when I did share my story with Pierre, recalling the facts with a bit of flair that the runway was “on fire” and we were required to go around, he lit up with a smile, likely just as surprised with my story about the go-around as I was when we did overshoot!
All the players
There are a lot of people involved in turning around an aircraft at a gate. The average is about 10, not including the dispatchers and check-in counter people. We build long-term relationships with some of them. They are familiar faces and voices (air traffic controllers) where we may not know their names but on countless occasions we’ve come across them in our day-to-day interactions. These are like the mechanics who drop you a friendly line now and again like “haven’t seen you here in a while?” or the driver who’s been shuttling crews to and from the airport for years. You know them because of a smile or laugh and you come to count on them for being there and making sure you move along. I particularly like to see a familiar face now and then and have often wondered what happened to them if they’ve left the scene for awhile. They are inevitably tied to an event that happened which makes you start each conversation with recalling that event. For years after one incredibly long delay at a gate, I would thank the representative for our airline, “Faith” in Montego Bay, Jamaica, for boarding the aircraft quickly so we could be on our way back to Canada. Then, on the same trip back (a double stop) to Varadero, Cuba, I would thank “Fernando,” the mechanic, for turning our A310 around in a miraculous 25 minutes so we came in under our max duty time back in Winnipeg. Memorable people, memorable stories.
If you like geography and discovering new places, then flying for a living is where it’s at. New countries lend (again) an enlightening perspective to the places you only see on the news. Plus, you are also exposed to a wider range of places than you’d normally be able to visit if you were working 9 to 5. Speaking of which, flying doesn’t have those hours. It is essentially anything but that, and, if you’re lucky enough to be against the traffic, you might not even have the trouble that the normal 9-to-5-er has getting to work. Over the years (especially since the dark days of 9/11), it has lost a bit of its shine. Long gone are the days where we used to be able to have visitors in the cockpit. That was a real treat. I did manage to have a few years where all sorts of people would come up and say “hi” and get the grand tour. A very memorable request around 1999 was from the purser. She called us up and said, sincerely, that they had a blind person who had requested to “see the cockpit.” This turned out to be the most memorable of my many visits up until then as the visually impaired gentleman asked the best questions we had ever heard from anyone in the jump seat! His sixth sense informed him of everything that was going on — knowing things like when we changed transponder codes to ATC’s requests, catching everything that was happening around him. We later remarked between ourselves that he was the most interesting visitor we’d ever had as the one comment he didn’t utter was “look at all the buttons!” By the end of his visit (which must have lasted at least 30 minutes) we were thoroughly impressed with his knowledge of the air network and its workings.
Unfortunately, we are now regulated with a locked-shut cockpit door in flight, but we do make the effort of showing people on the ground what the flight deck looks like and answering their numerous questions, even offering up a photo op to the really keen ones. I can’t say that it carries the same glamour as it did in the film Catch Me If You Can but it is still impressive enough that most people are really curious about what your career is and what it still is to fly.
Yes — we are very lucky.
John Wyman is a self-proclaimed airport bum. When he isn’t in the saddle at the airline, he can be found out at the airfield doing any number of things. He likes to fly gliders, practice aerobatics, work on airplanes and fix stuff…