Friday, October 9, 2009

Who is a Pilot?

I met with the cardiologist the other day. Things are looking really good. "And you're doing everything right," she said, meaning diet, exercise, and drugs. "What about stress?" I asked.

"Stress is bad," she said, 'What kind?"

The university is a high-stress environment right now. The local paper has daily stories about friction and potential abuses. The State Board of Education is suggesting that administrations have wide powers to dismiss tenured faculty. The Faculty Senate minutes are "A tale, told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing." [Macbeth, Act V] Ugly stuff. You'd think I'd be used to it.

"Maybe you should try an antidepressant," she said, "Some patients have found low doses helpful in stress management."

"You mean SSRIs?" I asked. That's Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, a class of drugs including Prozac.


"I can't take those," I said, "because I am a pilot."

"I can't take those because I am a pilot." That's an odd thing for a guy who just lost his medical to say.

I think that most of us who fly identify ourselves as pilots. It's one of the first things that strangers learn about us, even if we try not to talk about it. Some of us go on to identify ourselves as certain kinds of pilots. This has nothing to do with the certificates we hold. I've seen private pilots who flew like seasoned ATPs, and vice versa.

So, what makes us pilots? It's an outlook on life.

I plan to stay IFR current while I wait for my medical to be reinstated. I might let night currency slip, although it is easy to find a pilot friend to act as pilot in command on a pretty night. (Volunteers are welcome, as long as you are night current.) I've been taking it easy but it's time to find out who needs a BFR, who wants to become a CFI, who wants a mentor for long cross-countries. There will be plenty of flying.

But being a pilot is more than proficiency, which is more than currency. Consider the picture to the right. Here's a Jaguar - a nice car! - parked facing downhill with its wheels pointed away from the curb. Is this driver a pilot?

Perhaps. The only time I every got to drive a Jag was the crew car at Signature at Midway (KMDW). So the right question is what kind of pilot?

One night during the Christmas freight rush a bunch of us were hanging around at UPS in Salt Lake City. We had each flown down in a Seneca, because UPS wanted to have lots of extra "uplift" available for the Christmas rush. This was almost fun: we left home at about 0300 and were either sent someplace on short notice (I once carried a load of hams to KSUN, Hailey, Idaho), or were sent home to sleep and do it again the next day. We saw old friends and made new ones.

There was no place to sit, so we all sat on the floor, abuzz with no sleep and bad coffee. Conversations started and ran out of steam. Some dozed.

Pollux (not his real name, but he had a twin brother whom I would call Castor if he figured in the story) broke the ice.

"I don't want to get an ATP," he stated. We all shook off our sleep and stared at him. His career goal required it.

"Why's that?" someone finally asked.

"It's too much work." I think he meant that getting the ATP was too much work: the written, the training, the flight check, and all that. But I took away another thought.

I told him that he was right: Being an ATP meant much more than flying the ILS with minimal needle deflection. Being an ATP starts when you get out of bed, and note the weather, and smell the air. It meant continually quizzing yourself on airplane systems, practicing emergency procedures, enhancing situational awareness. It meant being aware how impaired you might be the next morning after six beers last night, even though the regulations said that you were legal. It meant analyzing each flight, each action, each approach, each taxi, each fueling, each bit of paperwork. It meant pointing your whole being at reducing every risk so that you could deliver your passengers safely, even elegantly, in difficult conditions.

This applies whether you have the certificate or not: the certificate shows that you have, at one point, demonstrated the ability to be this way. Whether that continues is your business. And you can develop this ability without any certificate at all. Michael Ruhlman describes the life of a chef in the same way in The Making of a Chef. (The kitchen and the cockpit are more closely related than most people realize, but I have to rush home and cook dinner, so that must wait for a later essay.)

There were some mumbles of agreement, then each of us settled back to listening to the white noise in our heads.

So, maybe the Jaguar driver was a pilot. But the Jaguar driver was not an ATP. A true ATP, starting a PT-6 engine on an icy ramp, starts it in feather. Why risk sliding across the ramp while cursing the brakes for suddenly failing? A true ATP doesn't park a nice car facing downhill with the wheels pointed away from the curb.

When Pollux got his first "real" job, he waited until his last student (a concept I can't fathom) passed the checkride, then went out in the woods with a .22 and shot his instructor certificate to pieces.

The only thing I plan to shoot is approaches. Medical certificate or no, I will continue to work on becoming a true ATP.

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At October 16, 2009 at 9:36 AM , Blogger Sarah said...

Hey, even non-ATPs are pilots. But I agree with your basic idea. It's a mindset of deliberate, concscious action.

I find myself doing mental "flow checklist" shutdowns in my car. Lights off, brake set, in gear, windows up ..


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