The examiner was cordial, but it was clear he was all business. Not a small man, his imposing frame and New York accent signaled a certain directness. Ten minutes later I was in tears. So was he.
As Joe Puglia and I sniffed and wiped our eyes, we quickly sought to make it clear that we were manly men, aviators of great experience and fearless in our approach to airplanes and life in general. Joe reassured me that he had been a New York City cop, and I told him of my young life in the city and how I went to medical school there. We were a couple of tough New Yorkers simpering like a pair of teenage Lindsay Lohan fans. How did this lachrymose scene happen, this undoing of two men of a certain age?
It started about a year ago when I got into my head that I wanted to fly for hire. I set my sights on a commercial multiengine ticket and held hope for a job as a first officer on a Lear 31. Many readers wrote to tell me that I was nuts. Notwithstanding their thoughtful catalog of the errors inherent in my thinking, I got started by passing the commercial written by way too many points, thanks to the Kings and the Gleims of the world. I had wanted a grade of 71 since 70 is passing.
Next I sought flight training, which proved to be complicated for a private pilot with 40-plus years of experience, 4,500 hours total, including 2,500 multi and 1,500 turbine. Many training centers were very helpful, but in the end they wanted four full days of time and $3,000. It was the time commitment that got me.
I went to Clearwater Aviation at St. Petersburg International (KPIE) and ran into Travis Fox, son of the owner. Understandably, he made no firm commitments. How could he? How could he know if I could hold a heading or altitude? He did say that he thought we could do all the training in a weekend and take the check ride on a Monday morning. He quoted a price slightly higher than the others, but the flight training would be in a Beechcraft Baron. This completely met my needs: time tailored to what I had available and an iconic airplane to boot. Besides, I liked the down-home feel to the place.
Disaster loomed on Day One. The ceiling was 600 feet and the visibility was a mile — not conducive to much in the way of steep turns. It did give me time to meet Paul Shoemaker, an obvious veteran of all kinds of flying. I immediately liked him and he treated me like a peer, not like a novice, for which I was appreciative. We swapped hangar stories, and during them I found myself hearing what I might be asked to do on the check ride.