Back to Basics

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In October of last year I retired from the University of South Florida after 25 years of consecutive employment in its medical college. I had served in several capacities during my tenure; ending as chairman of the surgery department for the last nine-plus years. Change is always challenging and I really had very little idea as to what to expect.

So far, so good. I have landed happily back where I started, as a working, not an administrative, surgeon. I operate at the Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa, an institution I helped found; I did the first surgical operation there in 1986. So it isn't retirement exactly, but it is a profound change in my life.

The expectation was thrilling: no more management responsibilities, more free time, more time to fly. The expectation was frightening: I was giving up a high-paying job and the "power" of being the boss. The reality has been exceptionally pleasant: I do get home an hour earlier each day, I have had some wonderful adventures for which I would not have previously found the time, and I have more time to practice what I love to do. The reality has been sobering: I am back to an "on call" schedule, the pay is less, and I am the one who now has a boss.

I celebrated my new freedom in late October, flying to Tarbes, France, picking up a new TBM 850 and flying it across the Atlantic. This extraordinary experience reassured me that I had made a good choice. The trip took longer than I had planned, but the inconvenience to others was considerably less than if I had still been in charge of a department. I enjoyed telling random strangers that I had just flown a single-engine airplane across the ocean. If they were knowledgeable, I admitted that the trip was really very safe, given the remarkable reliability of the TBM.

I spent some time investigating a commercial license. Though I've got 4,000-plus hours, 2,500 multi and 1,500 turbine, all that flying has been done on a private ticket. I got out the King books and videos and I auditioned a few training outfits. I found one I liked in St. Petersburg, Florida, and arranged to get some dual instruction in their elderly Cessna 310. I tried to find out if I could use our airplane, a Cheyenne, for training, but was unsuccessful.

I promised myself that I would pass the written first, though. I slogged through the airspace definitions and restrictions. Painful. I tried to make sense of the fact that an airplane's wing stalls at a constant angle of attack, though that certainly wasn't intuitive. When I got to the part about manifold pressure and prop speed, I realized that the last nine years of turbine flying had really spoiled me. I broke my promise and scheduled an instructional flight in the 310.

On the appointed day, I decided to fly the Cheyenne from TPA, where it is based, all the way to PIE, where the flight school and the 310 were waiting. I guess I wanted to demonstrate that I could make it the nine nautical miles nonstop and show off our airplane. But when I took off, three things were broken (a radio, a fuel flow gauge and the bleed air for gyros and pneumatics), so I headed to our maintenance base in Bartow, instead. Once there, I called and cancelled the lesson.

I haven't been back. You see, one of my fantasies was that I would get a commercial license and find a part-time job as a first officer for hire. I was hoping for a big King Air, or maybe even a jet, one for which I was prepared to get a type rating. The gods have been decidedly negative about this plan. I had picked the absolute worst time in recent history to give up a secure, high-paying job. The markets went into free fall and along with them went the prospect of flying for hire. Many of my friends in corporate flying were out of jobs. The big three automakers made business aviation a bad word when they arrived hat in hand before Congress in three separate private jets of a certain size. There seemed to be no point in getting a rating when the prospects of getting a job were so remote. Besides, I never did quite understand advection fog, anyway.

I did find other joys, however. With fewer meetings to attend, I had more time to spend with surgical patients with cancer. I remember one Friday afternoon, when I circled back to check on a delightful man with a bad problem. I had been impotent at helping with the medical issue, but we sat and talked in his hospital room for a good 20 minutes -- about shotguns made by Ithaca Gun, not about dying. When I got home that night, I told my wife, Cathy, that I had done an honest day's work for an honest day's pay. It felt good.

About the same time as I changed jobs, a friend of mine with a big leadership role at a major U.S. airline went back to flying the line. We had many long and happy conversations about the joys of practicing the craft, not administering the problems. Then another amazing development: He could bid trips that assured Monday night Tampa layovers. In two months I saw more of this friend than I had in the previous three years. The predictability of our reunions, the obvious freedom from the office and the fun we were having in the operating room and cockpit, made for some great nights. On Tuesdays, I would enjoy watching his next day's flights on flightaware.com.

I had the chance to spend some time on an enterprise that we started with some medical and aviation friends. Called the Surgical Safety Institute (with apologies to FlightSafety!) we developed curricula to train nurses, doctors and technicians to use aviation tools in medicine. We teach crew resource management, assertion, hand-offs and briefings. We help develop checklists. We have built some software. I know that many people are surprised that medicine doesn't routinely use these time-honored aviation skills, but the fact is we don't. I originally thought we would make contributions to smaller hospitals with limited teaching staffs. I also thought we'd stick to operating rooms. To my surprise our clients have included the big institutions with highly evolved patient safety initiatives. Furthermore, we've found these techniques to be very useful in other parts of hospitals where errors can claim lives. We've still got a lot more invested in this business than we've made back, but every engagement has been immensely satisfying to me and the others involved in the effort. It is estimated that 100,000 patients a year are killed by medical error. I feel we are really making a difference in a field that can definitely use the help.

We also get to use the Cheyenne for some of our engagements. Obviously it is fatuous to fly our turboprop from Tampa to Los Angeles when we work at Cedars Sinai, but we've used it to travel to St. Louis University and the University of Chicago. When a hospital group in North Carolina needed some work done between Christmas and New Year's we were able to get there without delay. Our trip to Charlotte began in Lebanon, New Hampshire, on a Sunday night. Headwinds reduced our groundspeed by 100 knots. Mac McClellan, who had followed our progress on the internet, e-mailed this message: "What's it like flying a Bonanza?" "Great," was my answer. On the way back, we pushed 300 knots over the ground.

My favorite "business" trip was flying with our software guy from Tampa to Madison, Indiana, in the morning and then on to South Bend in the afternoon. There is no way to do that without an airplane. The only downside was self-serve jet-A at a great little airport in Madison -- in a torrential rain.

After nine years of Cheyenne ownership, I have invested in another attempt to get the flight director to fly an ILS smoothly. I had taken a stab at it right after buying the airplane, but despite the $4,000 tab, it was just as bad as it was before. Recently we sent the autopilot box to Duncan and the airplane to Palm Beach Avionics. The total cost came close to $3,500 this time, but I think it is working. I'll let you know for sure after the next approach to minimums.

Our engines are coming up, too. That will be expensive. My hope for upgrading to the big PT-6-135s has gone the way of my retirement accounts. The added expense doesn't get it in my new math. The speed would be great, but I can't see sinking that much money into a 30-year-old airplane of uncertain market worth. I have no idea as to the dollar value of our airplane. I don't think anybody does. But I know I love it; I'll do all I can to keep it and to keep flying it. It is worth almost everything to me.

In many ways, I am back to basics. Yes, my retirement accounts have mimicked the glide characteristics on an anvil, but I still have access to interesting work and, so far, we've been able to afford the airplane. I am not flying any more than I did before "retirement," but I am not flying less, either. My dreams of becoming a corporate aviator, flying with a professional next to me, have largely evaporated. But I still enjoy surgery, even the emergency cases I've had to do at night.

Not long ago my wife and I were approaching a small line of thunderstorms in our airplane. I could see things clearly on the Avidyne EX500 Nexrad, out the window, and on the radar. We climbed to Flight Level 240, scooted through a saddle in the rain and started our descent into Tampa. On arrival winds were gusting to 34 knots but we were given a runway facing directly into the wind, making a soft touchdown an obligation. Soon after, two friendly Homeland Security Agents welcomed us into customs. Home. Life is good.