Gear Up: That Person Sitting Next to You

The revealing nature of cockpit conversations.

Gear Up Cockpit Conversations

Gear Up Cockpit Conversations

The edge of his seat is seven inches from mine. Sometimes I will touch his thigh when I reach for the heading bug. We are joined together, sometimes for nine days. We are pilots for JetSuite. We eat together, usually sleep in rooms on the same hotel floor and spend our days inches apart while in the air and not much more than that when we are on the ground. Who is this person?

My pilot colleagues are drawn from regional airlines, Part 135 operations, major airline training centers, freight companies, lab sample transport companies and, as is my case, from private general aviation. Some have flown 767s; some came directly to the CJ3 off a Navajo. Some were instructors, some were controllers and some flew helicopters. A few are ex-military. One was a merchant mariner.

It is a weird fact of life for those who fly for a living: You spend a lot of time with people you never knew before you were hired. You find yourself in the company of people with very different backgrounds and only one unifying theme: Somewhere, somehow, sometime, we all got hooked on airplanes and have been unable to shed the habit.

We talk a great deal about flight. As a new FO, I've pestered many a captain about weather, weight and balance, routings, speeds and power settings. Still, I sense even the experienced among us talk about flying much of the time. We talk about the company. Never have I heard so much rumor. In my previous working life as a surgeon, we compared notes at the scrub sink or in the doctors' lounge. The conversations at the sink rarely lasted more than five minutes; in the lounge not more than 30. That's not an abundance of time in which to dissect the hospital CEO's latest cost-saving strategies. But on the road with another pilot we have hours to fill with stories, tales, fables, rumors, suspicions and conjectures.

As many of my cockpit mates are in their 30s and 40s there is considerable banter about the opposite sex. I must admit there have been some interesting developments in the sexual mores department since my dating days, but I'll leave that to the sociologists to sort out. It is good fun for a 69-year-old to hear about their escapades, though.

Humor is deployed to good effect. Suddenly, while cruising along at Flight Level 450, I'll hear a snippet of a joke heard the night before or a punch line that's been a recurring theme for the past few days. If the joke was told by or about another pilot in our ranks, we'll call him or her that night after dinner and laugh again at the same silly subject. This is really fun.

I was initially careful about discussing politics. The front end of the CJ3 is an awfully closed space and nine days is a long time. Most of my captains are quiet about where they stand, but I am fairly certain most of them are to the right of my view. Some are clearly to the left. Fox News is the default television station at most FBOs and I've concluded that most people in aviation find that comfortable. Given that civilized discourse about these matters is uncommon in our current society, I was wary. But, interestingly, I have found that a good conversation can be had on most political subjects. Almost everybody is respectful of another point of view, and I have found, to my amazement, this has changed my point of view to a certain extent.

There have been some interesting conversations about welfare queens, too much government and Citizens United. Immigration comes up frequently. Intriguingly, only one of our pilots is at least 50 percent Native American, and he keeps mum on the topic. I found myself nodding to the notion that entitlements that are too generous are debilitating until I remembered that I have benefited from the GI Bill, Social Security, Medicare and a pension from a state university system.

Hobbies and outside interests are good topics. Master off-road motorcyclists, gymnasts, runners and fitness devotees sit next to me. The captain who was a merchant mariner possesses an "unrestricted license, all oceans." That just sounds fabulous to me. I'd like my ATP to say: "unrestricted, all skies." Some have outside businesses they ply on off days. If you need your escalator cleaned, we've got a man who does that.

Money is tricky for me. Forty years as a surgeon has left me well off by almost anybody's standards. Our clients, though, have net worths greater than mine by multiple logs. The pilots I fly with have way less than I do in most cases. As a consequence, I have had a shift in my view of money. I will never have enough money to own a jet, but my need to fly one has been met. The job at JetSuite is a gift I couldn't buy. If I had not been hired, I would never have known the thrill of flying a jet or had the privilege of knowing these pilots. So now I feel better about how much I have; it is not as much as some but more than many.

Having that money does pose a social dilemma, though. I don't want to deny my previous life and pretend I am a struggling 35-year-old; I can't think of anything more fatuous. On the other hand, I don't want to be throwing money around to attract attention, resentment, envy or false friendship. Everybody has been extremely generous to me about this. The best I can do is pick up the check for a good meal sometime during the rotation.

The financial conditions of some of my cockpit mates are more precarious than I'd like to think. Our per diem allotment and overtime bonuses mean a lot to them and I want to respect that. You eat some pretty lousy dinners this way, but I would not want it changed.

Dining out on the road is a negotiation. The runners and fitness buffs want a salad, water and that's about it. Others are real foodies. They'll get a cab clear across town to try a new barbecue joint or get real Mexican. One takes out his phone and takes a photo of almost all meals. I have started to take some pictures of food too. Sometimes I will send him a picture of what I am cooking for dinner. Now you start to see how wacky this environment is.

Exercise on the road can be hit and miss. Some hotels have good facilities; some are modest at best. In good weather many pilots run outdoors. In bad, we pound away at machines in basements. There is the temptation to forgo the exercise and just eat, yet flying is an inherently sedentary job. The only real exercise comes with the loading of luggage. It is easy to pack on the pounds.

As a first officer, I am always flying with a captain. The captain has the responsibility for the flight and has more experience than I do. To be the student rather than the teacher after 40-plus years in academic medicine (much of it spent as the boss) takes some getting used to. I'll bet some former surgical trainees would howl with delight if they could see me fumble around the cockpit trying to please a demanding captain. This power inversion has taught me a couple of things. It is important to distinguish between SOPs (standard operating procedures) that demand strict adherence and "technique" advice, which is more about smooth flying, style and personal preference. Some captains move the throttles forward and back with definitive élan; others make all changes very smoothly. Like a surgical resident, I intend to pick the best of each and avoid the worst. Our check airman refers to this as a smorgasbord, a vast menu of ideas and techniques from which to fashion one's own fabulous flying style. I'm looking forward to being captain.

These pilots I consider friends. JetSuite makes an effort to hire not only competent pilots but also nice people. So far, I haven't met a bad apple in the bunch. That's a good thing, because we see a lot of each other. This ready-made set of new friends has enriched my life beyond expression. I can't wait to find out if Lindy and Ben got that blue porch furniture for their new house or whether Steve's daughter did well in her musical review. I do know I look forward to having dinner at Andy and Tracy's house — I'm told martinis will be served by Scout, the dog.

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