The FAA Presents Award to Flying’s Senior Editor

Evening offered a very personal look back on a career.

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The FAA's Chicago Flight Standards District Office manager Luanne Wills-Merrel, senior editor Rob Mark and Nancy Mark.Rob Mark

When people tell you they’ve watched their lives pass before their eyes, it’s usually in reaction to some kind of near-death trauma. Seeing much of my own life come back to me last week though, was actually centered around something good, even if it was a bit overwhelming.

Last Wednesday night I was presented with the Wright Brothers Master Pilot award for 50 years of accident free flying, an honor that extends way beyond a simple certificate and a handshake. That night I saw people I’d not seen in years, as well read the names of other pilots involved in my career I’d long ago lost track of. Luckily a photographer was on hand to capture the memories.

Someone at our local airport – Chicago Executive – apparently started the ball rolling by nominating me late last year, ably assisted by members of the Chicago Executive Pilots Association. The process included finding three or four people willing to endorse me in writing, no small task I'm sure. The FAA then began its research. Knowing some pilot's flare for exaggerating the truth from time to time, the agency wanted to be sure I'd really accomplished at least a fair number of the items I've been taking credit for over the past five decades. For me that included airline, corporate, charter and flight instruction flying of course, not to mention the decade or so I spent as a controller for the FAA in both towers and radar rooms. Think of the process as the FAA's version of a resume check.

Along with the Wright Brothers award the FAA handed over a copy of my airman records, right back to the score on my private pilot written (now knowledge) exam. Thumbing through the two-inch thick packet of paper, I discovered copies of each and every temporary airman certificates from my commercial and instrument checkrides, to the multi-engine ride I took back in 1974 in a Cessna 310 with the PWK airport manager Charlie Priester. He and his dad George are legends in Chicagoland aviation. The precious 8710s from my type-rating rides were there too, along with the examiners who certified I was safe enough to fly with another pilot. I also found a reminder of the only checkride I ever busted, my instrument instructor. I delivered a lousy oral that day and deserved the pink slip, although of course I didn’t think so in 1976.

I was pleased to see the manager of our local FSDO on hand to personally deliver the award. Usually it’s the FAASTeam representative. Luanne Wills-Merrell began reading a proclamation about some guy with my name who “had demonstrated professionalism, skill and expertise by maintaining safe operations for 50 or more years,” as well as my “devotion to aviation safety and a recognition by my peers.” Then she handed me a plaque that must have weighed at least 10 pounds and sure enough, there was my name, right there with the signatures of both the Wright brothers. Contrary to my friend Scott’s assertion that night, I was NOT Wilbur’s third student.

Not usually a guy lost for words, I had to look out at the audience for a few seconds before I could figure out what to say. If it hadn't been for a friend recording the session, I doubt I'd remember any of my remarks. Later listening to the recording, I heard myself acknowledge the most important aspect of 50 years of safe flying, that I hadn't reached that plateau alone. There were dozens of others who helped me be there that night … other pilots, flight instructors, maintenance technicians, flight department managers and of course FAA personnel who all supported me with mid-course corrections since I first soloed in the mid-1960s. Of course my decades as an aviation writer, book author and publisher of Jetwhine also brought me face to face with many people who helped shape my views and actions.

For me though, the real fun began once I stopped blabbering to the audience. The entire night took on an even more personal perspective than when I saw a couple of old students, even a current one, a pair of pilots I flew with during my years as a Part 135 on-demand charter pilot and even a flight attendant I’d flown with during my days at the original Midway Airlines.

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It was a little tough for me to realize these folks were talking about me.Rob Mark

I was completely taken aback when a woman gave me a big basket of cookies explaining she’d never forget the day when as a student pilot, she pranged a Beech Sundowner on Runway 6 Left, sheering the nose gear before sliding into the grass. I was a tower controller that afternoon and she said she always remembered my calming words to her over the radio from the tower cab while waiting for the emergency equipment to arrive. Unhurt, she went on to earn her private and instrument ratings, by the way.

Of course too, there were family and friends in the audience, people waving and applauding for me, something that made me feel odd, like they just couldn’t be talking about me. I’m used to doing my job and moving on, not to cheers from a crowd.

Most importantly, my wife Nancy took it all in with a big smile as she does everything related to flying. Lucky for me, the FAA stayed one step ahead by adding a special proclamation for her in recognition “of the dedication and support of a very special spouse,” needed to reach this point in my career. I’m only sorry our daughter Abigail couldn’t attend, but her new job at CBS in Hollywood had her pinned down that night.

Later that night, I humbly hung the new plaque in a very special spot on the wall in my office. On to the next 50.