Gear Up: Crossed Paths Writ Large

The surprising interconnectedness of those who cluster around airplanes.

Dick Karl Phil Smith
A moment for smiles on a sad night. Phil Smith and I admire the “wall of Phil” at his mother’s house.Courtesy Dick Karl

I didn’t know Irving Smith all that well, but I learned an awful lot at his funeral. As my wife, Cathy, and I huddled with other mourners beneath a tent stretched above to shield us from the heat, I heard of Irving’s years in the Navy and his subsequent service for 25 years as an air traffic controller at Tampa International Airport. In accordance with the aviation theme of the deceased and many of those assembled, a helicopter battered the air above us, drowning out some of the eulogists. As if on cue, the helicopter departed — I never did see what it was — and the air became quiet as an Air Force KC-135 glided almost silently toward MacDill Air Force Base. This was fitting because it flew over just as Irv’s son Phil, resplendent in his Air Force major’s uniform, presented the folded American flag to his mother, saying, “On behalf of the President of the United States, the Secretary of the Navy and a grateful nation, please accept this flag as a symbol of our appreciation for your loved one’s honorable and faithful service.” Phil is my friend and the reason we were there.

I learned, or should say relearned, that life is short. Irv was just nine years older than me. I remembered how peaceful it is to stop what you are doing and admire another person and his family. If it weren’t for weddings, funerals and religious services, we could go on and on without ever stopping to take stock. That night, back at Phil’s mother’s house, I learned something else.

Phil Smith and I were sim partners at JetSuite three years ago, learning the Cessna CJ3. I’ve had two sim partners while getting type ratings and have concluded that the experience is so intimate, you emerge with two things: a type rating and either a friend or an enemy for life. For me, Doug Commins (Boeing 737) and Phil are friends for life.

Back at the house, Phil's brother asked if I'd seen the "wall of Phil," a reference to the family's celebration of Phil's career at the Air Force Academy and subsequent employment as a fighter pilot and then as the Air Force's F-15 demo pilot. To my amazement, we came upon a framed copy of Flying magazine from 2004, which featured a story by Richard Collins about Phil. Called "Check Ride," the article covered Phil's general aviation and Air Force experience, with a picture of him looking about 12 years old.

So there it all was laid out before me. Life is short, your friendships are invaluable, and we are much more interconnected than we can imagine. Airplanes are the backdrop to it all. Both Phil and I read Collins for years; he became a generous friend to me when I started writing for Flying. Now I come upon an article that I must have read but had forgotten. Note to self: Why should I find it amazing that Richard Collins would find Phil Smith of interest? Of course he would have.

For that matter, why is it that so much of aviation, for all the obsession we have about speed and hardware and avionics, in the end comes down to the people who make and maintain all that hardware and avionics, and the pilots who fly their handiwork?

It has become fashionable these days to post advice to one’s earlier self such as “What I would say to my 20-year-old self now that I’m 40,” or something like it. Investment advice, career advice and certainly lovelorn advice populate these posts. In aviation, it is mostly about getting a job. Getting a job means building time, getting ratings, moving up to bigger, faster equipment and, finally (usually), landing that plum airline job that pays out the ying yang where you rarely have to work.

Let me suggest that you might miss out on life if you take this advice too seriously. Let me further recommend that you savor what you’ve got every step of the way. Whether it’s taking the engine covers off in New Orleans on a crisp early morning while shooting the breeze with a PlaneSense pilot who is doing the same, or enjoying a takeoff just after sunset that rewards you with an immediate (reverse) sunrise as you gain altitude, drink it in.

Above all the sights and sounds, hang on to the people. I am still in touch with Gene, who taught me how to fly on instruments while I was in the Army 40-some-odd years ago. My Boeing sim partner, Doug, texts me sometimes and says things like, “Dick, I just flew over your house in Tampa. Why are all those Harleys in your driveway?”

I do know that some readers find my happy circumstances of owning a turboprop — be it 36 years old — to be the conceit of a “rich man,” but I think they miss the point. If I let the fact that there are younger, richer and better-looking people than me who own private jets that they fly themselves cloud my happiness, I lose out.

Aircraft ownership brings its own set of trusting relationships. When I stopped by Duncan Interiors in Lakeland, Florida, to get a new runner for the floor of our Cheyenne, Mike reminded me that it has been 14 years since he did the interior. It still looks like new. “I must have done something wrong,” he said. I knew what he meant. The job had been too well done with no anticipation of planned obsolescence.

Bill Turley, a maintenance guru in Bartow, Florida, is mentioned frequently in these columns because his expertise and fairness make aviation possible for me. Turley keeps me safe. I wish I could find a family practitioner to look after my health with the same no-nonsense care, expertise, knowledge and careful judgment that Turley deploys on behalf of our airplane.

In my Part 135 flying at JetSuite, I’ve come into close (and I do mean close — inches) contact with some fine aviators. They teach me things on every flight. They make me laugh. They are generous and kind. They know things I don’t know. I find their company to be exhilarating. My only lament is that they keep following that other guy’s advice, moving on up to bigger equipment and faster airplanes. I hope they remember me as fondly as I do them.

The picture accompanying this piece shows Phil and me with Richard’s column. We found our way to that moment because of a death and because of our lives — our flying lives.