Get Back to Work and Stop Dreaming

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Getting a type rating or passing a check ride are certainly satisfying and, most often, fun exercises, but they don't make a pilot out of you. It is true of all technical pursuits, I suppose, that excellence comes from an admixture of talent, effort, practice and love. Three out of four of these qualities probably make for competency, but it takes all four for excellence. I've come to recognize lately that my assessment of my flying ability may not be as accurate as my robust narcissism might wish. That is, I enjoy flying, do a lot of it for a man who works 50 hours a week doing something else, but I am not a pro. That is another order of magnitude above my present "experienced amateur" pilot status. I've got the love part down, but lack in effort and practice. Somebody else has to make the judgment about the talent. Since I like to consider myself a pro at cancer surgery and I am often in the company of surgical trainees, I see more clearly now how the evolution of excellence in a surgeon and in a pilot are similar. A few recent experiences made this concept very clear. One was at work.

The 71-year-old man in a wheelchair grinned at my stupidity. When I asked him if his heart was the reason he couldn't walk, he said, "It isn't my heart." It turned out that he was accurate about this; he had had a heart transplant in 1989, it was another man's heart that was giving out now. "Gotcha, doc," he said with a laugh. Here was a man who had endured unimaginable hardships, making jokes about them. I remembered at that instant why I love the practice of medicine so. It is a good thing, too, for I have bumped up against some unpleasant facts about my flying that have impinged upon my lifelong and almost continuous fantasy: that I could make a living flying airplanes.

For starters, there's my age. I am 62 and no matter what recent legislation about Part 121 flying might say, I am not and will never be eligible to fly for a scheduled carrier. Then, there's that other thing about age: I might not pass a first-class physical. I might, but I might not. I haven't had an EKG, ever. Who knows what sort of biologically innocent but bureaucratically devastating detail might be outed by those squiggly little lines? You've heard the stories. For me, I always experience a grateful exhalation of relief after a successful every other year visit to my friend and trusty AME. Somehow, my highest recorded blood pressure is always in his office; at least 20 points higher than when measured any other time.

Then there are my qualifications. I look pretty good on paper: 4,000-plus hours, virtually all as PIC, 2,500 multi, 1,250 turbine. I've got type ratings in, but have never actually flown, the Cessna 500 jet series and the Boeing 737. I've got an instrument rating to go with all this. But, but.

I'm still a private pilot. I've never taken the written for the commercial or ATP designations. I suppose I could pass the tests (and not by much, though I have always thought passing a test by a lot was a misuse of time). With a little practice, I could probably pass the flying part of the exams, unless I ran into a really tough examiner.

Without any chance of employment, I've just never bothered to do the work, make the effort, get the ticket. This has not diminished my huge capacity for fantasizing that I could if I wanted to, even though I know for sure in other fields of endeavor that wanting something doesn't necessarily mean that you're going to get it.

I also have habits that people who fly single pilot without routine instruction can acquire. This is not to say that I don't enjoy or do well during my annual Cheyenne training at FlightSafety. After eight years of recurrent training, I and my friends are pretty good at surviving the simulator. But how good are we when out of sight of our teachers?

I was reminded of this during a recent and short trip with Editor in Chief Mac McClellan. When I started the PT-6s in my Cheyenne, Mac noticed that I didn't have my hand on the fuel lever. Sure enough, in the simulator, we practice hot starts and hung starts, but I've never had anything but normal starts in over 2,000 engine starts in my airplane. I had become complacent. Then, as we took off from White Plains, headed all the way to Hartford, we were given a takeoff clearance that emphasized that landing traffic was close by and it was a jet. I took the takeoff on the roll and stayed slightly upwind of the centerline. Mac gently pointed out that the boys at Gulfstream make it a point to have the nosewheel hit every centerline light on takeoff and landing.

All this reminded me of my good friend, an airline check airman, who states that he's never flown the perfect flight. I decided that on the trip back from Hartford to White Plains that I'd strive for perfection. I don't know how many errors Mac actually saw, but I remember getting confused as to which runway was in use for departure and my dry mouth as we came in for touchdown with a 45-degree crosswind of 15 to 20 knots. I selected flaps 15 and no more. I was quite pleased with the touchdown, though it was to the upwind side of the centerline. Aiming for perfection, I drove the airplane over to that big white stripe and Mac said "Ah, finally, the centerline." He was laughing, I think.

Two recent simulator hops in big airplanes stimulated a renewed interest in medicine; at least there I am comfortable with most circumstances. The first treat was a go at the MD-11 simulator at FedEx headquarters. I sought out Roger Johnson, a check airman with FedEx and MD-11 captain based in Memphis, as he and I had communicated about our love of flying and I knew him to be an excellent observer/writer and closet romantic. Roger strapped me into the MD-11 sim and started the engines. Takeoff was pretty straightforward and I was emboldened to request an ILS with a ceiling of 500 feet, visibility one mile. That's when the trouble began.

The MD-11 flight director is a cross-haired affair, unlike the V-bar with which I am most familiar. On top of that I immediately became dependent on trying to line up those lines at the expense of paying any attention to raw data. This meant that I was slow into turns and descents, and slow to arrest both. On the first approach I broke out well to the left of the runway and called for a go-around.

The second approach wasn't much better. For all my hours, I was unable to perform this simplest of maneuvers in the safety of a simulator. I could only wonder at my competence on a dark and stormy night, when fear and fatigue would further degrade my abilities ... . Only when Roger defaulted our approach to a visual did we both sense something amiss. It turns out that the sim had been left in the X2 position, so that our approach speed of 167 knots was actually 334 knots over the ground.

Simulators have this provision for LOFT (line oriented flight training), so that the en route part of a simulated flight from Memphis to Anchorage can be sped up. After that was fixed, I could survive a V1 cut and get it back on the ground, though the unequal reverse thrust left me still hunting for that damn centerline!

A few days later I was privileged to be back at Southwest Airlines with my friends Bob Torti and Rob Haynes. With Tim Broughton as first officer, I got to spend some time in the 737-300 sim. Here again I felt the difference between a rookie in the seat, with all the engines running, the A pumps off and the B pumps on, and a pro, who instinctively falls to a practiced flow. I watched Rob and Tim set up the airplane as they had a million times before-hands flying over switches and knobs, snapping everything into place like those guys running the roulette tables in Vegas. It would have taken me 20 minutes to set things up the way they did in two.

Once started down the runway for the predictable V1 cut, I managed to keep the airplane on the runway, but was slow to rotate. I felt Tim's subtle force on the controls as he helped me along. Trying to pry a negative word from Southwest's check airmen is like getting a steak from my 90-pound Labrador retriever's jaws; it just isn't going to happen. But I knew. I knew that a real V1 cut on a tough night would not be a smooth nonevent for me, though it would be for Rob and Tim. You see, they have done this thousands of times. They have practiced this over and over. They have thought about these maneuvers, they have talked about them with fellow airmen in hundreds of cockpits in scores of cities, while waiting for the cargo bin lights to extinguish. They are the pros and I am a pretender. There's no use calling it anything other than that.

These observations have made me much more aware of the delights of surgery. The other day after a long, tough liver resection, I emailed Rob and told him it was like a four-hour CAT III approach. I came away with the same feeling I get from flying. The technically difficult is highly concerning in the planning and anticipating, riveting in the execution and very rewarding when it has been successfully accomplished.

Reinvigorated and maniacally focused, I set out to fly the perfect flight from Tampa to Miami in our Cheyenne. I copied and read back the clearance, seeking clarification about the initial heading assignment. I took off right on the centerline. I captured every altitude within five to 20 feet. I planned our descent to match the crossing restrictions accurately. I managed the airplane's kinetic energy with skill. Our touchdown was a kiss. I parked just so. Shutdown and checklists were done to perfection. As we got out of the airplane, my wife said, "Why did you ask the clearance delivery guy about our initial heading? Didn't you see that they had turned the airport around while we were starting up?"

Well, I hadn't. As I said, I've got the love part down, but still need practice. It is a good thing I still have a day job.