Gear Up: Fresh Start on a New Aviation Career

** JetSuite CJ3 (Photo courtesy of JetSuite)**

It was a spectacularly clear spring day in Lakeland, Florida. My wife, Cathy, and I were sauntering from exhibit to exhibit with four friends at Sun ’n Fun. The airshow had just begun. A fleet of Pitts Specials screamed by. We were just talking to Darryl Taylor of Van Bortel Aircraft in Texas about the possibility of me picking up some flying assignments from him. I had now seriously decided that I wanted to fly for a living, and I wasn’t passing up any opportunity, however remote the chances might be.

Amid the din, I thought I heard my phone ring. I snatched it from my hip to see the call was coming from a number assigned to Irvine, California. Was this the call I was hoping for? I answered as authoritatively as I could, but the roar of the F-16s in the background made any semblance of pretending to be at work risible.

I had been hoping for a few weeks to get a call from JetSuite, the Part 135 operator out of Irvine. Andy Lemons, a coworker of mine at a 135 operation in St. Petersburg, Florida, had left to fly for JetSuite and had recommended me. Andy had been on the Lear 40 while I was part time on the Lear 31, so we had never flown together, but he was a friend of my Lear captain, and he’d agreed to speak on my behalf.

“Hi, my name is Paul Proffett, the Palm Beach chief pilot at JetSuite,” said the caller. I tried to stand up a little straighter. “Yes, sir,” was about all I could stammer. Paul explained that he had my application and noted that I was 67 years old and a cancer surgeon. Basically, he inquired as delicately as possible if I were for real. He explained that they had an interview date coming up, but he didn’t want to waste a spot on some daffy surgeon with dreams of grandeur; that’s more or less what he seemed to say, anyway.

I wanted to establish some sort of rapport to buy some time to make my case, so I asked Paul how he got to JetSuite. He told me he’d been at Southwest and then gone to JetBlue when they opened for business. He retired from the training center at JetBlue and went to work for JetSuite.

“Where were you based at Southwest?” I asked. The friends I was with at the airshow were Southwest guys. Maybe there was a connection. “Baltimore,” Paul said. I asked him who the chief and assistant chief pilots at Baltimore were in his day.

“Kent Roper and Rob Haynes,” he answered. To which I replied, “I am looking at those two knuckleheads right now. With your permission, I’d like to ask Rob to talk to you about my interest. He knows me well and has been a good friend and counselor on my quest to fly.” “Sure,” Paul said. A week later I was headed to an interview in West Palm Beach.

The interview invitation included a time, a hotel conference room and a suggestion that I bring my significant other, not a flying buddy also looking for a job, to a reception at the end of the interview day.

So Cathy and I flew to KBPI and checked into the hotel. I was about to have my first aviation job interview. Andy had given me the gouge: You will sit in a big conference room with the East Coast chief pilot (Paul), West Coast chief pilot, director of operations and others. You will have a chance to ask questions. You will be taken to a smaller room for a one-on-one interview. You will probably be interviewed by a pilot and by somebody else in the company. One will be a man; one will be a woman.

That’s all I knew when I entered the big boardroom five minutes before the designated start time. I was the last to arrive. Mistake No. 1. Two applicants split aside to allow me room to sit so that I ended up on the far end of the table from the brass. They peered at me before resuming the conversation. The guy to my left, compact and trim, was an F-16 driver who had come from Alaska. Paul queried him about flying in the bush. Of course, Paul had done this. I looked around the room. I saw logbooks with MD-11 stickers on the front. All the logbooks were thick and professional looking. I had a series of dog-eared logs that I had bought from Sporty’s over the years. Oh, boy.

I leaned over to the fighter pilot and asked how he had gotten to KPBI from Alaska. He said he had flown commercially to Tampa, where his parents live, and then flown his Lancair down to Palm Beach. He looked around the room and smiled. “Didn’t everybody fly in?” he said with a grin.

After just a few minutes, a tall, attractive blonde called my name. She was Lindy, a Phenom 100 captain based in Dallas. Here we go, I thought. I knew from Andy that questions were posed in the “tell me about a time when …” mode. I was terrified; this was unlike any previous job interview in medicine.

“Tell me about a time when you went out of your way for a customer,” Lindy said. My mind raced. I knew from previous attempts at finding a flying job that stories about medicine in general or surgery in particular were not helpful. They either sounded boastful or pathetic.

“Well,” I said, thinking back to a grand total of 60 hours as a Lear first officer, “there was a time when the president of the university where I had worked for 25 years was going to a reception in Tallahassee. My captain, Jason Hepner, and I were going to take her and her husband in a Lear that was owned by a member of the university’s board. I knew her well from the university’s medical school where I had served, and we had flown her before. She is very nice.

“In any event, the Lear was down for maintenance, and I suggested to Jason that we take her in my Cheyenne, if it was OK with the president, the owner of the Lear and the head of the Part 135 company that operated the Lear. It was. So Jason and I, in our uniforms, took her to Tallahassee and back that night. She was grateful. They gave Jason a huge tip, paid for the gas and must have sent me 20 Omaha Steaks.”

Silence. When she spoke, Lindy said only this: “Don’t ever do that at JetSuite.” I was bummed. I knew what she meant: Don’t steal a customer. But I didn’t feel that I had. When she asked the next question, something about seeing something on the runway, I collapsed. I had blown another chance.

Chagrinned, I found the next interviewer charming and gracious, but by then, I had concluded that this was all for naught. I walked back up to the hotel room to tell Cathy, but she was by the pool. I just sat there, waiting for the reception where I would have to show my embarrassed face again.

Though I had counseled myself to take it easy on the liquor, my sense of dismay drove me right toward the bar, where who should intercept Cathy and me but Lindy. “Your husband is awesome,” she said. I really admired her graciousness at reassuring Cathy, even though I knew I had blown it. “No, really,” she said. Maybe all was not lost. Paul came over to talk. He was very gracious. I remember thinking that these are really nice people, just as Andy had told me.

The next morning we flew home. I was struggling with another dilemma; I had recently undergone surgery and was uncertain about the status of my medical. I knew I needed to let JetSuite know, even if I didn’t think the company was going to make me an offer. The embarrassing situation meant I would have to call Paul to explain that there was something he should know about me, even though the chances of a job were slim. Furthermore, this information might make the chances even slimmer.

Two nights later, Rob and Kathy Haynes came for dinner. We regaled them with our saga. Rob convinced me that calling the chief pilot was the right thing to do. And so I went into the back room and called Paul. He was understanding and kind. He made no commitment.

I slept fitfully. The next morning, a Monday, he called. “You are the first person I am calling. We’d like to make you a provisional offer to join JetSuite as a first officer on the CJ3.”

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Dick Karl
Dick KarlAuthor
Dick Karl is a cancer surgeon who appreciates the beauty and science involved in both surgery and flying. Dick’s monthly Gear Up celebrates the human side of flying. He writes about his enthusiasm for both the machines and the people who fly and maintain them.

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