Gear Up: Inching Toward the Goal Line

** >>>Straight out of the package from Sporty’s.**

(October 2011) The LabCorp offices are only 20 minutes from work; I think I'll try to get over there during lunch break. As I open the tinted glass door, I come upon a room full of 40 (maybe) people sitting on plastic chairs, most of them staring blankly at a television that is tuned to a game show. There is no sound. I approach the sign-in desk. Two humongous women reside behind it. They are staring too, in their case at two computer screens. I am told that the wait is about an hour.

What in the world, I think to myself, am I doing here? It turns out that I am here to pee in a cup. This is all part of becoming a commercial pilot, a goal I set for this 65-year-old private pilot last January. I had thought that once I had passed the second-class medical and managed the ATP written, I was pretty much there, ready to get a type rating. But no, flying for a living is more demanding than that. Defeated, I turn to leave, but not before one of the staring women has given me valuable secret information: You can schedule a “pee time” online.

Back at work, I do just that for the following day. I find another branch of the same outfit, this one near the airport, which I somehow think will make it more welcoming, and make an appointment for 1330.

I arrive on the dot. There are only four or five people waiting, and a pleasant-looking lady is perched behind the desk. I sign in and sit down. The lady behind the desk leaves. About 10 minutes go by and a client emerges from the depths of LabCorp. The desk agent returns. She tells me that she is alone, answering phones and signing people in and doing some lab tests when she can. The 1 o’clock appointment and the 1:15 are still waiting, she says. I ask for the phone number of the supervisor. Moments later I have him on the phone.

Though a practicing cancer surgeon, I don’t use the “doctor” thing when making restaurant reservations. It has never been clear to me what being a doctor has to do with eating, unless, maybe if you are a gastroenterologist. In any event, I unleash the “doctor” appellation on the poor supervisor, who tells me that at least two people are at work. I dispute this and thank him for listening. A few minutes later the door to the lunchroom opens and two scowling employees emerge. What, I wonder, might they do to my urine sample in revenge?

I've been pounding away at the CTsys website, as instructed by Elite Air's acting chief pilot, David Paul. I am hoping to fly as first officer in a Lear 31 for Elite Air. The CTsys program provides 40 hours of study, done at your own pace, and is essentially the commercial and ATP content presented in an interactive form. Though I have just found the Gleim and King courses very useful, CTsys comes at the same material in a slightly different way, and I find it enjoyable and learn something too. Unfortunately, it is dependent on Internet connection, so I can't work on it while traveling in commercial airplanes.

Once done with the online course I arrange to meet David Paul for eight hours of one-on-one “indoc” tutoring. I approach this with some trepidation. I have come to Elite Air through a friendship with its CEO, and I didn’t get the job based on my résumé or good looks. I fear David will be put off by this entry mechanism for a turboprop guy who has never flown for a living and has just acquired the commercial and ATP ratings in the past six months.

It turns out I needn’t have fretted. I like David immediately. He patiently explains the intricacies of Part 135 and Part 91 operations. I learn about specific requirements for this particular operator, from the takeoff minimums to how to know if your alternate is legal.

David tells me that I need the drug tests, some fingerprinting, a TSA background check, an FAA records check and a badge to be seen on the KPIE (St. Petersburg, Florida) property. This sounds easy but has its own set of inherent follies.

Though I have just been fingerprinted at the local sheriff’s office in order to provide care to Medicaid patients, another set is required by the TSA. A.J. Becker in Elite Air headquarters gives me two fingerprinting cards and sends me to the St. Pete police station. There I pay $10.70 but get hung up because I have only a driver’s license. I call A.J., who faxes a copy of my passport, which he has been smart enough to have already procured, and I am in business. The whole process takes a good hour and a half. It is becoming obvious that patience is an important skill for a Part 135 pilot.

I sign a bevy of forms to allow the FAA to divulge my records. What could they harbor? Will that time the nosewheel wouldn’t come down show up? How about the time when I sailed through an assigned altitude in the mid-20s while I tried to figure out how to operate the autopilot on the Cheyenne? I guess we’ll see. I am beginning to suspect that getting a Learjet type rating will be the easy part.

At St. Pete International, I pay $35 to Signature flight support so that it can send me and my forms up to the airport operations office. There, a kind Burl Ives-looking man takes my paperwork and tells me that I may get an airport badge in “three hours or three weeks.”

“That’s after you take the TSA video and test,” he adds.

I sigh. Will I ever get in the air?

A few months later, with a temporary certificate with the letters LRJ in my wallet, a Friday morning brings a treat. Mike Bronisz, my captain, oh captain, meets me at the Elite Air hangar and we actually touch a Lear 31. This is my first encounter with the genuine article. I walk around, recognizing bits and pieces from the pictures I saw while a student at Flight Safety in Atlanta. I better get flying soon, or I will have forgotten everything.

Mike and I squirm into the incommodious cockpit — I on the right, he on the left. The entire training experience in the simulator was flown from the captain’s side, so the airplane looks entirely foreign to me from over here. Good heavens. I try to keep up and ask questions that signal my deep understanding of the Lear, but Mike knows better. He was in the computer business but just had to fly. Come to think of it, Gray Gibbs, the CEO, and David Paul are both lawyers who couldn’t stay away either. So maybe an old surgeon isn’t such a weird concept for these guys as I might have imagined.

After fumbling with the flight management system for a brief period, we clamber out and eat a quick lunch. Here’s another man I like. People around aviation are like that. I can’t wait to get a trip with him.

As David handed me the Elite Air official tie, he said to buy a shirt and get some epaulets (silver, not gold). I get on Sporty’s website and do just that. When the shirt arrives, I attach the epaulets and lay it out on the bed. I take a picture. I send it to everybody. Gray has told me that I can wear four bars because I am typed in the airplane (the first officer needs experience and training as second in command but doesn’t have to have the type rating), but I am not doing that until I make captain.

I can’t tell you how cool that shirt is. I know I could have ordered one years ago to wear while gardening or going into restaurants, but this seems for real and it seems spectacular. Mike has suggested polyester dark blue pants. “You can get them at Macy’s,” he says. “I know what they say about polyester and fire, but you can put your knee in a pool of jet-A and they come out of the wash just great.”

I buy the pants. A friend tells me there is a pecking order in jet pilots.

“The Gulfstream guys wear Brooks Brothers,” he tells me. “The Lear and Beechjet guys wear polyester.”

I don’t know about that, but I can tell you these are the best pair of pants I’ve ever owned.

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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