Jumpseat: Giving Back, Airline Style

** Les and future airline pilot Adam Julio stand
in front of a 777-300 GE engine.**

If you’re a private pilot or an airline transport pilot, it doesn’t take long to discover that the “small world” axiom is very true within the aviation community. A relationship developed years earlier can resurface in the most unlikely places. Because of that, I was given advice to never burn a bridge in my climb up the airline ladder. The line boy that topped off the Cessna 150 in subzero temperatures when I was a wet-behind-the-ears, pimply faced flight instructor might someday become my chief pilot.

Although I’d like to believe the success I’ve been rewarded was the result of initiative and perseverance, achieving it wasn’t accomplished in a vacuum. I had help along the way. With the natural passage of time, expressing gratitude for that help is not always possible. Instead, paying it forward by giving back is a great start. In that regard, I was gratified to give back in three separate ways, all involving the future of the airline pilot profession. Interestingly enough, all three pay-it-forward events were within the same month.

At lunch during one of my favorite day trips to Montauk, New York, via my Cherokee Six, I had extended an invitation for two enthusiastic 12-year-olds and their fathers to take a tour of a 777 and our airline’s operations at JFK. Chris Orifici, one of the fathers, is the primary owner of the FBO in Connecticut where my airplane resides. The other father was a friend who had brought his son, Adam, along for a ride in Chris’ Cirrus SR20. Tom Torti, a name you have probably seen from previous columns and an owner in the same FBO, volunteered to fly the entourage in his Citation Mustang — an exciting proposition for him, as he had never experienced a personal arrival into JFK.

When the subject of my profession and airline surfaced, Adam inquired, “How do you like your new livery?” His blue eyes were unwavering. In other words, how did I like our new paint job? The word “livery” is foreign to most adults, let alone a 12-year-old boy. After years of watching parents coax and prod their shy kids into the cockpit while I attempted simplified explanations of the functionality for switches and controls, I knew the look of serious. And this kid was serious.

With the preliminaries of TSA complete and the escort assistance of a senior office staff member, I began the tour of JFK Ops. My friend and New York chief pilot graciously offered a rare moment of his time to escort us on our visit of a 777. Our group departed the flight office and walked through the concourse, detouring around a movie shoot in progress near our gate.

We trotted down the jet bridge and onto the 777. The airplane would be my ride to London in three hours. As I led the group toward the aft end of the airplane, I glanced back. Grins were etched on the faces of both the big kids and the little kids. From a look at the upper crew bunks to the intricacy of the first class seats to the sophistication of the cockpit, not one area was met without an abundance of enthusiasm.

Walking out the jet bridge door and down the steep grated metal steps, we spilled out onto the ramp. All eyes focused up at the airplane. The smiles and open mouths were acknowledgment that the outside of the 777 made as much of an impression as the inside. Pictures were taken. Questions were asked. And when employment opportunities were discussed and a business card from the chief pilot requested, Adam innocently asked my 50-plus-year-old friend whether he would still be around when Adam applied. That question brought a coy grin.

Later, after an impromptu meeting with one of our ramp controllers back inside the terminal, we were offered a visit to the ramp tower. Among many other operations, the ramp tower is responsible for the movement and coordination of airplanes within our terminal area. The facility is very similar to that of a typical FAA tower. It provided our group with an unprecedented bird’s-eye view of not only our gates but also a portion of JFK’s taxiways and runways.

My tour group departed with handshakes and thank yous. Perhaps I had helped a future airline pilot move closer to adding his name to the seniority list. If nothing else, I had created a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Next on the calendar was a trip to Southern Illinois University. For nine years, my airline has coordinated with the school’s aviation program, donating a Super 80 for fuel costs. The Super 80 is the transportation to Carbondale, Illinois, home of the SIU campus. About 100 preselected local Chicago area high school students are given a tour of the campus and introduced to the aviation program. The students are separated into groups and given introductory flight lessons conducted by SIU undergraduate instructors. My participation, along with other airline colleagues, was to represent aviation occupations. A formal presentation was given to the students later in the day.

Jay Rud, my friend and 767 check airman, coordinates the event every year. Jay is an SIU alumnus. Despite having graduated from Purdue University, I was still invited. The fact that SIU had just won the National Intercollegiate Flying Association regional championship hosted by my alma mater didn’t help.

A combination of a low, broken cloud deck and a short nonstandard-width runway added a level of difficulty to the approach into Carbondale. From my vantage point in the cabin, the crew made it appear seamless. The volunteer flight attendants, all SIU alumni wearing the appropriate maroon school T-shirts, kept the kids entertained and safe. As our arrival was not an everyday occurrence for the airport, we were met with enthusiastic fanfare. A crowd of students and locals, including the Saluki mascot dog, greeted the airplane.

First on the agenda was a brief tour of SIU’s scenic campus. It was homecoming day. We lunched on barbecue sandwiches at the alumni area but were unfortunately unable to partake of the adult beverages, having worn our uniforms for the occasion. The bulk of our day was spent in the Transportation Education Center at the airport. Barely a year old, the building is a testament to the university’s commitment to aviation education. State-of-the-art simulators, laboratories and interactive classrooms are contemporary representations of a quality learning experience.

With a slice of pizza in hand as a parting gift, we left SIU hoping we had shared our limited wisdom. Aside from the interaction with prospective students, I think Jay and I would agree that the most gratifying part of the day was our interaction with enrolled undergrads.

Last on my pay-it-forward calendar was a two-day conference with 40 colleagues from my pilots union. The union hired an outside consultant to facilitate a change in our governing structure, a necessity recognized by our union leadership.

Conference participants, the majority of whom do not hold an official office like myself, volunteered to put our collective heads together to effect a more functional union. Considering that we will most likely increase our membership dramatically through a merger, we have all the more reason to have a workable governance solution.

The interesting dynamic was the fact that most volunteers were approaching an age where the results of the conference may not be fully realized until after they are retired, myself included. This was an indication of an unselfish dedication to the future of our profession and a genuine interest in doing the right thing. I am proud to be associated with such people. Throughout the presentations of each volunteer group, it was apparent that a lot of thought was being applied to the proposals — white paper flow chart creativity and humor notwithstanding.

The governance project will continue at a later date after our union leadership narrows down the proposals to a hybrid of all the contributions. Eventually the majority will rule. The general membership will have a voice in the form of a vote.

In comparison to the union participation of others, my 29 years of involvement is miniscule. I am grateful to those who have sacrificed much more on my behalf. By participating in these three events, it is my hope that I have paid it forward because of people like Don Perricone, my nurturing flight instructor when I was 16 years old. He will always be part of my success.

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Les Abend
Les AbendAuthor
Les Abend is a retired, 34-year veteran of American Airlines, attempting to readjust his passion for flying airplanes in the lower flight levels—without the assistance of a copilot.

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