Among the various fascinating denizens of the air sharing our friendly skies, there are a great many creatures of habit — but perhaps none quite to the degree of the common airline pilot. This species, to which I belong, takes great pride and comfort in its everyday routines, the highly scripted rituals of flight and furrow, heavens and hearth. Which explains why I am feeling distinctly out of place as I enter the Boeing 757’s expansive cockpit (newly clean-shaven, polyester uniform a bit too pressed and starched) after a six-week absence.
The captain, a silver-haired, strong-jawed man who was very likely born with four stripes on his shoulders, turns from his freshly prepared nest to exchange introductions and pleasantries. As I settle into the right seat, he naturally inquires about my home domicile. This is normally a bit of light getting-to-know-you chitchat while each pilot begins their preflight flow patterns — but the revelation that I live on a sailboat and have spent the past six weeks sailing the Bahamas drives the conversation into high gear. I suppose it raises all sorts of red flags: Here is an outlier, a possible creature of non-habit, perhaps even one of those wild-eyed renegades who still occasionally finds their way into airline cockpits despite management’s best efforts. Either that or my elder counterpart is genuinely interested in my sea-gypsy existence; either way, he peppers me with questions as I try to re-acclimate myself to my workspace and re-establish my old preflight routines. My head swims, but it’s OK. I know from experience that this is the toughest part. Before long, everything will click, I’ll get back in sync, and in a leg or two it’ll be as though I never left.
I’ve been flying for 23 of my 36 years, and looking back, there have been rather few periods when I’ve remained earthbound for any length of time. In my early teens I could only afford one flight lesson a month, and a few times I had to skip a month — the height of cruelty at an age when time seems to pass so very slowly. From college through my freight-dog days, though, I almost never went more than two days without flying, which was just the way I wanted it. It was only upon becoming a regional airline pilot that I developed both my lazy streak and the itch of wanderlust, and I made it a bit of a game to string together as many days off as possible to enjoy whatever adventures I could dream up. My crowning success was scoring a whole month off for my wife, Dawn, and me to ride our motorcycles to Alaska and back, and later repeating the feat to spend a month exploring South Africa, Botswana and Zimbabwe. In both cases I returned completely refreshed and ready to get back to work.
Considering the instability that bedeviled the aviation industry for a decade following 9/11 I’m fortunate that I was never furloughed and never went more than a week between jobs. When hiring pilots, many employers consider currency a near prerequisite; it can be really tough getting back in the game if you’ve been out awhile. I did temporarily lose my medical while at my last airline (“Grounded,” July 2016), which was hard because it was unexpected and I was uncertain when I would get it back. But even during my professional grounding I was still able to fly my flying club’s Piper Cub under Light Sport rules. Four months and a simulator ride later I joyfully returned to the left seat of the Embraer 175, and I’d like to think that my Cub currency had something to do with the ease with which I transitioned back to work.
This current bout of truancy is different. For the first time in my life I’m intentionally flying as little as possible, at least for six or seven months out of the year. With no debt and no major expenses other than boat maintenance, I can afford the pay cut and have chosen to play hooky for a few years of sailing and exploring the Caribbean as my full-time pursuit while I’m still young and healthy and blessed with a wife inclined to adventure.
My airline, and especially my fleet, is rather seasonal; we fly a lot during the summer. The airline staffs accordingly, and from May through September it is “all hands on deck.” During the winter (i.e. cruising season for tropical sailors), though, this results in surplus pilots, and the airline is all too happy to accommodate those who wish to temporarily remove themselves from the payroll. That said, the company would likely take a more dim view of my absences if a lack of landing currency forced them to pay for a trip to the simulator every 90 days. For that matter, I want to stay comfortably competent in the cockpit; it’s better for us both that I work every once in a while. Accordingly, I’ve been flying a trip every month and a half or so, at times when I can stash the boat in a safe harbor and commute north.
I’m lucky to be flying the Boeing 757/767. It’s a well-designed, simple-to-fly airplane that makes for easy re-acclimation. The McDonnell Douglas jet I used to fly was considerably more demanding; I think I’d find it harder to play catch-up on that airplane after six weeks. The FAA currency requirement is the same for both airframes — three landings in 90 days — just as it is for GA airplanes as disparate as the Cessna 150 and the Pitts Special. This is, of course, a legal minimum. In some cases it’s perfectly adequate. It is, for example, pretty common for long-haul international pilots to visit the simulator to renew their landing currency, and that segment of aviation has an enviable safety record. But for more demanding environments, “three in 90” isn’t always enough.
Probably the most challenging flying of my career thus far was single-pilot freight-dogging at night, sans autopilot, in light twin airplanes. When I was doing it five days a week it didn’t seem like such a big deal. But later, when I was flying for my first regional airline, I got a part-time job flying for a Part 135 freight carrier (on my days off, with the airline’s approval). I was on call and only got used once or twice a month. Every time I climbed back into that Navajo, it was like visiting a foreign land. My currency in a glass-cockpit, multicrew turboprop was worse than useless; it had atrophied my instrument scan and slowed my hands, and here I was launching into crummy Pacific Northwest weather and shooting non-precision approaches into mountainous airports. It was legal, but it didn’t feel particularly safe. When my first proficiency check came due, my boss decided the freight carrier wasn’t using me enough to justify the trouble of renewal. It was for the best.
These days, when returning to the cockpit after an absence, I do a few simple things to ease the transition. The night before, I open my flight manual and read through a few basic items I have bookmarked: limitations, preflight flows, call-outs, emergency procedures and memory items. I chair-fly anything that strikes me as unfamiliar. I take a peek at the next day’s airport diagrams and approach plates.
Occasionally cracking the books is a good practice for any pilot, but it’s easy to get out of the habit when you’re flying frequently. In the cockpit, I make a conscious effort to really think through what I’m doing and the next several steps to come — normally such second nature that highly current pilots seldom even realize they’re doing it. After each phase of flight, I jot down any mistakes I’ve made, along with the correct action. Essentially, I become really anal-retentive for the first few flights, and as a result I find that I’m actually sharper than when I’ve been flying a lot.
Good news: The captain has apparently decided I’m not such a renegade after all and has graciously offered me the first leg. We push back, start up and taxi out; I take the controls as he aligns the Boeing with the departure runway. When I push the throttles forward and those Rolls-Royce engines spool up and I’m pressed back in my seat by 80,000 pounds of thrust, I can’t suppress a little smile. I hate to admit it, but I do think about flying while sailing — sometimes I even miss it. Every time the wide ocean sky is streaked with contrails, whenever I catch a glint of aluminum in the sunset, every time a jet filled with holidaymakers makes its approach over a palm-fringed anchorage, I think about my other life as a creature of the sky. Shirtless, sun-tanned and slightly piratical with a scruffy beard, my second identity as a hidebound airline pilot scarcely seems possible. Yet here I am, starched uniform and all, and it feels good. It feels like coming home.
There’s something else that I really miss. I haven’t touched a general aviation airplane in over six months. When I was in the flying club and when I owned the Pacer, I almost took it for granted. Now, in the Bahamas, there is a steady stream of island-hopping GA aircraft, and both Dawn and I miss the Pacer something fierce. We’re already talking about the next airplane we’ll buy once our sailing interlude is complete. But to everything there is a season. About the time you read this, when the trade winds flick southeast and the salt water heats up and the hurricanes start spinning in their breeding grounds, we’ll point Windbird back north to the Chesapeake Bay. All summer long I’ll dutifully don the uniform and fly a full schedule, and I’ll wear the Boeing like a second skin. And in between work trips and local sails on the bay, we’ll visit far-flung friends, many of whom have neat GA aircraft I’ll get to fly. Each half of my double life is the stuff of dreams, and I’m so very blessed that I get to live them both.