Somewhere in our mid-twenties, we each decided we’d had enough of life on the ground, so we came to flight school. We left behind our old lives and our good friends and our familiar towns. We abandoned jobs and careers that, for reasons we didn’t understand, had become empty. We packed our cars and headed south, to Vero Beach.
We spent most of our time over the next several years at a large and intimidating place called FlightSafety Academy, with its carefully manicured lawns, perfectly polished airplanes and military-like discipline. Following a time tested curriculum, its Air Corps roots still palpable, we learned to fly airplanes, and, perhaps more importantly, we began to understand the lore of what it meant to be an aviator.
Training was relentless and challenging. There were endless classes, sweat-drenching hours in low-level flight, and many failures. We began to bond in the off-hours, drinking Coronas in seaside cafes or grilling burgers in the warm, breezy evenings. Always the talk was of flying.
When finally we believed ourselves masters, we learned to teach it. Everything we thought we knew was painstakingly revisited, and thus we discovered the depths of our own ignorance. Slowly, the secrets became clear. The science of aerodynamics was no longer just a topic to be endured and shoved aside, but a state of mind, and the wing not just an appendage on the fuselage, but a part of one’s soul.
Then someone flew a jetliner into the World Trade Center, and everything stopped. We were officially grounded for a while, but even when those restrictions were lifted, there was very little flying to be had. The great engine of the entire industry had ceased to operate. Airline pilots were furloughed, hiring froze, and we felt the backlash all the way at the bottom of the ladder. We were told to wait.
So, we delivered pizzas, poured drinks, served tables, worked in bookstores, and sold vitamins to geriatrics. We stared up at the sky. After work, we wrote equations on our mirrors. We collected information and supplies. We stayed up late into the night with balsa wood, cardboard tubes, epoxy, spray paint and rum.
And when we could get a day off in common, we launched rockets. It became an obsession, a way to forget that all of our hard-earned skills were rusting while we served the whims of the snow birds. Out on the range outside of Palm Bay, we left all that behind, and there was only the field, the rockets and the sky.
At last we got the call, and we could fly for a living. We were ecstatic, at first. Our students looked on us with reverence, as if we alone held the keys to their success. Everyone says you never forget your first solo flight in an airplane. More memorable still is the first student you solo as a fledgling flight instructor. We had the greatest job in the world.
But the long hours and the rough air and the endless maneuvers and the smell of dry erase markers slowly took their toll. Flight instructing was hot, dirty, frustrating work, only rewarding in retrospect, but through it we became seasoned and wise. We knew what the weather would do before it happened. We could feel the airplane as a part of us, anticipating its reactions. We read our students’ minds. We had become pilots.
So we all returned north, taking jobs at airlines across the country, in the process becoming students once again. We had to start over from the beginning, it seemed, just as we did to become flight instructors. The process was painful, tedious, frustrating. Through experience and failures, we learned.
Now we look forward once again, always seeking the next opportunity or a little more knowledge, struggling for mastery in a demanding and noble profession. And though the team is separated by distance, we remain united in our timeless pursuit. We celebrate the spirit of those days in Palm Bay, and we strive to take aviation into the future it deserves.