Gone Pro

Rear cockpit.

When your son goes pro your roles might reverse, but you gain much in the bargain.

In the last three years I’ve been rewarded by the older of my sons taking up aviation in a most serious way. Every devotee of every discipline has always wanted to pass his enthusiasm to the next generation, and is there any greater expression of this than parent to child?

And so, sensing today’s wide-open employment opportunities in aviation, my previously ground-bound son made the clear decision to change his trajectory and go all out for flying. Already in his 30s and deeply invested in his dad’s other vice—the mythical perfect lap at whatever racetrack was handy—turning into the wind and spreading his wings was as unexpected as appreciated.

It wasn’t as if I had groomed my sons for aviation. That’s not to say their youth was devoid of aviating with the old man, but it was a period when my profession saw far more test cars in our driveway than airplanes in our hangar. Heck, there was no hangar because there was no airplane. I was renting Cessna 172s as I could, and so aviation was an occasional indulgence when it might—and should—have been an integral part of the family.

But apparently enough of the seed was sown that when aviation presented itself as a viable career, my son was ready. At the least he had been introduced to flying in little airplanes and knew where the local airport was.

What transpired was an approximate three-year transition from earthling to aviator. It would have been faster to have taken a loan and gone to Vne through one of the certificate mills, but that isn’t our style. In our house the lore is just as important as the how and, old soul that I am, I was pleased to watch the slow, traditional metamorphosis from primary student to multi and instrument, commercial and instructor. Moving at the speed of money, it was hardly a rushed education, and we were sure to get 300 hours of tailwheel logged as well. After all, the old man never got past stick and rudder flying, so mastering that has always been genuinely appreciated around here.

About a year ago it all came together and my son took the huge step from instructing at the local fly patch to walking up the airstairs of a King Air 350 at the big regional airport as a second officer. Five months later he was a captain.

Busy as the people- and cargo-moving business is these days, it hasn’t taken long for him to lay down solid blocks of turbine time. In not quite three years he passed 1200 hours total time, a figure it took me 49 years to reach.

The Inevitable

As you may have divined by now, there have been some changes in the household aviation dynamic. From self-anointed sky god, in the last three years I’ve transitioned from the senior aviator carefully watching his son’s first flights and giving the low-time pilgrim wise counsel to more like the family’s chief anachronism. In my new role I politely ask questions about those many facets of aviation I have no practical knowledge of or review crosswind techniques and so on. The pupil is now the teacher and while it’s a deeply satisfying transition because of the great success my son has earned, it has its ego-challenging aspects as I can leave to your imagination. It also means that when some piece of aviation mail shows up it doesn’t automatically go in my pile; it’s just as likely addressed to my son.

Bruised ego or not, there are advantages. Through my son I’m able to peek behind the curtain separating the amateur from the pro. Since he realized he was going to make that walk up the King Air’s stairs, he made an amazingly rapid transformation from student of the sport to the professional he was being asked to be. I could see the new attitude in more than just aviation and it was an amazing metamorphosis.

Of course, over the years I had heard stories from the flight levels and casually flipped through the slick magazines catering to the tie and shoulder board set, so I don’t need to blow any of this out of proportion. But once undeniably confronted by someone so completely flying “inside the system” in my own family, my admittedly often cavalier approach to flight begged revisiting. Perhaps I should fly a little straighter has been my overwhelming reaction.

The call to professionalism is actually a constant whenever I’ve hung around an activity long enough to get past the entry level. Impressionable youth, I’ve noticed, eventually take their car to the racetrack once they’ve tired of burnouts in front of the high school, or maybe they seek out a master for advice when their surfing hits a plateau. Others grew up in the desert riding dirt bikes and eventually get schooled by someone with the more disciplined approach fostered by organized competition. Garage bands beget musicians when they take some classes, and when I was a kid I thought flying under bridges might be worthwhile but now not so much (depends on the bridge).

And so having a pro in the family has me thinking about “what’s next” in the flying game. Certainly the never-ending understanding that comes from analyzing my mediocre good landing percentage continues. As the sole pilot in the household, it was all too easy to pass off the bounces and big saves as normal because the only one to talk it over with was myself, and how long can you talk to yourself before your wife notices? But when my son began flight instructing, I suddenly had a fellow pilot who was paying rapt attention to how people flew and who was not only willing to talk to me at length about my own performance, but who was also intimately familiar with our home airport and the airplanes we both flew. His perspective has helped, not only with stick and rudder technique, but with rekindling the subtle pressure to try harder. To keep pushing instead of accepting; to gather up what energy remains and put it forward into my flying. It’s quite the gift.

Getting Better?

I’m not so sure all this has paid off in that many better landings, but at least I’m trying harder. And appreciating it more when I see excellence elsewhere.

Speaking of elsewhere, walking into the hangar and inevitably comparing the old Experimental I’m aviating in to the sleek hardware my pro son is operating…well, it does sort of make me want to clean up my act.

And then there is that whole flying in the clouds thing. Long ago I decided I was never going pro; and instrument flying, while interesting, educational and obviously skill building, was not really for me because I would never be able to do enough of it to master it. And instrument flying is definitely a game with no entry level. It’s a pro game, and like Ernie Gann said, it’s a game played for keeps.

But it’s a game my son now plays daily. Weather he once would have glanced at, then rolled over in bed for, is now his daily grind and he’s comfortable with it. Maybe I could go for the instrument rating as a learning exercise now, but my son’s example has also reinforced my decision to leave duck weather to the ducks—and pros who fly it daily.

So there it is, an advanced rating just for the schooling. The call to professionalism…I think I’ll start with those landings.



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Tom Wilson
Pumping avgas and waxing flight school airplanes got Tom into general aviation in 1973, but the lure of racing cars and motorcycles sent him down a motor journalism career heavy on engines and racing. Today he still writes for peanuts and flies for fun.



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