The Colonel

November 1, 1997


We sat in the booth, facing each other across the table as we had so many times before, clutching warm mugs of coffee in cold hands.

It was one of those moments, with no other pilots around, when the barbed one-liners and affectionate insults could be laid aside to allow a few important messages to get through, unimpeded. Moments like this were cropping up more often in our little get-togethers at the Howard Johnson restaurant near the airport. And lately those get-togethers had evolved into scheduled events rather than the spontaneous ventures from which they drew their origins.

The talking stopped for a moment while the waitress topped off the coffee — decaf for The Colonel, high-test for me. I resumed my narrative.

"We fought like cats and dogs, you and I, when we first started flying together. I'd get so mad at you that I finally said 'the hell with it' and found somebody I could get along with." The Colonel said nothing, only sipped his coffee, eyes burning like lasers through his glasses. "But I have to tell you, you miserable old coot, that everything you were trying to teach me was right. I may not have enjoyed your methods, but the message was sound."

Old Don, or The Colonel, as most of the folks around here knew him, nodded again and set down his mug. "I know it was," he said. "And I don't mind telling you how proud of you I am. You've come a very long way." Then a look of sadness crossed his face and he shook his head. "Dickens! When I first met you, you didn't know how to fly an airplane. You were all over the place — made me sick watching you."

A bitter pill to swallow, but how right the old guy was. I had met him many years earlier when I was a confident young newspaperman and private pilot newly arrived in Maine. I hadn't flown in a year and had heard he was teaching a ground school at the local high school. Retired from the military, and subsequently from teaching, he had been the fifth grade teacher of my girlfriend of the moment. She came with me on the first night of ground school and made introductions (timidly addressing him as "Mr. Strout," I noticed with trepidation). When he turned toward me and I beheld the fearsome scowl for the first time, I knew that there was no way in hell that the two of us could ever get along. But here we sat, a handful of years and thousands of flight hours later, in our usual booth at the airport's Howard Johnson, running up our usual $1.50 tab — the old guy now medically disqualified from flying, and me, the protégé completing the training of his students. Still the mentor, still a walking library of insight and anecdotes about flying dating back (we like to kid him) to Wilbur and Orville, still as much an airport fixture as the flagpole and the fuel trucks, still a reminder of how hard it can sometimes be to learn to fly. A pilot who never had a son sat across the table from a pilot whose father didn't know the air, making our peace in a way that I should have done a lot sooner with my real father.

How right he was. When I first met him I had a pilot's certificate, but I didn't really know how to fly. Now he could sit here and smile as I described my training of new crops of students — both of us hearing, in my analysis of fledgling aviators' struggles, his own stern critiques of my own early skills. Now I could see how hard it had been for him to behold the confidence on my face, and listen to the bluster born of my hundred hours of flight, and see a pilot there. He could sit here and hear his own thoughts flowing from my lips, know that he had done his job as well as possible, and realize that his retirement did not mean that his teachings would cease.

You can't just tell someone to his face that he doesn't know a damn thing about airplanes when he's convinced otherwise, but you can show him, and that's what The Colonel did so well. What you did with the bitter knowledge was your business, but it was up to him to show you, and you had to take it from there. It wasn't pleasant; he'd let you get yourself in so deep that you'd go home broken and discouraged, but the next time, rather than relent out of pity, he'd set the bar even higher. I never hated him for it, but at times I thought I did.

I went through all the phases: despair; denial; blaming him for his attitude, his methods, his infuriating silence, and obvious delight at my misfortunes in the airplane. His disdain for my incompetence was all-encompassing. He got me lost over the wilderness, a few hundred feet above the ground, under an imaginary low overcast, with an imaginary half-hour's worth of fuel remaining. Too low to radio for help or track a radial. (He turned the radio off to make sure of that.) I found a railroad track and followed it. It led to a lake. Not much use to an airplane on wheels. I reversed direction, desperately searching the chart with its dozens of lakes and railroad tracks, but he told me it was too late — my fuel had just run out. He pointed to a clump of trees and told me that's where I would have crashed. I drove home from the airport feeling like the world's greatest nonpilot.

His acid responses to dumb student pilot behavior ("Dumbstudent is one word," he likes to say) were dreadful to endure; many pilots would have nothing to do with him — an error of judgment some will come to regret. True to his military bearing, he wanted only one of three answers to his questions: "Yes, sir," "No, sir," or "No excuse, sir." Spare him the face-saving explanations and the rationalizations. They are for civilians — or worse, for nonpilots. I was a liberal-arts type from the city, not a buzz-cut military guy, and saving face was still important to me. A mistake didn't seem so bad if there was a good reason for it. What a crock. A mistake's a mistake, and the only reason for it is flawed technique or unlearned technique. Don't ever get comfortable with having reasons for mistakes made while flying an airplane. Most of them are too long to engrave on a tombstone anyway. "That was the real lesson you were trying to get across, wasn't it?" Another nod.

I went on: It's not only what you learn, but how you learn that matters in the long run. Judges, doctors, mill workers, journalists, and high-school students are equals in the pilot's seat; whatever prestige or status you perceive to be yours in other walks of life gives you no head start in the air. An airplane knows how to fly. It's the pilot who has to learn, and the machine doesn't care what he was doing before he came out to the airport. Some people — cooperative, compliant types unburdened by pride, ego, or even high expectations — will have a peaceable time learning how to fly an airplane. Then get some big, blustery egotist in the left seat and Father Time of the airways in the right seat, and watch the fireworks. What I found out was that when I wasn't bashing my head against the wall, hammering at the problem with the grace of elephants and all the discipline of your Uncle Charlie playing the slot machines in Vegas, I could learn something. About myself. About flying. And now I had to help others navigate this same difficult channel, and the invectives sometimes hurled at me are the same ones I used to bring down so forcefully upon The Colonel. Yet I doubt that I endure them with his grace.

One night I called him in a tantrum over my inability to solve ADF approach questions on a written test. "You're fighting the problem," he said. It was all the help I got, so I got mad and hung up. But he was right, and soon I understood ADF better. In his confrontational way, he taught pilots to focus on what was important and to disregard the irrelevancies. The real praise is that he pays any attention to you at all.

Learning to be a pilot as he defined the term was a cumulative process made up of many tiny steps. Once we flew from a nearby airport in an airplane notorious for its lousy brakes. Preparing to start after fueling, I casually mentioned to The Colonel that the brakes in this airplane didn't work very well. He nodded, and as I reached for the starter, questioned softly that if the brakes were so bad, why I was going to start the airplane while it was pointed at the gas pumps. I got out and turned it around by hand while he sat in his seat and glared.

I thought him odd and anachronistic and endured the countless tirades about the "new generation" that I knew were also tirades about me and all the other young fliers he had known. "They fly with their feet in their pockets and make you sick with all their slipping and skidding, and the new instructors aren't any better." His cure — which, of course, I rejected — was to go home, sit on a chair (be sure it's an uncomfortable chair), and practice coordination, holding a dinner plate by the edges and moving the appropriate foot on an imaginary rudder every time you move the plate one way or the other. While doing this, you must mumble to yourself, "Stick and rudder, stick and rudder, you don't move one without the other."

No one has a keener instinct about pilots; maybe that's why he never gave up on me after I had already given up on myself. He saw something hopeful there and sat back and waited to see if the seed would sprout. He'll listen quietly to the big talk around the hangar, then nod in the direction of one of the speakers. "I worry about him," The Colonel will say, and that's all. He won't move heaven and earth to save you from yourself — you've got to do that. If you are determined to kill yourself, he is sanguine enough to let you and not lose sleep over it. But if you've earned his respect, he'll pay you the highest compliment, pointing you out to someone as "a good pilot." Earn his contempt and you'll be greeted with, "What brings you to the airport?"

No wonder so many people think he's just a crotchety old coot who knows more than everybody else. Even the old-timers think he's just a fuddy-duddy; they call him "Colonel Klink" to his face. It's a compliment; these guys insult you only if you count for something.

The Colonel is a bit of a ramrod, and loosening him up has become something of a local sport in which I am a team captain, so to speak. Mostly, he's holding his own. Well, there was the one time folks tell about, when he almost let the iron mask down during the pilots' annual summer wingding down in Waterville. Someone put a bug in the ear of the professional entertainer, and the Maine-bred "exotic dancer" — who probably holds down a day job in the local shoe factory — came over and plucked The Colonel's glasses off his nose while he sat at parade rest in a folding chair, then dared him to come retrieve them from a difficult-to-reach location. He declined; I suppose his distant vision wasn't that bad after all. But just when you've drawn the conclusion that the guy was born to go through life in a perpetually perpendicular attitude, a smile will form on his face, and he'll wistfully recall the day 53 years ago when he proposed to his wife. "When I asked her," he confides, "she was so surprised, she nearly fell out of bed."

A year ago, the doctors found something they didn't like on an electrocardiogram, and The Colonel was grounded. He took it well enough, explaining that he was 78 and planning to quit in a few more years anyway. He sold the red Grumman American Trainer that he had bought at a bankruptcy auction in the 1960s, in which he used to flog students and conclude each lesson with an overhead approach like the ones military fliers performed in P-51s. Watching him fly one in a 110-horsepower paddlewing was fun, though. He'd wring me out for a while, then he'd grunt into his mic, "Tower, got time for an overhead?" They didn't always have time, but they made time.

We flew together on a social basis over the years while I was paying my dues as a working stiff in aviation. We'd meet at the airport, fly, then go over to the restaurant to sip coffee and trade tales. I got to sign his logbook for the first time as an instructor and signed it a few times more after that, but nowhere near as often as he had scribbled in mine. After the bombshell with his medical hit, he began sending students my way, and I always knew the doctor's orders — from having been the patient.

How he flew. The airplane seemed to respond to his thoughts, so imperceptible were his control pressures. The slip-skid ball seemed glued in place; at his touch the little trainer, so unstable in the hands of others, pranced like a Clydesdale under rein. One day some chatter on the radio got his attention while he was leveling off to intercept the localizer for an ILS approach, and I could see that he had forgotten to switch his nav radio to the localizer frequency. He had erred; he was human. A glance at the queerly deflected needle was sufficient to let him catch the error, but it stiffened him in the seat; he stole a glance my way. He saw me grinning, and he knew I knew. He smiled, and so did I.

The waitress reappeared and began topping us off again. Klink saw my instructor's grin and demanded, "What's so funny?"

"Pilots," I said.

That reminded him of a story. I settled back to listen.