Proficient Pilot

Bigger isn't better

January 1, 2004

Former TWA captain Barry Schiff has been visiting FBOs for more than 50 years.

My modus operandi when flying cross-country is to make en route landings at small, out-of-the-way airports. They have less traffic, and I usually can get in and out with a minimum of fuss and bother. No control tower? So much the better. I got my fill of big airports and being vectored between fire-breathing heavies when I flew for TWA. During one flight last month, however, I had no choice but to land at a major airport that had only one general aviation facility.

It was one of those FBOs with similar operations all over the country, and I almost felt embarrassed taxiing a piston single onto a ramp that was chockablock full of business jets. But I was not allowed anywhere near the expensive hardware. Instead, a "follow me" golf cart led me to the back 40 where "lesser" aircraft were afforded an opportunity to park.

After tying down and being provided with chocks too large to fit under my wheelpants, I was chauffeured to the FBO's modern terminal building. It looked more like an architectural wonder of the world than a facility for wayward pilots. There was so much chrome, glass, and steel that the ambiance seemed cool and uninviting. A bleached-blond receptionist flashed perfunctory smiles but did not seem to be interested in dealing with the needs of an airway-weary crew of one. I had the feeling that I would get better service by using my cell phone to call for fuel.

The display case in the lobby contained Ray Ban sunglasses, expensive sportswear bearing the FBO's logo, earplugs, cans of leather cleaner, and small $5 bottles of French drinking water. I could not find an E6B computer, a plotter, sectional charts, flashlight batteries, a book about aviation weather and navigation, an Ernie Gann novel, or anything else that transient aviators might need or want.

I followed the sign to the pilot's lounge to mix with my own, but there sat seven lean, young men nattily dressed in pressed white shirts, ties, and shiny black shoes. Their affiliation and rank were identified with wings and gold-striped shoulder boards. I was wearing a T-shirt, jeans, and tennis shoes and did not seem to belong. Some of these corporate pilots were preoccupied with paperback books while others were half-asleep watching a television program in which no one seemed interested. They were killing time and were bored silly. They had cell phones hanging from their belts reminding me of cowboys sporting six-shooters waiting for their inevitable call to action.

At least one of them had to have been wondering if the next flight leg would take him home or if it would deposit him in another pilots lounge to begin another bout with boredom.

There was no animated and enthusiastic exchange of war stories and hangar tales here. Where was the old-timer who could always be relied upon to provide local lore, legend, and advice for visiting pilots? Where were the flight instructors and their following of enthusiastic students?

Gone were the dog-eared, coffee-stained, decades-old aviation magazines strewn across a table used mostly to prop one's feet while sitting in an ancient but comfy couch. Instead, there were crisp and current copies of the Financial Times, Business Week, Forbes, and The Wall Street Journal impeccably fanned across the glass table.

At most FBOs, you simply walk out the door, survey the weather in your intended direction of flight, and walk a few steps to your airplane. Here I had to convince the receptionist that I really was a pilot before being allowed through security and onto the ramp where I could hitch a ride in the golf cart. I was not permitted (trusted?) to walk to my airplane.

As soon as I set foot on the ramp, my ears were assaulted by the shrieking of turbine engines, somewhat reminiscent of an earlier marriage. There were no sounds of piston engines or whirring propellers. How wonderful it would have been to hear silence broken by the sound of a radial engine starting one piston at a time and belching clouds of smoke so voluminous that they create instrument conditions for anyone walking behind.

Line personnel were professional but their interest in aviation seemed limited to the salary that it allows them to earn. Where were the teenagers who pump gas and clean windshields in exchange for flying time measured in minutes instead of hours?

I am not opposed to progress. Modern FBOs are efficient and provide necessary services for visiting pilots, but they can be sterile and lack the personality and romanticism associated with less sophisticated operations. I do appreciate the air-conditioned comfort, the flight-planning computers, and the wide variety of vending machines available to satisfy my hunger and thirst after a long flight (including the pilot's customary fare, that small package of orange-colored crackers filled with peanut butter), but I missed the friendliness and camaraderie of individually owned and operated FBOs.

I enjoyed using the clean and modern facilities but was miffed by having to shell out more than three bucks per gallon of gas and a shockingly large chunk of a hundred dollar bill for the privilege of parking my Citabria for a couple of hours. (I was advised that I could have avoided the ramp fee by purchasing much more avgas than my tanks can hold.)

I know that time marches on. I just wonder where it will go next.

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