Proficient Pilot

Master pilots

March 1, 2006

Barry Schiff has logged more than 26,000 hours in 300 types of aircraft.

The 155 passengers aboard an All Nippon Airways Flight last January probably had no concept of the jeopardy in which they had been placed by the fickle finger of fate while en route from Miyazaki to Itami, Japan.

Fortunately for those passengers, their pilots proved themselves possessed of extraordinary skill, cunning, and airmanship. According to the Mainichi Daily News, Japan's foremost English language newspaper (and relayed by wire services to the rest of the world), the autopilot of the Boeing 767-300 failed, and the pilots were "forced to land using manual controls."

Can there be an aeronautical feat more challenging and death-defying than having to land an airplane with one hand on the control wheel and the other on the throttle(s)? The pilots surely will be feted and honored with Distinguished Flying Crosses, France's Croix de Guerre, and other medals befitting such incredible heroism.

(The mere publication of such a story by major newspapers is a sad commentary on the growing public perception that pilots in general and airline pilots in particular are evolving into little more than systems and computer monitors. Perhaps there is a grain of truth to this. Increasing automation causes some airline pilots to predict that cockpit crews someday will consist of a monkey and a pilot. The monkey's job will be to push the correct buttons; the pilot will be there to feed bananas to the monkey.)

Speaking of medals and awards, most of us enjoy the recognition that such honors provide whether it be a bowling trophy, a Boy Scout merit badge, or a first-place ribbon for our pet pooch. (My Havanese dog, Boychik, should win one for how well he has trained me and my wife, Dorie.)

Last month during lunch and with several close friends in attendance, I was presented with an award that I was grateful to receive but admit accepted with mixed emotions. Karla J. Borden, an FAA Safety Program Manager, presented me with FAA's recently created Wright Brothers "Master Pilot" Award.

The honor is not intended to recognize masterful or heroic accomplishments; some of our finest pilots are not qualified. Its purpose is to recognize those who have held a pilot certificate and flown for at least 50 years beginning with their first solo flights. (Some short gaps in activity are allowed during that period.)

Although proud of my half-century of flying, this caused me to once again confront my mortality, something that seems to occur with increasing frequency with the passage of time. This did not escape my so-called friends who could not resist bombarding me with age-related jokes. It was not enough that our hangar conversations of late turn more frequently to Medicare, cataracts, concerns about FAA medical examinations, complaints about doctors with hangnails, and so forth. They were absolutely gleeful that the FAA had presented me with a decree officially designating me as an old and not-so-bold pilot. I really began to wonder if I would want to display this award in my office.

Quite obviously, I wanted to and did. Once I overcame the age aspect of the honor, I thought more about how I had managed to survive my own occasional carelessness for more than 50 years. Given that flying does pose a risk to one's longevity, 50 years in the air is eminently worthy of celebration.

The FAA has done an outstanding job of creating a handsome certificate using artwork similar to that on the new plastic pilot certificates. Each one is personally signed by FAA Administrator Marion Blakey. Perhaps the best part of the deal is that each honoree receives a complete, blue-ribbon (official) copy of his entire FAA paper trail beginning with his application for a student-pilot certificate. If you do not want to be reminded of the results of your written and practical tests, you might want to hide this otherwise impressive collection of documents.

The FAA and Ms. Blakey might have bitten off more than they can chew. There are many pilots who have flown for 50 years and more. As of the end of 2005, AOPA had issued 3,224 50-year membership pins. If all of these pilots plus those qualified but misguided pilots who are not AOPA members were to apply, the FAA would have its hands full. (It is not necessary to be nominated for this award; any qualified pilot can apply for one.)

The minimum age for receiving the "Master Pilot" award is 64, but only those who soloed a glider or balloon at 14 can be this young. Most of us soloed in airplanes for which the minimum age is 16. (Credit is not allowed for a clandestine solo flight before the age of 16, something a few pilots have done, or so I have been told.) A power pilot, therefore, cannot qualify for the award until reaching at least 66. Although 50 years' worth of logbooks is significant, consider that there are those who have been flying for 60, 70, and even more than 80 years.

The FAA initiated the Wright Brothers "Master Pilot" Award because it had previously developed the Charles Taylor "Master Mechanic" Award for those with a 50-year career in aviation maintenance. It rightfully concluded that pilots with five decades in the air deserve similar recognition.

Complete requirements for the Wright Brothers "Master Pilot" Award can be found online. Click on Master Pilot Award List for a list of recipients.


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