Flying with the Kings

How John and Martha King run a two-crew operation

October 1, 2010

Since 1969, John and Martha King—husband and wife and business partners—have experienced the joy of sharing their passion for flying.

When I think of married pilots who have somehow managed to work harmoniously together on the ground and in the air, John and Martha King of King Schools quickly come to the top of my very short list. John and Martha have known each other since college in Indiana. Martha was studying to become a comparative literature professor, a job that pleased her Air Force brigadier general dad to no end—unlike the brash young John whom she brought home one night. John and Martha began working together almost immediately when the entrepreneurial John started a truck lubrication service in 1966.

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John had been bitten by the flying bug years earlier when his dad took him flying in the family Champ. When John started flying lessons in 1969, Martha—never one to be left behind—started flying too, with what she sometimes described as grim determination. That determination evolved into genuine interest one afternoon as one of her solo flights stretched into an unscheduled—yet safe—night arrival.

The couple leapfrogged the ratings ladder until both now hold every flight instructor rating available—yes, even commercial lighter-than-air Free balloon. They thought that feat eminently qualified them to teach others. So they began teaching weekend ground schools to the thousands of people learning to fly in the 1970s.

Before long, the couple began spreading the word to more places than they could visit in a single weekend, so they turned to videotaping their classes and selling them to thousands more aspiring students. In 1975, that effort grew into San Diego-based King Schools, perhaps the most popular distance-learning pilot school in the United States. The Kings like to say that at least half of the pilot population has taken one or more of their courses.

Splitting duties

The Kings have always operated their own aircraft for business—such as the Cessna Citation II in which they each earned their first type rating. After 14 years in the Citation, they settled on a sports car of a jet—a 1974 Dassault Falcon 10. Think small, fast jet and you’ll be right there because a Falcon 10 can carry six to seven people at speeds of up to 500 knots. The Kings fly it approximately 225 hours per year on business flights.

As I observed on my visit to their Montgomery Field (MYF) operation, John and Martha run a flight department that’s better organized than some I’ve flown with. Using true co-captain style—both pilots hold PIC type ratings—with one person hand-ling the left-seat PIC duties and the other acting as the first officer. I acted as third pilot from the Falcon jumpseat to report how this couple flew together on a trip from San Diego to Sun ’n Fun in Lakeland, Florida, last April.

On the first leg, Martha flew left seat while John worked the radios, handled navigation, and did the walkaround. I wondered how it would all work, or not. Maybe they’d argue like an old married couple—“No, no, Martha, the guy said flight level 370,” or “John, this is my leg. Just sit there and be quiet.” Awkward wouldn’t cover it because there was nowhere in the small cockpit/cabin to disappear gracefully.

Once the fans on the Garrett TFE-731s were turning at idle, my worries disappeared. John and Martha work together like pilots who know precisely what the other is probably thinking, but also like two professionals willing to respect the other’s talents, skills, and differences. When John thought it was time to get going, he asked Martha, “May I run the taxi checklist?” She gave him a quick nod and the flight began. I asked a question as we taxied out and John held up his index finger to remind me of the sterile cockpit rule I should have remembered.

As we neared our cruise altitude of FL 370 about 25 minutes after we left MYF, I watched the thousands of vegetable gardens of the Imperial Valley pass beneath our left wing. “OK for questions” I asked? “Sure,” said John. I asked what makes for a successful cockpit routine and it sounded almost like he repeated guidelines for a successful marriage. “You must allow the other person to truly be pilot in command when it’s their turn,” he said. “That’s because the IQ of the person in the right seat is always 50 points higher than the person in the left ...or so the co-pilot believes.”

Their philosophy on go/no-go decisions? “The most chicken person wins,” meaning the most conservative solution usually is the best course taken, John explained. The Kings believe that in a two-pilot airplane, the nonflying pilot is there to trap errors and reduce the workload. “Pros make as many errors as new pilots,” John said. “They’re just better at catching them than novices. The captain must also encourage the other pilot by soliciting input. But it’s also the nonflying pilot’s responsibility to challenge the captain when the situation dictates.”

With just more than two hours in the air, the Falcon screamed eastward at nearly 500 knots in clear air, but a thick undercast was developing beneath us as we approached Houston. Before we hit the magic 10,000-foot, sterile-cockpit altitude in the descent, the couple spoke about their 41 years of flying together and what it’s like to relinquish command to the other person every other leg. Sometimes saying nothing is important. “Why take the pleasure of flying away from the other person by talking too much?” Martha said. “Both pilots are well qualified, but must allow the other to be their own captain. A little breathing space can be valuable if the other person’s performance isn’t dangerous.”

“I like to stay fast much longer than Martha,” John added. “Sometimes it’s clear the other person doesn’t always agree and sometimes we’re driving home from the airport and we’re both mad. But we talk about it in the car.”

On approach, John hit the direct-to button earlier than Martha would have liked. She asked him to please return it to the previous setting. “Sorry, that was thoughtless of me,” John said. I was surprised at just how formal their language was during the flight—not curt, just very businesslike. Martha managed a nice landing at CXO—Houston’s Lone Star Executive Airport—in a pretty strong Texas breeze.

After a delicious lunch and a fresh load of fuel, John took the left seat for the short 1+30 flight to Lakeland. The arrival at LAL would be airshow busy and Martha took time in cruise to thoroughly brief John on what to expect upon arrival, such as the runway with a displaced threshold. What no one planned was the ATIS announcement that said the airport was still closed as we approached from 100 miles west. Tampa Approach said this meant a hold, but half an hour later we were on approach to Lakeland. John made a nice, smooth touchdown on Runway 9 Right and the flight-training celebrity pilots were soon greeted by a dozen wellwishers at the terminal.

As we said our goodbyes, the King’s words about how they fly and stayed married while working together for 40 years came back to me. “The success of our flying is based on mutual respect.” Martha said. “We also have a lot of fun flying together.”

Had they learned anything in their travels about why some husband/wife flying teams aren’t successful? I asked.John took that one. “When there are difficulties in the cockpit, it’s almost always because the husband won’t let the wife truly be pilot in command.”

Robert Mark won the Airbus Aerospace Journalist of the Year Award in 2009.