She can be based in Phoenix, Chicago, Houston, Nashville, or Washington, D.C. He can be based in Los Angeles, Seattle, or Anchorage. She's currently based in Phoenix, doing temporary duty in Houston, and about to be transferred to Chicago. He's based in Los Angeles, but his office is in Seattle. She flies a Canadair Regional Jet (CRJ); he flies a Boeing 737. She's off eight or nine days a month; he's typically off 15, and those days are not the same. At the moment, they have one house, two crash pads, and four cars in three different states. He is Marc, she is Leja, and we are a two-pilot household.
Sound like a huge pain in the manifold? It can be. It's a challenge making it work logistically with just one pilot in the family — it gets exponentially more entertaining with two.
My other half wanted to make flying her full-time gig long before we were halves. When we became a whole, she was already looking for a way to make the jump to full-time flying but, like many of us, faced a stiff headwind consisting of too much job and too little time and money. I could relate, because I had gone through the same transition from normal job to pilot job four years earlier. Leaving a great job because you want to take a 70-percent cut in pay to fly full time can seem like complete lunacy (see " Waypoints: Dream Job," March Pilot). But, hey, they don't actually come right out and ask you if you're crazy on the medical application, do they? Since I had clearly already lost my mind, I fully supported her losing hers.
And that's how it started. Two people with normal jobs became two people who fly for a living.
When we started, she lived in Seattle and I lived in Orange County, California. Someone had to move, so we compromised our way to Bend, Oregon, an aviation hotbed in the middle of a ton of golf courses, mountain bike trails, and ski resorts. Even though Bend was a little off the beaten path, it worked great because she was finishing her flight training there and flying skydivers while I was working from home. After months spent researching what the next step might be, she enrolled in the Mesa Pilot Development Program in Farmington, New Mexico. The program consisted of a semester at San Juan College in Farmington with simulator and flight training designed to accelerate her journey into the right seat of a regional jet.
Just as important, the training meant months away from home and the beginning of our geographically challenged lifestyle. We went from seeing each other all the time to seeing each other every couple of weeks. Life went from idyllic and focused on the present day to something less than idyllic, focused on that ever-changing "Once we get to...things will be easier."
After Farmington, Leja was hired by Mesa Airlines and was off to Phoenix and Denver for months of training. Since Leja had been gone from home for quite a while, we had begun our "date night on the road" program, and this week that meant Denver. She was finishing her CRJ simulator training, and I was lucky enough to get invited to a sim session to observe the carnage one night after dinner.
And that was when I learned what kind of airline pilot Leja was. Because of the program she went through in Farmington, she had been hired into the CRJ at Mesa with about 500 hours. And when pilots start jumping into CRJs with 500 hours, folks may wonder what kind of pilot the family's getting on the way to grandma's house.
I can't say that I was skeptical, because if I did, I would be dead. However, I can say that what I saw in the simulator that night surprised me — in a good way. I watched the way she flew, the way she handled herself and the way she reacted to any number of bizarre emergencies. If I didn't know that she had only 500 hours, I never would have guessed — she had the poise, knowledge, and judgment of someone who belonged there. It was then that I realized I might not be the best pilot in the family. And that was awesome.
After Leja finished her training in Farmington, Phoenix, and Denver, she was shipped to Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., and finally back to Phoenix — all in her first year. By the way, just in case you were still clinging to the myth that all airline pilots are millionaires, Leja made $15,000 in her first year while making two cross-country moves. I would also point out that this has negatively affected my plan to become a couch potato and have her support me in the way I would like to become accustomed.
Once you get past the fact that it's a logistical nightmare and realize any control you think you have over your lives is merely an illusion, being a pair of pilots can be the coolest thing going. Yes, date nights at home are scarce, but that has made for new adventures with date nights in Oakland, California; Denver; Colorado Springs, Colorado; Seattle; Portland, Oregon; San Francisco; Sacramento, California; Spokane, Washington; Los Angeles; Phoenix; Washington, D.C.; and even Costa Rica — all in the past year.
We also get to see each other at work, and in our line of work, that's unique. Because of security and a host of other reasons, nonpilots would rarely, if ever, get to see his or her other half doing their thing in the cockpit of an airliner. But because we are both airline pilots we get to see each other flying in our native airline environment. Just last week Leja was in the simulator helping us to evaluate some low-visibility landing procedures into Juneau. Afterward, she got to do some flying around southeast Alaska in the simulator. A few years ago, on my birthday, she got to sit in the cockpit jump seat and watch me fly into San Francisco. Like yours, all my landings are 10s — but if you blow it when the other half is right behind you, that's not going to matter a bit, because all you'll hear about is that one crappy landing until the day you die. Leja also has been with me on a Boeing 737-900 delivery flight from the factory. OK, so it's only six miles from the Boeing factory to my airline's home base, but when they give you the keys to a new airplane it's pretty cool, regardless of how short the drive home is.
Sometimes Leja and I fly together, but in different parts of the airplane. Earlier this year, we were on our way to date night in Oakland, and I was busy making the in-flight announcements. You know the drill; there's a mountain over there, a lake over here, we'll be there then, and the weather's like this. And at the end I also mentioned that my other half was the cute blond girl in 18C; she's great, blah, blah, blah.
Safety tip — make sure you get the seat assignment right when you do that. Turns out, Leja wasn't in 18C — some other girl was. There were many confused looks as Leja and the unknown girl were wondering what they missed. Date night was still fun, but it was just much more expensive than I had originally anticipated.
What is my worst fear about having an other half who's a pilot? Getting our stuff mixed up — her winding up in South Carolina with Alaska charts or my changing into her uniform at the airport. ILS into Nome, ILS into Charles-ton; hey, what's the difference, right? Since it's all about me, I worry more about the mixed-up dry cleaning.
When it happens, it will be ugly. You see, typically I don't change into my uniform until I'm at the airport — I'm just not a big fan of wandering around town in polyester. In fact, I only wear polyester, the one clothing material that will melt to your leg during a fire, when I have to, and that's in the cockpit.
As a result of my late-changing tendencies, I'm already a danger to myself, having arrived at the airport without shoes, a belt, and pants on several different occasions. Now, before you start hurting yourself with all those bad images in your head, realize that I didn't get on the airplane without any pants — at least as far as you know. Add to that the fact that sooner or later I'm going to end up with Leja's stuff accidentally (more bad images — sorry about that). Let's just say that I am glad there is a Mervyns department store and a uniform store right next door to Los Angeles International.
People ask if my opinion of female pilots has changed as a result of my relationship with one. Nope. And when I think about that, I am kind of amazed. Leja is not unusual these days — and that in and of itself is amazing. It wasn't too long ago that we were hearing about the first woman on the flight deck of an airliner. Now we have women on the flight deck of the space shuttle, and nearly everywhere else in aviation, as it should be.
In the ideal universe, equality reigns and gender is irrelevant. Unfortunately, there are times when the ideal universe and the real world diverge. Many passengers still assume Leja is the flight attendant while captains call her "babe" and treat her like she has an IQ of zero. And when it happens, whether it's sexism or a flight issue, it's hard to ignore the impulse to protect someone we care about. So although my opinion about female pilots hasn't changed, my opinion of people and how they relate to female pilots has.
As for how we treat each other, anytime two people are in the same field, there can be tension based on conflicts between personal and professional opinions. For us, it's not necessarily having a difference of opinion; it's knowing when to share an opinion and when not to. It's about knowing when to help and when to just stay out of the way and let them ask for help if they want it. As pilots, we generally can't wait to fix problems, and sometimes that's not what's needed. I'm still working on that.
Leja called me the other day to tell me that an Airbus scared the heck out of her. Now, to me that's not unusual. Airbuses scare the heck out of me all the time, but that's because I fly a Boeing. This one scared her because it got a little closer than expected to the CRJ she was flying. After hearing the situation, I told her to file a NASA form, a little CYA, just in case.
She didn't need me to tell her that. You know how I know that? She told me. She just needed me to react like a nonpilot regular person. "Are you OK? Tell me all about it. Wow, I'm glad you're OK." She has since informed me that this was a typical Mars vs. Venus episode, you know, like from the book. I'll have to take her word for it. As a true guy, I've never read the book.
People often ask us if we have children. I simply look at them with a blank stare. We can't even have a dog yet, and can barely have plants. There are some pilot couples that have kids, and it usually seems to involve a nanny, mothers-in-law, day care, and/or military school. I admire them. For now, we just make do with our friends' kids. We act like grandparents. You know, spoil 'em, feed 'em junk food, and send 'em back.
Risk is not really an issue for us — at least not risk in flying. Financially, it's a different story. We both fly, and it's no secret that the pilot profession is under serious attack these days. Our household has taken more than a 30-percent cut in pay this past year, and economic uncertainty has racked our lives — and we're considered comparatively fortunate.
We may have the opportunity to fly for the same airline someday. Do we want to do that? Our lifestyle would be much easier at the same employer: same bases, same equipment, similar schedules. On the other hand, you've put all your eggs in one basket, so if that airline fails, there goes your job, your retirement, everything — for both of you. Tough decisions. If you are going to make your living as a pilot and God forbid, two pilots in the same house, you really gotta want it.
Sometimes the similarities between Leja and me are scary, and it's not just that we both fly. Before Leja got back into flying full time, she spent a lot of time as a training and crew scheduler for the Boeing 737, the same airplane I fly now.
The first jet I ever flew was the Challenger business jet. The first jet Leja ever flew was the Canadair Regional Jet, which is basically a stretched Challenger. When Leja went through systems training for the CRJ, I could remember just enough to freak her out. I can't remember to get stuff at the grocery store, but I can tell her that the auxiliary power unit on her airplane turns at 12,000 rpm. Helpful, I know.
We have most people's dream jobs — we get to fly all over the place and get paid for it. Yes, there are scheduling nightmares and logistical challenges that make us pull our hair out. But it's also part of the joy. The joy that comes in the ability to share most things aviation by doing something you love with someone you love. And that gives us the opportunity to share a common vocation and a unique window into each other's world that few others can share.
Marc K. Henegar and Leja Noe live in hotel rooms around the country and in Bend, Oregon — for the moment.
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