Mark R. Twombly is an aviation writer and pilot living in Southwest Florida.
About three months ago I went back to school. I go to class regularly, but instead of sitting in a bricks-and-mortar building I learn in a steel-tube and aluminum structure. Coursework includes business, management, consulting, sociology, time management, public relations, advanced decision making, and good old-fashioned hands-on flying. My major: professional pilot. Even though I’ve been one for five years, I’m discovering that I missed a basic part of the education.
I first started earning some cash as a part-time contract corporate pilot flying a Cessna 340 for a self-employed businessman. I quickly concluded that he was...strange. But I kept on flying for him until he suddenly and inexplicitly stopped taking calls and responding to e-mails. I knew then it was over. He still owes me money.
Despite that off-key inauguration, I pursued professional flying and was lucky enough to meet Bill Mahoney and land a right-seat ride in a Cessna Citation II. Capt. Bill has taught me much, and eventually I qualified as captain. Then Aeronautical Charters Incorporated (ACI) manager Glenn Frith asked if I was interested in also flying some trips in its recently acquired Citation II. Why, yes, thank you.
Things were good, and got even better when the Citation that Capt. Bill was managing turned into a Citation VII, a beautiful swept-wing, mid-size, go-fast, true two-pilot business jet. Life in the flight levels was exciting, flying jets was fun, I was learning a lot, the crewmembers were great, and the checks cleared.
My late-in-life part-time career was rolling along just fine until the economy started to resemble a flight in one of the jets—an eye-popping climb to a fast, high-altitude cruise above the weather that inevitably ends with a steep descent into turbulent clouds. Here in Southwest Florida, the bumpy descent is headed for what our passengers might charitably describe as a “firm arrival.” Like many in the profession, I’ve not been logging many turbojet hours lately, and the near-term future doesn’t hold a lot of promise for improvement.
Fortunately, something else has come up. As I’ve noted in recent columns, I’m now flying and managing a Piper Aztec for a non-pilot owner. Going from a pair of Citations to a 33-year-old piston twin could be perceived as a severe demotion, but I don’t see it that way. Yes, it’s true that, compared to the jet-man gigs, flying the Aztec is twice the work for half the pay. The proof of that is everywhere: I was hand-flying the Aztec until just a few days ago when we finally got the ancient Altimatic IIIB autopilot to work properly; we’re slogging around in the thick of the weather, and, it’s a one-man band—a single-pilot operation. I do the grocery shopping, cook the dinner, clean the dishes, and then put them away.
Here’s the other major difference between flying the Aztec for hire compared to the jets: the people who own or charter jets sit in back, separated from the cockpit by a bulkhead that insulates the crew from the people they fly. In the Aztec, there is no getting away from anyone else. In fact, the owner sits up front with me. He wears a headset, and when he isn’t talking he’s looking directly at the fuel-flow indicator—the money gauge. “I like it when we fly high and get those fuel flows down,” he says.
He’s smart, and he loves airplanes to the point of wanting to learn to fly, so it didn’t take long for him to catch on to the basics of what that guy in the left seat does for his pay. “Don’t forget to turn on those pesky fuel pumps,” he says before each takeoff. If I hesitate to respond to a controller’s handoff, he keeps me honest. “I think that was us he was calling,” he says. And he enjoys taking the controls and working hard to keep the airplane exactly on point. That kind of hands-on involvement, direct oversight, and instant feedback tend to keep me on my toes.
If you want to get a feel for what it’s like to fly a light general aviation airplane for an owner who sits up front, just imagine what it would be like if you were paying someone to fly you around in your airplane. You’d probably be a miserable employer.
Fortunately, I’ve got it much easier than that. My job as pilot and manager is simple and clear cut—make sure the airplane and the pilot are ready when the owner wants to go, don’t spend any more money than is necessary to get the job done and done right, and above all, fly safely.
Those are the same basic expectations that a Fortune 500 corporation has for its flight department, but the differences are the face-to-face relationship between owner and crew, and the job description. The pilot flying the light airplane must juggle all the balls—fly the airplane well, watch the expenses, live with different personalities, and roll with the punches. If you can handle all that by yourself, you should have no problem fitting into a larger team with more resources.
That’s why I believe that flying a piston single or twin for a non-pilot owner is the kind of primary education that every aspiring pro pilot ought to seek. From there it’s a nice, easy step into a two-pilot jet where you can hope to work half as much for twice as much.