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Drifting on course: First-timerDrifting on course: First-timer

Sitting across the desk from my IOE captain, it dawned on me. I was an hour away from becoming an airline pilot. Today, the airline would start to recoup their significant investment in my training. It’s our first time in the jet, and there’s a load of passengers in back expecting to get home.

It was a heavy thought. I pondered things while studying the arrivals monitor in our operations room, and my captain for the flight walked up just as I began to worry whether he’d make it in time or not.

The first trip on IOE, or initial operating experience, is where we’re supposed to show up a little early to brief things up.

David, my captain, looked at me and said something like, “Ready to go do it again?”

“Again? This is my first one!”

“Scheduling said you had a trip before this one,” David said.

“I did, but the captain must have read my training records. He called in sick.”

Our airplane was a few minutes late arriving. We stepped into an office, and he eyed me from across the desk. “So what’s your flying background?”

I waffled for a moment. Most of the instructors so far didn’t appreciate my answers. I told the truth, anyway. “Most of my flying so far was single-engine tailwheel aerobatic stuff flown from a grass airstrip.” I didn’t tell him my instrument and multiengine commercial tickets were less than three months old when I got hired.

His eyes perked up. “What have you been flying?” The world shrank. He had built a Glasair and hangared it with some of my former airshow teammates years ago.

After three months of instructors telling me to ditch the seat-of-the-pants flying I’d known and loved, David and I started covering crosswind landing techniques, as Fort Wayne was calling for 28 knots or more. “This is where that tailwheel stuff is going to help you out,” he said.

About time, I thought.

Out at the airplane, the pace quickened. I balked at the amount of paperwork and the brief time allocated for it. David helped. The ramp workers added bags and an extra passenger showed up late. I had to re-run the weight and balance numbers. We dropped the release on the parking brake only a few minutes late.

“Nice job, getting out of there,” he said as we taxied to the runway. Things started happening fast. The compliment really helped keep me from being demoralized on my way out of Atlanta. For the first time, I was picking my way through the epicenter of the very airspace I’ve spent my time as a pilot avoiding and skirting beneath its veil.

Where I grew up, you could fly around with the radio off and nobody knew or cared. Before we left the ground at Hartsfield, I spoke to a whole mess of people: ramp controller, ground controller, tower, the captain, and all the passengers. Somewhere along the way, I worked out a couple of checklists and we made it to the runway.

All the training, work, and sacrifices were worth it when I keyed up the mic to read back our takeoff clearance. “Heading zero seventy-five at the marker, cleared for takeoff, runway eight right.”

At cruising altitude, we attacked a stack of frosted cookies the flight attendant gave us while the passengers were boarding. He had a side business making cookies and cinnamon rolls, and I made a mental note to order some cookies from him when the next holiday rolls around. Just as I bit off another mouthful, Indianapolis Center called us up with a handoff.


“Huah frre frre oint sith sethen, athee sith sethen niner,” I read back.

Frosting decorated my left pant leg. Mama told said not to talk with my mouth full, but mama didn’t know what kind of scenario I’d end up in one day.

I did my walkaround in Fort Wayne with a pink spot of frosting on my leg.

I flew from Fort Wayne back to Atlanta, then out to Columbus, Miss. It was a gray, rainy day on the ground in Atlanta, Fort Wayne, and Columbus. For a couple of hours on top, though, we got a healthy dose of sunshine and blue skies. I didn’t get to look out the window much, but it was there. I peeked.

My first landing was back in Atlanta. Mind you, this is the busiest airport in the world. I’m truly glad to have been flying—talking to the controllers is easily the more challenging part of the job at times. All I had to do was fly the plane and follow the needles.

I just held us on speed with David pep-talking me and flew right down until the radar altimeter started speaking to me at 100 feet. Power off, start the round out, hold some crosswind correction. I managed a respectable landing for my first attempt. Surely nobody slept through the landing, but the man who left the airplane in a wheelchair in Atlanta had boarded in the same condition back in Fort Wayne.

We had to swap planes before the last leg, out to Columbus, Miss. As soon as I stepped on the plane and dropped my bags, the passengers began boarding. I ducked out to start my preflight, and a brown spot on one tire caught my eye on the preflight, as I looked at the landing gear. A big flat spot exposed eight or 10 cords on an inboard main tire. I finished the preflight, and stuck my head up onto the flight deck.

“There’s a flat spot on one tire, and there’s cord showing,” I said. David walked out to check it out, and we called maintenance. The mechanics showed up, changed the tire, and we backed out of the parking spot 20 minutes late.

“Mario Andretti would be proud of this pit crew,” David told the passengers as he apologized for the delay before we pushed back.

The last leg was beautiful. The runway lights twinkled on as we taxied out, and we chased the sunset at 400 knots across Georgia and Alabama. Our destination’s tower closed after we started our descent. It felt just like being home, making calls on unicom as we entered the pattern. I used my day’s allotment of beginner’s luck on the second decent landing. Everyone walked away under their own power, stiff necks caused only by the low windows in the passenger compartment.

We flew three legs that day. I took more people for an airplane ride in three hours’ flying time than in the previous 800 hours. Well yeah, those 100 people paid for the ride, and most of them probably had more flight time in airliners than I had. I’ll tell you, though. This job still beats working for a living.

This is the final installment of a six-part series on Jeremy King’s adventures in going from a grass strip to an airline cockpit. He lives in Whitesburg, Ga.

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