AIN Blog: The most frightening thing in aviation

 - May 23, 2011, 9:49 AM

Flying is still a mysterious thing for many people. I’m often asked what it’s like, what does it take to become a pilot, and what’s frightened me the most.

I still have more flashbacks from being a flight instructor during my college days than I do from my year in the First Infantry Division in Vietnam. In the Army it was pretty clear where danger lurked; not so true when flying with a student. “Don’t let them lull you to sleep then kill ya,” our chief flight instructor used to say.

I still get Technicolor images of one of my students doing a 270-degree ground loop in an Aeronca Champ only to gain control, add full power and fly directly toward a taxiing GII. And how could I forget the student who sneezed so hard on short final in a Cessna 152 that he jerked the yoke back causing the airplane to stall 50 feet over the threshold? Such is the content of the proverbial years of utter boredom interspersed with moments of stark terror, but it’s the long term fears that are the worst.

Some years ago I was doing a story on a nice, modern mom-and-pop FBO in which mom-and-pop buried their last dime in the sands of the desert to make their business as good as the big boys’. They had rolled the dice hoping that despite being able to see the end of the Earth from the ramp, the airport would thrive off the business generated by the oil companies that were exploring and drilling in the area.

During the half day I spent there I observed the crew of a spiffy new heavy-iron jet taking life easy in the lounge. They’d brought in some oil execs and were sitting around waiting. One watched the big-screen television while the other got in his workout on the treadmill in the little exercise room. Both took advantage of the free coffee, including filling up the on-board coffee server, and they ate more free popcorn than most movie theaters go through in a day.

Pop asked if he could clean their windows for them. A lengthy discussion ensued to be sure pop knew what he was doing. You could hear it in their voices - I mean seriously, the man wore cowboy boots and blue jeans; he probably couldn’t even spell Teterboro. Eventually they allowed him to clean the windows, after which he filled their ice chest without being asked.

He told me you have to try harder when you’re in such an out-of-the-way place; you have to think about what’s best for the customer. I was thinking there was about 100,000 acres of desert and a backhoe parked in the hangar, but that’s how we take care of business in Chicago.

Eventually the execs returned driving the FBO’s courtesy car, everyone boarded the aircraft and they left without leaving so much as a shekel on the counter. I overheard the captain grumbling about the price of fuel being 30 cents a gallon more than at home base and not to worry because they had enough fuel to get back home. Pop didn’t hear that, he was cleaning the fast-food bags out of the courtesy car.

My biggest fear is that flight departments may never understand nothing is free and FBOs, particularly small mom-and-pop FBOs, are going to go the way of Burma Shave signs and getting your windows cleaned and oil checked when you fill up the family car.

As an industry, we must recognize that FBOs are a business with a profit-and-loss statement whether they’re big glitzy chrome monstrosities or warm, homey mom-and-pop operations. If the profit is smaller than the loss the FBO disappears, and with it goes the infrastructure that lets us zip around in aircraft that cost more than most third-world defense budgets.

It’s hard to explain that fear to someone at a party; it doesn’t sound frightening. So instead I tell them about the time I got on an airliner, looked in the flight deck and recognized both pilots as ex-students from two different universities. They both looked at me, shouted “Mr. Lombardo” then looked at each other and shouted, “You know him?” I remembered them both very clearly. Both were affable enough but neither was the brightest bulb in the lamp factory. I had reservations about the flight; the kind that get canceled somewhere between takeoff and landing.

Settling into my coach-class, iron-maiden seat, I must have appeared nervous because the elderly woman next to me smiled sweetly and said, “I fly all the time sweetie. It’s very safe; don’t worry.”

I never like people talking to me when I’m flying; it’s a private space thing. So I looked at her and said, “Let me tell you about the time your captain sneezed so hard he stalled an airplane on short final. Or when the first officer ground looped a Champ and almost hit a business jet head on.” Silence is golden.