"Coming up on the right is Jockey's Ridge," Chuck Turner shouts over the clatter of the Cessna's engine. "It's the longest natural sand dune on the U.S. coast. It changes shape throughout the season." Turner banks the four-seat 172 so the passengers get a good look at the hang gliders launching off the dune. Crossing over Roanoke Sound, Turner points out the village of Wanchese. "The sound is only five feet deep in most places," he says. "Wanchese needed a channel, so they dredged out 14 feet and deposited the sand on Roanoke Island. They sell it to homeowners on the beach. Sand is one of the best selling products on the Outer Banks."
Coming down the home stretch of the 25-minute sightseeing flight over North Carolina's barrier reef, Turner points out Andy Griffith's house in tiny placid Manteo--"No, really, he lives there"--and enters the traffic pattern at Kill Devil Hills' First Flight Airport. The perpetual low-level turbulence at the approach end of the south runway rocks the Cessna, and Turner wrestles with the controls to make a soft touchdown. After his passengers alight, Turner escorts them off the tarmac and signs a "First Flight" certificate for each before they trudge up the hill to the Wright Brothers Monument.
This flight was the first of Turner's day: one down, at least a dozen more to go for him and each of his nine fellow pilots on air tour duty before dusk curtails the flying. It's early in the 1996 season and the temperature will hover around 80, acclimatizing the fliers for a hot, hazy August. Like most days, there will be no lunch hour or coffee break--just 10 hours' worth of big loopy racetracks over the Outer Banks, telling perspiring tourists about the Wanchese Channel, Jockey's Ridge, and Andy Griffith's house.
Turner and his co-workers have come to Kill Devil Hills not for the beach but to build time--logging hour after hour of pilot-in-command time toward an Airline Transport Rating. For aspiring airline pilots, time is truly money--a long-term investment--and the hour is the unit of currency.
To qualify for an Airline Transport Pilot rating, the Federal Aviation Administration requires you to be at least 23 years old, a high school graduate or equivalent, able to read, write, and understand English, and in possession of "good moral character." You also need a commercial pilot certificate and 1,500 hours of flight time. That's just to take the FAA test. The airlines, flooded with applications from highly qualified fliers, have their own extensive requirements.
Most civilian pilots get their initial license--private pilot--by renting an airplane and hiring an instructor, then accumulate enough pilot-in-command time and experience to start moving up the ratings ladder--commercial pilot, instrument, flight instructor, multi-engine. Racking up those hours usually entails getting a blue collar flying job, anything that keeps you in a cockpit. You can teach, or tow banners, or find a tourist town with an airport that offers sightseeing flights. There are flightseeing operations in Hawaii, Alaska, and at the Grand Canyon, and there is Kill Devil Hills, where Kitty Hawk Aero Tours owner Jay Mankedick has a perpetual stack of applications from all over the country.
Mankedick, a compact man of 52 with bright blue eyes, a deep tan, and an ever-present baseball cap, has been giving sightseeing rides at First Flight airport for 20 years. "Back when I was building the business it was not uncommon for me to do 24 flights a day," he says. "But that gets old." Kitty Hawk Aero Tours, with around 10 pilots, now operates as a concession of the National Park Service, which runs the Wright Brothers National Memorial museum next door to the airstrip. Mankedick requires 500 hours for his pilots, twice what the FAA says is appropriate. "They've been flying commercially for two or three years and come to me with a signoff from the FAA, but they have to pass my inspection," he says. First Flight's relatively short 3,000-foot strip can be a challenge, and there's that constant turbulence at the approach end of Runway 20. But Mankedick's inspections go beyond flying ability. An Aero Tours pilot has to be good with people--customers as well as fellow pilots--and has to bring something to the party, "an additional talent like computers or mechanical or even piano playing for entertainment," Mankedick says.
A summer as an Aero Tours pilot is a kind of flier's boot camp. Waking hours are spent flying and tending to the nine blue and gold Cessnas and their passengers. Life revolves around the Shed, Mankedick's ramshackle boarding house and matching trailer on a stagnant stream ("waterfront property," its occupants call it), where pilots rent living space for $15 a week; the Booth at the airport, where the rides are sold; the Hangar, Mankedick's Outer Banks Airways charter operation at Dare County Regional Airport in Manteo; and the Barn, Mankedick's house on Kitty Hawk Bay, where barbecues and end-of-season parties are held. At $5 an hour, pilots barely make beer money, and with a 70-hour work week, there's little time to drink beer. "This is," says Turner, " 'Cheeseburgers in Paradise.' "
This summer six pilots occupy the Shed, which has one bathroom, a cranky water heater, and many mosquitoes. Rules in the Aero Tours' Pilot's Handbook govern Shed life: "Sorry, no air conditioning units allowed.... Please respect others' property and privacy. WeÕve all got to live together.... No one gets their own room unless management has set it up.... No whining! We expect employees to be able to handle these arrangements without management interference. If dissatisfied with these living arrangements, you of course are free to rent your own place."
There are also rules for behavior around customers as well as airplanes: "If given a specific time to be at First Flight, you should be at the booth ready to take customers at that time, not just touching down or having to do windows.... Do not ask to run errands or make food runs while on standby.... Pilots are expected to stay up front and available. Every customer who walks by should be greeted in person at the bottom of our walkway.... While at the booth, there will be no rude comments about customers, and no war stories or foul language.... There is a $30 fine for leaving a master switch on."