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Summer Hours

Pilots wanted: low pay, long hours.

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Ossman is wearing a big smile today: it's his first full day in the big 207. "You come up through 152s, 172s," Mankedick explains, "then one day you're in a 207 and you look back and see these six shining faces." An honest-to-God load of passengers.

Between flights, pilots fold brochure holders into shape, clean aircraft windows with Pledge, and talk about flying. They're at a Catch-22 in their careers. Many are closing in on the 1,500 hours they need to get their Airline Transport rating, but to get a job, they need time in advanced aircraft, and no one will hire them without it. "The big block is that 500 hours multi," says Ossman, referring to the multi-engine experience required to land a good job. "It's easy to log single time but multi is harder to find." They beg and borrow and accrue in dribs and drabs: Ford has been washing and waxing a twin-engine Piper Navajo in exchange for a couple of hours.

For people living in a beach town, no one logs much beach time. "All your friends are working. There's no one to go to the beach with," says Turner. "On my day off I end up calling Jay and saying, 'What's going on?' Jay says, 'Didja have any beer yet? Don't drink any beer,' in case there's a pop-up charter. I guess he thinks in our spare time we open our eyes at 6 a.m. and start drinking beer."

Two flights of four F-15s circle the monument at a respectable altitude. The flyboys from nearby Navy and Air Force bases use the airport, monument, and even the 172s as targets. Pilots say it is not uncommon to be sailing along pointing out the Bodie Island lighthouse to your passengers and find an F-14 on your tail with gear and flaps down trying to sneak up on you. Or you'll look up and find an F-18 or -15 making a pass at your windshield. "An F-14 comes head-on, knife edge," says Ford. "I just rock my wings--best I could do."

As if on cue, an ominous whine is heard from the north, below the tree line, and an A-10 Warthog tears down like a hawk diving on a rabbit. Then another, 300 feet tops, and another, four in all, executing a snappy right break over the taxiway and scaring the tourists. Mankedick, pulling away in the Dodge, leans out and shouts to Sissy Johnson, "When the calls start coming in, we don't know anything about it."

Late in the afternoon, when there are no customers and no Mankedick in sight, Ossman demonstrates Chair Luge: Position yourself in the office chair on rollers at the top of the ramp, assume as much of a luge position as possible, push off, and hope to gain enough momentum to make it down the ramp and roll out onto the pavement.

Tacked to a bulletin board in the booth is a snapshot of another diversion. The photographer captured a final approach that gained him membership in the First Taxiway Club, which comprises those who set up a minimum-speed approach to Runway 2 with full flaps and lots of throttle and make the first turnoff, some 300 feet down the runway. Management does not endorse the practice.

Around 6 p.m. deer come out to feed in the grass on either side of the runway and regard the aircraft with mild curiosity. At dusk, Sissy Johnson takes down the flag, locks up the booth, and hikes up the steep hill to the monument to tell visitors the park is closing. Today was a so-so day: nine Waco flights, fourteen 207 flights, and twenty-eight 172 flights.

That evening everyone meets at Dare Devil's for pizza and beer. Tracy Johnson and Biplane Scott are excitedly discussing the New Year's bash that the fabulously wealthy and airplane-obsessed Kermit Weeks is planning at his new museum in Florida. "It's a black-tie ball," says Johnson, "or period costumes. Isn't that great?"

Talk turns to the concept of pay-for-training, which is gaining popularity among employers at a time when pilot wannabes vastly outnumber pilot slots. Rather than following the traditional practice of getting hired by a regional airline and trained in its aircraft, pilots pay for the privilege of flying as copilot, logging that much-needed time but paying for the training that used to be free. "People who have money can do this and people who don't, can't," says Turner. "They're busting their butt to get ahead and are losing out. It comes to the point where if you want a job with a commuter airline, you go to Flight Safety," a training facility in Florida. "They send your resume out. Once you accept a job you pay Flight Safety $10,000, learn how to fly the airplane, and now you have a $15,000 job that you paid $10,000 for. You didn't make a whole lot of money off that deal. Then again, it is kind of a jump start on your career."

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