Pilots wanted: low pay, long hours.
- By Patricia Trenner
- Air & Space magazine, September 1997
(Page 3 of 6)
Eric Dreelin is laying out the day's banners--The Lost Colony, Carolinian, Big Daddy's, Ocean Atlantic. This is Dreelin's first year, and first-year guys start with banners. "Doing pickups are great," he says. "The only thing is you're out there by yourself all day. But what better place to pay your dues than in the Outer Banks?" Mankedick pops in and out, telling Turner he's got a 3:30 charter and sending Ossman and Andrew O'Brien to the Booth. "This company's my whole life," says O'Brien. "It's like summer camp. No--I wish summer camp had been this cool."
Tracy Johnson, a former flight attendant for United, drives to the booth to check if she might fly today. The back seat of her car is full of Aero Tours brochures and holders, which she will distribute to restaurants and hotels all over the Outer Banks. Johnson lived in the Shed last year with a full house of 10 but bailed out for less chaotic quarters. She is still catching flak for hanging a puffy pink sponge in the shower.
Darwin Ford turns up, fresh from a four-hour patrol checking on collared wolves. "The ladies love Darwin," says Sissy Johnson. "He's our ladies' man. It's that smile." From behind dark glasses, Darwin flashes his trademark. "Oooh, he's good-looking," croon two customers. "We'll fly with him." Along with wolf flights for the Park Service, Aero Tours conducts a "Wright Stuff" informal lecture at the museum and a "Cleared for Takeoff" mini-seminar, taxiing an airplane over and inviting kids to play with the controls. Turner's just learned he's standing in for a more experienced lecturer this morning and has stage fright.
By noon the 172s have fallen into a steady rhythm of takeoffs and landings, occasionally darting off to the hangar to refuel. The pilots, poised and confident, engage their passengers with small talk. Turner, whose baby face belies his age of 25, says, "I try to break the ice walking out to the airplane by saying, 'Next week I'm going to graduate from high school, then get my driver's license.' " After each flight pilots escort their charges back to the booth, pose for pictures, issue certificates and wing pins for the kids, and sometimes get tipped. Mankedick makes a run to the mini-mart and returns with 10 chili dogs. The more fastidious pilots give them a wide berth; Biplane Scott wolfs down two with a Coke chaser.
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."