Pilots wanted: low pay, long hours.
- By Patricia Trenner
- Air & Space magazine, September 1997
"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."
Chuck Turner is a Shed squatter, having wintered over the previous year, solo. He had hoped to log charter time over the winter but business, mostly flying to and from Norfolk International Airport in Virginia, was slow. "Most of the winter I was in the hangar, scraping paint off airplanes. Actually, I learned quite a bit. I'm now a rather accomplished plumber; I can lay a wood floor, sand it, stain it, polyurethane it." When there are no charters, Mankedick finds work for his pilots around the house as well as the hangar.
Turner got hired through sheer persistence. He called, he wrote, he visited, and the day after he got his flight instructor's certificate he turned up on Mankedick's doorstep with everything he owned packed in his truck, ready to work, and was settled in the Shed that night. "I found out later that worked for a couple of other people too," he says. He flew banners--"dragging rags"--up and down the beach all summer, then moved up to tours, flying 10 hours a day, and added charters. "I came down here to build up time, and I'm not afraid of hard work or long hours. I'll do whatever it takes to get a job." Turner shows off the poster of the 747 cockpit tacked up in his windowless cubbyhole in the Shed. "That's where I'm going," he says.
At 10 a.m. on a weekday morning, Sissy Johnson opens the booth for business. She unlocks the door, hangs the American flag, gets out the cash drawer and the credit card reader, and starts selling flights to people waiting on benches in the shade. "You are about to embark on one of the most breathtakingly beautiful aerial tours imaginable," reads the Aero Tours brochure, "and you are doing it from the site of man's First Powered flight, the Wright Brothers' monument... After covering close to fifty miles you will land back at First Flight Airstrip where your pilot will complete and sign your First Flight Certificate." The summer will see a steady stream of First Flight Certificate applicants, tourists who spend $20 for a new perspective on the fragile thread of the barrier reef and maybe a glimpse of schools of dolphins and two or three shipwrecks out of the hundreds that dot the shore.
Mankedick pops up in his 1952 Dodge with his dog Squeaker and the day's supply of ice water. "The record for tours is 167 flights in one day, back in the glory days," he says. "But the beach has changed, economy's changed, money's tight. Today, if we get 100 flights,we celebrate. And by the third week in August, these young guys don't even want to see the inside of an airplane." He explains the origin of the "Tucson rule," which dictates that pilots can fly tours for only two years: "Tucson's fourth year, he assured me that he and his wife were happy, he was good to fly around the lighthouse for another year. By the 10th of July he and his philosophies had all crumbled." "You just burn out," says Turner. To keep up morale, Mankedick throws several parties throughout the summer. "I used to have them at Awful Arthur's," a seafood restaurant whose T-shirts turn up all over the east coast, "but I'd end up with a $2,000 tab. I mean, pilots were ordering filet mignon and feeding it to the piranhas in the tank." Now the Labor Day party is held at Mankedick's house, with a whole roast pig "and all the Busch Light you can drink," says Turner.
The 172s trickle in, with Johnson calling the hangar for reinforcements when customers start piling up. A Cessna 207 is usually on hand to take up a group of six, and at around 11 the main attraction will arrive, a 1941 Waco UPF-7 open-cockpit biplane. Scott Challice sells 15-minute rides in the front cockpit for $90 to the more adventurous tourists. ("Biplane Scott makes killer tips," says Johnson.) Challice, blond and weathered at 35, is not interested in logging hours; he more or less stopped counting at 8,000. He flies for the love of it, spending the summer with Aero Tours and migrating to Marco Island in Florida for the winter. "By the time I'm bored I'm out of here," he says, but, reflecting on the living he makes in giving rides, "I'm still going in circles wherever I go."
Over at the hangar, Turner describes the morning drill at the Shed: "One guy's shaving, one guy's showering, someone else is in the background brushing their teeth. As soon as one moves out someone else moves in. We've got it down to six guys in and out in less than 45 minutes. It's a pretty good assembly line." The Waco sits in the center of the hangar, a pan under its broad chest to catch oil leaks. A gutted 172 undergoing a 100-hour inspection sits in the back, its tail on a crate. Robert Ossman sits on an overturned bucket, painstakingly scraping peeling paint off the corrugations on the Cessna's horizontal stabilizer, until he gets called to tour duty. Nearby, Greg Wartes is immersed in an engine overhaul. A gourmet cook, Ironsides rifle champion, and airframe-and-powerplant mechanic, Wartes is charged with maintaining the aircraft. "Dadgum salt just raises hell with radios," he says. "With everything." Elbow-deep in wrenches and pistons, he issues a general warning: "I need to be pretty focused." In other words, pilots should not bother him with little gripes about the airplanes today.
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."
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."
At nine the next morning three tours are waiting and there's only one pilot on hand. When Mankedick arrives, he slaps a wooden "9" over the "10" in the "Open at 10" sign. Summer has officially begun.
Ten weeks later, Mankedick reports that business has been down 20 percent from last year. "We lost two pilots: one love affair gone bad, one new job offer," he says. "Right now, the guys are preoccupied with job opportunities, falling in love, falling out of love." Tracy Johnson has left town after a relationship with Biplane Scott went sour, and Mankedick has decreed that "no one falls in love the rest of the summer." Darwin Ford and his smile left to fly Grand Canyon tours in single- and twin-engine Cessnas.
Part of the drop in business was due to twin hurricanes: Bertha, who blew through in mid-July with 100-mph winds, and Fran, who arrived on Labor Day weekend. "We caught up on sleep, drank a lot of beer, and sat on the porch," says Ossman. "We had some time off." They managed to cram all 10 airplanes, various lawnmowers, and Greg Wartes' car into the hangar before the worst of Bertha hit. July 5 was the summer's record: 101 flights.
Turner got to log some twin-engine time: "I met a guy who had to fly his Cessna 310 back to New York, and I told him if he let me fly the plane back with him I'd buy the gas. I washed and waxed it, flew it back to New York, then got a train home." When the 310 owner came back down to fly the Waco for Challice, who needed a little time off, Turner negotiated a week in the 310. "I got 25 hours total between flying it back to New York twice and flying him around. I was paying for all the gas so he didn't care. Now I have almost 50 hours of multi time." He also logged a little social time and is smitten with a young woman who works at the legendary Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome. "She flies taildraggers," he says proudly.
Biplane Scott is subdued, still smarting from an encounter with First Flight's wildlife. He swerved to avoid a deer on the runway. The brake cable let go and the airplane went into a ground loop, which beat up the right wing.
Jon Riebau is a new hire, a reserved man who got a late start on a flying career. At 35, he is some 10 years older than most Aero Tours pilots, and differs also in that he is not remotely interested in an airline job. Riebau spent 10 years in Alaska and wants to return as a bush pilot. Mankedick hired him on the spot when Riebau, in a textbook example of being in the right place at the right time, stopped by the Booth to ask about a job. With 640 hours, he plans to winter over and make it an even 1,000. "In the two months I've been here, for the 140 hours I logged, I would have had to pay $6,000 just for renting a C-172," he says. "This is Mecca." But even pilgrims wane in the pursuit of their passion. "You do 14 tours a day in seven or eight hours, you start bumping into yourself," he says. Riebau lives in a camper on the lawn in front of the Shed--no AC, no water, no toilet. But he has his privacy. "I'm an Alaskan," he reminds you.
Brandon Bent is the other new hire, an outgoing and highly confident young man who announces: "By 2000 I should be flying for United." Bent has been banned from Wright Stuff lectures at the museum: fancying himself a stand-up comic, he ad-libbed most of his presentation ("The Wrights didn't bring their wives, since they were hoping to find mermaids..."). The Park Service was not amused.
There's an impromptu party at the Shed that night, with music courtesy of the Skyco Strangers, a local band (very local, like next door). "They're called Strangers because when they play, they sound like they've never met," says Turner. Pilots not on duty today have been wielding brooms and dust rags and stuffing the Shed's flotsam and jetsam into closets. At 9 p.m. the band is tuning up and a tray of potato chips is set out on the counter. The Skyco Strangers are indeed awful, but the beer is cold and the mosquitoes are not too bad tonight. The neighbors show up, along with a few townies, but attendance is sparse. Outside, Riebau stands in the yard, nursing a beer and gazing at the Milky Way, a broad ribbon in the clear black sky.
At 8:30 a.m. on the day after Labor Day, Mankedick is on the phone in the hangar ordering a 125-pound pig for the end-of-season party. It wasn't Aero Tours' best summer, but it wasn't the worst. Besides, he says, "on Labor Day, whether you've had a good summer or bad, there's an air of celebration. Everyone's glad to get their beach back, get their town back."
Dreelin is now ready to graduate to tours; Riebau, the new guy, will take over banners. The two are wrapping up banners that won't fly until next summer. "The Flat Flounders letters look real rough," says Riebau, fingering the shredded nylon. "Yeah, but from the beach they look killer," says Dreelin. They decide to replace bad letters before storing the banners, and deftly unsnap the many fasteners. A well-worn copy of a popular pilot's newspaper lies on a scarred couch. "That's where we sit around and read Trade-A-Plane and dream about the jobs we're going to get and the planes we're going to fly," says Riebau. The biggest ad in the Help Wanted section is for Flight Safety's pay-for-training program.
After the pig-pickin' party, most of the pilots will scatter, aviation's nomads in search of multi time. "It's time to move on," says Jody McGee, the most senior in the Aero Tours hierarchy with three years of tours and charters and 1,400 hours. "He has to grow up and leave," is how Mankedick puts it. But the door is always open. "Once they've flown for us they can stay in the Shed as long as they want," he says. "We'll try to keep them in beer money.
"Ninety-five percent say their summer here was the best flying they've ever done," Mankedick says. "Monitoring a big machine through the air via computers isn't flying." But, he concedes, "it pays a whole lot better."
O'Brien logged 400 of his 900 hours this summer, and will be flying corporate jet charters in Green Bay, Wisconsin. Mark Pfister, who logged half of his 1,000 hours this summer, may go to Atlanta for multi work. Bent, who logged 300 hours during his brief stay, is going back to school to study aviation science. Dreelin, who logged 320 hours flying banners for a total of 750, will winter over with Riebau, who will move into the Shed when it gets too cold and maybe learn some carpentry skills when the flying slows down.
Turner, who now has 1,400 hours, maps out his career. "My plan of attack is flying here until October at the latest," he says. "Then maybe fly canceled checks or light parts for two years, building up multi time, get some instrument time. Maybe I could meet up with a corporate who needs a first officer, stay with that company and upgrade to captain. It's who you talk to, like that 310. I couldn't come across an opportunity like that if I was renting. Five years from now I'd like to be flying for a commuter, then the airlines," or better yet, an air express outfit like Federal Express or UPS, where "there are no price wars and they don't furlough that often."
Turner is not worried about the current glut of airline pilots-in-waiting, and industry predictions are on his side. "I think opportunities in aviation are going to start to open up," he says. "The pilots who came out of Vietnam are in the airlines now, all getting close to mandatory retirement. Not to mention there aren't that many people starting up their student pilot licenses. I think there will be a drought eventually."
At summer's end, Chuck Turner, Mark Pfister, and Scott Challice headed to Marco Island, Florida, where Turner and Pfister started logging multi-engine time flying charters to Key West in a Cessna 310. Biplane Scott spent the winter going in circles, giving Waco rides and making killer tips.