Summer Hours

Pilots wanted: low pay, long hours.

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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.

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