This is why you became a pilot

OK, so after a year or so of lessons, studying, agonizing over the written, sweating during the oral and dreading the practical, you’ve done it! You are a pilot! You are one of a very elite group: just over one-half of one percent of individuals in the United States. You have the ability and the right to get into an airplane, launch into the sky and fly virtually anywhere you would like, whenever you want and all this without having to wait in line, take off your shoes and empty your pockets (unless you really want to).

So now what? What do you do with this very rare right and privilege?

Well, if you’re a member of the flying club that I belonged to, which is probably representative of much of the private pilot community, you sit around a table next to a window facing a runway. You drink the occasional “refreshment” and criticize the skills of other pilots and, once a week, you all pile into various aged airplanes and you fly about 30 miles to have breakfast before flying back to the important job of… sitting around a table and criticizing other pilots. After all, if there’s anything I’ve learned about pilots, it is that the older they get, the better they were.

Let me suggest that this is probably not what you aspired to when you invested all that time and money and endured all that stress. Let me further suggest that there’s a better, infinitely more rewarding way to exercise your hard-won skills.

Many years ago, when my daughter was about four or five years old, we were sitting together in a recliner reading together and suddenly, she asked me, “So Dad, what does it take to be really successful…like you are?” Wow! My mind was racing with the implications of this question and how to answer it in a meaningful way. What does it take to be really successful? What does “really successful” even mean? Finally, I answered and what I said was:

“Well, Michelle, being really successful is not having the biggest car or the fanciest house or even having lots of money because, in my experience, when you have these things, you still want more. You will want a bigger car or a fancier house or even more money. No, in my experience, what it takes to be really successful, what makes you feel really good and satisfied when you are all alone by yourself and thinking about it is; what have you done today to make someone else’s life just a little bit better?”

Funny thing, that little girl is now 27 years old and she never forgot that discussion. Even funnier, neither have I. And that discussion came back to me when I received my Private Pilot’s license. What can I do with this to help others less fortunate?

Lifeline pilots
Using airplanes to help people like this make it all worthwhile.

I found LifeLine Pilots. There are many such organizations across the US. LifeLine Pilots is located in the Midwest and it is a wonderful group of people dedicated to “…making someone else’s life just a little bit better.” LifeLine Pilots’ mission is to “…facilitate free air transportation through volunteer pilots for financially distressed passengers with medical and humanitarian needs.” Pilots donate their time, skills and the cost to operate their aircraft to help others in dire circumstances. We fly passengers, often little children and their parents, to or back home from cancer or other medical treatments. Sometimes we fly relief supplies to stricken areas.

The first time I flew a “mission,” I thought it would be awkward. It’s anything but. These people are just like you and me except for circumstance. Often crushing medical bills leave them without the ability to get to essential treatment. What I did discover is that these folks are just the happiest, friendliest, most normal people you would ever want to meet, dealing with their situation as best they can. In fact, spending time with them gives real perspective. Suddenly all the minor annoyances and disappointments that we all face seem pretty trivial.

Thanks to LifeLine, I’ve had so many wonderful experiences; experiences I will never forget.

Like the day I picked up little Andrew and his mom Jodi from Newark, Ohio to take them to DuPage, Illinois.

It was just crazy hot that day; 98 degrees as I recall and, naturally, along with the heat, were the “bumps in the air.” Just before we took off, little Andrew asked if it would be okay if we waved to his Dad and brother standing by the side of the runway. You guessed it, we took off and I gave them a “wing wave.” Andrew laughed and laughed. So as to avoid the heat and the worst of the bumps, we climbed to 8,500 where the air was cool and smooth. We sat back and all enjoyed the ride. Finally, as we were nearing Gary, Indiana, I announced that we needed to begin our descent and it would get a lot hotter and bumpier before we landed but, as luck would have it, Du Page airport was on the ground and there was no avoiding the descent.

Well, it did get hotter and the bumps were as predicted. While I concentrated on my approach, I quietly felt sorry for the ride they were getting. I made a nice landing and opened the windows. As we rolled to the FBO, I said, “Really sorry for all the bumps.” Little Andrew gleefully shouted, “Are you kidding! That was the best part!” I laughed and glanced back at his Mom, for her… not so much.

Then there was the trip to Lynchburg, Virginia, to ferry relief supplies for the flood stricken in Joplin, Missouri. The press came out as bag after bag of clothing and towels were loaded into the plane. As we posed for pictures for the local newspaper, one of the ladies exclaimed, “Oh, no!” I was afraid to turn around and look but when I did I didn’t see anything obviously wrong. I asked her what the problem was and she stated, “We packed the bags in so tight that you can’t see out the back window.” Suppressing a snicker, I told her that in my experience as a pilot (using my best Chuck Yeager expression), if you have to look out the back window, you’ve got bigger problems; after all, my plane didn’t even come with a reverse.

I remember every one of these experiences and every one of the people I’ve met have enriched my life. In doing this, for just a little while, I feel like I’ve made someone else’s life just a little bit better.

So, there’s an option. You can be one of those flying 50 times a year to the same airport for breakfast, 30 miles away and then sit at a table next to the runway, drinking beer and criticizing other pilots or, you can be a pilot. You can sharpen and broaden your skills flying to myriad airports all over your region, meeting people who will deepen your life and, in doing so, find out just what it means to feel successful.

Be a pilot, give LifeLine or Angel Flight or any of the others a call today. This is why you became a pilot.

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