Part of the team – what it means to be a pilot

Sometimes it’s the normal flights, not the exciting ones, that make you reflect on what it means to be a pilot. On a recent trip, I was headed westbound from New York in perfect weather when the contemplative mood struck. Maybe it was the smooth ride or maybe it was my favorite pilot in the other seat (my dad). But I think it had more to do with the fact that we were passing the COLNS intersection–named after our very own Editor Emeritus Richard Collins.

COLNS intersection
Passing COLNS, just fitting into the system.

It made me think of how many times Collins himself has probably flown over that intersection in his P210, not to mention all the airline captains and Air Force fighter jocks blowing by at Mach 0.83. That’s when it hit me: there is no such thing as “professional pilot airspace,” where amateurs are separated from the gods. Here we were, just another blip on the controller’s screen, keeping up with the machine gun communications and staying on course. It felt good to be anonymous, just part of the system.

This isn’t mere hero worship. In fact, it’s one of the great pleasures of being a pilot–we get to play on the same field as the greats. Very few sandlot baseball players get to pitch at Fenway Park, but as brand new private pilots we can fly from Washington Dulles to New York LaGuardia in a 172. I won’t wax poetic about the brotherhood of aviators, but there’s no doubt that, upon passing the checkride, we are instantly admitted to the big leagues. That’s an honor we shouldn’t take lightly.

It means we have to work at our craft, especially as instrument pilots. We have to stay sharp with our communications skills, using just enough words to be clear, but no more. We have to study and understand weather so we can make small adjustments en route, not wait until we’re backed into a corner. We have to be proficient at flying different airspeeds, so ATC can request “slow to approach speed” or “max forward speed” without hesitation. We owe it to all the other pilots and controllers–not to mention our passengers–to bring our best every time we fly.

When this system works, it’s a wonderful feeling.

All of us can probably remember a time when our team, whether a musical group or a baseball club, was “in the zone.” I can vividly remember playing in a football game in high school like this. Everything just clicked that day–nobody talked in the huddle because nobody needed to. Everyone was functioning flawlessly, doing their job as part of the team’s plan. It was exhilarating to be in that environment.

That’s the way it was this day on Washington Center frequency. There was no drama. Nobody was looking for special attention, because everyone on the frequency knew their role and was playing it. Airliners were flying complicated RNAV arrival procedures without complaint, hitting the right altitudes at the right time and the right speed. General aviation pilots were flying with the same professionalism as the airlines, handling re-routes and descent clearances with ease. A Cirrus pilot checked on with a six second pilot report that was both efficient and incredibly helpful. It’s hard to call dozens of airplanes passing each other at 400 knots boring, but it really was. That’s a testament to the people and the system.

United Airlines Boeing
Mixing it up with the big boys – our right and privilege as private pilots.

Passing COLNS, my dad and I played our favorite game: how much of a shortcut can we negotiate with ATC? Ask a busy New York controller for direct and you’re liable to get sent to the penalty box, so we didn’t try. Knowing that we were only 50 miles from Indianapolis Center (a friendly bunch), we decided to wait until the handoff, since it was probably their call anyway. Our strategy worked–cleared direct destination–and the controller even remarked, “I was just about to ask if you wanted that.” Like a pitcher and catcher on the same page, everyone does better when you know what to expect.

Being part of the team also means knowing when to pull the right tool out of the bag. As we approached our destination, it became clear that we had to simultaneously slow down for an Army Blackhawk helicopter shooting an ILS approach, while somehow staying ahead of a Gulfstream doing 200 knots. With the airport in sight, we simply requested the visual approach to another runway, solving both problems without anyone having to change their plans–it even cut down our taxi time. Another small move, one that’s made dozens of times per day. We didn’t win an award, but the quick “thanks for the help” from the tower controller meant a lot more.

This was a routine flight, from point A to point B with no significant weather or abnormal events. But that didn’t make it any less satisfying. We had flown from Cincinnati to New York and back in the same day, all while mixing it up with the real pros–and we felt like we belonged.

In the classic 1988 movie Bull Durham, Kevin Costner teaches his young protege the essential cliches for an athlete to learn, including this snoozer: “I’m just happy to be here. Hope I can help the ballclub.”

While it’s fun to joke about being the world’s greatest pilot, the truth is that I’m just happy to be here. I hope I can help the team.

9 Comments

  • Nice article, should be read by everyone on both sides of the screen. During my days as a CFI-I, and today while flying aerial photography assignments, I have told the unsure pilot that they can do anything they want by playing “The Game”. It’s called “Mother, May I ?”

    http://www.wikihow.com/Play-%22Mother-May-I%22

    Ask and get to go direct or you will be asked to take “two steps forward and one step backwards” before continuing on.

    When you or the “newbie” sitting next to you is thinking “can I do that ?” YES, YOU CAN – talk to MOTHER, FIRST.

  • Thanks John, for a well stated article. Interesting, and at the same time, informative. Though I’ve never had to deal with the hustle and bustle of the big airports, you make it sound easy, (though we all know it can be one huge hassle at times.) The main part people need to take from this story, in my humble opinion, is to enjoy your flight all the more, by being prepared for all contingencies of the planned flight.

  • Thanks, John, I have felt the same pride of sharing experiences and airspace with the pros quite a few times over the years.

    Be it flying in the same airspace with wings of USAF F-16s near Roswell New Mexico, they calling in to the KROW tower with their “Taco” call signs and intentions to maneuver not far from my route … or maneuvering in the traffic pattern at KAEG (Double Eagle II airport) in Albuquerque, NM with the aircrews of Blackhawks, Chinooks, and Apaches flown by the US Army … they go to KAEG for their “high desert dusty” landing and takeoff training maneuvers, just before deploying to Afghanistan and Iraq. Or working with US military air traffic controllers at both USAF and US Army TRACONs as in Texas (Fort Hood), Alabama (Fort Rucker), or Georgia (Moody AFB).

    There’s also listening, during cross country flights, to the radio chatter of dozens of big iron airliner crews checking in and out of this or that center’s airspace, requesting deviations for weather, giving ride reports, and such … occasionally, those airliner guys would call me up in my little Cherokee to pass on a message from Center, them being way up high, because I was in a VHF comm dead spot in the mountain country. As well as occasionally sharing airspace and landing/takeoff slots with the big iron coming in and out Class C airports.

    As long as I and the pros maintain proper traffic separation, it is really just way too cool to be playing on the same field and airspace with the pros. It’s also an added incentive to always act professionally. As you wrote, John, not many other amateur avocations will let you do that.

  • Nice job, John… on the flight, and the article. I recall fondly my training days at Rochester (MN) Municipal in the old Musketeer, mixing it up with other students, National Guard C-130s and Hueys from Mpls-St. Paul, the occasional oil prince’s luxo-barge B-727, and airliners from Northwest, American, and North Central. It was very gratifying once I could fit into that mix comfortably and be, as you said, part of the team. I wish all student pilots could have at least part of their training in such a complex environment.

  • Really enjoyed your article, John, in part because it reminded me of one of my most satisfying experiences in the almost 40 years that I’ve held a PPL. I was in a C172 on a left base for Runway 24L at Dorval Airport (Montreal’s main airport, now called Pierre Trudeau Airport, where the controllers have VERY few occasions to say the word “Cessna” during their work shifts), when the controller called me, told me there was a 747 about 7 miles out on a straight-in approach to the same runway, and asked if I could expedite. I said I could, and did most of my approach (including the turn to final) at about 115-120 knots, throttled back to idle more than a mile from the threshold to allow me to slow to landing speed by short final which descending, touched down pretty much on the numbers, and was able to easily leave the runway at the first taxiway. Just as I was about to switch to Ground Control (by which time that 747 had already passed behind me on the runway), I heard the controller thanking me for the help. I know EXACTLY what you were talking about in your article, John, because I truly felt the same thing that day!

  • Great article. I guess it’s like on the road. We share the same highways with taxi and truck drivers and are expected to uphold the same standards. The only difference is they do it for a living.

    Being in awe of professional pilots has held me back a little with my training. I tend to lack confidence in myself and second guess things because I think there’s no way I can hold a candle to guys with thousands of hours in their logbook.

    It’s an attitude which I have just started to grow out of now that I am soloing around the training area – in the end I’m the person in control and simply being a humble private or student pilot is no excuse for setting lower safety or airmanship standards, whichever situation you’re in.

    The person on the other end of the radio, or on the ground looking up at my Cessna doesn’t know what experience I have (except maybe if they watch me land). They just know there’s a pilot at the controls and it’s a great feeling to think of myself now as just that.

  • I certainly don’t share in the awe described by the author or other posts. The costs, time and government regulations involved to get a mere Light Sport license was ridiculous and the $400 dollar “check-ride” was equally ridiculous. This idea and acceptance that it is great to be “allowed” to play in the same airspace as the big boys is the limiter in general aviation and why airplane prices are sky high and participation is declining to unsustainable levels. It’s a big, free sky up there, we need to take it back.

  • Along these lines I still remember a few years ago northbound V27 IFR 8000 ft.
    Just NW of SFO.

    NorCal Approach “JAL Heavy 43. Restrict climb to 6000 for traffic C182 at 8000.”

    It was CAVU and I will never forget that departing 747 leveling off to pass directly below me and then rapidly climbing on its way across the pacific.

    I did wonder what that little deviation cost the 747 in fuel burn.

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