Aviation mentors: getting by (and thriving) with a little help from your friends

Step back in time; think back to when you were the one looking over the airport fence. What did you say? What did you ask? How did you ask? Who did you ask? The whole world on the other side of the fence seemed so intimidating, yet so inviting. You might remember the feelings of anticipation on your way to the airport, and then the shyness that sets in as soon as you were there. Luckily, I always stumbled into someone who was gracious enough to give me a few minutes of his time and answer my questions. I found that one question answered led to more questions asked and a true thirst for knowledge was born. The questions turned into conversations, acquaintances developed into friendships, and several of those friends have become mentors to me.

Mentor in airplane
Which one is having more fun?

Just when I needed some direction or my flying life needed a little boost, magically, I would bump into someone who’d provide just the nudge I needed to get back on course. The first time this happened was back in the mid-80s as I was wandering through my high school years. There is a small Minnesota town called Clear Lake that has a grass strip airport owned by a man named Bob Leaders. I would stop by from time to time to walk through the rows of parked airplanes, dreaming. I’d force my hands into my pockets so I wouldn’t touch. Eventually I gathered up enough courage to walk into the hangar. In there were a couple of old time mechanics, one of whom was Bob Leaders himself. He was very patient with me. After several visits, and as I began to feel more at home, I let it be known that I wanted to learn to fly. The barriers went down and over time I was able to trade working on airplanes for flying time. Mr. Leaders gave me my first break in aviation.

The second came at the same field when Gordy Amundson, a legendary aircraft mechanic and Designated Mechanic Examiner, happened into the shop. He suggested, and then guided me through, the process of documenting my time working on airplanes which led me to earning my A&P certificate. Gordy was an outstanding source of knowledge who genuinely wanted to see me succeed and did everything he could to help me along. I would call on him many times with questions; he always had time to talk.

Mechanic helping kid
Nobody is born a mechanic – we all have to learn from someone.

Several years later, as I was working on my initial CFI rating, I was fortunate to train with whom I consider the best flight instructor that I have ever flown with: Mike Kneeland, a Navy flyer who after Vietnam left the service. He went on to other work but stayed involved with aviation for the pure love of it. Mike was instructing part time out of the Brainerd, Minnesota airport and I was lucky enough to get on his schedule. I learned more about flying and the craft of instructing in the short time that he spent with me than from anyone I have flown with before, or since. Mike took a lot of phone calls from me when I was a new instructor, always there to talk and help troubleshoot my students, and sometimes me.

One of my proudest moments in my flying career was when he turned up as a passenger on an airline flight for which I was the Captain. I could see the pride in his eyes, knowing that one of his boys made good. When I invited him into the cockpit at the end of the flight, it felt really good to look across the flight deck to the right seat of the B-727 and see him sitting there, again. Not much had changed in my mind, other than there being a little more room than in the C-150. I still look up to the man.

Back in the mid-90s, I started a small flying operation and airplane repair shop. I did some flight instructing, flew tourists on scenic air rides along the North Shore of Lake Superior and did some aircraft maintenance. At that phase of my career I had much more enthusiasm than experience. I found early on that, besides being terribly undercapitalized (read “broke!”), there was also a bit of a gap between what my abilities as a mechanic would do and what my A&P certificate said I could do.

There was a mechanic at another airport not far away who was always willing to help me out. Technically we were competitors but for some reason he showed mercy on me. I asked, he answered. If I considered taking on a job that I wasn’t comfortable with, I’d call him. Either he’d talk me through it or he’d come to my shop to help. When he had something interesting in his shop that he figured I could learn from, he’d call and invite me down, often under the guise of an invite to fly his Republic Seabee. If I didn’t have a tool or a part I needed, he always came through. I learned a lot from him over the years, more than he’ll ever know.

Friends by Seabee
Never miss the chance to learn from another aviator.

As I got better and gained confidence, I called on him less. Later in life I asked him why he was so helpful to me. His response was “You know your limitations, you’re smart enough to ask and you always tried to do it right.” I’ve always appreciated the time that he gave me. He was an old timer then; he’s still in the game today, keeping busy as ever. A few years back he was honored by being presented with the Charles Taylor Master Mechanic Award for having been involved in aircraft maintenance for over 50 years. His Name is Don Macor, he’s a true craftsman, his shop is at the Sky Harbor airport in Duluth, Minnesota.

The sky gods smiled upon me once again when in about 1994 Captain Bob Walenczyk walked into my hangar at the airport in Two Harbors, Minnesota. Bob flew for what was then Northwest Airlines, at the time he also owned a Piper Archer and a J-4 Cub that he put on floats in the summer. Retired now, he has a beautiful Beech Travel Air that I help him maintain and we fly together for fun. Bob is who you see in your mind’s eye when you think “Captain.” He is a true professional who loves airplanes and flying; he is the ultimate airport bum and a wonderful ambassador for aviation. Bob’s help and friendship has been endless from the day we first met. He has helped guide me through this crazy, often very fickle, airline pilot profession. He is the guy I would call with “Captain” questions when I was a baby Captain on the B-727. He has more air wisdom than anyone I know. He also taught me how to really fly, or more specifically, how to properly land a taildragger. He has helped me through the ups and downs of my airline career, from the after-effects of 9-11, through the industry’s instabilities and the ultimate shutdown of a company that I gave ten years of my life to. He was also there for some great joys, like when I upgraded from Flight Engineer to First Officer and then from First Officer to Captain. He seemed to be as happy as I was.

A few years ago I had an engine failure on the B-727 just after rotation leaving Detroit. After all the company paperwork and crew debriefs were done, I was standing at the curb, waiting for the hotel shuttle, wondering what to do next. The rest of my crew had dispersed, I was alone. I remember staring up at a beautifully clear blue January sky, not feeling cold, not warm either, just kind of comfortably Zen-like, thinking through what had just happened. Bob was the first person I called. He asked how it went. After the typically long and animated version that I delivered, he said, “You handled it well; your 173 passengers are waiting for a new airplane to get them to where they’re going, your crew is on their way home, your wife still has a husband and your daughters still have a dad. I expected nothing less from you, Captain Ferrari.” How do you respond to something like that?

I’ve been lucky. I have been introduced to some of the greatest, most pure aviation people. Many have become friends, and several have graciously served as mentors to me. I have been truly blessed. I know I’m the luckiest guy in the world. Now it’s my turn to give back, to help the next generation, to ensure the future of aviation for all of us. I only hope that I can return the favor.

Who are your mentors? Honor them by adding a comment below.

(Reprinted with permission of General Aviation News)

1 Comment

  • Matt, that was a thought-provoking essay. After some review of past history, it seems that I also had many mentors. I think of the crusty old WWII veteran instructor who rented me the Musketeer, and his partner of many years who flew P-38s in that war and was the local examiner. My primary flight instructor was a calming, rational, patient influence. I recall members of the EAA chapter, other pilots in the well-worn FBO lounge, other instructors and EAAers elsewhere, my A&P/IA brother in law. In fact, just about everyone I was close to in aviation taught me important things. I have to give a shout-out to Paul Poberezny, who gave me valuable lessons in the culture of aviation, and showed by example that, at the end of the day, it’s more about people than airplanes.

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