The early 1980s, I continued the long process of fighting my way up the food chain to hopefully earn the coveted pilot job with a major airline. That elusive carrot was still out there in front of me and hopefully, someday I would become worthy.
So far, I had earned my commercial, instrument, and twin tickets, and also had an A&P mechanic’s license with my inspection authorization. I attended the local state college and worked full time as a mechanic at a small operation in Las Cruces, New Mexico. I hoped to eventually become one of the charter pilots with the fixed base operator.
As a 23-year-old mechanic, hanging upside down under the instrument panel of a Cessna 172 trying to replace the vacuum filter was not really what I wanted to do that day, or for very much longer. The hot desert weather was not a nice place to be flat on my back, my feet up in the air on top of the pilot seat, and my head resting on the rudder pedals. It led to a lot of expletives being uttered. I affectionately referred to those moments as momentary Tourette syndrome attacks.
With the sweat dripping into my eyes and feeling like I was about to pass out from the heat, I suddenly heard the giggle of a young lady coming from the airplane parked next to me. She was with her instructor, about to take her up on an introductory flight. How I envied that guy, in his clean white shirt, talking to that pretty young thing. Then my arm started to bleed from catching it on a sharp corner under the panel. Quit looking at the girl and pay attention!
Thankfully, things were about to change for the better. About a month later, I reached the milestone of becoming a newbie flight instructor. After years of shelling out to pay for my flying, it was now my time to earn a wage as an aviator.
My first student’s name was Mark, a really sharp kid who was a senior at the local high school. Much like myself seven years prior, Mark’s dad had laid out the funds for him to try for his private pilot license.
I took Mark on the journey of his first flight. After a few weeks, with nine hours under his belt, I felt that he was ready to solo. On an early fall morning, I flew around the airport pattern several times with Mark. He was doing well and firing on all cylinders. So was the airplane. The weather was perfect and there were no other aircraft out that early morning. We had the whole place to ourselves.
I told Mark to pull off the runway and shut down on a taxiway. Las Cruces was an uncontrolled field with no tower, so standing on the side of a runway was not such a security threat as it might be considered after 9/11.
As per FAA procedure, I endorsed his third class medical that he was ready to fly solo and put the necessary endorsement in his logbook. I told Mark to go out and do two touch-and-goes and make the third landing to a full stop, just like my instructor told me years ago.
I stood by the edge of the runway with the yuccas and ocotillo cactus behind me. With the red ant hills and other various critters crawling about in the sand, it was definitely not a good place to sit down. I started to notice that my new cowboy boots were a bit tight and uncomfortable as my toes began to cramp a little and I could feel a blister forming. I probably should have opted for better footwear today.
I just stood out there, in the middle of nowhere as Mark did his thing. The concept of time was pretty much standing still for the two of us as this momentous occasion unfolded.
It was an anxious moment. With palms sweating and sweat rings around my armpits I was hoping that my first student was truly ready to slip the surly bonds of earth. Hopefully I didn’t forget to instill any critical kernels of knowledge. Mark was probably thinking along the same lines and was sweating every bit as badly as I was.
Mark taxied out to the end of the runway and did exactly what I told him. He blasted past my position with a stern expression of concentration on his face as he lifted the Tomahawk off the ground.
A few minutes later Mark was on final approach, as I watched like a nervous mom. He skittered and floated around a little bit but made a decent touchdown. I made a triumphant fist-pumping gesture as he poured the coals to it and sped past me.
He made one more touch and go and things were looking good. I though, he’s gonna make it! I stood there attempting to send him good vibes, as if I could literally will the lifting air under his spindly Tomahawk wings. All he had to do was make it back around and bring it to a full stop and we would be done.
Moments later, Mark was back on the ground and rolling past me. He taxied off at midfield. Yes! Thank gawd a’mighty!
Apparently, there was just one thing that I did not make crystal clear to my student before I sent him airborne. It was something that I would be sure to clearly tell all my students from that day forward: he needed to come back to where I was and pick me up!
Mark was so excited that he taxied back to the parking area and left me about a mile away from the flight school.
That was the last time I ever wore those cowboy boots.
Al Chaulk is a retired pilot that flew for four different airlines between 1985 and 2007. During one of his two furlough periods from his job with US airlines, he was hired as a 747-400 relief pilot for a Dutch airline. There were 39 other American pilots that accompanied him for two years living in Holland. He is writing a book about his career in aviation.