Sunday, February 12, 2012

Power, Prestige, Dogs and Wolves

A popular use of the word "myth" is to dismiss or discredit an idea by casting it as fantastic, factually false, or just an outright deception. Unfortunately this usage ignores what a myth actually is: Myths tell stories that illuminate basic values that connect us to one another and to the natural world. Myths aren't meant to be factually true or to be taken literally, but they do transmit the beliefs of a society from one generation to the next in a way that can't be accomplished by a talk show or a PowerPoint presentation. A society without meaningful myths is a culture without a bigger picture of the shared human condition. Without myth, a country becomes a wasteland of literal interpretation, lacking imagination. Without myth, a society may well consume itself in drone-like greed, gluttony, and self-interest.

A friend who used to fly freight under part 121 opined that the freight dog myth mixes the cowboy and a high-tech version of the Pony Express into an odd sort of stew. Few threads run deeper in American culture than the "don't fence me in" ideal - the proud, independent cowboy roaming the frontier - even if it isn't factually true. My friend, being a purist, didn't consider himself to have been a "freight dog" because he was flying in a two-crew environment. To use his phrase, "Freight dogs are not plural."

I often meet pilots who aspire to become freight pilots. I understand the desire, but it still baffles me. If these pilots don't understand bad pay for a long day's work, they soon will. They'll come to appreciate the term "cloud plow." They'll devise ways to stay awake during 14-hour duty days and to endure flying that is 95% boring-as-hell, 5% why-did-I-ever-sign-up-for-this. Pilots who aspire to fly bigger and faster aircraft usually view a freight dog stint as a stepping stone to the flying job they really want. Perhaps they imagine a future where they can sit in the left seat, in two-pilot air conditioned comfort, earning a half-decent wage, and look back fondly on when they were paying their dues. There's a myth for you!

I ran into a former commercial multi-engine student who expressed regret that his short-lived freight dog experience had not offered more nasty weather before he moved on to flying regional jets. I suggested he should be glad he was now flying an aircraft that spends most of the time above the weather, but I think he felt he missed a rite of passage (in the mythical sense): Crazy thunderstorms, nasty icing encounters, equipment malfunctions. Instead, his freight flying job just provided a few lines on his resume that got him his next job.

My flight instructor musing are inherently less interesting than when I used to write about flying freight precisely because the instructional world lacks a mythic quality. It is easy to romanticize "flying God knows what to God knows where in the middle of the night" or the glamorous life of an airline pilot, striding through the airport, the envy of young and old alike. But learning to fly and maintaining proficiency? Well that just sounds like a lot of work. So I'm going to do my part to change that situation by introducing the myth of the independent flight instructor.

Part ronin and part peripatetic philosopher, the independent instructor has few guarantees. They may instruct at several airports. They may teach people in their own aircraft as well as through one or more flying clubs. The variety in the flying is the best part; you get to fly a bunch of different types, doing a variety of maneuvers and procedures, at a variety of airports from big city to non-towered.

Flying several different types of aircraft, and doing it well, is a daunting task. You have to be an expert in each type (or least appear to be an expert). You have to develop strategies for remembering all the various V-speeds, systems, and limitations for each type. I've found ForeFlight Checklist Pro a handy and powerful way to create check lists and aircraft reference material for the various aircraft I fly. What's the main tire pressure for a Cessna 206? Piece of cake ...

Flight instructing isn't glamorous and to endure you must have two main qualities: An interest in what motivates people and a desire to help others succeed. No one is a professional flight instructor for the money because flying is not something just everyone can afford and there is a ton of downward pressure on instructor wages (sorry AOPA).

It's no wonder few people stick with instructing or rely on it as their primary source of income. In keeping with our national obsession of living for the future, many pilots train to become instructors so they can teach for a while, then move on. Others keep their CFI current while flying other aircraft as a sort of retirement plan. Some instructors teach on the side while working a day job that provides stability (like health care benefits), but they aren't really living the dream.

As with teachers in other fields, flight instruction is seldom respected by other pilots or potential employers. If there's little money, prestige, and respect, why do the handful of dedicated instructors out there stick with teaching? It's hard to say. Speaking personally, there are few walks of life remaining where you get to work one-on-one with dedicated, goal-oriented people. You help them through their roadblocks, their rough patches, their doubts and fears. And the majority of the time, you will see them succeed. It may sound corny, but you just can't put a price tag on knowing you helped someone find their wings.

The popular aviation myth, especially among younger pilots, is that getting a job with an airline or charter operation means you've made it to the top of the heap. Flying a big, shiny jet represents respect and power while working as a freight pilot is like being, well ... a dog. The thing is, these perceptions are themselves myths, something we tell ourselves to explain our place in the world, help us keep our dreams alive so we can reach our goals. If flying freight is a dog's life, that must make the freelance flight instructor the wolf at the door.

7 comments:

ddf said...

An interesting perspective from one that his been there, thanks John. I wonder though, why "wolf"? ...and what does it make me if I aspire to become a CFI?

John Ewing said...

Not meaning to sound like Yoda, but ...

These are good questions to ask yourself. Only you can provide answers.

africanbushpilot said...

Personally I believe there should be more career instructors as i think teaching ab initio is a specialty all in itself.

toddgrx said...

I'm glad you decided to remain a wolf... my learning has profited from it. I've been quite content at flying just one type of aircraft. I guess I'm just happy to be flying. But I think one day I hope to also be a wolf at the door.

CG said...

I do remember your old blog, quite fondly too. Don't you think that the freight dog experience was cool, at times at least. I get it that it can get old quick, but still...

I'm often wondering whether I shouldn't go pro - I love flying, and it's just so expensive if you don't get paid for it.

John Ewing said...

CG,

People love to READ ABOUT freight-flying experiences and imagine what it would be like. Actually HAVING THOSE experiences is another story.

Freight dogging can be personally valuable to prove to yourself that you can do that sort of flying. Once you've convinced yourself that you have what it takes, you start to ask yourself why you should stick with it. The lifestyle is the hardest part - sitting around and waiting, working in an isolated environment, disrupted sleep patterns, not having time for family and friends because of oh-dark-thiry showtimes, and having to work through the holidays.

Add to that substandard pay and the risk: The US Dept of Labor still lists aircraft pilots as having the third most dangerous job, right behind fishers/fish workers and loggers. I've not been able to find any statistics that break the risk down by type of flying (single-pilot part 135 versus part 121 versus flight instruction under part 61), but I suspect the greatest risk is single-pilot part 135 operations.

More food for thought ...

capnaux said...

John,
From one verbose Ronin to another (my vanity plate reads, "Ronin" lol!)...LOVE your writing style, dude! Very eloquent, succinct, and insightful. Wonderfully high-brow references for the working class freight dog and ground pounding friends…

Thanks for the memories and the insight! The world needs dogs n wolves. Why else would we be reintroducing them into Yosemite?!

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