A road not taken

My pre-move house cleaning has yielded another aviation memory: A 1972 letter from the old Monmouth Airlines. It offered an answer to every young hopeful’s need for multi-engine and turbine time — very expensive but necessary stepping stones to pro flying. The question was, as always, how to afford it — and back then, how to survive it.

Years ago there were more low-time “beginner” jobs, it seemed — some of them mighty “exciting.” One choice was to “right seat” on Beech 18s flying dynamite and radioactives all night for $500 a month. An added plus, they said: No need to rent an apartment. Cots in each company hangar were for co-pilot use, free of charge. Oh boy.

A seemingly easier route was the airline-affiliated flight school offering co-pilot time to graduates. Some still exist. The little commuter airline at Monmouth County Airport, New Jersey, was the ticket in my area. According to a letter from flight school administrator K.A. Meyer (Miss, she added in parenthesis as an afterthought), students were entitled to unlimited co-pilot time in their Beech 99, Piper Navaho or Islander twins.

Broke right after college, I considered $85 an hour for Aztec dual a fortune. But (Miss) Meyer noted that graduate co-pilots were now paid $1.60 a flight hour, so the initial rating could cost “only $8.50 an hour!” I could even pay off the whole thing flying right seat for three months. I took a pass. Maybe I shouldn’t have, but felt better about it after learning why their co-pilots were now being paid.

Some companies were marginal players during what I call “the bad old days” for then-new commuter/regional airlines. Just four months before Miss Meyer’s letter (when Monmouth was flying with “volunteer” co-pilots paid nothing), a 25-year-old “occasional” right-seater (NTSB’s words) accompanied his Beech 99 captain into the ridgeline north of Allentown, Pa.

It was a late-night VOR approach. NTSB said the captain’s expired medical wasn’t a factor. Crew fatigue from long hours of IFR was. Someone may well have selected the wrong (but similarly named) Allentown “VOR-1” approach plate, one for the older Allentown Queen City Airport. It had a 1600 MSL approach segment from the west over flat terrain. Monmouth 98, inbound from the north for the newer KABE airline airport, hit the mountains five miles north of the ABE VOR at a suspicious 1,540 MSL. Oh-oh.

Proof enough, I thought: This kind of flying is for real. Mistakes by either a young co-pilot or a do-it-all “Don’t touch anything, Kid” captain could be fatal. (Scuttlebutt said Monmouth and some others had co-pilots only to be legal. Back then, some Part 135 captains were one-man operations; co-pilots were sandbags.) That, however, didn’t deter me from an operations job elsewhere to catch some deadhead right-seat time.

A mere eight months later I found myself at 2 a.m., out-of-control, going down fast and steep next to a Korean War-era captain (and poster-child for aeronautical over-confidence.) The lure of multi- and turbine time put me on broken-airplane ferry flights and now, a base-to-final near-death experience below the tree line. We were goners. We gave up and closed our eyes. But waiting mechanics, watching from our hangar, saw us pop up again out of somebody’s backyard. It was all hushed-up, of course, as was much back then.

From there flight training limped along, then ended. Despite plowing right through instruments (and saving my trembling 700-hour instructor from severe — but forecast — icing), I was pushing too hard. I took seven years off, did my ratings over again, and missed GA’s go-go ‘70s. I had given up when things looked bleakest. Just a year later, aviation boomed without me and never looked back. Will it happen again?

I re-emerged in 1980 looking like “the new kid” and got treated that way. All my early flying from the 1960s, even jet time as a cadet, meant nothing. I missed the big years at Cessna and all those business aircraft shows where my generation got their professional start. This early prodigy was now late to the party.

It all depends on luck, some key decisions and eternal optimism. I feel for young people today who want to fly. The early 1970s recession was tough, but today looks like an era-ending economic shift. People will always fly, however, and someone’s got to fly them. Who?

It will be those who want to do nothing else. Why? It defines them, their character and their aspirations. That’s why pilots are interesting, committed people…and optimists. They often have to make big sacrifices and hang it all out on a dream. Mine came true, belatedly.

I was lucky. Boy, was I lucky!

Drew Steketee was president of BE A PILOT, senior vp-communications for AOPA and executive director of the Partnership for Improved Air Travel. He also headed PR and media relations for Beech, GAMA and the Airport Operators Council International.

© 2011 Drew Steketee All Rights Reserved

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