With deference to Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones, who seems to be built of sterner stuff than the average human being, the rest of us will have to one day face the grim reality of packing it in.
The greatest pitchers, hitters, passers, and receivers will all have to walk off the field of play for the last time, at some point. Amazing shooters and goalies and masters of the chip shot will eventually feel the effects of age and lose their edge.
When that day comes, they’ll have to hang up their sneakers, or skates, or golf shoes and find a new way of doing business, or pursuing pleasure.
That’s true for pilots as well.This is not exactly shocking news. We all know this day will come. It’s been in our future since our first day on the planet.
But humans have an amazing capacity for self-delusion, and so most of us never give a moment’s thought to the idea of giving up our dreams until, in the case of a pilot, we visit our medical examiner one day and receive an empathetic look and a pat on the shoulder instead of the new medical certificate we were expecting.
That’s not to say your last flight as Pilot in Command has to be a downer. With some creativity, a bit of planning, and an acceptance of the march of time, we can all have a second act that is not only satisfying, but allows us to embrace life in a way that truly invigorates us.
The key is to look down the road of life and honestly answer this very direct two-part question: If I couldn’t do what I’m doing now, what would I do, and why would I do it?
If you can walk away from aviation with a clear conscience, feeling no desire to participate at all, while you transform yourself into the greatest philatelist in your neighborhood, that’s great. More power to you.
On the other hand, if you have a sense that you might miss the airport, your fellow hangar rats, the sound of round engines, and the words “clear prop” reverberating across the ramp – maybe you would find satisfaction and self-worth by participating in a different way.
This past weekend a handful of my fellow flying club members and I hosted a hangar full of Boy Scouts and their parents for what we called Boy Scout Aviation Merit Badge Day. We invited several troops to participate, but only two responded. So we set up our hangar to receive 20 or so young men and a couple adult leaders, and stocked the refrigerator with enough hot dogs and cold drinks to feed our guests.
By 9 a.m. Saturday morning we had 50 scouts gathered around tables with half that many chairs. More than 20 adults stood just inside the hangar opening, marveling at their good fortune to be allowed inside the airport fence with their kids.
A couple club members set out for the supermarket to bulk up our supply of hotdogs and drinks, while my good friend Andy Salter and I set about the business of teaching every single topic spelled out in the book of Boy Scout Requirements.
Andy is a whiz of a mechanic and machinist who spends his weekdays at Fantasy of Flight, restoring and maintaining the aircraft Kermit Weeks stores in the massive art deco hangars he’s built in central Florida. He’s also a serious storehouse of aeronautical knowledge who truly enjoys sharing his enthusiasm for airplanes, engines, and history.
Over the course of the next three hours, we worked with the scouts as a group. We broke them into smaller groups to give them a more hands-on experience, and when the situation warranted, we worked with individual scouts one-on-one. In the end, we found ourselves in a hangar filled with happy scouts, proud scout leaders, thankful parents, and a handful of flying club members who had made a real contribution to their community.
By the end of the day more than 70 people had been exposed to general aviation in greater depth than they’d ever imagined was possible, and every one of them motored homeward feeling far more positively about GA as an industry.
Maybe even better than that, they all went away knowing without a doubt they could become active participants in aviation if they chose to — and now they’ve got contacts on the field that can help them make it happen.
Of the full crew who were part of making this event happen, only two are pilots. The rest are simply dedicated folks who know they can contribute in a meaningful way, even though they do not have the privilege of climbing in, firing up, and launching off as PIC.
And yet, without those contributors, Andy and I could not have possibly herded all those scouts, managed their parents and leaders, moved the aircraft, cooked their lunches, and overseen the parking of cars in an orderly manner.
We all have a role to play. For a good long while, that may put us in the cockpit. But when we climb out for the last time, we’ve still got a lot to offer, should we choose to do so.
When your time comes, I hope you will consider making that transition. You’ve got something pretty great to share with a whole bunch of folks who have no idea how to do what you’ve done, or to go where you go.
Leaving the left seat doesn’t mean your days of being respected as a leader are over. Not by a long shot.