Reflections on a career-making ticket

Every now and then someone asks me a question that causes me to reflect on how I got into this business in the first place. I make it no secret, my intent was not to become a professional aviation enthusiast. I was a musician living and working in New York City. I was happy there, living a very different life than the one I live today.

That’s neither good nor bad, by the way. It’s just true.

My only aeronautical goal was to find my way out of the big city quicker than the bus or train could carry me. And maybe there was a desire to be able to travel direct to more interesting destinations. But that’s it. Nothing that involved a paycheck entered my train of thought.

Somewhere along the line however, my private pilot aspirations shifted to professional pilot goals. For me it was when life threw me a bag full of lemons. Rather than cry about it, I decided to make lemonade.

Greenwich Village (Photo courtesy FreeImages.com/PeterWMoon)

You see, my band broke up, leaving me with the choice of starting all over in my late 20s, or finding something different to do. Add to that a crumbling marriage, and the late 1980s became the perfect time to re-evaluate what I was doing with my life and where I hoped it might take me.

My hobby suddenly became a career option. A lousy career option at the time, but a perfectly valid career option nonetheless.

Unlike today when airlines and corporate flight departments are shaking the bushes for any pilots that might fall out, when I got into the game the opposite was true. Finding a job was tough. Braniff, Eastern Airlines, and Pan Am had all gone under, leaving thousands of highly trained, well experienced pilots competing for the same flight instructor gigs I was hoping to land.

Competition was fierce.

With my relatively newly minted CFI in hand, I personally hand delivered a resume to every flight school I could find in Connecticut and Rhode Island.  Thankfully, perseverance paid off. I found work.

Back then my assumption was that I would become an airline pilot. As far as I knew that was the only way to draw a paycheck from sitting in the cockpit, aside from being a CFI. Boy, was I wrong.

(Photo courtesy FreeImages.com/Aaron Murphy)

General aviation appeared to me to be nothing more than a passageway between two very different stages of life — that of the non-pilot and that of the commercial pilot. It was my very erroneous assumption that my days in general aviation were numbered. I believed I was just passing through.

Well, it didn’t work out that way. I fell in love with general aviation and stayed. Thirty years later, I’m still here. I still wake up looking forward to whatever today might bring. And I owe it all to the decision to earn a CFI ticket and put it to use.

In the pantheon of happy accidents that have occurred over the course of my life, becoming a certificated flight instructor is easily in the Top Five. It opened doors I didn’t know existed. It’s allowed me to pursue goals that wouldn’t have even occurred to the pre-CFI version of me. It even led to the existence of this column.

My very first flying job was in Winter Haven, Florida, at a place called Gilbert Field. There was a magazine based on the field back then. Its editor was a hard-nosed newspaper veteran named Ken Cook. He owned a C-172. We sipped coffee together at the FBO. We flew together. Eventually he challenged me to write an instructional piece for the magazine, which I did.

I think you can see the ramifications of accepting that challenge.

Today I live just over a mile from the runway there. The name has changed, getting all fancy as Winter Haven Regional Airport, although not all that much has changed over the years. It’s still Gilbert Field to me. I still enjoy the anticipation of driving to the airport, opening the hangar door, and pulling an airplane out of the hangar.

Winter Haven Regional Airport (Photo courtesy city of Winter Haven)

Somehow, after all these years, I don’t think that sense of adventure will ever go away. I get a great deal of satisfaction from flying. Just as I get a great deal of satisfaction out of giving instruction, at any level.

My day job at the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA) keeps me hopping, as it does for my peers. But, although I don’t have the free time necessary to take on a primary student anymore, I am fortunate enough to ride along for flight reviews from time to time. That puts me in the air with casual weekend warriors, highly trained professional pilots, and everything in between. I get to fly classic taildraggers and seaplanes, as well as the venerable Cessna 152 my career began with. I love them all. The moment our wheels leave the ground, or our floats part with the surface of a lake, the greatest adventure in life truly begins.

That’s true for me, at least. I suspect it’s true for most pilots. Although, landing can be a pretty exciting experience too. Especially in a taildragger with a healthy crosswind.

Jamie (in front) flying with a student.

In retrospect, I owe it all to that CFI ticket. It put my butt in the air, paid for the food on our table, and somehow covered the cost of paying for the house my little family calls home. It’s given me a career I never expected that has spanned decades. And there has been an enormous amount of fun to be had along the way.

Yeah, I could have become an airline pilot. I’d have probably made a lot more money, too. But I haven’t regretted a single day as a general aviation warrior, plying my trade in small piston engine aircraft, helping to make the dreams of others come true.

You could do worse, let me tell you.

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View Comments (4)

  • Great read! Interesting how aviation can shape our lives when it becomes a passion! I am coming up on 30 years as an aircraft mechanic (avionics technician for American Airlines), Terry I own and fly a non-electric J3 Cub. I’ll admit to flying it NORDO around my home field, but on cross-country trips you’ll usually see a handheld radio, cell phone, Stratus, and iPad for nav and weather tucked in with me.
    Although I ramble a bit, my point is my career as an airline mechanic was determined when my private pilot check ride examiner suggested I wrench on airplanes to pay for my flying... and the rest is history.

  • Just not being required to wear the vapid uniform with all the stripes on the sleeves and the clutter on the caps (as I was for 32 years) is reason enough to avoid air line flying! Have fun, Jamie!

  • Good article. I also feel that obtaining the instructor certificate was the best thing I ever did.

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