I’m watching my aiming point and intended touchdown point, keeping both hands on the yoke so I’m not tempted to put in any throttle. I’m gliding N40JA, the nimble little dog, down final on a power out 180. Final approach and the final task on my airplane single engine commercial pilot rating checkride. You can imagine geometric figures and arithmetic calculations swimming over my head if you like but this is seat of the pants flying. I can hear the quiet of the glide speed wind, feel the responsive roll and resistance of the rudder and I know that by aiming at the 500 foot marker I can let ground effect slide me right over to the thousand footers where I told Greg, the DPE, I’d touch the wheels. At the last second I feel my attitude is too nose low, I pull back slightly. The plane rises just a bit then settles onto the runway. I feel good about the landing.
“Oh, no, Eli, why did you pull back at the last second that was nearly perfect,” Greg says with disappointment.
It’s 1985. I am 6 years old. I’m following a stewardess, as they were known then, up the miles long aisle of the first airliner I’d ever been on. It’s a Continental Airlines flight from Newark to San Francisco. Everyone hates Newark, but it’s the first airport I ever flew from. It’s still got a special place in my heart. The cockpit opens before me. The pilots are swiveled around in their seats to face me but I don’t see them. All I can see is the eternal blue sky speckled with perfect white clouds. When I can see the pilots I see their smiles of recognition at my wonderment. I expect they know they just created a pilot. They’re secondary to my vision. I’m examining every instrument and button, reminded of the Starship Enterprise. The cockpit, those guys, they’re the coolest thing I’ve ever seen. I had been nervous about flying up above the clouds but I could see they were taking care of me, my family and how they did it. I reached for the most interesting looking lever, it happened to be the throttle. The first officer’s smile fell, the captain’s eyebrows jumped and I was quickly back in my seat. There were at least three hours left in the flight and I didn’t stop talking about the cockpit the entire time. The captain gave the stewardess a winged pin and a deck of cards for me.
It’s 1994. I’m 15. I’ve spent the last month in flight instruction. I’d waited all year for it. It is night. Rain is beating against the C-172 like neverending firecrackers. My hands are gripped against the underside of the seat, my eyes are clamped shut tight against the lightning flashes from the storm cloud that seems incredibly close, looming over Chicago, blocking out the stars and city lights from half of the sky. With every turbulent crash my heart skips a beat. It will be my last time near the controls of an aircraft for twenty four years. Still, I consider flying the best and most important thing I’ve done and an integral part of my identity.
It’s 2015. My mother is dying of esophageal cancer. I’ve been living in Thailand off my poker winnings and a pittance I earn from blogging and reading the news for the English language radio station in Pattaya. I get the call to come home, see my Mom. I take the 18 hour flight. She tells me she never wanted to be the mother of Bat Masterson. I have to look him up: Old west traveling professional gambler and journalist. Jeez, Mom, with the references. She makes me promise to quit smoking so I’ll never have to be as sick as she is now. I do. I quit cold turkey that day. When I leave for Thailand Mom is on her way out. When I get there she’s passed. I’m set in Thailand. I can live there for 10 years without ever working a real job again. Now, with my inheritance, I’m even more comfortable. But I can’t touch the money. I have to use it in a way my mom would approve of.
For two years I travel, invest, try to find myself. With the investments, my nest egg doesn’t deplete but my soul does. I read about the pilot shortage. I decide it’s time to come home. Flying is the first thing I ever wanted, and the first thing I ever quit in a long list of promises I broke to myself. Now pilots are needed, welfare captains aren’t a thing. I have the money for flight instruction and the motivation to follow through. The stars are aligning.
It’s December 2018. I’m fat, scruffy, 39 and entirely a boy in a man’s body. I’ve paid in advance for flight instruction. I’m sitting in N52AF, a Skyhawk lightened for spin instruction. The mags are engaged, the master is on and I’m paralyzed with fear. I’m staring directly ahead, hating myself, the rudder and ailerons slapping themselves against the stops with the wind howling outside the door, pushing the sardine tin around. It’s my first time in a 172 in more than two decades, half my life, and I can’t move. My instructor is watching me, unsure what he’s seeing. He reaches over and disengages the mags, removes the key and turns off the master. I actually cry. I’ve failed myself and the spirit of my mother and wasted part of her legacy that I never thought she’d leave for me. I’m the lowest scum on the face of the Earth.
It’s 2019. I’m less fat, less scruffy, still a boy. I’ve learned to take off, attitude flying and how to land… poorly. Now I am to learn how to induce and recover from a stall, and I am scared. Paul, my instructor, says he’ll demonstrate a stall and we’ll do it together. I say, wait. Hold on. He does not wait. I sure as shit hold on. It’s over pretty quick, too quick for my fear to take hold. Now it’s my turn. It’s not over quick, but I do it. And just like that my fear is replaced not by relief but joy. A moment ago I was scared to try a stall, now I’m literally asking to do it again like a kid who had his first taste of chocolate. My enthusiasm is contagious, Paul refused a couple of times as we need to get the plane back but he agrees, and I do another. My request for a third is denied.
It’s 2021, nearly 2022. OK, fine, I’m still usually scruffy but I’m 40 to 45 lbs down from my peak weight. I’m an instrument rated private pilot. I own an E-LSA RV-12. Stalls are fun. Crosswinds are a welcome challenge. My commercial training has been set back by an annoying global plague, aircraft availability, instructor availability, illness and other factors at the Jersey Aero Club beyond my control. I was told that some people were hoping I’d quit. By god the quit’s been all burnt out of me. Anybody or anything standing in my way or betting against me had better imagine the horn of an oncoming rhinoceros and act accordingly.
Every day I think about completing my commercial rating. The setbacks seem like the hydra of myth: Cut off one head and two grow back. I make N73335 my toy. I fly it two times a week, minimum, up to four times. Lazy 8s are in standards. Chandelles, once intimidating, are now a matter of course if not always perfect. Short field landings? Piece of cake. Power out 180s are perfect 4 out of 5 times. Of course, it is that 5th one that matters if the engine really does go. Emergency slip to land? Try putting a 900 lb bird down on a 1500 foot runway with tall trees at both ends against its 13:1 glide ratio without slipping it in on final. OK, don’t. It can be done. But where’s the fun in that? Good old Triple Tree and me, we've got a date with the DPE Greg Hill in a week and we’re going pl…SON OF A BITCH.
The schedule is red. Guess who needs a new engine? I take some lessons in the Arrow at Old Bridge before seeing there’s availability in 41JA, the Archer I long considered my favorite plane to fly. Second flight in her in a long time, first doing commercial maneuvers, and the good news is that I do Chandelles, lazy 8s and precision landings to standards. Bad news is she’s got high oil pressure. I’m told not to worry. I leave her for the next pilot. She’s stranded an hour from home - turns out there’s a valve problem.
And so it goes every time I touch a plane. My hands are the kiss of death for anything with a piston engine I can get examined in. They get fixed, I so much as engage the master and the poor aircraft becomes lawn furniture before the week is out. I’ve been a commercial candidate for a year… and a half. I’ve been one week from my checkride for months. Every time I get close fate conspires to push me back. My friends and fellow pilots all empathise. I get plenty of good advice, most of which I am immune to. Truth be told, I wasn’t mentally prepared for some time. When 73335 went down for engine maintenance that was the first time I was truly confident, and truly disappointed, that I had to put off the test. But that wasn’t the first time I had to reschedule or put off training.
Six times. Maybe even more. I had to cancel or delay my checkride. I have my checkride scheduled for less than a week away and some last minute practice flights pencilled in to refine my maneuvers. I’ve already completed the oral portion. Other club members have moved their flights to let me have the time. And I get the call. It’s one of the pilots who made room for me on the schedule. 41 is down. Again.
Listen, I’m preaching to the choir, but let’s be real: Airplanes are like toddlers. We love them to death and couldn’t imagine life without them but they’re a bag of problems tied with a loose string.
I examine 40’s availability and make calls. It’s about a week before my checkride. I find space for a few practice flights, one the day before the big show. I end up having to cancel one for weather and then another because the perennially stiff trim is, of course, stiff. The trustee, on the advice of CFIs, decided it was best to put 40 down to give maintenance a chance to look at it. Thankfully the Chief Instructor stopped by to check out the trim wheel and found it was as it has always been. Stiff, yes, but workable. She’s freed up to fly but it’s too late for me to get down to the airport for my practice flight. My checkride is the next day. No damn way I’m putting it off again.
My checkride is at 1. I have the plane from noon. I call the member who has her before me and she graciously volunteers to cancel her morning flight. I snap up the backup reservation to get some practice in the lighter airframe before my test. Everything is starting to look up. Completing my checkride seems inevitable. I thank the member for canceling her flight, hang up, smile, then stop smiling. I spit a dental crown into my hand. Are you fucking kidding me?
The crown is replaced. My endorsements are double checked. My alarm is set. I have the normal pre-checkride jitters, this time manifesting in some interesting dreams. In one I am flying beside mountains, landing on pristine snow. It’s my job; I fly tourists to glaciers in Alaska. My next dream isn’t so fun, I’m running from zombies. I wake up two hours early and know I have to check aircraftclubs.com. I can’t bring myself to be surprised; 40JA is flagged red again, this time for a late transponder inspection. I’m sure I don’t need it for the day’s flight and confirm as much in the FARs. Still, I call the trustee who confirms the inspection should be good for more than another year. He’s perplexed, somehow the inspection date was changed in the middle of the night. He fixes it.
It was a very nice day for a checkride. My practice went alright, and now here I am taxiing back to MJX’s terminal with Greg making his disappointed face and me reminding myself that a runway centerline is 120 feet and there’s eighty feet between them. I couldn’t have been more than seventy five feet past my intended touchdown point. And Greg confirms as much when he says, “You are now a commercially rated pilot,” and thank God he’s removed his headset when I scream, “finally!” at the top of my lungs.
And now the persistence I’ve learned from this journey will really be put to the test. Time to find a job with less than 400 hours.
- Eli Zwillinberg