As a professional pilot, I had achieved my dreams. Retiring as a Captain from the United States Navy, I had flown Lockheed S-3 Vikings off of aircraft carriers, enjoying a career of almost 27 years that included a tour as Commanding Officer of a Reserve S-3 unit. In the airlines, I was a Boeing 737 Captain with Southwest Airlines - a great company, full of great people, flying a great aircraft. It was a 30-year dream come true.
And then it was gone.
In February of 2015, I lost my FAA medical due to a sleep disorder. I had no way of knowing that a short San Jose to Las Vegas leg would be my last as a professional pilot, but I did know that any pilot (especially a Captain) needs to be well-rested before pushing back from the gate and taking the lives of 180 people, and the financial future of a company with 30,000-plus employees, into his hands. I had been battling chronic insomnia for years, and it had reached the point where it felt neither right nor responsible to continue.
I was grounded. Lost. No longer a member of the professional order. I would find myself at the local air park, watching little airplanes take off and land, or wistfully looking up at a high contrail being pulled across the sky. I was grieving for a career I had spent my whole life building. My identity was gone. I had no mission to perform, no worth to contribute.
And then Milt, my neighbor, saved me.
I was composing an email to a friend of mine, informing him of my status and feeling quite sorry for myself, when Milt knocked at my door. Already in his late 80’s, Milt has lived a full life of adventure - owning several sailboats (he was one of the first builders of a large catamaran on the west coast) and several small airplanes, flying all over the US and Mexico with his wonderful wife, Manya. A little over 10 years ago, Milt lost his FAA medical after a scary battle with intestinal cancer. Thankfully, the Light Sport Aircraft category and the corresponding Sport Pilot certificate had been recently approved, and soon after his recovery, Milt was the proud owner of a brand new Evector SportStar SE. He was back in the air!
Having been there, Milt knew what it was like to have the gift of flight taken from him, and he looked at me and said “Look, I know you’re going crazy not being able to fly. Let’s get you qual’ed in my airplane, and you can fly it whenever you want. Just put some gas in it every now and then, and keep the hangar swept out. Sound good to you?”
My reaction took me quite by surprise. In my stammering acceptance of his very generous offer, my eyes teared up, and it was all I could do to not throw my arms around him and profess my eternal man-love for him. Now Milt is a part of our country’s “Greatest Generation”, and hails from Illinois, possessing midwestern stoicism in great abundance. If I had embraced him like I wanted to, I would have undoubtedly overloaded his emotional circuitry. At the end of our conversation though, I did give him the briefest of hugs - I somehow had to convey my appreciation of what he was doing for me. Thankfully, he didn't suffer any lingering psychological damage.
With Milt’s airplane being an LSA, and with me possessing an ATP, no formal training was required. However, going from a 737 to the SportStar was going to be quite a transition, and I had not flown a small airplane since flying a Citabria back in the mid-90’s. Although Milt was quite content for me to just “take her up and get acquainted - I mean, how hard could it be for you?”, I wanted to get acquainted by first sitting in Milt’s right seat and learning the mannerisms of his wonderful little airplane and watching how Milt handled her. We got airborne, with me furiously scribbling notes on RPM’s and airspeeds and course rules and other “gotchas” that would keep me out of trouble.
After going around the landing circuit several times, I confidently asked Milt if I could take a landing from the right seat. He said “sure”, and I proceeded to fly a beautiful pattern all the way around until about 20 feet above touchdown. There, I reverted back into 737 muscle-memory, and PIO’ed (pilot induced oscillations) my way down the runway, finally smashing down with a healthy side-load on the landing gear. I then jumped on the toe-brakes just like I would on a 737, instantly locking up both mains (no anti-skid in these airplanes), skidding left - then right - with Milt involuntarily yelling “WHOA!!!”. I don’t know if I took some time off his life expectancy or added to it by flooding his system with adrenaline, but I do know it wasn’t quite what he was expecting from a 17,000 hour pilot.
It was one of the most embarrassing moments of my life. As we cleared the runway, I sheepishly looked over at Milt and said “So, how do you like me so far, Milt? You sure about your decision to let me fly your airplane?”
“Oh shoot, Derek, you just need to learn the SportStar, that’s all”, Milt very graciously replied.
Still, I told him that if I was going to do this, then I was going to do it in a way that made us both feel comfortable. I lined up David Marques, a local flight instructor, who gave me a great ground check-out and schooled me on all things LSA. When we finally climbed into the airplane, I felt like I was learning to fly all over again. I was excited, nervous, and could not wait for that takeoff feeling of the ground falling away from an airplane that was under my control.
In spite of my years of experience, my SA (situational awareness) was pitifully small. This was re-enforced when, soon after takeoff and on our way to an outlying airfield to practice landings, we experienced a complete electrical failure. Here I was, the Navy jet carrier pilot, the Southwest Airlines Captain, and 15 minutes into my very first flight in a new aircraft I had my first emergency putting me firmly into what is called the “red zone” of Crew Resource Management, or CRM. Thankfully, Dave yelled over to me that he would take the aircraft and worked us into the very full pattern at French Valley airport, an uncontrolled airfield. We landed without incident, taxied clear of the runway and over to transient parking. After shutting down and pulling the cowling off and finding nothing disconnected or amiss, Dave (who is also an A&P) decided to start the engine again - and found the battery was dead.
Here will always be one of my favorite memories of my entrance into this new and exciting world. Dave called back to our home field, Fallbrook Airpark, and talked to Tom Aberle, who runs the local FBO with his son Jerry. Tom just also happens to own the biplane world speed record (a remarkable story in itself). They had a spare battery, and Jerry would fly one over right away to rescue us. I’ll never forget that feeling of community - a fellow pilot needed assistance and flying the part over was simply the right thing to do. There Dave and I sat at the French Valley Airport Cafe, happily eating our cheeseburgers and homemade potato chips, when Jerry’s white Aeronca Champ came into view. He made the prettiest of three-point landings, taxied over to the SportStar, and then joined us in the cafe where we had his burger waiting for him. There we sat, trading stories and lessons learned, caring more about the time spent together then the clock on the wall. I found out that Jerry and I had served in the same Air Wing in the Navy, at the same time, onboard the same ship - the USS Nimitz. It never ceases to amaze me just how small the aviation community truly is. The lines of life will always reconnect at some point.
Later, with a new battery and voltage regulator installed, Dave and I were able to complete my SportStar checkout. I now had the license to learn, and I was hungry for knowledge and experience. I’ll never forget that first flight after my checkout. It had been 20 years since I had flown by myself, and it felt much like it was when I had first soloed in a C-152 back at the very beginning of my aviation career. It was great - like I had been born again - and poor Milt, when he said that I could fly his airplane anytime I wanted, little did he realize that I would take him at his word. I flew that beautiful airplane every chance I could, practicing all the simple things: stalls, slow flight, and pattern work at first. In return, I kept his airplane clean and polished, full of gas, his hangar swept and tidy, and paid half of any maintenance costs. For a guy that used to fly into foreign countries, flying into a strange field 30NM from my "home plate" suddenly seemed exotic. Every field has its own idiosyncrasies. It was a whole new world - and I couldn’t have been happier. The challenges of flying had returned!
Equally fun was getting to know my fellow pilots in the hangars around me. I was the “new guy” and whenever I had Milt’s hangar door up, somebody what drop by to say hello and introduce themselves. A lot of my fellow airport rats had homebuilt aircraft, and would enthusiastically explain to you why they loved their airplane, or why they had made a modification that made their particular airplane just a little bit better than the standard model. It felt like, well . . . home. No matter what the equipment, pilots are a familiar breed to one another. There is a comfortable self-effacing humor that goes with flying airplanes the world over, and it felt wonderful to be back in the embraces of the type of people that I knew and loved.
I have now grown comfortable again in the cockpit, taking my friends and family flying with me on a regular basis, exposing them to the visceral joys of time spent aloft. The real gift for me nowadays is when I let people, that have never experienced flying from a pilot’s perspective, experience it for the first time. To see their faces when they take the controls, or when they recognize their home or school or town from the air, is more than worth the cost of a few gallons of MOGAS. However, at least once a week, I will get airborne just by myself. That alone time with the airplane is special as well: jumping in the pattern with a bunch of other airplanes, making those familiar CTAF radio calls, taking that one final glance at the windsock on final, feeling that delight or displeasure at the quality of my touchdown and rollout, or the feeling of accomplishment when I clear the active and pop the canopy for the taxi in. There is also that slight feeling of sadness when I push her back in the hangar when the flying is done, and that pat I give her just before I leave, thanking her for the time spent together.
To all of this I have Milt to thank, my friend and neighbor, who perhaps remembered his own brush with the same loss, and saw an opportunity to re-instate to me the blessing that flying is to all of us. All I can do is hope that one day I will either get the chance to return the favor, or pass it on to those that who will come after us. Whatever my career v3.0 will be, Milt’s simple act will be part of the bridge that gets me from here to there, and it restores my soul to know the goodness of human kindness is still transferred across the many generations of our flying ranks.