It probably seems presumptuous of me to be writing about myself. Well, maybe it is...a little. Part of the reason is that I have never seen my story in print and this is the perfect time to put it out where my kids and friends and even family members can read it. But, admittedly, it's mostly for my own gratification. Oh well, so-be-it.
I have been a very fortunate person. What ultimately happened to me just wasn't in the cards. I never had much money as a youngster and worked pretty hard for the "dinero" I got. A long story short, I worked for my dad in his landscape business during my entire teen years. Hated it!!! I was a lousy student throughout my tenure in the public school system...all of it. I was in the majority of my graduating class of '58 though, barely making the top 90%!
As a youth, I only wanted to be a pilot. Don't know why, just did. I went on my first airplane ride when I was around 12 or 13 in a Stinson Station Wagon (a four seater). At that young age, I discovered I was right all along, this is what I wanted to and would do.
On my 15th birthday, my dad called me over to him and was told to get into the car. I thought, "oh God, here comes the 'man to man' stuff about S-E-X or somethin'." Well folks, it was better than sex for a 15 year old. It was a trip to the airport for my first flying lesson! I was introduced to my flight instructor, Howard Humphery and a Cessna 140. Life just became nothing short of perfect!
Now, at that time it cost $8.50/hr. to rent a Cessna 140 for solo flight and $11.50/hr. for dual (with an instructor). As you can see, instructors didn't get much hazardous duty pay back then (don't think much has changed) and Howard was the bread winner in his family! Since my birthday is in January, there wasn't much work in the landscaping business right then. So to accumulate money was a bit difficult for me. But throughout the year, 1955, I managed to earn enough to pay for 14 hours and solo on my 16th birthday! It was "Charlie Lindburg, move over!"
The year of 1956 was a euphoric one for me. Girls did not exist (not sure I should say that) and airplanes was all I ate, drank and slept. You couldn't find me without my trusty E6-B computer (a circular slide rule used for figuring mileage, gas consumption, wind drift problems, etc.) and a Sectional Chart to stare at rather than my English or math lesson. I worked a week and flew an hour. My money and labor had no other meaningful purpose.
On my 17th birthday, I received my Private Pilot's license. (The FAA had not been born yet. the CAA [Civil Aviation Agency] was the authority.) Back then, the written exam for a Private Pilot's license was a 50 question, TRUE or FALSE quiz that you were required to get 90% on to pass. I think I took the written test about a month before my flight check. I had a total of about 50 hours at the time I received my Private license.
The hard part now was to get my Commercial Pilot license. How do
I get it by the time I'm 18? Well folks, I didn't! It required 200
hours to qualify for a Commercial license and I couldn't afford it.
Plan 'B'...join the Air National Guard. They had a flying club where
one could fly for $3.00/hr. So the Summer of 1957 was spent at Lackland
Air Force Base Boot Camp! Yep, the military became my only real shot
at getting to the "promised land" of commercial aviation. I'm convinced
that if we knew the real price of anything before the fact, we'd have nothing.
The Summer of 1957 absolutely sucked! But I had good training to
prepare for it...working for my dad. (God, I hated that landscaping!)During
my 3 year tenure with the Guard, I managed to fly every chance I got and
accumulated 250 more hours before taking the flight check for my Commercial
license. I was 20 years old.
After being discharged in December of 1963, I took a job as a gas boy and general clean up guy at a local airport for $1.00/hr. I started to work on getting my Flight Instructor license. I received that in April or May of '64. I got a job almost immediately instructing at a small airport for an astounding $4.00/hr! Life, once again, was goooood!
I instructed from May of '64 to April 1st of '65 when on that date I was hired by North Central Airlines. During this time in aviation history, the airlines were expanding exponentially. There was an acute pilot shortage and college was waved. About all one needed was a commercial and instrument license. ( I had a friend who was hired with a total of 180 hours flying time!). I had accumulated approximately 1200 hours by this time, and had earned my instrument and multi-engine endorsements.
By the time I finished ground school on the subject of the DC-3 at North Central Airlines (about two weeks long) , a uniform had not been issued to me as yet. So in my only pair of slacks and a sport coat that would make the mouth of any car salesman water, I strapped myself into the right seat of a DC-3 at Chicago O'Hare International Airport. I hadn't met the captain yet (not really important why) and I just sat there in awe of being more than ten feet off the ground without even starting an engine. But here I was...finally made the "big time." NOW WHAT DO I DO?
"Who the hell are you?" These were the first words spoken to me by the captain as he approached his cockpit, only to find this aberation sitting where the co-pilot normally sat. In a voice that could pass as something between Henry Aldrich and a barking seal, I replyed, "Your co-pilot sir." Like a revelation from the heavens I knew at that very moment I didn't know enough. My lessons were just beginning!
As we taxied out of the gate at O'Hare that night, all I could see was a huge kaleidoscope of lights___blue lights, white lights red lights and green lights___that brought to my mind a famous quote: OH S--T! While in my confused state I picked up a voice somewhere nearby that seemed to be talking to me, and as my focus began to turn from all those damn lights back to the seat I was sitting in the voice got a bit louder___"you do know how to use a microphone don't you?" "Yes sir" was my responce. "Well, would it be too much for you to ask for clearance to runway 9R?" If there was any doubt in my mind conserning advice given to me by my elementary school teachers, it disappeared in a flash___this was the time to put on my "thinking cap!"
I think the first flight you make on an airline as a newly hired, low time, pilot is something like the first time you have sex. You know you want to be there but you're not quite sure of what the hell it is you're doing (this may just be an observation that only applys to me). Well, somehow I survived that flight with Captain Ray Hosford, who happened to be a very good guy. I actually was allowed to embarass myself trying to land the DC-3 (the biggest airplane in the universe that night) at Cadillac, Michigan.
The next six years was spent in the right seat of the DC-3, Convair 440, the Convair 580 and the DC-9. I checked out in the left seat of the Convair 580 in early 1970 and held my first Captain bid on the Convair 580 in early 1971. Life as a first officer (co-pilot) was a hoot for the most part, and going to work a thing to look forward to. But being a captain for me was the most awesome page in my career. It was a position I'd enjoy for the balance of my career, but for one year, when I chose the right seat to be in Minneapolis with my family and not have to commute to Detroit or Chicago.
There are "sea stories" galore___you know___"there I was, at 20,000 feet..." But I will leave that for a day we share a brew and have little else to say.
During my career, I went from North Central Airlines, to Republic Airlines, to Northwest Airlines over the course of three mergers. I flew as a co-pilot in the DC-3, Convair 440, Convair 580 and DC-9. As a captain I flew the Convair 580, the DC-9, the Boeing 727, the Douglas DC-10 and the Boeing 747. My early days with the airline found me going to towns like Mankato, MN, Souix Falls, SD and Omaha, NE, among many others you may have never heard of. In the last years of my career I was going to Frankfurt, Ger. Paris, France, London, and Amsterdam on the European continent; and Tokyo, Singapore, and Bankok in the Far East. I quit keeping a log book long ago, but I estimate around 25,000 hours of civilian flying over the years. If you use an average of 475 mph (purely a guess) I guess you can say that's how far I've traveled. Nearly 50 round trips to the moon. On January 29, 2000 I was officially retired (after being off for medical reasons for a couple of years)after 34 years, on my 60th birthday, seniority #10 on Northwest Airlines' pilot list of over 6,400 pilots.
My great fortune was in the timing and preparation, combined with very supportive captains in my early years and a few mergers. It was a "putt" not even Tiger Woods could make. Did I work hard? Certainly! Never have I had to work at anything so hard. But I will never loose sight of my life's good fortune. I have so much more to be thankful for than I have to take credit for.
I am at a place where life is good, good, unspeakably good!
Aircraft I have flown in my airline career.
I flew the left seat in all of these aircraft except the Lockheed 10-A (long gone by the time I was hired) the DC-3 and Convair 440. I never flew as a captain, but only as a co-pilot in the DC-3 and Convair 440.
Art work by Capt. Gill R. Kemm, NWA__ 1979
Mom and Dad...thanks for the "tools" and unending support.
To my fellow pilots, former Captains, First
Officers, and Second Officers I extend my most sincere and highest respect
and present to you this poem. You were and are the best!
One Of The Trusted
Gill Robb Wilson
You are at cruising altitude.
The westering sun is pink on the disk.
Your eye flicks the gauges. The engines are contented.
Another day_ another dollar.
You look down at your hands on the wheel.
They are veined and hard and brown.
Tonight you notice they look a little old.
And, by George, they are old. But how can this be?
Only yesterday you were in flying school.
Time is a thief. You have been robbed.
And what have you to show for it?
A pilot_ forty years a pilot_ a senior pilot.
But what of it_ just a pilot.
Then the voice of the stewardess
breaks in on your reverie. The trip is running full_
eighty_four passengers_ can she begin
to serve dinner to the passengers?
The passengers_ oh yes, the passengers.
You notice the line of them coming aboard_
the businessmen, the young mothers
with the children in tow, the old couple,
the two priests, the four dogfaces.
A thousand times you have watched them
file aboard and a thousand times disembark.
They always seem a little grayer after the landing
than before the take-off. Beyond doubt
they are always somewhat apprehensive aloft.
But why do they continuously come up here
in the dark sky despite their apprehension?
You have often wondered about that.
You look down at your hands again
and suddenly it comes to you.
They come because they trust you_
you the pilot. They turn over their lives
and their loved ones and their hopes and dreams
to you for safe keeping.
To be a pilot means to be one of the trusted.
They pray in the storm
that you are skillful and strong and wise.
To be a pilot is to hold life in your hands_
to be worthy of faith.
No, you have not been robbed.
Your aren't "just a pilot." There is no such thing
as "just a pilot." Your job is a trust.
The years have been a trust.
You have been one of the trusted.
Who can be more?