I’m a pilot, right. My job is to fly this here Bell 206, to take my boss wherever he wants to go. To do it safely, competently, professionally. To not crash.
That’s it, right? Ah, I wish! There’s more to it – much more! If skill in the cockpit were all I had to worry about, I wouldn’t have anything to worry about. I know I’m a good pilot; that part of the job is fine. But there is the personal aspect of the job. My boss and I work very closely together. He always sits up front and likes to be involved in the flight. Plus, there are many other people I have to deal with – in and out of the helicopter - people who have a real influence over whether I keep my job or not.
First of all, there’s the boss’s wife. I’ve flown her many times, and her friends, and her children and grandchildren. If she is not “comfortable” with me I might as well start looking for another job because sooner or later I’m going to be out.
Then there are the others: The boss’s main business partner; his CFO; his secretary even! If these people don’t like me, it might not get me fired immediately, but their cumulative comments to the boss can have a long-term negative effect.
Since my boss not only owns a large main business but is also an entrepreneur, he’s involved in a lot of other side-deals with people. Thus, whenever someone gets on the helicopter I’m sometimes not sure just exactly what their connection to him is. They might just be a personal friend…but they might also be in with him on some huge deal. Or they might be both. Everyone likes to ride up front and talk.
For many, flying is an unnatural act. When people board a helicopter they are understandably anxious and/or tense. Sometimes they’re downright scared. They often mask it in various ways. Sometimes I can see through it, sometimes not. Regardless of their personal anxiety level, passengers want to know that their pilot is someone they can trust, someone who’ll get them to the destination in one piece. It’s not as easy as you might think.
I’ve found that it’s best to not talk too much. But even this poses a problem. A pilot who’s aloof or silent could appear arrogant or preoccupied. Passengers will not be able to relax if they sense that their pilot is having to concentrate so intently on his tasks that he cannot even be sociable. And sociable, I am.
On the other hand, you cannot be too sociable either. Passengers need to know that the pilot takes his job seriously and conscientiously and is paying proper attention. So a balance must be struck – a fine line walked. I try to project an air of calm, relaxed professionalism. But there’s a lot of “stuff” going on as I fly. It’s not like cruising down the Interstate with three or four friends in the car where all you really have to do is steer. It’s tough sometimes to balance the needs of flying the helicopter with the needs of the passengers. Especially when there's more than one. Especially when I’m busy with Air Traffic Control or navigating around some trick restricted airspace.
But the way we act outside of the cockpit is important too. Because of my close working relationship with the boss, I often accompany him to social and business events: dinners, meetings, parties…sometimes places I really have no business being. It is in these situations that it takes some skill to blend in. I’m not highly educated (no college), nor do I have the kind of money or business acumen as the people among whom I often find myself. So I don’t want to come off as a doofus or a boob. Even the best pilot in the world won’t be perceived that way if he dresses and acts like a barnstormer, a hippy or a Hell’s Angel. So I try to dress and act appropriately.
I’ve also heard pilots pontificating about everything from politics to religion and the economy as if they were some big expert. My boss, and the people he hangs out with really are the movers and shakers of our local economy here: real-estate tycoons, bank owners, heavy-hitters of industry and such – maybe not on a national level (although in some cases they are). These guys are successful like I only dream of being. There is likely very little I could tell them about…well, anything. It’s not that I “know my place,” but I know that people are probably not inclined to view me as an authority on anything but flying. So I keep my mouth shut (or try to). I listen to conversations and ask halfway-intelligent questions that keeps the conversation moving forward.
Also, I’ve known plenty of pilots who always want to steer conversations their way (some of us do love the limelight). Some pilots assume that everyone in the crowd wants to know all about our job. While it is true that people are fascinated by flying, they surely do not want to hear all the technical details. Yet I’ve heard pilots use aviation-specific jargon as if everyone in the crowd understands what terms like “Translational Lift” and “EFIS” and “Vortex Ring State" mean. There is a word for these types of people: Bore.
I absolutely do not tell aviation “war stories,” mostly because I don’t have many. I’ve lead a fairly – and thankfully - uneventful career as a pilot. I only give fairly general answers to specific questions. Only if someone presses for details I’ll give more.
“Bob, what’s up with those sticks you use? How come there are two? What do the the controls do? What are the pedals for?”
“Well, think of the rotor as one big spinning disk. The stick on the left is the power lever. It controls the total thrust that the rotor disk puts out. The one between my knees controls the tilt of the disk. And whichever way the disk is tilted is the direction the helicopter is going to go. So if I push forward on the stick, the helicopter moves forward. If I pull up on the power lever, we go faster – or climb. And since the helicopter can fly in any direction…forward, backward or sideways…I use the pedals to keep the nose pointed straight ahead.”
Simple, right? This explanation usually satisfies them. Sometimes not. Sometimes they want more. Here I have to be careful. The technicalities of how a helicopter rotor works can make a non-aviator’s eyes glaze over in a millisecond. If I’m talking to someone one-on-one I might go into some further detail. If I’m in a group I’ll usually just say, “It’s magic, man. Even I don’t know exactly how all that stuff works up there.” Everyone chuckles appreciatively and we move on to other subjects.
Throughout my career, I’ve never had to work so closely with my passengers as I do now. (In Honduras my passengers were typically never in the ship for more than the three minutes it took to go from the airport to our island. It was sort of the same situation as now.) In the past, like back when I was a charter pilot, passengers were usually anonymous paying customers whom I could tell to “…sit down, strap in and shut up, and I’ll tell you when it’s safe to get out.” Such an attitude in this job would’ve gotten me fired in my first week. Now I need a whole bunch of other skills that I hadn't really thought of.
They don’t teach pilots this stuff in flight school - don't teach you how to handle passengers and juggle all of the things that really should be going on behind the cockpit door. That knowledge must be obtained on our own, and in fact cannot really be taught. I wish it were all about my "mad flying skillz." But it's not. In the end, it comes down to being likeable. You either are or you aren’t, and not everybody is. So far, through some incredible stroke of luck, I've been able to fake it pretty well.
But I'm telling you, man, it's tough.