It's the end of April. And already it's time to go back up to Washington State. I leave in a couple of days. Funny, it's been six months but it seems like I just got home.
How does the time go by so quickly? I don't like that. It's one of the reasons I quit flying for Petroleum Helicopters Inc (PHI) back in 2001. What had started as a stint of "maybe six months" turned into thirteen years. The week-on/week-off schedule makes time literally fly. The years went by in the snap of a finger. And it was an enjoyable job for the most part - never drudgery. There wasn't any real reason to quit.
I had started with the PHI in 1987 at the age of thirty-three. The company had around 500 pilots, many of whom had been there since the mid-1970s when they came home from Viet Nam. I used to look at some of the "old-timers" (guys in their 50's) and think to myself, "Gee, I don't want to become them." I mean, no offense, but many of them considered flying in the Gulf of Mexico to be just any old job - nothing special about it. They'd show up at the beginning of the "hitch," do their seven days and then go home. Their interest in aviation outside of the company seemed to be zero. Very few of them considered it a hobby. Some acted as if they didn't even like flying. It was kind of dispiriting.
I lasted as long as I could. By 1995 I was ready to move on. But momentum is a funny thing. I was making "okay" money (for a single guy). I owned an airplane and a motorcycle. And as I said there was no real reason to quit. Plus, there wasn't anything else in aviation that I was burning to do, except maybe to go back and give sightseeing tours. I always enjoyed doing that.
Then I got wrapped up in a union organizational drive. Coming from New York City and seeing union abuses first-hand, I was at first leery and skeptical of a pilot's union. It's a long story, but eventually I came to believe that the PHI pilots needed and deserved a professional union (a view I still hold to this day). I thought that the pilots would want it...would want to run it and make it thrive and succeed. I didn't hate the company - I just wanted representation. I wanted a union like the successful one the pilots at Southwest Airlines Pilots had. And I felt we could achieve it. As usual, I was wrong.
It turned out that there were a number of PHI pilots who'd been there for a long time, who felt they'd been wronged by the company over the years and wanted revenge. There was a lot of sympathy among young and old pilots alike; we did get the union voted-in. Sadly, the resulting negotiations were not so much about crafting the best possible deal for both the pilots and the company, but rather a way of redressing all of the pay cuts, lost benefits and perceived slights that had occurred over the years. And yeah, we have to admit that there were many. We were so-called "at-will" employees who could...and often were...fired without good reason.
There were four of us on the Negotiating Committee. The prime mover/main guy had been involved in two other failed union "pushes" over the years. He found another disgruntled cohort in one of the other members of our committee. Together their attitude in creating and negotiating the contract was, "Screw the company." Let's just say there was dissension among our ranks. We did finally hammer out a contract with the company, but it was a painful and slow process. The company challenged every single item we proposed.
The two de facto leaders then ran together for President and Vice President. Of course they won. I had put my name in for Vice President but my heart was not in it. One night I received a testy phone call from one of the union head honchos in Washington D.C. "Are you running for Vice President or not?" he asked. I said I was. "Don't you want to win?"he asked snidely. Then gave me the details of what the other two guys were doing. Theirs was a platform of taking a hard-line with the company. It resonated with other pilots, many of whom were just as angry and bitter. I was more conciliatory and wanted to foster a good relationship with the company. I guess that's not possible for helicopter pilots. I realized that I had no chance against the two main guys.
But to be honest I did not care. By this time it was 2001. I had been with the company for thirteen years. I was forty-five years old, and I was tired of all the union bullshit. The flying was still fun but the job was not. I'd always promised myself that if it got to that point I'd quit. So I did. At the end of one "hitch" in January, I turned in my Operations Manual and ID card. "I'm done," I told my Area Manager, who was neither a union member or supporter. He weakly tried to talk me out of leaving, but we both knew it was for the best.
I didn't know what I was going to do, actually. I had some money saved up. I didn't know if I wanted to be a pilot for a living anymore. Strangely enough, other opportunities came along that I could not have predicted or even dreamed about. I've documented some of them in this blog. I don't know if I should have quit PHI sooner, but it has not worked out badly since. I reflect on this as I pack and take care of the final details of closing out this part of my life in advance of getting back on the road. It seems that I'm always on the road to somewhere.
The union muddled along for the term of the first contract. As I'd predicted, relations with the company were poor. PHI had been sold, and for the contract renegotiation the new owner decided to play hardball. Talks broke down and came to an impasse, and finally a federal mediator was called-in. Things got bad. The union president took a strike vote which returned a positive result. But instead of calling the strike right then he waited for six months, "for the right time." Well during that time, the company made other plans for covering their flights. They worked with customers and even competitors, and arranged for contract pilots to fly the ships. When the strike was finally called, the effect was minimal. Eventually the union gave in and called it off. Afterward, having "won," the company was not required to rehire the strikers if they had been replaced as most of them were. Some good pilots lost their jobs for nothing. In the end I felt vindicated, but hardly victorious.