Like Riding A Bike

Some years ago, after spending decades hanging in the sky providing pilot services for boxes, checks, folks, and serving as Director of Operations and Chief Pilot for several small charter carriers, my life took a severe left turn. It wasn’t so much that I was out of love with aviation; it was more that it seemed that the fun had gone out of flying and I had a real driving need to stay home and try to be a bit more; well, “normal.” Dealing with the endless mounds of record keeping and the constant oversight of planes, maintenance and pilots had left me smoldering if not altogether burned out.

I had seen other friends of mine work for years at jobs they really didn’t care for and so I thought that if I could find a way to work for myself that would be just the sort of thing that would keep me going while allowing me to step back from what I was seeing as a stressful existence. Years of hard IFR, heavy weather and the ever watchful eye of big brother had me painting myself a utopian picture of life on my own as my own boss. I pictured myself relaxed and happy and absorbed in my new venture.

They say that if you can visualize what it is that you want to do you can fit yourself into that role and succeed. And that is precisely what I did. I knew a thing or two about real-estate and I knew a thing or two about construction and so I reasoned that working on my own and having my own home inspection business would be a gas. I would have no boss. I could work regular hours. My phone would no longer ring in the middle of the night. And best of all, I would have no employees, no pilots to watch over, and no FAA to deal with. How in the world I could have painted myself such a rosy picture of such a dismal business is beyond me. 5_1 All I know is that after 14-15 years I have come to feel that the business, which is arguably simple and undemanding, is really very stressful and unrewarding. The phone still rings at all hours of the night and everybody is always watching. Perhaps this falls under the “all that glitters is not gold” axiom but I feel I have severely deceived myself!

It is true that I don’t have “a boss.” I have hundreds of them per year. Every customer is my boss. Every boss has a different set of requirements. Despite the fact that I am in charge of my own business, everyone I work with has the expectation that they should be allowed to drive my boat. What’s that old saying? The customer is always right? Well they are not, but I still have to make them feel like they are.

I hate to say that I miss the good old days but I do miss many parts of them. I still keep an airplane but I find that I spend less and less time sitting in that left seat doing that which I loved so deeply for decades. What is the point of having a decent airplane in a hangar of all it does is sit there?

Still, there are those occasions when I simply disappear. When the rat race becomes too much to deal with; when the phone with the ridiculous demands it brings simply will not stop ringing; I sometimes sneak away for a little quiet time with the Mooney. When things get really wound up, the Mooney beckons me to “come fly away.” Lately it seems that those calls come more often. And I am beginning to believe that for my own health I should obey them.

5_2I keep a small cabin in the outback of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and by Mooney is but a mere hour and a half from my life span to get there. The idea of escaping the madness for even a couple of days can be easily realized and is often welcomed. I can remember flying about the state with my old instructor and marveling at the fact that he knew all the frequencies and nav aids by heart. I wondered if I would ever get to that level. I wondered if I would ever be so comfortable flying in Michigan that it all came to me sort of automatically. Years later it is my turn.

The Mooney waits for me under cover. I need but one light bag to make a worthwhile journey. With the advent of ForeFlight I can file and brief from my small office at the airport in just minutes and the prop can be spinning at climb RPM in less than half an hour. Once the gear handle is thrown and climb checks completed the worry and stress of the week can be felt draining from my body. Like riding a bike, it all comes back rapidly. Frequencies fall to hand easily. Radio work is a pleasure. And it is just those few minutes it takes for me to transport myself back to the most comfortable place in my life. Soon the friendly brotherhood is on the airwaves as I check in with Minneapolis center. I fly this route often in the summer months and the boys in the darkened room with their faces pressed against their screens are familiar with my N-number and destination. It feels much like entering the local watering hole where everybody knows your name. Everyone is friendly and helpful even in the worst of weather and will do whatever they can to assure that I am having a good trip. I often wonder if they get the same kick out of me making this trip as they would if they were making it themselves. Typically, once I cancel I get a warm “have a great weekend” or “talk to you Monday” sign off from them.

I remember flying in Florida years ago when I worked with Jacksonville Center almost daily. They knew by flight number what company I was with and where I was going, but they knew by voice that it was me. Same great attitude, same brotherhood. What a great way to spend a big portion of your life.

In Hawaii, the last positon prior to the decision to work for myself, I used to call the briefer at 5 in the morning and file seven canned flight plans for the start of the day. I found out through a bit of idle chatter that he too was from Michigan. A great friendship sprouted that day though we never ever actually met each other. After we became “phone buddies” I used to call with a flight number for a briefing and he would say things like, “There’s nothing out there. Which flight plan would you like to start with?” Does life really get any better than that? You become great friends and rely on someone you have never met.

I have transported myself all too quickly through time and as I get “feet dry” coming off Lake Michigan I nudge the fella at Minnie Center for the beginning of my let down. Although I have the destination weather, he provides it to me again simply because he’s worked with me before and likes his job. Weather this day is fine and I cancel well out from the airport. With the autopilot off and the descent under way we say our goodbyes. “Have a great weekend,” he says. “Talk to you Monday,” I reply. Do I really know how lucky I am? Yeah, I think I do. And I miss the brotherhood all the more.

Tom Speerstra

Author: Tom Speerstra

Tom Speerstra has had an enduring love affair with aviation for over 40 years. Countless adventures have been enjoyed flying students, people, paper, and parcels in everything from Champs to Citations. He has held positions as both Chief Pilot and Director of Operations for Part 135 carriers and holds an ATP, MEII, SES ratings and a Citation type rating. Tom makes his home in Michigan with his wife Elizabeth and Pappy “the dog” Boyington.