Our Flying Family

Etihad Air Show

[Note: this is a guest post — the first ever here at the House of Rapp! — by Rob Burgon, an F-22 Raptor pilot and member of the Blogging in Formation team. You can read more of his writing at TallyOne.com.]


The weather couldn’t have been any better for flying. From 28,000 feet, and just a few miles east of Oklahoma City, I could practically see the runway at Fort Smith Regional Airport (KFSM) in Arkansas. It was a rare mission that allowed me to fly solo as instructor with a solo student as my wingman, and such was the mission today. On a typical sortie into KFSM, we would plan to fly VR-272, a low-level military training route that allows us to fly fast and low as we wind our way through a series of lush, rolling green hills. But the 500 knot fun would not happen today, not with a solo student on the wing. Regardless, this day would turn out to be a memorable one. It was on this glorious spring morning that I first met Dave and Race Burns, and learned something about my flying family.

I couldn’t help but smile as I surveyed the 360 degree view from the front end of my T-38C. Was someone really paying me to do this?! The VFR arrival into Ft. Smith was uneventful, and we had more than enough gas to “wow” a small cast of airfield workers with our closed traffic patterns. We finally put the wheels on the ground and taxied to the FBO. After shutting down the engines, I climbed down the ladder only to be enthusiastically greeted by a young boy waving an American flag. He and his father had seen us beating up the pattern and they practically ran to the airport to meet us.

It was immediately clear how much these two loved flying. They took a particular interest in fighter aviation (can I say I blame them?), but I perceived there was more to the equation. Father and son had found a common ground – they had a shared interest. It was their collective passion that deepened their family bond, and it got me thinking. As pilots, we all belong to a unique, supportive family of aviators who share a common passion.

t-38-ladder

The pilot community is a small one – roughly 0.2% of the U.S. population at the close of 2012 held an aeronautical certification. Although small, our family of flyers has an enormous socioeconomic impact on the general public. Not only do we get people and things where they need to go, but we help everyone have fun doing it. This country (and many others) has a fascination with flight that doesn’t stop with rated pilots. Air shows draw huge crowds no matter how small the airport. People instinctively look skyward when they hear the whine of a jet engine passing overhead. It’s in our nature to long for a place in the sky, and even though some airspace in the world may be contested, aviation can bring human beings together in impossible ways.

I have yet to find myself on a ramp where the other pilots are anything less than friendly and helpful. We look out for each other. You can walk up to a group of onlookers standing at the airfield fence, and you immediately have a group of new friends. Flying is innocent, it’s pure – it’s part physics and part miracle. Until humans grow wings, our fascination with aviation will never dull.

Once bound together by the glue of our airborne passion, we must look out for the other members of our family. The actor David Ogden Stiers (you may remember him from M.A.S.H.) once said, “Family means no one gets left behind, no one is forgotten.” That is the exact approach we must take with our flying family. The more experienced pilots need to take an interest in the “care and feeding” of newer, less experienced flyers. Those of us holding positions of authority within the aviation industry – be you a regulator or an economic engine – must work to ensure the sustainment of the entire family. (This is beginning to sound like a scene from The Godfather, but that’s kind of the point.)

Lil-E

Every year, our numbers dwindle. AOPA reported an estimated overall decrease of just over 200,000 active pilot certificate holders since 1980. We cannot afford to be anything but a unified family if we hope to continue our collective pursuit of flying bliss. From the military fighter pilot to the multi-thousand hour airline pilot, to the once-a-month Cessna 152 pilot, we all do the same thing: we take our lives in our hands and brazenly defy gravity. Just like a good wingman checks the six o’clock of his or her flight mate to ensure the enemy doesn’t attack from the aft hemisphere, so must we all watch each other’s backs.

The majority of names and faces I’ve encountered over the years will likely fade with time in my memory. But I will always remember Dave and Race. Just before I climbed the ladder that day to fire up the mighty twin GE J-85 engines, Race handed me a small flag with a handwritten note. “Thanks for your service.” I wanted to thank him for teaching me about my flying family, but I couldn’t find the words in the moment. Instead, I just smiled in approval of his heartfelt gift, shook his hand, and climbed into my supersonic chariot. So to Dave and Race, and my entire flying family, I’d like to say: “Thanks for joining the club – I’ve got your six.”

29 comments

  1. My wife always said that I could be on a nudie beach looking at the girls and hear an airplane overhead and I would look up at the plane. …..Jack

  2. I am honored to be reading the first ever guest post on House of Rapp

    “we take our lives in our hands and brazenly defy gravity. Just like a good wingman checks the six o’clock of his or her flight mate to ensure the enemy doesn’t attack from the aft hemisphere, so must we all watch each other’s backs.” Instant Comradery. I can’t tell you the number of times I have organized fly outs or fly ins or whatever you want to call them with people whom I’ve never met before. They agreed to go and meet just because we have one simple thing in common: A love of flying. I’ll never forget my first flight in a L-39. I thought to myself “this should be illegal or forbidden in any country or for any religion” Speaking of Porn, I must keep reminding myself to stop thinking of flying while I am being intimate :-)

    1. Yes, it’s an international thing, this flying. As I’ve been traveling more around the world I’ve noticed that languages and cultures change, but the way an airplane pulls one’s eyes and attention toward the sky does not.

    2. Graeme, I couldn’t agree with you more. The L-39’s a beautiful jet and although I’ve never flown it, I can relate to that feeling of “this should be illegal”!

  3. Well done!! As a pilot who loves all things aviation I can both relate to and appreciate this story. Thank you for the read. As a side, vacationing in Coronado, CA the beach is right under the extended centerline for North Island NAS. While we have literally thousands of pictures of our three daughters on that beach over the past 20 years, we have countless photos of anything from a banner-towing Cessna 150, converted Lear 25s, King Airs, C130s, and F15s on short final. The pictures serve as a screen saver on our Apple TV and we often find ourselves staring at the television in our family room reliving summers past. Inevitably the picture changes from sand and sea to aviation. My wife or one of the kids will always chime in with, “There’s another one of dad’s airplane pictures!”

    1. North Island is one of my favorite places to stop for gas! I can’t imagine living near it…that would be heaven on earth. Do you keep some of those photos online by any chance? Ron said it best: you have the perfect trifecta.

        1. Graeme traded one great location for another: he now lives near Long Beach Airport. LGB is home of the C-17, the most laid-back passenger terminal anywhere, and — my favorite — a major Gulfstream service center. I was there the other day to pick up a G-IV after a 24 month inspection and was impressed by how many G650s and other fun toys were on the ramp. Had to force myself not to “accidentally” step into the wrong airplane. :-)

      1. Hi Rob. I don’t currently have any of these up on the internet; however, I’ll be happy to look and see if I can get some up on flickr or something similar.

  4. Rob,

    Great post! You are spot on! We are all in this together and that is the only way we’ll avoid losing this precious gift.

    Brent

  5. Absolutely beautiful! And I had no idea on the decrease. Everything we can do to bring life back into aviation helps. Thanks for a beautiful post!

  6. Hi Rob
    Nice article, I just inquired about joining the Air Force, and they told me I am eligible, but I need to pass a few subjects and quite a few interviews to to be accepted into aircrew training. I realize its a long road (about 4yrsin Aust.) if I am accepted, but after seeing Karlene Petitt on YouTube I’m more determined to get through and if ppl tell me I can’t, I’ll prove them wrong as well
    I’d appreciate any tips from you as well if you have them
    Thanks
    Balana

    1. Balana, that’s the exact attitude you need to succeed in flying. I’m happy to help in whatever way I can. Please feel free to email me anytime: rob@TallyOne.com. Karlene is a great role model – you picked a great one! I wish you the best.

      1. Karlene is someone special and I enjoyed her book as well
        I only have to complete 2 subjects, which I didn’t at school .. a maths & physics subject before I’m considered for AirCrew training. All other relevant subjects completed.
        How old were you when you started, and how long was your training.?
        Don’t laugh but I’ve only have my 1st flight licence and can’t afford to go further so I’m hoping the RAAF will train me
        I’ve just turned 18 and it will prob take me years. They told me 4.
        Seems so far away though.
        Wish I could swallow a magic pill and become an F18 pilot haha.
        Although ATPL pilots go around the world and get paid more, its not for me.
        I want your job :)
        I’d like to stay in touch

        Balana

        1. Balana-
          I don’t think anyone is laughing. Rather they are impressed. I don’t know too many 18 year olds who have a pilot certificate. That in itself is a huge achievement. I myself had that until 6 months ago, and I am 33

  7. Excellent post, Rob. I grew up in FSM and got my PPL there, longer ago than I care to admit. One of the things I always loved about KFSM was the mix of military and GA traffic. Got to climb around on some seriously sweet aircraft more than a few times while I was wasting my youth at the local FBO. Great airfield, great people, and a great town!

    1. Being stuck outside the fence looking in is never ever wasted time, Chris. Its how dreams are molded, inspiration takes place, excitement builds and if you had a $220 Scanner from Radio Shack (kids these days will download a .99 cent “APP”) a WHOLE bunch of learning took place….

      No one ever needed to teach me how to talk on the radio. Also, apparently, my CFI learned the same way, since he came from Japan. Ron, you know who I am talking about, but did you know he went through a set of batteries per day? That’s eight hours of ATC audio, standing by the fence

      1. I know exactly who you’re talking about — and I’m not surprised at all. I admired his work ethic and dedication; he was teaching me things long before he ever became a CFI!

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