[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.
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.)
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.”