Question: When you’re in a room with other people, how can you tell if one of them is a pilot?
Answer: Simple. He’ll tell you.
Aviators are a proud lot, and with good reason. Ours is quite an exclusive club. Despite that fact, I’ve long believed that learning to fly actually has wide appeal among the general public. From my earliest days in the industry, those who discovered I was a pilot would invariably show great interest in my aeronautical activities. More often than not, I would come away from the conversation with the feeling that they were envious of my ability to defy gravity and soar with the birds.
The question then is why more individuals don’t (as they say at Nike) “just do it”. For starters, it requires a lot of money. Then there’s the logistics, the time commitment, and the challenge inherent in weaving one’s way through the modern flight training maze. Changes in instructors, weather delays, antiquated tests and teaching techniques, and so on. Many look skyward, but few take the bull by the horns and see that dream through to completion.
On the other hand, sometimes it’s those who are the least well equipped to succeed who make it to the finish line. Ward Welvaert, a professional contract and ferry pilot, recently wrote about how he taught a homeless man to fly:
Something was different about Patrick but I couldn’t quite figure out what it was. I was young(ish) and struggling to make a living as most all flight instructors do. I didn’t feel like it was my place to decide who should be taking flight instruction or who should not – as long as the person is safety oriented and shows good judgment. I don’t remember who told me but someone pulled me aside in the lobby of the FBO and asked if I knew Patrick was spending the nights sleeping in his car out in the airport parking lot. Apparently people had noticed Patrick sleeping in his car and asked if he was OK. Patrick seemed to be more comfortable talking to the line men and he had confided in one of them, told them he lived out of his car, he’d spend a week at the airport and then go to work as a road construction laborer for a few weeks. Every time he’d go away to work he’d save his money and then come back to the airport to fly.
Ward’s post reminded me of something I’d almost forgotten: that I too once taught a homeless person to fly. In my case, the student was a fairly young man in his early 20s who already held a private pilot certificate. James ended up on my schedule because he wanted to fly acro. At our first meeting, there was no immediate indication that he was at all different from any other student at the FBO. His clothing and mannerisms were completely conventional. He was quite energetic about the aerobatic course and talked at length about how the ultimate goal for him in aviation was always the freedom and excitement of all-attitude flying.
As with any new student, the process started with a bit of paperwork. When the forms were handed to me, I noticed he had left the “contact” section completely blank. No phone number, e-mail, or address. I asked about that and James said he didn’t have any of those things. He was couch-surfing in order to conserve every dollar possible for flying. He didn’t even own a car. This guy biked to the airport and worked in the pilot shop to earn money. How’s that for single-minded dedication?
Couch-surfing is not illegal. Nor is riding a bike or lacking a cell phone. So eventually the training began, and as I recall, James was a pleasant and upbeat personality in the cockpit, not to mention a good stick. Every CFI craves students like that. You know, the ones that make you look brilliant without having to do too much work?
Anyway, he was making respectable progress through the 10-12 flight hour course when suddenly things came to a screeching halt. He completely disappeared off the schedule, and despite asking around, I couldn’t figure out what happened to him. The guy just vanished into thin air. I was truly disappointed. Had my instruction been inadequate, I wondered? Did he finally run out of cash? Was he popped for selling meth or something?
It wasn’t until a month or two later that someone informed me that he’d heard James was hit by a car one day while riding his bike to the airport. The only reason they knew that much was because James had taken the time to call the pilot shop and say he wouldn’t be able to make it in to work. Nobody had details, like which hospital he’d been taken to or how badly he’d been hurt. That was as close as I ever got to figuring out where he went.
I’ve known other itinerant people, souls like kites who were simply meant to travel in whichever direction the wind carried them, but given the resources and support required for successful flight training, I was impressed with James’s dedication to a very challenging goal. It never entered his mind that it was unachievable, nor did I ever hear him complain about the lack of creature comforts in his life. He was flying, it made him happy, and that was all there was to it.
In retrospect, his status may have been an advantage because James had no family or financial commitments to consume his resources or energy. He didn’t have much, but everything he did have was directed toward flying.
I’ve no idea whether he ever completed aerobatic training, but unless that car seriously and permanently disabled him, I can’t imagine the answer would be “no”. It just wasn’t in his character to be deterred. How can you not admire that in a person?
James, like all memorable students, wasn’t just a learner but a teacher as well. He taught me a valuable lesson about persistence and dedication, two very American qualities which have become the exception rather than the rule in our society. Whenever someone tells me they could never possibly find the time or money to pursue flying — or any dream for that matter — I always think about James, and I know the truth: if there’s a will, there’s always a way.