The Periodic Plebeian Pilot
By Sam Longo AME A&P
When queried about my career as an Aircraft Maintenance Engineer in casual conversations, people regularly ask if I am also a pilot. My negative response usually surprises and disappoints them as the sparkle of flight fades from their eyes.
In the public eye, airplanes are fascinating machines, so by association the people that get to fly them seem exciting and glamorous. The poor sods that merely repair them are relegated to a sort of necessary evil purgatory on the fringes of all that adventurous airborne excitement.
As a young lad my own passion for aviation was intense. I read everything I could get my hands on about aircraft and flying. I doodled dogfights on my notebook covers as my eyes glazed over in French class and often rode long distances on my bicycle, just to hang out at airports. Unfortunately my dream of becoming a pilot was dashed by my lazy right eye. Undaunted I decided to follow in the footsteps of my Uncle John and do the next best thing, become the guy that fixes them. That career choice was a good one for me and I have no regrets. It also provided a few fortuitous opportunities to take the controls of various aircraft as a rather ungifted periodic pilot.
My first offer to take the controls of an aircraft in flight was as a young apprentice mechanic at Nordair. An older AME/pilot took myself and a few other mechanics up in a rented Cessna Cardinal RG. He graciously let me take the controls as we followed the gentle bends of the Ottawa River, with me struggling to coordinate smooth rudder and aileron control while keeping altitude and airspeed in check. Fifteen tense minutes later, I was more than happy to resume my sightseeing-passenger status.
My next chance to play pilot was in a Piper Cub on floats in the northern Quebec mining town of Chibougamau. As detailed in a previous column (Chibougamau, I Do) my good friends father-in-law took me for a flight and insisted I take the controls to appreciate how beautifully his refurbished Cub handled aloft. Being polite, I obliged and the plane flew along splendidly, especially when I left it to it own well-trimmed devices. The beauty of high wing aircraft is their inherent stability. They really fly quite nicely if you just leave the control stick and rudder pedals alone!
A few years later while working at Air Canada another fellow mechanic had his own Cessna 172 and consequently I once again had a few more chances to try my hand at piloting. Nothing as exciting or dangerous as take-offs or landings, but more time to flail around the sky attempting to hone my minimal skills at coordinating turns and flying a specific course and heading. Despite my periodic wanna-be pilot status, I was beginning to enjoy the time spent aloft and considered myself fortunate to have the opportunity to be a freeloading fringe flyer.
My most recent chance to be a reluctant copilot was in a superbly built Seawind amphibian aircraft. Its owner and pilot (another ex-Air Canada Technician) expertly fabricated its composite construction. The performance and climb rate out of Buttonville Airport was truly impressive. The demo flight took us down to the Toronto Island Airport as I took the controls for a short stretch, while casually following the clogged traffic stream on the Don Valley Parkway below. With permission from the Island Traffic Controller and now under the masterful command of the “real” pilot we did a tight circuit around the CN Tower. I could almost read the menu in the CN Towers Revolving Restaurant! We then got permission for a touch and go water landing in the inner harbor. All things considered, a truly pleasant experience with a little more yoke time for me before we touched down back at Buttonville.
So as you can see the title of this column accurately proclaims my personal reality in terms of piloting aircraft. I am below low in the social status of true pilots and my skill in that arena is best described as unrefined, the absolute definition of plebeian. Despite my on again, off again thoughts of pursuing my private pilots license, now that I have the time to do so, I’m just not convinced it would be worthwhile. Despite the disappointment generated in the public view of me as only a lowly, knuckle-dragging mechanic, in the grand scheme of things being a periodic plebeian pilot is just right for me. The cost to do it for real is prohibitive and it would certainly curtail cash flow for all my other ongoing hobbies.
I say, let the true pilots have all the glory. God knows they deserve it. I have always been proud to be the quiet guy toiling away on the hangar floor fixing all the stuff they break. I suppose I will always be more comfortable with a wrench in my hand rather than a control yoke. Still, life is a funny thing and you just never know what the future holds.
For more published writing by Sam Longo go to www.samlongo.com