Marty and Tom

Capt. W. Patrick Gordon, M.Sc.
(Purchased by Business & Commercial Aviation in 1986 but, to my knowledge, it has never been printed. It’s still one of my favorites because I think it addresses a very real problem.)

You would have liked Marty. Everyone did. He was young, ambitious and charming. Someone once said about him, “He could charm the birds out of the trees.” I liked that. He really could. He was confident, too. He had an aviation related Master’s degree from Embry Riddle, a really sweet wife and a darling little girl. When I knew him, he worked long hours at low pay building time as a flight instructor/charter pilot. He tried so hard to please, that after a customer flew with him once he always asked for him again.

As careers do in this industry, ours drifted apart. I went off to Nashville and he went through a couple of jobs as corporate pilot on light twins. Finally, a company he was with made it big with enough money to get a used jet and Marty went to school again. He loved the airplane and he transitioned easily and quickly. The last time I talked to him, all was well. God was in his heaven and Marty was nearly there himself. His boss was nice, the plane was great, paychecks cleared the bank and his family was fine.

I never talked to Marty again. The next thing I heard of him, he was dead. Spread over an acre or so of forest down South somewhere. Perhaps he had tried too hard to please. He had attempted a circling Non Directional Beacon NDB approach to minimums, at a strange airport in the middle of the woods. He still wasn’t very familiar with the new airplane, but the boss had wanted to attend an important meeting at a hunting lodge.

Now Tom is something else again. He flies an impressive hunk of iron here in the Middle East and is a study in arrogance. Don’t get me wrong. I like Tom, I just couldn’t stand to work with him. A personality change seems to come over him when he puts on his uniform to go to work. (Unlike most Stateside corporate operations, we wear uniforms over here for easier access to the aircraft.) I imagine Tom getting dressed to go to work with Mexican bull fighting music playing in the background.  He manages to talk down to everyone, including Air Traffic Control. (I don’t know how he gets away with that!) He forgets that the little Pakistani loading baggage for him and the mechanic sweating in the heat are trying to make a living just like he is. Tom’s boss is wealthy and influential; ergo, Tom is too.

Both Marty and Tom, in different ways, are victims of a trap peculiar to corporate aviation. We, as pilots are, first of all, technicians. We’re trained to take a piece of equipment and its contents safely from point A to point B. That’s all you have to ever do to have a successful career as an airline pilot. But corporate pilots can expand on that basic foundation. They can include administration, public relations and knowledge of the likes and dislikes of the principal passengers. They then incorporate all that into the flight, within the realm of safety.

In a way, airline pilots are lucky. They are the purists of the aviation industry. They are not “tainted” by continual exposure to the same passengers. On the other hand they do not enjoy the opportunity of developing a close relationship with the people they fly. This relationship, in corporate aviation, is nearly inevitable. The handling of this relationship is critical to the success of a career and the marinating of self. Just who the hell are you? 

Wealth and power are relative. A big shooter in New York may own a Gulfstream or converted Boeing, while a big shooter in Farmington, Mo. may own a Beechcraft Baron. Pilots can react in two diametrically opposed ways to this exposure. They can become enamored; awed by it, or feel they too are blessed by these traits through proximity.

We’ll never know, but perhaps Marty was in awe, or at least too grateful and eager to please. Tom? We’ll probably never know about him either because it’s far too personal to ask, “Why are you such a jerk?”

It therefore becomes a problem of self-appraisal, and self-appraisal can easily be overlooked in the pressure of flight schedules, recurrent training and family duties. We must, in the interest of our own happiness and satisfaction, occasionally ask ourselves if we are still striking a balance between the two extremes of awe and arrogance.

Marty, I miss you.
(Although real people, Marty and Tom’s names have been changed to avoid embarrassment to themselves, their families and me.)