December 21, 2010

Kids and Airplanes

I come from a long line of men obsessed with aviation and a slightly shorter list of women who support our love of the skies. One of my Grandfathers was a private pilot, the other was a B-25 Crew Chief in WWII and my own Father flew OV-1 Mohawks in Vietnam followed by a 32 year career with Delta Air Lines. There are even aviators on my wife’s side of the family with a Grandfather who flew for Braniff in the ‘50s and ‘60s before tragically passing away years before mandatory retirement. So, while a career in aviation was never pushed or even initially encouraged, it was no surprise to anyone that I developed a fascination with anything that flew at a very young age.

My earliest memories of airplanes are those of family vacations. I still remember the smells, colors, sounds and textures of my first flight like it was yesterday. I remember walking down the jet bridge with the high pitched whine of two JT8s spooling down at the gate next door surrounded by bright orange carpet and olive green, orange and red striped walls, horrendous mismatches today, were both in style and hip at the time. The aroma of jet exhaust combined with the odor of well used carpet and fresh brewed coffee with a gleaming Boeing 727 waiting, door ajar, at the end of the hall.

Of course, since my father was an employee of the airline, we were traveling as non-revs, non revenue that is, so we boarded at the last minute, taking the last few seats on the jet as I was pushed past the cockpit door that I so desperately wanted to enter. I remember my Dad’s words, words that we heard just about every time we flew…”sit still, keep your feet off the seats, and if you push the stewardess call button you’ll be sorry.” He was only kidding just a little and yes, it was ok to call them stewardesses back then.

We flew often and my early memories of flying mesh together a bit, but one of my favorites is that of a trip my Dad took me on when I was only 10. He was a Boeing 727 First Officer and he had a long layover in Portland, Oregon. The loads were light both directions so he elected to take me along. There were dangers involved for a crew member taking a child to work. If the flight had unexpectedly filled up, as they often do, Dad would still have to work the flight and would be forced to leave me behind. With this in mind, Dad waited until he thought I was old enough to handle being left before taking me on my first trip, and he always made arrangements ahead of time for a gate agent to help me to the next flight home if there wasn’t a seat for me at departure time.

As it turns out, the flights to and from Portland were only half full and I had no trouble getting on. Once we arrived, Dad rented a car and we spent the day driving up the Columbia River Gorge, stopping at many of the waterfalls and hiking paths along the way and drove around Mt. Hood before heading back to the city. The flight home was an all-nighter, leaving Portland around midnight and arriving Dallas, Ft. Worth International Airport at about 5:30 am. I remember that Dad was able to take me down to the jet before the rest of the passengers…I got the tour of the cockpit that I had missed on my first flight and even got to help set up the cockpit before departure. The flight attendants put me to work on the way home and I helped them pass out drinks and serve the passengers on the flight home. I think my Dad has always been secretly pleased that I chose the cockpit job over the one in the cabin.

Having first hand knowledge of the impact these early experiences have on young boys and girls, I’ve always taken great joy in extending invitations to visit the cockpit to children of all ages. I usually take the time to explain some of the basic systems, activate lights and aural warnings and if the parent is present, allow the child to sit in my lap and manipulate the flight controls. Of course pictures are always in order with a pilot’s hat on their head and the cockpit as the perfect backdrop.

On a recent trip, I found my self covering the balance of a trip for a pilot who had gotten sick half way through his sequence. Crew Schedule caught me at home and I knew I was in trouble when the lead off question was “how fast can you get to the airport?” On day two of the trip, I worked an early morning flight from Minneapolis to Chicago then deadheaded home on a flight to Dallas. The original trip had been assigned to a Chicago based pilot, so once we arrived at ORD, the trip was over and I rode as a passenger on a flight home.

As I boarded the flight, I was standing in line with a man and his wife and their three boys, the oldest of which appeared to be about 10 years old. The flight was running behind, so the boys would have to forgo a trip to the cockpit, but they seemed content tossing a barrage of questions in my direction as we made our way to our seats. As it turned out the boys sat right behind me and before I knew it, we were airborne and I was on my knees facing their direction to better facilitate what became an hour long question and answer session. I like your hat…can I wear your hat? Where’s hour coat? Can I wear that too? How fast are we going? How high are we? Can I have a pair of wings like yours?

That last question is one I get a lot. Sadly, during the post 9/11 era of red ink and bankruptcy filings, many airlines including this one, chose to eliminate plastic wings for children, a decision that probably saved them at least 25 cents. I’m not ignorant enough to believe that someone would chose one airline over another based on Junior Pilot Wings, but I do believe that making people and especially their children feel welcomed by the airline is just good business. With this in mind, I’ve scoured the internet over the years and have always been able to keep a stash of wings in my kit bag for just such an occasion. I don’t have enough to give a pair to every child who boards the jet, but if they know enough to ask, I don’t want to disappoint. It’s a little thing…but it makes a difference.

So, I got my kit bag down out of the overhead bin and started digging around. I asked one of the boys to hold my flashlight and another held one of my flight manuals. I knew where the wings were, but the boys seemed so excited to be delving through the depths of my bag that I couldn’t resist playing around a bit more. I pulled out three pair of wings, one for each of my new friends and with their parent’s consent, pinned them all on in the appropriate location. I wish you could have seen their faces. It was such a small thing…I think I spent less than $2 on ebay for this particular bag of wings, but you would have thought I had handed them a bar of gold. All three boys seemed grateful and admired their new possessions, but the wings didn’t even put a dent in the number or frequency of questions coming my way. I took great joy in being a small part of what I hope was a grand first aviation memory for these three young boys.

I know for a fact, that I got as much out of the encounter as they did. I love my job.


  1. What an awesome walk down memory lane...I could almost see, smell, and touch the airplanes...I have such a similar story.

  2. wonderful! And I bet one of those kids will grow up and become a pilot.

  3. Kudos to you for remembering and caring. (I got the kudos for free on the Internet. In the spirit of Christmas, I am re-gifting them....)

  4. My father was a senior executive with Braniff International through all of the 1970's. Since my parents were divoced and my mother lived in PDX, I flew 1 or 2 times to PDX each month on Braniff's friday evening flights returning on sundays.

    I was fortunate enough to have my own POS A flight pass although family rules stated that I went to the back of the bus if there was no 1st class availability and that I stayed behind if a flight was full. But I have to say that I miss having that flight pass. How many kids had a stack of ticket stock of their own imprinted and ready to write out their own ticket to wherever they needed to go at age 13?

    If a flight attedant crew was extra busy, we were to offer to assist in any way we could although I can remember only one crew taking us up on the offer.

    I loved those PDX flights and still do. I remember Mt. St. Helens erupting (before the big one) literally as our 727-200 flex just to the west of the mountain and getting dozens of photos of the event. Sadly, someone stole that camera before I exited the aircraft.

    Loved your story and thanks for stirring the memories.

  5. Great post!

    Being a father of five, I particularly love when kids come up to visit the cockpit. After all, my love for airplanes started with a tour of an Eastern Airlines cockpit back in the early 80s.

    I always joke with the kids, let them sit in the seat and turn on all the lights. As you mentioned, wings are a must.

    But, I've noticed recently I've stopped asking if they want to be pilots. Subconsciously, I would feel guilt saying anything to lead a child into this career.

    That makes me sad. I love being an airline pilot more than anyone. But, after everything I've been through the last fourteen years, it just doesn't seem right to influence a child to chase this dream.

    Always enjoy reading your posts!

  6. And it is the little things that matter, I collect old airline collectibles (sticker,pins,shot glasses etc), all those small manageable things, and my favorite, the different airline wing pins!! those boys will not forget that flight or lose those pins. This sickening P.C. world we live in,leaves very little room for being genuine...without so much thought of possible backlash!!!! Thank you Captain for the Lovely story!!!!!!!