This very short flight has been coming for a long time. It was maybe three years ago that I met my friends Gary and Kathy at a local Parrothead (international group of Jimmy Buffett fans) club meeting. Pretty much from the start, Gary mentioned that he’d only flown once before in his life, and Kathy lamented that because of his fear of flying, they could only go on cruises for vacation even though she wanted to be able to fly sometimes. She’s flown many times, but his one flight in all his 60-some years was it. And he HAD to do that one or lose his job. Oh and I should mention that one flight was 30 years ago.
Well over the years of knowing Gary and Kathy and becoming good friends with them, Gary would say that if he ever went flying again, it would be with me since he trusted me. I had already flown his daughter and her boyfriend years ago, so he trusted me with his daughter, too. Each time he’d mention possibly flying with me, I always said to just call me whenever he was ready. I never want to force someone to fly if they really don’t want to, but he seemed to want to. Kathy would catch me alone at the Parrothead meetings and ask when I thought I could take him flying, and we often schemed about the best way to approach it.
I had asked a couple of times in the past, but they were busy. Finally, I had a free Sunday coming up and nowhere to fly. I texted Kathy to ask if they’d be free on Sunday. She said they would be. I asked when she thought I should text Gary to ask if he wanted to go for a short flight, knowing if I gave him the whole week to fret about it, he’d psyche himself out. We decided I’d text him on Friday, which I did. He thanked me and admitted he was nervous about it. I told him that’s to be expected and suggested that before we fly, we can walk around the airplane while I explain how things work. I’ve found this often helps people’s fears when they understand how an airplane moves and why we do what we do. I also said I’d be explaining things in flight too.
On Sunday, I left early to allow plenty of time for a thorough preflight. As I was starting my preflight, I got a text from Kathy. “Oh I hope he’s not scared and backing out,” I thought as I pulled my phone from my pocket. She said he was nervous but wanted us to be firm with him if we needed to. But there really was no need! I taxied over to the terminal building to pick them up, and they were sitting inside looking cool and calm. As we walked out to Big Chief, I asked Gary if he wanted me to explain things to him first or if he’d rather just jump in and get it over with. He said “Let’s go ahead.” I got Kathy situated in a back seat quickly since I knew time was of the essence in Gary not getting too nervous. Once she was sitting comfortably in back, I walked around to the front with Gary, climbed in, and he climbed into the copilot seat.
Kathy was busy taking pictures from the back seat as I went through the start checklist, started both engines, and taxied to the runway. I did a run up, explaining things as I went through the checklist, and then asked if they were ready.
A pilot never knows how a nervous passenger will react to flight. I’ve heard horror stories of a terrified passenger grabbing the controls with a death grip. I’ve had my share of nervous passengers, but most of them just talked nervously or gripped the door handle with a death grip. I had one who told his family, who came to the airport to watch him take his first flight ever, where his will was located, convinced he’d die. But by the time we got up to 1,000 feet high with a view of the city, he was so excited and yelled “I wanna buy a plane and I want you to be my pilot!” You just never know what you’re gonna get with a nervous flier. So I hadn’t slept particularly well the night before, worried that he’d back out or that he’d hate the flight and never want to fly again. But when I glanced over at Gary before advancing the throttles, he didn’t have a look of sheer terror. I could hear him breathing a little heavier than normal over the headset, but he looked ready. “Okay, here we go!” I said as I pushed the throttles forward. We broke ground and he still seemed okay. We had taken off to the north, so I started my turn south towards the city and remarked how pretty the airport looked jutting out into the lake with the city skyline in the background. We were up at 1,500 feet in no time, and I retarded the throttles to keep us at that altitude and to slow us down so we could enjoy all the landmarks I point out as we fly clockwise around the city. Normally, on a city tour, I do two loops around since there’s so much to see, but I told him I’d ask if he wanted to keep going after the first loop. He was taking pictures and video as I pointed out the French Quarter, Aquarium of the Americas, GNO bridge, Superdome, Port of New Orleans, St. Charles Avenue, Tchoupitoulas, Loyola, Tulane, Audubon Park, the cemeteries, Xavier, and the Fair Grounds where Jazz Fest is held. It’s about then that I need to either head back to the airport or start another loop. So I asked Gary which he preferred. He said “I’m okay, but let’s go back.” And he did sound okay. This was a major step for him, and there was no need for another five minute loop. “Okay, down in less than five minutes,” I told him to reassure him we were close.
I made sure to make a smooth touchdown and slowly braked to exit the runway. As soon as I passed the hold short line, I stopped the plane and stuck out my hand to shake Gary’s hand. “You did it!” I said as he took my hand. He had a bit of a bewildered look on his face, but I could also tell he was proud that he’d finally done it again after 30 years. From then until we were seated for lunch, he pretty much talked nervously non-stop, and he caught himself doing it a few times, but I told him it was to be expected. We shared a nice lunch in the terminal building, and every few minutes he’d stop and say “It still hasn’t sunk in yet. I can’t believe I did it!” And you could tell he was so proud. Kathy kept taking my hand under the table and holding it and shaking it with glee. Gary said that he would definitely take another flight soon, this time slightly longer, to build up his confidence even more. And they both kept saying all through lunch that I’d changed their lives.
It’s not often you can say with 100% certainty that you changed someone’s life. Sure, I, like most other pilots I know, often take friends, friends of friends, or even total strangers flying in hopes that it’ll spark an interest in taking flying lessons. And a fair share of people I’ve taken flying have signed up for lessons, but usually the interest was there already and I just helped them along. So to know I’ve changed two lives in such a short flight really is the best kind of reward for me. They left smiling and proud.
The next day they both texted again to thank me, and Gary sent me a picture of us standing in front of my plane that he had made into an 8×10 that he keeps on his desk now. He also sent me a card with the sweetest note written on it saying how much I’d changed their lives and they’re already talking about taking a short trip on an airline. That card is now hanging prominently on the bulletin board in my hangar. These are the best kind of rewards we as pilots can ever get.