We’ve all seen that “annoying” ramp kid who wants to do nothing but talk about your airplane. Even if you’re trying to make a quick turn for an important client, this kid just wants to ask about your plane. Well, that annoying kid working the ramp was me. If I’d just gotten done putting gas in your aircraft, I would stick around and ask questions until the moment you closed the doors and started the engines. It was a wonder I didn’t hang onto the strut, still shouting questions as the plane taxied away.
After getting my private pilot’s license, I finally felt as though I had a connection with those lucky people who got to fly for a living. As I built hours and experience, I started to have more and more in common with the other corporate pilots I saw. However, nothing could have prepared me for what occurred during a simple cross-country flight I flew one night.
It was an uncomplicated route from our university airport in Virginia down to Charleston. Nothing fancy, no IFR flight plan, all autopilot flying, time to sit back and enjoy the scenery. It was supposed to be just me and my instructor, Brandon, who was only a year older than me and a senior in college. Right before heading out to the airplane, Brandon asked if one of his best friends, Conner, could ride in the back seat. The more, the merrier, I thought, and before I knew it, we were heading out to the airplane. The sky was clear and the sun was still warm as we departed on our late Sunday afternoon flight. Direct To and we were on our way. On cross-country flights, I loved to listen to ATC and wanted someday just to sound like everyone else. As we descended into Charleston, South Carolina, I couldn’t help but stare at the C-17 waiting to take off after our little Piper Seminole touched down. The taxi to the FBO was past Citations, Learjets, Falcons; you name it, it was there. In the back of my mind, I knew that someday that would be me.
Inside the FBO, all the pilots looked clean and polished. Stories of trips to the West Coast and even “across the pond” filled the room. And then there were the three of us, a trio of 20-something college students whose most exciting stories were about when air traffic control needed us to move to a different practice area.
Back from dinner, we noted the ramp lit up by lamp posts around the tarmac gave us just enough light to start preflighting for the flight back to college. I was just about to start my walk-around when I heard the roar of a jet engine approaching. Like typical plane spotters, three heads looked up to see a Challenger 600 taxiing in. We couldn’t take our eyes off of the sleek black-and-silver aircraft parking. Before the door dropped open, two black SUVs approached the aircraft, ready to pick up whoever was onboard. Still needing to preflight, the three of us just kept staring. I’m sure, from the cockpit of the Challenger, the pilots knew people were watching. The SUVs left after about 15 minutes of sitting on the ramp.
“The logo on the tail says Racing.” Conner said, trying to get a picture of the aircraft. I looked at Brandon as we both shrugged our shoulders. I walked out, trying to get a better look. As I made out the tail logo, my jaw hit the ramp. It was a NASCAR jet. The people that we had seen getting off and being whisked away were NASCAR drivers coming back from a race. Being a huge NASCAR fan, I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.
“It’s a NASCAR driver!” Luckily my shout couldn’t be heard over the roar of the APU from the Challenger. By that phase in my life, I didn’t want to be that kid anymore.
“I wanna talk to the pilots,” Conner turned around and said. Now, working ramp for a couple summers, I knew that the bigger the aircraft, and more important the passengers, the less the pilots wanted to be bothered.
“Hold on a sec, Conner,” I said. “These aren’t your usual charter pilots; these guys are flying superstars around.”
Conner persisted. “It will be quick,” he said as he started to walk toward the 600. As we got closer to the sleek jet, one of the pilots noticed us and started approaching. His clean, pressed slacks and tucked-in team polo shirt showed that he meant business.
“Can I help you boys with something?” He stared at us, trying to figure why we would come over.
“Uh,” Conner was trying to find the words to say, “We just wanted to get a picture of your jet, sir.” My instructor and I stood silent waiting for a reply.
“You want to see inside?” the pilot asked, pointing toward the door.
“Are you serious?!” I yelled, to myself, luckily, and just like that, he was offering a private tour of an aircraft that we could only dream of even seeing never mind getting into. As we climbed aboard, we were offered seats in the back. The other pilot was in the back cleaning as our tour guide started talking. The three of us sat back and tried to soak it all in. Nothing could have ever prepared us for this. I couldn’t believe what I was doing. Our pilot explained that they were coming back from a race and there were three or four drivers and their girlfriends who would be onboard. Walking to the back, just to see what the bathroom on a $26 million jet looked like, I had to ask the question.
“So, how did you get a job working for a NASCAR team?” The pilot had just popped open a can of soda as he chuckled.
“Funny story. Twenty years ago, I was flying a Baron charter to a college football game. Sitting in the pilot lounge, I got to talking to another pilot, who asked if I wanted to help him get his plane ready. We walked out onto the ramp and come to find out it was a Gulfstream IV. We exchanged contact information, and six months later I got an email saying that there was a flight department that he had heard about from a friend’s brother that was hiring. I went through the pipeline and got an application in. Now, welcome aboard.”
I was awestruck. Someone had shared with him a tour of an aircraft and now, because of that, I had the opportunity to see the inside of a jet that was owned by one of my favorite athletes. After 45 minutes of getting to just sit back and talk to two pilots who went out of their way to show us around, including a tour of the cockpit, we needed to get going. A quick handshake and nothing but thanks for letting us see inside the Challenger, and we were headed down the stairs.
“Real quick,” I looked back at the pilot. “Any career advice?” He said always, always, always share what you do with others. Don’t let anyone walk away from an airplane unhappy. I smiled and thanked him again and started walking back to my little Piper Seminole. The flight back was laughter and smiles all around from our surprise tour. Even writing this, I cannot help but smile reflecting back on what happened.
I still don’t have a commercial ticket—just a dream of flying professionally someday—but what that pilot said to me that night will never leave me. The dream of flying will only be fulfilled by a few lucky people. For everyone else, they can only look skyward. It is important for us as a community of pilots to reach out to anyone who wants to see around the airplane, no matter what our schedule is. It will never hurt to offer a tour or even to answer questions to prospective pilots and aviation fans alike. The job of a pilot is never just a job. It’s a passion and a dream. The world below looks at the captain’s bars and only dreams of maybe, maybe wearing them. Even becoming a GA pilot cannot be fulfilled by everyone.
Earlier last summer, I was refueling a 150 I rented when I noticed a small child, probably not even 6, standing by a fence with his parents, watching. After topping off and putting the fuel hose away, I walked over. “You want to sit inside?” The child’s eyes lit up as his parents sat him in the left seat. Looking back, I know I looked the same way sitting in the left seat of the Challenger. I was just an annoying airport punk who wanted to talk to a pilot. That pilot shared his passion with me, and I will never be the same. That should be the real mission of pilots—to share their passion with others.
Have you had a close call or a cool aviation experience that left a lasting impression? We’d love to share your story in the magazine! We’re looking for stories that are between 1,100 and 1,500 words long that tell a great story. If you’re interested, you can always write us a note outlining your experience and we’ll get back to you right away. The pay is small potatoes, $101, but if your story is chosen, you’ll get to work with our great illustrator Gabriel Campanario and have him bring your memory to life.
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