Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Plastic Pilot License

They may be more practical, but some of us miss the paper ones

PAST & PRESENT. In Budd’s worn wallet, his new license shares space with his tattered, beloved original.
My new plastic pilot license showed up in the mail the other day, and this is what I think: I don’t like it. It’s new and it’s very pretty, but it looks as if it should be used to buy socks or groceries, not fly. Basically, it has zero soul—it’s nothing like my original license, which oozes character. The new one hasn’t earned the right to be snuggled next to all the moldy stuff I keep in my wallet, and given its shiny, clean-cut appearance, it likely never will.

I was one of the last pilots in the country to convert to the plastic license, and I just barely made it under the deadline. This wasn’t procrastination: It was me not wanting to change something that had literally, and figuratively, molded itself to fit my wallet, my body and my life. My license (I refuse to call it “my old license”) may be a little tattered looking, but it earned its scars honestly.

For one thing, my “real” license has been through the wash far too many times. After the fact, I tried to protect it with “country-boy laminating” (that is, PVC packing tape), but the damage already had been done. However, I’d prefer to view the changes not as “damage,” but as patina that befits its age and experience.

The tired-looking certificate has shared a lot of experiences with me. For one thing, although it was last reissued with a new rating (Lockheed P-38) something like 13 years after I first received my private pilot license, that was still 39 years ago. So it predates my children, both of whom have given me grandbabies. It predates owning my first Pitts. It predates the AZ Redhead. And it predates the last two major geographical chapters of my life: New Jersey and Arizona.

It’s hard to quantify the different airplane types in which my yellowed, old permission-to-fly certificate has ridden—it’s at least 300—or how many thousands upon thousands of landings it has made.

Pilots truthfully can say that there are parts of us in our old cardboard licenses. This is courtesy of the sweat that works its way into them on summer flights. Our DNA is totally intermingled with the DNA of the trees that died so the license could be manufactured. An original license has karma because of the intertwining of lives, both plant and human, which gave it birth and then impregnated it with salty DNA. Plastic can’t have karma because…well…because it’s plastic.

I’m also not nuts about the new layout of the ticket. All of the good stuff gets hidden on the back. I like having my flying history, the endorsements and ratings, on the front rather than having to turn it over.

I heard someone complaining that the numbers are too hard to read (which I don’t agree with, by the way), but then, how many people actually look at their license for their pilot number except when filling out insurance forms? And no CFI has to look that number up—most of us have written it countless times in countless logbooks. For me, the habitual recitation of my pilot number has made me certain that it will be the very last thing to flicker through my brain as I die.


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