I’d walk in the front door of my grandparents’ house with butterflies in my stomach and laughter held tight in the back of my throat, because I knew my Uncle Tom was waiting. My uncle was a professional wrestling fan, and his favorite wrestler at the moment was “The Claw” (aka Baron von Raschke). He’d wait until I had enough food to bust a zipper and, then, from across the room, I’d hear the deep, infamous words, “I am ordered to win! I must win…I will win!” And, with that, he’d wrestle me to the ground and tickle me until I could hardly breathe. He’d tell me to beg for mercy, but I’d always refuse. He’d threaten that “The Claw” would end the match, yet I refused to give in. At the moment when I was laughing so hard that I had tears rolling down my cheeks, he would apply “The Claw” to my stomach muscles. When my bladder finally threatened to release its contents, I’d relent and beg for mercy. He’d stand up with arms raised in victory, and in his best fake German accent, he’d end the scene by saying, “Dat is all da people need to know.” My revenge on him would take 20 years, but it was sweet. I got to be a pilot for a professional wrestling team, flying a Boeing 727-200. My uncle was in awe—not that I was a pilot, but that I got to fly professional wrestlers around the country.
One of the trade-offs for the crazy schedules at an FAA Part 121 supplemental carrier who provided both scheduled and nonscheduled flights was that in between the mundane scheduled flights, I’d suddenly find myself in the most unusual places. The company I worked for provided contract charter services to professional and college sports teams, the Department of Defense and any charter flight that someone was willing to pay. These charter flights would show up on our bid lines, but pilots learned quickly that these trips could be extremely complicated and that the return time was such a vague estimate that landing a day or two later was often the reality. And, there were rules. The pilots weren’t supposed to fraternize with any of the players and couldn’t attend the games, and it was really up to the flight attendants to be the point of contact, so we usually had senior flight attendants and junior pilots on many of these flights. The contracts were sporadic, but our company had a key selling point, which often sealed the deal.
The one piece of equipment on all B727s that made backcountry travel possible with such a large aircraft was a simple “kickstand.” The B727 had aft airstairs, which meant we didn’t need the airport to provide passenger deplaning equipment and services (yes, some B737s had this option, but most don’t have built-in stairs). Since most small airports don’t have portable stairs, our company was one of the few that could provide large aircraft service into very small airports. This meant we could fly the Nebraska Cornhuskers into airports where cows walked up to the edge of the ramp.
Most small airports also don’t have pressure refueling, so the idea of getting a line guy to provide overwing fueling and open the pressurized fuel tanks (I had to do it once and it wasn’t pretty) meant we had to do some careful fuel/flight planning, and weight and balance forecasts. This also meant that de-icing and inclement weather would often require us to fly over to the next major airport and wait until the last possible moment when we’d dash back over to pick up the team. The flight crew was also responsible for coordinating ground transportation, catering and departure changes. Since the sports teams never knew when they would be done, the crew and FBO would have to stand by and be ready to go. Playoffs meant that a crew had to stay if the team won or go home if they lost, which was a gamble for the company since it meant one of the aircraft was offline for an unknown length of time. It also meant that small airport operators closed up for the night and left us to fend for ourselves. But, anyone who has flown corporate/charter knows how it goes.
I was fortunate to have had a lot of practice with chaos before taking on charter flights in an airliner. Before entering the airline world, I flew corporate and charter for nine years, which gave me substantial practice. Due to the size of corporate aircraft, I wasn’t flying the teams, but I often flew college and professional coaches who went on intense four-day, six-state, 20-airport tours while interviewing potential recruits. It was during these chaotic charter flights that I’d often wake up in a hotel room and have no idea where I was—not just which city, but I often couldn’t identify which state I was in. If I couldn’t find a phonebook or some other identifying information, I’d have to call the front desk, try to act sane, and ask them where we were. The long pause often indicated that they were indeed questioning my sanity, but I’d try to quickly explain the situation and clear up the reason why I was lost in their hotel.
During my corporate charter years, I flew numerous high-profile clients, comedians, CEOs, entrepreneurs and politicians. I also caused my Uncle Tom to smack his forehead because I had the opportunity to fly Arnold Palmer when his own aircraft broke down in Minneapolis. The problem was that I had no idea who Arnold Palmer was (I still don’t golf). I did know that I had one heck of a time trying to get his golf gear in our Citation II and that he wasn’t particularly thrilled with the way I was packing it. Since my uncle loves to golf, at the next family gathering, I told him I flew some golfer guy named Arnold Palmer…do you know who that is? My uncle stared at me, waiting for the punchline. When I told him I honestly didn’t know who that was, he shook his head, smacked his forehead and said he had failed me as an uncle. The irony is that my uncle now lives in an Arnold Palmer-designed golf course community, and I now know who Arnold Palmer is. All these small charters with high demands prepared me for the higher demands and larger scale of the ultimate unusual charters.
Among the unusual charters I flew in the B727-200 was a flight to Guantanamo Bay shortly after 9/11, which required special briefings, strict and complicated procedures, and no company flight attendants. I also spent a summer shuttling Hotshot firefighters from Alaska to points up and down the West Coast, and each season had its sports charters—the Minnesota Twins baseball in the spring and summer, several college football teams in the fall, March Madness basketball in winter, and in between, a popup charter or two. I even got to fly several loads of Japanese tourists into Angel Fire Airport, and since the B727 took up the entire ramp, we had to park with the general aviation aircraft tucked neatly under our wings. I’m sure we broke every noise-abatement rule and rattled the teeth of the jackrabbits on the way out as we toured the Grand Canyon, but it was quiet inside and we got a view that few ever get to experience.
Each flight has its own story, but my favorite charters will always be flying professional wrestlers because they changed my perspective on a profession that I didn’t really consider a profession until I met the team. Spoiler Alert: If you’d like to keep the illusion of professional wrestling as a nonfiction combat sport, stop here; I’m going to break an illusion. However, I will make you have a new respect for the self-discipline of a group of people who try to give all appearances of being out of control.
“...they were part of the reason why I could, and did, become a pilot.”
When crew scheduling called to tell me I would be working a multiday trip from Dallas to several locations starting in Lander, Wyoming, I didn’t ask who the client was. I just needed dates, destinations and times, so I was ready to hang up when the scheduler stopped me and said it was important to know who the client was. She said we’d be flying a pro wrestling team, that it would be all men, and that they would be larger than our “normal” passenger weights. As I hung up the phone, my bladder reminded me that it was because of these men and their serious humor that my family gatherings were always filled with laughter and a bit of terror—just the way the wrestlers would have wanted it to be.
All the sports teams we flew wore business suits when traveling, and these wrestlers were no different. Donned in swanky suits, cowboy boots and ponytails, these gentlemen would quietly come onboard and get to work planning their next event. I fully expected high demands and prima donna requests like some of the other sports teams, but these guys were low maintenance and loved to come in the cockpit to chat before the flight. When they realized a chick was in the cockpit, they were respectful, but loved razzing me and telling their macho teammates that a woman was up front, in charge of their lives. I appreciated their ability to spar, so I reminded them that a woman could do more than strut around in a bikini carrying a number between rounds. They replied that it was actually quite difficult, because you had to remember which number comes next, and to walk clockwise around the ring. They held their breath for a response, so I turned on my Valley Girl and said, “Geez, I hope I can remember which buttons to push and to remember if the landing gear goes up, or down, for landing…,” which earned me a slap on the back, a roar of laughter and a request that I come to the next event dressed in my pilot uniform and strut around the ring carrying the number (and, no, I didn’t do as requested).
As passengers, they were good-natured and serious. The same people who had spent hours as opponents, bashing each other in the ring, would sit side by side and plan their next routine. While the highly exaggerated combat performances weren’t real, these passengers came onboard with real blood from fresh wounds and broken bones. Even though their matches were staged, there were legitimate injuries, which sometimes meant a wrestler was sent to the hospital instead of to the airplane. With a quick adjustment to our weight and balance and passenger manifest, we’d be on our way to the next town.
Even though I still roll my eyes when I see a commercial for a professional wrestling event, I have to appreciate their loyal fans’ complete suspension of disbelief. Everyone knows it’s not quite for real, but they can still acknowledge the acting, humor and brute strength of the participants. The fans enjoy it because they allow themselves to believe it. Behind the scenes, these wrestlers had to work hard to create the illusion, so it really wasn’t an illusion in the ring. It was a result of hard work. It’s the same suspension of disbelief that worked on me as a child. It triggered in me the idea that all things are possible and that my belief could make it go either way. I could either believe that I could learn how to fly even though it looked impossible, or I could look at the same situation and believe that it’s impossible and just give up. It’s always a choice, and it all depends on my perspective of the situation. This thread of thought, a suspension of disbelief, is what allowed me to pursue the captain’s seat of a commercial airliner. Just like wrestling fans, I had to set aside the skepticism and simply believe I could do it. Wrestling sometimes has unintended consequences, but I’ll bet those wrestlers never thought they were part of the reason why I could, and did, become a pilot.
Erika Armstrong has been a captain of a commercial airliner and has sat behind the front desk of a small FBO. She also was a Red Cross, cargo, international corporate and 24-hour air ambulance pilot . Find her on social media as A Chick in the Cockpit.