I have a secret that I’m going to let fly with the aviation community. Perhaps the greatest flying job in the world is the one I have as pilot in charge of Goodyear Airship Operations on the West Coast, flying the Spirit of America. I have a front-row seat for witnessing some of the most breathtaking scenery on the West Coast, as well as the opportunity to float over beautiful cities such as Seattle, San Francisco and Los Angeles. Most importantly, I work with what I consider to be the best crew in the business. This lands my job at the top of the A-list (short for aeronautics).
I’m a self-described control freak. I grew up in a rural part of Nebraska, which isn’t difficult to do (most of the state consists of wide-open spaces). I mostly worked alone on a farm/ranch that was 50 miles from my home, and I learned the Western way of life: independence and self-reliance. Back then, watching Airwolf and Baa Baa Black Sheep, I could identify with the strong, self-reliant pilot who was in control of the situation.
I completed my rotary- and fixed-wing training in Colorado, and most of my helicopter flight training was done in Nebraska, Colorado and Wyoming. Flying in high, unforgiving territory, I had the opportunity to hone my skills as an independent aviator, and I eventually took a job flying helicopters. When the helicopter I flew was sold, however, I decided to find another job in aviation. (I didn’t think I’d looked good in the John Deere tractor that was waiting for me.)
My lucky day—the day I entered into the unparalleled world of the airship—arrived in May 1998. High Degree Operations hired me as a pilot in training on one of its blimps. In airships, you start at the bottom and work up. As the pilot of a lighter-than-air airship, you must know everyone’s job and what the team expects out of each member. Someone must watch the airship 24/7. The crew members take turns; whether there’s rain, cold or shine, somebody must monitor the pressure of the airship and make sure it stays properly ballasted. To become an airship pilot, I first had to become part of the team; to become a crew member, I needed to stand watch.
All teams have rituals and rites of passage. To earn passage, I watched the airship from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m., during what’s called the “A watch.” I’d then preflight the airship and help fuel it. From there, I’d fly the all-day cross-country; traveling at a “blazing” speed of 30 knots, you cover about 230 to 250 miles in an eight-hour day. However, most days were longer. After we had landed, I’d check into the hotel (where I hoped to get between four and five hours of sleep) and be back out to watch the airship at 11 p.m. This cycle would continue for seven days, or until we reached a city that we’d stay in longer than a day. I did the A watch and was a pilot in training for six months.
During this training period, I went through culture shock. The passage that I embarked on was one of team trust and loyalty, a far cry from the days of self-reliance and solitude. Everything I did was with or for the team. I shared a hotel room with a crew member; I ate with the crew; I traveled with the crew. Every activity was social, laden with more people than I ever could have imagined. And…I had the greatest time of my life.
Our bond was the airship, and that bond continues today in the capacity my crew and I serve for Goodyear. The airship is our “baby”—a cherished member of the Goodyear family, and it’s everyone’s job. We work with the intensity of a Nascar pit crew changing Goodyear tires, and with the same smooth harmony and grace of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Each team member knows his or her job and is watching the other team members’ backs. Guests of Goodyear often comment on how professional the crew looks and acts when we’re landing and launching the airship. The passengers can feel the quiet, intense and assertive energy that the crew has in the moments when the airship is in its most vulnerable phase: sitting on the ground being held by the 13 crew members.
Two years ago, I had the distinguished honor of moving from team member into a leadership role. I’ve found that leading a group of outstanding individuals isn’t unlike the process of making wine. You can have the greatest grapes, the best soil and the most favorable weather, but if the person blending those ingredients makes a mistake, the wine tastes horrible. The leader is the team member who gets to blend the outstanding individuals. The blend of our team is similar to the flavors of a pinot noir: very colorful, smooth and flavorful.
Some people relate our crew to a family, a commune, a football team or a company in the army (even a pirate ship). For an airship, many hands do make light work. Our common bond is the airship; our common goal is the safety of each other and the airship. We measure our success in terms of group wins or losses. We have our own values and norms, our own shorthand sign language and even our own inner competitive spirit.
I’d be leading you astray if I didn’t add that with every great secret, there are a couple of catches. One is the disappointment I feel when I’m asked by children if they can have a ride in the airship. It’s one of the most difficult moments in my day: tactfully explaining to them that rides are by invitation only, and that the invitation can only accommodate so many people, mainly adults. The other catch is the general public’s inability to see what happens behind the scenes with the blimp—the oversight of the special team of people who must work together like a finely tuned violin to allow me to take to the skies. My team consists of 25 dedicated individuals who are the very best at what they do. It doesn’t do them justice when they’re overlooked because everybody scrambles to talk to the pilot.
Years ago, I hung up my favorite Stetson hat and put away my broken Justin boots. These things aren’t fashionable in Hermosa Beach, Calif., but more importantly, I’ve shed the cowboy image and have been seduced by the idea of a team. Right now, I need to get back to tending my garden—my secret garden where I help people grow, pull the weeds of negativity and stand watch to make sure everyone on the crew is safe, as we collectively nurture the Spirit of America as a team.