Someone once said (or should have), “We’re all either the victims or the beneficiaries of our sources.” In aviation, the applicable paraphrase might be: “We are all the sum total of our teaching.”
I know that I’m definitely the beneficiary of some of the wisest instruction in aviation, either formal or informal. My unusual pilot career has allowed me the privilege of studying at the feet of the Jedi masters, often without their even knowing it. I’m allowed to fly with a wide variety of air-show, test, airline, delivery and company check pilots, and the lessons that they imparted are sometimes illuminating, occasionally nothing short of amazing.
Many of these aviators don’t know their own stuff. Take Jon Egaas, for example. He’s something of a quiet legend in the ferry business. He’s so far ahead of me and most other ferry pilots that we have no hope of ever catching him. A former USMC pilot, Egaas has logged nearly 25,000 hours total, flown just under 500 international trips (compared to my piddly 180), is typed in a half-dozen airplanes, checked out in another 100 and has been around the world more times than Steve Fawcett.
Every time I fly with Egaas, I learn a lot about flying, delivering airplanes or international operations. We’ve flown perhaps 15 to 20 trips together in the last 25 years to destinations ranging from Italy, Jordan and Africa to Australia, Singapore and Japan. Most recently, we’ve ferried a pair of Cessna 402s across the Pacific from Massachusetts to Guam last June for Cape Air/Continental Airlines. We made the trip in five days with a day off in Hawaii (where else?), a night in Majuro and an extra night in Guam, and as usual, flying with Egaas was like going to ferry school. He doesn’t brag much, but he certainly has a right to.
The late Mike Miller, chief pilot for Cathay Pacific, was another great aviator who graciously allowed me to learn from his skill and ability. Miller and I ferried his totally rebuilt Aerostar 700 from Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, to Biggin Hill Airport in London, England, a few years back in conjunction with the Great London-to-Sydney Air Race. Although Miller was a 20,000-hour airline captain, much of it in 747s, his insurance company required that he hire a professional ferry pilot for the trans-Atlantic crossing because he had no time in Aerostars, a fairly ridiculous situation. What could have been the trip from hell turned out to be a wonderful learning experience for me as I watched a consummate pro at work.
We traded legs and stories on the short, 5,000-mile trip, and he taught me the true meaning of precision. Miller went on to win the London-to-Sydney race in his red Aerostar called The Spirit of Kai Tak, but sadly, he was killed a year later while racing his Porsche back home in Hong Kong, Cathay Pacific’s home base.
Gary Meermans is another airman of unusual ability. A check pilot with United Air Lines, Meermans is one of those aviators who has been flying since he was a kid, has virtually every rating there is, an armful of types, more hours than you’d believe and flies as naturally as breathing. With his excellent flying skills and gentle manner, he guided me through my multi- and instrument ratings, and when I would do something stupid and get frustrated during my training, Meermans often would use a standard phrase, “Okay, calm down. Take it easy on Bill.”
Meermans taught me the value of forcing myself to relax when things got tense, a near-Zen talent that focuses on prioritizing, isolating and solving the most critical problems first before concentrating on concerns of less consequence. During multi-engine training in a 160 Apache when I could expect a simulated engine failure on virtually every takeoff, I was feeling rushed to get everything done before the simulated single-engine IFR approach. Meermans had me diagram the entire procedure with appropriate times for each leg and concentrate on doing first things first. Of course, I learned there was plenty of time.
Meermans also had a serious side and was unforgiving of ATC mistakes. Once during my instrument training in the early 1970s, long before the creation of the Los Angeles TCA (now less telegraphically known as Class B airspace), I was under the hood in a Skyhawk near a barely VFR Burbank, Calif., when a controller mistakenly gave us a vector directly toward a mountain.
As we closed with the solid granite wall, Meermans calmly said, “Okay, look up. Switch your transponder to standby and make a hard right turn.”
I did exactly that, was amazed at what I saw straight ahead, and about 20 seconds after we turned away, the controller came back on the frequency and said, “Cessna 74 Bravo, do you read?”
“Don’t answer him just yet,” coached Meermans calmly.
The controller called twice more with what seemed like growing anxiety in his voice, and Meermans let him stew for a while before turning on the transponder and replying oh so casually, “Roger, L.A., 74 Bravo, we read you loud and clear.”
There also was Moose Krebs. I think his real name was Bob, but no one ever called him that. A huge man with giant hands, he was an A&P, had been a bush pilot for a while, a mail pilot and I think he had even flown a pink Cessna 206 in and out of Mustang Ranch in Nevada. When I met him, Krebs was flying Grumman Gooses for Catalina Airlines, landing in the harbor at Avalon, Calif., when the sea would allow it and at the airport on top of the hill when it wouldn’t. He had flown PBYs during the war, including a motion-picture segment where he taxis up to a dock and lets off Jimmy Cagney. Krebs said that the movie company did about 12 takes, and he had his head out the window every time so that he’d be in the scene.
After 10 years “getting goosed,” as Krebs used to call it, he graduated to Twin Otters and learned the airplane like no one else did. Moose said that it was possible to safely reverse the Twin Otters’ props in flight, and he learned that trick so well that he could always land shorter than any other pilot at Catalina, Calif.
I flew with Krebs in Gooses, Otters, Aztecs, Aerostars and a variety of other types, and it was always an education. He was a true aviation original, always exploring new ways to do something better, quicker or more efficiently. The last I heard he was flying cattle back and forth from Miami to South America in DC-8s, complaining about the smell, but happy to be able to chase señoritas in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil; Buenos Aires, Argentina; and Caracas, Venezuela. If anyone out there knows what happened to Krebs, I would appreciate an e-mail.
These were some of the Jedi masters to me, the best of the best, the peak of the pyramid. Most of however much (or little) I know about flying, I learned from them…so now you know who to blame when I make a mistake.
Bill Cox is entering his third decade as a senior contributor to Plane & Pilot® and provides consulting for media, entertainment and aviation concerns worldwide.
E-mail him at [email protected].