A good pilot has many time-tested, well-known and celebrated traits. Among them are good judgment, situational awareness, aircraft systems knowledge, navigation, and keeping your wits in unexpected situations. Then there’s that other trait—the one of actually controlling the aircraft. “He’s a good stick and rudder man,” they say.
There have been many pilots with those skills and more. Think of General Chuck Yeager, who was a P-51 fighter ace in World War II and who was the first to break the sound barrier; Yuri Gagarin, who was the first to orbit the Earth; Neil Armstrong, who was the first man to walk on the moon (and let’s not forget before that he was the first to manually land on it); and of course the Wright Brothers, who were the first in powered flight. And recently, there’s “Sully” Sullenberger. What kind of right stuff must you have to “dead-stick” tons of metal into a river with everyone onboard living to tell the tale?
When I was learning to fly at age 15, I remember a landing I made that is the dream of every pilot—that seamless transition from an elegant air-bound contraption to a clumsy thing on wheels rolling across the ground. A “greaser” is a landing where the occupants are never aware of that transition. Afterwards, my instructor said, “Well, that’s the best landing I’ve seen of anyone, anywhere at any time.” That was cool. Later, when I was 22 and dying to get the keys to the family plane, I was once again in control under the critical eye of my father, the owner in the seat behind the right-hand controls. On approach his hands remained firmly in his lap, and he never spoke a word. A greaser. “Well, I’ll be damned,” is all he said. I got the keys the next day.
About eight years ago, I had moved to the right seat on a particular flight controlled by another pilot in the left seat. This new pilot-in-training was nearing an airport. I was nervously preparing to say, “Okay, there’s the airport; time to contact the tower; let’s slow down, descend and plan your approach.” Before I could speak, the pilot did all of those things proficiently and in the correct order. I sat there with my hands in my lap and observed a greaser. A few years later that student got his wings, and today, June 29, 2016, at age 27, he got his “Airline Transport Pilot” rating, which qualifies him to fly the big, heavy metal full of passengers for SkyWest Airlines.
The next time you’re on one of those “small”, irritating, bumpy, twin-jet commuter airlines without snacks, and suddenly you wonder how you got back on the ground without even feeling it, you might consider thanking the pilot. I taught him everything he knows. Truthfully, he’s zoomed past me in experience and capabilities, but I did teach the boy how to fly by his wits. And maybe something about greasers. Congratulations, son. And please stay out of the Hudson.