I was visiting my parents home in Spokane this weekend and came across an old photo of my sister and I on the flight deck of a Qantas Boeing 747 from way back in the early 90’s. I remember this moment vividly, it was ne of many sign posts throughout my life that led me to becoming a pilot. Now, sure, I’m not a fixed wing pilot captaining massive multi-engine jets from continent to continent, but all the same these sign posts led me to become a commercial pilot.
The one thing I hope this post does is help to inspire other young people to pursue aviation, the next thing I REALLY would like to achieve would be for Capt. Penklis with Qantas to see this. So if you know him, or the people at Qantas, do me a favor and pass this along.
It was early in the 90’s. The exact year eludes me but I think it was 1991 – and I’d ask my family but everyone here is asleep – so we’re going with 1991. You’ve got to remember I was really young when this all happened so the details may be a bit fuzzy. We were on a long trans-pacific flight from LA to Sydney headed back to our home on Papua New Guinea, where my dad was working at the time. I use “at the time” loosely as I grew up on that island and he worked there for 13 years.
Because this was way pre-9/11 I was eager to partake in my favorite part of EVERY FLIGHT I EVER WAS ON – visiting the flight deck. Every switch, every knob, every control fascinated me. The pilots were the coolest people I’d know, and inspired me on every visit! This was what I wanted to do, it was aviation, and science, and technology. I’m sure I looked the part too – wide eyes, jaw agape in wonderment, at every identical flight deck I visited. I recall some of these planes still having flight engineers on them, instead of the modern two pilot crew we see anymore.
As soon as I was able to I asked the flight attendant if I could visit the cockpit, and of course she smiled a beautiful Australian smile at me and said she would check with the Captain. Enter Captain Mark Penklis, Qantas pilot and all around great guy! She returned later to fetch me for my visit and escorted me up to the cockpit and walked me in. This was the biggest plane in the civilian inventory at the time and I was standing at its nerve center, every control input, every system, ran from here.
After the usual exchange of questions mostly in the “what’s this, what’s that” category I went back to my family and my seat, content and smiling. My time had been well spent and as a kid who all he wanted to do was fly – I’d just gotten my fix for the flight. Now, up until now this story sounds like any one of a thousand other stories where a kid visits the pilots on a transoceanic flight, right? Here is where it changes and becomes inspirational.
There are things we experience in our lifetime that mark us because of how impactful they are. How special a moment is will never be measured in the words that were spoken in that moment. Words fade. But what doesn’t fade is the feeling, the impact of a moment. How you feel in a moment that defines you will be etched into your soul. I’ve been telling this story to anyone that would listen to me for a minute. Anyone who has ever asked me about why piloting, has heard this tale. I don’t remember what was said, but I do remember that it was one of the greatest moments of my life.
The flight attendants were making their rounds before we were set to land in Sydney. This was old hat to my family as we’d grown up making these hops. Seats up, belts fastened, trays latched, etc etc. The same lovely Australian that had taken me up to visit the cockpit earlier stopped at my seat and crouched beside me to say something. “The Captain wanted me to ask if you’d like to sit in the cockpit for the landing.”
My parents gave an approving nod, which probably wouldn’t have mattered as I was already up and in the aisle ready to go. Once again she led me to the flight deck but this time felt different. Important. I wasn’t just going to visit the Captain and ask questions, I was going up there for landing. Not just any landing either, a Boeing 747 landing at night into Sydney. I remember sitting in a fold down jump seat in the back of the cabin. The pilots were busy working away and I was in sensory overload. The lights of the city were off of the nose, and the radio was alive with directions as they maneuvered the jumbo jet into position. I’d seen this landing before, a dozen times perhaps, from the passenger side of the airplane.
The sky was dark, dotted by the city lights and skyline. In almost a mirror of outside the airplane, the cockpit lighting was off and it was dark too – the cityscape lights replaced with dim panel and knob lights creating a glow. The runway lights came into view and they were the most remarkable lights in all of Sydney. Even to this day I’d say that the full instrument lighting array at Sydney’s airport would one=up any other display in the city. Excuse my slight bias. The ground came closer and closer and eventually the city lights began to vanish to the sides of the cockpit windows. The nose came up and the rear wheels touched down, and then the Captain lowered the rest of the jumbo onto the nose gear. Even with all of the wheels on the ground the view from the cockpit was surprisingly high. I felt like we were still flying we were so high above the ground.
This moment shaped me. It may very well have changed my life. I was exposed to aviation in the form of helicopters and airplanes so regularly that it isn’t very surprising I became a pilot. But what matters, are those moment that define WHY you do something. If want to know me as a pilot, if you want to really get to the core of my passion. You’ll find it is made of moments like this one.