I didn’t become a professional pilot the first time I got paid to fly. It wasn’t even when I got my shiny gold wings.
It was a sunny September morning at NAS Whiting Field in Milton, Florida. I had just passed my instrument checkride in a TH-57C helicopter, the Navy’s orange-and-white version of the ubiquitous Bell Jet Ranger. My coveted “wings of gold” were basically in the bag, and in less than two weeks I’d officially have the right to wear them on my uniform. I’d been going through intensive flight training for a year and a half, and today I was getting the keys to my own turbine-powered helicopter for a few hours.
Even though the weather was beautiful, I filed an IFR flight plan to New Orleans Lakefront Airport. The FBO there would let us take a car (Jaguar!) out to lunch while our helicopter was refueled for the trip home.
In the other pilot’s seat there would be no instructor. Instead, I had a “winger,” a recently-graduated student awaiting transfer, to tune the radios and act as a safety observer.
IFR clearance copied, radios and navaids tuned. Cleared for takeoff. Hover-taxi, five feet in the air, across the yellow hold-short lines, and swing the tail around, nose into the wind. We skidded slightly sideways to the right to catch the centerline. It was against the rules to slide through a turn like that. I didn’t care. It was just a little bit, and I was in charge today. No instructor around to complain about it. We were off to New Orleans! Cajun food and a Jaguar were waiting for me!
I can’t remember any of the small talk I had with my winger copilot that day. But what he said as I slopped onto the runway was like a sledgehammer to the head of my pilot-ego.
“Dude, don’t slide.”
It bothered me all the way to New Orleans. It wasn’t even a graded flight, and I felt like I’d blown it. The rest of the mission went perfectly, food and sporty luxury car included. Even so, nothing I could do would remove the stain of my carelessness from my memory.
Finally, on the way home, I understood the problem. It wasn’t wrong because I’d done badly, but because I could have done better. I’d violated one of the most basic rules of flying: Instead of flying the aircraft, I’d let the aircraft fly me.
I got sloppy because I didn’t think anyone would notice. I realized my own knowing I’d flown well was more important than an instructor saying so on a grade card.
I became a professional pilot when I stopped flying for the guy next to me and started flying for myself.