Sunday, May 8, 2011

Exodus: The Professional Life of a Private Pilot

Wax On, Wax Off


I spent the afternoon of May 7 washing and waxing Warrior 481, painstakingly scrubbing crud off the bottom of her wings and removing excess wax from around each of the many rivets dotting her airframe.  No one who has pored over such a vast amount of surface area in such fine detail would ever dare call Warrior 481 a "little" airplane.


While washing the stabilator, I was confronted by this memento of a former life, a very expired Michigan registration decal affixed to the empennage. In the hours that I worked on the airplane, I thought back on the events that brought me to New York.

Once upon a time...

Before I could discern a Cessna from a Piper, before gaining familiarity with the birthplace of Jell-O, and before the arrival of a little Flying Bear ("A Brief History of Flight, Bear-Style"), Kristy and I set out from southern Indiana to start a new life in a place called Kalamazoo.

I was very excited to join the Company.  Freshly emancipated from graduate school, I found myself in a rigorous yet amazingly supportive environment staffed by some of the best scientists I have ever had the privilege to know.  I may have received my degree from a university, but it was my colleagues in Kalamazoo who taught me what it really meant to be a scientist. In many ways, I had not just joined a corporation, but a family. Though we all worked very hard, the Company engendered a culture of trust and respect that made everyone feel valued.

The move to Kalamazoo was one of the best choices I ever made.

October 12, 2003: Aerial photo of our first house

For the first time in our lives, Kristy and I were earning above poverty level!  This led to our first home and conversion of particle board furniture, mainstay of the college student, to furnishings made of real wood.

A life changing event for me was befriending Dave, scientist and private pilot, who became my mentor in aviation. When I first moved to Kalamazoo, I remember seeing the training fleet tied down at the airport and thinking to myself that it would be amazing to learn how to fly someday. Meeting Dave built on this stray thought and convinced me that I could make it a reality. Earning a private pilot certificate ("Who's Afraid of the Big, Bad DPE?") eventually led to buying Warrior 481 ("From Renter to Owner") and spending a lot of time at my home base, the South Haven Area Regional Airport (LWA).

Happy guy: Dave at the controls of his Stearman. Photo by Gary E.

While we were based at South Haven, Dave fulfilled a long held dream of acquiring and flying a beautifully restored 1943 Stearman biplane. He still owned his Super Decathlon, but talked of selling it as keeping both was a financial stretch. But when you live in Michigan, flying something with an enclosed cockpit has a certain fundamental practicality for at least half of the year. We had all kinds of "outs" at South Haven: group fly-outs ("Torchport"), regular cook-outs ("Take Your Coworkers to the Airport Day"), you name it.

Airport life was good at South Haven.

Mergers and Acquisitions

Within one month of joining the Company, a merger with another firm was announced.  This news was frightening at first, but the reality of it was that our company acquired another.  The Company became larger and changed its name, but retained the outstanding culture and people that had drawn me there in the first place.  Over time, we came to know the new colleagues brought into the fold, particularly those from a nearby Chicago location who specialized in the same discipline as my group.

Date Aircraft Route of Flight Time (hours) Total Time (hours)
15 Jul 2002 N9327U HAI (Three Rivers, MI - local flight) 1.2 73.7

Me and my favorite rental Cessna 150, June 29, 2003.  Photo by Scott.

One day in 2002, two years after the first merger, I returned home from a flying lesson in a rented Cessna 150 and my wife met me at the door.  The news had just been announced.  Our Company was to be acquired by UberCo (not its real name) and, some months later, the new signs went up at our campus.

Date Aircraft Route of Flight Time (hours) Total Time (hours)
29 Apr 2003 N8082F HAI (Three Rivers, MI) - 3GM (Grand Haven, MI) - 0D1 (South Haven, MI) - HAI 2.3 124.3

In April 2003, UberCo announced the coming of a massive restructuring. I was worried. Everyone was worried. Before the day of the announcement, I rented N8082F, a Cessna 150 that I had flown during training. That airplane and I did not always get along when I was a student, but that day, we had a wonderful flight together. Eight Two Fox and I took a very therapeutic cruise along Lake Michigan during which time I literally left all my worries on the ground. After our magnificent flight, I snapped a photograph of her as I left the airport. It was an afterthought, caught as I was in the glow of a positive shared experience. It is not a particularly good photograph, but it is the only photograph of Eight Two Fox I have. Within minutes of my leaving the airport, Eight Two Fox was wrecked by a student pilot who lost control while rolling out from a landing. Fortunately, the airplane was the only casualty. I have the dubious distinction of being the last pilot to successfully bring Eight Two Fox back to Earth.

April 23, 2003:  N8082F after her final flight

When the UberCo announcement came at the end of April, thousands of people were affected. Most of the Research and Development being done in Kalamzoo was halted and many buildings were summarily emptied, though my division was retained. The facility in Chicago that I had come to regard as our sister site did not fare as well. It was closed entirely.

In the ensuing chaos, I was given responsibility for one of the Chicago projects.  This meant that I drove to Chicago several times to meet with the exiting team and learn as much about the project as I could before all the experts were gone. While this was not a fun activity, I will always admire the professionalism displayed by that excellent group.  They were very open with me on those visits and I even made new friends in the process.  The scientific staff was exiting the site in groups every two weeks, effectively setting the stage for a recurring funeral party every other Friday. I was present for one of those gatherings and remember standing awkwardly by while one of my new friends comforted a weeping colleague on her last day.  Although no one bore me any ill will, I was nonetheless an intruder; an undesired witness to their sorrow.  "Survivor guilt" was a common problem for those of us left behind.

Over time, we were assimilated into the new organization at UberCo. There was frustration in the chaos, yes, but opportunity too.  I, and many of my Kalamazoo cohort, began to interact more globally within UberCo.  UberCo was a different company with a very different culture.  Fortunately, much of the long-time Kalamazoo leadership remained in place locally and the atmosphere retained much of its character from the days of the Company.

In early 2005, the Powers That Be recognized that UberCo was simply too big.  While they were absolutely correct, this meant that more jobs would be eliminated to transform UberCo from leviathan into a theoretically nimble competitor.  This also meant more worry and more distraction, for months, while decisions on site closures were weighed behind closed doors.

On the eve of the announcement, my director was advised by one of the UberCo global leaders that we were "highly valued" and had nothing to worry about.  In fact, few were worried.  We were productive and extremely busy.

After all, someone had to do the work, right?

Fade to Black

On July 21, 2005 - a month after Kristy and I took our most ambitious VFR cross country trip to date ("An Aerial Road Trip to Fort Myers") - all 500 members of my division gathered in a cafeteria to learn of UberCo's reorganization. The regional head of our division stood at the front of the room and delivered a Power Point presentation on the brave new direction that UberCo had charted.  Twenty minutes into the presentation, the speaker advanced to an empty black slide and subjective time halted.

The tableau is permanently imprinted in my mind. Folding chairs were packed tightly into a space barely large enough to accommodate our entire organization.  I would later learn that all of those chairs were tied together underneath to prevent their use as projectiles in any riot that might occur. The air was stale because the building had  stood vacant for months following the 2003 UberCo downsizing.  Bright summer sunshine streamed down uncomfortably through overhead skylights, flitting through eyelashes, making everything uncomfortably bright. An occasional shadow would drift across the crowd from a pair of turkey vultures circling in thermals over the building.  Prophetic, that.

We stared at the black slide, suddenly anxious of the tidings heralded there.

In reality, there was no pause.  The moment the black slide appeared, we were told that our division was "pulling out" of Kalamazoo.  There was a subtle, collective gasp and then eerie silence; the sound of 500 people sucker-punched at once.  The speaker continued, explaining to the shocked assemblage that operations would cease around the end of the year. This meant that, if we wanted our severance packages, we would have several more months of work to do before we could depart. The presentation concluded with a free box lunch for everyone.  Honestly, my turkey wrap was a little dry.

From the haze of my internal emotional turmoil, the first rational thoughts to emerge were entirely financial.

Oh no, the house!  Oh no, the airplane!

In precisely that order.

Opportunities

On the bright side, my group was well regarded outside of Kalamazoo and we were courted by many other organizations.  My wish list was simple: I needed to find a decent job in the right location, one where my wife could happily practice her craft and I could afford to keep flying.

Simple, right?

News of the first opportunity came while I was traveling on business.  I was in Washington DC with my Kalamazoo-based UberCo team meeting with a government regulatory agency.  Our team (and similar project teams before ours) had struggled for a few years to get critical understanding on Agency expectations for certain aspects of our unique project.  After the site closure announcement, our team of dedicated lame-duck researchers continued working hard to prepare for that meeting.  This was a good thing.  In keeping focus, my team did not succumb to the plummeting morale surrounding us.

We had a breakthrough with the Agency at that meeting. We showed data that caught both their attention and their enthusiasm.  It was as though a switch had been flipped, the Agency's attitude reversed, and we walked away from the meeting with critical insight on how to move the project forward.  We achieved a tremendous victory for UberCo that day.

We were in the van en route to the hotel, chattering excitedly about our well-earned success when someone commented that we had done a good thing for whomever in UberCo would inherit our project.

That's all it took.  Everyone's protective bubble of morale simply popped.

It was moments later that I received a phone call from Jay, a friend and former Company colleague who now worked for a firm in New Jersey. He offered me a job on the spot, no interview necessary. And it wasn't just me, but a large number of my extended Kalamazoo family received similar offers. All we had to do was visit and check it out.

I cannot put into words my gratitude to Jay for calling when he did.

Other opportunities arose as well: companies located in Boston; northern California; Rochester, New York; along with offers from other UberCo sites in Michigan and Connecticut. The Kalamazoo - Battle Creek International Airport was kept rather busy that fall as my colleagues and I zipped around the country looking for just the right place to "land".

September 3, 2005: I took this photo on the day of my last flight in the Stearman

Dave and I had offers from the same small outfit in northern California that wanted to hire us as a team. Justifiably concerned about the availability of hangar space near this company, Dave made the difficult decision to sell his beloved Stearman.  Like many owners of vintage aircraft, Dave viewed himself as the temporary caretaker of a timeless antique and decided that he would better serve the airplane by selling it, rather than leaving it exposed to the elements on some California airport ramp.

May 16, 2004: Decathlon and Warrior in formation on a cross-country flight

I was relieved to hear that he planned to keep the Decathlon.  We fantasized about flying Warrior 481 and the Decathlon VFR across the country together in the manner described by Richard Bach or Rinker Buck. What a journey of a lifetime that would have been! The places we would have visited! Seeing the vast plains giving way to the front range of the Rockies!  We talked excitedly about the route we would take.  Would we take a northern route west or divert south of the mountains like Bach did in Biplane?

But the reality of the situation was that, no matter how interesting the company in northern California appeared to be, the region was clearly not a good fit for Kristy's career.  And that, unfortunately meant that the opportunity did not meet my criteria.  Though I ended my negotiations with that company, Dave decided to go without me.

"Are you Crazy?"

Warrior 481 inside my first hangar in South Haven, September 11, 2004.

With one opportunity eliminated, I began calling airports in eastern Michigan, Connecticut, New Jersey, and New York. I was on a quest to find a region where I could still afford to fly. One aspect of this was availability of hangar space. For context, I was spoiled.  My hangar in South Haven had a paved floor, electrically operated overhead bifold door, interior lighting, and rent of ~ $110/month. Warrior 481 had new paint and I wanted it to live in a hangar if at all possible.  It did not occur to me that hangar rent in other places would be so exorbitant, but phone research quickly brought an end to my naivete.

Yes, there was reasonable hangar space available on the other side of Michigan.  Check.

When I called an airport in Connecticut (there aren't many), the voice on the other end of the phone was disinterestedly surly.  "Nope, no space," said the fellow with a Long Island accent.  When I asked about the waiting list, "long" was his only response.  That guy was not clamoring for my business.

Then I called some airports in New Jersey. Most places estimated five year waiting lists and hangar rents were about $500 a month if I didn't mind a dirt floor, more if I wanted my airplane sitting on something exotic like pavement.  One of the airport managers I talked to was quite friendly and I was amused by her assessment of my situation:

"Where are you coming from?" she asked me.

"Southwest Michigan, right off of Lake Michigan."

"Oh!  My husband and I have a cabin on Lake Michigan," she responded excitedly.  Then there was a pause.  "You live near Lake Michigan and you want to move HERE?  Are you crazy?"

Evidently.

Finally, I called four satellite airports around Rochester, NY.  One had no space and two others had space in common hangars.  Lastly, I called Ray at the Le Roy airport (5G0) who told me that he had just completed brand new T-hangars with concrete floors, electric bifold doors, and interior lighting.  There were two hangars still available, $245/month.  Steep compared to South Haven, a bargain compared to anywhere I called in New Jersey. Ray and I took an immediate liking to each other and that first phone call lasted over an hour.

That night, I commented to Kristy, "I don't know about the rest of us, but Warrior 481 wants to go to Rochester."

A Bump in the Road
(and some actual flying!)

All factors considered (the job, opportunities for Kristy, cost and standard of living, etc.) Rochester compared very favorably.  The east side of Michigan also looked reasonable, but I had concerns about the long term viability of the UberCo facility there ("fool me once, shame on you...").  Moving to eastern Michigan was the easy choice, it would have meant a return "home" for both of us.

In the end, we decided on Rochester, NY.  All I needed was an official offer from the company in New York to finalize a decision.  On a Friday night in October, at 5:00 in the afternoon, I received a phone call that derailed everything.  The company in Rochester decided that they were already staffed adequately in my area of expertise and were not going to extend an offer. On the following Monday, my offer on the east side of Michigan would expire. This meant that Kristy and I had some thinking to do over the weekend.

Date Aircraft Route of Flight Time (hours) Total Time (hours)
1 Oct 2005 N21481 LWA (South Haven, MI) - LDM (Ludington, MI) - LWA 2.5 375.2

That weekend, Kristy and I flew Warrior 481 north along the beautiful sandy shoreline of Lake Michigan to Ludington.  It was a breezy, warm fall day in early October.  I had previously arranged to borrow the crew car, which we drove to House of Flavors.  The lunch fare was typical greasy spoon, but the homemade ice cream was truly outstanding.

Lighthouse on the north pierhead at Ludington.  Photographed July 10, 2005.

After lunch, we drove further west, parked at the beach, and walked the long pier out to the lighthouse.  A brisk wind off the lake had chased most people off the pier, but it was warm in the sun.  We seated ourselves against the black base of the lighthouse, our backs absorbing the accumulated solar warmth, and stared out across the seemingly infinite expanse of Lake Michigan.  We had a long talk about what to do and where to go.  We weighed the pros and cons of each opportunity: distance from family, housing, job opportunities, and, of course, affordable flying. After a while, we reached a conclusion, then sat longer at the base of the lighthouse in companionable silence.

I would stay with UberCo and we would move to the east side of Michigan. Though this decision made sound logical sense on several fronts, a part of my soul died in the decision to remain with UberCo.

The following Monday was a whirlwind, beginning with a phone call made by my direct supervisor urging me not to accept any offers until the end of the day. What happened next is a complete story unto itself, but at the end of the day, the decision makers in Rochester reversed their verdict and extended a verbal offer to join the company there.  A written offer was already on its way.

Figuratively speaking, I let go of one trapeze and reached for the next.  The first thing I did was tell Kristy. The next thing I did was call Ray to secure a hangar at Le Roy.

Many of my favorite Kalamazoo colleagues joined me in a mass migration to Rochester.  To suggest that there might have been some group-think at work would be an understatement. If you have to leave a cherished home, I have come to the conclusion that it is best to simply bring your friends with you.

Last Shoreline Flight

The South Haven Lighthouse, photographed March 3, 2005.

Date Aircraft Route of Flight Time (hours) Total Time (hours)
12 Nov 2005 N21481 LWA (South Haven, MI) - BIV (Holland, MI) - LWA 1.4 389.8

In preparation for the move to Rochester, Warrior 481 and I flew a last nostalgic flight along Lake Michigan's magnificent shoreline.  Returning to South Haven, we circled the little red lighthouse at the end of the pier one last time and set up for landing on the grass runway.  From downwind, I could see that Dave and his wife were outside the Decathlon hangar.

Once Warrior 481 was safely back in the hangar, I wandered over to say hello.

I discovered that Dave was packing.

"What's going on?' I asked him.

"Selling the Decathlon.  The guy's gonna be here tomorrow to pick it up, just cleaning out the hangar."  His response was uncharacteristically brusque.

August 2002, Kristy and I with the Decathlon after one of her first flights.  Photo by Dave.

My heart leapt into my throat.  I could not imagine Dave without an airplane.

"What?! I thought you were keeping it?"

Dave responded without looking at me, continuing to load boxes of airplane supplies into his truck.  He explained that he did not foresee getting any hangar space in California and could not bring himself to leave a fabric covered airplane exposed to the elements.

"Aren't you at least going to fly it one last time?" I asked.

"Nope."

The conversation finished awkwardly. I wished them goodnight and withdrew to my own hangar. Like Dave, I gathered all my tools, disassembled my workbench, and loaded everything into the car. My next trip to the airport was the weekend after Thanksgiving when I ferried Warrior 481 to her new home in New York ("Making an Impression").

Driving home in the dark, the contents of my hangar -- of my life at South Haven -- palpably weighed on my thoughts.  I brooded. The notion of Dave without an airplane was upsetting to me on a fundamental level because it was Dave's passion for flight that first ignited my own.

The lines painted down the center of M-43 may have blurred a time or two before I made it home that evening.  Sometimes, it's the seemingly tangential issues that are most affecting. 

Exodus

Our building began to empty in the fall.  As with the site in Chicago, groups of people were terminated in pre-planned waves every other Friday. Experiencing the process first hand certainly cured any lingering survivor guilt I held from two years prior.

July 25, 2004: One of the Company's Kalamazoo campuses

Throughout this process, UberCo was tearing down some of the underutilized buildings.  Because many of them were connected to structures that would survive, buildings were excised from the campus with near surgical precision. One of my coworkers described standing at street level, looking up into a seventh floor laboratory that he had occupied for decades.  As the building was sheared away one bit at a time, his former lab became visible from the outside. He shook his head in bewilderment. "The clock was still on the wall.  I could read the time." If I was saddened by the closure of the site and its partial demolition, this fellow was absolutely lost.

April 28, 2006: Downtown Kalamazoo after the razing of several buildings (note the brown patches)
 
When it was time for other UberCo scientists to assume responsibility for my project, I made every effort to emulate the incredible example set by my Chicago friends in 2003.  I spent significant time preparing the ultimate "everything you ever wanted to know and then some" project history document with hyperlinked technical references. I honestly hope it was useful.

By December, my building was mostly empty and I was one of the last to leave. My supervisor was already gone and another manager had to escort me out when I was done. My last day was December 22, 2005; something of a Christmas present. By then, I was eager to go. There was a familiar airplane and a new life waiting for me in New York.

January 22, 2006: My new neighborhood in Rochester (note the brown patch)

Our house sold in an astounding eight days and we moved out sometime between Christmas and New Year's Eve.  The funny thing is that neither Kristy nor I can remember what we did or where we went for Christmas that year.

Most of our possessions went off to storage until the house in Rochester was ready.  The rest moved with us to a nearby rental.  The rental house felt very much like a return to a student lifestyle, lacking the amenities to which we had become accustomed (e.g., reliable heat).  This led to the place being dubbed "The Crapshack", with thanks to Bart Simpson for coining the phrase.

In early January, I gave my last tours at the Air Zoo ("Goodbye, Air Zoo"), said a temporary farewell to Kristy  (who remained in Kalamazoo until July), and drove to Rochester.

Hindsight


My thoughts returned to the present as I finished waxing the starboard wing.  I stretched to relieve my sore back and peered at the gleaming results of my labor.  That, I thought to myself, makes all the effort worth it.

Warrior 481 and I have been based in Le Roy for over five years.  Though we miss flying along Lake Michigan, Upstate New York offers some spectacular scenery.  Le Roy has proven to be a great home base for adventures to the east coast, flights to the Adirondacks, day trips to some excellent destinations in Pennsylvania, and occasional trips back to Michigan. As an aviator, moving to New York was the right decision.

Professionally, it was also the right choice.  Within a year of my move to New York, UberCo announced the closure of my second choice, the facility on the east side of Michigan. Shortly thereafter, the company in New Jersey was swallowed by a bigger fish.  Dave left that company in California after a year. I do not always seek validation for my choices, but in this case, it is plentiful.

Change is always challenging and leaving a place you love is difficult when it is not on your own terms. But within change lies opportunity. A new world of flying was opened to me by the move to New York. I have grown professionally. Kristy's career has taken a wonderful turn. A little Bear was born.

Most importantly, the entire experience in 2005 taught me that no future is assured and that radical change can occur at any moment. The day may come when I cannot fly anymore and it may come when I least expect.  Until then, I plan to enjoy myself as much as I can.

6 comments:

  1. Chris,

    I think this is the top post to date. It’s not as if so many other posts haven't been excellent, but this is heart and soul. It amazes me the events in my life that run through my mind while just hanging out at the airport or working on 08Romeo.

    We often hear that when one door closes another opens, that always drove me nuts. But, in most cases it's true and the opportunity to change direction or meet new people will alter our path in some way.

    Thanks for posting....oh, and by the way, the wax job looks great!

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  2. Chris - Gary beat me to it (you sure get up early on the weekends, Gary!) but his words are exactly what I was thinking after reading this post. Thanks for sharing the story and reflection - absolutely great writing.

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  3. As a lifelong Michigan resident I have seen so many of these stories it makes me sad. I believe our state is the only one whose population is going down, so losing even one more pilot to another state hurts.

    But aviation continues to thrive in Kalamazoo, and the Air Zoo is always a great way to spend a day.

    Keep up the flying - have fun - enjoy life - protect your eyes with a good pair of pilot aviator sunglasses and stay safe.

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  4. Chris,

    I have only recently found your blog, but find myself truly captivated by your stories! I also continue to be surprised by many similarities. I am a Michigan native from Bay City (Sunrise side), and now reside in Webster, NY. I have always been fascinated by flying (although have never been in a small plane before) and can relate to your love of flight! I will continue to be a faithful reader and tip your wing if you are ever over Ridge & Hard Rd. in Webster. :)

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  5. Chris, I live in Portage MI and often fly out of HAI, Three Rivers. I wrote you some two years ago as I was just starting my work on my PP license. Your site was one of my inspirations. Last week I passed my practiacal exam. Jason Blair was my DPE. Shortly I'll be buying a share of a nice Archer.
    Thanks for keeping up this great site.
    Greg Spicer

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    Replies
    1. Hi, Greg! Congratulations on passing your check ride and thank you for sharing. The Archer is a great airplane. If you've been flying the Cherokee 180 out of HAI (70R), you will find it to be similar, but there will be some differences in the landing / gliding / trim characteristics. Where will the Archer be based?

      Congratulations and best wishes. If your travels ever bring you to Western NY, look me up.

      -- Chris

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