Having a positive outlook on life is important. In fact, it is Rule Number 15 for me: Optimism takes work and is rewarded. I've noticed over the years that positive people tend to be happier and more successful. I will often look at negative people and say, "Will you stop hitting me with those negative waves!" (That comes from the Movie Kelly's Heroes between Odd Ball (Donald Sutherland) and Moriarty (Gavin MacLeod).

— James Albright





"Odd Ball,"
from "Kelly's Heroes"

By the same token, I've noticed that negative people seem to court negative things in life. But what is worse, they seem to spread their negativity to others. Or perhaps they seem to congregate. Birds of a feather . . .

Number Three of Three

Some of my stories begin, "I was hired as the number three pilot in a three pilot operation." That's happened to me a few times after I retired from the Air Force. Three seems to be a popular number. I believe it works best when all three have different personalities, but I am dealing with a limited sample size. This particular time the two established pilots had identical personalities. But they would deny that. You would think having the same personality would be the recipe for a friendship. It was not.

"James you are going to like Chip," I was told by the management company's chief pilot. "He's highly intelligent, he's a techno geek, and he knows the books by the book. He's just like you." It was a promising start. It was the chief pilot's job to sell me on it, I knew. But I had heard that this flight department couldn't hold on to its pilots. The word on the street was the owner was especially hard to work for. In five years they had gone through ten pilots. Only the flight department manager, Chip Dawson, seemed to survive.

Nigel May, number two, was hired a few months before me. He was a foreign national who moved to the U.S. to learn to fly and found himself as a first officer flying for a major airline based out of Boston. He gravitated to IRP status. As an International Relief Pilot, he flew the biggest airplanes his airline had. He became a U.S. citizen and was living the American dream until September 11, 2001. He ended up on the street, like many other furloughed airline pilots. He bounced back flying the smallest airplanes our management company had. He wanted very badly to fly something big and international again. That's how he ended up flying with Chip.

Nigel seemed to think that by virtue of being an IRP, he was an airline sanctioned international pilot and by virtue of the great Delta Airlines, he knew everything he needed to know to cross any pond in the world. Chip Dawson, on the other hand, had zero airline experience and thought every airline pilot was only skilled at accepting whatever flight plan spat out of the computer and flying from the part of the flight plan that said "departure" to the part that said "destination." Of course I am not blameless in the story that unfolds. I assumed that I was in a flight department of adults. All three of us were mistaken.

It's Downhill From Here


A plotting chart

I got three takeoffs and landings around the pattern with the new boss sitting silently in the right seat. I was wondering if I had made the grade until, as I was getting up to walk out the door, he said "See you on Monday, we're going to Z├╝rich." Chip didn't believe in feedback. On Monday he asked if I had filed the flight plan yet. Chip didn't believe in instruction.

As we neared coast out at Gander Chip sat quietly in the left seat. I looked around the cockpit and found a plotting chart and plotted the route. I got our oceanic clearance, checked in with the radio operator at Gander Radio, and plotted the navigation accuracy check. Ten minutes after we passed our first oceanic waypoint, I made a post-position plot.

"I wish Nigel knew how to do that," Chip said. "For someone who thinks he's God's gift to international pilots, he doesn't know anything about plotting."

"Maybe you can teach him," I said.

"He doena wanna learn nothing from me," Chip said.

And so it went for the next several hours. Chip had nothing to say unless it was a complaint against the pilot he had hired before me.

Where art thou, Romeo?


California-to-Hawaii "Romeo" routes

A week later our dispatcher called to say I was the Pilot in Command for our next trip from Wilmington, Delaware to Kona, Hawaii. Nigel would be flying with me. I filed the flight plans, let Nigel know we would be flying empty to Wilmington and then with seven charter passengers to Kona. "You want to fly east or west?" I asked.

"I'll fly as captain," he said. "I'll take us to Kona and we'll see how it goes."

"Okay," I said.

Nigel did a competent job of flying to Kona. As we started our coast out I looked in vain for a plotting chart. Coming up empty, I told Nigel my plan. "I'll lightly plot in pencil on the en route chart and we'll look for a copy machine in Kona to make a record of it."

"Whatever," he said.

Nigel was a good bar companion and was game for driving up to the observatory on the top of Kilauea. But the night before our return trip things took a turn for the worse.

"I got us planned at Mach eight five," I said at dinner. "We have plenty of gas and eight three risks going over ten hours total flight time. That would violate our 135 two-pilot rule."

"Okay," he said. "But next time you better ask me first. Don't ever forget who the captain is."

"Nigel," I said softly. "According to the trip sheet it's me."

"What?" he said.

"I assumed you and Chip were trying to season me quickly," I said. "It really doesn't matter to me and if I need any course corrections, please speak up."

"No," he said. "You're doing fine."

The next day I carefully erased my pencil marks on the en route chart. "You should be able to plot on the en route chart," I said. "We're on a different Romeo route and I erased my markings from the other day."

"We don't plot the Romeo routes," Nigel said. "I was an international pilot for Delta Airlines. The rulebook says you don't have to plot fixed airways."

"I guess the airline rules are different," I said. "But the FAA rule says you do. If you don't want to, I can do it."

"Yeah," he said. "You do that."

I knew that was a common misconception. The routes between California and Hawaii were called the "Romeo Routes" because each route began with the letter R. Plotting was required because they were more than 725 nautical miles from the nearest navigation aid. The rule applied to us and the airlines. But Nigel's tone told me he wasn't open to contrary views, even from his captain. Of course I assumed he would be captain on the next leg.

The Captain's Hand


"Why don't you make Nigel the captain?" I asked. I called the dispatcher as soon as I got the flight orders, listing me as the captain again.

"He isn't qualified yet," she said. "I just got off the phone with him. He called this morning to complain so I called the company standards department who said he doesn't have the minimum experience yet. Nigel wasn't happy. But what can I do about that?"

Indeed. Nigel was not a happy camper. I was locked in a hollow aluminum tube with him for the next eight hours listening to why we corporate aviation guys had it all wrong and that they — the airline they — were experts at flying outside the United States. Of course Nigel hadn't exhibited any expertise that I had noticed as yet. But he was senior to me, he was sensitive about the whole thing, and I just wanted things to go smoothly.

Expertise was also in short supply while flying with Chip, who was considered an international captain by our company's rulebook.

"There," he said while dialing in the frequency to a beacon as we flew to Puerto Rico. "I just saved you the necessity to plot."

"How did you do that?" I asked.

"As long as you have a navaid needle up," he said, "you don't have to plot."

"Where does it say that?" I asked. Chip moved his seat aft to pull a reference manual from the book case just aft of the throttle quadrant and beneath the floor. He pulled out what I recognized to be Volume One of the Jeppesen manuals. In there were roughly 1,500 pages of a small font printed on thin onion skin paper. He handed me the book.

"It's in there," he said. "You don't believe me? I bet you a quarter."

It was the longest conversation we had had since I met him. I thought briefly about letting the fish run with the line for a bit, but decided against it. Chip was my boss. But perhaps he could be forgiven for not realizing that minutiae was my forte. I quickly flipped to the section in question. I handed him the manual. He read silently.


FAA Order 8900.1, Vol 4, Chapter 1, ¶4-80

Chip put the manual away and dug into his pockets. He handed me a quarter. "This is the last one of these you will ever get from me."



And so it went, for two years. Well, not exactly like that. I started lining up the quarters on the wainscoting behind my office desk. Chip stopped betting. What we devolved to was whenever I flew with Chip I got an unload about what a rotten pilot Nigel was and with Nigel it was what a rotten human being Chip was. The only thing they both had in common was the idea that we were being underpaid.

"An airline captain flying this exact route to Paris is making more than you and me combined," Nigel said on one of our usual runs. "He has a team of dispatchers, weather forecasters, and all sort of experts helping out. We should form a union."

"Maybe you should quit," I said, helpfully.

"Maybe I will," he said.

"All I want to do is fly airplanes," Chip would say on the next trip. "They don't pay me enough to be Nigel's nursemaid. Did I tell you what he did on our last trip?"

"Maybe you should quit," I said, trying to redirect the conversation.

"You're not going to believe this," he said, missing the bait entirely. And I spent the next hour not believing the story teller or the story being told.

I was thinking about quitting when Chip beat me to the punch. He found a job with more money and less Nigel. I sat back wondering what was going to happen next. "Nigel is interviewing to take Chip's place," our dispatcher said. "Maybe you should do that too."

"That's okay," I said. "It might be smoother around here with Nigel in charge."

"I doubt that," she said.

The owner must have agreed because he called the next day. "You're in charge," he said. "Don't F@(#! it up."

Understanding Nigel


Nigel and I flew exclusively for a few months while we scoured the countryside for a suitable third pilot. Our relationship seemed to take a turn for the better when I noticed Nigel struggling to get a Navigation Accuracy Check as we coasted out of Brazil on our way to South Africa.

"Here try this," I said. I reached across the cockpit and pressed the right buttons on our Flight Management System that automated the chore. "Why make it hard when you can make it easy," I said. Nigel repeated the key strokes a few times.

"This is pretty neat," he said. "To think of the number of times I did this the old fashioned way. I could learn a lot from you, James."

As the weeks went by it seemed Nigel was actually a nice guy. I decided that Nigel should spearhead our efforts to find a third pilot.

Nigel found a young pilot who exuded happiness and let it be known in no uncertain terms he was there to learn. I met Bob and immediately liked him. We arranged the interview with the aircraft owner and in less than a month our new plebe showed up, ready for duty.

"At last," Nigel said. "A young pup we can beat into shape."

"No beatings," I reminded Nigel.

But within a few weeks we had returned to the status quo ante. My flights with Nigel were filled with complaints about Bob and my flights with Bob were all about Nigel. Nigel was unhappy with his pay and with having to teach. "They don't pay me to teach," he said over and over again. "The school produces a first officer and I expect that first officer to know his job without me holding his hand."

"I can't do my job with Nigel yelling at me all the time," Bob said. "It is kind of embarrassing. He even yells at me in front of the passengers."

"Cut the kid some slack," I would say to one. "Try to be more receptive," I would say to the other. But Nigel couldn't do that. Nigel had turned into Chip and Bob had turned into Nigel. For the first time in many years of leading people I was at a loss. Meanwhile our management company had lost its license and we were farmed off to another company. After a few months of flying for Brand X I had had enough and quit. A month later Bob quit and a few months after that Delta let Nigel know that it was his last chance to come back, this time as a captain.

Negative Breeds Negative, Positive Breeds Positive


Delta A319, Reno, NV, Matt Birch (http://visualapproachimages.com/)

I lost track of Chip, Nigel, and Bob for a few years. Then one day I while waiting to catch an airline flight I was tapped on the shoulder by an old squadron mate wearing the three strips of a Delta Airlines first officer. I asked him if he knew Nigel.

"Captain Eeyore," he said. "Nice enough guy, but flying for more than a day with him gets depressing. Everything the airline does is wrong and he never stops about how great things were in corporate aviation."

I thought about that for a while and wondered about the rest of the players in my years of flying as an amateur psychiatrist. I called our dispatcher from those days, she led me to the same management company I had quit, where I found that Chip was flying for a new outfit based in Teterboro. On my next flight there I walked to their offices but he was on the road. On my way out I saw a flight attendant from my past and we traded war stories for a few minutes before I asked about Chip.

"Mister warm and fuzzy," she said, rolling her eyes. "On my first trip with him I thought it was something I did, but after a while we found that he treats everyone like that."

"Like what?" I asked.

"When he gets tired he stares right at you," she said, "like he's mad. But he doesn't say anything, he just sits there and looks at you."

I had forgotten that, but it was true. "What about when he isn't tired?"

"Then he just tries to make you feel stupid," she said. "I learned pretty quick to walk away whenever he tries to be mister science. The first time I asked him if he wanted some water I though he was just trying to be funny. But I really think he wanted to make me feel stupid."

I remembered that routine. It goes like this: "Would you guys like some water?" "Not unless you add caffeine and heat it to two hundred degrees Fahrenheit."

"Why do you call him Mister Warm and Fuzzy?" I asked.

"We gave him that name early on because all he ever does is complain," she said. "The funny thing is his attitude is infectious. When he starts whining the other pilot tries to match him. Then we get home and everyone starts complaining about him. This used to be a fun place. Now we all spend as little time around here as possible and look for something better to do when a trip comes up with his name on it." She fell silent for a moment but then laughed. "One of the pilots saw his name on the schedule and said he thought it was a good day to get a colonoscopy instead."

I made one more visit to the last veteran of our old flight department. Bob was back to his original happy self. "The trips are great, the airplane is great, the people are great," he said. "Nobody ever quits and I feel like the luckiest pilot on earth that I managed to get my resume in just as one of their guys decided to retire. You should get your resume in. You would love it here."

I thought back to Rule Number 15, which is that "Optimism takes work, and is rewarded." Since I coined that, back in 1980, I've heard it expressed in other ways. One sage said that the natural human condition is to be negative. "It's easier to be negative than positive; that's why so many people are negative. It's the natural condition. But is takes a real effort to be positive." Maybe. But it is easier to be positive when all around you are too. Chip and Nigel are destined to be unhappy the rest of their lives. For Bob it was just a detour. Me too.