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Sunday, January 22, 2012

The Poker Game That Launched My Career

"The event that ultimately defined my life was...a poker game."

It’s mind-boggling—”uncanny,” as my dad would have said—to look back on life and realize that there were single, seemingly innocuous decisions that ultimately determined the path that your life took.  I’m not talking about the deliberate life decisions we try to make—marry or move on?  Abort, adopt or raise?  Aeronautical Engineer, English/Japanese Major, or Acting degree?* How ironic that most of these forks in the road come within +/- the age of maximum arrogance and minimum experience (yes, I’m talking about the Golden Age of 18!)  
Ultimately, I decided on Aero Engineer, thinking it would boost my airline career prospects—until my buddy got hired by a major airline two years before me with a degree in... Photography.  No, I’m talking about the seemingly simple decisions that, in retrospect, define the very essence of your life.  Brake instead of pushing the yellow light, miss a semi barreling through the intersection.  Right instead of left, land a random job that becomes a career.  Go to the bank instead of Sub Stop, meet the love of your life.  
Looking back, I was flabbergasted (thanks Grandma, for that word!) to realize that the essence of my career, the innocuous event that ultimately defined the path my life was to take, was...a poker game.

Fresh out of college with a BS in Aero E, (ain’t “BS” the truth), I found myself stuck.  While attending college at Arizona State University, I had been flight instructing—the official entry-level job for wanna-be, non-military pilot types.  While it literally flew circles ‘round the standard college McDonald’s or waiter job (though perhaps not the way-cool bartender job,) it had put me in a rut.
At age 24, I had a BS degree and 2,200 hours of flying.  Impressive.  Most impressive.  But I was not a Jedi yet.  The vast majority of my time was flight instructing, in single-engine Cessna 152’s.  I needed twin-engine time.  And turboprop time.  And instrument time.  And, ultimately, jet time.  But each rung on the aviation ladder came with its own “Catch 22”:  you couldn’t GET the time without already HAVING the time.
In addition to flight instructing, I had bagged my first “real” aviation job:  flying charters in single-engine prop planes.  The bread and butter of the operation was the ubiquitous Grand Canyon tour in the mighty Cessna 210.  Turbocharged, top ‘o the line, a favorite of pilots.  But still only a single piston.  

I was in a rut.  And I knew it.

But then, opportunity fell into my lap.  An outfit specializing in Grand Canyon tours out of GCN Airport, was hiring.  This was my chance!  My lucky break!  With my six years of GCN flying, surely I was I shoe-in!  Best of all, GCN Airways flew the mighty Twin Otter, a twin-engine, 2-pilot turboprop.  With a whopping 19 passenger seats!
Oh, man, I was salivating at the prospects!
Like 18 other prospective pilot-candidates, I showed up at Day 1 of GCN Airways’ week-long ground school awash with the enthusiasm of bagging a REAL “airline” job--certainly the springboard to the fabled Left Seat of a major airline!**
I’ll be the first to admit, I showed up cocky.  Mighty cocky.  I had 3 times the flight hours of every other pilot there.  And when they informed us that only half of us would be hired, I actually felt sorry for those rookies around me who would no doubt get the pink slip.  So confident was I in my new calling, that I had quit both flight instructing and charter flying jobs.
The week of ground school flew by, a flurry of aircraft systems, procedures, company policies . . . and parties.  While those other bores from class spent their nights diligently studying, in classic, tortoise and hare fashion, I drank rum with my buddy Ramon, a GCN bus tour driver I’d met on one of my countless sojourns.  And then, on Saturday, came the final exam.  8 am sharp, we would test on our knowledge of said systems, policies and procedures.
The night before, I went to a poker game.
I had a marvelous time.  I cleaned out Ramon and his buddies, to the tune of $18 and change.  The perfect end to a boring week of ground school!

I made it to the 8 am test a little late.  And more than a little hungover...

...the questions seemed a little harder than I thought necessary, and I guessed a little more than I probably should have.
It was only after I turned in my test that I got the shocking news:  hiring was based STRICTLY on test performance, not on experience.
And when the results came out in the afternoon, I missed the last slot by 1/2 a point.
1/2 a point!
Mouth-agape, I watched in stunned silence as each of my winning classmates proudly stepped forward to accept their test—and the handshake welcoming them to the company.
Empty-handed, with ego thoroughly thrashed, I limped home, a long, 5-hour drive to Mom and Dad’s.  No job.  No prospects.  No career.
That $18 and change barely paid for my gas home.  Oh, if only I’d studied that fateful Friday night!  I had only myself to blame...

But it turned out to be the best decision of my life.

For, shortly thereafter, I got a phone call from my college buddy Kevin that would change my life.  And launch my career.
Three days later, I found myself flying the Alaskan bush.  An amazing experience full of “there I wuz” stories that led me, inexorably and ironically, straight into the Left Seat of a Twin Otter in...the US Virgin Islands.
But that’s another dozen blogs or two...

*Believe it or not, Cap’n Aux seriously considered each of these degrees.
**See my previous blog, "Cap'n Aux's Ultimate—and ultimately shattered—Aviation Dream")

My old Twin Otter, after landing…well, actually after Hurricane Hugo (St. Croix, USVI, 1989.)  So sad, however, to see the demise of the "French Bra," as we called her (note her tail number!)  In this pic: I invite Julia aboard!


  1. Hey Captain. Came across your profile a while back but you had no blog up. Checking back in and here it was! Awesome posts so far. Looking forward to more. I'm a robotics student from Sweden working towards my PPL and embarking on the ever so long journey of becoming a professional pilot.

    Again, glad I found your blog. Very interesting stuff.

    1. Thanks for the comments, 120kts. Glad you stopped back in! Ya the blog's a work in progress. Liking the format, but I'm sure there's room to improve. My best advice for you is to enjoy the journey and the adventure of the career you've embarked upon. It is a joy (and challenge) no matter what level you're at--120kts, 250kts or 450kts, lol! Please tune back in and feel free to comment any time. I'm writing the next blog now (prob. post Friday or so) that I think is absolutely hysterical!
      --Cap'n A

  2. Hey Captain Eric!
    Great post, what a coincidence... a blessing in disguise? You might've already thought about it, but did you plan on speaking openly about the airline you work for or keep it private? I've seen some bad things happen in this blogging world... not that you're posting anything that could harm you of course :)

    1. So good to have you back, Bas! I actually did have blatant ref's to my airline, but I'm trying to de-personalize from the identity of my airline. However, it wouldn't take much to figure it out. I appreciate your concern, and I am trying to keep it reasonably private :)

      PS--I did sign up to your blog, but didn't see anywhere that I could comment. Am I missing something? Great blog though! I've listed it on my own blogroll, below. Q: why didn't you call yourself the Flying Dutchman?!?!
      --Cap'n A :)

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  4. Hey Captain,

    Thanks for adding me :) I saw you've registered. The comment section on a post can be found near the little 'text balloon', if you click on the number next to it. (It's not big but it can't be changed).
    So if you go to 'blog' and see one of my blog posts, in the right upper corner of the post right under the title you'll see this little text baloon and the amount of comments. Click that and you can read and write comments.
    To answer your question, The Flying Dutchman was taken, and it's been used a lot already. I used a different variety of it, not very 'cool' but I've never been good at coming up with great nicknames haha.

    I'm happy to have found this blog, and will add you to my blogroll too :) Can't have enough blogging pilots.


  5. Thaks, Bas, I'll drop by and comment!

  6. Capt'n............Love your candor.........!!!
    I could just come so close to the passing grade......being so Damn full of yourself............ha ha....But serious...maybe good to have the 'Wind', so to speak..knocked out of ya........and start with a fresh breath of air..........
    Ya Neva Know.........what may happen....your turns, twists, as you say....but never lose sight........of just
    how Lucky you are,We matter your lot in life.......(i believe)
    Thanks for sharing.....!!!

  7. Yes, humbling--a tuff lesson for a pilot type, lol! But very valuable lesson. Yes! Lucky!! Amen to that!!!


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