Airline Pilot Wannabes, Don’t Lose Hope!

 

It was August, 1966. I had a massive 180 hours in my little black log book, the ink wasn’t even dry on my instrument ticket and I was headed back to Kansas City, Missouri to be interviewed for a Flight Officer position at TWA.

If I got past the stare down of the captain interviewers and they figured I had enough of the TWA “right stuff” I would then be given a physical and considered eligible for being hired as a pilot for Trans World Airlines.

The night before the interview, as I sat in my hotel room in the old President Hotel in downtown Kansas City, my mind was racing as I thought about the whirlwind I had just been spit out of, finding myself here, being interviewed for an airline dream job.

In 90 days, I had trained for and completed my private pilot’s license, and my commercial and instrument ratings at the old Flight Safety training academy at San Carlos airport.

After passing my instrument ticket check ride, I was sure if I ever had to do a missed approach out of an ILS approach as part of the hiring procedure, I’d for sure crash and burn. But, as it turned out in those days, they didn’t require a simulator check to get hired.

Come on, how could you expect a 180 hour pilot to pass a sim check in a 707, full motion simulator when all he’s had in his throttle hand was a little push/pull handle to make the thing go faster.

I remember not sleeping that night; I got up early to walk around the corner to stare, wide-eyed, at the TWA training center at 12th and Baltimore streets.

In my wildest dreams, I couldn’t imagine being here, crossing the threshold into that building, and being considered for a pilot position at an airline that was, not only one of the premier airlines in the world but it also happened to be my first choice as an airline to fly for.

How presumptuous of me, 180 hours! How could I even call myself a pilot!?

When I walked into the lobby, I was welcomed by the receptionist and told to take a seat in the reception area. The area had probably 15 or 20 straight back chairs arranged around the perimeter of the room.

Every chair was filled with a guy who looked just like the other guys; black or dark suits, white shirts with dark ties, shined shoes – you know the look if you’ve ever interviewed for a job, especially a pilot job!

(I remember thinking, “This secretary must have to really stifle a laugh every day, watching guys like me file in, all looking like we showed up to audition for the sequel to the “Men in Black!”)

As I took an empty seat in the middle of these guys, I looked around; I was sitting in the midst of a bunch of guys who looked like they just finished Navy Seal BUD week training; sitting straight as a stick, well composed, looking dead ahead, 12 o’clock, square jawed, you know the look.

After sitting there for a few minutes, I struck up a conversation with the guy on my right. He told me he just returned home from military flight duty in Vietnam.

He proceeded to tell me “Yeah, I just got back from ‘Nam.” I asked him, “What were you flying over there?” He said, “Caribous.”

I couldn’t help myself; I asked him how many hours he had. “About 3000,” he says.

“What the heck am I doing here!?” I thought to myself.

“If I sneak out now, maybe I can make the noon flight back to SFO. Except my return ticket isn’t good until tomorrow…O.K, stay with it, I’m here now, give it my best shot.”

Then the Caribou driver pointed across the room to another Navy Seal type and says, “Yeah, that’s a buddy of mine over there. He was in ‘Nam with me, flew Otters, doesn’t have as much time as me, only a couple thousand hours.”

“Only a couple thousand hours! You’re killing’ me; give me a break!”

Sheesh. Now I really started to sweat. I tried to think good thoughts, calm myself and stop sweating, because I didn’t want to go into the interview, smelling like a goat, and ruin one of the two white shirts I brought with me; one for the first day interview, one for the physical the next day.

Every time one of the two office doors would open, a captain would emerge and call one of our names.

As each Navy Seal suit filed separately into one of the two interview offices, I peered down a hallway that connected the two offices. As the interviews finished up I noticed some of the interviewees were directed to a room on the left down the hallway and some of them were directed to another one on the right.

I figured the guys with the most flight time were in the room on the right with the most guys in it. And the other room on the left held guys like me, the “imposers,” the “wannabes,” the “rejects.”

I knew I was going to be herded out of the interview and into the room on the left with the other “untouchables!” But I tried not to let my mind go there; I couldn’t help myself.

Just as I was trying to figure out how to slip out of the office without the receptionist noticing me, one of the captains came out of his office and called out, “Mr. Botta?”

That was it. I cinched up my skinny tie, patted down the lapels on my confirmation suit, walked into the office, and waited for the captain to invite me to sit down like I read I should do.

I was confused. The captain immediately made me feel like I belonged there. I thought, “Why would he do that if he was only going to herd me out of his office and into the reject room?”

Oh well, I’m here, might as well see if I can compensate for my lack of flight time by being a really nice, personable guy.

He asked me a bunch of questions; about flying, aerodynamics, weather, why I wanted to work for TWA, what kind of movies did I like, did I like girls, what I studied in college; those kinds of questions. The girl question would probably cross the line these days…

He didn’t bother to ask me about my flying time. Why the heck would he? It wasn’t enough to make any difference! He was probably just being nice so I would say something complimentary about TWA on my return flight home.

Then he asked me a big one, the one I was afraid of, the one about my college degree.”Why do you think you’re qualified to fly for TWA with a Social Science degree?” “How do you think a Social Science degree prepared you to fly airplanes?”

I was silently thinking to myself, “Man, I knew he was going to ask me that. I wish I had stuck with that mechanical engineering program at San Francisco State, even though I hated engineering.”

I can’t remember what I told him but I stumbled through the rest of my answers, giving it my best shot with each one.

By the end of the interview, I’m thinking I did pretty good but probably not half good enough to make up for my measly 180 hours.

After a few more questions, the captain stood up, shook my hand and said, “Thanks for coming Mr. Botta.” That was way too formal, too polite. If I was hired, he should be giving me a hug or something, right!”

Then he opened the door, pointed down the hall and said, “You’ll be a captain here at TWA within 3 years. Now just go down the hall and into that room on the right, Sir. Good luck.” 

“Why is he saying that to me, a private pilot, airline pilot wannabe with no chance of ever being hired, much less being a captain here!? Besides, that’s the room down the hall with the guys who just got hired. He must have made a mistake!”

“At least they gave me a round trip ticket, and they serve booze on the airplane so I can get hammered on the way home this afternoon with the other West Coast losers.”

I walked about twenty feet down the hallway, opened the door into the room and sat down. I looked around and there were about 5 guys sitting there. I struck up a conversation with one of the guys and he asked me, “How’d you do?”

I said, “I have no idea Man. It seemed to go pretty well.”

Then I offered what I thought was my best rationale for not getting hired; “I was up against all you guys with thousands of hours. How did you expect me to get hired!?”

He said, “Wait a minute buddy; you do know we’re the guys that got hired, right?”

I looked at him and said, “What!? You gotta be kidding me! Are you sure?”

He says, “Yeah, the other guys got escorted out of that other room and they’re down in the lobby, waiting for a ride to the airport!”

I just started laughing; but I could feel my eyes overflowing with tears of joy.

I knew at that moment I could make it through the physical, because my pulse was now back to something less than a hummingbird’s!

The guy asked me, “What’s the matter, Man?”

I said, “Someday, if we ever fly together, I’ll tell you!”

And I still had a clean white shirt for my physical the next day…

PS: Looking back and hearing the interview captain’s statement, “Son you’ll be a captain at this airline in 3 years,” ring in my ears, I thought about the 23 years I spent as an apprentice in the flight engineer and co-pilot’s seats before I upgraded to captain.

The 70’s fuel crisis, lousy upper level management, stagnant growth, corporate raiders, ad nauseam, took its toll on my flying career. And even though things didn’t go as forecast, I too, finally found my own, adequate version of “The Right Stuff.”

 And it was still the best job that a guy could have who didn’t want to work for a living!