February 19, 2003

From the ground, I watched as the lights of the airplane grew smaller. They turned right, then right again, almost 180 degrees in all. The sound of the propeller started to build as the lights droned closer to me, still climbing skyward. I visualized everything the pilot was seeing, and everything he was doing.

Of the three Company planes that leave for Syracuse every night, I am the last to depart. I often watch the others as they take off to the west and turn northeast, just as this one was doing. Sometimes I use the planes to gauge the weather, noting how crisp the lights look, or how quickly they disappear into the clouds. Sometimes I note the planes almost unconsciously; In a way they are like the hands of a clock, marking the passage of time until it is my turn to leave.

On Friday nights, there are only two planes scheduled, and we rotate the extra position among the three of us. Unless the schedule is disturbed, the extra pilot need only show up for work as a "stand-by" on these nights. Last week it was my turn. It is a treat to be able to have an extra long weekend, and to sleep in my own bed for an extra night, but I often feel left behind as the second plane leaves me with nothing to do but go home.

Last Friday night, I watched as the lights of the lights of the last plane faded into the northeast ahead of me as I drove home. Even on a clear night, it doesn't take much more than five minutes for that to happen, whether you are driving in that direction or standing in one place. The plane disappeared before I reached the crossroads of Tompkins Corners, but I continued to play the nightly routine of sights and sounds in my mind.

As he disappeared, I knew that he had leveled off at 5000 feet, that the heating system, set at full blast, would finally be asserting itself within the cold- soaked airplane. He would be done with the departure procedures and would be tuning his radios to their next frequencies. Shortly, before passing from Schuyler County, he would be able to receive the arrival information broadcast from Syracuse.

Most pilots spend days at a time away from home, and may travel quite far away and back during their trips. Some of us are fortunate to have flying jobs that let us be home every day, and to fly a regular schedule of times and routes. Every night about quarter past eight, I pass near my house after departing from Elmira. I see Watkins Glen, Odessa, and Montour Falls. I look west from Montour, up the hillside, and I can usually see the light of our back porch. Looking south from there, I can see the little lights that line the driveway back to my daughter's cabin in the woods.

I think that it is sort of a special treat to be able to wave good bye to the family every night, Just as I think I am lucky to have a flying job that lets me be home every day. Some guys look down their noses at us Caravan pilots, as though we had been left behind, and condemned to ply aviation's back waters. We sort of like our swamp though, and we have learned not to argue with people who can't understand that.

My co- workers left me behind last Friday, and as usual, I had trouble letting go. Lots of people look forward to a long retirement, but I hope for many more years of work. My only regret is that I was 50 years old before I discovered what I wanted to do when I grew up.

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