Airports and the airways are just another kind of neighborhood. Like passing through the four corners of town, sooner or later we are certain to cross paths with most everyone we know. We see the folks that we "grew up" with, and the elders who helped us grow. Eventually we start to see the youngsters that we, in turn, helped along.
It is not uncommon, even in the New York area, to meet neighbors, either by chance or as result of coinciding schedules. In the wee hours of one morning I discovered that my approach controller had flown a few lessons with me in the past. Another time I was surprised by one of our local "breakfast bunch" pilots as we were both going out to our different airplanes in Newark. Quite often I hear other pilots flying our company's forty- odd routes that spread from Indianapolis to Presque Isle.
Sometimes it is just the aircraft that neighbor with each other in cris- cross flight paths. Often I will hear some particular flight pass a thousand feet above me over central New Jersey, and fifteen minutes later meet the same plane again at a taxiway intersection on the ground. I usually get a quick clearance to land on the short runway, while the airliners have to be brought around a longer path for the main runway. I smile as I taxi in front of it, enroute to my parking spot.
There is a much better chance of seeing people at the "home' airport though. One evening as I was getting ready to make my rounds, a familiar business jet rolled in to drop off a few passengers. I recognized Mike in the left seat, and walked up to the nose to give him a quick wave of hello through the dark and across the noise of his engines. We could talk another time.
I first met Mike just after he got out of the Army. He drove a bakery supply truck five nights a week so that he could drive from Southside Elmira to Dundee and take two flying lessons every Saturday morning. He took it very seriously, even though learning the airplane's ways came easily to him.
It happened that I told his dad that Mike would likely make his first solo flight on the next Saturday, and he and his wife cooked up a surprise for him. They arrived at the airport just after Mike and I started our lesson, and parked out of sight behind a hangar to wait. It was a cold gray morning, but after a few takeoffs and landings, I got out of the plane and sent him out on his own.
We watched him make several circuits of the traffic pattern, and then they briefly hid again. We all enjoyed watching as his look of pride melted into surprised delight when he realized that his parents had come to watch him.
Mike spent the next several years pumping fuel and parking planes at the Elmira airport, gradually working his way through all the necessary licenses to become a commercial pilot. In a turn of the tables after I started instructing at Elmira, I made several trips in the company charter plane as his co- pilot.
He has moved on since then, flying jets to near and far, but it was nice to see him for a moment. I have moved up a bit too, which left the flight instructor position vacant at Elmira. It pleases me to see that spot is now filled by Jeff, a young fellow who was one of my students there.
After I left, Jeff finished his private license with another long- time local flight instructor and then spent some fraction of a year at one of the big flight academies down south. He has returned with a pocket- full of FAA licenses, but more importantly he survived the experience with his love for small airports and little airplanes unspoiled.
He could have stayed on at the fligh academy and taken the fast track to an airline job, building a thousand hours experience in less than a year, but he chose to return to Elmira. This area is where he calls "home", and it is home to the kind of flying that he enjoys most. Jeff seems to be one of the rare flight instructors who lives here because he wants to, and instructs because he likes to. He has the unusually wide range of skills and abilities which allows him that sort of independence.
A flight instructor's greatest pleasure is to see a young student continue on with flying and make it a career, as Mike, Jeff, and several others have done. Jeff though might be a special case, because his attraction to flying is closer to the spiritual level, rather than the more common fulfillment or occupational levels. It looks like I may have had a hand in creating an "old- fashioned" flight instructor.
Prospective students in the Elmira area will never find a better opportunity to learn to fly, and I wish Jeff a long and satisfying career.