Bob’s Pilot Story
“Choose a job you love, and you will never work a day in your life.” Confucius.
That single quote, shared with me by teacher, motivational speaker, and friend Jim Bagnola inspired a profound transition in my life.
This transition took me from the football fields of Pennsylvania and New York to a successful career in the Pentagon, to a life as a professional pilot; a career that I love and want to do as long as I live.
Disdaining the airline career path, I have opted for corporate flying, very much enjoying the autonomy, freedom and variety this job provides. I have flown Part 91 and 135, single pilot IFR and as a crew member. I have managed flight departments and supervised personnel. Learning the jets has been challenging and exciting, and I have loved flying all over the world. But my favorite flying so far was as a single pilot King Air guy.
As with most things in life, the things that get handed to you are least appreciated. As humans, we tend to appreciate the things we worked hardest to get. I worked hard for everything I ever got and aviation is no exception. The only difference is that my career in aviation and everything it took to get here has never seemed like work. After over 8000 flight hours, I have never tired of flying the airplane, and consider myself one of the most fortunate people on the planet to have the gift of flight. All of the risks and sacrifices – all the things I have lost or given up are more than worth it as I push the power levers forward and accelerate down the runway for takeoff.
Some people can accept the fact that work feels like work and can accept that it is a means to an end. Some can work the same job or in the same career field for life with no complaints. Some are more complacent than others and some, by virtue of their decisions or by circumstance, find themselves limited to what they can do. I know all too well that station in life. I have been there and was there for nearly fifteen years. Whether you are trapped in a high paying career or a low paying dead end job, trapped is trapped. When life has become a mere existence and not a life, everything seems flat and flavorless.
On my resume, you may notice that I am a former NCAA placekicker. One of my college coaches, Tom Elsasser, said that football teaches you a lot about life. He was more right than he realized, at least in the way it affected my life. I experienced the highest highs and the lowest lows on the football field, but win or lose, I was truly alive. The euphoria of kicking a game-winning field goal in the closing seconds of a football game – watching the ball split the uprights and hearing the band play and seeing the screaming fans pour onto the field is an experience that can deeply affect a person. It basically changed me. Those magnificent experiences set the bar extremely high for what life is supposed to feel like.
Years later in Washington, DC, after I had hit the career ceiling, I became very familiar with what Theodore Roosevelt called “the gray twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat”. I know what it feels like and what it does to a person’s mind, especially to a person who has truly lived. It wasn’t until I found aviation that I was able to recapture living again.
I recall the days in Washington. I had an important job running the press briefing facility at the Pentagon. It was one of those jobs that gave you everything you needed but very little of what anyone would want. It was pressure filled and at times satisfying but it was one of those jobs that chooses you. I was right for this job, but try as I might I could not make it right for me. No kid ever says, “I want to be a government worker when I grow up.”
I served from the end of the Reagan Administration through Bush 1, Clinton, into Bush 2, through 9/11/2001, and well into the War on Terror. Yes, it was a job of service but I suspected early on that despite its visibility, it had limited importance to anyone outside the Beltway.
During the sleepy days of the Clinton Administration, when very little was asked of my staff and facility, it was very common to live an entire year with nothing standing out in terms of accomplishments. The entire Clinton Administration was eight years of gray twilight. Looking back I can actually only remember about a half dozen things that happened during that time. I literally have no memory of the vast majority of those years.
I was living the movie Groundhog Day. Every day was the same day for years and years. Despite the daily battle to make it something more, I would wake the next morning in the same day. Yes, my work was considered important and had a good deal of what others would consider prestige. Yes, I made good money, had paid vacation and health benefits. But I was commuting four hours a day and my entire weekend was dedicated to doing all the household stuff I didn’t have time for during the week. My life was in the fog. I was miserable and depressed. My marriage was suffering and I wasn’t a very good father. I was lost.
During that time, I was chastised by friends, peers, and supervisors. I was told I was wrong to want more out of life, that I was very fortunate to have the job I did. I was told to quit whining because there were countless people would give their right arm to be in my job. They were right. I had a great thing, I recognized that, and I was grateful to all the fine people who helped put me where I was. But as I said then and still believe now, it isn’t whining if you’re unhappy because something doesn’t fit. I believed there could be more to life than a government job in Washington, D.C. I believed, took the necessary steps, took risks, and came out the other side.
Make no mistake, changing careers was no easy game. I wish I could tell you that there is some force in the universe that would look down on us and say, “Ah, I see you are looking for more out of life. Going to quit the rat race and follow your dreams? How very unusual and courageous! The universe needs more like you, so I am going to help you. I’ll make sure the wind is always at your back, your bank account is always full, and that you never have to worry about a thing. Go get ’em, Tiger!”
My experience has been to the contrary. It seems that right when you think you have it covered, some mysterious force yanks the rug out from under you. Right about the time you think you have gotten the big break that will make life easier, something comes along and says, “Ah, I see you are looking for more out of life. A maverick, huh? That’s cute. That nice job offer that guy promised you? Poof! Gone. He won’t be returning your calls. Oh, and that guy you did the contract work for? He’s broke and can’t pay you. What are you going to do now? You can always go back to the cage.”
In the early days of my aviation career, shortly after I left the security of the Pentagon, and right after the economy collapsed (and with it much of aviation) I was faced with the prospect of financial ruin. Even in the darkest days I never once considered the option of returning to government work. I would have died first.
I have gone back to the Pentagon a few times since I resigned in 2005. I see many of the same people, often with the help of alcohol or antidepressants doing the same jobs and living the gray twilight, the vast majority will do so until they retire. While they have been doing the same job day in and day out, I went out to live.
As an aviator, I am living the dream. But it is time for a new chapter to begin. In order to accomplish great things in life, one must take risks and get out of the comfort zone. In order to fully live, one must be free. I am not sure what lies ahead but I have great confidence that it will be better than I expect, challenging, and fulfilling.