A sincere reflection about a lifetime’s worth of aviation friends and mentors.

January is the time of year is when we all look forward, not back, but I hope you’ll indulge me for few moments here as I turn my gaze around 180 degrees and check out my “six.” Piper Flyer is heading into its 15th year, and like all anniversaries, it makes me think of the past a little more than usual.

I think I have been writing for this magazine, off and on, almost as long as it has been in existence. My time here has been the most enjoyable and fulfilling of any writing gig I have ever had. You just won’t find a nicer group of people than Jennifer, Kent, Heather and the others that make all of this possible. You have read my stuff and know that it takes a special group of people to put up with me and my kind of writing.

These people are friends.

As I continue to gaze backward into the depths of my aviation and writing career, it occurs to me that my upbringing in both businesses has been literally stuffed with friends, mentors, helpers and generally nice people. 

You won’t find many pilots these days who are as self-made as me. I used to pride myself on the fact that nobody paid a cent to help me with my flight training, college or my developing writing career.

For example, the first formal ground school I ever attended was at my airline after they hired me to be a pilot. I had taught ground schools, but had never taken one. Books were cheap when I was a kid wanting to fly. I read them, studied them, and then took FAA written exams.

I paid for my flight lessons by working at various jobs, starting when I was 14. By 16, I was working at the airport as a lineboy and with the employee discount, I could buy a half-hour of dual every couple of weeks. 

I could go on with this schmaltzy, Horatio Alger-like story of a “boy who worked hard and made it on his own,” but that, for me, simply wasn’t true. I did not, ever, do it on my own. I had friends who helped me, pushed me and loved me into the career of my dreams. There is none of my do-it-myself myth that I could have done without enormous amounts of help from others.

The reason I did not need to go to formal ground school was because of the thousands of hours I sat around the airport when I was a kid, talking flying with the patient people and friends who would put up with all my questions and incessant chatter about airplanes. I learned more from an hour with a local Twin Beech cargo pilot or a tired but patient A&P than I could have learned in a dozen hours of classroom time.

Talk about friends—I sometimes wish I could go back and spend a few hundred more hours with the guys I hung out with at the airport when I was a kid. We spent our young lives talking airplanes, cleaning airplanes, towing airplanes, fueling, re-oiling, pushing, vacuuming out, windshield-cleaning and bathroom-dumping various airplanes. I can say with pride that there is not a single disgusting job having to do with airplanes that I have not done.

You can’t appreciate flying captain on a Boeing 767 until you have cleaned out the bathroom of a Cessna 411 with its trash-bag-based lavatory system. Sitting in the cockpit of a 727 at O’Hare in winter waiting to push-back was much more luxurious to me because I had spent years with my friends outside on ramps, hot and cold, doing the scut work that makes aviation possible.

I can’t speak for my old ramp friends, but I absolutely loved it. All of it. I enjoyed complaining about being cold, or wet, or tired. A bad day on the ramp was better than any good day in any other non-aviation job I could think of. It was all great because I was surrounded by friends of mine that were almost as into aviation as I was.

My “up by my own bootstraps” story is full of examples of people helping me when they had no real reason to do so. I am thinking now of Harry Marpole, an instructor working at Lakeland Flying Service, who spent two of his days off teaching me my commercial maneuvers, all at no charge. I remember Shawnee Lander, a hippy-dippy kind of guy who saw enough in me to sign me off for my CFI when I was a sweaty 19-year-old know-it-all lineboy with no future and no money.

You want to talk friends? How about George Warren? George was a Vietnam helicopter combat vet who had no logical reason to hire me for his one-airplane flying school when I was a not-so-experienced CFI trying to get though my college education at Florida State University. George worked with me to get my instrument rating, again at no charge, just because he was a good guy and saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself. 

It turned out that you needed an instrument rating to be an airline pilot. George should have been an airline pilot instead of me, but getting hired by an airline was (and still is) all about timing and luck. His help pushed me along to a career that he deserved, but I got.

Another generous soul, Warren White, deserves a lot of thanks for his friendship. Warren owned and operated Trans Air in Tallahassee and gave me my first flying job that included operating airplanes bigger than a Cessna 150. It was at Trans Air that I got to fly twins, charters, banners, turtle surveys, forestry and other General Aviation missions to build my time up to an airline-worthy level.

Warren helped train me and make me a good pilot by giving me access to all kinds of professional flying. Then, when I became a good pilot, the airline hired me, and I scooted away in a flash. By the time Delta took me on, Warren White had sanded and polished off some of the weather cowardice and low standards which I had been guilty of as I grew up. 

I was in my early twenties when I joined the airline, but I was an old man in terms of aviation experience and wisdom thanks to the opportunities Warren and George gave me.

I never would have gotten through my first few months as an airline pilot if it hadn’t been for various roommates and friends at Delta who helped me along. It still boggles my mind to think back on the patience they showed me as I foundered though my 727 flight engineer training and initial experience. Talk about friends—I flew with hundreds of my best friends at Delta.

When I retired and moved over to being a mostly General Aviation pilot and writer once again, my friends in that area welcomed me back and reminded me of why I loved flying—any kind of flying—so much. 

It turns out I had not changed much from that sweaty but sincere lineboy. Sitting around hangars and flight school pilot lounges is my comfort zone. My best friends are still those out at the airport, in the sky and reading this magazine column right now.

We are not friends in the sense that you call me every week to see how I am, and I doubt that you got a holiday card from me or a note on your birthday. We are friends because I am willing to bet that if we meet on an airport ramp somewhere, or at next year’s Gathering at Waupaca, we will have lots of things to talk about and we will enjoy each other’s company.

I will steal a line from Bogart here and say that the 15 years of writing about flying with my friends here at Piper Flyer has been the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

Kevin Garrison’s aviation career began at age 15 as a lineboy in Lakeland, Florida. He came up through General Aviation, retired as a 767 captain in 2006 and retired from instructing airline pilots in 2017. Garrison’s professional writing career has spanned three decades. Send questions or comments to editor [AT] piperflyer [DOT] com.