Updated: Aug 29, 2020
Silas’ faded red Ford F-100 pickup truck made the turn. Almost everyday he made the turn into the airport parking lot. You couldn’t pinpoint the exact time by his arrivals. He was like a sundial. By his visits we could tell whether it was morning or evening. His visits were always in the forenoon and, with rare exception, in the evening, an hour or two before milking time.
We met Silas Nixon the first day we took over the Orange County Airport operation. From then on, several times a year, he'd rent one of our airplanes to fly over his Virginia farm and the farms of his neighbors. “I’ll go see what’s going on,” he said. “Gotta see how things look, keep an eye on folks,” he chuckled, sounding like Santa Claus.
Dairy farmer Silas never got a pilot’s license. Instead, he was a permanent student. With more than a hundred flying hours, triple the number needed for a Private Pilot’s License, as a student he could only fly solo. Silas never went for the license needed to take passengers. “I just like getting up there by myself,” he said.
What Silas liked most about the airport was the company. Orange County Airport was his country club, its restaurant his “19th Hole,” his escape from the cows, the farm, and his wife.
“We needed feed from the Co-op,” said Silas over a cup of morning coffee at the restaurant counter. “I don't really need this coffee since this was my morning to sleep in,” he said. “I didn’t have to get up until six o’clock!”
But he always needed something at the Co-op. His dairy cows were a demanding bunch. He metered his needs to make sure he could always give Virginia, his wife, a reason for another trip into town—another opportunity to stop at the airport along the way.
Silas loved to fly. But he never felt the desire to take passengers, fly for hire, or even think about flying for a living.
Silas’ threshold of flying excitement lay, not over the wilds of Siberia or the African desert, but by flying “around the patch,” or over his farm. “Beautiful day today,” he said. “Not a ripple in the traffic pattern. Great day for flying. You can see forever. I never lost sight of the airport!”
One Saturday I overheard Silas talking with Luther, another local pilot. “You’re really going to like that Cessna with its big new engine. Wow, what performance!” said Silas over thirty more horsepower. It didn’t take a whole lot to get the student and private pilots excited.
It was rare when one heard an airline pilot get excited about flying for a living. Is overexposure to love a good thing? After all, gorgeous movie stars got divorced. Imagine leaving Barbara Eden or Elizabeth Taylor. It may be possible to get too close to something wonderful. Richard Burton said of Liz Taylor, “The most beautiful woman in the world? She has a double chin... an overdeveloped chest, and she’s rather short in the leg.”
Flying might be like that. Too much flying might be too much. Silas held his love, flying, at arm’s length. He only dated her. Is that what preserved the mystery and excitement?
Pilots like Silas might have been the lucky ones. They were able to maintain their enthusiasm for flight for decades. I never heard Silas complain about flying. Sometimes Bill, the airline pilot who inhabited our airport, would carp about work. “Sometimes it gets wearisome,” Bill said. “Eighty or more flight hours a month, year after year. Don’t get me wrong. I love flying. But sometimes all the red-eyes, all the flying on the backside of the clock, gets to a guy.”
Silas didn’t have to fly around the clock. There were no all nighters for him. He didn't grapple with the ill effects of living with constant time zone changes. Silas talked about troubles with his cows, but he never beefed about aviation. He complained about the price of milk, but he didn’t worry about airline corporate overlords interested only in squeezing every ounce of production from a pilot. Silas never experienced the misery of a union strike, a stolen airline pension, or a painful furlough. His flying was pure joy. It was never mixed with the detritus of making a living.
But airline pilots seemed to need to dive deep. And it wasn’t only about money. Lots of airline pilots seemed to need to get to the bottom of flying, so to speak. While they complained daily about management, fatigue, troubles at the union, horrible commutes, and rotten schedules none of them ever quit the airlines. Airline pilots weren't like movie stars. They married flying for keeps-for better or worse. Were they addicted? Sometimes a guy can’t help himself. Burton married Taylor twice.
But where was real joy, hiking the tranquil hills and trails of a nearby park or climbing Mt. Everest? While climbing the highest peak answered a need, nobody ever said it was fun.
Could it be that private pilots—the ones who dated rather than married airplanes—were the lucky ones?
Watch for Russ Roberts' new memoir, Unlearning to Fly: Navigating the Turbulence and Bliss of Growing Up in the Sky, coming to Kindle, Amazon, and Audible in late 2020.
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© 2020 Russ Roberts