Saturday, August 08, 2009

Hangar Talk

Several of my twitter friends have made mention of the fading tradition of "hangar talk." Hangar talk is, as best as I can describe, an activity enjoyed by pilots just hanging out at the airport wherever they can plop a chair, drink coffee and share "there I was" stories to meet folks, build camaraderie, learn from each others' experiences, pick up "right seat" time, etc. Unfortunately, it seems to be a dying art. In a podcast that @DaveFlys and @PilotWill and I did last April at Sun n Fun, we discuss how hangar talk seem to be fading (as in aging?). Do people not have time to hang out in person any more? Do awesome online social networking sites, like www.MyTransponder, replace that need? Are we so strapped for time these days that "hanging out" is a luxury we can't afford?

Many in the aviation community would argue that it is a necessary "expense" for a couple of reasons. One, like a twitter friend has mentioned a couple of times, he is interested in taking up flying lessons at a nearby airport and so goes to visit for more information. Walking into the facilities there, he was met with apathy, if not annoyance. Not very encouraging to our future pilots. Are we pilots so competitive that welcoming another into our fold jeopardizes what we have worked so hard for? Or, again, are we just to busy to take the time to talk with someone who interrupts the flow of what we're trying to get done? The goofy picture to the right portrays the tradition of having the back of your shirt cut off and displayed in the flight school with the date you solo. It celebrates how sweaty you can get flying an airplane alone for the first time!

Second, hangar talk is educational. When you share a "there I was" story with other pilots, you are relaying a possibly hairy story that you learned a lesson from. Or bragging, like this scene from the movie Top Gun:
Maverick: Well, we...
Goose: Thank you.
Maverick: Started up on a 6, when he pulled from the clouds, and then I moved in above him.
Charlie: Well, if you were directly above him, how could you see him?
Maverick: Because I was inverted.
Iceman: [coughs whilst saying] [Baloney].
Goose: No, he was man. It was a really great move. He was inverted.
Charlie: You were in a 4g inverted dive with a MiG28?
Maverick: Yes, ma'am.
Charlie: At what range?
Maverick: Um, about two meters.
Goose: It was actually about one and a half I think. It was one and a half. I've got a great Polaroid of it, and he's right there, must be one and a half.
Maverick: Was a nice picture.
Goose: Thanks.
Charlie: Eh, lieutenant, what were you doing there?
Goose: Communicating.
Maverick: Communicating. Keeping up foreign relations. You know, giving him the bird!
Goose: [Charlie looks puzzled, so Goose clarifies] You know, the finger
Charlie: Yes, I know the finger, Goose.
Goose: I-I'm sorry, I hate it when it does that, I'm sorry. Excuse me.

Ok, I'm not suggested you go formation flying with a MiG, but you get the point. Pilots may share stories of how a maintenance problem led to a larger, more expensive repair, or a trick to deal with a confusing nearby section of airspace, thereby helping fellow pilots who may have experienced the same troubles.

In the type of flying I do my "hanging out" time is usually done in a fancy FBO with a widescreen TV and recliners. Most conversation is made impossible by the loudness of the football game on the tube. I don't usually spend much time in the General Aviation hangars. General aviation covers a huge range of activities, both commercial and non-commercial, including private flying, flight training, air ambulance, police aircraft, aerial firefighting, air charter, bush flying, gliding, and many others. Experimental aircraft, light-sport aircraft and very light jet have emerged in recent years as new trends in general aviation. I don't do any of these very often, if at all.

I did have one very memorable opportunity to participate in hangar flying, though, and I was reminded of it when I saw this piece in an email newsletter from AOPA:

The personal library of renowned flight instructor and author William K. Kershner will be donated to the Tennessee Aviation Hall of Fame Kershner, who died in January 2007, wrote and illustrated a series of five highly regarded flight manuals. The Student Pilot’s Flight Manual, first published in 1959, sold more than 1 million copies. He was a frequent contributor to AOPA Flight Training and AOPA Pilot magazines. He was inducted into the Tennessee Aviation Hall of Fame in 2002 and has been nominated for induction into the National Aviation Hall of Fame.

I had actually met Bill Kershner back in 1998, at the Winchester Airport in Tennessee. The story was that I was relocating back to the US after being stationed in Germany with the Army for 3 1/2 years. I took a very long convoluted route to my next duty station at Fort Huachuca, AZ, and included in there a stop to visit my grandparents in Decherd, TN. I was able to get some Army National Guard buddies that had been activated for operations in Kosovo and attached to my unit, to plan a training flight via this airport on their way up farther north to where my parents lived.

So I ended up spending some time just hanging out at this little airport and talking with the locals waiting for them to arrive. Imagine my surprise when I found out that one of them, this unassuming man pictured above, was Bill Kershner. Of course I had heard of him, and he was truly flattered when I said so. He even autographed one of his books to give to me. But the best part of this recollection, I must say, is what happened when the C-12 finally landed to take me on to the next stop.

At the airport that day it was just me and my grandpa, accompanied by my aunt, watching the C-12 land on the runway and observed by the local hangar talkers gathering around to watch the Army King Air come in. My grandpa had never made it past the 8th grade and he was so proud of my graduating from college and then getting my wings pinned on as an officer in the military. Every time I visited the tiny town of Decherd, population 2,246, I was able to meet people that knew exactly who I was, from my Grandpa talking about me and my current adventures. I had even been featured in the local paper there. Luckily he didn't have time to call the local media to see me off in a military aircraft.

A little background on military protocol: As a Captain, I outranked the two other pilots who were Warrant Officers. Junior members of the military are required to render a salute when within 6 paces upon recognition of a senior officer. That's the book answer. Reality was that I was a. not in uniform though they were. Technically, since they still recognized me and knew my rank, that shouldn't matter. b. Warrant Officers, who I truly have great respect for, are known for their technical expertise but not so much for their adherence to military pomp and circumstance. c. We were out in the middle of nowhere. d. The two pilots, though not quite old enough to be my father's age, might be understandably embarrassed by admitting their relative rank to a young woman in front of a crowd of gritty old timers.

So imagine my surprise when the two pilots shut down the airplane and started walking toward the hangar and when within the proper distance of me, presented me with two perfect salutes to return. Seems like such a minor deal, but I can assure you, at my grandpa's funeral only a few months later, there were many, many people that approached me to tell me that all my grandfather had talked about since was how proud being able to see that interaction had made him feel. I hope the two pilots, who I unfortunately did not stay in touch with, realized how much of an impact their actions had on my grandpa, me, and to a lesser extent, everyone else there at the airport that day.

I have quoted a friend many times his observation that being in aviation is like having an instant circle of friends. I relay many occasions of fellow pilots I barely know going way out of their way to help me with just about anything I need. This has not changed in my 16 years of being a pilot, and I hope it continues, even if the hangar talk aspect of our aviation community seems to be becoming a thing of the past. To other pilots reading this, I hope you have similar stories. To prospective pilots, I hope this encourages you to delve a little deeper into the activities of your local airport until they warm up to you. To you ground pounders, you should be a little jealous. Come join the circle of friends!

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