Published in January 2016 issue
This piece is dedicated to the memory of Virgin Islands Seaplane Shuttle Director of Operations, Captain John Stuart-Jervis. A former Royal Navy Pilot, Captain Stuart-Jervis was lost to us in 1995 while competing in Europe’s most prestigious balloon race, tragically and inexplicably shot down by the Belarus military.
By Eric Auxier
Looking back on the long and winding road that brought me to the left seat of my Airbus, I have come to realize that a Ppilot’s career is nothing but timing and luck.
But luck means taking chances. And that means risk. Rolling the dice.
My first break came after six years of floundering at the bottom rung of the aviation ladder—single-engine CFI and local VFR charters. I decided to roll the dice. With a well-timed (i.e., lucky) phone call, I landed a job half a world away, in the notorious Alaska bush. Flying locals, frozen fish, and frozen government workers out of Juneau (JNU), Alaska, in for four short summer months, I racked up over 500 hours of precious AK time (‘The Sky Fell’, Airways, May 2014).
Finally, ‘termination dust’—the snow line dropping ever lower along the peaks and signaling the end of flying season—encroached upon Juneau. It was time to land a new job.
With that magical word, ‘Alaska’, now shining atop my résumé, offers came in droves. But all were lateral moves; that is, flying single-pilotPilot, single-engine VFR pistons. That was all well and good, but I hungered for that ultimate aeronautical pie in the sky: the airline flight deck. To claw my way to the next rung toward on the ladder to my aviation dream, I desperately needed twin engine time.
I found myself facing confronted by the classic Catch-22 that all Ppilots face, at every single rung of the ladder: I couldn’t get the time, without having the time.
Once again, I rolled the dice, and, once again, I landed a job over the phone half a world away, this time in the Virgin Islands, in the Caribbean. Eyeing the termination dust and dropping thermometer, suddenly, the tropical VI’s sounded, well, tropical. Even more enticing was were the multiengine planes I would fly.
Twin time at last! The lucky break I was looking for.
But luck comes in many forms—good and bad.
Purchasing a $20 suit at Goodwill and tossing slinging a bag packed with my entire worldly possessions across my back, I jumpseated south and east to a mythical land called St. Thomas, US Virgin Islands.
The Juneau-Ketchikan-Seattle-Phoenix-Miami- St. Thomas jumpseat odyssey took three days. Exhausted, and drenched by muggy tropical heat, with culture-shocked eyes, I took in my new home.
If you’ve lived all your life in the good old U.S. of A. or any other First World country, your first taste of the Third World can be a bit of a shock.
Even the remote villages of the AK bush could not prepare me for the scene I beheld. St. Thomas’s Charlotte Amalie International Airport looked like the set of Casablanca, replete with indigent locals, gaudy uniformed officials, and a ‘main terminal’ consisting of a dilapidated quonsetQuonset hut.
“Taxi? You want taxi?” an Island man shouted in my face in lilting Islandese. He would be the first of hundreds of such men crying the same phrase over the course of my year in paradise. When you’re Caucasian, I quickly found, you’re a tourist.
My new boss, whom I’ll call Jack, easily found me, probably because I was the only young Euroskinned kid wandering shell-shocked among the sweat-soaked locals. Aside from a movie pirate, Jack was the first man I’d ever seen who actually wore an earring.
Indeed, I had arrived in the Caribbean.
Perhaps the earring should have tipped me off, as the pirate analogy soon proved to be a bit too close to the mark. For, within two months, my little lucky piece of paradise would become Paradise Lost.
Living in our company’s Ppilot bunkhouse in Charlotte Amalie along with two other aviators, in two weeks I was checked out. I began racking up blessed twin time in Piper Aztecs, flying single pilotPilot to such exotic locales as St. Barts, St. Maarten, and San Juan. The stunning turquoise waters and fluffy-clouded skies of the Caribbean offered a wonderfully azure-soaked contrast to the perpetual slate gray overcast and dropping snowline of Alaska. The verdant archipelagos quickly became my new best friends as I islandhopped up and down the Lesser Antilles. Jimmy Buffett forever played between my ears, whether through a Sony Walkman or my own imagination.
But then I found evidence of a possible internal fuel leak in one of our planes. Jack implored me to ignore it; insisted his mechanic was on it. Then I found another. And another. Finally, while cranking up in San Juan, the engine backfired with a pop! Well, piston engines backfire all the time, but this one blew up the entire right wing of my Aztec like a balloon. Yet another internal fuel leak.
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Despite Pirate Jack’s rantings and ravings, I quit on the spot. It would be the only job I ever walked away from.
Of course, I was also ejected from the pilotPilot bunkhouse.
So, there I was! Stranded, jobless, homeless, in the Third World country called St. Thomas, US Virgin Islands.
Oh, you may think, stranded in paradise ain’t so bad. But all that cash I had squirreled away in Alaska had quickly evaporated while waiting to be checked out, and awaiting my first meager paycheck. In the insanely ‘spensive Caribbean, no less, where everything has to be imported. Even, inexplicably, the fruit.
My buddy Pierre, one of my fellow aviating roommates, quit with me. But, unlike me, he had an ace in the hole: in a month’s time, he had been invited to a ground school with the local kings of the air, the Virgin Islands Seaplane Shuttle (VISS.). Pierre didn’t have a seaplane rating, and neither did I. But the VISS was ramping up service in land-based, 19-passenger, twin-engine turboprop Twin Otters, and they were hiring a class of Captains and First Officers. With his time, Pierre would be walking into a twin engine turboprop Captain slot. Perhaps, Pierre suggested, I could tag along and snag a First Officer position.
A call to VISS Director of Ops John Stewart-Jervis confirmed: all slots filled, but he invited me to show up, in case a First Officer position might open up. No promises.
One month away. One month with no job, no shelter, no pay or promises, and the amber, Low- Level $$$ light flashing in my face. I could easily jumpseat back home to Mommy. Lick my wounds, send out some résumés. Flight instruct.
Or, I could once again roll the dice.
Really, sleeping on a Caribbean beach for a month didn’t sound all that bad, did it? Time for a well earned, if shoestring, vacation. I was in. Immediately, Pierre and I caught a lucky break. Brenda, a local ‘Frenchie’ (the Caribbean equivalent of a Creole) offered us her father’s ‘cabin’, an abandoned cement bunker in the middle of the St. Thomas wilderness. With no electricity, no water, and jungle and critters encroaching from every direction, it at least had a roof that, during daily thunderstorms, didn’t leak. Mostly. Even better, the beach was just a stroll away.
We moved in. Hacking the place into shape with machetes, we literally carved out our own piece of paradise.
Pierre was a master of salvage, having once driven a jalopy across the Sahara, where you must fix your broken transportation or die. Repairing his equally dilapidated Island car with baling wire and a wooden dowel, we at least had wheels with which to navigate the winding, left-driving island roads. And thus began our shoestring vacation.
One of the things we had going for us, were found coconuts. Lots and lots of coconuts, the top of which we would machetehack. Free coco juice, and free meat inside. Tropical and tasty, if a tad too vegetarian for our tastes. Of course, Happy Hour mixed cheap local rum inside as well. The Master of Salvage and I were nothing if not creative. Indeed, we had discovered the original coconut rum. As a result, I am not really able to relay the details of that fabled month in ersatz paradise, as they are a bit fuzzy, other than to say that a good time was had by all.
Finally, well-rested and penniless, with coconut juice oozing from our pores, Pierre and I winged our way 30 miles south, over to the island of St. Croix, where the VISS was based. We walked into a ground school class set up for a crew of 24—12 Captains and 12 First Officers. To my chagrin, all the FO’s showed up…
But only half of the Captains.
Desperate, DO Jervis and Chief Pilot Marty searched the room for qualified Captains.
A sly grin grew across my face, as I slid my logbook across the table like it was a winning poker hand.
I had more than twice the required total time, but only half the twin time. With a little extra training and paperwork, they decided, they’d make it work.
Instead of the hoped-for First Officer position, I had waltzed straight into the left seat of a turboprop airliner.
And that is how I landed my very first Captain’s position, at the ripe old age of 26.
Yes, indeed, looking back, a pilotPilot’s career is nothing but timing and luck.
But, sometimes, you must create your own luck.
Every time I have rolled the dice, adventure ensued.
That, and success.