Back in the days when all stewardesses were beautiful and all captains invited youngsters up into the cockpit, nine-year-old Christopher Wilson watched agape. Staring right over the pilot’s shoulder, he saw the lumbering four-engine propeller craft burst through the surly bonds of earth, and he was hooked. “I was one of those kids who not only dreamed of flying, but knew I just had to,” Wilson says.
Wilson’s father was an aeronautical engineer, and his grandfather was a pilot. He jokes that the love of flying merely skipped a generation in his bloodline. Whatever role genetics played in his career choice, by age 15 he was training on single engine Cessnas and Pipers at the Chandler Township Airport in Arizona.
In an ideal world, Wilson’s journey into aviation would have soared steadily upward with his skills and experience. Instead, his own career in the air has paralleled the unpredictable roller coaster of the U.S. aviation industry.
Starting small, Wilson gained more flight experience and hours, and as he did, he moved into larger and larger planes, flying more and more people. Then it all came crashing down, and he has had to craft a niche in the aviation industry that he can live with and enjoy.
Just after his 18th birthday, Wilson proudly displayed his newly earned pilot’s license at Chandler Airport. In addition to his flight training, he had spent three years washing down planes, cleaning cabins, and apprenticing with the mechanics to pay for his 40 hours of required air time.
While attending Arizona State University, Wilson kept flying small planes and working at the airport. He just couldn’t stay away from the cockpit. By l992 he graduated with a B.A. in geography. “It’s a study that really helps a flyer know the capital of the state he is waking up in,” Wilson jokes. It proved to be knowledge he would use.
Soon after college, Wilson followed aviation opportunities down to Florida, where he took on a job as flight instructor. By then he had obtained both his instructor’s and his small engine commercial licenses, with training and air time far in excess of the 250 hours required. Wilson was settling into his instruction job when his airline was sold to a larger midwest firm. With scarcely enough time to pack, he found himself in a 182 Cessna flying wildlife patrol over the Oklahoma pipeline. He was realizing that his chosen trade was one that would compel him to go where the work was.
Far from a dull milk run, wildlife patrol demanded the reactions and skill of a finely-tuned athlete. “We’d take the naturalists and gas company reps up a mere 50 feet above the ground,” says Wilson. “Of course we had to obtain a low altitude waiver from the FAA. And we’d stretch out a map, look down below, and follow the pipeline looking for leaks. There was nobody — I mean nobody — out there, and the only way to cover a distance this great was by air.”
Like most pilots — and a good many airlines — Wilson soon wearied of this routine, despite its challenges, and sought new areas. He bounced back to Florida, then up to Princeton. But by the late l990s the airline industry, even with record numbers of customers, had been managing to lose money. This put a crunch on new pilot wannabes and Wilson found himself at Princeton Airport as a woefully overqualified line worker.
Line workers are the equivalent of a roustabout with the circus. They are the anything and everything workers who, as Wilson describes it, “do the mechanics, wash the planes, clean the toilets. I chose to just get myself on the property and wait it out.”
This is a time-proven strategy. World famous paleontologist Roy Chapman Andrews, for example, spent his youthful years mopping the floors of the New York Natural History Museum before he was invited on his first dig. So with Wilson. As spots opened, he was on the spot and often got the nod, becoming a flight instructor and eventually the chief pilot at Princeton Airport.
Located just west of routes 206 and 518 in Montgomery Township, Princeton Airport (609-921-3100) provides a small plane charter and helicopter service along with East Coast transport for business flyers. But its real bread and butter comes from its school for those, like Wilson, who have the urge to fly small private planes.
Princeton Airport, in coordination with the Raritan Valley Flight School, offers a full flight course providing ground instruction, air instruction, solo time, and exams. The airport provides 20-minute sample lessons for $59. The full course costs between $7,000 and $8,000. It consists of a $300 ground schooling course, and about 60 air hours, both solo ($91 per hour) and instructed flight hours ($125 per hour). The length of the course depends very much on the weather, and on each pilot’s learning curve.
In the middle of his flight career, Wilson was largely happy instructing new pilots, but he was beginning to grow restless. He was yearning for larger craft. With far more than the 1,500 air hours demanded for the large plane commercial license, Wilson left Princeton and shifted his base to Chicago, where he flew 86-passenger planes for CanadAir Airlines. This regional line flew a chain of north/south routes for USAir, American West, and other major lines.
For five years Wilson was the captain in the impressive dark suit in whom all passengers put their trust. But it came with a price.
“Honey, I’m in Guadalajara…some motel. No I won’t be back tomorrow. Kiss the kids for me. Honey, I’m in some burg in Canada…” Five days at a stretch, never quite knowing where you and your suitcase will end up tomorrow. Two days hopefully near home, then off again.
But it was more than the schedule that began to grind Wilson down. The attacks of 9/11 brought problems in the commercial aviation industry to it to a head, but they had begun long before.
“They simply didn’t make the job fun anymore,” says Wilson. By entering into a unending, protracted price war, the airlines, Wilson says, made flying all about money — not about the service or experience. “They’ve pulled every kind of stunt to get passengers aboard with giveaway and free credit card-mile flights. Then they insist that the entire staff take a 50 percent pay cut,” he says. “Imagine the kind of kind of service I will want to give you if I am working at half-pay so you can fly free.”
While aviation is a modern industry containing many huge corporations, it lacks the sprawling diversification that many other mega-firms have. Airlines have one basic product. And because of this single line of business, their responsibility must remain first with the customer if they are to survive. Service and making that passenger feel good about his buying experience will indeed triumph over price.
Wilson, who began his flight career when traveling at 30,000 feet was an event — something you got dressed up for and were excited about — became increasingly disillusioned as pay rates declined, schedules became more impossible, and grumpy passengers began boarding in torn t-shirts and flip-flops.
Flying a big commercial jet had long been the most glamorous, prestigious job in aviation — rivaling any of the best jobs in any industry. But Wilson, who had longed for the job ever since he first saw a cockpit as a nine-year-old boy, finally walked away.
But he has stayed with aviation. He is once again Princeton Airport’s chief pilot. He goes home to his wife and children in Pinewood, Pennsylvania, at the end of each evening. He wouldn’t call himself a professional, but rather a true amateur pilot — one who, according to the definition, flies purely for the love of it. As he always has.