Updated: Mar 22, 2020
The year was 1992. Bill Clinton was elected President of the United States, the Olympic Games were held in Barcelona, and Whitney Houston’s version of “I Will Always Love You” was topping the music charts.
Working in physical therapy at the time, I had befriended a German therapist who had more zest for living than anyone I had ever met. And we were both stoked at being invited for an April flight to Traverse City with my husband’s friend, Brian Schwalm.
Our excitement soared as the wheels left the ground, and the two of us girls eagerly took in the view from the backseat. A quick, 20-minute flight to the north, we soon beheld the sapphire, blue waters of Grand Traverse Bay from a few thousand feet above.
Unfortunately, the winds in Traverse City were a little gusty when it came time to land, and the little 4-seater was tossed around in the air like being shook in a metal box by Boreas himself.
The two of us girls – so thrilled only minutes before – sat petrified in the backseat with a death grip on each other’s hands, riding out the buffeting winds that threatened to flip the plane upside down as it entered the glideslope for landing.
About that same time, the snowflakes began to fall… or rather began streaking sideways with the wind, and it appeared as though the God of the north wind and winter was giving us a little goodbye present to remember him by.
Nervously, I looked over at my friend in hopes of catching sight of her bold reassurance. This same friend who I could envision sky diving, swimming with sharks, or accepting any dare thrown her way looked as though she would start crying at any moment.
I decided then and there I would have to put my trust in our pilot’s capable hands. Besides… if he hadn’t felt safe landing, he would have aborted and headed back home. Right?
With only 2 years of experience as a private pilot, our captain manipulated the aircraft through the snowy gusts, safely down to the ground without incident.
As we taxied to the GA Ramp, I couldn’t help but be impressed with Brian Schwalm’s newest talent. All of us being in our early twenties, it was mind-blowing that HE was flying airplanes! He was turning out to be a great pilot, and I knew in my heart that he would be doing something with this ability in the future. I just didn’t know what.
Olympic champion, Wilma Rudolph said, “Never underestimate the power of dreams and the influence of the human spirit. We are all the same in this notion: The potential for greatness lives within each of us.”
Brian Schwalm achieved his private pilot’s license in 1990 while my husband and I were having babies and going about the daily grind of our mediocre jobs.
Since that first flight in 1992, Brian continued to gain years of flight experience before landing a most glamorous career flying jets all over the world for a private flight department. Having now spent over 10,000 hours of his life in the air, he admits knowing that he wanted to make a career of flying while training for his private pilot’s license.
Through the years, Brian has flown several makes and models of aircraft including single engines, light twins, turboprops, business jets, and helicopters. Currently flying a Gulfstream G550 jet and a Sikorsky helicopter, I asked him what aircraft in all of his career of flying was the most difficult to learn.
“Probably the helicopter,” Brian replied, “because it is so much different than an airplane.”
Although I have never had the opportunity to fly a helicopter (yet), it looks quite a bit more difficult than flying an airplane. See if you can rub your tummy, pat your head, and say “rubber baby buggy bumpers” three times without messing up.
The helicopter is similar to an airplane in that your feet control the tail, but the yoke is split into two separate actions… one for the throttle and up and down controller, and another for the side-to-side action.
Indeed, I can imagine a helicopter takes a bit of getting used to. Now imagine adding bad weather to the mix.
Remembering the little snow squall we had flown through so many years ago is nothing compared to the conditions Brian has experienced through the years. Weather conditions being a concern every pilot must recognize as a potential risk, I asked Brian about the worst weather conditions he had ever experienced.
In the Gulfstream G550 Brian shared, “Severe turbulence in Alaska,” adding, “We were shaking so bad I couldn’t read the instrument panel.”
Besides the turbulence, he said, “I’ve been struck by lightening 3 times.”
It seems our little shake-n-bake experience with Brian so long ago was nothing compared to getting struck by lightening, but that’s what a lifetime of living and breathing airplanes does for a person… Gives them a level of confidence that a newbie pilot is still years from developing.
There comes a point when every good pilot needs to consider whether or not a flight is prudent. As a Senior Captain, I couldn’t help but wonder, “As pilot in command, you have the final say as to whether the aircraft leaves the ground. How many times in your career have you cancelled a flight, and for what reasons?”
Brian responded, “Actually cancel? Not that many, but have had several delays due to visibility issues or thunderstorms.” He explained, “We try not to tell our passengers what we can’t do, but rather tell them what we can do. Rather than say we can’t go, we would say we can get you there but it will be later, or to another airport close by.”
Although a pleasure flight in a puddle-jumper is not the same situation as a pilot flying for a private flight department, as new pilots in a little 4-seater, we often look at the weather as a go/no-go situation. Not whether we could fly later, fly to a destination nearby, or even go around weather to get where we wanted.
There is also a huge difference in circumstances flying a Piper with a max speed of 125 knots and range of 444 nautical miles. Compared to a jet that can fly mach 0.885 with a maximum range of 6,750 nautical miles, it could very well offer more confidence in the pilots seat as you consider weather phenomena in your path.
With the speed and range that a G550 offers, a pilot could outrun a storm, zip around a cell detected on radar, or slip into a destination airport well before a storm hits. That being said, Brian still practices emergency procedures annually in a simulator, and is continually sent to classes to brush up on aircraft systems to maintain a level of aptitude capable of handling bad situations if the need arises.
In comparison, a private pilot is held to a biannual flight review in order to confirm their expertise in emergency situations, as well as demonstrate their level of basic flight knowledge and pinpoint areas needing practice.
Besides learning how to keep a plane in safe operating configurations, a pilot also needs to learn how to communicate effectively as well as comprehend instructions given at a destination airport in order to keep safe.
Learning the communications lingo is another hurdle all pilots need to clear, but I couldn’t imagine how difficult it would be flying into an airport in another country. Especially one that didn’t speak English.
Brian shared his first experience saying, “I don’t think I was nervous. My first time, I was still a co-pilot so it was just a major learning experience.”
As for speaking the same language, Brian said, “Communicating with the controllers was difficult due to the different accents,” adding, “All of the controllers in other countries are required to speak English, but a lot of them don’t speak it well.”
Flying down for a visit with Brian and his family, I noticed a world map with clusters of colored pins marking different locations across the globe. “What’s this?” I asked his wife.
Proudly, she explained, “This was a gift to the kids from Brian’s brother. He bought it for them so they could track all the places in the world their dad has flown.”
As three young children raced in and out of the house, filling the space with the same zest for living that I saw in Brian so many years ago, it was of no surprise what this Senior Captain felt the hardest part of his job was.
“Being away from home for long periods of time is difficult,” Brian said. “Flying long international flights through the night having to stay awake is also very difficult, as well as dealing with the different time zones. That is very hard on your body.”
Knowing it would take about 7 hours of flight time in average winds, and 2 stops for fuel for our little plane to get to Florida, I couldn’t imagine being stuck in the cockpit for as long as it takes Brian to fly across the globe. It makes my butt hurt just thinking about it!
But the World Wonders Brian witnessed throughout the years has got to be astounding. So I asked, “Is your job as glamorous as it sounds… seeing the world?”
Ever grateful for the moments he has experienced, Brian shared, “I feel lucky to have seen so much of the world, especially not having to pay for it with my own money. I’ve walked on the Great Wall of China, been inside the Coliseum in Rome, been to the Acropolis in Greece, [but] the downside is I’ve done this without my family.”
Remembering the view outside the window at his three children racing around the yard playing, I thought about the choices we all make with the life we are given.
Brian added, “I guess that takes away some of the glamour for me. Also staying in as many hotels as I do doesn’t seem real glamorous.”
Beyond the fascination of his daily grind, Brian has flown several famous people throughout his career including George W. Bush II, has determined the coolest place in the world to be Rome due to its history, and the worst place due to culture shock being India.
Most recently, the coronavirus has affected his job in that flights are being cancelled, but as far as any added fear of the pandemic due to his job, Brian feels about the same as the rest of us… hoping to remain healthy.
When asked what his coolest flight experiences were, he shared, “Landing on top of a building in the helicopter, flying low level around Chicago in the helicopter, and doing upset recovery training (aerobatics) in an Extra 300.”
And if you have an extra minute to click on the link to see exactly what his ride in the Extra 300 was like, you should.
I probably would have puked…
After all of his years of flight experience, Brian still has one ride left on his bucket list, and I sure hope he gets it someday.
The P-51 Mustang!
Brian shared, “[It has] so much raw power and aerobatic capable. No modern technology. Just stick and rudder and seat of the pants flying.”
Out of everyone I know, Brian Schwalm was born to be a pilot. It’s in his veins so deep that I have to wonder if he feels uncomfortable with his feet on the ground.
Having been one our biggest supporters as my husband and I strove to achieve our pilot’s licenses, I can’t thank Brian enough for his shared wisdom and experiences. Even now, we use one of his favorite phrases every time we land in a crosswind.
“Give her a little wing!”
It is my hope that as a newly licensed pilot, I can someday attain the same amount of confidence in the pilot seat, as well as level of automatic proficiency when handling the plane. It all comes with time and experience, I know, but it’s the getting there that’s taking forever.
I suppose time in the pilot’s seat is just part of the journey.
It reminds me of the time Brian told my husband about flying from Anchorage, Alaska to China. He watched the sun set for 8 hours straight as he chased it around the globe. How beautiful that must have been to witness.
So the question goes out to all of you confident pilots in the world… how many hours in the pilot seat did it take to feel you could handle just about any situation?
Let me know your thoughts.
Thanks for reading!
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