I met Tom at our first Fly It Forward event two years ago. He selflessly donated his time and energy taking women flying. He is the person who told me that no matter how big our problems appear on the ground, when you're flying... it puts everything in perspective and makes them so much smaller.
Tom's been an aviation enthusiast his entire life, and his motivation and encouragement to all around him inspires the gift of flight.
Please enjoy a great interview with a Renton Pilot flying under the radar, helping all that have dreams to fly.
Fly It Forward 2011
Karlene: When did you start flying, did you have any family members who flew?
Tom: "I started flying when I was about five years old, jumping off the stepladder in the back yard. The only other person in my family who flew was my uncle who had a Cessna 180 at Renton Municipal. I never flew in it, and he had quit flying when I was older. He always gave me large piles of his old airplane magazines, which was probably an influence on me too. Then started real lessons in 1991 when I finally had the money to afford it. Back then it cost me roughly $3,200 to get my Private license! I soloed in about 15 hours and got my license in 45 hours over the summer, three months and one week from start to finish."
Karlene: Wow, you definitely have the aviation spirit from stepladder to Cessna, and $3200 for your ticket? Amazing. I think your finishing in three months might have had something to do with that too. So tell us what challenges you faced along the way.
Tom: "I had initial trouble with VOR and got the pink slip on my first checkride. The Examiner wasn't impressed with me doing left circles trying to intercept the radial as I sat there sweating and thinking "I know I need to turn left, but what now?!!?"
I learned in the summer when winds were reliably calm, so never really learned good crosswind landing techniques. After about 20 hours and a bunch of embarrassing landings with passenger friends, I finally taught myself to keep it straight!"
Karlene: I love that. You are proof that easy doesn’t teach you the lessons you need. Maybe we all need to fly in a good strong crosswind to learn the skills to carry us forward. I'm really curious how you came to buying your own plane?
Tom: “I don't own my own plane, but a share of three planes with 59 other club members. I guess I can say that I own three planes in a way! I think this is the best way to "own" an airplane -- ownership is a spendy to do alone. I do own a sailboat, so I'm still guilty of money-pit type toy ownership.”
Karlene: So this summer can we have a "sail it forward day?" How does this works with owning a plane with a group?
Tom: “We have a 60-member limit in our club. Years ago, there was often a several-year wait to get into the club, but, with today's economy, it's generally just been a few months at most. We have a Board of Directors that runs the club, sets rates & monthly dues, and performs maintenance and other back-end tasks. We all share the planes and have strict rules around caring for them. There are mandatory twice- yearly training flights, and we remind new members that we "fly our own planes,” versus “renting” them.”
Saturn from Tom's backyard observatory
Karlene: That's a great concept and good mindset for anyone renting a plane. Now... for the deep dark secrets. I know your passion far exceeds the blue part of the sky, but beyond the realms and into the stars. How did you get interested in astronomy?
Tom: “I grew up during the Apollo moon landings. My mom told me that the first full sentence I spoke somewhat coherently was “see the moon!” as I pointed toward the sky. I've been a manned space flight history buff ever since, and have a large collection of artifacts, books, autographs, and models. Long ago an elementary school teacher suggested to my mom that she and my dad get me a telescope for Christmas. Even though it was an inexpensive drugstore model, it got me started. I joined the local Eastside Society and eventually became club president -- a position I’ve held for seven years now. I give monthly club presentations and contribute to the club’s website and blog.”
Karlene: Do you own a telescope?
Tom: “At last count I have eight telescopes between my basement and backyard observatory. I'm also in the process of building another from parts from a salvaged telescope. My club had a 12 inch telescope donated to our group several years ago, and I volunteered to store it in my basement. After dragging the 85-lb monster up the stairs a few times on clear nights, I decided to save my back and build a permanent observatory in the backyard. My girlfriend at the time and I spent the summer building a modified 8 x 12 garden shed into a permanent home for the scope. It's entirely computer controlled and can be operated from inside the house and via the Internet those really cold nights when I want to try taking photos without shivering.”
“Additionally, I’m a JPL Solar System Ambassador. Essentially I do an occasional lecture, star party, or other demonstration as public outreach to get people interested in the sky - I've done that for quite a few years now.”
Karlene: Tom, this is amazing stuff. So with work, and astronomy, how many hours a week do you fly, and are you looking for students?
Tom: “Being a Seattle pilot, this varies quite a bit with the weather. In the winter I probably fly an average of one to three hours a week. Of course spring and summer are the busy seasons, and I can easily log five or more hours on a full week. I'm still just a CFI rather than a CFII and need to upgrade, and hope to accomplish this in 2012. I've flown with so many primary students that the other instructors in my club usually forward new students to me, claiming “Tom's a good stick and rudder guy, and can still teach the basics!” Most of our other instructors teach the more advanced IFR stuff, but I'll get there. I've been saying that for years, but former students are starting to request me for that, so it's time! Right now I'm probably good on students. I'm currently working with about 3.5 students (the .5 is a guy that will start again in the spring!). As I solo people I can pick up new students, but try not to overload myself in order to leave time for non-flying activities.
In addition, our club requires a yearly night flight as well as a checkout flight every 6 months. I do high-performance training and endorsements in our Cessna 182 for members with at least 100 hours and an interest in moving up to more horsepower. Springtime gets busy with the check flights since people get itchy to fly, and their currency has lapsed with the club. I think the checkouts are a good idea, keeps the insurance company happy, encourages members to review things they haven't done in a while. We know that most people don't practice stalls or engine out procedures on their own that much – so expect that when flying with me!”
Karlene: You are really busy. I'm going to get flying again and when you're ready for a new student... I'm there! So recently you had your hours cut back at work, and are in search of the next position. If you had the perfect job what would that be?
Tom: “I think the perfect job would be something quite similar to what I do now. I often tell people that I'm the “office computer guy” when describing my position. That seems to work well, since everyone has that guy crawling around under the desks with a screwdriver. I'm not a programmer, as many people may think when they hear I “work with computers” but I do the other hardware and software work. Basically I replace burned-out parts, remove the occasional virus, keep the network running, email coming and going, shop around and buy new computers for new employees and configure them, purchase and track software and the licenses...and a lot of other tasks that come up. I've always been a hands-on tinkering type of guy."
Karlene: So, lets turn this into an interview... what are your strengths that makes a company need you?
Tom: "When I go to interviews, I always mention that I have a very high level of patience I do often use my flight instructing job as an example. You must be patient (and quick on the controls at times) to be a good instructor and let students make mistakes up to a certain point. I'll intervene when I see potential danger or possible bent aluminum, otherwise I'll let them make mistakes and tell them how to fix it. Best way to learn. Anyway, back to the job thing, I'll never put anyone down for not knowing something on the computer. I'll always treat everyone with respect and patience when helping with a computer problem no matter how complex or simple it is. The employees at the company have never hesitated to ask me for help.
Karlene: And those are the exact traits that make you and exceptional instructor. March 24th you will be joining us once again for the Fly It Forward event. Why do you do this each year?
Tom: "I read about the event on Facebook that year and almost ignored it until I read the small print that male pilots were encouraged to give rides also. I was under the initial impression that it was an entirely female event. I thought it would be fun, so I reserved a plane and showed up to donate some rides. It ended up being one of the most rewarding aviation days that I've had in my 20 years of flying. I flew 11 flights that day and introduced 33 women and girls to flight (there was one boy that managed to sneak on board too!) It was so rewarding to see the girls and women get out of the planes with big smiles and excitement about flying. I think it also did well to clear up some misconceptions about the smaller airplanes. The media often distorts reality about general aviation when there is an accident or incident. A lot of my passengers got out of the plane saying “Wow! I never knew ..... (insert comment)” I plan on flying again this March again for sure, I wouldn't miss it!”
Karlene: That's the inspiration that makes it fun for people to fly. If you could give advice to any new pilot, what would it be?
Tom: “I'll list a few... If you have the drive to learn, I'm convinced that anyone can learn to fly a plane. It does take a huge commitment to learn and get through the training, there is a lot to know. There will be times where it seems you won't ever learn how to land, but one day it will just click. Just stick with it and ask lots of questions. Make sure you get along well with your instructor. You will be shoulder to shoulder with this person for 30+ hours.. I've found that I've become very close friends with many of my students after teaching them to fly, and will keep in touch with most of them.
Make sure you have an instructor who will be around to see your training all the way through. It's too common for students to start with someone, and find training takes a lot longer than it should as they go through different instructors who find jobs with the airlines. Personally, I think the best instructors are the ones that do it because they enjoy it.
MONEY! Yes, planes are held aloft by dollars... often a lot of dollars (with some physics too). Make sure you have stashed enough funds to fly at least one or more lessons per week. Two flights a week is probably ideal as a minimum (local Seattle weather permitting of course!). Just do it!”
Tom, Thank you so much for your time and energy and passion for flight. You are the image of what General Aviation is all about. I think Solar System Ambassador is the perfect title!
Enjoy the Journey!XOX Karlene