The Grind

“It was a dark and stormy night.” Sounds like the opening line to a third rate suspense novel doesn’t it? The suspense was little old me strapped into a Thrush plowing through torrential rain. Thunder, lightening, wind and dark coming down the slot pointing the nose at blurry runway lights, counting on the lightning flashes to show the wet pavement that lay between them. The scene would have made a great Clark Gable movie. The old windshield wiper whacked back and forth slinging gallons of water from the glass. It was doing its best, but I was sure wishing its best was a little bit better. My knuckles popped, clenching the stick hard enough to squeeze juice out of it. I floated over the fence, correcting my glide path, then corrected my correction. The airplane thumped onto the pavement, the wheels yelped like I had just killed an entire litter of pups. Feet gripping the rudder pedals through my boots, flaps up, tailwheel down. Why does it take so long? “Bark… bark… bark..” A tad beta, not too much! Brakes are wet, keep it straight! Another lightning flash, BOOM! Went the thunder as I finally rolled to a stop. “Don’t quit now” I reminded myself. “The old bird ain’t tied down yet.” I powered up and turned the airplane around to taxi to the chocks. As I squirmed into the parking spot I breathed a little. Then a lot. Whew! “Heck that wasn’t so bad,” said the little voice in my head. I think he can be a little sarcastic.

I shined my lights on the windsock and radioed the other pilot a quick wind check. “It’s a bit dicey, but plenty doable.” He’s a better pilot than I am so I knew he’d have no trouble. He rolled in just a few minutes later; as if landing in a thunderstorm was no more trouble than pulling on his helmet. I hate guys like that sometimes. Maybe I’m just a little over-dramatic, then again, maybe he’s just crazy.

The storm swept through just as fast as it moved in. By the time I crammed the second chock under the wheel it was calm as could be. The stars shone through widening spaces between the clouds and I felt kind of foolish for my accelerated heart rate. I thanked God for the rain and for getting back on the ground safe and sound, just the same.

So ended yet another night of ag flying in California’s Central Valley. It seems no night is ever without its challenges. The only constant is tomorrow will come and we’ll be back at it again.

The past few weeks have been a non stop relay of sleep, eat, fly. Wash, rinse, repeat. The height of the season is at hand and there’s just no time to do much else but burn Jet A and kill bugs. The ground guys are getting a little frazzled on the edges, as well. Even the office staff is getting weary. It’s the nature of the business and when business is good the hours get long. It becomes a real grind after a while and we all get pretty tired.

There are folks in high places who think we need a ‘duty day restriction’ in our industry. I can’t even imagine how something of the sort would ever be implemented. However, I do know we need to pace ourselves as best we can and monitor ourselves and colleagues. We always talk about pilot fatigue. We even have doctors give us classes about it. It’s not nearly as easy to get a grip on as people like to portray it. There’s piles of work, truckloads of chemicals and crops being threatened. Ag pilots have a ‘get it done’ mentality. It’s bred into us and it won’t go away. It’s just the kind of people we are. There’s always one more job before we quit. One more load to get done. We can push ourselves right into the ground. Literally.

I’m not about to preach the same old sermon about breaks, rest and nutrition, etc. We’ve all heard plenty of it and take it onboard in accordance with our own will to do so. We do have a responsibility to our families and the industry we serve to be watchful, to care for ourselves and to keep proving ourselves capable of self regulating. There are dire consequences otherwise.

As the 2016 season unfolds, we’ve already sustained some heartbreaking losses. Good men we all knew and loved. Only they and the good Lord know what happened in those last seconds. We can’t surmise or even guess. I just want to make sure we all have everything available to us to prevent it from happening. A break in the action, a day off, better food or sleep, could just be what it would take to hone the edge sharp enough to avoid a catastrophe. We are our brothers keeper to a certain extent. Keep an eye on each other. A guy can’t usually see or will rarely admit when he’s had enough. There’s no shame in pulling a guy aside and telling him to take a day off and there’s no shame in taking it. Even if it’s the boss. Stubbornness and bravado aren’t reasonable traits to rely on.

We can take care of these things ourselves, or wait until the feds make up another regulation to do it for us. I think it would be much easier and cheaper to avoid the latter.

The grind is on and fall is a long way away. We’ve got to keep at it. We’ve got get in the seat and do the job. Most importantly though, we don’t want to miss next Christmas or any of the others to follow. Hang in there and keep your airspeed up!

Fly well, and stay safe!



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