November-December 2014 … The Global Online Magazine of Arts, Information & Entertainment … Volume 10, Number 6
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Category — Now and Then

Now and Then/Steve Poleskie




by Stephen Poleskie

It was early in the evening but the sun was already beginning to set, as it does in the middle of winter. Despite being at the altitude of 10,000 feet my passengers and I were not having a good view of the sunset as I was on an instrument flight plan and had been flying in and out of clouds for the past half hour. In the clear for a few moments, I could see that the clouds up ahead looked ominously like a building thunderstorm. Radioing the air traffic controller who was monitoring my flight, I identified myself, and asked for weather advisories. I told him that it appeared to me I was now headed directly into a thunderstorm, and would appreciate vectors around it. The controller replied in the negative, saying that he was “not painting any weather” in my direction, and that I should continue on course — “painting” in airplane talk meaning that he had looked at his radar scope and not seen any blips or whatever that looked like a thunderstorm to him. This, of course was in direct contradiction to what I was observing through my windshield in real time, but according to the rules of the game, I was obliged to continue on. Another reason I had to doubt the controller’s diagnosis was that the flight was taking place during the Ronald Reagan Era. Only last year, during the summer of 1981, President Reagan had fired nearly 13,000 air traffic controllers for going on strike. I had no way of knowing if the man I was talking to was a recent hire not fully trained, or perhaps even a temporary filling in.

Thunderstorms are one thing that all pilots are taught to avoid at the risk of their life. So what happens if you inadvertently find yourself in one? As I pointed out in an earlier article; the pilot is the ultimate responsibility for the safety of their flight.  However, I also conceded that oftentimes the pilot lacks the information or even the equipment to get out of a dangerous situation that they have not brought on themselves.

We were returning from a trip to the Turks and Caicos, islands out in the Atlantic north of and between Puerto Rico and Haiti. We were in my twin-engine Piper Apache. I was doing the flying. In the right seat, serving as the co-pilot, as she had a pilot’s license, was poet and nature writer Diane Ackerman. In the rear seats were two novelists; my wife Jeanne Mackin, and Paul West, Diane’s husband. As we were at the time all employed by universities the trip, which was a business and pleasure kind of thing, occurred during a school break. We were all making drawings, writing articles and stories, and taking photographs, some of our products would even later appear in the New York Times. The trip down had not been much of a problem, as I recall most of the flight was in good weather. We had stopped in State College, Pennsylvania, to pick up Paul, and then gone on to get Diane, landing at a small airport near William and Mary, where she was a writer-in-residence.

After a pleasant time on Grand Turk, we were retracing our route home. We had overnighted in Nassau, and at the moment our airplane was over North Carolina, heading for Virginia. Keeping to the course I had been told to continue on by the air traffic controller, I found the clouds that now totally enveloped the airplane getting thicker and the ride more turbulent. The rain, which earlier had begun rather like condensed water vapor, now began to beat heavily and could be heard drumming on the wings. As always is my choice when things get rough, I turned off my automatic pilot, preferring to fly the airplane by hand. The clouds that had gone from white to light gray, were now becoming dark green. The airplane appeared to have slipped into a large hole in the mist and was climbing upward at a rapid rate. We were in the center of a building thunderstorm. I got on the radio and reported our condition to air traffic control, as the violent updraft that the airplane was now in was causing me to violate my cruising altitude restriction big time. I had no idea what other aircraft might be in the area also flying blind.

The controller replied that he still wasn’t showing any weather in my area. I asked him if he had an altitude read out on me. He inquired, rather excitedly, why I was climbing at 2500 feet per minute. I replied that I was quite amazed by this myself as this airplane could only climb about 1000 feet a minute with both engines running, and at present both engines were off. I heard a panic in the man’s voice when he realized the significance of my statement. He asked me to repeat what I had just said. Fortunately I was using a headset with a boom mike and a push to talk switch as at that moment my hands were quite busy flying the airplane in the turbulent updraft.

The power of the severe gusts had forced the nose of the airplane to a steep angle. The Lycoming 0-320 engines that drove my Piper Apache were equipped with carburetors, rather than fuel injectors, so the attitude the airplane was at had caused the engines to suffer fuel starvation, forcing them to stop. As I could feel my weight pressing against the back of the seat, I didn’t need to look at the artificial horizon instrument to realize that we were almost vertical. I could sense that slight vibration in the control handle that comes right before a stall. I had only a few seconds to consider my options.

To push the controls forward to lower the nose was not a choice; doing so would probably bring on the stall which would cause the airplane to fall off into an inverted spin. Being an aerobatic pilot I had experienced inverted spins and practiced recoveries, however, my Apache was not an aerobatic airplane and I had no idea how it would respond. Sensing that the airplane was about to fall backwards, I pulled back on the yoke; the airplane now went inverted, as it would be at the top of a loop. Our luggage, which had been stacked neatly on the floor next to the empty fifth seat floated for a second and then landed on the roof. I continued to hold up elevator and the airplane came around and started down the back of the loop. As the nose of the airplane was now pointing at the earth, the luggage came tumbling over on us. With the nose down the engines began to run again. We were completing the downside of the loop at about 190 MPH. My problem now was to recover from the dive and level the airplane without tearing the wings off. As I recall the “never exceed speed” on the Apache was around 235 MPH. I pulled back on the yoke very gently. We were riveted in our seats by the G force as the airplane pulled out of the dive. If the wings were going to come off this was the moment.

In level flight now, I took stock of things. Both engines were running and the airplane was holding together. Diane was picking up charts, pencils and flashlights from the floor. Jeanne and Paul were removing suitcases and overnight bags from their laps. My air traffic controller was calling to see if we were all right and what were my intentions. He even called me “sir” which made me think that he was glad that he hadn’t lost us. I told him that I would like vectors to the nearest airport and he complied. We flew along in darkness and mild turbulence for a few minutes and then were cleared for the approach. The glide slope led us down to the runway just the way it was supposed to. We didn’t see the lights until we were almost at decision height, but we had made it to solid ground, Stallings Field in Kinston, NC.

As soon as I cut the engines, Diane, Jeanne, and Paul leapt from the airplane to the ground and began kissing the pavement. They thanked me for saving their life, but swore they would never get back into my airplane again.  Then they hurried off to the general aviation terminal to find a telephone to inquire about hotel rooms, and bus service back up north. I was left alone to take out my flashlight and screwdriver and remove the inspection panels in the bottom of my wing to determine if the wing spar had suffered any damage.

The next day the sun came out, and my passengers, who had found out how long a bus trip would take, got back in my airplane and we were off.


About the author:

Stephen Poleskie is a writer and artist. His artworks are in the collections of numerous museums, including the MoMA and the Metropolitan in NYC, and the Victoria and Albert Museum and Tate Gallery in London. His writing has appeared in numerous journals in Australia, Czech Republic, Germany, India, Italy, Mexico, the Philippines, and the UK, as well as in the USA. He has published seven novels, the most recent being Foozle Runs. He lives in Ithaca, NY with his wife the author Jeanne Mackin.

Web site:

October 31, 2014   Comments Off on Now and Then/Steve Poleskie

Now and Then/Steve Poleskie



“East Village” Painting by Raphael Soyer. Poleskie is in the foreground.



by Stephen Poleskie

I was lying in the chair, her hands in my mouth, when she asked the question. What did I think about my sixties? At least that’s what I thought I heard her say over the gurgling of the water rinsing out my mouth. We broke for air and I hurried to answer her before she began to pick and scrape again.

“I retired from Cornell when I was sixty. . . .” was all I got in before she went back to her task in earnest. Why do dental hygienists always start a conversation and then leave you hanging? “Snz den I kp bsy . . . I rt bks,” was the best I could manage, hoping she would ask me what kind of books I wrote.

“I meant the TV show,” she responded to my garbled response.

“Oh?” I mumbled, disappointed, and then had to listen while she described to me the television series about the 1960s that I had not watched.

As she turned to get something from the table behind her, my mouth momentarily my own, I asked if she had seen the episode about the Kennedy assassination. Yes, she said and asked had I. I told her that I had planned to as I was a bit of a conspiracy theory buff, having read Mark Lane’s “Rush to Judgment” when the book first came out. I remarked that I vividly remembered where I was the day the assassination took place.

“And where was that?” the hygienist asked, seemingly becoming interested, even briefly delaying her attack on my tartar.

“I was living in New York City, in a loft on Jefferson Street,” I began. “At the time I was a poor, struggling artist and couldn’t afford a telephone. I used to go down to the bar on the ground floor of our building to make calls. On that day I walked in to use the phone and found everyone glued to the TV screen.

“’Hey, hippie,’ the bartender yelled to me, at the time I had long hair and a beard. ‘Have ya heard? Someone’s shot da president. . . .’”

“Wow!” the young lady said, shoving her tools back into my mouth.

“n wnre wer u? . . .” I struggled to get out

“Where was I when Kennedy was shot?” she replied, a hint of incredulity in her voice, “I wasn’t even born. Neither was my mom and dad.”

I suddenly felt all of my full seventy-six years.

My “Sixties” actually began in 1959, the year I graduated from Wilkes College, where I had majored in extra-curricular activities. Nevertheless, in the middle of my senior year I had had a one-person exhibition of my paintings at The Everhart Museum in Scranton, Pennsylvania. For a young man from a small town across the river from Wilkes-Barre who had only been making art seriously for about three years, this was a big deal. I was sure my destiny was to be an artist. But first I had to experience a number of other jobs, which I must admit I didn’t try very hard at, and in a number of diverse locations.

In my early life, in the order they have occurred, as best as I can remember them, I have been: a stock boy, automobile repair shop assistant, sign painter, shoe salesman, men’s clothing salesman, summer stock actor, State Farm Insurance agent, designer of party favors, screen printer, and high school art teacher.

There were some high points. Working in the auto body shop, I learned to weld and after hours, made a series of steel sculptures, a few of which remain today, one in a museum collection. My “Whoopee Loot Bag” was a huge commercial success, sold in stores like Woolworths and stayed in production long after I had left the party favor company. As an artist for an outdoor advertising company in Miami, I had all the public swing-top garbage cans decorated to look like giant cans of Tropicana orange juice. This was years before Pop Art became the fashionable mode in the Big Apple. And teaching in Gettysburg High School, I had David Eisenhower as a student.

Leaving Gettysburg I went Mexico, thinking that there I might live cheaply on what I had saved. But the student art was so bad at the art school I had planned to attend that I left and drove to San Francisco, where exciting things were supposed to be going on. But, I couldn’t find anything interesting there, so headed back east. Why I went by way of Canada I cannot remember. At the time I had all my possessions and a young wife in my small car, an Austin-Healey Sprite.

I had a friend back in Pennsylvania, Thaddeus Rutkowski’s father, who at the time showed in a gallery in NYC and had gotten me accepted in several group shows there. Living near Wilkes-Barre, just two hours or so away, we often went down to “the city” on weekends. At the time the dominant art movement, Abstract Expressionism, was also referred to as, “The 10th Street School,” since most of the galleries that had shown this work in its early days were on East 10th Street on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. There was no place else I considered living. I would be on 10th Street.

Rutkowski, who had lived in Manhattan for several years, told me it wouldn’t be easy to find a place in NYC. I looked in the paper and immediately found a “studio” on East 10th Street, near Tompkins Square Park, just where I wanted to be. I rented it over the telephone, without even looking at it. After all it was a “studio” which was what I wanted. So naïve was I in those days that it was only when I got to the place with all my stuff and the super opened the door, did I discover that “studio apartment” was a euphemism for a small apartment that had the kitchen in the bedroom. But all was not lost. I moved in and the decision became one of the most fortuitous things in my early days in Manhattan, for reasons I shall relate in a later episode.

I signed up for some art classes at the New School: painting with Raphael Soyer, drawing with someone whose name I forget, and Aesthetics, with a professor who I remember well, except for his name. Although I was in the middle of the abstract expressionist’s neighborhood and my show at the Everhart Museum had been abstract paintings, I wanted something else. I wanted to paint “realistic” pictures.

I painted in the morning, worked at construction jobs in the afternoon, and went to classes in the evening. My wife, my first wife, worked as a doctor’s assistant. We occasionally hung out at an artist’s bar on Avenue A called Stanley’s, and frequented The Thomas Cinema, which showed experimental and indie films. One day driving down the East Side Highway, I had stopped to help a driver who was having car trouble. It turned out that the man was one of the owners of The Thomas. As a token of his appreciation for my help he gave me a lifetime pass for two to his cinemas.

I became very good friends with Raphael Soyer. One of the first things he told me was how to pronounce his name, explaining that he was not named after the great painter, but was a Jewish kid from New Jersey who preferred to be called “Ray-feel.” He came often to our apartment and did drawings and paintings of my wife and me. I also did a painting of him which you can see on my web site. My wife sometimes posed for his life drawing class.

Things were going well. I was learning a lot and making some nice paintings, quite different from the drip and splatter canvases that I had shown in Scranton. But money was becoming a problem. It is hard to believe that back then we were having difficulty paying the $85 per month rent.

The juried student show was coming up. Looking around I considered that my work was far superior to the other students, most of whom were not serious artists but house wives and professional men pursuing their hobby. I was sure that I would win one of the prize scholarships for the next semester.

Alas, it was not to be. My wife and I went to the opening only to discover that not only had I not won a scholarship, but also I had not even had my work accepted by the jury.

Raphael Soyer saw me standing there; he recognized the look of frustration on my face and knew what it was about.
“I voted for you,” he said. “But the two other jurors were abstract painters, so they rejected you.”

“But I need that scholarship. . . .”

“Don’t worry,” Mr. Soyer reassured me. “Go home and paint; I will come over and critique your work.”

* * *

About the author:

Stephen Poleskie is a writer and artist. His artworks are in the collections of numerous museums, including the MoMA and the Metropolitan in NYC, and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. His writing has appeared in journals in Australia, Czech Republic, Germany, India, Italy, Mexico, and the UK, as well as the USA. He has published seven novels, the most recent being Foozle Runs. He lives in Ithaca, NY with his wife the author Jeanne Mackin.

Web site:


* * * * *

August 29, 2014   Comments Off on Now and Then/Steve Poleskie

Now & Then/Steve Poleskie


Steve Poleskie & his Pitts Special bi-plane.

The Ultimate Responsibility

by Steve Poleskie

A reader of my previous columns wanted to know about the time I saved Peter O’Toole from being kicked out of a New York City artist’s bar. The majority of comments I got, however, were about my aviation opinions, so I will continue with that topic and save saving Peter for another time.  Several people remarked that I had come down too hard on the pilots when, after all, a flight is rather a team effort. I couldn’t agree more.

An airline captain is not unlike the quarterback of a football team, who often takes the heat for a loss, even though he was sitting on the bench when the defense blew the game. One of the captain’s problems is that he often lacks information, some of which he is not given, or he has no access to, which is oftentimes vital to the completion of his flight. Nevertheless, according to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) it is the “pilot in command” who bears the “ultimate responsibility” for the safety of the flight. Unlike many general aviation pilots, the term applied to non-commercial aviation pilots, who often own their own airplane and therefore might have some “hands-on” experience, the airline pilot probably has little or no knowledge of the aircraft they are flying. How could they? An airliner is a vast and complex machine that requires many skilled, licensed mechanics to maintain.

When I took a course to prepare for my Air Transport Pilot written examination we studied for a test based on flying a Boeing 727 airliner. Many of the questions were about things like how many life jackets one should have on board. We were warned that one of the questions on the test, a weight and balance problem, did not have a correct answer in the multiple choices. If you got this problem on your copy of the exam, you should check the answer we were given and should not bother trying to figure it out. I got the question, and could not believe that the FAA would be so stupid as to give out a wrong answer, so tried to work out the correct answer. I could not come up with any of the numbers among the listed possibilities, so chose the one closest to what I had computed. This was incorrect. I scored a 98 on the exam.

The erroneous weight and balance was the only question that I got wrong. I did learn a few things about the Boeing 727 which made me never want to go on one. Most startling was the matter of how the pilot should use the “bleed air” function. It seems that when the 727 was being designed the FAA still allowed airplanes with only two engines to venture out across vast bodies of water. But in the middle of things the rule was changed. And so the designers hastily added a third engine, the one you can see stuck up on the tail. All well and good, except during the take-off.  As the aircraft is rotated, just when it needs all the power it can get, the fuselage blocks the airflow to the engine mounted in the center. This is the time when the pilot should turn on the “bleed air” to suck a little oxygen from those two engines on the sides of the fuselage—hoping that there is enough to go around.

A few casual observations from the special course I went to in Norfolk, Virginia to prepare for the Air Transport Pilots exam. On the first break it was apparent there were three distinct groups here, ranked in their own order of perceived importance: the military pilots, airline pilots and finally general aviation pilots. There was also a group of black pilots wearing that knock-off casual wear that indicated it did not come from the country it was supposed to: for example “Brooklyn Yankees” jackets. As this group always seemed to keep to themselves, I decided to venture over and start a conversation. One of the men told me that they were captains for a Nigerian airline and flew from Lagos to London. Since they were in a class preparing to take the ATP exam, I asked how they could be captains without an Air Transport Pilot Rating. I still remember the man’s answer — told with a big smile, so I am not sure if he was putting me on or not: “Well, we were all co-pilots, and we had a big revolution in our country, and all the captains, they all supported the side that lost, so they were killed, and we became the captains, now we are here to get the proper license.”

Incredibly, for a group of high-time pilots who were about to become captains, I found some of the questions asked in the discussion periods rather basic. The kind of thing I picked up many years ago, when I was a model airplane builder. I have owned five airplanes in my life, but never more than two at a time. I’ve always worked on my airplanes, of course supervised by a licensed mechanic as required by the FAA. This is not unusual for an owner pilot. I am not saying that knowing how to fix an airplane makes you a better pilot, but it is helpful to know how things work. The airplane I used to fly airshows and aerobatic competitions, a Pitts Special bi-plane, I totally rebuilt myself, after buying it from a well-known stunt pilot in Nebraska. A fabric-covered airplane, I took it down to the bare structure, replaced the engine, propeller and other worn parts, recovered and repainted the components, and then reassembled and re-rigged the airframe, being overseen by a licensed mechanic of course, and having it passed by a FAA inspector.

Few people have experienced the sensation of going aloft for the first time in an airplane you have put together yourself. You wonder about the hundreds of bolts and screws, some in very key places, that you have installed with your own hands. In the air now, I proceed carefully. The takeoff and climb out were uneventful. Let’s try a few shallow turns; all well and good. Things are proceeding normally, but this is supposed to be a stunt airplane.  I try a few rolls, beginning with a simple barrel roll. Next comes some aileron rolls: regular, slow, four-point, and eight-point. The airplane seems to be doing okay, but my timing is off, not having flown my Pitts Special since I began rebuilding it six months ago. Let’s try a loop. I line up with the runway, in this case Zeuhl Field, a private airport outside of San Antonio, Texas, which has a zone approved for aerobatic flight.

I can see about a dozen or so people standing outside the hangar where I assembled my airplane, some of whom helped me with it. They have come to see the test flight.  Diving the airplane slightly to pick up speed, I watch for 140 MPH and haul back on the control stick, pulling about 4Gs. I want an easy loop, no sense ripping the wings off just yet. The airplane goes vertical and then over on its back. In the inverted position I relax the stick pressure so the loop will not seem egg-shaped. I play around a bit, doing Cuban-eights, Immelmans, and other maneuvers, feeling happy to have my bi-plane back in the sky. But the real test is yet to come — the spin.

I climb for more altitude. It is best to begin this maneuver high enough so you can use the parachute you’re wearing to bail out if the airplane won’t come out of the spin. Now a well-rigged aircraft should recover from a spin on command. But who put this airplane together? Me. I retard the throttle to fast idle, while gently pulling back on the control stick to raise the nose above the horizon. The airplane slows to stall speed, that speed at which the wings can no longer generate lift. I feel the stall buffet; this airplane has no stall warning horn like airliners do. Holding the ailerons neutral, I boot in full left rudder. The right wing comes up and the nose drops and the biplane falls off into a left rotating spin. The aircraft is pointed at the ground and beginning to revolve around its horizontal axis with increasing velocity.  I only want one turn, so pop the stick forward and apply opposite rudder. The thing stops on a dime. Relieved, I climb back up to altitude and try a whole series, left and right, two and three turns, but I am not yet confident enough in the airplane to try inverted spins. I will save this for another time. I land, a little bouncy as I am out of practice, then taxi slowly up to my hangar and cut the engine. My friends greet me — they are as happy to see me as I them.

 * * *

About the author: Stephen Poleskie is a writer, artist and former aviator.  He has flown in numerous airshows and aerobatic competitions and has a trunk full of trophies in his garage to show for it. He has held an Air Transport Pilot license. His artworks are in the collections of numerous museums, including the MoMA and the Metropolitan in NYC. His writing has appeared in journals in Australia, Czech Republic, Germany, India, Italy, Mexico, UK, and the USA. He has published seven novels, the most recent being Foozler Runs. He lives in Ithaca, N.Y., with his wife the author Jeanne Mackin. Web site:  

June 28, 2014   Comments Off on Now & Then/Steve Poleskie

Now and Then/Stephen Poleskie


Steve Poleskie when he still owned two planes.

Do You Know Who’s in Your Cockpit?

by Stephen Poleskie

There is a widely shown TV commercial for a credit card company that begins: “Do you know what’s in your wallet?”  I don’t imagine that we will ever see one for an airline asking: “Do you know who’s in your cockpit?” I think that most of the time they would rather we didn’t know.  You go to the doctor and he has all his degrees framed and hanging on the wall behind him. But your pilots — all you know about them is what they tell you over the intercom: “Hello, this is your captain speaking; our time in route will be. . . .” Is this the little kid trying to grow a mustache that you saw pulling a cart through the terminal? He did have on a blue uniform with three stripes on his sleeve. I hope that he’s not the one who landed at the wrong airport last week.

I had begun writing this before Malaysia Airlines flight MH 370 disappeared. Now there is an extensive search going on for the Boeing 777 in the waters of the Indian Ocean. By the time you are reading this the wreckage will probably have been found. It will take much longer to determine what went wrong. I am not going to speculate, unlike the legions of experts called forth on the TV news/entertainment shows. I am only going to relate some of my experiences with airline pilots I have known and the training thereof.

So what do you know about it, you ask? Aren’t you some kind of artist turned fiction writer?

Yes, however, I did earn a pilot’s license, not just a Private, but an Air Transport Pilot’s rating. This is the top, as high as you can go, the Ph.D. of flying. It’s the piece of paper you need to become a captain on an airliner.

So where did I learn to fly — having made my comment above about the training of airline pilots? Well, full disclosure, I must admit that I, like most of the things I have done in my life, taught myself.

You can’t teach yourself to fly, you say.

I was in a flying school at the Tompkins County Airport.  I had read about spins and wanted to do them. My flight instructor told me that the FAA had taken spins out of the curriculum because they were too dangerous. I asked him, how would you get out of a spin then — if you accidently got into one — if you had never practiced spin recovery? He said that the FAA’s emphasis was now on avoiding spin entries. After much urging by me, my instructor did agree to demonstrate a spin, which seemed to terrorize him, but rather fascinated me.

As I was signed off for solo flight, and as straight and level flying never held much interest for me, I would fly out to the practice area and do spins, left and right, sometimes as many as three turns.

Every now and then you had to have a progress check with the chief pilot, who also happened to be the owner of the flying school. As we were taxiing out, Mr. H pointed to the artificial horizon, an instrument used to tell you the attitude of the airplane when flying in the clouds. The instrument was inoperative. He ordered me to taxi back in. I argued that, as it was a perfectly clear day and we would have no need of the instrument there was no reason to postpone my check ride.

He informed me that I was guilty of performing an inaccurate pre-flight inspection and so had failed my check ride. He wondered why the instrument had failed – the gyro tumbled, were his words. I naively ventured that the gyro usually tumbled when I did a spin, but then it always seemed to come back.

“You’ve been spinning my airplanes!” Mr. H said in a fit of anger. “These airplanes are not meant to be spun.  The FAA no longer requires spins on a flight test. You are a menace to yourself, and everyone around you. You have no business being in an airplane!”

And with that he kicked me out of his flying school.

There was a flying club on the other side of the field that also gave lessons; however, I was not a joiner, and had enough of meetings at the university where I taught. So I went out and bought an airplane, a Citabria,  an aerobatic airplane that I could spin all I wanted and do loops and rolls and whatever else.  I got the flight instructor at the field in Pennsylvania to sign me off for solo flight, and could go up in my airplane whenever I wanted, although I couldn’t take any passengers. I flew around for months solo, not only teaching myself how to fly, but also to do stunts.

What does my experience have to do with airline pilots?

Think about it. Thanks to the FAA the average airline pilot has probably never done a spin in an airplane. They may have done spins in a simulator — it’s a bit like shooting Zombies on your X-box — you can always turn the thing off if it gets out of hand. But when the nose of your airplane is pointed straight down, and the world outside the windshield is spinning faster and faster, and you’ve never done this for real before….

According to a recent article in The Wall Street Journal, the U.S. regional airlines are facing a serious pilot shortage due to the low salaries they want to pay. Starting pilots at the 14 regional carriers average about $22,400 a year, with some paying as low as $15,000, which is about minimum wage. This means that they are hiring just about anybody.

A few years ago my friend Diane Ackerman, who has a pilot’s license, told me, almost in shock, the name of a person she had known as a student pilot who had been one of the pilots on the airliner she had just flown in on from Kennedy.  Why had she found this so hard to believe?

When he was a student, the pilot, who I shall call George, which is not his real name, was sent on a solo cross country flight to Syracuse. Now for those of you not from upstate New York, I will tell you that when you take off from Ithaca on a clear day, which is only when students are allowed to fly, if you look north you can almost see Syracuse. And if your navigation radio fails you can follow Route 81, which will take you there, or Lake Cayuga, that will get you to the NY Thruway, which also leads you to Syracuse.

Somehow George missed all these clues and got lost. Not only did he not get to Syracuse, but he could not find his way home. George continued searching until he ran out of fuel and had to crash land in a farmer’s field. Now with a blot like that on your copy book one would think that there was no way that he would ever become an airline pilot, but there George was.

Back before 9/11, if one had a pilot’s license you could show it to the cabin attendant and ask for a “tour of the cockpit.” Now I thought with the new security rules cockpit visits were all over. But I just saw on the television that the copilot on the missing Malaysia Airline flight had several young ladies up to the cockpit on a previous flight.

Back many years ago I recall being invited up to the cockpit on a British airliner I was on heading for Freetown, Sierra Leone.  The captain sent the flight engineer off and invited me to sit in his chair. And then, producing a bottle from somewhere, the captain asked me to join him in a glass of Sherry.  I was surprised and naively asked him if British pilots were allowed to drink while on duty. He replied that as the co-pilot was flying the airplane he was officially “not on duty.”

We were having a nice chat. I asked him how they were navigating. He replied by reciting a long list of radio navigational facilities that were presently off the air, at the moment they were “dead reckoning,” which means basically heading in the direction that you think you should.

Fortunately, right about then, the copilot who had been sitting there ramrod straight — wearing his peaked cap and inchoate mustache — peering out the window announced, “Captain, the coast of Africa dead ahead, sir.”

The captain pivoted his seat around, and studied the large land mass that was emerging from the ocean in front of us. “Yes,” he said. “It looks like Africa. Take a right turn when you get there.” And with that he swiveled back and offered me another sherry.  I decided it was time to return to the cabin.

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About the author:

Stephen Poleskie is an artist, and writer. His artworks are in the collections of numerous museums, including the MoMA, and the Metropolitan Museum,  and his writing, fiction, and art criticism has appeared in many journals both here and abroad and in the anthology The Book of Love, (W.W. Norton) and been nominated for a Pushcart Prize.  He has published seven novels and taught at a number of schools, including: The School of Visual Arts, NYC, the University of California, Berkeley, and Cornell University. Poleskie lives in Ithaca, NY. website:, where you can find the photo above.


April 28, 2014   Comments Off on Now and Then/Stephen Poleskie