The kid sitting next to me in ground school is a professional airshow pilot; Heather, next to him, flies for the Air National Guard. Mac, at the end of the row, has more B-17 time than almost anyone alive – he’s here for an annual refresher. One of my classmates is an actual real live fighter ace (with a Navy Cross and two Silver Stars). “Aw, I’m just learning how to fly these planes, just like you,” he says when I confess how intimidated I am. This is distinguished company here at the Collings Foundation ground school.
But it’s also family. When we break for lunch, old friends embrace, slap each other on the back and inquire after the wife and kids. And whenever I retreat to a corner to catch my breath, someone grabs me by the arm and says “Pablo – have you met Frank yet? Frank’s amazing – flew Phantoms in the war.” And Frank and I will sit down swap stories. And yes, he’s amazing. And humble, engaging and a hell of a lot of fun to talk with. As are Tom, and Rob and Dee and… everyone. The mutual respect and admiration is overflowing and, from what I’ve seen so far, is entirely deserved. You hear snippets of conversations about what Jim loves most about the Corsair and tips on how to keep your balance if you need to climb down in the B-24 wheel well to free a stuck nose gear.
Honestly, I still feel like an imposter here – a brief survey this morning revealed that the average experience in the room is 15,000 hours of flight time and four type ratings. In 26 years of flying, I’m only coming close to 1,800 hours, and nowhere near my first type rating. But they’re welcoming me in, saying there’s plenty of time to learn, and by evening, as the beer starts to flow, I catch myself telling one of my own “there I was” stories (complete with obligatory hands-as-airplanes gestures) to a gaggle of airshow pilots and fighter jocks who have flown some of the most exotic aircraft that have ever left the ground. And you know? They laugh and slap me on the back just like I’m one of them. And I start to think how much I like this feeling of – just maybe – being able to be one of them.