Again, he was a flight instructor, charter pilot,
and crop duster. He learned stick-and-rudder
in those days, and he learned it well.
In 1965 Tom was hired by American
Airlines. By today’s standards, from first flying
job to the airlines in one year is a quick trip.
But those were the times then. The airlines
needed pilots. End of fairy tale story? Hardly.
There were many “industry dues” yet to be paid
and furloughs to be endured.
Tom married Cheryl, his high school
sweetheart. They once lived in a mobile home.
He arrived at one job with 8
cents in his pocket. He had to
spend 5 cents on a bar of soap.
And when he was domiciled in New York, and
making $500 a month, they lived in an apartment
that was so small that company had to sit on the
bed because there was only one chair.
Tom and Cheryl had a ’ 65 Volkswagen
Beetle, dark blue. They drove it all over their
known universe until, one day, when he was
on his way to Dallas for Boeing 727 engineer
training, it broke. He borrowed a car to finish
his trip, and Cheryl had to trade in the VW on
a Mercury Comet. In 1969, when they were
back in Texas, they got another Beetle. Tom
still has a soft spot for Beetles to this day, the
’ 65 being his favorite.
In 1979, Tom was promoted to captain.
From 1965, that’s 14 years. Not unusual for
the times. Now Tom’s career was settling in.
He was flying a lot and loved it. But, more than
that, he was thankful for it. It’s not like he
hadn’t earned it, hadn’t paid his dues; it’s like
he was thankful for the opportunity presented
to him. That’s a sentiment to be emulated.
Tom was doing for a living what he always
wanted to do. Did that mean he just sat back
and enjoyed the ride? Nope. His thirst for all
things aviation never abated. He has earned
his airline transport pilot (ATP) certificate
for single- and multi-engine aircraft, land
and sea. He also has a commercial certificate
with privileges for single-engine aircraft
(sea), rotorcraft, helicopters, gyroplanes,
and gliders. Tom didn’t tell me this; he’s not
one to boast. A mutual friend filled me in on
And there’s more. He’s a certificated flight
instructor in single- and multi-engine aircraft, helicopters, gliders, and gyroplanes,
and he’s an instrument instructor for airplanes and helicopters. Oh, he also has his
airframe and powerplant certificate. Type
ratings? Yeah, he has some. Boeing 727, 737,
747, 757, 767, and 777. That’s just the
Boeings. He’s also type rated in the DC- 9,
DC- 10, and MD- 11. And the DC- 3. Corporate
types? Falcon 10, 20, and 50, Citation, and
Westwind. You getting tired of reading about
all his ratings? Me, too. You’re probably
thinking the same thing I am: underachiever.
No hot air balloon rating? Slacker!
Tom got the age- 60 boot in 2001, after 36
years with American with some 25,000 hours
logged. And he’s still flying, corporate and civil.
His daughter, Debbie, also a pilot, sometimes
flies corporate with him.
Debbie said some of the younger pilots will
sit down and tell Tom all about their flying
experiences. Tom just smiles and nods. And
one guy—not a pilot but an owner who bought
an airplane and read the manual—was overheard telling Tom how to fly it. He just smiled
Tom and I connected through this column,
and wouldn’t you know it, he’s building a
Pietenpol in his garage! He’s a homebuilder!
And I visited with him at AirVenture, too. He
flew there in Devil Dog, the Commemorative
Air Force’s B- 25. He’s also checked out in the
CAF’s B- 24. But, as I tell everybody within
earshot, “He doesn’t know squat about hot
Life is full of all manner of surprises, and
Tom recently got one. He got sick. He’s home
now, healing, and given his propensity for
accomplishment, he’ll be back in the saddle
soon. He won’t talk about being sick; he doesn’t
talk about himself. He’ll just show up ready to
fly. Or to get some hot air balloon dual.
So, next time you’re at an air show watching other pilots perform fancy maneuvers,
think about this: The pilot’s pilot might well
be standing right next to you. It may or may
not be Tom; there are all manner of mighty
fine pilots out there. Tom’s just a good example for all of us.
Lauran Paine Jr. is a retired military and airline pilot.
He built and flies an RV- 8 and has owned a Stearman and
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