Tuesday, June 8, 2010

OMG, I'm Your Co-Pilot

Have you seen the film clip of the crash landing of a small FAA plane in Ft. Worth, TX, last week? In case you didn’t, here’s a link—http://www.thekathrynreport.com/2010/06/raw-video-beechcraft-king-air-gear.html. Chilling, but fortunately, no injuries.

I’ve always fantasized what I’d do if I found myself aboard a plane with no pilot able to fly the aircraft. Probably came from watching too many Grade B movies, or seeing Airplane! one too many times.

My opportunity to be ready and able at a moment’s notice came some 30 years ago, right after Airplane! hit the theaters. It happened during my first trip to Wal-Mart headquarters for its annual meeting weekend, the latest of which took place last Friday and Saturday.

I flew into Tulsa on a Thursday, to be picked up with nine Wall Street analysts for the one hour plane ride to Bentonville in northwest Arkansas. We’d be ferried in one of Wal-Mart’s five planes. Even back then, when Wal-Mart sales reached only $1.2 billion from 276 U.S. stores (today sales exceed $405 billion from more than 8,400 stores in 15 countries), Wal-Mart was known as an innovator, a company with its own air force.

Company founder Sam Walton was pilot #1. He’d fly out most days to survey site locations from the air and land almost anywhere to visit stores. You never knew where or when Sam would drop in on you.

I didn’t expect Sam to be our pilot that day.

Nor did I expect the plane would be an 11-seat prop. As the last one to board, I took the only vacant spot, the seat to the right of the pilot. Oh My God! I was in the co-pilot’s seat. I was both anxious and exhilarated. I masked my emotions, joking with the pilot I was ready to take over if needed. I was determined to study his every move, just in case.

And then it happened—in the middle of our conversation his voice went soft and he was talking with the tower. We slowly started taxiing. Wait a minute. I didn’t see him touch anything. His hands weren’t on the yoke. How could he be talking and moving the plane so...effortlessly? We just rolled to the top of the runway and zoomed into the air.

It was then I gave up any hope of being Ted Striker talked through a landing by Capt. Rex Kramer (those are Airplane! references, for the record).

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