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God's Copilot

                                        God's Copilot

       I graduated high school with God's copilot. No kidding.
       We all were transfixed last year when US Air flight 1549 successfully ditched in the Hudson River following a bird strike affecting both of its Airbus 320's engines. I am an aviation groupie, and am fascinated by aerospace accidents. I've read all the books and watched all the TV specials, so this was one of many accidents that I followed. My son and I recreated the Miracle on the Hudson many times on Flight Simulator on our home computer. I, like everyone else was awed by the professionalism and cool of that flight crew. Its Captain, Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger, of course,  became an instant hero. A legend in the making.
      So one day I get an email from an old friend I went to high school with and she tells me that the First Officer on that plane was Jeffry Skiles.

  Associated Press 

      Jeff Skiles- MG class of '77. I did not know Jeff well- in fact, we probably didn't exchange more than a dozen words our entire four years at Monona Grove High School. I had no idea of course, that he shared my dream of becoming a pilot. He of course followed through on his dream while I schlepped away five years at the University of Wisconsin on a degree I would never use.
     I still want to learn to fly and I keep telling myself I will someday.
     I love to fly. I have loved being in an airplane from the day I was ten, and my father treated me to a commercial airplane ride all by myself to visit my grandparents. It was a twenty five minute flight- Madison to Milwaukee. I felt like the King of Clouds.
    Flying was especially great years ago when they actually fed you a meal on board. The food might not have been the greatest, but man, you couldn't beat the view that came with it. Back then flying was special, but I still love it to this day. The best part of the flight for me is the takeoff roll, when you feel yourself pushed back in your seat and you know you are going someplace new- in a hurry.
     To this day I still ask for a window seat when I fly, and I am constantly trying to figure out what I am looking at on the ground and where it is. I really like to start a new aviation disaster book on board and watch the guy in the seat next to me when he notices the title. You get the strangest looks! Maybe I should have gone to work for the NTSB, but those folks are all engineers. Too much math.
     The closest I ever came to being in an aviation incident myself was flying in to Miami. We were about ready to touch down; in fact the pilot had started his landing flare, when all of a sudden the engines roared and we aborted the landing. The plane soared off again into the sky to loop around and try again. That was most interesting. Everyone on board was cool, like we had all been through it before. But we all wanted to know what had caused the go-around.
     Turned out it was just a distance incursion violation on the runway, no problem with the plane or anything. It wasn't even a close call. Just the pilots and the system following the rules. Results are usually good when that happens.
Sullenberger  was on Chris Mathews' show a couple nights ago. He has taken on a mission to raise awareness of a possible future decrease in airline flight crew proficiency and safety because of economic pressures.
     One of the most interesting things I learned from that interview was that Jeff could have been sitting in the left seat of that cockpit that day. He is in fact a command rated pilot but had been working as a co-pilot after job cuts at US Air. At one point Mathews asked Capt. Sullenberger if he thought, because of deregulation, the fiscal crises and the proliferation of commuter traffic it was beyond hope. "No," Sullenberger replied, "not as long as we still have men and women like Jeff Skiles."
     Shortly after the accident I had tuned into Charley Rose for his nightly interview show on PBS. I was pleasantly surprised to hear he was going to have Jeff on. Rose's trade mark opening is saying the last names of his guests as an intro. I do not remember who else he had on that night so I'll wing it, but they were biggies: Rose started his show by saying something like "Kissinger, Streisand, and Skiles- tonight." I laughed with pride for my class mate.

 Jeff in his private Waco biplane

     Last summer I and my son Robert, who is thinking of learning to fly, attended the annual Oshkosh Air Venture show. Unfortunately we got there too late to see the "Sully and Skiles show". I hope one day to be able to introduce Robert to Jeff.
    Maybe in a few years they can talk shop.

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