This column ran in 2011, but I am dusting it off in recognition of Congressman Norm Dicks’ plans to retire.
I stood by the open cockpit door of the little four-passenger Piper and imagined myself the very image of a nonchalant charter pilot. Then my passenger, Congressman Norm Dicks, stormed up, hot with anger, and my cool demeanor evaporated like water on the sun-drenched tarmac. He had just been told that I was his ride to Hoquiam, and I swear I saw smoke coming out of his ears.
That was back in 2000. I had just left Tacoma P.D. to pursue an ill-fated dream of being an airline pilot (a year later I would lose my job at Horizon Air when the Twin Towers came crashing down). Piloting a small charter plane was one of the rungs on the aviation ladder.
Days prior to my “congressional transport flight” I got a call from one of Dicks’ staffers asking about a charter from Seatac to Hoquiam. The congressmen, I was told, had a tight schedule and needed to get from Seatac to the coast for a fundraiser as fast as possible.
No problem, I told the staffer, I can do it. I quoted a rate that got her attention- in fact, she was so thrilled with the price that she tuned out as I described the exact size and shape of the little Piper Arrow.
So that is how I found myself on the tarmac at SeaTac as a very ticked off Congressman Norm Dicks (D-Belfair) stormed up. He had good reason. He was about to take a ride in a small plane I once described as a “a tiny machine that hemorrhages aircraft parts.”
Had he not already been running late, I believe Norm would have jilted me at the runway.
Congressman Dicks had put on a few pounds since his days as a lineman for the Husky football team. This become an issue when he settled into the cramped cockpit seat to my right. I glanced in the rear at the comparatively spacious and empty back seat, sighed and picked up my checklist.
I became aware of his congressional wrath when Dicks slammed his door closed and yelled, “Turn on the A/C!” Though it was summertime, I typically flew without A/C turned for a simple reason: The plane had no A/C.
I reached across (and across and across) Dicks chest and opened his passenger door as we taxiied out to the runway. “That’s our A/C!” I yelled, as the buzz of the prop poured cool air inside. The congressman replied by imitating a stone statue of Norm Dicks. “Just great,” I thought as we took off to the north, hooked left and flew towards the sunset.
As the miles inched by below Congressman Dicks did notice one thing: I was pushing the throttle as far forward as it could go without melting the engine. At some point he realized that I wanted him out of my plane as much as he wanted to be on the ground in Hoquiam. And that’s when he loosened up a bit.
Dicks was blunt about one thing – someone on his staff would be losing a sizeable chunk of their hiney for chartering my little horizontal blender. I agreed and then switched the subject, telling him about the time that I had almost shot one of his staffers. I had been one of a few cops searching his office following a burglary alarm when a staffer had jumped out into the hallway, pointed his fingers at me and yelled, “Stick ‘em up!” It was a true story, and for the record, not funny at the time. We both laughed and it let a little of the compressed air out of the cockpit.
We arrived in the Hoquiam area a few minutes early. The congressman pointed down towards the waterfront restaurant that was the site of his re-election fundraiser. Somebody must have called ahead, I said, because a few people were on the deck pointing up at the airplane. He smiled in reply.
So, I did what any charter pilot carrying a high-ranking federal official would have done in that situation–I buzzed the restaurant.*
Dicks was delighted. He smiled and waved as we flew by a final time and made our approach to the airport. After we had taxiied off, cut the engines and unstuck ourselves from the cockpit, Congressman Dicks turned to me and shook my hand. ”That was the best part of my day.” he said with a big smile. I smiled back.
I have checked Norm Dicks’ name on every ballot since that day. I guess I just like my politicians a bit feisty.
*I kept my 1000′ separation per Federal Aviation Regs. I swear.