It was his way of giving me life advice on handling the inevitable turbulence of existence - clearly a true pilot's words - "make small corrections". He had learned this wisdom the hard way on his own surely, and was making sure I got it. Even when I was a kid - driving (very illegally) his 1981 Toyota FJ-40 Land Cruiser - barely seeing over the dash - learning how to drive with manual steering on winding mountain roads in western North Carolina. I applied what he taught - I can still smell that scorched Land Cruiser dusty pleather interior from the North Carolina summer sun.
I grew up in planes. My dad, John Phillip Siskind, was always a pilot - he served in the US Air Force, and served in Vietnam when I was a baby. He flew C-123's, cargo twin engine planes. He never spoke much about the war. I never asked much. I think even as a kid, I knew it was something uncomfortable for him. He earned the Distinguished Flying Cross - he was an excellent pilot. It was a part of him and who he was, as it is for many pilots. He loved talking about flight - spotting and identifying airplanes just from their sound, like some sort of ornithologist of metal bird life.
C-123s - my favorite photo my dad ever took.
I remember doing stalls in the Piper Warrior 2 that we always flew. I would put a pencil on the dash - and once he would stall the plane by ascending sharply, the descent would cause the pencil to float - seeming weightless if but for a moment - just like my stomach. I remember him always saying "It's a great day to fly!" as we were doing something inane like going to a soccer game. The weather just showing potential for great flight conditions was enough to lift his spirits, even when there was no possible way to fly that day.
Fast forward to 2016 - I now have two drones and am in love with the possibilities - for art, for commerce - for geekdom. The laws governing drones are struggling to catch up, and the latest laws from the FAA, Part 107 for small unmanned aircraft systems (sUAS) now require remote pilot certification to operate commercially. To get certified, you must take a sanctioned aeronautical exam, pass a TSA background check, and then repeat the process every two years.
I was among the first of a few thousand in the US to sign up for the test. I paid $150, and scheduled a date for August 31, 2016 at 8am. I hate tests. I also have no idea how I am going to study hundreds of pages of regulations and aeronautical information and pass the test. I barely have time to devote to the things I am already doing. How would I fit this in and be successful? I felt the same as when my dad put the keys to his Toyota Land Cruiser in my hand and said "You wanna drive? Here you go! Just don't wreck it. Make small corrections and you will stay in the lines."
I knew this time-tested philosophical nugget would be just how I get through passing this test. I poured over the materials when I could. I found some online study groups that were fantastic and really supportive. I struggled. If I could just pick up the phone and call my dad, he would have been able to explain and decode everything to me so quickly. He would have been so absolutely into it! He would have called me everyday and quizzed me. He would have told me so many stories to help put it all in context. He is not available.
One saving grace - my wife's father was also a pilot. We emailed constantly through the process and spoke on the phone. He helped me greatly. What a gift to have another pilot dad to lean on! But - of course - my dad's absence was felt - through every study question - through every head scratching moment of confusion. I wanted to curse so many times out loud - WHY THE F*#$ ARE YOU NOT HERE NOW?!
This is from my dad's last purchased North Carolina aeronautical chart.
I flew with him in and out of Smith Reynolds many times.
Then I realized - he is here. Not in that spiritual overly-simplified literal explanation as in "he is looking down on you" - but more like, "he is always with you - all the experiences, knowledge, and intuition - it is all just - there."
I have all I need to pass the test. I have all the materials and can find answers. I have others to lean on. And more than that, I have all that tribal knowledge and instinct for this stuff inside me. It is vague or blurry - a sort of apparition of a trade knowledge - but it is there. My dad would have said, "It isn't going to help you for me to be in the passenger seat telling you the answers. You won't really learn this. You have to struggle through it on your own as best you can. You will do fine. Have a strategy for the test." Of course! Just drive the damn car and figure it out - and make small corrections! I got it.
I studied as best I could - I went into the test thinking at worst I fail and I get better knowledge and experience from the process, and I can retake it in a couple weeks.
I drove an hour in the early morning to the small airport where the test is administered. The smell of aviation fuel, and the smell of the leather in my car burning in the hot summer morning sun. I look around and think another thing my dad always said - "I'm just glad to be here." Armed with that final pointer of basic gratitude, I went inside, sat in the small desk with a camera on me, and started through the 2 hour timed test. I calmly walked it through. I had a strategy - take the easy questions first that I know I have correct, and anything I am unsure of - don't panic - take a first stab - and then calmly revisit it later. "You can still derive success from failure", I thought to myself. I remembered my dad's story of backing up a C-123 and blowing two tires on the barrier - something he even got ribbed about in this annual:
An hour in, I was done. I felt I was very close to the pass/fail score of 70. I reviewed my answers, and only changed a few. I went with my instincts. I made small corrections, and few corrections. I stayed calm. I moved methodically and made sure to not over-correct.
ILT John P. Siskind
I hung the sign stating to the proctor I was finished. I click a bunch of things with a feeling of total resignation to the truth of whatever the outcome.
My score calculates in front of me - I passed!
I walked out on air - gliding - so proud of myself. I realized I can give myself that pride I wish that I could see in my dad if he were still around. That said - it was so completely annoying I could not pick up the phone and call and say "I DID IT!"
I let my mom know. I let my sister know - and my brothers. I knew they would understand what this meant.
Days later, I receive an email that details the next steps. You have to log in to IACRA - an FAA rating application website, fill in your information, and then your test scores get married to your name in the system once they transfer over. Once the passing score showed, I was issued a temporary certificate while the official one comes in the mail. It also mentions I have been added to the FAA Airmen Registry. I search for my last name to verify I was listed, and this is what I see...
There I am - listed right alongside my father. We are both recognized as airmen in the national database:
When I saw his entry, it showed his contact information - part of me thought "I wish there was a chat button." I clicked - and this is what I got:
Alas, Of course it makes sense - "Address is not available." I laughed out loud, and sent that to my siblings.
We got a good laugh out of that one - dad would have appreciated that too - but mostly - he was proud.
Son of John Phillip Siskind
FAA Certified Commercial Pilot
Limits: RCFairchild C-123
address not available