Photographer Ivan Gabaldón interviews volunteer pilot Bud Sittig in this second installment of Gabaldón’s guest blog from Ride Into Birdland.
(Click here for the first installment of the series.)
On the night of our second day I get together with Captain “Bud” to learn more about his experience as an aviator and the work he does with Lighthawk. The ensuing conversation is worth sharing, along with more images, with all of you here. I give you Captain Lawrence “Bud” Sittig.
Ivan Gabaldon: Hello Captain Bud. Please tell us a little about your experience as a pilot.
Lawrence “Bud” Sittig: I’ve been flying for over 50 years. I started flying as a teenager, grew up in General Aviation –that is flying small planes– and then during my college years got all of my gradings, commercial pilot gradings, and became a flight instructor. Then after college I entered the military, I was trained in the United States Air Force and flew jet fighters, a passion which continued for some 31 years in the Air National Guard of the United States Air Force. Also I was hired into the airline industry and flew as a Captain with Delta Airlines for about 30 years, retiring just a few years ago. Now I’m back to General Aviation, flying smaller airplanes. I own my own airplane, a Beechcraft Bonanza, but I do a lot of flying with Lighthawk.
I.G. Before we go into LightHawk, tell us a bit more about some of the aircraft you’ve flown in your life.
L.S. I started in small airplanes, Cessnas, Beechcrafts and Pipers, and then when I went into the Air Force of course the airplanes became much more sophisticated, high-speed jet fighters, you move from little airplanes to traveling super-sonic, faster than the speed of sound, with very sophisticated weapons delivery systems. And then I joined the airline industry, flying large transport-category airplanes with 290 people on board, a lot of responsibility for those people. I flew those airplanes all over the world for Delta, in Europe and the Middle East, North Africa, all over South America and into the Orient, and of course all over the US to every major city in America. Then I retired from Delta, and I retired from the Air Force -the International Guard- and now I’ve come back to the smaller airplanes that I began in, some fifty years ago. But I’ve always been of the mind that my favourite airplane is the airplane I’m flying that day. It doesn’t matter what it is, I have a passion for flying. I love to fly and I love to share the experience of flight with other people.
I.G. Is anyone in your family following in your footsteps?
L.S. I have three adult daughters and now I have grandchildren, all of them have great fondness for flying but regrettably none of them had followed as pilots, until now my oldest grandson is beginning glider lessons. You can solo a glider at age 14 and when he turns 16 he’ll be able to fly a powered aircraft. He hopes to solo on his 16th birthday, which is what I did way back in the 1960s, I soloed on my 16th birthday and I’m hoping that my grandson will do the same.
I.G. You’re also flying one of the few remaining Flying Fortresses.
L.S. I am. The Flying Fortress, the B-17, is a WWII bomber that was used extensively, flown out of England, in support of the allied initiatives against the Nazis in WWII. There are only eight Flying Fortresses still flying and I fly with the Liberty Foundation, that’s libertyfoundation.org and you can read extensively about the mission. We fly the airplane on a tour program throughout the summer months to major cities all around the US, to help people remember or understand better those that served as crew members aboard the B-17. Many thousands of young combat members in WWII died in the B-17, huge loss of life. When one B-17 went down 10 people lost their lives. So really our mission is to help preserve the memory and it’s dedicated to those warriors that flew and served aboard those airplanes. As I said there are only eight still flying in the world. The airplane that I’m flying is called the Memphis Belle, there’s a famous movie of the Memphis Belle filmed in 1989 that tells the story of that aircraft, which had the first ten-member crew that survived twenty five missions, because the statistical probability of surviving 25 missions was almost zero. For two years nobody survived 25 missions until in 1943 the Memphis Belle crew completed 25 missions, then they took the airplane back to the United States and went on tour. They were celebrities of sorts, war heroes, but they went on tour to help sell savings bonds to support the war effort.
I.G. You said that you’re favorite plane is the one you’re flying on that day, but there must be a tremendous adjustment… I mean, just the number of indicators, buttons and controls in the cabin of one of those huge 767s, as compared to the Cessna from the 1970s that we’re flying in today, isn’t that a big adjustment?
L.S. Yeah, well… it’s not a big adjustment, it’s fairly easy to go from one to the other. Of course you train extensively on these complex airplanes, you train to manage the systems, and the weapons systems, and to fly the airplanes with certain skills and techniques, and then you move to another airplane and train well on that one. The human mind is a fascinating thing, it simply adjusts to whatever you’re flying that day. It’s no different than getting on a bicycle, pedaling down the street and feeling very comfortable doing that, and then getting into a Porsche that you drive and you go racing off in, you’re very comfortable in that. I think it’s a good analogy, it works that way, the mind simply adjusts to pedaling and steering a bike, or a motorcycle, or a sophisticated car, and you just adjust to what that is. For many years I was flying the F-16 Viper, a supersonic jet fighter that flies over 1,000 miles an hour, pulls 9Gs and drops sophisticated weapons, and then the next day I would go to my job at Delta Airlines and fly the 767 to Europe, and you just make the adjustment, your training prepares you to fly the jet fighter in the fighter mission, and your training in the airline industry teaches you to fly the transport-category airplane and be very concerned and protective of your passengers in the sophisticated air space that you’re flying into in complex areas of the world and in airports, you just make the adjustment.
I.G. You made the rank of General in the US Air Force. Considering that, I was impressed at how relaxed and gentle you were with all of us civilian flyers. It made me wonder what the differences are, coming from a military background and now doing this volunteer work for civilian organizations, how do you adapt to these different situations?
L.S. I think we are who we are, no matter what role we play in life. In the military one learns to become a leader, and as you increase in rank it’s increasingly important to be good to your people. To be an effective leader you must be sensitive to your people. So when you move from the military, which is very hierarchical and very regimented, nevertheless those basic human skills transfer, and when you get out into the civilian world again it’s all about your relationship with people, communicating effectively with people and understanding where they’re coming from. And it’s very important, with our partners that we fly with in Lighthawk, that we take time to help them understand the experience of flying in a small airplane, because many of our partners have never flown in a small airplane and for many of them it’s a bit threatening, it’s unknown. So it’s important to take some time to make them feel comfortable and hopefully transfer your own comfort level with the experience to them, so they can feel more comfortable. Today for example was unique, we’re flying over jungles, we’re flying on the coastline, and then we’re flying well out over the ocean, so there’s a lot of exposure with a single engine airplane… you know what happens if you have an engine failure over the ocean. So today we took special precautions and more personal flotation devices, so that if you went down on the water you had a flotation device, we have an on-board raft, and you have to take a few minutes to tell people about what to expect. Hopefully that will never happen but we have to be prepared.
Read the final installment of Iván’s story.