At mid-career in an academic dream job for me at the time, my colleagues and I had an opportunity to help the Chicago Public Schools establish a new magnet high school focused on the agricultural sciences. After several years of planning, the Chicago High School for Agricultural Sciences opened in 1985 with its first freshman class.
About six months after the school’s opening, on a cold January day, a colleague and I were scheduled to take an early morning University plane from Champaign to Chicago for a meeting of the Agribusiness Advisory Council. The colleague was Assistant Dean Charles Olson, going to represent the Dean of the College of Agriculture at the University of Illinois. I represented the College of Education. We met at the University hangar about 6:00 a.m. for the 6:30 a.m. flight. Our pilot was a jovial middle-aged man who greeted us with an unsettling remark. He said, smiling,
“Keep an eye on me boys. I flew some people to Rockford last night and their meeting lasted until midnight. Then we had to de-ice the plane before leaving and I didn’t get to bed until 3:00 this morning. So I’ve had a little over two hours’ sleep and I need you fellas to talk to me on this flight to keep me awake.”
I wondered about University rules about pilot rotation and time off. But our pilot seemed alert and lively and in a few minutes we headed off in our 4-seater plane into the early morning dark sky, chattering to each other like a bunch of magpies. The flight was otherwise uneventful as the sun came up over rich and frozen Central Illinois farm land. Soon we were landing at Midway Airport, without a hitch. Maybe our pilot could get some shut-eye, followed by some thick coffee, while we were at the Advisory Council meeting.
About twenty members of the Council were present. Chairman Tom Donovan of the Chicago Board of Trade ran the meeting with his normal, masterful “Let’s get it done” approach, while giving everyone present a chance to be heard. These meetings were always productive and concluded with clear expectations about what was to happen before the next meeting. Dr. Ellen Summerfield, the founding principal, always sat beside Mr. Donovan at these meetings, and she was very industrious in noting follow-up actions that she needed to take.
The meeting ended before noon and Dean Olson and I headed for the airport. Our pilot said he got some rest while we were gone, and he was raring to go. Dean Olson occupied the seat directly behind the pilot and I sat to Olson’s right with a diagonal view of the pilot. The co-pilot’s seat in front of me was empty.
We took off into some low thick clouds and in minutes the buildings and streets of southwest Chicago were no longer visible below. We continued to gain altitude when I noticed that the pilot had dozed off, with his head tipping slightly forward. I leaned over to Olson and said over the engine roar,
“Chuck, what would you say if I told you our pilot is asleep?
He shouted, “What?!!!”
Olson immediately reached forward with both hands, grabbed the pilot’s shoulders, and shook him. The pilot snapped awake, embarrassed. He immediately checked the instrument panel, turned a knob or two, and straightened himself in his seat. For some oddball reason this whole scene struck me as really funny. If I was going to die, I was going to die laughing. My children were teenagers then, and they had a mother on the ground.
On this return flight to Champaign the three of us probably set a Guinness world record for the number of rapid-fire words spoken amongst us. There was no more rest for our weary pilot until we landed. Olson and I did not kiss the ground on landing, but only out of consideration for our pilot.
From that day to this, I have had a special liking of co-pilots.