A Professional Pilot's Challenges for
Staying Healthy While FBO Hopping

9:43 AM

By Lynda Meeks,

Founder of Girls With Wings

For the Airplanista Aviation Blog

Hmmm, should I order the lobster pasta? The seasoned strip steak with new potatoes? Or perhaps the chicken cordon bleu….? Yes, my pants felt a bit tight this morning, but they seem to be loose enough now…  And I did work out this morning.…

I was a skinny kid, but in college managed to put on not the freshman 15, but the freshman 50. My weight fluctuated constantly after that, and despite seven years in the military doing PT, or physical training, my weight seldom got below what the army said I should weigh. I had to do a “tape test” to determine I wasn’t overweight. It wasn’t until I didn’t have someone telling me to drop a few pounds that I got my weight under control and started working out for the fun of it.

Before my furlough, I did my best to stay in shape, which wasn’t always easy given the deliciousness and variety of inflight catering that comes with being a pilot for a fractional airline. Long cross country flights in the Citation X just called for passing the time up in the cockpit eating slow leisurely meals, which had been ordered via my company’s blackberry tool for menu selection.

Regional menus provided crab cakes in the Cape, Jambalaya in the Delta, Tex-Mex in the desert southwest, and pretty much a wide enough variety of standard fare to tempt any palate. However, because it is true that if a pilot isn’t complaining you should check for a pulse, quarterly revisions to the menu didn’t seem like often enough when you ate often 40 or so of the meals per month. At the issuance of the new menus every three months we were relieved to try something new.

My cooking skills have always been marginal. After preparing a meal at home I often wonder if it is a blessing I’m single so I don’t have to share my concoctions with a  family or if I’m single just because word has gotten out about my ineptitude in the kitchen. Either way, it was hard to say no to the more than generous portions of food that were secreted into the “crew closet” before every flight. This was a far FAR cry from my days flying for the regional airlines. Crew schedules did not have time built in between flights for obtaining sustenance sufficient for flying the mighty Beech 1900 in and out of the PIT hub. Often we’d have an ungodly long break between the first two legs and it was all we could do to keep up on the next six. Meals were either brought along in a cooler or purchased by inserting the mere coinage we were paid to do such a job into vending machines.

That all changed when I moved on to the fractionals, which I consider the best flying job there is. Pilots are treated better because they are the face of the company to the owners. Some of these meals were suitable for gifts, with vegetables cut into flowers and fancy condiments. Other meals were provided by the local deli and not much more than sandwiches wrapped in grease stained paper but just as delicious. If warming them up was necessary, by the way, it was accomplished by a short sit above the dash in the sun.

Although I usually chose the vegetarian meals because they were lower in fat and calories, most desserts were the same with any meal. Decadent, rich, football player sized portions of brownies, cheesecake and other sweets were the norm.  Add this to the food that passengers left behind (most often left with the rampers at the FBO – but sometimes, uh, not), there were many more calories in than calories out. Snacks of FBO cookies and popcorn added to the damage.

With my week on/week off schedule, I usually spent the 7 days off starving myself in preparation for another round of gourmet dining a la my lap. One thing that I eventually found out helped on the road was a simple trick. I carried apples with me and any time I was tempted to crack open one of those meals or eat one of those cookies; I told myself I could after I ate an apple. If I didn’t want to eat the apple, I knew I wasn’t hungry and I was tempted to eat that other food for all the wrong reasons.

Working out on the road was not always easily accomplished either. Most days start before the sun comes up and end after sunset. Motivating yourself to visit the hotel’s fitness center before or after a 14 hour duty day was one thing. As a runner, I usually preferred to explore the terrain surrounding the hotel for my exercise. So motivating myself to explore unfamiliar territory via foot was quite another. Especially in the dark or cold. Thanks to www.MapMyRun.com, I usually round a suitable route to accomplish some weight gain avoidance duties. 

Note: in order to decrease the risk to my bodily self, I would check in with the desk and tell them where I was going and when I expected to be back. Some clerks showed more concern than others. However, I figured if I didn’t show up for a flight this would be a nugget of information helpful to my recovery.

By far the best runs were not on any map. At the top of any list is the dirt path through the woods (Atlanta, GA), followed closely by a paved path through said vegetation (Minneapolis, MN). It helps to have a knowledgeable, like minded front desk clerk to clue you in to these secrets. I remember a clerk in Charleston, SC, who swore up and down there was nowhere to run around the hotel despite there being a promenade along the riverfront. Once I got to the promenade I stumbled upon bike trails that ran through the woods for miles!  Other running routes could be found by asking other visiting pilots like the route around the ___  or as I like to call them, “swamps,” near our hotel in Teterboro, NJ.

I’m not averse to running through the neighborhoods nearby but caution must be exercised here as well. Especially when Cujo decides you’ve gotten a little too close to their fence. Good thing running strengthens your heart for the times that it stops suddenly and accelerates even more abruptly. Staying in a big city often dictates runs based on a grid system, which does tend to simplify finding your way back. To pass the time I would listen to my mp3 player which also has a radio function. I could usually find an NPR station so I could catch up on the news at the same time I worked up a sweat.

Worst of all was staying in a place with none of the above. Chattanooga, TN, stands out in my mind as a place where I most often had to jump into the grass on the side of a two lane road with no shoulder. I don’t know if the drivers tried to push me off the road because they thought I had no business being there or they were too preoccupied thinking, “What in the world is that girl doing?” to realize how close they were coming to my right thigh (I always run facing traffic).  Not all threats have two legs or four wheels. A friend of mine was running in Orlando, FL, and swore he came within a few feet of an alligator. He ran as fast as he could back to the hotel room, not stopping til the door slammed behind him.

Most of the time I went out with no particular destination, counting on my sense of direction to get me back. This didn’t often work, as a run in Brunswick, GA, soon taught me. Located on a small island, I set off in the morning with about an hour and a half available for a run. I picked up the road to the right, figuring once I got even with the hotel on the other side of the island I would cut back over. A couple miles into it, I started to feel like I had lost my bearings so I stopped and asked a local which way the hotel was. Unfortunately, just like a VFR pilot doesn’t trust their instruments when faced with inadvertent IMC conditions, I disregarded her bearing pointer and kept running.

About an hour into the run, I had NO idea where I was, but, heck, I was on an island, how bad could it be? As long as my feet stayed dry, and I kept going counterclockwise, I had to arrive back to the hotel eventually, right? Then I started getting worried. My watch told me it was time to be taking a shower and getting ready to go to the airport. Luckily I came across an open business and asked again which direction to head. The last few miles were run about as fast as I had energy left and I didn’t delay the flight.

Most runs weren’t this dramatic. I ran in all kinds of weather, all over the country, and miss those days now that I am furloughed. I am now forced to run the same routes around my neighborhood over and over and have gotten to where I’m only running about three miles every other day and I miss it.

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