P.L. Kelly

Note: This is # 4 in the 10-part series about the Most Unforgettable People in my life. Please check my website, www.stevemarshallassociates.com, for the complete listing.

Caution before you read this article; I am compelled to use many of the phrases that this person used to illustrate his character. Many are NSFW.

P.L. Kelly

I first met (Paul Leland) P.L. Kelly in 1974 as I started my flight instruction program for fixed wing aircraft. Even though I had accumulated 2200 hours of flight time in helicopters in the Army, the FAA still required me to matriculate through the steps required for each step of the licenses in airplanes. And, I was motivated to acquire those licenses, because, at the time, I was determined to become an airline pilot

P.L. owned what is called an F.B.O. (fixed base operation) in Keene, NH, where he had a flight school, an air charter service, a contract with Air New England to fuel their regional passenger planes, flying between Boston, Portland, ME, NYC, and other points in the NE area.

We hit it off right away, with much in common. He had flown fixed wing aircraft in SE Asia over the course of 2 tours in the Army, from 1968 to 1970 and I had done one extended tour in Vietnam flying “Huey’s” from 1971 to 1972.

P.L. hailed from the Deep South; born and raised near Vicksburg, Mississippi and all of the colorful phrases and metaphors used there came with P.L. One of his favorites he used quite often when things appeared to be difficult to do or overcome was, “Piece of cake” followed by the person’s name.  Another was quite colorful and he used this one when he was frustrated or surprised by events; “Shit Apple Johnson.”

The transition to aircraft was not difficult at first; in fact, it was easier than flying a chopper. Where it got difficult for me was all of the rules you had to know and follow and instrument flying – known as “IFR” (instrument flight rules) in civilian aircraft. I had never used instruments flying in SE Asia, as there were very few electronic guideposts over there at that time; just some radio direction finding (RDF). In addition, since we flew so low, we navigated by using landmarks and we rarely flew in really bad weather. In fact, we used to define the meaning of “IFR” as “I Follow the Road!”

P.L. offered me many advantages and extra credit opportunities to expedite the flight license accrual process, including calling me to fly right seat (co-pilot) whenever he was hired for a charter flight. I actually did all of the flying, including navigation, radio work with the different FFA Centers and the towers at major airports, but he was still the Pilot in Command for any liability reasons. His favorite charter aircraft was a Beechcraft King Air, a turbo-prop twin engine craft that could cruise the airways at well over 300 mph with 6 passengers and 2 crew.

As many of these charters were flown at night, it offered me another opportunity to acquire new skills I had rarely used in the Army. On these flights, especially after we had dropped off the passengers at their destination was when the real learning came. He would often simulate an FAA flight test on the return leg to home base to put the pressure on me to see how much I had learned and how well I would do under the stringent flight test requirements imposed by FAA Examiners. (Note: he was a Training Captain with PanAm at the time and so he was well schooled in training techniques.)

From that 2 year experience with flying and enjoying his company, here are some of the best and enduring life lessons I learned from P.L. Kelly:

1.      “You don’t have to know everything” – you can’t – you just need to know when and how to look for it.

2.      “Talk to yourself out loud” – If it stays in your head you can convince yourself of just about anything. If you say things out loud, especially the difficult concepts; if they are stupid, they will sound stupid. (More on that concept later).

3.      “If your head is up your butt and locked sideways, it is hard to see daylight.” This was one of P.L.’s favorites; used when people got confused, became obstinate about learning, or were just doing plain stupid things. This concept actually relates to clarity and the importance of same in not only flying airplanes, but life, too. (Lesson #2 was the method, by the way, as the cure for #3.)

4.      “There is sound thinking and thinking that sounds good.” P.Ls contention was that most people practiced the latter versus the former and you can probably guess which he favored.

5.      “Fly the flippin’ airplane!” Yet another phrase he used frequently; literally and figuratively, to assist with focus – I still use it as a way to establish what I am trying to achieve before I enter a meeting.

To illustrate one of these concepts; #2; please allow me to set the way back machine to 1975 as I was circling the airport, doing “touch and go’s” (just touching down on the runway and then taking off again) in P.L.’s King Air, in preparation for taking the check ride with the FAA for multi-engine certification.

On one of my landings, I was descending rapidly and the ground was coming up fast, and I touched down a bit short - 39 feet in fact - of the runway. I hit the dirt and rolled onto the runway with no apparent damage except a bruised ego. Simultaneously, both of the mechanics in the hangar and P.L. witnessed the botched landing. As I taxied the plane to the hangar for an inspection, I dreaded my encounter with P.L. As I shut down the engines and climbed off the wing to the ground, P.L. just walked up to me and said, “One question. Did you talk to yourself?"

I replied, truthfully: "No." He just shrugged his shoulders, turned and walked away.

Two weeks later I was taking the check ride with the FAA examiner for the multi-engine endorsement. In mid-flight, the examiner asked, "What are you doing?" I replied: "Talking to myself.” The examiner didn't say anything more, and I passed with flying colors.

I only fully realized recently how applicable all that I learned from P.L. Kelly is in my life, even today. And, as far I know, P.L. is still alive and probably doing what he always loved to do; “Getting’ high in the sky.”