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A Postcard From The Heavens
Montana Senior News, Dec.2013/Jan. 2014
When you consider events that can affect one’s future, receiving a calendar seems an unlikely game changer. Yet for FedEx pilot Richard “Dick” Neumann, a calendar from the U.S. Marine Corps assuredly did alter the course of his life while he was still a forestry and engineering student.

“I was in my last year of college and uncertain about what I wanted to do after graduation when I received a postcard in the mail about a free calendar. A week after the calendar arrived, a Marine Corps recruiter called me. He asked if I saw anything in the calendar that looked interesting,” remembers Dick. “When I told him I thought the jet looked cool, he said ‘How would you like to fly one of those?’ and offered to fly me to Milwaukee on his dime to take an aptitude test. Up till then, I hadn’t even known the Marine Corps had jets.”

Thanks to Dick’s science and electrical engineering studies at Michigan Technological University, he aced the test and was subsequently flown to Chicago to take the flight physical exam, which he also handily passed. He then resumed his studies and upon graduation found three engineering firms courting him. But because of a promise the recruiter had made, Dick kept them all waiting till he could make up his mind.

“The recruiter told me I would have an Aviation Contract Guarantee, which meant I was guaranteed to attend flight school provided I finished boot camp. After doing some research, I learned the Marine Corps is the only branch of the armed forces to offer that guarantee,” recalls Dick, whose desire to fly jet aircraft led him to accept Uncle Sam’s $10,000-per-year contract instead of a more lucrative private industry job. Along with the exhilaration he felt after completing his first solo flight, he also felt a deep certainty he had made the right career choice.

“As a kid, I never gravitated toward the thrill rides at carnivals; I went for the games of skill. But when I was in college some vocation tests I took indicated I’d do well as an astronaut,” says Dick. His youthful predilection for shooting moving targets instead of riding roller coasters may seem surprising, yet it’s not when you realize that pilots are problem solvers who must pay constant attention to what is going on around them.

“Pilots have three main goals: safety, reliability, and legality—in that order. We have to identify whatever might jeopardize a flight and nip it in the bud before it progresses into a chain of events that could lead to an accident,” says this father of two teenagers, who cites his own mantra as, “Keep your head on a swivel.”

Dick ended up serving 15 years in the Marines, accumulating over 1500 flight hours, and earning early retirement before moving on to pilot planes for Continental Airlines and then for FedEx. His training up till that point had ideally prepared him to be a commercial carrier for FedEx, a job he has held for over two decades.

For the past 14 years, Dick has made his home in Helena and commuted to work by a most unusual route. He drives from Helena to Great Falls where he catches a jump-seat ride on a FedEx plane heading to Tennessee. When he arrives in his hub base of Memphis, his work week begins transporting cargo around the world in MD11 three-engine heavy jets. Assignments have taken him to Moscow and Mexico as well as to Djibouti Africa and destinations throughout the United States.

Considering how many years he has flown aircraft, Dick has enjoyed an admirable safety record. While some of his pilot friends have had to deal with emergencies such as engines shutting down mid-flight, Dick feels fortunate to have escaped such ordeals. Just one incident stands out that had the potential to be problematic. It occurred several years ago when he was a first officer on a FedEx DC10.

“During our takeoff roll on a flight scheduled from Indianapolis to Minneapolis, we received a Cargo Fire warning, meaning smoke was detected in our lower cargo area. My co-pilot and I immediately rejected the takeoff and ran the checklist, which led us to evacuate the airplane down the escape slide,” remembers Dick, who typically hauls 100,000 pounds of freight with each run. “The responding fire crew never found a sign of a fire. FedEx maintenance later determined that dust had been stirred up from a sliding canister improperly fastened to the deck. That triggered the fire warning light to illuminate. Loose cargo can cause some serious center-of-gravity issues and is a pilot’s worst nightmare. Had we gotten airborne, we probably would have had difficulty controlling the plane because of that canister.”

These days offers for free calendars may not show up in his mailbox but Dick remains thankful for the one that did. Whenever he recollects how that long-ago postcard changed his life, he can’t help but marvel at how it led him to a satisfying career flying fast-moving jets.