Life is like a huge Zen roller coaster; it’s designed to be that way. At times its fun and exciting, just like the ride at the amusement park, but occasionally it becomes a sledge-hammer serious affair. At the park, we get on and off at our choosing, we laugh to our hearts content, and the experience becomes a warm memory brimming with joy. Although the past few months can certainly be described as an emotional roller coaster, it has been anything but joyous. Rather than a fun-filled, heart pounding dash around a set of twisting tracks, it’s been more of a confusing whirling dervish of heartbreaking tales mixed with stories of love/compassion and yes, even heroism. It seems, the big cosmic “PAUSE BUTTON” was pushed for the entire planet, and the effects have touched every facet of human existence. Raise your hand if you’ve personally felt the effects. I’m guessing most of the 7.8 billion humans on this big rock in space are forlornly raising their hands as we speak.
(Our world truly seems to be upside down right about now…)
In the world of aviation, there has been but one event that would be remotely similar to the past few months. On a sky-blue September morning, 19 years ago, a horrid, evil-driven, slaughter of innocents took place. It was heinous to its core, but it was not a dreaded nuclear device, or an invisible invasion of microbes that did the killing. It was a culture of malevolent, evil intent, and it used four shining, graceful airliners to inflict death and destruction. While the smoke was still billowing, and humanity was recoiling in shock, an unprecedented thing happened; the airspace over North America was switched off completely, as if some gentle giant had moved a lever and the atmosphere would no longer support flying machines. We were all struck numb, and horrified emotions swept across the world, however, a big difference between then and now exists. While the 9-11 “black swan” event was centered over one locale, this vortex covers the entire planet like a huge blanket of pain and suffering. The terrorist attacks were shattering to be sure, and the effects on my world of air machines was nothing short of devastating. Thousands of employee layoffs occurred, pay-cuts came in droves, airplanes by the hundreds were moth-balled, and untold numbers of lives were turned upside down.
(Seattle to Tokyo. Being passed over the Pacific by a United Boeing 787… our cruise speed is about 50 knots less than theirs. Although it looks close, they are actually 1000′ above us.)
But then something happened. When the shock began to subside, we found to our relief, that we were left with an air travel system that was mostly intact. People were fearful, and the world of aviation had changed, but we hitched up our big boy/girl panties and fought back. We hardened our machines (ex.; installing bomb-proof cockpit doors), we hardened our procedures (with x-ray machines galore, the birth of the TSA, pilots armed on the flight deck [I’m planning an upcoming piece about my time as an FFDO…or Federal Flight Deck Officer]), and we hardened our hearts (the battle cry of “Let’s Roll” became our mantra). Airline travel slowly returned, and although the storm of evil still existed, we now had several tools to deal with it. One uniquely human by-product of the entire experience has become an integral part of the current experience of air travel. The wonderful folks that sit behind me, are now as physically and emotionally invested in the safety of the flight as the flight crews have always been. The massive ripples from that day swept throughout my industry, and it took a huge paradigm shift for us to fly airliners again (and for people to want to be on an airliner again), but we prevailed, and eventually prosperity returned.
So why mention the attacks of 9-11 in a piece about a viral pandemic? Because there is good news to be gleaned from these “nightmare-like” days we find ourselves mired within. Please hear me; we WILL prevail once again. Across the spectrum of life, the human race will adapt and overcome. We will fight for our lives, and we will fight for our families and friends. In the process, we will fight for our values, our societies, and our collective sanities. I am profoundly convinced we will come out of this “Twilight Zone tunnel” as the next version of a “Brave New World”. Let’s call it “World 2.0”.
Aviation will be no different. It’s bad, but it’s been bad before.
So the question is: how am I (personally) doing during this world-wide “flat spin”?
(Nagoya to Honolulu. Sunrise abeam Midway Island in the mid-Pacific.)
The conglomeration of cells, synapsis and soul that differentiate me from other species is truly hurting…grieving actually. I’m torn between the pain of the unfathomable amount of suffering the world is living through, and the pain of the death of my “normal”. Our world is not like it was barely a few months ago, and it’s nothing short of shocking. We’ve seen the ugly rise of government control (both federal and local) beyond our wildest imaginations. My country’s founding tri-gospel of; “Liberty”, “In God We Trust”, and “E-pluibus unum”, is being put to the test daily. We’ve had dire mortality predictions that would frighten the stoutest of warriors. We’re now living with restricted gatherings at venues like malls, parks and restaurants, and every man will attest to the vast numbers of the female world anguishing over the lockdown of their coveted salons (with the “COVID 19 hairdo” becoming the topic of many a conversation). It’s enough to make one jump in the ‘ol time machine and set the dial for a different year…almost ANY year. On a serious note, the cost in human lives had been staggering, both in the horror of broadcasted daily body counts (decidedly NOT good for the psyche IMHO), and in the devastation of the financial world. Thousands of family (and many corporate) businesses closed, never again to see the light of day. Jobs lost, and careers ruined (in the case of some college folks, before they ever began). Things we celebrated mere weeks ago as bedrocks of our lives (sporting events, weddings, graduations, family reunions, etc.), are all part of the tsunami-like “PAUSE BUTTON” effect. It sometimes feels like we were all standing on a street corner, minding our own business, and “BAM!”, we were struck by an errant dump truck!
(The errant dump truck just flashed by.)
However (and at the cost of sounding uncaring; I promise you, I am not), when my left-brain speaks to its counterpart on the right, it says… “so what?” Not to the suffering, but to the shift in our collective “reality”. Our world has been irrevocably changed, and our “normal” is no longer that…normal. But again, so what? The historian in me says that we need to be intellectually honest with ourselves. This has happened throughout the span of time. Mostly, not with the “it affects ME, right here, right NOW” type occurrence, but its’ simply a part of what happens on this planet named Earth. The day Copernicus first looked to the stars, or Madame Currie first peered into a microscope, the world changed forever. It was permanently altered on a deserted backstreet in Sarajevo in 1914, and on a midnight Polish border twenty-five years later. The planet reset itself the day a quiet Minnesotan put the cockpit compass on “E”, flew solo through an ink-black night, and somehow found Ireland shortly after sunrise. The world was violently changed on a lonely swath of desert in 1945 known as Trinity Site, and human life was (again) redefined when two brave men planted a flag on an even lonelier stretch of dust by the name of Tranquility Base. Many times, in our collective history as people, we have forever changed the planet due to our efforts, and just as many times, the planet changed without consulting us. This happens to be one of those times.
(I was but a young lad of 13 when I witnessed my first real world changing event…the entire planet watched with me.)
Were all of these world events good news for humanity? Of course not, but they were world changing nonetheless. The Earth morphs constantly, and we as practitioners of the art of being human, change with it…we must. I weep, and am profoundly sad for the human cost of this ugly monster of disease. Side note: I’m finishing an amazing book titled “Man’s Search For Meaning” by Viktor Frankl…holocaust survivor and psychiatrist ( https://www.amazon.com/Mans-Search-Meaning-Viktor-Frankl-ebook/dp/B009U9S6FI ). One cannot read such a book and not be left with some of the following thoughts.
Sadness and grief have been a part of the human experience since the dawn of time. We risk it ALL, every day of our lives, and we do this by simply getting out of bed in the morning. Does this mean I believe this nightmare isn’t real and deadly serious? Of course not, I most certainly do. But I understand that as humans we all have an “expiration date”, it’s just part of the deal. We’re born, we live a certain number of days, and then we die. The big question that this event has forced most of us to consider (myself included) is this: what if I can last longer by living less (i.e., locking myself in isolation)? Is that a deal I’m willing to make? We all must make this decision. It is my fervent belief that government does not have the moral authority to make this call for us. Do I think that a lock-down during the initial “banzai charge” by the disease was the correct move (and an air travel ban thus grievously wounding the travel industry)? Yes, I believe it was. We were gobsmacked by disease and mis-information (not to mention LACK of critical information), and we were forced to take drastic measures. Do I agree that this sequestering remains warranted? That my friend, is a subject for another piece.
With that said, let me add that I am not depressed, I’m not down-hearted, and I am most assuredly not afraid. I know humans are ingenious (and at least as devious as a virus), and I know that we will marshal our intellect to craft medical miracles, and couple that with amazing skills within the world of entrepreneurship. This will inevitably lead to solutions yet to be dreamed of. It’s simply what we do.
(I took this on a layover in Reykjavik, Iceland. Is this a scene we will see again anytime in the future?)
Now, the pilot part.
I will not lie, a part of me is enjoying this break from the daily pressure-packed world of professional flying, while another part feels the loss of my world above the clouds. In a weird turn of events, this personal break from reality is actually due in part to two different events. The first is the virus that’s worldwide, the other is an extended sick call from the airline. It seems that a rather strange malady popped up beginning last summer (trust me, getting older is not for the faint of heart). One of the by-products of a life of international travel, is the varied (and “interesting”) dietary offerings within the overseas borders I routinely visit. A few years ago, I had been blessed with a stomach bacteria contracted in South Korea, and I assumed that the mysterious weight loss I was now experiencing was the return of this old gastrointestinal friend.
After several months of routinely tightening the notch in the belt buckle, and regardless the fact that my appetite was still quite normal, I was continuing to drop pounds as fast as Hollywood types dropping complaints about the White House at a dinner party. My ability to eat more than a few bites during any meal was non-existent, and I found myself on the losing end of a rather serious battle. I was slowly getting smaller, slowly getting weaker and by the end of February, I deemed that I was approaching the point of no longer being able to safely do my job. I called my Chief Pilot and removed myself from flying status.
(The last time I flew the big Boeing. February, Guatemala City to Los Angeles …this picture was taken by our jumpseat rider.)
I was mistaken about the bacteria, and after some medical head-scratching (and an upper G.I. endoscopy), the doctor types eventually diagnosed the issue as Achalasia. We were in the midst of formulating a plan for my return to good health, when things changed. Unfortunately, this is the part in the movie where the “errant dump truck” meets the pedestrian, and the sick pilot finds himself now part of an entire planet that had been diagnosed with a serious illness. So, I found myself in a personal tail-spin as I watched my world begin the slow nose-up attitude that all pilots know will lead to wing buffet, and the eventual loss of precious lift (my/our “normal” was about to stall). Clearly, I was not quite “ready for prime time” physically, but was I emotionally ready for all of this? As in commanding a passenger laden jet during an emergency, I had no choice, I had to be ready.
Yes, I could put on my “Captain’s face”, compartmentalize my emotions, “work the problem”, keep my spiritual and physical wings level, and see myself (and my dear loved ones) through this. The last forty something years in my profession was superb training for what I was now facing. I needed a plan to get my body better, so I could keep my brain in good shape, so I could keep my sanity humming along on all cylinders. Though they had no real idea what caused this condition (much like my thymoma tumor in 1999), they informed me it was fully treatable. There were several options, but the fix Deb and I chose would involve anesthesia, scalpels and a one-night slumber party at the local hospital.
(In EVERY life a little rain must fall…it’s just a by-product of living. My medical issue and the resultant surgery was what we in aviation term a “squall line”. I’ve seen many of them (both medical and real), and this was just one more to deal with.)
This is where the deadly virus almost derailed my entire little apple cart. My surgery was scheduled with the caveat that the medical governing body may not allow it due to the crisis that our health care industry was facing. I was informed that if they nixed my procedure, I was looking at a delay of up to 6 (and possibly 8) more weeks! Doing the math (considering the continued loss of weight), and considering my general worsening lack of stamina, it was looking like I would land short of the proverbial runway (with the resultant causality list). The bureaucrats relented (apparently our local health care facilities were NOT being overwhelmed), and we were firmly in “fight’s on” mode!
The morning of my surgery (16 April) I was, for lack of a better description, a mere shell of myself. The pre-bout weigh-in had me at 141 pounds (my normal “fighting weight” is 175-180), but I felt more than ready. The bathroom mirror had been cruelly lying to me for several months, for my reflection showed not ME, but what appeared to be an abused, starved P.O.W. from an enemy internment camp. The good news is that the procedure went swimmingly, and the better news is that I now can eat anything that’s not nailed down! I have since gained just shy of 20 pounds, and am feeling like $12 (that’s a million, adjusted for inflation and the virus effect on the market). OK, “Mysterious Weight Loss Emergency checklist complete Captain”. My plan is another month off the line to build my weight back, get my immune system back in the green band, and then spend the last 12 (sunset) months of my career flying the big jetliner hither and yon.
(Another jaw-dropping sunset “suffered” on the beach in Palau.)
Will I have an airline to go back to? Yes, I will. Will the airline be the same as when I last flew four months ago? Of course not. If you know anything about aviation in general, and airline flying in particular, you know it (like the world) changes constantly. Airframes are added, airframes are parked, cities are added only to be dis-continued a few months down the road. The only thing truly “constant” in the airline business is change. Will our procedural world be different? Yes it will, but again, that stuff changes all the time also. Before each trip I’m required to wade though the pile of (virtual) bulletins on my flight operations website…it can easily take an hour or so. From things like FAA airspace changes, or how I’ll conduct a night visual approach into a mountainous airport, to even the most mundane things like which “holiday ties” are acceptable while wearing the uniform. Will face-masks, hand sanitizer, and “social distance” verbiage now be part and parcel to the language of aviation? Probably, but again, so what? A few decades ago, I had never heard of things with the alphabet soup names like TCAS, CRM, RNAV(RNP), PBE, RVSM, and the list goes on and on. Pilots learn to change, adapt and prevail every day and on EVERY SINGLE flight. It’s part of the challenge (and excitement) of the job. This medical paradigm will be no different in terms of the result.
(Haunting to each and every pilot. Most will see the clouds again…some will not.)
There will be many questions, and untold challenges ahead for me and my world of airliners. But with adversity, we rise to the occasion. There exist certain absolutes in the world of flying, and even a world-wide pandemic cannot alter them. It will always take fast air moving over the wings to get my 250,000-pound collection of metal and humans into low Earth orbit, and no invisible virus will ever change that. It will take smart, creative, and very brave folks to run my incredible world of aviation (like it has since that long night the man stared at his fuel gauges, nibbled on cheese sandwiches and prayed to find the coast of Ireland). Oh, and a couple more things that I’m 100% convinced of…it will take this old airline pelican several more weeks (and roughly 20 more pounds) before I’m fully ready to strap on the jet again. And when I do, it will take a Herculean effort to wipe the smile off my face as I board the beautiful machine, turn left and enter my personal “Brave New World” 2.0
(Courage was a value we seemed to have intrinsically in days past… I’m not so sure now. Here we are bound for Japan from Hawaii…passing the island whose very name invokes the word”courage”… Iwo Jima).
(A not so brave man, with the bravest person I’ve ever met…my love, my rock, my Debora.)
So I say…stay on the roller coaster, you’ll be glad you did. To quote my amazing bride, “I’m not afraid to die, but I’m terrified to not live.” Please be smart and remain safe.
(“Smart and be safe”…. honestly, what the heck does that even mean these days? The goal post is being moved constantly, so “smart” and “safe” are also being re-defined every day. Don’t hang out in huge groups of people, wash your hands like you’re a germaphobe, get plenty of sleep, get your fat-ass off the couch and exercise, eat right, spend time in the sun, seek medical attention if you get sick, and for God’s sake, stop licking those toilet seats! Wait! Aren’t all these the very same things your Mother hammered you to do every day as a kid?)
But most importantly, know that suffering is a byproduct of being human. Our Maker gives us love and joy to go with the pain, it’s just part of the big roller coaster we call life.
(Sunset on a Guam to Tokyo flight. Every moment of every day sees the sun set somewhere…but realize it is also rising at that very same moment.)
(What our route looked like on the tablet we use.)
Lastly, I urge you to contemplate these simple things:
Be brave and be kind…for they are both contagious. Live each and every day as a gift (for it truly is)…and don’t forget to be human.
‘till next time.