Not only to fly, but to bring the world's eyes...skyward.

Monday, May 17, 2010


Unlike most, if not nearly all other professions, flying is one to which its practitioners must either bring their A game every day or face consequences that make getting fired seem like tripping on the sidewalk. There's a saying in aviation, attributed to British Aviation Insurance Group's Captain A. G. Lamplugh, which states, "Aviation in itself is not inherently dangerous, but to an even greater degree than the sea, it is terribly unforgiving of any carelessness, incapacity, or neglect." I don't want to seem overly dramatic, but I firmly believe that and ask you to take a moment to fully consider it with me:

Any carelessness, in other words, any failure to fully account for, anticipate, and formulate plans to cope with any aspect of the flight, including any possible failures or emergencies. That's a tall order, especially when one is crossing continents and/or oceans in a 200-ton, 10-p.s.i. scuba tank flying far faster than terminal velocity five miles above terra firma. Think about this: very few planes crash going as fast as they'd so recently been flying normally just moments before, and the cockpit is usually the first part to arrive at the site.

Any incapacity. Incapacity means inability to handle. Pilots simply must, at all times, be capable of getting their plane back to a stop on the ground, somehow, to survive. To remain pilots, or at least gainfully employed pilots, they also better have a darned good explanation if the plane isn't in a fairly reusable condition when it stops. Pilots can't just say, "I don't land in crosswinds," "I hate flying on instruments," or the like. Again, capacity's a tall order when any given point on the globe can be immersed in a blizzard, thunderstorm, sandstorm, ash plume, or fog without notice.

Any neglect. For pilots, the words "I forgot" translate directly to "You may take my license (or worse) now." If we fail to pack something we later need, fail to post an update to a route manual, fail to maintain and apply our perishable knowledge and skills to any given flight, there are no third parties, no suppliers, no schools, no assistants, no supervisors, no government agencies to call upon to fix the problem, or blame, before we land. Air Traffic Control is a lubricant – it's there literally to prevent metal-to-metal contact in the skies. They're not a Fairy that can toss a pair of ruby slippers and instructions for their use up to us to get us back to Kansas, or Kandahar, as the case may be.

With what then, can the "folks in back" comfort themselves, knowing there's so very little to stop a pilot from coming to work sick, tired, stressed, or otherwise not in perfect condition to keep from demonstrating any carelessness, incapacity, or neglect while strapped to the same speck in the sky as they are?


I don't mean the kind that shows up for a job interview in an immaculately tailored and pressed blue pinstripe suit. I don't mean the kind that stays up till four a.m. the night before the big day making sure no jury could say that due diligence wasn't done. And I don't mean the kind that comes to work on time every day for ten years, sometimes sick as a dog, because they'll win some juvenile attendance "award."

I mean the kind that comes to the interview dressed well, of course, but with real, cogent answers to questions the impeccably-dressed competition hasn't yet considered. The kind that delegates or reprioritizes less important work precluding the need for a mind-numbing all-nighter. The kind that stays home when they're sick, knowing they'll be far more productive in the long run if they give their body the rest it needs to vanquish an illness decisively, rather than battling it for weeks, exposing everyone else in the office in the process.

This breed of professionalism does the right thing even when it seems nobody's looking, because it knows someone always is: the true professional's toughest critic – themselves.

The sad fact is, my profession and fellow professionals have been under a constant three-front assault by the media, the cost-obsessed public it serves, and elitist airline managements bent on knocking the once-proud airline pilot fraternity (I know of no gender-neutral word I can use for it, sorry ladies) down "to size."

The problem this causes is that professionalism can't just be "turned on" when we put our pilot hats on. Professionalism is a garden sowed in our training and then either tended, or neglected, for the remainder of our career. If Professionalism isn't thriving by the time we finish training for the trip on which we'll earn the money to buy that pilot hat, it's not going to make it. Even if lovingly planted by quality training, Professionalism can be choked out by weeds of undervaluation, mistreatment, and disrespect, all of which have been dealt out in copious, increasing amounts for decades now. The weeds are taking over the garden, yet no one who works outside a cockpit seems to have a clue as to what happened, so now the bureaucrats are going to "take a meeting" about it this week, for three days. If they'd listen to some Professional pilots, it wouldn't take three hours.

When an airline pilot retires, custom dictates that the airport fire trucks spray down the plane as it taxies in. Many passengers have seen this happen, but I seriously doubt many understand. The trucks aren't there because the pilot's successfully picked his way through lines of embedded thunderstorms with temperamental radar displays at night, or landed on icy runways in gale-force crosswinds after he's been awake for twenty hours, or gotten a plane that had a lot of little things wrong with it where it needed to go because people were counting on him.

Sadly, the pilots that consistently do those kinds of things rarely live to get hosed down.

The fire trucks are there because that pilot will never again have to lay his career on the line by telling a dispatcher, "We're not going through those storms without a good radar unit. Top off the fuel tanks and take us around the whole area, get me another plane; or get another pilot."

She'll never again have to spend an extra night away from her family at her expense because it just wasn't safe to try to land in a blizzard at her home base, so she missed her commuter flight home.

He'll never again have to spend a day off sitting in a Chief Pilot's office with a union representative defending charges that the pilot "has an agenda" because their discomfort with doing something others might do caused a flight to get canceled.

Those fire trucks are there because the pilot retiring did the right thing far more than he didn't, and everyone around and behind him got, or stayed, where they truly needed to be, every time.

The fire trucks come then, because they very likely never had to before.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Friendship Across the Miles

It goes without saying that pilots get around, right? Well, despite traveling to and from Seattle several times a year for the past eleven years, I never ran into Northwest Airlines, now Delta, First Officer Karlene Petitt until we both arrived separately to TWT (Twitter).

Karlene and I met by having her talk me down from a literary ledge at the writers' conference I attended in February. I was ready to throw in the towel on my whole writing career, such as it is, because I just couldn't find the words to describe my novel, A Silver Ring, succinctly (pitch it) to a literary agent. Karlene talked to me for well over an hour, and really seemed to "get" the uniqueness of what I'd written. She helped me distill its essence down into a pitch I tucked into my hip pocket that got me business cards and invitations to query six list-building agents! "That's gold, Jerry! Gold!"

As if that wasn't enough, Karlene's been mentoring me along all this time, and believes in me strongly enough to have made me the focus of her blog feature, "Fabulous Friday Flyers" today.

I hope everyone seeing this will stop by and take a look at Karlene's brand of friendship in action. It's a humbling thing.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

The Sounds of Silence

While I was keeping my little cauldron's lid on last week, I read this post about perpetual Nerd-dom by my friend Valerie Demetros, and I went from Nobody to, well, ok, I stayed Nobody, but I became a nobody who had another nobodies’ back, and vice versa. Just like making that pivotal first friend at a new school, it made me just brave enough to relax and let me be myself, consequences be damned. So what if she picks her nose, wears five layers of clothing in June and brings her pet hermit crab to school in her pocket? At least she’s not sneaking up behind me in the halls to toss my books!

NOTE: The author wishes to make it known that he’s never known Mrs. Demetros to pick her nose, wear too many layers, or keep hermit crabs in her pocket. It’s just a device.

The Sounds of Silence

Like lots of other die-hard social networkers, I thought for sure I'd be one of the last holdouts—like I was with smartphones, four-bangers, SUVs, new Country, Brad Pitt (yes, I admit he's not only stupid-good looking, but also a great actor—so shoot me, guys), Miami Vice, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Ferris Bueller's Day Off, well, I better stop. But curiosity finally overwhelmed me, and I fell in love with Twitter earlier this year.

When I saw the many fellow pilots, writers, and other enthusiasts of anything you can stick a #hashtag in front of, and how sincerely welcoming, helpful, and nice the overwhelming majority of them were, I was hooked. People started wondering why I wasn't emailing much anymore. Or Facebooking. Or e-mailing. Or calling. Or talking. Or eating...

There’s something I must confess before we go any further. I’m a social moron. People utterly confound me. I like to think I have decent manners and believe in the basic goodness of people, but my skin's as thin as an onion’s in places it shouldn’t be and virtually numb in areas where many others are tender. So, social networking is, for me, a minefield—with more tripwires than safe spots.

Anyway, I became a Tweep - someone who spends more time, and often gets more satisfaction from, interacting with people he's never met via Twitter than with his real friends and family.

Was it the brevity? The 24/7 activity? The ability to be silent without appearing morose or to make any number of sarcastic comments with no way to notice the dreadful, awkward silences that often follow them in person? That's it! At least for me, it was. The peace, the quiet, and the insulation from the God-awful din of those damned crickets lurking in dark corners of every room, just waiting, praying for their chance to let fly with whatever so compels them to chirp about right after I say something I alone found humorous.

I’ve since discovered, however, that crickets not only ’blog, they also Tweet. “Socially-challenged” people like me just can’t hear them from cyberspace. We could really use a “virtual crickets” gadget to sound after we “express ourselves inappropriately.” They have that thingy to speak the anti-spam verification codes required by some web pages, so why not a little “chirpchirp…chirpchirp” action for those of us (or is it just me?) who don’t have social lives, but only “social existences,” which only begin to seem normal in the brief peaceful, hopeful lulls between grand-mal faux-pas?

In those first few Tweeks, which were also some of my first as a semi-regular blogger, I was like the first guy to get tipsy at a party. I was witty. I was smart. I was building a following. People were asking me things. They really, honestly seemed to be happy I was there! It was like Mom and Dad always promised being the new kid in town would be like. I was in demand - a player! And this was only the beginning—the infinitesimally narrow end of that exponential-growth-curve thingy that all the publicists and marketing types show around like it's John 3:16 or something. It was only a matter of time before my stuff went "viral," and I, Nathan Carriker, would become Airborne/Literary Ebola and do for pilots what Stephenie Meyer did for those other evil, flying bloodsuckers everybody’s sick of.

Being an #airline #pilot, I try to help tweeps who are #traveling. I helped a bigwig get her lost luggage back last winter. That was cool—made me think, “Gee, lots of people tweet about #travel. Maybe I could become a go-to guy when the tweeps need some #airline 411. I wouldn't expect anything in return (well, a polite acknowledgment would be nice). I just thought it would be a good way for me to give back a little, make my contribution to the #GreaterGood. But a couple of weeks ago, those crickets told me some of the tweeps I follow, who don’t yet follow me, might think otherwise. No, #normalpeople, I hadn’t considered that even though people who have more followers than Jehovah has Witnesses can call me their tweep, the reverse is, most assuredly, not the case. Or likely to be any time soon. Or later.

But eventually I did figure “It” out, though “It” happened way too many times before I did. I told myself the first few people who didn’t acknowledge my witty tweets or cute comments on their blogs must have just had to go to the bathroom. Maybe their cat started to puke and they had to throw, I mean, carry her over to the linoleum and clean it up. Their mom might have called just then—you know how moms are. But for whatever reason, intentional or accidental, real or imaginary, I finally started to hear those pesky crickets again, like so many six-legged (with two way-fatter than the others) Telltale Hearts. “Chirpchirp. Chirpchirp. Chirpchirp.”

Yes, it only recently dawned on me that some of the uber-tweeps I had gotten too folksy with might think I wanted something from them. At first, I was insulted.

“What, do they think I’m going to try to hard-sell them to fly on my airline (now that’s funny), or get them to read something, all for inflicting less than 140 characters of dubiously helpful info upon them? Could anyone actually think someone like me might try to shame someone like them into flying first class, or on a real airline, next time? Or guilt them into reading something by an unknown, just hoping they’ll love it so much they beg, no, demand to get into the Nathan Carriker business?

“What?” my petulant tirade continued, “Are these people actually worried about being 'stalked' by creepy, unpublished writers/airline pilots? Have they actually begun to sense dark legions of balding, paunchy, middle-aged guys with mortgages and 401(k)'s who change their own oil lying in wait behind Tuesday night’s trashpiles, just waiting for their chance to spring from obscurity and secret a mileage club application, a complimentary micro-bottle of liquor, or, God-help-us, a query package (perhaps even lacking current contact info! cue "bloodcurdling scream") into some Somebody’s Trader Joe’s enviro-tote already overloaded with nobodies' dreams? Must I actually describe how that nightmare ends?"

“Breathe, Nate, breathe,” my friends tell me at such times.

“Write, Nate, write,” I told myself. “Just, please, for the love of everything Holy, sit on it a few days and make sure you can’t stand to tone it down some before you hit that ‘PUBLISH POST’ button. Ok, buddy?”

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Good-Hearted Woman

One of the few little joys of getting old as a parent has to be watching your kids trying to conceal their newfound enjoyment of the music they couldn't stand when they were too young for it to hold any meaning for them: that is, your music.

Music was a pervasive part of my childhood home. A former school band director, Dad could play a little of everything, but the bass guitar was his baby, and he found his way into a few truly good bands over the years. One was the Rocky Ford Ramblers, a five-piece that would consistently pack the Findlay, Ohio Eagles' club (among other "smaller" venues) every Saturday night, covering a lot of 1950's-1970's country and rockabilly.

Dad wasn't the best singer in the band, but what he lacked in range and genuine twang, he made up for in the sheer joy he clearly got out of performing. I couldn't really understand why yet, but for some reason the song that seemed to get him going like no other was Waylon Jennings' Good Hearted Woman. Now I understand, though, and the song will always make me think of his bride.

For those who didn't grow up "under the influence" of Waylon, the lyrics:

A long time forgotten the dreams that just fell by the way
The good life he promised ain't what she's livin' today
But she never complains of the bad times
Or the bad things he's done, lord
She just talks about the good times they've had
And all the good times to come

She's a good hearted woman in love with a good timin' man
She loves him in spite of his ways she don't understand
With teardrops & laughter they pass through this world hand in hand
A good hearted woman, lovin' a good timin' man

He likes the bright lights and night life and good time friends
And when the party's all over she'll welcome him back home again
Lord knows she don't understand him but she does the best that she can
This good hearted woman, lovin' a good timin' man

She's a good hearted woman in love with a good timin' man
She loves him in spite of his ways she don't understand
With teardrops & laughter they pass through this world hand in hand
A good hearted woman, lovin' a good timin' man

Without ever meeting my folks, you'd have a pretty good picture of their relationship if you just knew that song: who would rationalize what became mistakes, and who would support then forgive; who'd take unreasonable risks, and who'd heal the wounds they left; who was almost always the taker, and who the giver.

And if you think Dad got the royal treatment, you should have been this woman's kid. Really—you should have. I don't care who you are or what you do, you'd have been better off, I guarantee it. Actually, considering how many of us she had, chances are fairly good you're one of us. Just kidding, Mom.

One thing my mom doesn't do much is read. Somehow, in the midst of being Dad's wife (a job entailing nearly-constant housework not quite offset by the "opportunity" to pack up and move every two to five years) and raising five kids between 1958 and 1986 (none of whom have yet been in rehab, prison, or a Girls Gone Wild DVD), she just never got into the groove of curling up with a good book on a quiet night.

So it's not a surprise or disappointment to me that she hasn't yet read my Incredible Shrinking Novel, A Silver Ring. But it is a little sad—especially considering I'm cutting it nearly in half in hopes of making it more attractive to publishers. Anything that doesn't advance the plot, create tension, or illustrate a critical nuance of my characters, few of whom are total fabrications, must go—including an embarrassing number of long stretches of superfluous background narrative successful writers deride as "info dumps."

One such piece of fat thrown to the butcher's dogs just this week is a little scene I channeled from one of my darkest childhood nightmares to show how soul-wrenchingly conflicted a certain airline-pilot-to-be named Paul Hutchinson felt the day he heard his parents were going to divorce. It's not important to my novel, but it's an integral part of me, which I know makes it precious to Mom.

I'm not going to make her read the whole book until it has some big New York publisher's ISBN number on the back, but since this almost certainly won't be part of it if and when it does, I want her, and you, to read it.

I never really had to choose who I'd live with, thank God. And thank Mom. A "Gooder-Hearted Woman" my Dad, my siblings, and I will never know.

The divorce presented an agonizing dilemma to young Paul, who loved both his parents dearly and took great comfort from Gloria's abiding presence through all the upheaval over the years. He couldn't ignore that he had much more in common with his father, just as many boys do, but there was much more between them than the usual father/son stuff. The two were inseparable whenever and wherever the subject of flying was about, which their obsession guaranteed to be virtually all the time. Paul had been so enamored with his father's flying expertise that his influence was galvanized by association in many other arenas, ranging from tinkering with the family cars and household projects, to sports, fishing, camping, and the like, to the primeval urge to sit around a fire and talk, or not, as men have done together for eons.

Paul, now a sophomore at Marion's Harding High School, had finally made some good friends, despite yet another of many rocky starts as "the new kid" in junior high, and for the first time in his turbulent little life felt like a real part of the school landscape. He had even secretly developed an agonizingly intense crush on a girl in his class. He wanted nothing more than to stay in Marion and graduate from that high school, but he wanted nearly as much to stay with his father, where his love for flying would be welcome. When his parents told him of the divorce, they offered him the choice of with whom he would stay, and the stress of the decision, added to all the other adolescent turmoil, made the intense boy nearly suicidal.

In the end, his mother saw the incredible tizzy he had worked himself into and took pity on him, saying as she tucked him into bed one night, "I know you're having a hard time with this, Paul, and I think I know why. You and your dad have a relationship that any boy would envy, and you do love your airplanes, don't you?"

Looking up at his mom from his pillow, his eyes instantly glassed full, and huge tears cascaded from them as he pursed his lips tightly and nodded his head, sniffing a little.

"Oh, honey, it's okay, it really is. I wish I had something like that that just took me into another place whenever I thought about it, but I don't. You're very lucky."

"Yeah, right. Great. Now what?"

"Listen. Look at me." He brought his eyes up from the P-51 Mustang model sitting on the dresser by the foot of his bed to the face of the woman who had brought him into the world, in whose eyes he could see nothing but vulnerable, invincible, selfless love.

"If you want to stay with him, I understand. You two are peas in a pod, and as angry as I am with him, I love what he does for you, and you don't do him anything but favors, either. I'm not going to be mad at you or feel like you abandoned me or anything if you go with him."

Paul's flushed face broke into a hurt, angry look as he said, "Oh, ok, that's nice. Been nice knowing you. Bye!"

"Paul Prator you know good and well that's not what I'm saying," Gloria was crying now, and reached her arms around her son to pull him up to her.

"I just know your father's never happier than when he's flying those damned planes, and you're just like him, maybe even worse, and I don't want you feeling guilty for my sake if you go with him. I know you love me, and I hope you know how much I love you, and none of that's ever going to change no matter who lives where or with whom, ok?"

The two of them sat there in his bed holding each other and crying for a few minutes, until Paul had cried enough to compose himself again.

"Mom, it's not just that. I don't want to change schools again. I'm so sick of being the new kid, and now I'm finally not. I go to school and people actually go out of their way to talk to me. I pass notes with people between classes, I sit with the same people at lunch every day. It's like I'm one of the gang for once. I can't stand thinking about losing all that again - it takes two years to get my bearings every time we move, and that's all I've got left in school now!"

"I know, Paul, I know. The moving's been hard on all of us, and that's why I just can't do it any more, as much as I love your dad, I just can't. So, I know what you're saying, believe me."

"If I stayed with you, would you, like, get mad every time I talk about flying, or would you try to keep me from doing it? You know how I couldn't wait to be old enough to solo and everything, and now I'm doing it."

He was staring at the tail of the shirt he wore on his first solo flight the month before, bearing the inscription "1st SOLO MARCH 12, 1980 N9572Y RUNWAY 22" and a bad cartoon of a pilot in a Cessna reaching his hand down below the plane, feeling uncertainly for the ground, which was tacked up prominently on the back of his bedroom door, where he could easily see it. It had been, by far, the best day of his life, but was less than a week before the day his dad identified himself as an alcoholic and was fired.

"As much as I hate what your father's love for flying did to our marriage and our lives, I can't tell you that I'm not proud of what you're doing with it. You've got what he never had - you know what you want to do with your life before it even starts. If that's what makes you happy, I say go for it, and I'm behind you all the way."

He hugged her hard, and asked how she thought he could tell Justin. She said nothing at first, and then, when his raised eyebrows and sad eyes made his question unavoidable, said "I don't know" as she looked through him.

An aviation love story...

Twilight landing at LAX

Martinez Canyon Rescue