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.


  1. Oof! Sounds stressful. I just read a thriller manuscript about airline pilots actually...

  2. Hey now, don't leave me hanging like that! Tell me, tell me! What did you think of it, and what do you think of the subject in today's market - any legs at all?

    It's stressful, sure, but not all stress is bad; and if we're doing what we're here to do, what others can't imagine becomes second nature.

    A stack of manuscripts staring at me for review (with my livelihood hanging on my judgment) sounds way more stressful to me!

    Thanks for stopping by and commenting!


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