On an American Airlines Boeing 777 jetliner over the Atlantic Ocean, I decided to be an airline pilot. I was a few days away from being 21 and most of my closest friends were in that plane with me headed to Kandahar, Afghanistan. I had spent the last two years in the 82nd Airborne with this motley crew of homegrown Americans. We were a close bunch but we would have never admitted it then. We fought each other, marched everywhere, feared nothing, and joked endlessly. The compounding confidence I built by being around such strong fearless people changed the way I looked at the world. I learned to believe I could do anything.
We were in cruise flight and the flight crew was allowing us to go up and visit for a few minutes. I was near the back of the plane and patiently waited for my turn to see what was going on up front. When I finally made it to the flight deck, I stared at the Captain and his First Officer and looked out of the large windows on the world below. I wondered how it was possible that these old men found their way here…. How could they possibly understand all of these knobs and lights? What was it like to be there “doing” instead of here “watching”? I hitched my cart to that wonder-horse and decided to spend a good portion of my life figuring out just that question.
It has been 11 years since that day and despite my caprices in hobbies, my larger goal has stuck with me. I have been lucky enough to survive over 6500 hours in the cockpit of 13 different types aircraft and made some truly remarkable friends along the way. With these friends I have: been lost in the Bermuda Triangle, lost an engine over downtown Orlando, explored the Bahamas, spun, rolled, and stalled planes, and flown to over 120 destinations in the US, Mexico, and Canada. Any given day I could be dodging the volcanoes near Mexico City, descending into a Rocky Mountain ski resort town, or in a zero-visibility blizzard in Toronto. I’ve had good days and bad days, days of unyielding laughter, and a few days spiked with moments of serious looming consequences. Through the ups and downs of aviation, somehow I have managed to keep moving forward. When I started this journey, I’m not sure if I ever defined what it would look like when “I made it” but this month I’ve had some changes in my job status that sparked some reflection.
The airlines are based on a seniority system so to become a Captain, you must wait your turn and then complete some transition training. In October, my turn finally came. I have spent the last two months in Houston running emergency scenarios in the most high-tech simulators money can buy. Many times until the little guy in my head that dispatches thoughts just got up and walked out. I eventually convinced him to return after some coercion and a cream-filled chocolate cake. It’s been a great to switch things up and be back in the training environment again but I am mostly looking forward to seeing and flying with all of my friends back “on line” where a real pilot belongs. (To “fly the line” is to carry real passengers in real weather it’s slang for “the real deal”)
With the new hat there comes a role shift and a different set of responsibilities. Despite what many think, the majority of First Officers are exceptional pilots and could manage the aircraft by themselves anyway. I’m sure there will be times I would like to look to my left and get some advice when difficult problems arise, but I am very fortunate to have had some great instructors. With any luck, I’ll be able to remember some of those tidbits of wisdom at just the right times.
There’s no doubt that I’m looking forward to the new view from the left-seat and I’ll definitely be tipping my first cup of coffee to the pilots in that Boeing 777 eleven years ago.
Special thanks to Dan Otto, my training partner, and the best new Captain around.
What dreams or life goals do you have? In the comment section below, tell me the one thing you must do while you’re alive.