flying the friendly skies

In the last 10 business days, I’ve had the honor of visiting 5 different cities across the U.S. From this, I have learned the following important facts:

  1. DC – airport cab drivers pretend not to take credit cards;
  2. Columbus – people there really like college football;
  3. Pittsburgh – people there really like NFL football and encased meat products;
  4. Chicago – Spring there feels like November in the Northeast; and
  5. Minneapolis – see 4.

You might think, given all this travel, that I would segue into an update regarding TSA procedures in airports around the country. But I won’t. (I do, however, feel compelled to point out that my good friends at O’Hare acted with a stunning lack of urgency as they put me through all the normal swabbing, pat-down, etc., that I’ve become accustomed to. In particular, I’d like to thank the TSA agent who, in the amount of time it took him to get his hands in the latex gloves, could have seen his wife safely through her pregnancy and gotten his daughter enrolled in preschool. Sir, I understand that your shift doesn’t end for another 3 hours, but that doesn’t mean I should have to sit through it till the bitter end with you. However, just to demonstrate the yin and the yang of air travel, the TSA agents at Minneapolis the next day were first-rate latex-glove donners.)

Instead, of revisiting the wonderful world of TSA, on this day after a holiday that’s associated in many parts of the world with resurrection, I actually want to talk about passion for what one does in life. The inspiration for this arises out of another thing that happened as I bounced around the country over the last two weeks.

As I boarded my 8th flight in 13 days last Thursday, it appeared that I might be one of the lucky few who got to spread out into the empty seat next to me as push-back time approached. But then, at the final minute, a female airline pilot found her way to my row and politely indicated that she had the window seat next to me.

She looked to be in her mid-to-late 40’s, with short blonde-brown hair. She made some quick phone calls before the flight attendants closed the cabin door, from which I gleaned that she was trying to make a connection when she landed in Minneapolis. She spoke with a distinct twang that sounded like a hybrid of the South and Midwest. As she was trying to confirm these arrangements, she asked whether I knew the exact time our flight was scheduled to leave, as it was going to be a rush to connect after she landed. I showed her the official FlightTrack data – Best. App. Ever. (If you travel.) – on my phone, and she passed the info to the person on the other end of her call. As we left the gate, she placed her overcoat between her head and the fuselage and closed her eyes. I prepared for an hour plus of uninterrupted solitude.

That plan came to an abrupt end when, about halfway through the flight, the flight attendant came on the intercom asking if there was a doctor on the plane. You know, getting sick on a plane is a bad thing. Not only are you 30,000 feet from advanced medical care, not only are you unable to suffer in privacy, but you also incur the wrath of every other passenger on the plane. The immediate reaction of everyone upon hearing this announcement over the intercom isn’t, “How can I help?”, or, “Omigod, I hope that person’s ok.” Rather, it’s “Oh for the love of all that’s holy, please don’t have the temerity to require such immediate medical attention that you screw up my travel schedule.”

I believe that sitting in the bleachers at Yankee Stadium with a “Yankees Suck!” tee-shirt is less risky to one’s well-being than getting violently ill on a plane. I’m also pretty sure that the “fasten seatbelt” sign has a little known second purpose: to prevent enraged passengers from leaping out of their seats to suffocate the sick and infirm with an airplane pillow (your cost – $7). (Dead passengers don’t require medical attention; dying ones do.)

In any event, the unwelcome announcement roused my seat mate. I told her I thought that we’d end up in Minneapolis either way, since we were at least as close to that airport as we were to O’Hare. She joked about how jaded she was about these kind of midair crises, and we started to talk, interrupted only by the flight attendant now asking if we had anyone who could also speak Spanish. (Imagine you’re the sick person whom everyone else on the plane wants to stone and that you can’t communicate with anyone. Actually, perhaps that’s better. Maybe the language barrier prevents you from understanding that everyone else on the plane hates you. Remarkably, as far as I could tell, I was flying on the only plane in the continental United States that had no Spanish-speaking passengers. Or, alternatively, perhaps the Spanish-speaking passengers were also so upset at the sick, non-English-speaking individual that they chose to withhold their language skills.)

The pilot told me that she was returning from a trip to Japan/China, and I got the general impression that she spent a lot of time flying 747’s from Chicago to the Far East. She described post-earthquake Japan as a place of pervasive sadness, with nearly empty hotels and flights filled primarily with relatives from the US going to check on the survivors. She talked about how the merger of the major airline she worked for with another airline had resulted in dramatic changes to her pension plan, and how her salary, when adjusted for inflation, was the same as pilots who flew more than 20 years ago.

I asked her several predictable and annoying questions about piloting large aircraft. What did she think about flight controllers falling asleep? (“What do you expect if you have one person alone up there all night given the schedules they’re asked to work?”) What’s the worst airport to fly into? (She doesn’t think there are any in the US that are really bad, but she doesn’t enjoy LaGuardia. Let me state, at this point, unequivocally, that LaGuardia is an awful airport, even if she’s too polite to say so.)

I learned about the differences between American and European air carriers’ policies relating to the number of flights that pilots are allowed to fly per month over the top of the globe, which, due to the vanishing ozone layer, exposes them to alarming amounts of radiation. (U.S. carriers allow their pilots to fly three times as much per month through the nozone as their European counterparts.)

I also found out that she had wanted to be a pilot for as long as she could remember. Her father had been a commercial pilot as well, and she spent her youth in the air as much as possible. She told me that while her brothers and sisters had screamed in terror as her Dad performed aerial maneuvers in small planes, she laughed with joy and always wanted more. She eventually moved to rural Tennessee at one point to compile as many hours as possible to gain the experience necessary to fly large jets.

Having interrogated her for 20 minutes, I paused long enough for her to ask me why I was flying to Minneapolis and what did I do for a living. I replied that I was a Vice President for a medical device manufacturer, and gave her the 5-minute version of my “too-dumb-to-get-out-of-the-way-of-rapidly-traveling-car” story. Unlike most people who, upon hearing this tale, express varying degrees of the same “oh my God” theme, this lovely, extremely jet-lagged woman, said something entirely unexpected: “You seem so . . . happy! I think that’s wonderful, to see someone that happy about what they do.”

I was taken aback for a minute as I thought about what she was saying. I’m always ready to deflect the usual “I’m so sorry/that’s terrible/tsk tsk” response of listeners to my tale of Good Samaritanism gone awry. Her upbeat, positive response without a shred of remorse or sadness may have been the first time I’ve ever encountered that reaction since my amputation. After I regained my mental footing, I replied “Yeah, I am happy. I’m really lucky, actually.” And as I looked at her, smiling at me, I made the connection.

“But look at you. It’s really the same thing. You’re telling me how, when adjusted for inflation, you make the same amount of money as a pilot who flew in the late 80’s. And yet, you seem to absolutely love what you do, also!”

Her smile widened into a full-blown grin, and her eyes both narrowed and twinkled as she said, “I really do! There’s nothing like feeling 50,000 pounds of thrust in my right hand. There’s no rush like it!” (I nodded as if I understood this concept. I drive a car with a four-cylinder engine, so I’m guessing that flooring my Scion to get on the Long Island Expressway is something like 1/1,000,000,000 of what she was describing. In other words, I don’t get it at all. But I will say that this sounds wicked cool. So I respect it despite my ignorance.)

The plane banked into Minneapolis International Airport. As we landed, I handed the pilot a card for this blog, almost apologetically, and said, “I don’t normally hand these out and I’m not trying to blow my own horn, but I just thought you might be interested in light of our conversation.”

Minutes later, a group of EMT’s burst onto the plane as soon as it stopped, but the patient’s condition apparently improved enough once on the ground that they let the passengers off the plane before rushing the ill individual out the door. As we stood in the aisle getting ready to walk off the plane, she turned around suddenly and said, “You didn’t tell me your name.”

I shook her hand, “I’m Dave.”

“I’m Carrie,” she replied. And just like that, she was gone, rushing to make the shuttle van – not a connecting airplane as I had thought before we took off – that would take her to her hometown for a well-deserved week of rest.

I got off my flight and walked the 14 miles – Minneapolis airport is a little spread out – to the taxi line. And despite the fatigue that had been weighing on me all afternoon like a wet sweatshirt, I was suddenly energized, alert. I had found someone who loved what they did and who was honest enough to share that passion with me after knowing me for all of 25 minutes. And it was infectious. I told the story of our conversation to nearly everyone I met over the next 72 hours, because I thought Carrie was so . . . cool.

Carrie’s a female pilot from the Midwest. I’m an executive from the Northeast who writes a blog about living life with three God-given limbs. But our passion for what we both do connected us, briefly, between Chicago and Minneapolis. And that, like Carrie, is . . . cool.

Carrie loves the rush whenever she harnesses that 50,000 pounds of thrust and takes that 747 into the heavens. I’m lucky enough to feel the same way about issues that affect amputees’ access to prosthetics. We’re both flying in our own unique ways.

I hope you made the shuttle van, Carrie! If it wasn’t for that sick passenger . . .

One thought on “flying the friendly skies

  1. So glad I ran into you on your travels–physical, psychological and philosophical. I was not so forgiving of the new TSA proceudres at O’Hare, which I felt literally added insult to injury. But your post gives me perspective on the experience by reinforcing how valuable travel can be–especially the extraordinary, unexpected encounters.

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