Smelling the Roses

Posted by in Aviation

“Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.” — Ferris Bueller

The ‘life’ this John Hughes character was referring to could very well have been that of a pilot. Nobody moves faster than those of us who spend our days flying an aircraft. The question is, are we taking the time to look around? If not, we should, because you never know when that life will come to a sudden and unexpected end.

I’m not referring to bent metal, although as last weekend’s Challenger 600 accident in Aspen reminds us, that does happen on rare occasion. Rather, I’m thinking of the various mundane reasons a long sought-after dream of slipping those surly bonds might run into a brick wall: employer bankruptcy, elimination of a flight department, familial demands. That sort of thing.

For the private flyer (I dislike referring to them as “non-professional”, as they are sometimes more professional than those of us who do it for a living) or student pilot, the nail in the coffin is often monetary. But there’s also lack of time, the grinding effect of regulatory compliance, the loss of your local FBO or club, and last but not least, medical certification issues. Whether you fly for business or pleasure, every visit to an Aviation Medical Examiner holds the possibility that you’ll walk out out of there without that tiny scrap of requisite affirmation.

Speaking of healthcare, I once flew with a pilot who was a “lifetime first officer”. Years earlier, he’d said the wrong thing to the wrong person at the company. I can’t remember the exact details, but it was a minor offense at best. Nevertheless, he was summarily informed that he’d never be upgraded to the left seat. Yet he remained at the firm despite incredibly low pay.

One day we were assigned to fly together and I asked him why he didn’t seek out a different job. He simply stated that he had a big family and needed the medical benefits more than the paycheck. But it was obvious the wind had been taken out of his sails and flying was more of a trap than anything to look forward to. You could see it in his eyes.

Last I heard, he was out of aviation. I doubt he’ll ever return.

I think of that guy often. He’s a reminder of why it’s so important to enjoy every moment in the air. It doesn’t sound difficult to do; after all, nobody’s forced into flying. Each of us jumped into the pool because we wanted to, right?

If only it were that simple. When your $30,000 airplane just came out of an unanticipated five month, $15,000 annual (as just happened to a friend of mine) or you’re stuck with an exhausting back-of-the-clock flight schedule, the grass can look quite green on the other side of the airport fence.

Perhaps it’s a byproduct of our Type-A personalities, but pilots seem to spend much of their time looking for the Next Big Thing: the larger aircraft, next rating, better job, pay increase, or upgrade. There’s nothing wrong with ambition, but if we’re not careful, a literal lifetime of flying can pass us by and we’ll have been so busy climbing the ladder that we never stopped to enjoy the moment while we were in it.

This is not pilot-specific. It’s a a human phenomenon and can be readily found outside the aviation world. Consider the message of this two-minute clip about our cellphone habits:

Sadly, I recognize myself in that video. I’ve been the person with their head buried in a miniature computer screen at an inappropriate time, disconnected from everything around me. I’ve also been the one surrounded by people and yet having nobody to interact with, the one pining for an era long gone.

The difference is that unlike walking on a beach or having coffee, flying is a hallowed, fleeting activity. We mustn’t forget that sooner or later, each of us will take wing for the final time. It could happen while we’re still very young! Perhaps we’ll know it’s our fini flight, and maybe we won’t. Either way, how awful would it be to realize we’ve reached that milestone and were so busy looking ahead that we never stopped to appreciate the heights we’d achieved while we were still aloft to enjoy it?

I’ve never been big on new year’s resolutions, but if you are one of the fortunate few who have the power to defy gravity, do yourself a favor in the year to come and stop to smell the roses every now and then. You won’t regret it.