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Life’s Trajectory Part 2

 (DavidRaboin)

Airline pilots don’t work normal hours and our lives never run on a predictable schedule.  Today I’m rolling my suitcase off the front porch of my house at 4:30 AM.  I’m one of the first commuters on the road.  When I park my car in the airport’s employee lot it’s still dark and I am running a little late.  I cut through cavernous parking garages and arrive at the departures door thirteen minutes before my scheduled check in time.  I know it takes nine minutes to get from here to our check in computer, which leaves me just enough time to snap few photos of San Francisco’s new, still under construction, control tower.  After taking some quick shots I stuff my camera back in my bag, hustle  through security, and get myself checked in with three minutes to spare.

 (DavidRaboin)

By the time the sun crests the horizon we’re already climbing out above Pacifica, CA.  It’s a gorgeous scene as rainy weather works its way into the Bay Area.  Will this pretty sunrise make up for the long day ahead?   Today I’m working what flight crews call “a crap trip”.  We’re flying from San Francisco to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, all the way across the continent, and then deadheading (riding as a passenger) back to San Francisco.  Counting my one hour driving commute, I’ll be sitting on my butt for fourteen hours today.  On top of that, I have to drive back out to the airport early tomorrow morning for a simulator training event, and then, the very next day, I start another two-day trip.  Over the next four days I will be doing nothing but flying and driving.  I brought this schedule upon myself.  I shouldn’t complain.  October is always a busy family month with two birthdays, Halloween, and school events.  I got all the important days off for the price of this difficult four-day stretch.

 (DavidRaboin)

The saving grace this morning is my first officer.  He’s a great guy.  We’ve flown together a couple of times.  As we begin the climbing turn towards the east, our coffee fueled conversation swings into high gear.  We spend the first two hours of the flight convincing each other that even though the pay sucks, the 401k is not enough, the schedules aren’t what they used to be, and we needed a union on property like yesterday, this is still the best airline to entrust with our careers.  Ah, the bravado of middle class white boys who always follow the rules, who always work hard, and who never get ahead.  This is standard pilot conversation and normally I bore of it quickly, but today I’m flying with another former regional airline pilot and he shares my world-weary skepticism mixed a shimmer of optimism here and there.  How else can you be in this world?  We convince each other that we are the two smartest pilots in the sky.

 (DavidRaboin)

Our conversation finally runs out of steam in central Colorado.  I look out the window at the Sangre de Cristo Mountains and Great Sand Dunes National Park.  Maybe I should pull out my notes and study for tomorrow’s simulator event?  While ritualistically flipping through my Airbus flashcards I can’t help but think about how much time I’ve spent over the years studying aircraft systems and memorizing lists of aircraft limitations.  What’s the maximum center tank fuel imbalance on the A320?  What’s the minimum cooling time after a hot start in a Dornier 328?  What are the memory items for an emergency descent in a CRJ?  Pilots are forever doomed to memorizing lists of aircraft limitations and emergency checklists.  At least I can study during a transcon flight rather than using up my valuable earthbound hours re-memorizing random numbers.

By all measures today is a crappy day;  long hours and required study.  But this is the good life, right?  Here I am captain of a new-ish Airbus.  I have a healthy family, own a house (well, pay a mortgage at least), am saving for retirement, and make enough money to support my family in uber-expensive California.  So why the nagging feeling of dissatisfaction?  Wasn’t this the goal, the point of all those years of struggle?

Among pilots there is a habit of optimistic daydreaming and a tendency for us to talk each other into this profession over and over.  I think back to my days in college, in the dorms at UND ,where half the residents were enrolled in the flight program.   On frozen winter afternoons, us flight students would sit in the common areas and talk endlessly about our career dreams.  We’d talk aircraft types, regional airlines, major airlines, pay, bases, and overnights.  Whenever the going got tough, say your winter semester’s flight lab was scheduled at 6:00 AM or you had to go down to the financial aid office and apply for another student loan, there was always a pilot friend close by to remind you that someday it would all be worth it.  ”Think of that fat check United will be dropping in your account every two weeks” they’d say.  There was a religious belief that if you just worked hard enough then you were guaranteed to achieve your dreams.

Of course when you’re surrounded with like-minded people you never question your own plans and motivations.  No one ever seriously discusses the downsides; the odd hours, jet lag, the lack of job security, divorce etc.  Maybe that was a good thing?  Ask a professional in any field, would you do it over again?   Most will say “No, it was way more work than I thought it would be.  It was way more work than I’d ever do again.”   Aviation is the same.  I know I wouldn’t do it all over again.  I’m happy with where I am now but not happy enough to say it was worth the effort it took to get here.  Now I wonder if my youthful efforts were energy well spent, or did that testosterone rocket send me on a random vector into deep space?  A career in aviation forces one to live like a nomad.  During my eighteen year career (counting flight instructing), I’ve lived in nine different cities.  Yes, I’ve made friends here and there and I have contacts all around the country, but I still feel like Ulysses being blown around the ocean, cursed by the gods to never return home.  And now, I don’t have a concept of home anymore.  After all these years of travel I can say non-sarcastically that the earth is my home.   I’m always home.  So what is that unsettled feeling?

No, I don’t want to return to the family farm like Ulysses.  What I really want is more freedom.  I want more time with my kids and the funds to show them the world.  I also want time to work on my photography and time to write.   Loosely translated, I need more money.  Yes, it’s an ugly truth, but money buys freedom.  So what can I do?  I can’t make more money flying planes.  The only valuables I have to trade are my life experiences.  After two decades of traveling aviation’s bumpy flight path I might have a touch of wisdom to pass down to the younger generation.  I’m not sure how giving advice translates to income (I’m a pilot not a businessman), but I think it’s time for me to start writing a new series about becoming an airline pilot.  To my knowledge, there is no honest take on becoming a pilot available.  Most of the material comes from flight schools or career consulting firms.  Both have an interest in your money and aren’t motivated to tell you the truth.  There has to be a lot of teenagers out there who are interested in this career field but have no idea how to get started.  Also, I am fond of saying “I wish someone would’ve told me this when I was 24″.  Those are my intended audiences, the young and the uninitiated, but I’m also hoping this series will be entertaining to an aviation enthusiast.  And for the rest of you, you’ll still get to see my photos (Don’t worry, the flow of photos won’t stop.  I could quit if I tried).  When I’m done writing the series maybe I will turn it into an ebook and sell it via Amazon.  For now, all the content will be completely free and I’ll post it on my Flying the Line page.  I’m not sure of the format yet.  I’m open to suggestions, but knowing me I’ll probably ignore all advice and do it my own way.  Anyhow, feel free to post questions and comments.

 

*David is a California Photographer . You can order prints of the photos featured on this blog by clicking on the image or visit our website at photos4u2c.com Support this site by using one of my links to Amazon.com. Thanks!

Life’s Trajectory

 (DavidRaboin)

Dark pines line the highway, hiding the suburbs behind a layer of dripping Pacific-Northwest forest.  In the pre-dawn darkness my crew member’s faces glow in the dim light of cellphone screens as the hotel shuttle van gallops down the interstate towards the airport on worn out shocks.  It’s too bumpy to read the news so I stare out the window and listen to the moan of tires on concrete.  The heavy morning traffic is the only give-away that we are in a large city.  This is Seattle, the emerald jewel of the Pacific Northwest, but at 5:3o AM all I see is greasy black highway and glimpses of industry behind heavy stands of trees.  How many times have I taken a similar early morning airport shuttle ride?  Last summer I reached a milestone, the fifteen year anniversary of starting my first airline pilot job.  I’ve worked these sunrise departures for a decade and a half now.  I’ve ridden airport shuttle vans in almost every American city that has scheduled air service and I’ve sat next to thousands of different flight crew members.  After all this time the memories mix together.  Everything becomes interchangeable, the shuttle rides, rush hour traffic, the boxy glass office towers, the uniformed crew members, and ultimately me.  Every day waves of passengers storm the airport.  They are sorted like parcels and we pilots take them to their various destinations.  Today I fly people to Los Angeles, tomorrow it might be Des Moines.  There is no discernible pattern to a crew member’s individual life but the airlines continue to fulfill their role.  A fire hose of cash floods through the system and a couple of bills land in my wallet.  On a stale morning like this it’s hard not to feel like a replaceable cog in some giant piece of machinery.  Maybe I need a few days at home with my family, or maybe I just need my morning cup of coffee?  Was it just a random series of events that put my particular shoulder under this four stripe epaulet?  Setting myself up in this career took years of hard work and a good dose of luck, but before all that work there were several events that set me in motion.  What if one of the links in the chain had been broken?  Would I still be sitting in this, my 10,000th crew van, on a gloomy fall morning?   

I remember specifically when aviation set the hook.  It was a Saturday morning in summer.  I was probably four or five years old.  A small crowd was gathered in front of our Fond du Lac, Wisconsin house.  The men of the neighborhood had come over to help my Dad cut down a large pine tree that was threatening to crush our house during the next thunderstorm or blizzard.  My immigrant great-grandfather, a retired lumber jack, was pulled out of the Saint Francis Nursing Home to help supervise the felling.  Packs of curious boys circled in the street on huffy bikes.  The neighborhood moms, sensing possible danger, stopped by to ensure their kids wouldn’t get caught under the falling tree.  A rope was hoisted over a high bow and notches were cut trunk.  The moment had arrived, the tree would be toppled, just as everyone was looking up to witness the big event, the sky cracked open with the roar of supercharged engines.  What was this?  Right above the tree, a streak of silver, a momentary aluminum overcast, a B-17 Superfortress blasted across the sky.  The airplane was so low that it almost clipped the top of the tall pine.  I could see men inside bulbous Plexiglas gun turrets.  In a second the airplane flew the length of  our block and then it arced into the hazy summertime sky.  The adults stood stupefied.  A baby started to cry.  I was memorized.  Those men were in the air above the grocery store!  How could I get a ride in that fearful machine?  Those five exciting seconds may have set the course of my life.

Being from a small town, lifetime employment as a pilot seemed about as far-fetched as becoming a race car driver or undersea explorer.  I had never met a pilot.  I had never flown on a plane.  Outside of a military experience or a rare business trip, no one I knew had ever flown on a plane.  When people asked me what I wanted to do when I grew up I said aerospace engineer because it made my mom smile. Then, when I was around thirteen years old, I discovered the aviation section of our public library.  There, I found an oversize photo book about airliners.  Scattered throughout this book were “day in the life” stories about airline pilots and a table detailing average pilot pay.  A million daydreams were born.  I pictured myself flying a United Airlines 747 to Paris and then coming home to my posh high-rise condo.

But I was still a million miles from becoming an airline pilot.  I had no idea where to get training or if the career was even possible for a small town kid of average means.  This was before the internet.  After I exhausted our library there was nowhere else to turn for information.

The next link in the chain was the most random.  I grew up near, Oshkosh, home of the EAA Convention and Fly-In (that’s where the Superfortress came from).   I always wanted to go to EAA but it was expensive.  We’d watch the airshow from outside the gates but never paid admission.  Then, one summer, a friend’s parents were given a couple free passes to EAA and they offered to take me up there.  While walking the EAA grounds I filled a bag with free catalogs and flyers. Wisconsin winters are long and I wanted a stock of reading materials.  Mixed in with the brochures for the home-built aircraft and LORAN navigation systems was a small pamphlet advertising Embry Riddle Aeronautical University.  I read about their aerospace engineering program, but what really grabbed me was the professional pilot program.  Here was the answer to all my questions.  You could go to college to become a pilot.  My problems were about to begin.

When you are an awkward 15-year-old and you tell people you are going to become an airline pilot they look at you like you are both stupid and crazy.  Pretty much everyone tried to talk me out of it.  And, I would’ve listened if it wasn’t for one last turn of luck.  I found another section of aviation books in the library, the biographies.  I loved Ernest Gann’s “Fate is the Hunter”, but it was Saint Exupery’s “Wind Sand and Stars” that fortified me against the naysayers.   Saint Ex argued that a pilot is forced to deal with reality and a pilot’s life experience runs deeper than those who work in offices.   As a bored teenager, Saint Exupery’s philosophy resonated and his stories of about flying in the desert of North Africa called me to a life adventure.

Now, two decades older, I gather my luggage at the curb at Seattle Tacoma Airport.  I can’t say that things worked out exactly as I had hoped.  Instead of negotiating with Moorish tribesman and flying experimental machines above untamed wilderness like Saint Ex, I find myself working with a parade of typecast airline misfits and flying a jet that keeps me cocooned in a bubble of redundant safety systems.  Maybe this life isn’t as soul inspiring as I had anticipated but it’s not a bad way to make a living.  The airplanes we fly are amazing.  I never see my boss.  And, from time to time there is just enough adventure to keep things interesting.  Plus, now that I have kids I don’t think I’d want to fly the mail through the French Alps in an early model biplane.  I’ll keep my Airbus 320 with its GPS and pull out tray table.

 (DavidRaboin)

We board the plane and run through our first flight of the day safety checks.  We taxi out with a parade of departing airliners.  We’re headed to Los Angeles and then it’s on to Washington Dulles.  This is going to be a long day.  We’re cleared for takeoff.  Down the runway, past the high trees, I can see Mount Rainier with its summit buried in the grey morning overcast.  We climb through the cloud deck.  The volcanic mountains of the Cascade Range rise up to greet the morning sun.  Minutes later we sail above the exploded peak of Mount Saint Helens.

*David is a California Photographer . You can order prints of the photos featured on this blog by clicking on the image or visit our website at photos4u2c.com Support this site by using one of my links to Amazon.com. Thanks!

On the Streets of Seattle

 (DavidRaboin)

You might remember a few posts back I was debating if I should go out and do some street photography on my long Seattle overnight or stay in and work on my incomplete long term projects.  Here’s your answer.  I couldn’t stand sitting in my hotel room with so many streets to explore.  And, I’m glad I went out.  In less than two hours I pulled up a nice haul of photos.

 (DavidRaboin)

I call this photo “Big Brown”.   In this photo almost everything is the same color.  The shapes are defined by tones like a black and white photo.  Because it’s nearly monochrome, the few colorful aspects really jump out of the frame.  Also, the truck was parked on a slope.  I framed this so the truck would be level and the buildings would be slanted.  The slanting buildings combined with the reflections make this photo disorienting.

 (DavidRaboin)

This is another photo that will keep you a little off balance.  Those two foreground cars clip off everyone’s feet.  It’s like you’re looking through trippy portal and the people are almost floating.  

 (DavidRaboin)

The sunset didn’t amount to much.  The sky was almost totally overcast so I hung around Pike Market and tried to get some photos that mixed ambient light with light from the storefronts.  That’s where I spotted this fellow.  The market was about to close and he was loading unsold flowers into his van.  I liked his stride.  He looks a  like a blonde sasquatch.

 (DavidRaboin)

I don’t want to say anything about this photo. I don’t want to spoil the mystery.

*David is a California Photographer . You can order prints of the photos featured on this blog by clicking on the image or visit our website at photos4u2c.com Support this site by using one of my links to Amazon.com. Thanks!

Bright Bay Area Morning

 (DavidRaboin)

The sun has just crested the horizon and the sky above the Bay Area is clear.  We are climbing through 10,000 feet — on our way to Seattle.  This is an easy day, just one leg and we’re done.  What should I  do with my long overnight?

 

*David is a California Photographer . You can order prints of the photos featured on this blog by clicking on the image or visit our website at photos4u2c.com Support this site by using one of my links to Amazon.com. Thanks!

Too Messy for Facebook?

 (DavidRaboin)

Last week, I posted pics of my kids playing behind the neighborhood strip-mall.  This is another favorite out-of-the-way neighborhood play area, the dry creek at Lydia Park.  During late winter and spring this creek actually flows, but most of the year the creek bed is dry.  All that remains of the creek are a few puddles that are filled with tiny frogs and tadpoles.  Ella and Holden both like to follow the creek through the woods and look for tennis balls and whatever else the water deposited.

 (David Raboin)

Here’s Holden later in the day.  This is the witching hour, the time between dinner and bed where there’s really not much to do and his mood is petulant.  While Maria cleans the kitchen I take Holden to play in the backyard.  After he tires of jumping on the trampoline, he likes to go around to the messy side of our house and play with the garden hose.  That’s perfect because he still has dinner all over his face and legs.

*David is a California Photographer . You can order prints of the photos featured on this blog by clicking on the image or visit our website at photos4u2c.com Support this site by using one of my links to Amazon.com. Thanks!
Support this site by using our links to Amazon.com