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 and 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 too 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 latest home-built aircraft 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 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.
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!