We are all just peasants again:
Bake at home, avoid the plague, revolt.
The past year has presented significant challenges to us all, with current events often feeling like the sword of Damocles hanging over our head. COVID still haunts us; the world economy and politics feel as if they’re on a precipice; the airlines are in desperate trouble, and personally, I’m in the last year of my airline career.
Drawing a line in the sand is an expression used to describe a decisional point beyond which you will proceed no further or a moment in which you reach a physical or mental inflection. It means to put a limit on what we will do or allow without incurring a consequence. In the United States, it’s a reference to the action of William Travis. While commanding the defenders of the Alamo and contemplating a demand for surrender, he drew a line in the sand and asked those willing to remain and defend the Alamo to their deaths to step across. Perhaps it’s time we drew a “line-in-the-sand” indicating our decision to take a mulligan and start afresh in 2021 (for non-golfers, I’ll explain mulligan in a bit).
Monsters and Threat Perception
The word monster conjures up figures from gothic horrors like Frankenstein, Dracula or The Swamp Creature – classical images of exotic entities with no heads or grotesquely exaggerated features. Pilots also use it metaphorically: the engine failure monster, cabin fire monster, maintenance monster or the check ride monster. Our modern-day microbe monster, COVID-19, has wreaked havoc on not only aviation but all segments of society, conjuring both fear and fatigue.
Neuroscientist Dr. David Rock observed that during this pandemic, almost the entire world is reacting neurologically to higher levels of threat perception than normal. We all share fear, a sense of a loss of control, anxiety, pain and frustration. Collective exhaustion – “pandemic fatigue” – has emerged as a formidable adversary. And authorities say it can fuel a vicious cycle. A tired and frustrated public tends to let its guard down, triggering more infections and restrictions that in turn compounds the fatigue.
We’re all familiar with the IMSAFE aviation mnemonic. By triggering three of its six components: S-stress, F-fatigue and E-Emotion, the pandemic has inserted itself in our preflight planning not only regarding quarantine restrictions and availability of services but in our very fitness to fly the airplane – and we should not underestimate its effect. In a combined industry effort, NASA has prepared a series of surveys to better understand how COVID influences pilots both directly and indirectly due to the effects of the pandemic. In addition to emotions, fatigue and stress, another monster faces those of us paid to pilot planes professionally: the furlough monster.
The stock market’s 57 percent plunge from October 9, 2007 to March 9, 2009 (1929 was 83 percent) was a stark reminder that a modern-day stock market crash is still possible. And does this sound familiar: “Over the next several years, consumer spending and investment dropped, causing steep declines in industrial output and employment as failing companies laid off workers.” That was an internet search response to “what happened during The Great Depression of 1929.” The follow-on government protectionist strategy of the Smoot-Hawley Tariff and rapidly growing trade restrictions then generated a worldwide depression.
Fast forward to 2020: About 15 million people were employed in restaurants as waiters and cooks and other staff; half of them saw their jobs disappear. Similar losses struck other industries: hotels, entertainment, the conference industry, car rentals and the airline industry. Air travel stalled out last March and has improved slightly, but passenger volumes remain down by more than 65 percent. Without additional government funding, carriers have moved ahead with massive layoffs: American Airlines furloughed 17,500 workers on October 1 and will lay off another 1,500 soon. United Airlines began to furlough nearly 16,400 workers at the start of October. Delta said it planned to furlough 1,721 pilots, and Southwest Airlines has said that it will not cut jobs through the end of the year. The reason to avoid pilot furloughs is largely one of logistics.
The process of bringing back pilots can take 15 months due to the industry’s extensive and intricate training system, according to Dennis Tajer, a spokesman for the AA pilot union. Paraphrasing Tajer: “It’s a very large ship, and when you stop it, it takes a lot of energy to get it back up and running. Pilots are assigned to an aircraft and a seat position. When we furlough, we furlough from the bottom, so all of our junior first officers, mostly on narrow-body aircraft, are removed. That causes a trickle down of training that has to happen in order to maintain the system, even a greatly reduced system. We’re a vaccine industry. We’re a vaccine country right now,” Tajer added. “We’ve got to have this financial bridge extended across the turbulent river, or we’re going to be walking right into the middle of the river, and the repercussions will be long term.”
Despite the challenges, there is a dim light at the end of the tunnel as the MAX takes flight once again, orders for business aircraft may be turning around, and a COVID vaccine should accelerate the return to a new normal. Authorities warn, however, that an overall societal recovery will not be V-shaped. And while this economic forecast does not bode well for those paid to pilot planes (nor anyone else), many pilots have retired or taken varying amounts of leave to mitigate total disaster. Soon this will include me.
Being a pilot is not what I do;
Being a pilot is what I am.
On my birthdy in September of 1990, I voluntarily abandoned the mantle of fighter pilot. And 30 years later, this past September, I completed my final recurrent training event at my Part 121 carrier (in the B-737 MAX simulator – see last month’s story “MAX Effort”). After 49-plus years of flying, with over 30 of them at the airlines, at midnight on August 31 next year, I will lose the admirations of men, women, children and supermodels as I’m stripped of the Airline Captain title. The prospect is daunting. Although my psyche must suffer this psychological slap in the face, it’s not the most distressing part. The Social Security Administration forecasts me to live 18.8 years past retirement, but they don’t factor in the airline pilot “qualifier.”
According to friends that have recently retired from airline flying, the first couple of post-retirement years are traumatic. And statistics indicate that the probability of death is higher among recently retired airline pilots than that of the general population. About 25 years ago, as determined by pocket-protector wearing geeks (no malice intended if this was you) that calculate and compile mortality tables, about 78 percent of male, non-smoking airline pilots died by age 67 – seven years past the old, and two years past the new, mandatory retirement age. Fortunately, said geeks and our society’s healthy lifestyle changes coupled with medical advancements have calculated a new number for male, non-smoking airline pilots: 72 years old.
Coincidentally, seven years past retirement. Seven used to be my lucky number – not so much anymore. Ups and downs in the airline industry have been the only constant during my career, and 2020 has proven to be especially challenging. And just in case the pocket-protector’s actuarial forecast for male, non-smoking airline pilots is too optimistic, or if you hunger for my flying career anthology, I offer this semi-chronological compilation. You can find them at twinandturbine.com or, if your fellow readers don’t swamp me, I can email you a few:
“A Pilot’s Mom.” T &T May 2016. “There was just one student in our little town known for flying little airplanes, and everyone, including the Sheriff, knew that it was one of the Dingman boys.”
“Paper Airplanes.” T &T May 2011. “Looking out of the gold-tinted F-16 canopy, I watch as the airport drops below me at over 50,000 fpm.”
“Passing Gas.” T &T January 2011. “Once we get close to the European continent, the second tanker departs and we fly the rest of the way to Italy as a twelve-ship formation.”
“The Van Ride.” T &T March 2014. “You’ve never been ribbed properly until you’ve been ribbed by a bar full of fighter pilots.”
“Issues.” T &T September 2010. “If we could see the chain of events often talked about in an accident scenario, wouldn’t we intervene? Do we not see the chain – or is it simply not there?”
“Mad Dog.” T &T June 2016. “I tell detractors that the Super-80 is one of the last real airliners. One that needs a pilot as badly as the pilot needs it.”
“Abducted.” T &T October 2016. “We were debriefing, CIA-style, after our once-in-a-career flight to this nefarious base. One thing was certain: our jet would never leave this place.”
“Retire Me Not.” T &T September 2016. “If you love the flying you do, and if you have a choice, don’t change a thing – enjoy what you have.”
“Guppy School.” T &T January 2017. “Learning the B737-800 NG; Getting over a painful experience is much like crossing monkey bars. You have to let go at some point in order to move forward.”
“In The Groove.” T &T June 2017. “Flight Attendant’s in-flight miles are like McDonald’s hamburgers: they’re in the billions. So, their experience-based critiques have legs. But take heed, they can be silky smooth or harsh and hairy.”
“All The Leaves Are Brown.” T &T November 2019. “As you evaluate and monitor your own flying ability and proficiency, remember that there is a balance between our overachiever obsessions with accuracy and efficiency and the emotional gratification of the art.”
A 2021 Mulligan
This is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end.– Winston Churchill
It is, perhaps, the beginning ofthe beginning.
According to the USGA (United States Golf Association), golfer David Bernard Mulligan hit a poor drive off the first tee and then simply re-teed and hit another. Ever since, if your drive from the first tee ends up off the fairway in the water, the woods or a prickly desert, the player who elects to take a mulligan avoids a two-stroke penalty and the negative effect on their confidence. They say that confidence is what you feel inside and arrogance is what others perceive. The fearlessness given off by a pilot is projected onto others because we are entirely confident in our decisions, especially in an emergency. Whether it’s in the cockpit of a commercial airliner or a C-152, arrogance (confidence) can be the difference between life and death.
A 2004 NASA study found psychological commonality among pilots: aviators scored higher in being conscientious, competent, dutiful, self-disciplined, and assertive while generally keeping emotion out of the cockpit. Of all the evaluated traits, assertiveness rated the highest among all personality traits. Other high scorers were the traits of dominance, forcefulness and of being socially ascendant. Properly implemented, these are valuable qualities. In addition to drawing a line in the sand, perhaps we should assertively take a mulligan to start 2021.
Who’ll Stop The Rain– Creedence Clearwater Revival, 1970
In a time of crisis, we are fortunate as pilots to possess the above traits, and I believe they can help us navigate these troubled times. While CDC recommendations and a vaccine may soon arrest the pandemic, this is a moment when leaders (like you) want to be able to share good news; to be able to tell stakeholders that things are under control and that there is a plan to return to normalcy. So, just as we do in the cockpit, analyze the situation, manage problems as they arise and take the appropriate action. Merry Christmas, my fellow aviators – 2021 is just around the corner.