|Tuesday November 13, 2001|
Every time I decide to remove this page, something else happens to remind me of the unassuming valor of the profession I once espoused. The latest was the British Airways crash at Heathrow, where a quite professional — a Quiet Birdman, for those who know about that — saved the lives of his crew, passengers, and an unknown number of people on the ground, by doing his job under the most trying conditions — superbly. Although that outcome was happier than the one about which I wrote below, the principles remain the same.
I watched with interest and sorrow the unfolding of the American Airlines tragedy this holiday weekend. My heart goes out to everyone on board, and to their families, but especially to the pilots of Flight 587. I drove airplanes for a living for six years, and have had mechanical failures including non-catastrophic engine failures. Sitting in the back and dealing with the terror of the unknown is horrible, but I question if it is any worse than being in the front seat, knowing (at least roughly) what’s happening, and being unable to do anything about it.
Professional aviators, especially airline pilots, have a covenant with their passengers that everyone acknowledges, whether openly or not. The passengers trust the men and women in the crew…all the crew, from Captain to junior Flight Attendant…to do the right thing, and depend on their tacit assurance that they have the skill to handle whatever comes up. Crew members accept that responsibility wholeheartedly, and the real pros consider it a sacred duty to maintain the proficiency and ability to carry out that promise.
Every aviator has had what pilots call an Aw Shit! Moment, and those have been the last words of some of the best. The knowledge, even for a few milliseconds, that you’ve failed…despite your best efforts…has got to be as close to hell as a pilot can get.
Rest in peace, Y’all…
“Oh, I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
Of sun-split clouds, – and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of – wheeled and soared
High in the sunlit silence. Hov’ring there,
I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air…
Up, up the long, delirious burning blue
I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace
Where never lark nor ever eagle flew –
And, while with silent lifting mind I’ve trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.”
Pilot Officer John Gillespie Magee, Jr., Royal Canadian Air Force
1922 – 1941