MIAMI – “United 1 Heavy, contact departure!” Banking gracefully left, the mighty Boeing 777 climbed skyward, roaring past the edge of my bed, over the chest of drawers, and out the bedroom door into the great beyond.
Slipping the surly bonds, or, rather, the woven blue carpet fibers of my childhood bedroom was a regular occurrence in those days, but one that never seemed to lose its majesty. Back on the ground, the airport firefighters were responding to an emergency: the family dog had just kicked over my international arrivals hall. A full departmental response was required.
A Family Affair
Growing up in an aviation family, I can’t think of a time when I wasn’t surrounded by airplanes. As a boy, I collected dozens and dozens of models. I’d save my allowance for weeks, covetously counting bills like some greedy Las Vegas bookie, before eagerly running down the steps to exchange the cold hard cash for my dad’s Visa card. I’d circle the month’s latest must-haves in the back of a magazine and call in my order as fast as my little fingers could mash the buttons.
“Can you put one of your parents on the line for me?” Of course, nobody ever trusted that a 10-year-old would have a line of credit. Nevertheless, a week later, there it would be, in that telltale white and brown box, sitting on the doorstep as I ran home from the school bus. That new plane smell will forever linger in my memory.
When the internet became a thing, of course, I used it to harass and harangue every airline company foolish enough to put their contact information on their website. Every day became a mail call from far-flung and exotic destinations the world over. Safety cards from Brazil, stickers from New Zealand, pins and posters from Switzerland. My parent’s mailbox ran over with goodies from airlines and manufacturers around the globe.
Naturally, sending envelopes packed with toys and trinkets to a child wouldn’t net any of these companies a new customer, but they sent them all the same because they “got it.” Aviation dorkiness is an international language, one which binds us and brings us closer, and I am forever grateful for the willingness of strangers to indulge my younger self and to share a tiny piece of their world with me.
Before 9/11, my mom worked as an airline gate agent. After school and on weekends, my best friend and I would ride with her to work to wander the concourses and haunt the observation deck of our local airport, a radio scanner in one hand and Nathan’s hot dog in the other. One day, on our fifth lap around the D concourse, we noticed a Pilot flashing his fingers at us through his cockpit window.
All the way from his airplane, he had noticed the scanner in my hand and was signing instructions for a frequency. “Airport bums, huh?” came the voice from the radio. We didn’t have a push to talk switch, but we didn’t have to speak for him to understand exactly what we were doing at the airport that day. “We’ll be back from Rochester in 3 hours, if you’re still here, meet us at this gate!”
Fortunately for us, my mom “got it” too. She waited well beyond the end of her shift for us, and I’ll never forget the excitement I felt watching that ATR roar back into the gate. The Pilots spent the next half an hour, no doubt well beyond the end of their duty day, fielding questions from two excited kids who wanted nothing more than to fly airplanes.
“Have a great night!” the flight attendant said with a wink, as we descended the air stairs onto the ramp. I felt like I’d just come down from the clouds myself. It just didn’t get any better than that.
Flying during COVID-19
Last month, as I hurriedly punched wind calculations into my FMS for the third time that day, I found myself caught up in the frenetic world of flying jetliners amidst a pandemic. The inbound flight had to be met by the police when several passengers refused to wear their masks and instead chose to taunt the flight attendants.
Now we were running behind. Leafing through our flight release, checking over waypoints and fuel burns, I heard a voice from the cabin. “Excuse me, Captain? I have a little girl who would like to see the flight deck!” Eyes big as saucers, feet hesitantly shuffling forward, she inched her way into our domain.
Like a scene out of the Matrix, everything around us seems to slow down, and, suddenly, I had all the time in the world. “Would you like to make the airplane talk?”
A Magical Profession
Our world today is a very different place than it was in the glory days of my youth. Bristling with security, airports are no longer the friendly hangs of airport bums and plane spotters.
9/11 fundamentally changed our entire industry’s attitude, and 2020 brought forth a cataclysm the likes of which we never could have imagined. I’ve watched as friends and coworkers are sidelined, furloughed, or let go completely.
Some will never return to aviation. But for those of us who stay, no matter what happens, it’s important never to lose sight of where we came from. For us, working with airplanes is just too magical and wonderful a profession to walk away from.
And my best friend? He flies jets, too. Every once in a while we’ll pass one another in the terminal, and I always make sure I take the time to send a selfie to my mom. I owe everything I have to the time, patience, and encouragement of others, and flying jets is still one heck of a job.
Featured image and article photos by Patrick W. Smith