So I have this pilot friend. Who chooses to remain anonymous. So for the sake of the story, let’s call him “Bill.”
I met Bill on the flight back from Alaska, on our ten year anniversary. Hubs fell asleep before the plane took off, and I can never sleep on planes. Bill sat across the aisle, sporting his Pilot uniform and American Airlines pin. So I couldn’t help but introduce myself. And get the inside scoop on all things Blue Skies.
“So they say planes are super safe. Safer than driving. Is it true?”
“Oh for sure. The safest you are is in the air.” Bill was happy to engage this curious insomniac. “Then when you land, and cab it down the LIE in Queens, that’s the more dangerous than playing outside during a lightning storm.”
“Really? By the way, hi, my name’s Rajdeep. But you can call me Raj.” Because I hate having long and meaningful conversations with people and tagging the “Bye, I’ll never see you again. Oh and by the way, my name is…” on the end.
“Bill. You can call me, umm, Bill, for short.”
“Funny. So really? The safety bit. That’s cool. So, when did you decide you wanted to be a pilot?”
“Well, that’s a bit of a story. But hey, I guess we got the time. You really want to know?”
“That’s why I asked. I’m a wanna-know kinda gal.”
“Okay.” Bill rolls out his iPhone. “See here. This was my grandpa’s Grumman Cheetah! It was the first plane I ever flew.” And then the kicker. “At the age of thirteen.”
“Thirteen! Is that even legal?” I know. Dumb question. Of course, now you understand why we’re calling my pilot friend here Bill, and not his real name.
“Could you keep your voice down?” Sorry, er, Bill, I often forget my surroundings and how close I am standing, well, in this case sitting, near the person I am conversing with.
Back down to a whisper now. “So your grandpa let you fly his plane? That is so cool!”
“He took me flying, and then one day, he says to me, ‘Bill, I’m nearing seventy now, and if something happens to me up here in the blue yonder, you’re gonna have to know how to land this plane. So are you ready to learn?’ I didn’t really have a choice at that point.”
“Wow! So how did you manage? Did he help you from his side of the controls?”
I had my few minutes of sky glory, “flying” a small plane when Hubs’ friend took us over Miami during a sunset anniversary flight. Thanks Char! But when I say a few, I mean like ten seconds at the wheel. I wasn’t too cozy piloting. Not my cup of chai.
But back to Bill, cuz it’s not all about me: “Sure. He [Bill’s grandpa] gave me more and more control of the landing as I got better and better at it. And one day, I did it all by myself. And there’s nothing like it. The rush you get from taking off the ground to that first rush when you see the pathway ahead to a perfect landing.”
Bill is looking up to the right. He’s back there. I let him have his moment.
“Want to know something else? How my grandpa got into flying?” Bill leans into the aisle like he’s sharing CIA secrets.
“Of course! Do tell.”
“Back in 1942, down in Tennessee, the air force pilots would fly over head with their barnstormers and come down real low, like they were about to scoop the hair right off your head, and everyone would run out to the fields to watch. And then on occasion, they’d land the plane right there, smack dab in the middle of the field. And every kid out there would be screaming for a chance to sit in the pilot seat. Well, one day, the pilot picked my grandpa. He was seven years old. And when he took off in that plane for the first time, he was hooked. He had to fly someday. But…”
“Drink? Beverage? Peanuts?” The flight attendant takes one look at my eyes and turns to Bill. “Are you dazzling this young lady with your stories, Bill? Hon, don’t believe a word he says.”
“She says that to everyone. Don’t mind her. So as I was saying, my grandpa got married and joined the Air Force. But back then, my grandma refused to let him fly. She didn’t want him to crash, and she’d end up a widow, so she made him promise to wait until he retired. Well, he took the test anyway, but he failed it by one point. So at the age of sixty, he retook the test, and that’s the age my grandpa started flying planes.”
“And so how did you get into flying professionally? Did you start out on small planes?” I want to know. Everything. I am into this story.
“Well, the summer before college started, I was doing everything a typical high school senior does. Partying like no tomorrow. Definitely had little direction when I graduated, even though I knew I would start college in the fall. My grandpa offered to have me come live with him that summer on the condition that I would register to get my pilot’s license. So I went. And that summer, I left all the nonsense and the friends that I hung out with and got my act together. And by the end of the summer, I had my private pilot’s license. And the rest as they say… is history.”
“So how do you go from little jumper planes to flying for a major airlines?” I don’t want the story to end.
“Well, I flew small planes for a bit, then I began teaching and training other pilots, and when you start out, you look at those huge commercial airplanes and think, no way. But someday…”
“And now it’s someday, every day.” Me and my two cents.
“Yeah, I guess you could say that. And the funny thing is, the other day, I was on the runway, watching this incredible sunset, and I look down the strip and see this young guy next to a jumper plane and he’s totally eyeing the jumbo jet I’m about to fly. And I thought to myself, that was me once.” He chuckles to himself. He’s having another moment. I almost feel like I’m intruding, but his smile reassures me that he doesn’t mind sharing the moment.
“Want to see a landing?” Just when I thought the story was over, Bill turns his iPhone back on and pulls up a video he took while landing his plane on the runway in St. Martin’s.
“Umm.. If you’re videotaping, who’s, uh, landing the plane?”
He laughs. “My co-pilot. Of course.”
And then the final detail of my flying lesson comes in a completely different package. From history to present day. “You know, I know the guy who was supposed to fly the plane to Boston twelve years ago. He totally forgot that his son was graduating with his Pilot’s license so at the last second, he requested for the day off so he could be there. It’s a huge deal after all. The day your son gets his licence.”
I’m nodding the whole time.
“Well, he got the day off. It worked out for someone to step in for him. Guess what day that was? 9.11. That was one of the planes that hit the Twin Towers.”
“He was supposed to fly that plane that day. He survived. His buddy didn’t.”
“Wow.” I don’t know what else to say.
After the flight attendant collects our empty cups and tissues, I can’t help but ask one last question.
“Are you ever scared up there? That you might not be able to land the plane? That something might go wrong?”
“Sure, a few times the weather has been crazy. But usually not. Every six months, we have to ride the simulators. And the way they’re set up, it’s like you’re really flying a plane. And they throw everything at you. Storms, birds, other planes, everything. So you get used to all that and you feel ready when things really happen.”
So cool. And as I exit the plane with hubs who is now awake, I think to myself, how fun it is to take off. I love the start of an adventure. The beginning of a new idea. The enthusiasm behind the buzzer when a game starts, the gunshot to signal time to take off running.
But in the end, what people will remember is how you finish. If given the chance, that you finish. And land the plane. For those pilots and passengers who fought back when all hell broke loose on board twelve years ago, to all the innocent folks working in the Twin Towers, to all the men and women in uniform who fought to save lives and died on the stairwells of the World Trade Center, and all the people who lost their lives on that terrible day in history, we will always remember you. How could we ever forget?
And you? Have you visited NYC since? Been nervous to fly? Seen the memorial Reflecting Pools or Freedom Towers? Do you have a 9.11 story that you discovered days, weeks, even years later?