Not only to fly, but to bring the world's eyes...skyward.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Christmas in Kydex

They call it Kydex. To me, it was just hard, tan plastic, but it must have some unique qualities to warrant having its own trademarked name like that. Anyway, the two-piece clamshell jacket was the only thing holding my back together for the next few weeks until the bone grafts set, and I had to wear it anytime I was awake. Cast from a mold made of my torso sometime while I was unconscious, it was hot but oddly comforting in the way it kept me from bending or twisting, like I'd done all through the night after I crashed, which probably did a lot of the damage to my spinal cord that would keep me paralyzed, they'd just told me, probably for life.

That long, cold night passed all the more slowly for lack of one thing: hope. I didn't need to speculate about my future. I was still on new-hire probation at a respectable airline when I crashed a perfectly good airplane. They'd be fools not to fire me. The FAA would almost certainly suspend, if not revoke, my pilot's license, and even if the doctors managed to put me back together, there's no way I'd ever work as a pilot again. I was an embarassment to my employer and my profession and felt I deserved every bit of what I was about to get.

I didn't get any of what I deserved that year, though, either for my birthday (on what I'd always point out was the "darkest day of the year"), or for Christmas itself.

I got a care package from my brother, with a little fake Christmas tree I still take out reverently, plug in, and place on my desk every year. It reminds me of the stuffed Santa Claus in my son's room, which was given to me by the girlfriend of a fellow pilot I barely knew at the time, whose Christmas cards arrived faithfully every year since. Like a few others from a few other fellow airline people who came to a stranger's hospital room to say, "We heard you had a Bad Day, we're here to help, and it's all still right where you left it, if you can just make it back."

I turned twenty-five that Christmas, and people brought trinkets and treats, cards and balloons, and donated sick time and vacation days. People I barely knew paid my rent, told creditors to back off, took care of my parents and my possessions, and called when they couldn't visit, just to make sure I wasn't giving up yet.

I didn't get any of the horrible things I deserved that year. I didn't get killed. I didn't get burned. I didn't get disfigured. I didn't get eaten by coyotes. I didn't get paralyzed, at least not permanently. I didn't get fired from the job that I loved, disconnected from the airline I'd moved halfway across the country to fly for. I didn't get ostracized from the tiny fraternity of pilots, of which I'd still do anything to remain a member.

I lost something I'd always taken for granted: the use of my legs. But I got something I never knew I'd had, which gave me the will to make the most of the miracle that was to come: acceptance. Like my Kydex jacket, it was hard and tough and absolutely would not be bent; yet it was made just for me, accomodating my every unique bump or curve. I could feel it all around me - Strength from Without, where I myself was still so very weak.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Responsibility

She seemed very outgoing and self-assured, and I was just a guy on the street waiting
for my nearest Starbucks to open late on a Sunday morning, so I really couldn't see a reason not to ask her about the endless parade of people pouring through the next door. I already knew it led to some kind of mortgage refinancing/renegotiation event being held inside, having already asked another total stranger who seemed to know why they were there.

"What are all these people doing out here before even Starbucks opens on a Sunday morning?" I was just curious to see how "Julie" (from The Love Boat, of whose station hers reminded me this bright morning) would answer.

"Saving their homes."

That sounded noble. I wondered who was trying to destroy them, and why anyone would destroy a perfectly habitable dwelling, rather than take up residence there themselves, or at least sell it to someone else.

"Saving them. From what?"

She answered me with a look. It said that I was obviously insane or just arrived via time machine from some bygone era of relatively well-enforced personal responsibility, the 1980's perhaps. We wouldn't want Julie to think me mad.

"I mean, I know what's going on, but I just don't understand why so many people could be so stupid as to sign on to adjustable-rate mortgages when rates were at historic lows."

"I did." Julie wasn't smiling anymore.

"Well, I don't mean to sound judgmental, but what were you thinking - that rates might go down some more, or just that they wouldn't go up as quickly as they did for a while there, or...?"

Julie refocused on her job for a few moments, cheerfully greeting a few more of Phoenix's surely finest citizens as if they were coming in to hear a time-share pitch to get a free Vegas vacation. Some of them were wearing identical "STOP LOAN SHARKS" T-shirts. I take it those were the employees of this pseudo-governmental agency empowered to change the indelible ink so ubiquitous in adult life into the erasable pencil lead of our childhoods.

"Well, I don't know everyone's story of course, and every one is different. Some of them lost their jobs, some lost a spouse, some got medical problems, some just got in over their heads, and some of us did what we did knowing full well the risks, but felt we had no other choice at the time. [Stuff] happens, you know? We felt we were just doing what we had to do for our families. There's two sides to every story."

Indeed. Must have been one hell of a tight rental market here for a while, I thought.

"Is this normal? I mean, I don't live here so I don't know. Does this happen every day down here, or is Sunday a heavier day?"

"It's a three-day event, and today's the last day. Where are you from? Are you here on a trip or something?" I thought about falling back to the time-machine idea, but I didn't see any point in antagonizing her further. She was cute when she smiled - which she now only did to the other people.

"I'm a pilot, I'm here on a layover."

"Oh, a pilot. Ok. That explains a lot. Are you always this positive?"

"Only until I get my first cup of coffee." Back to why we'd met. Starbucks wouldn't open for five more minutes, and Time was, for her, warping out of shape worse than the vision of a hippie running with a herd of zebras through a burning peyote patch.

"Well, I hope you're in a better mood when you're flying my plane."

Ah yes, the old "I sure hope those pilots are well-rested, well-fed, and well-taken-care-of when I get on board, but until then, squeeze those overpaid, underworked primadonnas for everything you can get out of them - does anyone actually believe it should cost $399 just to take little old me coast to coast and back with 99.9999% safety in six hours each way?"

I'm familiar with the sentiment. I hear it every day, in one form or another, from someone - sometimes on their way to paying $300 to watch a "professional" "sporting" event. Never have gotten over that oxymoron.

"Actually, this recession that's been going on for two years started for me with 9/11. I've been living with financial adversity for seven years now. And when things went bad for us in the airlines, nobody outside the business had any pity for any of us, so I just have a little trouble feeling sorry for those who haven't been laid off or taken pay cuts or had some other kind of change to their circumstances like I have, but who just didn't read the fine print in their mortgage and now want everyone else to take pity on them and allow them to renegotiate better terms. I can't renegotiate what I lost. Why should you be able to?"

At this point, luckily for her, someone asked her whether Starbucks would be open soon. I took the opportunity to answer for her.

"They open at eight. And believe me, she's counting down those minutes, because that's what I'm waiting for, too."

She didn't look at me, but said "Yes, I just don't need this. It's poison. Absolute poison." I'd become the rain-god, plagueing Julie's sunny New Day.

It's not poison. It's what I term for my eight-year old "being a big kid". And sadly, my country apparently no longer has any use for any of it.

I got up to get my coffee, and an asian man shorter and younger than me held the door for me. I walked in and politely offered him the opportunity to go ahead of me in line. I'd been waiting 45 minutes, what would another minute do to me?

But he, just as politely, declined, saying, "You were here first." I got my coffee first, he got his second, and we got on with our lives.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

First Officer, Second Fiddle


I was hired by Air Midwest in June, 1990, and went to SkyWest in February, 1994, having never come even close to Captain upgrade. Back then, three years was a long time to wait for a left seat at a regional airline. At first I had no interest whatsoever in that fourth stripe, because I knew I had no business wearing it with 900 hours in my lone logbook.

But after a couple of years of doing all the paperwork, briefing passengers, cleaning up the cabin, and watching, always watching, the Captain, I began to think maybe I was ready. After another year, I thought I was experiencing a burnout, so I went to SkyWest's far greener pasture.

I had to wait four more years before my number came up there, and please don't ask anyone from there how truly burned out I was by the end of that stint. You could have tried to stick a fork in me, but I was so "done", you just would've bent your fork. Fortunately, I was able to pick and choose my Captains to some degree, and "yanking gear" for pilots like Mike Berry was always something I thought I could do for the rest of my career and still consider myself lucky.

I wish I'd kept those eight San Diego Brasilia Captain bid packets I got. It was everything I knew it'd be, only shorter-lived.

Then I came to American. I knew upgrade would take a while. Really, I did. I figured I'd probably "arrive" sometime around the time my youngest stepson graduated high school, which was unfortunate, because he'd probably never get to enjoy the benefits of having me making that extra loot and always coming home in a great mood from having flown with my favorite Captain. But having never flown a big jet, I figured I still had a lot to learn, and I did.

Justin started college last week, and I'm still in that right seat. Most of the time it's ok, some of the time it's a blast (like on this trip, as I'm with another former commuter dog who also shares my alma mater, CMSU), but occasionally it's an absolute grind. I'm still learning, thank God, but I often find myself accurately predicting exactly what will happen in the next few minutes or hours, and I remember that feeling too well. It's time to move up and, thanks to the increase in the mandatory airline pilot retirement age, there's nowhere to go.

I just wrote a piece I hope to see published called "First Officer, Second Fiddle". It's about the frustration that comes from having seen just about every way possible to skin a cat, being perfectly capable of skinning it whichever way the Captain thinks is best, but, lacking the ability (and, yes, motivation) to telepathically guess which way that is, guessing wrong and then being under-appraised as simply ignorant, owing to my "inexperience."

You can read it, and samples of my other writing, at my website, www.writingtakesflight.com

Friday, March 13, 2009

Aviation's New Writer

At long last, I finally have my website and blog OPERATIONAL! Stay tuned for updates about my flying, my writing, and much more! If you came here without going through my website, please check it out at
and let me know what you think! You can also email me at nathancarriker@yahoo.com. Thanks for visiting!

An aviation love story...

Twilight landing at LAX

Martinez Canyon Rescue