When I was in my teens, scraping together enough cash to take a flight lesson at the end of each month, I was absolutely and unalterably infatuated with all things aviation. I wasn't simply nerdy, I was obsessed. If I couldn't afford to fly every day, I could certainly read every aviation magazine and textbook I could get my hands on, write essays on aviation, build model planes, fly Microsoft Flight Simulator, code flight planning software, pore over the pages of Trade-A-Plane, and absentmindedly doodle new designs for homebuilt aircraft whenever obstensibly engaged in some activity not involving flying. All these things made me almost as happy as flying itself. The few times that I did have contact with airline pilots through these years, their blasé attitude towards flying startled, puzzled, and finally infuriated me. Here I was, wishing every minute that I was flying, and these guys who got to do it every day didn't even particularly like it! "I will never be like that!" I proclaimed with adolescent fervor.
I remember the first time I actually didn't want to go fly. I was in college, finishing up my instrument rating. I'd been flying a lot the previous several semesters, and this was my third or fourth lesson of this particular week. I remember walking out of my last class of the day, realizing I still had to fly that night, and groaning. My first inclination was to cancel the lesson. Suddenly I realized that this must be what it's like to fly for a living: doing it day in and day out, whether you feel like it or not, whether the conditions are ideal or not. Doubts swept over me. Am I pursing the wrong career? I gained some empathy for the airline pilots I had damned so harshly in years past.
During my internship at TWA in Spring 2001, I did a lot of jumpseating and was able to talk to a great many pilots. I'd often ask whether they still enjoyed flying. The question usually surprised them, as if it was an irrelevancy they hadn't bothered to think about before. The answers ran the gamut from a profound appreciation for the beauty and mystery of flight to a sincere wish for retirement to come quickly and to never touch another airplane thereafter. I found that the answers were much more negative if I asked whether they enjoyed their job, and even moreso if I asked whether they liked the airlines. I would also get rather positive responses to the question, "what part of your job do you like best?" Even the crabbiest old Captains would reply to that question by sweeping their hand across the panorama of a moonlit landscape unfolding outside the cockpit windows and saying "this is great." It was a revelation that most pilots consider flying to be the one good part of their job, and the other, less pleasant aspects of the job completely overshadow it for many.
This spring I'll have been flying for fifteen years, and for the airlines five years. The industry and the profession have taken some very serious blows in that time, and ever more pilots are finding reasons to hate their jobs and get out of aviation as soon as possible. I've flown with pilots who've been in the airlines for less time than I have who are so disgusted they can't wait to quit. I don't blame them; many have taken much worse hits than I have, with multiple furloughs in the last year or two. Although my career has been fairly trouble-free, I do wonder how long that will last, and furthermore whether my profession will ever gain back even a portion of what it has lost. It can start to intrude upon my outlook on the job as a whole. On trips when I'm dealing with crummy weather and broken airplanes and overworked dispatchers and surly coworkers, I put on my uniform in the morning, look at myself in the mirror, and sigh as I think about how much I really don't want to go to work today.
But I go anyways, and an hour later I'm hurtling down the runway at 130 knots with both engines roaring at full power. My FO calls "Vee One," then "Vee R" and I ease back on the yoke and the nosewheel below me stops rumbling as it lifts off the pavement. The plane rears up and sits like that for just a moment, as if in hesitation, then the wings load up and everything goes silky smooth and silent as the earth rapidly falls away. This is one of the best feelings in the world. There are a lot of other things I like about flying, but the moment of liftoff is the instant that whatever else has gone wrong that day melts away, and the frustrations and difficulties of my job are insignificant.
My career is still young. In the thirty seven years I have before retirement, I may yet turn into the crabby old Captain who can't wait for the day he remains forever earthbound. If that ever happens, I would hope that I could quit and do something else that I really enjoy. Right now, though, I still enjoy flying enough that it overshadows all the things that make some people really hate this job.