Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Learning to Fly Again

I like to know how things work. Which is one of the reasons I ended up going into journalism.

I want to figure out the ins and outs of each situation, so I can look at it from all angles and come to my own conclusions. Likewise, if I discover I'm really passionate about something, I will spend endless hours trying to find out as much as I can about it.

As long as I can remember, I've been this way about flight. To this day, every time I hear a plane overhead I pause for a moment to watch it glide across the sky. I love to watch shows on the National Geographic and Discovery Channels about the history and manufacture of various planes--- both commercial and military. When I was a reporter, I always joked the only reason I decided to go into the business was so I could have a shot at flying with the Blue Angels--- and that I would retire soon after. I finally got that awesome, unbelievable chance and it was everything I thought it would be (BTW, I left the business a year later -- but that's another story for another time). ;-)

Also--- at the risk of revealing just how much of an aviation nerd I am--- I always listen to the cockpit conversations when I'm on airplanes that offer the option. There's just something fascinating about the way air traffic controllers guide aircraft through the sky.

I've heard some really interesting conversations over the years... like the time I was in a 767 approaching the runway for a landing at LAX. About 100 feet off the ground, the air traffic controller said quickly, yet calmly, "[airline & flight number] heavy, abort landing and head [direction heading here]." Instantly, you could feel the thrust of the engines as the pilot hit the throttle and the plane soared back up into the sky.

The explanation came seconds later, "Sorry about that [airline & flight number], we had another aircraft enter the end of the runway as you approached." It was interesting to hear the news before others on the plane did (the pilot made an announcement soon after to explain).

More recently, I was tuned into the cockpit while my plane was still sitting at the gate. The pilot got on the radio and asked if we were cleared to leave the gate. The ground traffic controller responded with, "[airline & flight number] I will check on that. We weren't expecting a request for a few minutes... you guys must be efficient." The pilot came back with, "I doubt that. That would imply we were adequately paid and happy to be here." They both laughed.

That instantly made me pause. I know I would LOVE to be able to fly for a living.

At least, I *think* I would. It's hard to put yourself in someone else's shoes.

A few years after I left college, I had a job that many people would LOVE to have. I was a TV reporter in one of the best cities in the country.

And yet, I was not happy. To the extent that I would see transportation workers holding the "SLOW" sign on the side of the road, and wish that I were in their place and they were in mine (that's not a joke--- I really thought that).

The reasons behind my unhappiness will take up an entire blog post, so I won't get into it right now. But it was one of the most trying experiences of my life. To the point where I would come home in tears on an almost daily basis. I almost felt guilty when people would find out I was on TV and say, "wow! That must be a cool job!" And I would have to somehow force myself to smile and give a little nod, "it has its ups and downs."

So when I was sitting on the plane, I had some empathy for the pilot.

But since I love flight so much, I was still curious. In fact--- at that point I wish I had had a microphone built in to my headphones so I could ask the pilot a question (can you imagine passengers having access to the cockpit radio???? A frightening thought...LOL).

My question was simple:

Why did you decide to take up flying?

I wouldn't have been asking in a snide way. I sincerely wanted to hear why he was drawn to flight in the first place. It's not exactly easy to become a commercial airline pilot... it's not one of those jobs you just stumble into.

Since I wasn't able to ask him, I can only guess what he would have said. But I'm assuming that it would have been along the lines of, "because I loved it."

It's interesting the way our perceptions change over time. And how disconnected we become.

Today I am a media trainer (which means that I teach people how to talk to the media). At least once a week, I run into someone who is under considerable stress because of work. We go through some of the training, and it's clear this person is distracted and unhappy.

When we sit down for a mock interview to practice the techniques I've taught, I start out by asking him/her typical questions a reporter might ask. If it's clear the person is still distracted, I throw in a surprise question:

What is the best thing about your job?

It always throws the person a bit... there's always a pause. But the eventual answer always comes from the heart. And you can see that person start to re-connect with their passion. It's really cool to watch. :-)

So if I could sit down with my younger self right now, I would ask myself why I got involved in journalism.

Just like I had no idea what the pilot would say, I'm not sure what my own answer would have been (a lot of water has gone under the bridge since then). But I'd like to think that at least for a moment, I would have been able to reconnect myself to something I'd lost.

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