“And suddenly you know:
It’s time to start something new
and trust the magic of beginnings.”
- Meister Eckhart
Chicago, Illinois – February 2013
The lid of my laptop closes with a gentle thap. The sound cuts through the still air of my Chicago apartment as cleanly as the information I’ve just read on my laptop’s screen has cut through me.
I recline into my black leather high-backed chair, which, along with my desk, is wedged into the corner of my apartment’s cramped spare bedroom. My slender fingers slide through my short strawberry-blond hair, lacing together along the nape of my neck. I let a long, drawn-out breath escape through my pursed lips as I stare at the apartment’s exposed concrete ceiling.
This changes everything, I think.
I know I’ve said the same thing to myself in the past, but this time it feels different, like it’s not an overreaction. This time, it seems more real. And after repeating the affirmation several times in my head, it starts to sink in that the moment I’ve dreamed about for fourteen years since I was a high school junior is finally here.
I close my eyes and watch the surreal scene from that November day in 1998 play out again in my mind. I see the flight attendant approaching my family’s row in the back of the giant Boeing 747. I notice her smile as my face lights up with elation after she relays the captain’s generous invitation. I feel the thumping in my chest as I follow behind her toward the front of the plane before climbing the steps to the upper deck. We walk past the cushy first-class seats to the narrow cockpit door, and as it swings open, a giant burst of light greets me. I’m immediately overwhelmed by the dizzying collection of knobs, switches, and buttons. One of the pilots folds down an extra flight deck jumpseat for me. He straps me in and hands me a headset to wear. To my novice ears, the air traffic control communications I hear sound like an indecipherable foreign language at rapid-fire pace. I’m in awe of it all—the complexity, the novelty, and most of all, the spellbinding panoramic view around me.
It’s the English countryside. Oddly shaped fields, each a different shade of green and separated from the others only by narrow tree lines and fencerows, fashion a vibrant patchwork quilt across the rolling hills. Tiny clumps of towns are speckled about, each with twisting roads and densely packed homes capped with reddish-brown roofs. Gradually, the empty fields give way to London’s labyrinth of city streets. One of the pilots points out the Thames River, and then the Tower Bridge, Big Ben, and the tennis courts of Wimbledon. But when it comes to spotting Heathrow, its massive parallel runways are impossible to miss.
The jumbo jet lumbers toward the extended pavement ahead of us. The captain calls “gear down,” and as the wheels lock into place, the white noise of the rushing wind intensifies. The jet shifts about as the captain moves the control wheel left and right. We jostle in our seats, growing closer and closer to the ground. We drift above the airport’s perimeter fence, and then over the runway’s threshold. Then I feel the rumbling that indicates the jet’s eighteen wheels have settled onto the runway. Our transatlantic journey from Washington, D.C., is complete. And in that single moment, I know my life has changed forever.
Back in the confines of my Chicago apartment, I open my eyes, wondering where I would be now without that fortuitous moment and thinking what a shame it is that the passengers I now carry as a United Airlines pilot can’t experience things like that anymore. But in the post-9/11 airline world, it’s completely understandable. Before that fateful day, the cockpit door existed primarily to partition the flight deck from the cabin so as to create a distraction-free work environment for the pilots. Now, it’s also a bulletproof barrier protecting the flight crew from unscrupulous individuals wishing to do unthinkable harm…and a reinforced reminder of the day the airline industry—and the fabric of our nation—changed forever.
My eyes drift around the bedroom, and I notice the well-worn flight logbooks stacked on the side of my desk below the edge of a framed Boeing 767 cockpit poster. The blue logbook, roughly the size of a folded sheet of printer paper, chronicles my first flight lessons, which I began the summer after my flight to London. It sits atop a larger black one, which details the lion’s share of my flights as a flight instructor during college and immediately afterwards. And on top of both of them is a stack of several maroon pocket logbooks that I’ve meticulously maintained over the past nine years as an airline pilot, all of them as a first officer, or what is often referred to as a co-pilot. Their pages are dingy and their corners are bent from being repeatedly stuffed into the right breast pockets of my crisp white uniform shirts and carried with me on jaunts to small towns and major cities all around the globe.
Oh, if these books could talk, I muse nostalgically, leaning forward to pick one up. I flip through its pages as though it’s an animated tale, thinking, In a way, I guess they do.
The three-letter airport codes stand out to me, with each line triggering a highlight reel of memories, like the dust trails I saw extending behind the army tanks crawling across the open fields of Fort Hood, Texas, as I peered through the right side window of the Saab 340B prior to my first landing as a regional airline pilot in 2004. Or the excitement I felt from hearing the high-pitched whine of the Embraer 145’s engines spooling up on my first takeoff in a jet a year later. Or the way the brilliance of the sunrise over the craggy Irish coastline seemed dreamlike on my first transatlantic crossing in a Boeing 767 in 2006. Countless inflight landscapes, each one more beautiful than any that a master painter could create. Vivid moments that I know will remain with me forever.
The names I see in the books stand out to me, too. They’re the pilots with whom I’ve flown. Some names seem to have melded together over time, but for many, I can still see the pilots’ faces in vivid detail. I can hear their voices and remember the stories they told as we droned along at 38,000 feet, our feet propped up on the lower dashboard footrests, passing the time between Dallas and Des Moines or New Jersey and the Netherlands. I can still taste the curry we consumed in Manchester and the souvlaki we sampled on a hot July evening at the crew hotel’s rooftop restaurant overlooking the Parthenon in Athens. It’s as though those moments were yesterday, and I’m so thankful to have their memories permanently cached in my mind.
I flip a few more pages, smiling as I recount moments of laughter in Lisbon and picnics in Paris. And then it dawns on me that the names I see printed in my little logbooks have a strong connection with the message I just read on my laptop’s screen.
This really does change everything, I remind myself again.
For a day I have dreamed about for nearly a decade and a half, it seems ironic that I have never given much consideration to how this moment would feel when it actually arrived. I’m confident, however, that I never expected it to feel so matter-of-fact.
But matter-of-fact it had been. There was no fanfare. No grand ceremony. Just a simple message on the United Airlines crew communication website, announcing that the final results for Bid 14-02 were out.
Alone in my apartment, I searched for my name within the 199-page PDF document, just as I had done on so many other previous bid awards. And on page 79, I had found it listed along with those of other pilots flying Boeing 737s out of United’s Chicago O’Hare pilot domicile. But unlike all the previous bids, this time my name was listed on the left side of the page instead of the right. And as it happens, that is not an insignificant detail at all. In fact, it’s actually a detail of momentous proportions.
I set the pocket logbook back atop the rest. Rising from the chair, I leave the bedroom and walk down the narrow entry hallway’s wooden floors, past the apartment’s modern kitchen, to the floor-to-ceiling windows that look out on the cold and blustery streets of Chicago’s financial district from thirty-seven floors above. I stare blankly at the massive stone-, steel-, and glass-covered buildings that consume my view, listening to the muted wave-like rumble of a passing L train one block away.
It doesn’t seem possible that I am about to achieve my childhood dream. Making that dream a reality had been my sole professional focus to date. In fact, it had been my life’s focus, too. I had researched the possible paths that could lead to my goal, dissecting each one’s requisite steps. And once I had settled on the path I believed would be the fastest, I had chased each step with vigor, moving wherever I needed to move and taking whatever job I needed to take, so long as doing so put me one step closer to my dream. Focus and discipline, I had told myself, were the keys to achieving success.
And now, the results of Bid 14-02 reveal my success is at hand. I have climbed the mountain. I have reached my destination. And there is one person with whom I cannot wait to share my news: Jen.
I pull my iPhone from my pocket and dial her work number.
“Hi, Husband!” she answers, using the appropriate, if not overly obvious, nickname she affectionately gave to me the day we were married in 2010.
“Hi, Wife,” I respond in kind.
“Well?? Is it out??” she asks, cutting right to the point. Like me, Jen has eagerly awaited the results of Bid 14-02, because she understands the significant effect its results could have on our lives.
“Yep,” I reply. “It’s out.”
“Realllllly,” I say, letting a grin creep across my face as I draw out my big reveal.
“Annnnnnddddd…did you get it????”
“Annnnnnddddd…I got it!!!!”
“YES!!!!” she exclaims, her excitement palpable even over the phone. “You’re going to be a 737 captain!”
I smile. “That’s right! I’m heading to the left seat!” Three feet to the left of the first officer’s seat I have occupied for my entire airline career to this point.
“Congratulations!” she exclaims.
“Thanks!” I reply. “I just barely got it, but I got it.”
“Who cares how close you were? Your number was up. That’s all that matters,” she says, knowing as I do that promotions—and demotions—within the pilot ranks are determined solely by a pilot’s position on the all-controlling seniority list. “You must be so excited.”
“I am,” I tell her, before adding that I’m also a bit terrified. After all, it’s a lot of responsibility to place on the shoulders of a 31-year-old.
“Well, dude,” she cautions, “don’t jack it up!”
I chuckle. “I’m gonna do my best!”
“And don’t let this go to your head, either,” she adds.
I roll my eyes. “Let’s be honest. With you around to keep me in check, I’m confident that won’t be a problem.”
I shake my head before suggesting a celebration is in order when she gets home.
“Yeah, dude! Count me in! You may even have to pull out your special bottle of scotch,” Jen suggests, referring to the first bottle of whisky I ever purchased—a souvenir I’ve treasured since a passionate shopkeeper taught me all about the spirit during a 2007 layover in Edinburgh, Scotland.
“You know, I think you’re right!”
I roll my eyes again, mumbling, “Mmhmm.”
A few moments later, we say goodbye and the line goes silent. For several minutes, I continue gazing onto the urban landscape in front of me. In the distance one of United’s jets drifts across the shoreline of Lake Michigan on its final approach to O’Hare.
This is about to get real, I think.
But the truth is I have no idea how real the next year is going to get. I cannot comprehend how much I will be challenged or how much I will grow as a leader and as a man. And perhaps most of all, I have no idea how much my perspective on success and adversity is about to change. Because as I’ll soon understand, this moment isn’t actually the top of the mountain. And it is most definitely not a destination reached. In fact, if it is anything at all, it is merely another waypoint on an even more important journey—one that will take an entire lifetime to achieve.
This is the story of my first year as a United Airlines captain.It’s the story of a new leader who is tasked with stepping up and taking command. And it’s the story of a man who is molded and shaped in powerful, unexpected ways that eventually transform his perspective on what success really is.
This story takes place inside and outside of airline flight decks. It flies above mountain ranges and across oceans. It maneuvers through blustery blizzards and around awe-inspiring thunderstorms. And along the way, it presses up against the limits of comfort zones.
It’s a story about people—airline people—who are struggling to make sense of their pasts while learning to accept their new realities. It’s a story about humility and compassion, a story about joy and pain, and most of all, about how every one of those moments is actually interwoven with the others for a simple and beautiful purpose.
It’s a story about me, but it could just as easily be a story about any number of my colleagues at United…or about you, for that matter. Because in one way or another, we are all on our own journeys…three feet to the left.
And so with that, it’s time to fly. Welcome aboard.