Mac stood before the airliner’s towering boarding door and let the hot air blow through his teeth. His burden pressed him further into the floor, but the world seemed to push back equally and indifferently. The rainy night weighed heavily on the airliners taxiing Seattle-Tacoma’s International Airport and damp air pulled the stale scent of time from every surface. Each muscle fiber in his neck ached in warm contraction and he didn’t dare take his hands off his roller bag for fear they’d tremble. His muscular frame was draped over a reedy skeleton, shaped by years of intentional exercise and a youth of doing without, but tonight he felt weak. He was uneasy, knowing everything could change, but what it would mean was already clear to him. He garnered strength within himself, not knowing what there was to lose, and focused his mind. Just beyond the age of sixty, his experience was far more than suggested by his appearance, but tonight he hoped it would be enough.
The pilot’s left foot came off the aged airport gate while his pulsing heart bound in his chest.
He was risking everything, putting it all on the line, though his choice had already been made. He had everything to lose, and in stepping through the threshold of the door, he bet it all. As he had thousands of times before, Captain Robert “Mac” Frank boarded the aircraft he would pilot around the world. Home.
The busy galley was freshly stocked with hundreds of meals and drinks to be served thirty-two thousand feet over the Pacific Ocean. His watch weighted in his pocket and he pulled it out to study its open face. 5:45. Though his mind was preoccupied, he would never permit tardiness. It fell back into his pocket.
“Fancy seeing you here, Captain Mac,” smiled a stout woman closing an overhead galley door. She wore dark heels and a red scarf around her neck that danced off her shoulder. Her eyes were sharp and the years of flying in times zones around the world fractured furrowed lines beside her eyelids.
“Hi Shari,” Mac was weary though her familiar face curbed some of his emotional dissonance. “I’m not sure I’ve seen you since our Amsterdam run last month.” Her hair was wiry and pulled back tight out of her eyes. “How are things with the union?”
“Same complaints, different day.” She opened the cooler and double checked the ice. “I like working for these cabin birds, but all of this office work is wearing me down.” She walked with a slight limp and swung her leg to secure a galley door. “I jumped at the first chance I could to get back into the fleet and do a trip or two.”
“I warned you when you agreed to this office job,” said the pilot, but Shari leaned against the stainless-steel counter and rolled her eyes.
“I know, Mac. You don’t need to remind me you said I’d miss the flying.” She took his cap and placed it on a shelf in the closet, “Although it has been nice to not be living out of my suitcase for a few months,” she said with a laugh and helped with his blazer.
“Living out of a suitcase is all I know,” his left arm fell out of its sleeve. Their camaraderie brought life to those around them and their history made stories quick and laughter easy. Shari slid his blazer on a hanger while Mac reached into his briefcase and pulled out a mess of papers. He was paging through the passenger manifest in a routine that seemed to soothe.
“Think you can get us there in under six hours, Mac?” a second flight attendant came in from the cabin with a stack of dinners in hand. Her voice was gravelly, and her aged skin sagged under its own weight.
“I’ll do my best Dawnis,” Mac chuckled without looking up. These two flight attendants were among the most senior in the fleet and he’d flown them around the world dozens of times. “Looks like we’re fully loaded tonight,” he folded the paper back into his briefcase. “You guys will have your work cut out tonight.”
“Well at least most of these problems can be fixed with an extra packet of pretzels and not a union complaint,” Shari’s slight southern drawl occasionally surfaced as it did tonight. She took a seat on the rear facing crew seat near the boarding door. “You just get us there safe, Mac.”
The captain’s even facade shrouded the tension surging through his bones. If only you knew. His mind mercilessly recounted the past twenty-four hours on loop and uncertainty grew with each iteration.
“Of course,” he looked away. His pulse quickened while he tried to slow his breathing. Both single people living in Seattle, it was their transient nature that kindled their friendship and their decade of working together that kept them connected. Mac and Shari’s eyes met for a moment and he saw the warmth that had carried him through many difficult times. Tonight, he would disengage and focus purely on the task at hand.
Pulling his bag behind him, he passed through the galley and made his way toward the cockpit. The bright lights of the first-class cabin were a treasured reprieve from the rainy Seattle night and the familiar setting eased his mind. Small bottles of water placed on each worn leather seat caught his eye and he saw them extend all the way into the coach cabin. “Looks like the airline is finally loosening up,” he said over his shoulder. His eyes gestured towards the bottles.
“These passengers better enjoy it because this crap is probably coming out of our end of the year bonus,” Dawnis hissed from behind a galley cabinet and Shari laughed.
“We’re happy to have you back, Shari,” Mac tried to smile and forced himself forward.
▪ ▪ ▪
Mac’s ship was his home and he was reassured that the cabin was overseen by some of the airline’s finest. Tonight was the first leg of eight where he and his crew would be trusted to bring a load of two hundred and sixty-seven people across the Pacific Ocean to vacations, funerals and everything in between. Though he had always been one to keep to himself, he knew his work brought people together and it was one of many parts of the job that brought him satisfaction. The end of the month would mark the thirty-eighth year of being an airline pilot and it was the only work he had known and loved. Even after all these years, the anticipation of a new trip energized him and commanding a 200-ton piece of roaring aluminum and steel down a runway left him wanting more. Being a pilot was all he knew.
At the first row of seats, he paused and considered the hundreds of miles of open ocean between Seattle and Honolulu. The route was routine, and he had always approached it with a confidence poise, but tonight the expanse was daunting and he wished for a shorter journey.
His steely eyes looked over the rows of empty seats and he ran his hand through his greying hair. Tonight, his responsibility felt more arduous than he had ever known and he hesitated before committing himself to the flight deck. Though he knew it was finally catching up with him, he would continue to fly. All he could do tonight was hope.
“The time has finally come,” he said to the young woman sitting in the right pilot’s seat when he found the courage to come aboard. The green glow of the control panel cut through the rainy evening as he lowered his head under the tapered ceiling. He slid his briefcase in a small closet behind the captain’s chair before climbing into his seat, a routine he'd done a thousand times over.
“Can you believe it?” Mac could hear the anticipation in her voice. Her dark hair was pulled back neatly in a braid and her smile was full and bright. She watched the captain board the flight deck over the three golden bars on her shoulder.
“After all these years, did you think we would ever fly one of these together?” he settled into the left seat but felt uneasy.
“I wasn’t even sure if I would ever be able to fly one of these the last time I flew with you,” she laughed. “Let alone fly one with my old instructor.” If he had not known her, he would have said she was too young to be flying a Boeing 767 but the airline had been growing so rapidly in the past few years that faces seemed be getting younger each day.
“Well, even though I was once your teacher, tonight we are colleagues,” Mac shuffled through the mess of paperwork from his briefcase. Fond memories from flight instructing years before elbowed some of the foreboding buzz in his chest. “How does the weather look?”
The copilot reached across the vast center counsel, with two large engine throttles and a crop of flight computers, to screen through a monitor.
“Once we get out over the ocean, we can get around the storms over the coast,” she said. “Other than that, weather in Hawaii looks great for a layover.”
If we make it to Hawaii.
“Okay,” Mac tried to keep his voice light. Through the windshield, hundreds of passengers were milling about the airport on the other side of the large terminal windows, waiting to board their flights. Seattle-Tacoma International Airport was busy at this time as airplanes departed on overnight flights around the world. “I also hear today is a big day not only because you’re flying with your old instructor,” he smiled but he already felt drained.
“I just graduated from type training just under a month ago,” she said, her glee bounding and infectious. “I’m just starting my fourth week flying the 767.”
Mac could feel the anticipation in her words and for a moment his troubles faded away, “Having an old student fly with me on the airplane I love is an exciting day for me too, Julie.” He slid his headset on, “Congratulations,” he adjusted his mic, “I am really proud of you.”
As a senior pilot at the airline, Mac typically had a sense of the new pilots that came into the fleet and he quickly caught word when his most talented student was hired. Though they had not spoken since she left for college over a decade before, the company’s check-ride pilot had good remarks and her reputation preceded her. Just under an hour before pushing back from the gate, he hoped tonight wouldn’t put her skill to the test.
“Thank you, sir,” she said. The index finger of her right hand came to her mouth and she picked at the nail with her front teeth.
“Are you still doing that?” he mocked. She blushed, and her hand fell back into her lap. “I remember you chewing on your nails when you were a student in Virginia,” the memory made him smile.
She let out a nervous laugh and cleared her throat, “It’s a bad habit I guess.”
Mac could always feel Julie shared his insatiable love of aviation. From the technical skill of completing a difficult instrument approach, to the splendor of a jumbo jet leaping into the sky, the art and science of aerospace always had a way of rousing his imagination. He had sacrificed so much of his life for his career, but he would do it all again if he were asked, and he sensed his copilot felt the same. Aviators from different generations, they were connected by their reverence for flight.
A single knock at the flight deck door brought Mac from his thoughts. “When do you want to do our meeting, Mac?” asked Shari, stashing a few bottles of water in the small wall cubbies. A pair of yellow reading glasses were thronged into her hair on top of her head. Behind the worn lines on her face, she was striking.
Mac pulled the watch from his pocket again, “It’s just after six and they’re going to board in about twenty minutes. Why don’t you round up the gang and we’ll meet in ten at mid-ship.” He made it a routine to meet with his crew before every flight and Shari knew the protocol. Only a few years from retirement, they had been flying together for decades and their work blended together seamlessly.
“I see you’re still doing that too,” Julie laughed pointing at his watch. Mac slid it back into his pocket and the thought transported his mind to another time.
“I also had to call the ground crew,” Shari spoke before leaving, “it was quite clear they neglected to service the rear lavatories and they needed some attention.” Julie chuckled and she went back to her work.
Dawnis popped her head through the door and held herself against the side wall, “That’s what you get when you find cheap help.” Her love of sunny Phoenix was made evident by her leathery skin compared with Julie’s youth.
“Today is a big day for our copilot,” said Mac gesturing his thumb toward the right seat. “This is her first month on the seven six,” he said, letting himself fall into the energy.
Shari brought both of her hands to her mouth and beamed, “That’s wonderful, dear,” she tapped her forearm, “what an exciting time!”
“The company line-check airman just signed me off last week,” she blushed.
“Well it looks like we’re going to have a fun trip,” Shari smiled. “See you both in ten.”
▪ ▪ ▪
Fully loaded with two hundred and sixty-seven passengers and 23,900 gallons of fuel, the mighty 767 pushed back from the gate under the command of Captain Robert ‘Mac’ Frank. He brought the airliner to a halt at the head of the runway and looked off into the night. White lights outlined the asphalt paving forward into the horizon and lumbering airliners lined up on the taxiway beside.
“Jet Stream one forty-four heavy, cleared for take-off, runway 16 left,” the controller crackled through the headset.
“Seattle Tower, Jet Stream one forty-four heavy, clear for take-off, runway 16 left,” Julie responded in tempo. She looked over at the captain. “You ready Mac?”
He put his right hand on the engine throttles, his left on the yoke, and thought of the years leading up to this moment. He tried to suppress the feelings clawing into his mind and the lies churning like a swamp. He already made his decision and now it was time to act.
“As ready as I’ll ever be,” he pushed the throttles forward and the engines began to spew.
335,000 pounds of steel, fuel, and flesh began to shudder down the runway in acceleration until, at one hundred and sixty miles an hour, Mac pulled back on the yoke. As the airliner leaped into the night, the captain hoped he’d make it to Honolulu in the same seat.