Friday, September 08, 2006

Flying and Dying

Mick is a friend, a coworker, and sometimes, one of my copilots. Often, our rapport consists of good-natured, adolescent bantering of the kind found among pilots, cops, firemen, and other workplaces dominated, in terms of numbers, by men.

But sometimes, especially when we’re flying together on a long offshore flight, we talk about serious stuff. Although he carries benign obnoxiousness to an art form, Mick has a sensitive side, try as he might to hide it.

One day about two years ago, we were inbound to shore from an offshore oil platform. The flight would take an hour, and we were halfway to our base in Morgan City, Louisiana. We’d been quiet for a while when Mick’s voice came through my headset: “Do you ever think about dying in a helicopter?”

Wow. I'd never before been asked that so . . . directly. I answered, “Y’mean, say I screw up an emergency procedure?” “No,” replied Mick, “I mean from a catastrophic failure of some kind. Nothing you can do.” “Such as a main rotor separation, or a transmission failure?” I asked. (You might say I'm the kinda guy who needs things spelled out for him.) “Yeah.” Silence.

We train, both in the simulator and actual aircraft, for many emergencies. We don't train for main rotor separations, and we don't train for transmission failures. Neither event has an emergency procedure. There is nothing in the emergency checklist titled, "What to Do Before Dying."

I looked across the cockpit at Mick. “Yeah, sometimes. Most of the time, if those thoughts are there, I suppose I suppress them. But once in awhile, a bolt of unwanted awareness comes over me: I realize that in two or three minutes, I could be dead.” (Please know that I don't talk that way all the time, in case that last statement left you wary of ever meeting me in person.)

“Yeah, that’s what I mean,” said Mick.

I thought for a moment. Mick's timing seemed almost scripted. A week earlier, I’d stood over my sleeping five year-old son with tears in my eyes, thinking of the pilots who’d died in helicopter accidents since I’d hired on with my employer in 1979. Over twenty guys, and most of them had left wives and kids behind. Over twenty guys, most of whom I’d known personally, to one degree or another. I looked at my little boy, and asked myself in thought, “What kind of guy leaves his family alone half the time to make a living, with the real risk he’ll never come back?” Tears filled my eyes as I looked down at him. If I truly loved my wife and son, shouldn’t I do something else?

Mick was married with a daughter, a toddler. “Mick, do you ever think that you should do something else for a living? I mean, hell, you worked in a bank back home in Ireland before you started flying, and I suppose some bank robber could have blown you away while you were at work. But, you probably wouldn’t be having this conversation if you still worked there. Do you ever think that you should do something else for the sake of your family?”

“When did you become such a pussy?” asked Mick. I laughed, a little startled by the return of Mick the Smart-Ass. “Asshole,” I shot at Mick. He laughed, and then returned to Thoughtful Mick. “Yeah, sometimes I do.”

"Me too," I said.

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