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Flying on the FourthFlying on the Fourth

A nation's majesty from 35,000 feetA nation's majesty from 35,000 feet

Believe it or not, there are days that I don’t want to fly. I know, I know, it’s hard to fathom, but hear me out.

Believe it or not, there are days that I don’t want to fly. I know, I know, it’s hard to fathom, but hear me out. As an airline pilot, I’ve come to realize that my days of hunting for marginal weather that I could fly into in order to log actual instrument time have long since passed.

Give me smooth, severe clear VFR any day, and when it does come to weather, I’d much rather deal with the snow and ice of winter than the thunderstorms of spring and summer. Furthermore, one of the first harsh lessons of reality in any job based on seniority is that you’re going to fly on the weekends and holidays.

The holidays. Most people associate those words with Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Years. The first thought most people have is that working on those three days must be a rotten experience. It certainly can be disheartening. Hotels are empty, and restaurants are closed. The only thing on television is a parade, a bad choice of movies (except for A Christmas Story), and football. The fact that you are not at home with loved ones is rubbed in, and it is a lonely feeling. No matter how much you think you have prepared yourself, the sting is still pretty sharp.

But working on or near the holidays can also be, in its own way, rewarding. The radio chatter with ATC is animated and friendly, especially on the eve of Thanksgiving and Christmas. Everyone makes the most of it, and you can’t help but be in a good mood. As the one shuttling passengers hither and yon, especially in the last couple of years, as soldiers have made the trek back and forth to the Iraq and Afghanistan fronts, I can’t help but feel happy for all the joyful family reunions taking place, and for being a part of making it happen, especially on Christmas Eve.

Once in a while, I hear of someone calling in sick for a holiday, and I have to admit, it bugs me. The passengers paid their (hard-earned) money, and it’s our job to deliver them safely, keeping in mind that, eventually, your seniority will allow you, too, to be home for the holidays. It’s just a rite of passage.

For the most part, in my current employment, I have reached that point. I haven’t had to work a Thanksgiving or Christmas in years. I am more than half- way up the list, and since half of our pilots are working on any one day, those of us in that top half who ask for the holidays off generally get them. I have to admit, though, I always get antsy when the November and December lines are published. I’ve had to work on New Year’s Day, as well as on Father’s Day, but to me personally, those aren’t as big a deal, and I really don’t mind.

But there is one holiday that I hate to miss: Independence Day. It’s one of my favorite celebrations of the year. I don’t mind admitting that the Fourth of July makes my American heart swell with pride. On top of that, it’s one of the most fun holidays going, as it’s right in the middle of summer, and the fireworks are worth the wait, not to mention free for all to enjoy. As a father, my enjoyment of the day has only grown. In the neighborhood where I live, my wife, Lisa, and I are close to several families, and the day is always what amounts to a daylong barbecue block party. As the sun sets, I love to sit with one of my daughters on my lap, watching her excitement at the annual fireworks displays, pointing and telling me each new color is a favorite. My daughters love the sights and the noise, especially the finale.

So imagine my disappointment when I found out that, thanks to a non-emotional, and apparently misled computer, I would be working on the fourth this year. I wasn’t happy. I was mad actually, and to add insult to injury, my overnight in Boston had a very early start on the fifth, so I had to get to bed early in order to be rested, so no fireworks. I did everything I could to change trips, but to no avail. As I got closer to July third, the first day of the four-day trip, I was hoping I’d get the flu, or at least a cold. No dice.

On the fourth, the big news item was the possible launch of the space shuttle Discovery on the second mission since the Columbia disaster. The launch had already been pushed back several times, and was now set for 2:37 p.m. on the fourth, weather permitting. As it turns out, I was scheduled to take off from Fort Lauderdale, Florida, on a flight to Columbus, Ohio, at 2 p.m. My first officer, Brian, and I couldn’t help but wonder if....

During the flight down, we noticed that the weather in Florida was perfect, with puffy cumulus clouds and clear skies above. Almost every flight in the state was asking Miami and Jacksonville centers for updates on the launch, and the controllers were happy to oblige.

We departed Fort Lauderdale right on time, and our route of flight had us going up the coast, between Orlando and Cape Canaveral, at a cruise altitude of 35,000 feet. We hustled the climb, during which the controller working our flight for Miami Center kept a running commentary on the countdown. We leveled off in cruise 30 minutes after takeoff, found the Cape on our moving map, briefed our passengers...and waited. Cumulus clouds obscured the ground, but they stopped at the shoreline, giving us a white outline of the Florida peninsula. Pretty cool. “Thirty seconds,” said the controller. He couldn’t hide his own excitement. The frequency got quiet, as every pilot was looking for the launch.

For once, I was looking at exactly the right spot at the right time. At our one o’clock, we could see the bright spark as the solid rocket boosters ignited, and Discovery immediately began its long climb to orbit, a telltale plume of smoke pushing the orbiter ever higher and faster as it rolled onto its back and arced eastward, onward and upward, upward and onward. I’ve seen a number of launches and even one up close at the Cape, and as thrilling as that was, this one was every bit as good, if not better. The shuttle program has struggled, and the international space station is still incomplete. But the achievement of space flight is one of America’s greatest, and to see a launch on the Fourth of July, unobstructed at 35,000 feet, well, that’s tough to beat. The excited calls on the radio told me that everyone else felt the same way.

The controller, who did not have a TV, was waiting for a confirmation of the launch. His response? “Sweet!” It was indeed. Brian and I smiled, compared pictures on our cameras, and agreed that working on the fourth wasn’t so bad after all. I mean everyone would see fireworks tonight, but we saw the space shuttle takeoff. We saw the rockets’ red glare!

You wouldn’t think it could get much better than that, but it did. Flying into Boston several hours later, we saw the U.S.S. Constitution returning to harbor. Old Ironsides, as she is known, is the oldest serving warship in the world. Every year, the crew takes her out on the fourth as part of the Independence Day celebration. Coming into Boston with an aircraft carrier in the background, her sails up and full, was a great sight. After landing, I taxied a little slower in order to watch her disappear from sight, savoring the moment.

In one day, I had seen one of the most, if not the most, complicated machines ever built launch into space, as well as a fabled and proud wooden warship that had helped build this country pass one of its descendant weapons of war on the way home. The aircraft carrier was still as it sat in its mooring, and you could almost picture it saluting Old Ironsides, one warrior paying its respects to another.

And I got to experience it, thanks to my own modern machine that allowed me to cover the thousand miles or so between them in a matter of hours. As I sit and write this, I look back and realize that I wasn’t the only one working that holiday, and in a literal flash of light, not only did I not mind flying on the fourth, it was worth it.

Chip Wright of Hebron, Kentucky, is a captain for a regional airline.

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