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Flying Life: In it together

Pilots helping each other through the COVID-19 crisis

“Now, just remember that this thing isn’t as black as it appears.” —George Bailey, It’s a Wonderful Life

In the 1946 classic Christmas movie It’s a Wonderful Life, George Bailey, played by Jimmy Stewart, cancels his honeymoon when financial scares cause a run on the Bailey Brothers Building and Loan. Bailey walks into a frantic crowd of people in his building jostling for a spot at the front of the counter so they can pull their money out before it disappears. Bailey tries to calm them down and save his business by offering his own honeymoon cash to appease them. The loudest and angriest man pushes his way to the front and demands to cash out his account by withdrawing his entire $242. Things aren’t looking good for Bailey or for the town his business supports, because as we know all too well, panic is contagious.

Then a funny thing happens. The next person decides to listen to a voice that’s louder than his fear, and asks for only $20. Then a little old lady, Mrs. Davis, asks for only $17.50, prompting George to reach across the counter, grab her face with both hands, and kiss her on the cheek. The building and loan survives the run with two dollars left as the clock ticks down to closing time. Bailey and his employees celebrate in the age-old way of those who have survived a crisis: by sharing a bottle and dancing.

Recent events regarding the COVID-19 pandemic have rocked our aviation industry particularly hard. Because of reduced travel, passenger airlines are cutting routes, leaving many pilots fearing for their jobs and airport terminals eerily empty. U.S. cargo carriers are facing struggles as well, as some places from which they would typically receive packages are no longer shipping at their regular capacity. The government is swiftly working out bailouts that could amount to more than $50 billion to keep the airlines afloat through the crisis. Even in general aviation, one of the busiest flight schools in our area has closed some of its locations permanently after the company had to cancel a large contract to train Chinese pilots. Many of the large flight schools associated with universities are also temporarily suspending flight training as educational institutions across the nation go to online formats. As chief instructor of a large flight school, I have ex-flight instructors calling to ask for their jobs back amid valid concerns that their recently acquired regional airline positions may go away in a furlough.

While those incidents are alarming from an industry standpoint, because they threaten our sense of financial and job security, the scariest thing to me is seeing the way fear tends to bring out the worst in people. Stock markets crash and grocery stores are empty as people hoard supplies. There are reports of theft of personal protective equipment, which is currently worth more than gold, it seems. Anxiety levels are higher than ever before as people worry for their loved ones who may have compromised immune systems.

Let’s keep in mind that our particular group, pilots, has been blessed with logical and intelligent minds. We are not a group who panics easily.Just when we start to lose our faith in each other, something beautiful happens. The Mrs. Davises of the world show up, ready to remind us all that there’s a better way to handle a crisis. I received the following text message from one of my newly hired flight instructors:

“Hey, Natalie. I know a few instructors have recently left for the airlines and given the severity of what’s going on, I imagine some may come back to the flight school temporarily. I just wanted to let you know that I would happily give up my schedule to any returning instructors. I have a full-time job and am not worried about paying my bills. Just wanted to offer that up in case the need arises.”

Since I received that text, I’ve had three other instructors text me similar messages, trying to make sure their fellow pilots and friends are taken care of. By the time this magazine arrives in your mailbox, I sincerely hope that this virus will have been contained, that as few lives as possible will have been lost, and that one day soon, COVID-19 will be a distant memory. But just in case that hasn’t happened yet, let’s keep in mind that our particular group, pilots, has been blessed with logical and intelligent minds. We are not a group who panics easily. If we were, we’d never have set foot in an airplane. In short, while other people may let the anxiety get the better of them, let’s not forget who we are. In the words of George Bailey, “We can get through this thing all right. We’ve got to stick together, though.”

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