Early December 1999

If every cloud has a silver lining, then the inverse must also be true; every silver lining is surrounded by a cloud. Knowledge such as this can be a burden, and I think that we spend a lot of our subconscious energy keeping these sorts of things papered- over.

Five times a week tranquility is shattered by the persistent wail of the alarm clock. I sit up in the recliner chair, my bed for the last four hours, and peel myself out of the cocoon that keeps me warm. On a good night, my jacket, an overshirt, and a blanket will keep the chill of the "pilot room" at bay. I feel like a wino being rousted from under a pile of cardboard and newspaper.

Does the alarm clock ring to wake us up, or is it the warning that the demon of despair is trying to make a jailbreak? One recent morning I wondered "is this what it has come to?" as I looked up from tying my shoes and listened to an other 3AM pilot shuffling and snuffling around the darkened room, among other pilots who were still sleeping.

Our wee hours are spent in the "dog pound" a dark room with a dozen or so recliner chairs, and a door that squeaks and bangs. Pilots come and go throughout the night. We have a telephone so that the boss can call us at any hour, and so that any other member of the population at random can reach us with a wrong number. We have a first- generation computer which, with perseverance will provide a weather briefing, but also generates a typewriter "clack" with each keystroke. Outside the recalcitrant door is a hallway that is reminiscent of a high school corridor at class change time, with a continuous din of voices and commotion.

The first line of defense against the demons is to find something else to think about. With takeoff in about an hour, the weather is a worthy consideration. Information has to be gathered and cross- checked, and all the weather conditions en route considered. Most of the time we learn that there is nothing that hasn't already been anticipated, but sometimes a whole new strategy of timing, routing, or altitude needs to be developed.

Soon enough the demon is put to rest by the myriad of details surrounding the flight itself. The plane has to be loaded correctly, the airport information checked, the flight plan routing received, and all the radios and instruments set correctly. Hundreds of little details must be attended to in order to make a flight seem smooth and effortless.

After takeoff, it is still dark, but figuratively, things are starting to brighten. On most mornings, I can look down and see the steady stream of cars flowing into the city, even though it is only five o'clock. With a little bit of imagination it can seem like every highway is a column of ants crawling out of the woods, preparing for their days burden. This perspective helps take some of the sting out of the oddities of flying overnight freight.

We look to the sky and think how delightful it would be to be as free as a bird, but lets fly a mile in the bird's feathers. Think how the chickadee must feel as the fat woodchuck waddles into his burrow, making his last retreat from the winter. It must be nice, the bird thinks, to be able to carry a winter's worth of food around on your ribs. Nobody's got it easy, a different job is just a different set of problems.

I think most people come to this realization, probably sooner than I have. Life is no picnic, but if the taxes are paid up and the winter's wood is on the back porch, things aren't so bad either. I get to spend lots of time around airplanes and airports, and get paid for it too. I don't get dirty, and the boss is hundreds of miles away. The cargo of boxes does not need to be coddled, doesn't complain, and doesn't tell stories. The old body doesn't have to strain its worn out joints.

So I fly along, chewing on a cold bagel or a cheese cracker and feeling like I'm dining at the Ritz. My workstation is smaller than most, noisier and darker than most, and the machine I operate can sometimes be more dangerous than most. The view from the office is pretty good, though, and if there is a silver lining to be found in a cloud, I'm the one most likely to find it.

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