And the Homecoming Sweeter.
Among the various fascinating denizens of the air sharing our friendly skies, there are a great many creatures of habit — but perhaps none quite to the degree of the common airline pilot. This species, to which I belong, takes great pride and comfort in its everyday routines, the highly scripted rituals of flight and furrow, heavens and hearth. Which explains why I am feeling distinctly out of place as I enter the Boeing 757’s expansive cockpit (newly clean-shaven, polyester uniform a bit too pressed and starched) after a six-week absence.
The captain, a silver-haired, strong-jawed man who was very likely born with four stripes on his shoulders, turns from his freshly prepared nest to exchange introductions and pleasantries. As I settle into the right seat, he naturally inquires about my home domicile. This is normally a bit of light getting-to-know-you chitchat while each pilot begins their preflight flow patterns — but the revelation that I live on a sailboat and have spent the past six weeks sailing the Bahamas drives the conversation into high gear. I suppose it raises all sorts of red flags: Here is an outlier, a possible creature of non-habit, perhaps even one of those wild-eyed renegades who still occasionally finds their way into airline cockpits despite management’s best efforts. Either that or my elder counterpart is genuinely interested in my sea-gypsy existence; either way, he peppers me with questions as I try to re-acclimate myself to my workspace and re-establish my old preflight routines. My head swims, but it’s OK. I know from experience that this is the toughest part. Before long, everything will click, I’ll get back in sync, and in a leg or two it’ll be as though I never left.
I’ve been flying for 23 of my 36 years, and looking back, there have been rather few periods when I’ve remained earthbound for any length of time. In my early teens I could only afford one flight lesson a month, and a few times I had to skip a month — the height of cruelty at an age when time seems to pass so very slowly. From college through my freight-dog days, though, I almost never went more than two days without flying, which was just the way I wanted it. It was only upon becoming a regional airline pilot that I developed both my lazy streak and the itch of wanderlust, and I made it a bit of a game to string together as many days off as possible to enjoy whatever adventures I could dream up. My crowning success was scoring a whole month off for my wife, Dawn, and me to ride our motorcycles to Alaska and back, and later repeating the feat to spend a month exploring South Africa, Botswana and Zimbabwe. In both cases I returned completely refreshed and ready to get back to work.
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