Saturday, July 19, 2014
The flight home is always special.
What is your most valuable possession?
Is it your family; your partner, your children, your parents? Have you just purchased the car you've always dreamed of driving or a collectible watch that was never within reach? Did you finally move into your "dream home" or snag that perfect job? I've been asking myself this question for the last day or so and I've settled on something that to many will seem pretty mundane, to others, trite.
My most prized possession is my life, the next breath, another opportunity, another moment, another day, that next revelation waiting in the wings to make itself known, the next chance to fulfill my mission. What mission? To be the best possible iteration of me, the truest, the most complete, the one that will not reach his end undone, unfinished.
Less than 24 hours later, I begin a day very much like one that colleagues a world away began; colleagues that I've never met and will never meet. I prepare for a long-haul intercontinental flight aboard a fully-booked Boeing 777-200ER, departing in the late-morning, mid-day with 282 "souls on board" (passengers and crew, including infants in arms). As crew, our routine is just that, routine. We move in the same way, speak in the same way, interact in the same way as we have so many times before which, in my case, is for the last 30 years. We work with old friends and with new acquaintances, some whose names we've heard before, some not. The routine of it all gives the very mistaken impression that it is just routine. As we've learned, it is until it isn't.
After we prepare the familiar spaces of the cabin for the onslaught, customers begin to board, each with his or her own unique "baggage". We, all of us, are on our own journey. This is the tiny, cramped, pressurized space where so many of our journeys intersect; sometimes harmoniously, sometimes calamitously. But the cabin of a long-haul aircraft is a "pressure vessel" on many levels. The normal personal space and control that we enjoy in our own comfort zone of home is unceremoniously removed and our innermost anxieties are exposed. The fact that we volunteer for this experience, in some cases paying great sums of our hard-earned money for the experience, does not make the experience any less an assault. To believe otherwise is to fall prey to the pervasive powers of marketing.
Everyone settles into his "place" onboard. Expectations are set with crew briefing, announcements, the safety demonstration, individual interactions, etc. Each participant reaches his point of stasis for the flight. (For the crew this often means, "3A is so funny and engaging" or "32K is going to need a lot of attention" or "that pilot is a jerk" or "I can't believe I have to work with him/her again" or "why can't the company just listen to us and give us the tools we need?"). No doubt some of the crew aboard MH17 were pondering these thoughts as they heard, "Flight Attendants, prepare the doors for departure, cross check, and stand by for all call".
Finishing cabin checks and taking a jumpseat are the prelude to more routine: the sound and movement of engine start and taxi. "Flight Attendants, be seated for departure". The building roar of massive engines whose circumference is nearly the same as the fuselage of a Boeing 737. The "silent review" of what my individual responsibilities will be (determined by my jumpseat assignment) if something should go awry during takeoff. The thunderous takeoff roll is punctuated by the whir of hydraulic pumps under the floor at doors 3L & R, over the wings. The pumps drive the retraction of the landing gear, gear door closure, flap and aileron actuation, each with its signature, somehow comforting sound.
The nose lifts and hovers above the ground for a critical moment or two as our speed builds sufficiently to lift the remainder of the aircraft from the support of the main gear. Then magic: Flight. Our vessel makes a split-second transition from ungainly terrestrial behemoth to spectacularly graceful airborne miracle of human ingenuity. Metamorphosis.
Once aloft, many anxieties relieved, onboard services commence and the legendary ennui of long-haul flight sets in. While initial services will generally consume the first 2-3 hours of a daylight-departing flight (typically less for night departures), that leaves another 8+ hours of boredom, compounded by the discomfiting physiological effects of extended air travel under pressure. The fourth hour of today's flight (#7 from Houston to Tokyo/Narita) finds the aircraft at FL360 (36,000 feet), somewhere over western Canada, near the frontier with southeastern Alaska. It finds me in Overhead Attendant Rest (OHAR) bunk #1 (of 6), wide awake, attuned to all of that which is happening around me.
I am one of 6 Flight Attendants (half of those onboard) on break 1 which is three hours in duration today. I've been in my bunk for about an hour and begin to reflect on the events of yesterday, so much is similar. Many passengers try to sleep after the first service, finding it the least egregious way to pass the long, dull period of inactivity. In smooth, level flight, the principle contributors to ambient noise are the low-frequency groan of the engines and the constant, unvarying whoosh of the wind as it caresses the surfaces of the aircraft. No extraneous distraction intrudes here: no phone, no work colleague, no teacher, no schoolmate, no pet, nothing that wasn't brought along on the trip. Some watch movies. Some read. Some listen to music or do handicrafts. Some sleep, or attempt to. Some write.
In one instant, the journeys of 298 lives came to an abrupt halt. The flight and their sudden ends are likely the only things that many of those journeys shared. It's a certainty that no two lives were at the same "place" with maybe one very notable exception.
In that moment, each was discovering or rediscovering his most valuable possession.
Epilogue: My flight today is to a layover in Japan. The crew of MH17 was departing their layover in Amsterdam on their homeward-bound leg. Kuala Lumpur is Malaysian's principle hub and home city.
As similar as they may seem in other ways, flights "home" are always very different to crew than flights to a layover. Perhaps the distinction has its roots in the very romantic way that each of us thinks of "home"; perhaps it's as simple as a trip being over, complete, done. Whatever the reason, the flight home is always special.
Every. Moment. Counts.