Thursday, September 29, 2011

HUBRIS at Flight Level 350

Do we challenge the gods? Or should we?

I had just celebrated my thirty-fifth birthday and life was becoming very sweet. I was flying airplanes I loved – newly painted, McDonald Douglas DC 9 Dash 30s. Within the year I would probably be a captain again, but this time, a well-paid airline captain, not an Air Force one. The skills were the same, but the airline job was much easier – we had a strong union and no additional squadron duties! At the moment, my co-pilot’s pay was certainly enough to give us a comfortable life, but captain’s pay would increase my salary significantly enough for lots of overseas holiday travel with the passes provided by Air West.

We looked forward to several vacations a year; taking the girls on overseas jaunts, enrolling them in a private school, private ski and dance instruction and further on in life, their attending the nearby university with its many sorority houses for the darlings of well-to-do businessmen. Life was sweetening with each salary bump. As they say now, "Life is good."

Flying north over Idaho in the late winter afternoon, the Captain pointed out how the shadows on the ground showed the wagon tracks of the early settlers. When I compared my life to theirs, I couldn’t help but think I had it ‘made in the shade’. After leaving our ticky-tacky house in California, we had settled into a 1914 vintage home in the North End of Tacoma – the ‘better’ neighborhood of doctors, lawyers and assorted white Indian chiefs, far to the north of the blue collar house where Marlene had grown up. Our two-storey house had a bedroom for each of our daughters and they were attending an elementary school to which they could safely walk. They had a ready-made circle of friends nearby and we looked forward to summer parties surrounded by rhododendrons on the lawn that was tended by our Japanese gardener. Marlene’s mum was delighted that she could see her grandchildren, her daughter and her successful son-in-law, the airline pilot.

Looking to the north from our cruising altitude of 35,000 feet, I saw a flash of lightning. Funny, there were no cumulus clouds there. Were the gods angry at my hubris? Was Zeus playing tricks on me, or sending me a message? Well, I had a break coming – three days off and plenty to do around the house.

Medical exams are a large factor in a successful career for ship’s captains, truck drivers and pilots; if you are aware of any health problems, you take appropriate steps to ensure that they are taken care of prior to an official record. So following our first trip to Europe, I discussed with Marlene the wisdom of having a private medical exam from a non-Federal Aviation Agency approved doctor to establish a base line for any future official physical exams. Our Family Practice physician had recommended a colleague who was equipped with the latest diagnostic equipment including a treadmill – an item not yet in the cardiologist's common inventory who usually used a small stool to conduct the Captain’s Two-step - a stress test named many years ago for ship's captain's medical exams and now used occasionally for airline physicals.

My April 15th appointment was at the beginning of a three-day break in my schedule so I was well rested when, fully wired-up with sensors, I stepped on the treadmill. Today’s machines run smoothly and without much noise but Dr. Billingsley’s machine sounded like an empty flatcar being shunted over Tacoma’s tide-flats just below our house. After three-minute warm-up, the slowly moving walkway was raised and the speed increased. I began to feel the shortness of breath I had experienced earlier in the week when I went for my afternoon run.

The machine stopped suddenly and Billingsley took my arm and asked me to step down and lie on the examining table.

“Are you experiencing any discomfort?” he said.

“No, just out of breath,” I said. “I’m a bit out of condition and I haven’t been exercising much lately.”

He put a small white tablet under my tongue and told me to lie still while the lab assistant removed the electro sensors from my chest. After a few minutes, I put on my street clothes and joined him in his office.

“Bill, I understand you are an airline pilot,” he said. “Have you had this shortness of breath any other time?”

I thought about a night the previous week when I was making a landing at the Tri Cities Airport near Pasco in southern Washington. An approach to the south west runway would normally begin from the east of the airfield, but as we were headed south from Boeing Field in Seattle we were required to ‘circle’ the field so as to land to the west. At that time, there was no precision approach and new to the route, I had not made this type of procedure here before. With the low ceiling, we circled to the north of the runway at 600 feet above the ground before making our turn to a final approach. As this was my ‘leg’ and I was flying in the 1st Officer’s seat, I could see lots of flashing red lights off the end of the runway. I suspected there had been an accident and was concerned about making a missed approach. The captain, noticing my apparent anxiety, explained to me that this was a “hump yard”, a train switching area and to continue the approach. I suspect I was anxious and pumping a little more adrenaline than normal, and at that time I noticed this shortness of breath that quickly passed as we completed our landing.

“Yes, Doctor,” I said. “I noticed it the other night on an approach to Pasco.”

Jim Billingsley was also a pilot and, as I later found out, a fairly good one who owned his own Beech Bonanza. He understood why I had been anxious, but he also knew why the shortness of breath had appeared.

“I’m sorry to tell you this,” he said, “but you have a serious heart problem. I saw it on the electrocardiogram tracing when you were on the treadmill. That’s why we terminated the test. If you had continued, you could have had a heart attack!”

I immediately thought about last week’s scenario in Pasco. If 1st Officer Critch had a heart attack, the airplane could have rolled right into the ground before the captain, distracted by a radio call, could take over. 

It was quiet for a minute. “Well doc,” I said, “I think I’d best ground myself until we get this sorted out.” He said quietly, “I don’t think it will get sorted out. It’s very serious and I suspect that your flying days are over, Bill. You have what I call a coronary insufficiency, which is to say that my preliminary diagnosis is advanced arteriosclerosis.”

I’m 35, look younger, I don’t smoke much, I drink booze like the rest of my contemporaries and I’m not overweight. What’s this arteriosclerosis? I’ve never heard of it! But I think of the consequences of not reporting this condition and continuing flying. Apart from a clear violation of Federal Aviation Regulations, a lot of people including myself could end up dead.

I came home much later than expected and Marlene and the girls were already having supper.

“How’d you like Dr Billingsley?” Marlene said.

“Not very well. I’m grounded!”

It became very quiet at the table. Sheila continued eating her fried chicken, but Tammy sensed Marlene’s reaction and she asked, “What’s wrong, Dad? Are you sick?”

Like most aviators’ wives, Marlene understood very well what ‘grounded’ meant. If it was permanent it meant a huge loss of income and a drastic change of lifestyle. Most of our pilot friends had big mortgages, several cars and very expensive tastes in travel and entertaining. Several were already on their 2nd marriage and were paying alimony and child support based on generous court settlements quickly agreed to. They had challenged the gods but no bolt of lightning warned them to back off. The gods were definitely not smiling on us! So much for the sweet life, ‘made in the shade’.

Of course, that’s not the end of the story.

That night with the kids asleep and ourselves wide awake, over a glass of plebian Pink Chablis, we discussed our resources and our future plans.

Did I challenge the gods? Should we?

Yes, I think we should. We challenge life by tossing the big, brown Australian pennies and shouting as they spin, “Sydney or the bush!” What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger. My high school motto was, “Dare to do as much as you are able” and if I have passed that on to my kids, I’ve succeeded in challenging the gods….and won.

(In retrospect, it worked out rather well: we both started college two months later, scraped by on the money we had saved and in three years I was employed by Boeing; in five years Marlene was hired as the assistant Director of Medical records in a large local hospital. Of course, my flying days were over, but I continued to train ‘real’ pilots in the simulators and never again did I consider that we might have it “made in the shade.”)

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