Soul-searching

AINonline
October 4, 2007, 6:59 AM

Man doth not live by flight hours alone. For many of us in today’s flying world, something’s amiss. It might be peace of mind or a sense of purpose outside of flying airplanes. I see it as loss of soul.

Soul is that indefinable place inside each of us that knows our purpose; the place inside that hums like a tuning fork when we’re right with the world, when someone says or does something that touches our core and reminds us of who we are in relation to the world we live in and the people we love. Yet somehow soul, by its very nature, transcends description.

Aviators have an inherent knowledge of soul, even if most of us can’t articulate it. Something stirred in each one of our souls when we had our first flight experience. A good aviator requires a soul equal to the amount of passion he or she feels for his chosen profession. No passion, no soul. Alas, many of us today have “lost that lovin’ feelin’.”

Redefining Soul in Aviation
For those of us senior aviators returning to or continuing our flying careers, now might be a good time to give something back to a career that’s given us so much; to share what we’ve learned with those we meet in our everyday world. In some circles, this is called mentoring.

How we perceive and interact with the world not only determines our fun/fulfillment factor in doing this job, but we also have a daily opportunity to revise the kind of person we want to be known as. We have a powerful opportunity to create a legacy.
For those of us in the reentry phase of our careers, there’s a fork in the road; the old, well trod path led to parking the brakes for the last time and fading quietly into the sunset, free at last from interminable gate holds, job actions and the new breed of airborne hooligans.

The other path leads to a continuation of left-seat flying. This new band of sage warriors wants the option to pull the plug when we’re darn good and ready and not have to dance to an FAA-mandated tune.

We’re privileged to be alive at a defining moment in aviation history. Those of us from the peaceful generation, who resisted being sucked into and lost in the vortex of the tantalizing hippie love fields, fell backward into the flying job of our dreams. Those of us who survived the temptations of the 1960s and committed to a flying career now have a window of opportunity to recapture the glory of yesteryear. We have the chance to reinvent ourselves pretty much any way we choose.

To those of you respected elders who are reading this, did you ever think you’d be a hot property at your age? Well, lukewarm, maybe.

The freak, 35-year sine wave that we’re now surfing, the pilot-shortage tsunami that’s rolling onshore from 20 years out, has finally hit. And those of us who are ready to “hang ten” off its curl, those of us who thought we’d be history at 60, have a shot at riding this one for all we’re worth.

Beyond Cheap and Superficial
We’re all looking for meaning in our lives. The pace of modern-day life more often than not precludes any meaningful connection between people. Aviators are no exception. In fact our world needs more connection than earthbound souls because of our “fly by” lifestyles.

A meaningful relationship during my tenure at TWA was two crewmembers passing like ships in the night in the ramp office, yelling a promise over our shoulders as we sprinted in opposite directions for our commuter flights to “get in touch when I get home.” A well intentioned but empty promise if there ever was one.

Our kids, the advance guard of society, are sounding the cry to connect and be recognized in many ways–outrageous behavior, raging rap music, dress, attitude, body piercing, bombings, drive-by shootings, Eminem’s finger waves, you name it. Something needs to change, and it is. Kids are being initiated into gangs and connecting that way. We read about the results of this less than desirable but effective rite of passage in the daily paper.

One way to fulfill this implied responsibility of creating meaningful relationships is to create our own brand of history now. It’s important for those of us who are in the deep end of the pilot pool to recognize that we’re part of an important, formative wave. This wave can change the way aviation does business to suit the growing industry need for soul.

I feel as if I’ve been given a second chance to reinvent myself in any way I choose, to make up for what I lacked in my previous pilot incarnation and get on with doing what I wish to see carved on my tombstone.

I’ve mastered self indulgence, and that’s no longer my lesson. I happen to think there’s more to life than dedicated self-service. The epitaph I’m working on is “he took the time to see the good in others and helped others to see the good in themselves.” Lofty? Yeah. Do I always succeed? Heck no. But when I don’t succeed, it pains me enough that I have to get back on target or live with the consequences until I do.

What’s your epitaph? If you don’t have one, create it. It will define you and act as a beacon for your life.

It’s a basic principle of human nature to feel needed. One of the major gaps in my former airline career was the dearth of that feeling.

One of the things I enjoy most about my new fractional life is what I missed during the 26 years at an airline: the daily opportunity to make a difference to the people who pay my salary. That translates into my feeling needed while doing this job. When I do something that connects me to others I’m elevated from a piece of FAA-approved meat to a real person who counts in their lives and in mine. At that moment we’re family.

And in today’s world of fast-food relationships, it’s important to feel connected any chance we get. Not only does being connected to others feel good, but it keeps us alive longer. That can be a good thing.

For proof of the power of being connected to others, read Dr. Dean Ornish’s Program for Reversing Heart Disease. In his book, Ornish documents a landmark cardiac study that began in the early 1980s and continues to date.

Dr. Ornish found that “patients could reverse their heart disease through diet and exercise, and the love of their friends. Recent scientific research has shown that isolating ourselves from others can lead to illness, whereas developing a sense of intimacy–of connecting with others–can enhance our health, our well-being and even our survival.”

The Creative Use of Lemons
During a recent two-hour flight from SJC to Aspen, I would unwittingly test Dr. Ornish’s theory of life enhancement by stepping outside the box in a way that established a connection with a couple of my passengers that went beyond “just getting ’em there.”

The Sierras, looming in the distance and looking as if they had been lightly coated with frosted flakes, were backlit by a deep cobalt blue sky as we prepared to depart from the Bay Area’s San Jose International.

Before departure we had been pampered by the busy yet friendly folk at San Jose Jet Center for our flight to Aspen. (Thanks to Jennifer and the cook for whipping up that short-order breakfast burrito when our catering didn’t show.)

On the ramp, after stowing the entry stairs of our Citation, I began the safety demo while noting from our brief sheet that the well dressed couple, with their white poodle Bubba, was from San Francisco, my home town. They volunteered how much they enjoyed flying with us because we were friendly yet professional and we made them feel “like family.” Yes!

Duly noted, I finished up the demo with some small talk and clambered into the right seat of our skyborne penthouse for a launch off Runway 30L. Upon arrival at Aspen, I reversed the process, dropped the stairs and proceeded to unload their bags, save for one that I somehow overlooked in the bowels of the baggage compartment. (Tip: it helps to remove your sunglasses when unloading bags out of a dark baggage compartment.)

They piled into their rental SUV and drove off to their hilltop home while we prepared for our trip over the hill to Centennial. Shortly after takeoff we got a telephone call from our company telling us to courier the missing bag back to our passengers in Aspen once we landed in APA.

I felt like an idiot. I lose one of the passengers’ bags after congratulating myself on our “bonding” experience. So, I thought, “How do I turn this one around and make some lemonade?”

A few days later, after my tour was over, I called their secretary, got Sally’s (not her real name) cellphone number and phoned her as she was en route up 101 from SJC to SFO, her primary residence. She was genuinely honored that someone, especially a pilot, would take the time to call and apologize for a screw-up.

That simple act did a few things. It ensured the continuance of our business relationship, it made our customers feel special and I had a warm glow in my belly, which validated one of the primary reasons I returned to this brand of flying in the first place.

The Real Story
Everyone has a story. It’s not the same one you’ve been telling yourself for most of your life, and it’s surely not the one you recycle at cocktail parties. Your real story, the one that’s a good indicator of your true purpose in life, is probably hidden underneath the familiar, comforting label of aviator.

There’s another deeper, more authentic part of you that’s your real gift to others. Think of it as your living legacy. Believe it or not, your story is just as interesting as that of the imaginary “exciting” character who you unfavorably compare yourself to. And it’s more important because it’s yours, not somebody else’s.

The authenticity that emerges from knowing yourself in a new way affects others and changes lives. That new way of being also becomes a tool for mentoring others in a meaningful way, without formally having to sit down and teach them. You can all recall knowing someone like that who affected you by their very presence. Knowing yourself and your personal story and being able to empathize with the stories of others is part of flying with soul.

The deeper you dig into your soul and unearth your personal story–and in the process reveal what your real reason for being here is, including but not limited to flying airplanes– the more likely you will be to infuse soul into everything you do.
It’s no accident that we’re being given a chance to reinvent ourselves at this time of unprecedented change and challenge in the world. Even if you’re not 60, you can still be seen in a whole new light. As I see it, that’s what the new flying game is all about.

Bert Botta currently flies for a large fractional-ownership company and is a personal coach and consultant in the aviation field. He’s also a licensed professional counselor. He can be reached at botajet@earthlink.net.

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