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Wind The Clock

March 14, 2020

I started this blog a long time ago (it seems) with the simple hope that it would allow me an outlet to how I was feeling. I didn’t care who read it, if anyone. Back then, I decided that nonplussed was an accurate descriptor of how I felt. Surprised. Chagrined. Bemused.

But also not disconcerted, an important distinction.

At the time, I was in my 3rd year of furlough from my work as an airline pilot. It was my second furlough–the first one lasted 5 years–a grand total of 8 years exiled from my dream job.

‘Furloughed’ is a just kind word for ‘laid off.’ It still means one is unceremoniously shown the door from their place of employment through no fault of their own, with a full 100% pay cut as a parting gift. Being furloughed sucks.

Why do I bring it up? Why do I resurrect a moribund blog that I haven’t added to in almost 4 years? Because I’m feeling nonplussed again.

Unless you’ve been off the grid for the past 3 months, you know about COVID-19, also known as the coronavirus, which germinated in China and has now spread across our world like so many dandelion seeds in the springtime. The virus is pernicious and possibly deadly to a small percentage of the population. The kicker–there’s no known cure.

And it’s now pretty much everywhere. Why? Because people seem to spread it. Those unlucky infected souls merely cough or sneeze, then touch something with the same hand they just used to contain the snot, then someone else comes along, touches the same spot or inhales the microparticles and, ta-dah!, you’ve just spread the disease. Nice work.

How the virus became bad and worldwide looks simple. It boarded an airplane. An unwanted stowaway without a ticket, passport or visa. More coughing, sneezing and in some cases, dying. And as of today, on six continents.

It took a while for some countries to react. I’m not about to touch the third rail of politics to rant about what should or should not have been done sooner to stem the spread.

But I am going to feel nonplussed.

Countries both free and totalitarian, like Italy and China, have essentially locked down their citizenry as their heath care systems grapple to cope with the sick. The hope there is that when people don’t physically interact with others, the virus won’t spread so fast.

Here in the USA, we are rapidly headed in that direction. Major sporting events, concerts, trade shows, any place where large groups of people might congregate–all postponed or outright cancelled. Schools closed. Workers told to telecommute. No more touching your face. And for goodness sake, wash your hands!

For me? Another kick to the balls, professionally speaking. 9/11 and the terrorists who perpetrated it did the first one. My airline parked almost 200 aircraft and shed 2172 pilots by 2003. And in 2009, after the collapse of the banking industry, the real estate market and a nonsensical spike in the price of oil, a good 1473 of us pilots were again tossed out on our asses.

But when you work in an industry like mine, aviation, which exists to bring people together–not separate them–well…it’s hard to do that when those people are told to stay at home.

Empty airplanes don’t need pilots. Or flight attendants. Or mechanics. Or dispatchers. Or a thousand other jobs held by good people in the travel industry. Business leaders know this. Hence the layoffs. The ripple effect of this is obvious. It’s devastating and tragic.

I know, I know. This is all for a very good reason: to stem the spread of a pandemic. I don’t want anyone else to suffer or die either. I mean that. My job is trifling compared to someone’s life, mine included.

I’ve seen, heard and read dozens of stories about people reacting to this whole new epoch of life here on Planet Earth. Everything from a dismissive “Meh.” to a smug “Serves ’em right for trying to eat bats!” to a breathless “What a great time to get into the stock market!” and, finally, a desperate “This last package of toilet paper is MINE!” Even in my home town, news spread that bottled water was in short supply, notwithstanding the tasty and safe stuff that pours freely from our taps.

All of this reminded me of a phrase old pilots used, and which was defined for me while I was still a junior birdman: Wind the clock.

Way back in the old days before airplanes had electricity, many were equipped with clocks right there on the control panel next to the altimeter and oil pressure gage. Used for basic navigation, they were set each time the aircraft flew, with the pilot dutifully turning a small black knob on a regular basis, lest the clock stop, leading the airman astray.

But the term “wind the clock” was also a euphemism for “slow down and think. Stay calm. Don’t do anything rash.”

Pilots are taught to carefully analyze a situation before acting. Sometimes a knee-jerk response is completely wrong and potentially dangerous. If a pilot were to pause and “wind the clock,” he would hopefully allow more clarity to his mind and less distraction to his problem solving.

Which is what I plan on doing. And I hope more people consider before running to the grocery store and buying every last wet wipe and can of kidney beans.

Yes, I am deeply concerned at the physical, mental and economic impact that this virus is presently unleashing upon the world and, especially, my industry. I am rightly nonplussed at the thought of a third furlough.

But I also know to not be disconcerted by the threat, either. We survived the last two. We will get through this one, also. We all just need to wind the clock. Then go wash our hands.

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