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I got fired.

September 3, 2020

I got fired today.

Well, not today, exactly. Today…as in this date. 10 years ago.

I’m not proud to admit this. It is, so far, my biggest failure both personally and professionally. Looking back on it, I still wince at the experience.

With COVID-19, and the tumultuous upheaval in the world economy, I’ve been retrospective. You’ll see why.

My journey through this particular briar patch began through simple necessity. I needed work. Due to a confluence of factors leading up to what would eventually be termed ‘The Great Recession,’ I was slated to be laid off from my job as an airline pilot. ‘Furloughed’ is the technical term for this in my industry. And it would be, at the time, my second furlough, the first being soon after the 9/11 attacks. These, understandably, sent the airline industry reeling as people shied away from air travel en masse. Too many empty airplanes, too many pilots. The result? “Welcome to the unemployment line.”

So, in 2009, basically the same thing. Like in 2001, I had to find another job.

But this time it was different. I was married now. I had a family. A stay-at-home wife and two toddling little boys. Mouths to feed. A mortgage. We had savings, sure. And unemployment insurance would help in the short term. But eventually we’d be doing what economists call ‘deficit spending.’ Bleeding red ink.

Did I mention that the U.S. unemployment rate was around 10% at the time? It wasn’t going to be easy to find something in my field. I had already tried to find work as an airline pilot, this after almost 20 years of experience in the industry. The prospects were slim. None of these pilot jobs were anywhere close to where we lived, either. I definitely didn’t want to move–or commute–to a job that paid essentially what I had made 12 years prior–when I was single and practically living out of my car.

An old college friend of mine, a fellow I had known since flight school, had told me about his job as a pilot inspector with the Federal Aviation Administration. My buddy and I had almost identical pedigrees up the aviation food chain; flight instructors, cargo pilots, bizjet pilots and, ultimately, airline pilots. Knowing me as well as he did, along with my knowledge base and work ethic, my friend assured me I would be perfect as an ‘Aviation Safety Inspector’ (an ‘ASI’ for short) with the FAA.

He also told me about some of the perks of the job. An entirely livable annual salary. A 40 hour workweek. Solid benefits. Weekends and holidays off –I’d be a government employee, after all. Even an honest-to-goodness pension–something most airline pilots lost after 9/11.

“This sounds good!,” I thought, “I’m experienced, I’m knowledgeable, I work well with others…I’m enthusiastic about the ‘mission’ of the FAA (safety, right?’) Be around airplanes and pilots all day making things safer?” The altruist in me shouted “Sign me up!”

I applied for the job. I solicited myself at the local FAA office. I made contacts with a few of the inspectors there, cultivating my professional relationship with them. Finally, I was interviewed by someone who would eventually be my boss. After another interview by his boss, the ‘Office Manager,’ I was offered a position as an ASI.

I started a few weeks later, raising my right hand in a sworn oath to uphold the good book of FAA regulations. They even issued me a very official looking badge, lest my nondescript shirt and tie belie my bona fides. No gun or other weapon. Just the mighty power of the federal government.

To most pilots, that’s intimidating enough. For you see, FAA inspectors have a bit of a reputation. They are the aviation equivalent of cops; sticklers for detail, hard-noses on check flights, cold, uncaring. Pricks even, sometimes. This flying business is serious, dangerous stuff. Bust a flight regulation or get crosswise with an inspector and a pilot could lose his license for a long time, which many of my flyer friends would consider worse than prison. That was the stereotype, and I knew it. Friends of mine considered working for the FAA as “going to the dark side.” Some raised their eyebrows and chuckled at the thought of me as a “G-Man,” but, knowing my need for a paycheck, wished me well.

I told myself I would be different. Kinder. Gentler. That this reputation of heartlessness was unfounded. I was certain I could bring my enthusiasm for aviation in all its’ facets to the office each day and make a difference.

I was wrong. I just didn’t know it yet.

At first, I thought I was doing what was expected. Novice inspectors like me had to complete a mountain of training during our probationary first year with the agency. This essentially amounted to lots and lots and lots of self-study at my desk, staring at my computer. Hours of it. Desert-dry subjects like electronic document security and workplace harassment, or how to refuel the office vehicles with E-85 gas, because it was less expensive than regular unleaded.

I also learned how to ‘properly’ fill out expense reports. But I learned this the hard way.

Some of my initial training required I travel to Oklahoma City, where the FAA has a sprawling campus not unlike a small university. In order to do so, each inspector is to fill out a requisition form that estimates, to the penny, the cost of every aspect of travel–from airline tickets to hotel rates to per diem. This form is then submitted to my bosses and, hopefully, approved. Duly submitted and having received official blessing that all was well, off I went to OKC.

I returned about a week later with a stack of receipts and carefully filled out my post-trip expense report. I clicked ‘submit’ on my computer and got back to more of my online self-training.

After what seemed like only a minute or so, the voice of my boss summoning me to his office boomed over the PA system. I soon figured out that whenever someone was hailed over the PA, it was pretty important–and usually not in a good way.

I briskly walked to his office. My boss was seated behind his desk. He was a tall fella, pear-shaped and bespectacled with a salt and pepper mustache and a personality as distinctive as a glass of tap water. He told me to shut the door and have a seat. He stated that he had just received my expense report and had a few questions.

He read off of his computer screen. “It says here, your taxi from the airport to the hotel was $25. You estimated it would be $35.”

“Yes,” I agreed with him. “It cost less than I had expected. I guess traffic wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be, so the taxi ride didn’t take as long as I thought it would…” My honest explanation hung in the air like a fart in church. My boss just looked at me blankly.

Finally he spoke. “That’s not correct. If you say it is going to cost you $35, you need to submit a receipt for $35. Understand?”

Umm…not really, I though. Hadn’t I just saved the federal government $10?

“No,” my boss replied flatly before launching into an explanation of fiscal year spending and office travel budgets and the like. “The less we actually spend this year, the less we get next year. Got it?”

Ahh yes. Eat everything on your plate. Spend it or lose it. I see.

I related this story to my training supervisor, a fellow inspector, on the way back to my cubicle. He, too, had heard my name over the PA system and wondered what I had done.

“I thought I had saved the office ten bucks,” I said sheepishly.

“Let me tell you something,” my training supervisor said with a smirk, “The federal government doesn’t save money. The federal government prints money.”

Welcome to the Dark Side, son. You will be assimilated.

And so it went. Months of training, some of which even had to do with flying airplanes. I was told not to expect to fly much–that the job of an Aviation Safety Inspector really wasn’t a ‘flying job.’ It was a paperwork job. Like researching FAA regulations and how they apply to specific pilots and aviation companies. Surveilling those operations. Conducting the occasional flight check. But mostly paperwork. Lots and lots of paperwork. Forms to submit. Checklists to accept. Operations manuals and specifications to grant. There’s a joke among more experienced pilots: “What makes an airplane fly?” It’s not lift and thrust. “Money and paperwork” is the punchline. It’s totally true.

So, while I toiled at my desk in my cubicle at my office 25 miles from home, my wife Kat toiled too. Knowing the challenges we faced trying to keep our family budget in the black, she was able to secure a good job as a paralegal for a local pharmaceutical manufacturer. It did necessitate, however, the need for us to put both of our boys in day care.

We had found a very nice small Montessori school only a few minutes away from our home where Kat could drop Drew and Alex off before heading off to the office herself. Given her hours weren’t as long as mine, she would be in charge of making sure the kids were up, dressed and fed before dropping them off with the ladies at the school.

All went smoothly in this regard until the teachers at the school remarked offhandedly that Alex, our 2 year old boy, wasn’t talking as much as his peers. Alex was also exhibiting some strange mannerisms, like fixating on small plastic letters, arranging them in order over and over again. He seemed obsessed with them. When Kat or I tried to engage him in other toys like we had with his older brother, Alex didn’t show much interest. And even though we knew he wasn’t deaf, after a while Alex wouldn’t respond to his name when we called out to him.

Approximately 6 months after I began my tenure with the FAA, our son Alex, aged 2 years 10 months, was officially diagnosed with autism.

This clinical determination was shattering to Kat. And although I had a strong hunch that Alex’s behaviors pointed to autism even before his evaluation, it still stung to hear those words. My older brother Tom and his family have a son on the autism spectrum. In fact, it was his wife Sherilee and her incisive observation of Alex’s quirks months before his diagnosis that hit me the hardest. She was much more knowledgeable about autism traits than I was. And in Alex’s case, she was exactly correct. The official confirmation simply removed any doubt we had.

Kat and I struggled with this, becoming short and ill-tempered to each other. Tom and Sherilee had struggled, too. We soon discovered every case of autism is unique and different. So are all the strategies, therapies and treatments. Tom and his family fought through this no-man’s-land of bewilderment with action. They tried out all kinds of different ideas with their son. Many of them worked, too.

This offered Kat and I a little bit of hope. But there was no ‘cure’ or magic pill for what afflicted our son and theirs. We would have to find out what combination worked for our little Alex through trial and error. And it wouldn’t happen quickly.

By now I was over halfway through my probationary first year at the FAA. The tasks that I needed to learn, become proficient in and then demonstrate to my training supervisor were still lengthy. But like a ‘regular’ inspector, I had plenty of routine tasks to fill up my 40 hour work week. Staff meetings, public inquiries, certificate renewals, the occasional check flight–all stuff in which I had demonstrated proficiency were now part of my daily duties. I did not have the luxury of simply working on my training coursework like I had at the start of my tenure. I had to make time to complete my training.

But instead of coming to the office each morning with a clear, focused mind, I often arrived distracted and irritable.

As is usually the case with most families, our morning routine revolved around getting the boys up, dressed and fed. Kat and I would take turns juggling each of them while we put ourselves together for the day. Office attire for Kat, a shirt and tie for me. Drew was 4 years old by now, so he was pretty easy. Alex, on the other hand, was not.

In the weeks and months immediately after his diagnosis, Alex started exhibiting a disturbing trait. He began to deliberately hurt himself. Many mornings would find Alex crying inconsolably at Kat’s feet while she attempted to put on makeup. To punctuate his angst, Alex would suddenly begin bouncing his skull off the tiled bathroom floor. When Kat first noticed it, she gasped in horror, instinctively shoving her hand between his head and the hard flooring in an attempt to cushion the impact. Often, this seemed to enrage Alex even further, causing him to lunge his skull toward the ground with even more force.

Luckily, the first few times this happened, I was mere steps away. I could scoop Alex up in my arms and attempt anything to sooth him. I’d sing to him, I’d give him a cookie, I’d rock him in my arms vigorously. Like sticking a pin back in a hand grenade before it explodes, my ad-hoc defusing techniques would work. Alex would calm down.

But sometimes Alex would begin hurting himself as I was literally walking out the door. I needed anywhere from 45 minutes to an hour to get to the office most days. And when Alex first started hurting himself, I admit to being late to my office chair by a couple of minutes a few times.

Eventually my boss noticed my tardiness. I apologized immediately, promising that it wouldn’t become a habit. But unfortunately Alex’s perverse bouts of self-injury were getting more frequent. Several days I recall leaving Kat in tears, splayed on the floor in our bathroom as she struggled to hold Alex in a futile attempt to quell his agony. Alex would be writhing in discomfort with a red, golf ball-sized bump on his forehead and his brother Drew hiding in another room, holding his ears to block out the cacophony.

But I had to leave. I’d be late, again. I would reach for the door handle of my car, slam it closed, then start bawling my eyes out as I drove away from our home.

As one might expect, this personal discord began affecting my work. I found myself staring at my computer screen, rereading the same dull sentences full of legalize so commonplace in technical material I was supposed to be auditing. Occasionally, I would make simple math errors when typing out the expiration month of a flight instructor certificate, or a third class medical. All of these mistakes were minor and harmless–paperwork errors. But errors they were nonetheless. And now, because of my sloppiness, all of my work had to be double-checked by a co-worker or my boss before it was approved.

My third quarterly progress evaluation reflected this. In my boss’s office (again with the door closed), I struggled to clearly explain the root cause of my less-than-adequate performance. I described how Alex’s behaviors had devolved, including the mention of golf ball-sized bumps on his forehead that he had inflicted himself. My boss, in his impassive, unemotional manner, barely offered any support. I left knowing what I told him was the truth of the matter–my home life was a wreck.

The summer dragged on, with Alex’s bouts of self-injury continuing. Normally a sound sleeper, I began to wake in the middle of the night covered with sweat, exhausted. I lost interest in eating. I felt my blood pressure rise. I even dreaded walking into the building and seeing anyone else. By now, everyone in the building knew I was on thin ice. It felt terrible. I felt like quitting.

To try to catch up on my office work, I would go to the office on the weekends–unpaid and non-sanctioned–unheard of behavior for an inspector. My training supervisor even asked me how much money my wife was making in her job. I understood why he was asking me, too. I now knew that being fired was a distinct possibility.

Finally, in late August, a “plan of action” with my name in all caps was cobbled together by my boss and his boss, the office manager, then shared with me at yet another closed-door meeting. This document laid out all of the tasks I had to perform before completing my training. It also curiously appeared impossible for me to finish by my one year anniversary, though it listed no specific date of completion. They told me to sign my name to it. It seemed pretty straightforward given all of the paperwork I had dealt with.

I actually considered this a vote of confidence in my efforts. I even decided to celebrate this development with Kat in a tiny way. With my folks babysitting the boys, I took Kat out for ice cream. 10 years ago yesterday.

The next morning at the office, I recall finishing up several tasks required of me on that plan of action. I also noted that a few of the still-outstanding assignments were unable for me to even begin until the next week at the earliest. In what I thought was a show of great initiative, I even strolled into my boss’s office, saying I had run out of things to do on the list.

My boss, ever the wordsmith, didn’t even look up. He simply said, “Yeah…that work’ll come.”

About an hour later, I saw him again in the lunch room. This time he spoke to me first. “Are you all caught up with logging all of your training activity?”

I told him I was. It was a curious question.

About a half hour later, I was summoned yet again by my boss–in person for a change. But this time it was his boss, the office manager, who wanted to see me. I was surprised at this because as far as I knew, she had been out of the office in Washington DC for the past week and was still supposed to be there. But now, apparently, she was in her office wishing to see me.

I felt a pit in my stomach. I don’t even remember feeling the floor beneath my feet as I walked in her direction. Just kinda numb.

I entered her office–the only corner office in the building that overlooked the airport ramp where you could actually see airplanes. I shut the door. She stood up from behind her desk and handed me a two page letter.

“I need you to read this,” is all she said.

The letter was on official FAA stationary, addressed to me.

I read it slowly and carefully. It said I was being terminated from my position, effective immediately. Official reason: poor job performance leading to incomplete training within the probationary period.

I was to relinquish all of my credentials, identification card, keys to the building, everything that officially defined me as a Fed–right there. I unhooked my ID card and key and left it on her desk. Then I sat down in a chair next to the wall and thought aloud. “What am I going to tell my wife?” The office manager said nothing.

Finally, I stood up and said “I’m sorry. Thank you for giving me the opportunity to work with you.” And I meant it.

I shook her hand, turned and opened her office door. My boss, seeing the door open–and knowing exactly what had just transpired–followed right behind me, almost as if he was expecting me to escape with a government stapler.

He followed me back to my cubicle where I handed over the most important piece of government property, my FAA Form 110A, also known as my badge. He and another inspector followed me all the way to my car in the parking lot. I’m not sure why. Perhaps they thought I was going to cause trouble on the way out. But that’s really not my style.

I once again apologized, thanking them for the opportunity. And once again I meant it.

I waited until after the boys had fallen asleep to tell Kat what had happened. I had no idea how she would take the news but I did know I didn’t want her reaction to be detectable to the boys.

Like I had hoped, Kat took the news in stride. And before I fell asleep that night, I do remember thinking I would get to spend more time with Drew and Alex again, and how much better that would be. Being home was so much better than being in that office.

It took me a few days, but how everything went down was pretty textbook government action. How so? I was terminated about a week before my probation was to end. Had I made it past the one year mark, the office would have had to go through a much more lengthy and time-consuming process to remove me–almost as if I had earned tenure.

I was only angry about one detail. I was never told about the existence of the FAA Employee Assistance Program (EAP) by my boss. Had I been, perhaps more of an effort would have been made to assist me with the difficulties we were experiencing at home.

Luckily for me, I found out about it on my own only a week before I was terminated. This program put me in contact with a wonderful local counselor who eventually worked with me and my family for almost 7 years. Her help likely saved our marriage.

My wife just asked me a few minutes ago why I’m even writing this down, let alone posting it for all to read. My answer to her is that it’s simply cathartic to me. Many if not most of my friends already knew what had happened to me 10 years ago. But, until now, some didn’t. And honestly, I felt terrible hiding this from them.

I did so because I was deeply embarrassed by this. I felt like I had failed. Admitting failure is not something that many are comfortable doing. Also, as you now by know, it’s a really long story–not one that is easy retold in a few minutes. But I freely tell it now.

I learned so much by going through this particular briar patch. I received my share of cuts and scrapes. But time heals all wounds and mine are no different. Ironically, it is entirely possible I might be facing a third furlough as the airline industry reels from the effects of COVID-19. I just don’t think I’ll be looking for work at the local FAA office any time soon. I don’t think I’d fit in.

One Comment
  1. Peggy Vaughan permalink

    David, you are a talented writer….thank you for sharing this part of your life..still hoping that you will write a screen play….Looking forward to the Netflix series…cathartic and inspiring❤️❤️❤️

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