Monday, August 17, 2009

Pigs CAN fly

Originally written (started) on June 30, 2009

Good afternoon again fine readers. This setting finds me looking out the hotel window at a gray and white sky, tall grass and trees in a field, and jets whizzing by. Unfortunately we're situated too close to the Detroit Wayne County Metro Airport (DTW), incidentally at the same airport SWA stays at, on a long overnight. It's rare when we have a hotel in a downtown or urban area where it's lively with people and things to do nearby, but I've stayed at worse places.

We had an early show in Burlington, VT (BTV) and an early finish here. I was going to nap but drank too much coffee settling into my room, so I'm now processing my latest trip thus far in my mind, and filtering what's been in my heart and spirit lately.

It's day three of a six day stint, a very long trip. I managed to catch ZZZ's by 10 PM last night, a pretty good feat for me, and have another 5:15 AM showtime tomorrow. Even though I've been doing this airline gig for nine years now, I still have to exercise discipline to get appropriate rest, and am still trying to improve in that regard. A wise, gray haired Pilot would advise me that it's one of the marks of a true professional. And I would agree. Professionals evaluate how they operate, continuously try to improve, and evaluate their attitudes from time to time as well.

And just what kind of attitude should a professional airline pilot have? It's a point of consternation for me currently. Many in my company would have a vastly different answer than the one our management would. More about that later, let's let it stew a little.

On the first day, after two enjoyable round trips involving flights to two pretty, renowned, and expensive Massachusetts islands, Nantucket and Martha's Vineyard, my First Officer and I said goodbye to our Flight Attendant, as we were getting a new one for the next two days. We took our scheduled long snooze and meal break and walked to our new aircraft for the flight to our GSP (Greenville-Spartanburg, NC) overnight. I retrieved the paperwork and noticed the last name of our new FA, 'Pig', with an extra g. I kid you not.

Airline crews perform essentially the same tasks over and over, so we look for and enjoy things which are out of the ordinary. Showing my FO her name, it was then 'on', a stream of pig and hog jokes, that is, while waiting for her to arrive. Sorry, but in my flight deck, joking around and wordplay are fair game, but all in good taste and in keeping respectful of others. We never kidded or joked with her about her name in person, of course, but I'm sure she had heard this snort of thing before.

It turns out that she is another great gal to work with, and to have as a partner in our cabin. As a new flight attendant, she flew with 'Neil' and I through changing weather systems, turbulence, rain, clouds, circling approaches, and maintenance delays, and never squealed once. Seriously, she has a lively personality and treats the passengers very well. She has been with our company for a while, working the ticket counter and gate, and transferred to the flight attendant ranks recently. In spite of tragedy and trials in her personal life, and a unique and challenging last name, she has a good attitude. That can make all the difference.

Here's a great quote on attitude from Chuck Swindoll, a widely broadcast Christian Minister:
“The longer I live, the more I realize the impact of attitude on life. Attitude, to me, is more important than facts. It is more important than the past, the education, the money, than circumstances, than failure, than successes, than what other people think or say or do. It is more important than appearance, giftedness or skill. It will make or break a company... a church... a home. The remarkable thing is we have a choice everyday regarding the attitude we will embrace for that day. We cannot change our past... we cannot change the fact that people will act in a certain way. We cannot change the inevitable. The only thing we can do is play on the one string we have, and that is our attitude. I am convinced that life is 10% what happens to me and 90% of how I react to it. And so it is with you... we are in charge of our Attitudes.”

Incidentally, tonight I'm now back in the same spot I started this post in, looking out the hotel window in Detroit, with clouds and a few thunderstorms in the area. I guess I'd better finish this now while I'm enjoying this "deja' vu" moment.

A disclaimer: Firstly and most importantly, I sincerely appreciate the service and sacrifice many of our pilots have taken in working for our union, to improve safety, and to produce and maintain the work contract we do have. The working results of this shows in the safety, pay, work rules, benefits, and quality of life that we enjoy, which is better than most other regional airlines. Secondly, for legitimate mistreatment and pilot union contract violations, we have the capability to file grievances with the company in an effort to correct and compensate for violations, and our union has done this many times, and will continue to do so.

There are reasons I have security as a union pilot. After completing a probationary period, it is more difficult for the company to terminate my employment; it's kind of like being a tenured professor. Pilot unions also operate on the seniority system. This means I can expect to be compensated on the negotiated payscale according to year of service, aircraft, and position. Awarding position, aircraft, schedules, and base is in seniority order also. I know that other pilots with less seniority than I won't be paid more than I will or will be able to outbid me in schedules and basing.

But flying as a unionized airline pilot is like driving on a two way street. To make it work the best, you should be willing to drive in both directions. Yes, we have job protections, but I believe we have a responsibility to the company to not take advantage of those protections and behave as less than professional in the eyes of management. This means, among other things, not sacrificing customer service standards, and holding others accountable as we are best able to when they fail in meeting those standards. This is a tough part of the job, because in the regionals we don't get enough of the customer service support passengers deserve.

This job has another advantage which others don't, and pilots can and sometimes do take for granted and take liberties with it. We are basically unsupervised, excepting that the Captain is the defacto supervisor of his or her crew. The big bossman isn't in the office three cubicles down the hall, he might be three states away. Uncaring Pilots sometimes take advantage of that and perform their flights at a service level less than they should.

"I'll act like a Professional when they treat me and pay me like one" is one phrase heard on line. Another one is "they only pay me to be a pilot". Unfortunately, these phrases can be heard to be uttered at most other major airlines, no matter what the pay, benefits, days off, and airplane. I wonder how a pilot's bad attitude would improve if he knew his Domicile Manager was a passenger in his cabin.

It turns out that pigs can fly, in more ways than one.

I believe that too many of our pilots at my company and others have an incorrect working definition of 'professional' in the term professional airline pilot. Angry and bitter at the company over perceived and sometimes legitimate mistreatment toward them by crew scheduling and management, they carry a bad attitude wherever they go. A selfish mindset and a heart attitude of unforgiveness toward the company is typical for these pilots. Often they basically don't care about providing good customer service or projecting a professional image. They try to get back at the company by performing their duties at a bare minimum performance level. This only produces more unsatisfied passengers, and hurts the performance and reputation of the airline. I grow very tired of this negative attitude because it is contagious, it divides the pilot group, and it reduces pilot morale.

We are told in the scriptures that this attitude is the 'way of the world'. Exodus 21:23-24 establishes partial guidelines as the Old Testament and Old covenant way to recoup for personal injury. The basic principle is an "An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth". But Jesus Christ not only brought in the New covenant, he IS the New covenant. If you are a follower of Jesus, as I am, the 'new rules' apply, lived out in the Love of God, toward him and toward others.

Jesus taught about revenge in Matthew 5:38-42: (NLT) "You have heard the law that says the punishment must match the injury: ‘An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say, do not resist an evil person! If someone slaps you on the right cheek, offer the other cheek also. If you are sued in court and your shirt is taken from you, give your coat, too. If a soldier demands that you carry his gear for a mile, carry it two miles. Give to those who ask, and don’t turn away from those who want to borrow."

My bible commentary says this isn't natural, it's supernatural, and that only God can give the strength to love as he does. Supernatural, indeed, as it seems illogical and to be an attitude of giving up strength, and submitting to the authority. However, as far as your livelihood goes, your employer is your authority. Jesus followed his own advice, and did plenty of giving up his strength, submitting to authority, suffering of his own, and loving his enemies, as he said to do later in this passage, in verse 44.

Regional airline pilots talk about getting paid 'slave wages', and I agree that some correction is still warranted in the industry. Supply and demand in our free market economy should take care of that, one would think, but in reality it is a different situation. There are other important elements to consider when the flying public is involved, mainly that of safety. The low wages regional pilots earn is an issue being scrutinized now by the US Congress.

(Before this, another disclaimer: I strongly dissaprove of any modern version of pure slavery, period.) In biblical times you could be put into slavery very easily to pay off a debt, or for other reasons. Biblical wisdom decreed that a master should treat his slaves fairly and not be cruel. Today, for example, a fisherman on TV's 'Deadliest Catch' (which I like a lot) is an employee, but the day to day function one has (especially a 'greenhorn') is similar to that of a slave, when viewed in terms of the employer-employee relationship. The guidance from I Peter 3:18-25 can be applied to this concept: "You who are slaves must accept the authority of your masters with all respect. Do what they tell you—not only if they are kind and reasonable, but even if they are cruel. For God is pleased with you when you do what you know is right and patiently endure unfair treatment. Of course, you get no credit for being patient if you are beaten for doing wrong. But if you suffer for doing good and endure it patiently, God is pleased with you. For God called you to do good, even if it means suffering, just as Christ suffered for you. He is your example, and you must follow in his steps.

He never sinned,
nor ever deceived anyone.
He did not retaliate when he was insulted,
nor threaten revenge when he suffered.
He left his case in the hands of God,
who always judges fairly.
He personally carried our sins
in his body on the cross
so that we can be dead to sin
and live for what is right.
By his wounds
you are healed.
Once you were like sheep
who wandered away.
But now you have turned to your Shepherd,
the Guardian of your souls."

Is it right to act like only as much of a professional as one is paid? I don't think so, I don't think it honors God in the best way possible, and it doesn't honor and model Jesus Christ for others. I can thank my Savior and Lord for my definition of 'Professional' and 'good attitude'. My relationship with him and his words from the good book have and will continue to transform me.

All Praise, Glory and Honor, to Him!

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Fickle Charlotte

Although I’m commuting home on the 06:40 AM NWA flight after getting four hours light sleep in the same crashpad bedroom as our new resident, a real snorer (and I should know about snoring), I’m going to replay the adventure we had yesterday evening while it’s still fresh in my mind. We had climbed out from Harrisburg, PA and turned south toward Charlotte, knowing that at the very least we would have to deviate around thunderstorms we had already seen up close on the way from Charlotte to MDT two and a half hours previously. The forecast for Charlotte was a general one for garden variety thunderstorms in the Charlotte area, and according to it the most likely time for a storm at CLT would end just when we were climbing out from Harrisburg.

Soon enough later, cruising at FL320 (32,000 ft MSL), on my suggestion my good FO requested a safe heading for a deviation in the wide gap between a scattered line of big ones. The weather radar displayed them as colorful on the MFD screen, like shiny pebbles in a tropical stream, but the view out the office windows was entirely different. Clean air in the upper atmosphere and blue sky was a great backdrop to present these immense, puffed up giants in the sky against us. They were clearly head and shoulders taller than we were, with tops of 48,000 feet. It’s almost football season, and this bright white defensive line of monsters in opposition to us were in full summer drills. The good news was they were moving slowly, that was also the bad news.

After passing the first couple of linebackers, Center (ATC) told us that CLT approach wasn’t accepting any more arrivals because a thunderstorm had the airport shut down. That was logical, the activity seemed to stretch that way, 150 miles ahead. Pretty flexibly, center let us virtually plan our own holding fix near a point on our arrival route, close to Greensboro, our alternate airport. At FL240 now, we programmed the FMS and slowed down, checking out the weather around us.

Once in the hold we took scope of the situation. One storm to our left wouldn’t drift toward us, but we had a huge mass of gray from previous leftover cells right in front of us, with towering cumulus below and in front of it, threatening to become big players as it all came toward us at 20 knots groundspeed. After doing the normal routine of notifying everyone, we waited for our Dispatcher to give us our bingo fuel. We had 4800 lbs of fuel, our bingo fuel give was 3900. At our rate of fuel burn we had 30 minutes till we bugged out to Greensboro (GSO), which still had good weather at that point. I didn’t know if my bladder or the weather would last that long, however. It looked like GSO might become thunderstormed in by the weather we saw in front of us, and we could only hold so long where we were. The towering ‘cumes’ were coming closer.

ATC started offering us alternate routings to get in better position for the arrival to CLT, once they started taking aircraft in again. Quick messages to Dispatch over our electronic box, asking him to check these routes and fuel burn for us, went unanswered for long periods, it seemed at least. I know he was busy, though. I turned the engine anti-ice and continuous ignition on, because in the holding pattern a few of these spires in the sky drifting over were climbing up to meet us. If we punched any of them they were sure to have good icing potential and guaranteed turbulence, so we locked down the peeps in back and updated them on what we might encounter.

The first route they offered looked the best. We would have to fly through the big gray area, which was only painting green returns on the radar; it would be light turbulence at most, probably. We had checked the weather in GSP (Greer, SC, serving Greenville and Spartanburg) and it was fine. GSP, where the storms had already passed by, would be our new alternate if we took this routing. Impatient with dispatch, but with good fuel burn numbers indicated by our FMS, using GSP as a new alternate, we accepted the new routing from center. It was a smooth ride when a few minutes later they cleared us to hold again, at the fix we were cleared to in the first place. This was entirely expected, of course, we assumed that the storm over the airport at CLT was still closing things down and there were a few aircraft holding in front of us as well, all true. These days, in these times, you don’t want to try to land while tangling with a moderate thunderstorm producing heavy rain in two miles visibility. Too many lessons have been learned and too many lives have been lost in the past.

Programming the second holding pattern produced yellow fuel numbers on our FMS, meaning that if we held the entire time CLT approach told us we would, we would be unable to arrive at GSP with legal minimum IFR reserve fuel, 1900 lbs for our jet. Our way out was GSP as our alternate airport, and we couldn’t give it up. The storms seemed to be moving slowly out of CLT, but we didn’t have the complete big picture.

Urgency in our voices to approach control seemed to get him to respond to help us as best he could. We could see, or imagine victorious end of our fight, but it was still seemingly far away. The storms were starting to clear from the CLT airport, but there were six aircraft in front of us, , and the wind shifted to require landings from the south toward the north, necessitating a still longer flight for us. This battle had already hard fought, and I and my very capable partner were weary and fatigued from it. Dispatches new bingo fuel number for us was 3300 lbs, received after one and half turns in this second holding pattern. We had 3400, so in black and white terms we had 100 lbs left till diverting to GSP.

We were practically resigned to our fate, GSP, then were teased more by the controller. I appreciated it but was irritated at the same time, not by him personally though, he was just trying to help. It is frustrating battling the temptation to take the bait, to shave off a little integrity, safety, and legality, in order to arrive at the planned destination. And I hate inconveniencing passengers by diverting; connecting flights are missed, expletives come out in the cabin, and the stress level is tasted by everyone. But pushing (and exceeding) the legal limits in this way is a slippery slope on which I am not comfortable traversing. Any number of things could have conspired against us to make us fly to GSP after we attempted an approach at CLT.

We were inbound to the holding fix, about to tell approach we would like to divert to GSP, when he said “cleared to CLT airport via radar vectors, fly the outbound heading” (in the hold, to the northwest, away from CLT). So we did so, looked at our fuel, and a voice of experience (a little experience albeit) and caution spoke inside me. In the turn outbound we had 3250 lbs. I asked the controller ‘how far would he take us out’? “20 miles”. Twenty up and twenty back, just to get back the holding fix, then inbound on the arrival route to CLT. At about 2000 pph (lbs/hr) and 4 miles/minute ground speed that’s 10 minutes, or about 0.2 hour, or about 400 lbs of fuel we didn’t have to play with. No deal. We’d be landing at CLT with 2300, not 2700 if we had left the hold right at bingo fuel. If we had actually tried to land at CLT, then had to divert to GSP, we’d have landed with 1600 lbs, due to the 700 lb estimated fuel burn from CLT to GSP. It’s a lot of numbers, I know, but the boilerplate in the minds of airline pilots when it comes to fuel is don’t ever plan the possibility of landing at your destination or alternate with less than your legal reserve, in our case, 1900 lbs and 45 minutes of fuel.

My good FO, who actually was doing a great job, had already sent the message to dispatch that we were diverting to GSP anyway. I told approach we were going to continue to GSP, which we were cleared to then. A moment later, he asked if we could proceed direct to another fix, slightly southwest of CLT, to get on the approach corridor that way. Still no dice, we were committed to GSP, and had lost all confidence in our fuel situation. I appreciated the offer, but it was time to stick to our guns.

Greenville airport was close by, and we were high, descending at our maximum practical rate with the flight spoilers (panels on top of the wings) deployed at maximum. I kept my hand on the handle, a reminder to one that the spoilers are still extended, although the airframe buffet from the spoilers was a readily apparent clue. I spied the long runway almost below the nose, and joked with my FO “Chris” about whether we could make it straight in, or whether we should try to. Maybe with landing gear down and a sideslip we could. That would only be called for if the plane had a fire or smoke we couldn’t put out, or if an angry nest of wasps stormed the flight deck (I hate wasps).

The tower controller gave us a vector around the green area below Greenville so we could lose more altitude and get on a proper, normal approach path, three degrees to be exact. Parking on the large ramp at Greenville-Spartanburg next to the two mainline Airbuses helped to show our 50 inconvenienced passengers that we weren’t the only one in this predicament. The GSP station is used to having CLT bound aircraft divert, and I was impressed at how quickly we got fuel and new paperwork to head to CLT with. We even made one particular GSP bound passenger happy, the ramp agent escorted him and his carry on bags inside; fate had smiled on him to not require a connecting flight on this journey.

The short flight east to CLT was punctuated with diversions between a dozen rapidly developing towering cumulus clouds with tops high above our low altitude. They were already painting as red and pink exclamation points on our radar. We got a few good jolts of moderate turbulence on the way in, just for good measure. The pax were told there were thunderstorms about, after all! Have to ‘keep it real’, you know. Charlotte, fickle Charlotte, had cleared up well; it had an orange streak visible from the sun lowering behind a gap in the blue and gray tinted sky, and the express ramp welcomed us as usual with a friendly chaos.

This was perhaps weather diversion number ten for me in nine years of airline flying, but who’s counting? They never get easier; well they get a little easier every time, I suppose. Experience teaches, as things I and my crew could’ve done better are brought to light each time in a mental review.

BTW if you want to see our MDT-GSP diversion flight, click the highlighted portion. Flight aware is a very cool flight tracking website. You can see our route, holding patterns, and an overlay of the weather at that time, even zoom in on a portion.

Till next time, thanks for stopping by.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

(Right hand:) 'I don't know what the left is doing'

It's August 4th, the third day of a four day trip. I've switched from early, early morning shows in July to afternoon shows in August. I underestimated the effect I'd feel from it as well. It feels great to sleep in and get more than six hours of uninterrupted sleep every night on the road. But there are strange things afoot; it will take me a couple more days of transition to get used to the new routine.

After only a single day off between trips, due to the way my July and August schedules merge, I was back in Charlotte, fighting my Sunday afternoon nap inclinations. We were to fly to Cincinnati and back, with a jet with one broken air conditioner, or 'PACK', and a flight management computer (FMS) with an expired performance database. The one PACK left made climate control an inconvenience but it wasn't unbearable, thanks to warm, but not hot temperatures at CLT and CVG. But the lack of performance data in the FMS meant that we would have to set our thrust settings old-school style, using our paper charts and tables. And we soon found out that our moving map display didn't show the ETA of any of our waypoints or destination, because of the lack of thrust setting data available to the FMS. Because the 'warm fuzzies' we like to have were lacking, the flight log paperwork we are always issued from Dispatch became a lot more important. We would actually check it's fuel and time estimations to each waypoint along the way mcuh more closely than usual, and some pilot 'mental math' calculations were in order.

Our round trip to CVG and back to CLT for the overnight went off without a hitch, mostly. Anxiety from flying an opposite schedule and not having ETA's displayed on our screens? Yes. My body told me along the way that I wasn't used to flying during this time of day, that I should be off pilot duty and preparing for bed time. This same experience befell me yesterday as well. Out of sorts and in an unwanted siesta, I told my Co-Pilot to watch out for me, but I would do my best. Results? Yesterday, I tried to perform the in-range checklist without completely preforming the 'flow', the duties which encompass the checklist, first. Last night on the way to Columbia, SC, our overnight where I'm writing from, I actually put up the sun shade to block the light from the beautiful full moon, I'm not kidding! Relative to our typical duty day we had in July, this was the high noon time we were making out way to the overnight, so it was out of habit, I presume.

Yesterday, it seemed that my affliction was passed on to a myriad selection of our operations people. We showed up at CLT on time at 2:10 PM, and the departure monitor showed our flight was delayed for 1.5 hours, till 4:30 PM. We found a crew room to rest in, and I called our Dispatcher to confirm our delay. He was understandably upset and surprised: "You guys aren't delayed, your plane is here, you're delayed?" Uh oh. Just then, Crew Scheduling called me on my cellphone, asking the dreaded "where are you?" question. The plane was here, on a different gate than shown, and on time. Well, not anymore, we had about five minutes to get out on time now. We hustled over there, and the monitor still showed the wrong gate and time, and we even had to convince the gate agents we were taking that jet outside to White Plains (HPN). The paperwork they had printed proved our point. Someone had dropped the ball, big time. The explanation we always get, and got this day, was "the city controls the departure monitors".

And the Captain is responsible for leading his crew. Oh well. This day I assumed the system would work, as the weather was fine, and I trusted the monitors. That's the way this job is, you slowly, unknowingly, ride the complacency curve until something happens, then you're gun-shy for a while. I much prefer the type of events which don't require a written report, as this one was, though. I'll be calling dispatch daily for a while now, before we leave the hotel for the airport!

We flew CLT-HPN-DCA, it was all fun until greeted with the news that our CAE (Columbia) aircraft we were to swap into in DC was delayed for maintenance. Taxiing into our parking spot we spied our 'swap' and noticed that it's right engine cowling was open, and a ladder was laid horizontally across the ground. The jet was 'hot and dark' (doors closed, no power or air-conditioning on) as well. Dispatch told us they were waiting on parts and were expecting a 9:30 PM departure, 1.5 hours late.

Shortly after, while conferring with Maintenance (MX) I was informed that the part for the jet they thought was good was bad, and a good part wouldn't help fix the plane till 2 AM. That equalled a cancellation to me, but Dispatch came to our rescue again with a good plane which would arrive at 8:15 PM, just a little after our scheduled departure of 8:08. Good. No, we would still be a little more delayed. This 'good' plane required a service check, an 'oil check' and more of sorts, by MX before midnight, or it would become illegal for flight. So it looked more like a 9:30 PM departure, all in all.

DCA ops chomps at the bit to board your peeps on a bus which they drive out to the aircraft, which seems to arrive just as you do at the aircraft. It takes us a good 5-10 minutes before we stow our bags, check everything and are ready to board. With a service check due I made sure ops would not board our peeps until I told them, to limit their time on the lovely bus.

Our plane arrived and we checked it out, but MX wasn't climbing all over it, like they were on the jet next door to us. A sharp ramp agent talked to them and got back to me: "they said this plane doesn't require a service check". What? A quick call to our MX department confirmed that our Dispatcher had gotten confused, our swap required a service check by the next night at midnight, not this night. You know, people are human, and this characteristic was showing it's face all day. The right hand was learning that it did not always know what the left hand was doing, truly.

Are we always aware of what we are doing and thinking? I'm thankful that in my job we have many checks and balances, and procedures for covering and correcting others errors. It contributes vastly to the safety of airline travel, the safest way to travel long distances by far.

Anyway, we shortly awoke to a hurried atmosphere of boarding us and departing ASAP. My good Co-Pilot's job on the way to CAE was to fly us down there; I was to lead, monitor, and communicate. So I was able to observe and 'wax' silently. The "smaller great light", the one which "governs the night" (from Genesis Chapter 1) was full and round and bright. Climbing out from DC southbound I gazed at the silver water and the striped, white reflection the moon provided on the historic Potomac river. The night breeze displayed ripples of life on the current, in between calm stretches, just as in our own lives. The skies were hazy but visibility good, the air alive with a moon glow which reminded me of an idyllic but trepidatious scene under the oceans surface, with many illuminating jellyfish gracefully swimming in peace.

When the right hand doesn't know what the left is doing, one must first know that fact itself, and then seek to find the truth, in the true light. It's good that we spiritually have a light available to illuminate our paths during all of the day and all of the night. Unfortunately for some, (those who don't believe) I'm not speaking universally, as far a true light goes, anyway. From the Gospel of John, Chapter 1:4-5, referring to Jesus: "The Word gave life to everything that was created, and his life brought light to everyone. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness can never extinguish it." And from 1:9: "The one who is the true light, who gives light to everyone, was coming into the world."

Read the gospel of John, find out more, and believe about the 'true light, whose life gives light to everyone'!

Saturday, August 1, 2009

A better Vantage Point, Part I

I’ve experienced some very beautiful and inspiring sights in my career. Experience has taught me to expect when one will occur. Breaking through the top of a cloud layer and climbing out into the burning blue and a blazing white sun is one. Gazing upon an expansive and colorful sunrise or sunset is another. Witnessing up close the power and grandeur of a mature thunderstorm is awe inspiring. These last two you can do from the ground, but airborne you seen to have a better vantage point.

A few rare times, I’ve been truly surprised and transfixed, found my mouth open with no breath left at what’s in front of me. I’ll share one of these moments with you now.

It’s etched in my mind like a memory which becomes more beautiful with age, like a legend that gets better with time. One spring in my Great Lakes days, circa 2001, we had just taken off from Utah’s Canyonlands airport, just north of Moab, Utah, and turned south over the rugged land toward Lake Powell, Arizona. The ‘Mighty Beechliner’, our Beechcraft 1900D turboprop, had to stay at a relatively low altitude for a few moments until ATC had us in radar contact.

From the captain’s seat my window beheld a magnificent panorama, using nature’s entire color palette. A valley stretched out to the east, showcasing a pointed and dominant mountain peak at its far end. Upslope on both sides from the bare valley floor, the vista displayed Grand Canyon shaded stripes of white, tan, orange, red and pink. The peak had the same colors, abruptly changing with elevation to a vibrantly green forest, and then to a hard and gray granite above the tree line. Above our altitude the summit crowned itself brightly with snow. The azure blue sky capped above it all had a presence which seemingly stated this clearly: “The Lord created all this, and it is good”.

Our sequence of flights from Denver to Phoenix always had potential for great sightseeing. Denver to Canyonlands (Moab for better reference) was flown west over the heart of the Colorado Rockies. Moab to Page was flown south, next to Arches National Park and Canyonlands National Park, and low over crystal clear Lake Powell. On a good weather day the Page to Phoenix flight delivered an expansive view of the Grand Canyon itself.

I was so curious about the sights I was blessed with that I googled it recently. I’m fairly certain that what I saw was a three peak range called the La Sal Mountains, a few miles east of Moab. With elevations up to 13,000 feet, they are the tallest peaks in that area. Although I unfortunately couldn't find any photos which matched my memory, although the one above is close, click here for stuff I did find.

Savvy, or so they thought, travelers would purchase the cheapest Denver-Phoenix internet ticket available, or cash in their frequent flyer miles, not knowing they were booked on Great Lakes. They would inevitably wind up anxious, apprehensive, and confused on our little nineteen seat turboprop. This is a good airplane, but one where each seat serves as both a window and an aisle seat. There is no lavatory, there is no Flight Attendant (although the First Officer doubles as one), and there are no ‘good vibrations’, only the uneasy kind. We would coax them into continuing with us, with promises that the wondrous scenery they would have on each of the three legs the route to Phoenix consisted of would be worth it. We usually didn’t disappoint. We had a different and better vantage point, at a lower altitude and over more beautiful and varied terrain, than big blue United Airlines had while flying high, nonstop, and quickly.

I’m not sure of it, but I like to think that we had one or more passengers from Denver all the way to Phoenix on this particular flight, and that they appreciated the same incredible views that I did.

Similar to our alternate route to Phoenix and the wonderful scenery it entailed, in life it’s worth the extra time and hardship to take the long, narrow road, which provides the new vantage points. It might seem audacious for me to state that categorically, but this has been my experience. Jesus actually teaches this in part of his ‘Sermon on the Mount’, in the gospel of Matthew, chapter 7:13-14, (NLT): 13 “You can enter God’s Kingdom only through the narrow gate. The highway to hell (Greek for the road that leads to destruction) is broad, and its gate is wide for the many who choose that way. 14 But the gateway to life is very narrow and the road is difficult, and only a few ever find it.” For a good study on the narrow road, click here.

I think this passage, involving the terms ‘kingdom’, ‘gate’, and ‘life’, can be interpreted in more ways than one; it is more than just about salvation and obtaining the promise of eternal life. It’s about the abundant and full life we can have on Earth, as travelers on the narrow road in the Kingdom of God.

Kingdom, an old word we don’t hear much about anymore, refers to the realm where a king rules, of course. God’s kingdom is certainly in Heaven, but it also rules in believers’ hearts who have submitted to him in all their ways, and made him ‘Lord’ of their lives. In the gospel of John, Chapter 18:36 Jesus tells Pilate, the Roman ruler who was questioning him before he was condemned and crucified, that “my Kingdom is not of this world”, bolstering the idea stated above. His followers had wanted it to be an earthly one; they hoped he would be the leader of a violent rebellion against the Romans, who occupied and controlled Jerusalem. Furthermore, In the gospel of Luke, chapter 17:20-21, Jesus ultimately answered the Pharisees question of ’when the kingdom of God would come?’ by stating that “indeed, the kingdom of God is within you”.

Jesus’ very excellent and similar words from the gospel of John, chapter 10 help to illustrate. Quoting Jesus (NIV): 1 “I tell you the truth, anyone who sneaks over the wall of a sheepfold, rather than going through the gate, must surely be a thief and a robber! 2 But the one who enters through the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. 3 The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep recognize his voice and come to him. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. 4 After he has gathered his own flock, he walks ahead of them, and they follow him because they know his voice. 5 They won’t follow a stranger; they will run from him because they don’t know his voice.” 6 Those who heard Jesus use this illustration didn’t understand what he meant, 7 so he explained it to them: “I tell you the truth, I am the gate for the sheep. 8 All who came before me were thieves and robbers. But the true sheep did not listen to them. 9 Yes, I am the gate. Those who come in through me will be saved. They will come and go freely and will find good pastures. 10 The thief’s purpose is to steal and kill and destroy. My purpose is to give them a rich and satisfying life.”

Jesus Christ said to enter the God’s Kingdom from the narrow gate, in order to travel on the narrow road and have life. Then he said that he himself was that gate, and that he came to give a rich and satisfying, abundant life. What a promise we have in him!

If we are sheep, as it seems, then we aren't very smart animals. We have a hard time knowing what is best for ourselves. We would need a lot of help to stay on the narrow road. We need a good shepherd, and that is what Jesus is. For an account of an actual Shepherd who actually serves as a physical gate for his sheep, click here.

A new vantage point, on the ‘narrow road’, helps us to see our lives in a different way, and appreciate anew the blessings and opportunities we have. That’s what I’ve experienced this last school year through participating in a discipleship program called Vantage Point 3, which my church hosts annually.

Our associate Pastor had asked me to participate in it last year, but I stalled, not wanting to sacrifice my weekends and especially my Sundays, because the class meets on Wednesdays, and I would have to bid trips which had me flying on the weekends. I’m grateful Jon didn’t relent though, as my wife and I enrolled in the class this past fall. The sacrifices and discipline it has required have been well worth it.

I’d like to tell about what life was like before. In essence, I was one of those anxious and dissatisfied passengers stuck boarding a small, scary turboprop, when I had expected a big, comfy jet.

Just a year or more ago I would tell others I flew with that I was burned out on airline flying. I was actively looking for another job back in Mechanical Engineering, or as a Corporate Pilot. The job wasn’t worth the sacrifice and suffering I constantly put myself and my family anymore. People would say “but you’re ‘living your dream’”. I would respond thinking yea, but I feel like I’m ‘dreaming of the life’. I would ask God ‘If this is your will for me, to continue to fly a jet full of skeptical strangers across the sky, to wade through crowded airports with rushed passengers and rude vendors, and sleep in sanitized but uncomfortable hotel rooms: is it worth the constant struggles and sacrifice, and can I justify the precious time away from my wife and children? If this is God’s will for my career, why is it such a struggle, and why is the joy in it so often bittersweet?

I had lost my conviction, desire, and fire to be a good witness for Christ to other pilots I flew with. And a big reason for that and why I felt burned out was the negative, cumulative effect my wife and I let my time away from home have on our marriage. I had developed a standoffish relationship with God. I wasn’t giving him my best, not loving him with all my heart, soul, strength, and mind. My grudge had debilitating effects on my attitude in general, and toward my wife as well. Over the years, bitter roots had grown in both our lives toward each other, as she resented me being gone and we lost some of the emotional intimacy we had before. It was sometimes hard to reconnect with my wife and family when I was home. It was difficult at times to accept my life as it was.

A sense of purpose was missing from my job. I still enjoyed flying and meeting the daily challenges, but that alone wasn’t worth it. The extra reason I kept showing up to fly wasn’t there anymore, and I didn’t realize it for a while, grinding on from month to month. On faith, I used to believe my position as an airline pilot entailed a divine purpose, but I had lost this somewhere in my frustration and questioning in the skies.

In part II, I’ll share about another plane I’ve flown, and the Vantage Point program.