“Are we there yet?” Trust Me: You Don’t Want to Know.


Being the captain, I think I hear it more than most but all flightcrews get a fat share of the “are we there yet” question–especially at night. I might hear it from a bored F/O with a tired butt aching from sitting in the cockpit for hours, or often a call from the cabin from a flight attendant wishing the time until deplaning was an hour or two shorter because passengers are asking them that question over and over.

And I usually answer, “yes we are” and add “open the door and plunge to your death” but only in my head for that last part. But the impact of the question comes not from the answer–in my head or what others hear–but rather in the reality: we don’t really know where we are.

Seriously–and I don’t really care.

Sure, I could press a couple buttons and get a present position reading down to a tenth of a degree of both latitude and longitude–but that reading would look like a car’s odometer with the tenths place rotating as we moved: by the time you can read the position, we’re not there any more anyway.

And at night, there aren’t any visual cues outside to define an approximate position (there’s the Mississippi!) or even direction of flight (the sun’s off our right wingtip, it’s afternoon–we’re headed south) to orient oneself. So it becomes even more glaring that in the absence of any real or definitive position, no one seems to mind plunging through the darkness at the speed of a shotgun blast in a metal tube with thousands of moving parts.

Powered by dual blast furnaces turning gears and wheels at 50,000 rpm. In air so thin you couldn’t breathe and so cold you’d turn blue in a minute. What a curious detachment there has to be in order to step aboard and not worry about where you are for two or three  hours in unsurvivable conditions.

Like that last breath you take before jumping out of an airplane miles up, there’s that confidence that never mind this moment, soon enough we’ll end up where we expected to and presumably, in one piece. I’m not sure if this belief is borne of faith or convenience.

I’ve seen from the cockpit the groups of people and cars below watching us landing and have often thought, as they park and wave from the exact spot where we’d impact if we landed short, that it was the former–a greater faith in the institution of piloting and aviation than I have. Which is a convenience item–bored? Let’s go watch airliners land.

But having lived the human side of piloting from behind the scenes for thirty-some years, I have my doubts, which I’ll share, followed by why I have faith nonetheless. The important thing is not the asking of “are we there yet,” which translates to “how much longer?” but rather the leap of faith that ignores the fact that where we are is not significant.

The very nature of travel–like life itself–is an extended process. While there’s always a point of embarkation in both, the waypoints en route are significant only in relation to the end of the route. How close is it? How soon? And is it where I meant to be?

Which brings me back to the giant step out of an airplane into empty miles below: we’re really counting on the positive result at the end more than the process of getting there.

So here’s the secret: the important part is not where we are, but rather where we’re not. For that, we pick a defined point and measure from it to plot our relationship to the known. For me, it’s always north. In this hemisphere, no matter where I am in the dark or daylight or weather all that matters to me is where North is. Then I can position myself in relation to the Big North, the pole, where I’ll never go but which will always define where I am by comparison.

I’ve done my freefall then looked up to see a tangled mess of a parachute above my head, hard brown dirt racing up from below at terminal velocity. And besides a fleeting thought cursing the chute packer–at least till I recalled packing it myself–the only significance of my unwinding altimeter was not where I was, but rather how much time I had until I inherited the Earth in a big way. And so I really didn’t want to know “are we there yet,” figuring the end would be apparent enough when it happened.

And because I had more important things to worry about along the way–like  pulling the reserve chute ripcord but holding it in tight, then with one end-of-the-world throw downward, hope to God it billows roundly in hundred mile an hour slipstream sufficiently below me to brush aside the tangled mess above me. That would separate me from the ultimate “known” I spoke of above, truly the “there” in the journey that comes only once. And let me tell you, when you’re close to the edge, you suddenly don’t want to ask that question.

Which returns us to the matter of faith or convenience. What you believe in truly is a convenience: from below, spectators watching a plane land or sky divers tempting fate always think they’re immune and immortal since they’re uninvolved in the process. How much more so the passengers in a jet? Even asking demonstrates how little they know of how close to the edge they really are.

And that’s the convenience of faith: you have to believe in the safe passage or you probably wouldn’t take the journey. Never mind the risks of standing in a landing aircraft’s path, much less riding one down. Don’t even think about plummeting from the sky with only your wits and just one backup between you and the hard earth calling you down hard.

That’s life and while yes, I said “you probably wouldn’t take the journey,” you are nonetheless on your way. No real meaning to where we are en route save where we are vis a vis the end of the journey. You can close you eyes and have faith in your own north and where you are in relation to it. You can trust in the choice of conveyance en route. But it’s only if you ignore the perils of the journey and the ultimate destination that you you can ask the foolish question, “are we there yet?” Because really, you don’t want to know the answer.

The good news is this: I’m awake up front; station-keeping at 500 miles an hour and I’ll always know where north is. You can relax in back because I’ve got the clock measuring our fuel and mileage and the right course set in relation to true north and ultimately, a clear focus on throwing the reserve out as effectively as possible to ensure our landing in one piece if need be.

That’s why I really don’t care where we are, only that we’re safely on our way to exactly where we planned to be. And the “plunge to your death” addendum I’ll add silently after your annoying question “are we there yet”–which is really asking “how much longer”–is born of firsthand experience, so trust me when I tell you on both counts: you don’t want to know.

Keep your north in mind always, and know where you are by comparison. Don’t curse the guy who packed your chute–just be sure it works or if not, you have a backup. And if you live your journey fully, you won’t need to know where you are in relation to the end.

That reality is beyond faith and convenience–rather, that’s life. Enjoy the ride. I’ll keep you on course en route, but you really won’t need me to tell you when we’re there.

So do me a favor: just don’t ask.

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7 Responses to ““Are we there yet?” Trust Me: You Don’t Want to Know.”

  1. Bridget Mullins Says:

    You really need to get a publisher and turn your blog into a book …it’s terrific!

  2. Brilliantly written. Seems weird that people actually ask that question!

  3. You slipped in that chute-not-opening story pretty calmly. Was that a something you experienced at first hand?

  4. wow. I think you have a wonderful job! Without people like you, flying would not be possible. keep safe!

  5. Very nicely done…How’s the book?

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