September 11th: One Pilot’s Remembrance.

Say March may take September,
    And time divorce regret;
But not that you remember,
    And not that I forget.
    –AC Swinburne, 1864


There’s a strength born of remembrance hot-forged in the fire of regret, a bitter pill scarcely outweighed by the power of redemption in the act itself. In the case of September 11th the scale barely tips, but it’s upon us again nonetheless.

With it comes not only the resurrection of a grievous wound but also the poking and prodding at the scar by so many interested less in creating remembrance and more in selling the effect. That’s why now as I did immediately after the contemptible acts, I avoid the sensationally maudlin media coverage of old footage and new outrage, of pained loss and revisited dread.

Because it’s an unworthy intrusion for my colleagues who share the view from above 30,000 feet in more than just the passing from one point to another, flown today with a reverence made all the more poignant by the losses of that day. We know the reality of flight shared by all who fly for a living, including those we lost: no one is worthy of the priceless privilege. In fact, no one is even equal to the honor and the blessing of piloting a jet—and so, we reason, it might just as well be us.

And that plus the long and relentlessly demanding road that leads to the secure side of the cockpit door, a grueling process of weeding out and exclusion so unyielding that as many quit as are eventually eliminated, never mind those who are killed along the way, leaving the lucky few who are left with a worshipful respect for the words “head for the jet.”

That’s the moment when a lifetime of both personal and professional endeavor pays off in the solemn ritual of preflight, then the ultimate privilege of lifting a miraculously complex and capable jet into the air with hundreds of trusting souls on board.

The most insightful among us are keenly aware of the collective rather than individual triumph in the power to launch thousands of tons of metal and bone miles above the earth at shotgun speed, precisely, deftly, safely.

For in that moment flies a hundred years of American ingenuity, of engineering and manufacturing genius, of industrial diligence and commerce and financing to support not only the multimillion dollar jets, but also the mobile society shrinking the vast borders of the great nation, granting—actually, mandating—free access and choice and opportunity, coast to coast. That’s the best and brightest story of civilization this world has ever known.

The tragic irony is that the bond of trust we as pilots share with the public, the very essence of the free access to travel and leisure and commerce became the loophole through which those who oppose what we as a nation stand for breached the boundaries of civilized humanity to commit a despicable act.

But while they succeeded in one act, they failed pitifully in their unworthy cause. With courage and great resolve, the men and women who fly the jets returned them to the sky within days. The American spirit rebuilt, redesigned and secured air travel and the nation returned to the air resolute, undaunted and in greater numbers than ever before.

We returned to the cockpit, to flight, because that’s who we are as pilots. But Americans returned to air travel because freedom, opportunity, choice, prosperity and ultimately, worldwide access defines us as a free and open nation—and I am one pilot forever grateful to the flying public for that indomitable spirit that did not and will not yield to fear in general or a contemptible act in particular.

A decade later we fly yet another generation of even more technologically advanced aircraft with greater capacity and even longer range, bringing ever more distant shores within American reach. That fact stands as a testimony to the ultimate fortitude of freedom and decency that undergirds humanity despite the occasional hateful attempt to the contrary. And every flight since that day serves to honor those who lived and flew that American dream to their very last breath.

So I choose to remember that—and them—at the appropriate time, place and altitude, with equal measures of humility, gratitude and renewed hope. In the days approaching the infamous anniversary, the wayward news media—lost in the wasteland between entertainment and reporting—will twist and wring the painful memory for the sake of a buck.

Regardless, quietly and at altitude, flying the jet nonetheless is all the remembrance I need.

Captain C.L. Manno
American Airlines


But rose-leaves of December
    The frosts of June shall fret,
The day that you remember,
    The day that I forget.

–AC Swinburne, 1864


11 Responses to “September 11th: One Pilot’s Remembrance.”

  1. Deb Cheney Says:

    so eloquent. thank you.

  2. No words for it Captain, I am stunned. Something to remember and read again…thank you.

  3. I for one refuse to watch the replays of that day. I saw it once……that was more than enough.
    One world was destroyed by that event and I don’t think I like the world that replaced it.
    For those that lost family and friends, I cannot even pretend to feel the agony. That day is as much part of me as my own birthday. May god forgive the perpetrators for I cannot.

    • I’m with you on that. I’m already disgusted with the talking heads who will this week shove a microphone into some grief-stricken family person in order to get a high-impact sound bite.

      That old world did end–well said.

       Chris

      Sent from my iPhone, so please pardon the typos.

  4. I honor the day by flying home trusting in my God that all will be well.

  5. […] One Pilot’s Remembrance by Captain C.L. Manno  […]

  6. They say “never forget,” but to heal you have to do some forgetting. I have avoided the “memorials,” as I do think that it is insensitive to poke at the survivors.

  7. I stayed away from all media yesterday, but I’m so glad I read your post today. It was meaningful, intelligent, and touching. Thank you for your daily courage, your vision and your articulation. Your writing is a joy to read, always.

  8. Another wondurful post, Chris and thank you. I still fly when necessary, but those idiots (and economic issues) have deleted any sense of fun. Regular flying may still be pleasant for the front end crew, but there is no grace behind that door. Flying has become a chore, hours to be endured and regardless of cabin class, to achieve movement from origin to destination. I am more than old enough to remember when flying was a fun, even pleasant experience. Those days are gone, but you guys (and gals) still make it as safe as possible and move our masses with as much grace as you can muster. The process may still be semi-pleasant from your seat, but your world has changed as well. As you wind up a long career, I hope that you still find some pleasure at times and I hope that you get out with at least some of your retirement benefits intact. Now ten years after the second big change, I still fly, but only when necessary. I’m not the first to say this, but the pleasure is gone. Flying used to be my first choice; it is now the last choice. If I must say it, much of the environmental change is not 9-11-2001 related, but pegged to the earlier deregulation. With regulated schedules, tickets were more expensive and there were fewer passengers. Those who chose to fly were usually clean, well drressed and behaved well. What happened? As noted, I still fly, but it is never my first choice. I buy an up-class seat when I can, but even that substantional expense does not promise a pleasant experience. I guess I’m stuck in the middle, between the least possible cost flyers, tank tops and flip-flops included and the F-class seats that I can rarely afford. The world has changed, flying has lost whatever luster it once held and has become a transportation norm. Enough blather. I’ll be happy when I’m grounded and I suspect you will be as well. You still have the option of GA flying, one that I do not share. Thanks for your enlightening posts, Chris. For the most part, we are on the same page and I always enjoy reading your work. Regards,

    • You’re right on: flying now is basically commodified transportation. That’s it–whatever adventure and experience it used to be has been reduced to a mere product, bare bones at that. Used to be more of an experience, like a gourmet grocery store, lots of leisurely looking, shopping, browsing; high quality merchandise for sale, upscale food items. Now it’s a bare bones bulk store, the kind where you bring your own bags, bag your own stuff; bare-bones warehouse feel, get in, get out, save a buck but just another chore.

      From my end, it’s as an F/O once said: “It’s a pretty good job once the door’s closed.” As a pilot, we’re on our own, make our own decisions, do our thing; the jet is still primo and state-of-the-art. That part’s still great. But you’re right: beyond the flight deck door, it’s all Alfred Kahn’s miserable experiment, “Deregulation,” which I have to say even looks awful on paper much less in person. But that’s the devolution of deregulation.

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