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
But rose-leaves of December
The frosts of June shall fret,
The day that you remember,
The day that I forget.
–AC Swinburne, 1864