“So tell me, Jeremy, what would you do? It’s the end of a trip, and you’re itching to get home for your kid’s soccer game. You bid this trip specifically so that you’d get home with just a few minutes to spare before it begins. But, on landing, your phone rings. It’s scheduling, and they want you to do a round trip to Jackson, Mississippi. You’ll miss your kid’s game.”
The man doing the asking was Danny Robertson, a former chief pilot who had moved into his sunset posting as a pilot recruiter and interviewer. It was the final question of the interview for my first real flying job.
“Sir, I am 27 years old. I don’t have a wife or kid, and I can’t answer this question with the full understanding of being in that spot. Right here and right now, though, I’d say that if the contract said I was obligated to fly that turn to Jackson, I’d do it. My job is to fly airplanes, and the contract guides me on how to do my job.”
It’s mighty easy for an airline to take shape in one’s mind as a giant, uncaring machine that rolls on 24/7/365 with no consideration for employees’ home lives. Holidays and anniversaries get rescheduled around the month’s awarded trips, and life goes on. I’ve celebrated Christmas before leaving on a trip where I spent the actual holiday in a Detroit casino. Valentine’s Day, when celebrated a few days later, is much more affordable—the flowers are cheaper and the restaurants don’t have jacked-up prices for “Valentine Specials.” For years, I fell into thinking that the company’s needs were supreme, as I had nobody counting on me to be anywhere at any time.
But, in a decade of working for the company, my home life changed drastically. I went from living on an airstrip where I ran a crash pad that was about as active and rowdy as a fraternity house to a quieter apartment in Atlanta, and then into a home with Amy when I married. We became foster parents, and our first placement was a pair of sisters, ages 2 and 5. I was in northern Tennessee packing up airplane parts in a dusty old barn when we got the call that they were coming into our lives. It took me a whole day to get home to them, and then only 30 seconds for my heart to latch onto them when I walked through the door. “Mister Jeremy, Mister Jeremy,” they screamed as they ran and leapt into my arms.
Instantly, I was a father. I woke up, fixed breakfast and hauled the girls off to preschool. Every day was filled with the full range of emotions—theirs and mine—while we bonded as a family. If parenting is comparable to swimming, our first lesson started in the deep end of the pool. With help from friends, family and the North Georgia United Methodist Children’s Home, we learned and grew together.
I loved almost every minute of it. Every day brought different set of challenges. On a trip, one of our crew asked how the process was going. “Well, it’s kind of like any challenging day at work. Invariably, someone seems to be upset despite our best efforts. Sometimes we can fix it, and sometimes we can’t even figure out what’s wrong.”
I’d leave out on a trip with more hugs and kisses than I was accustomed to, and then I’d return to screams of “Mister Jeremy! Daddy Tiger!” Just as suddenly as it began, our first placement was over. The girls were part of a very big family, and they’d been split between several homes initially. Another set of foster parents wound up with three beds available, and they were able to move under the same roof as their older brother. The goal of fostering is to reunite the families, and so off they went. We got the call on a Monday night that they’d be going home Friday afternoon. In a normal home, that’d be plenty of time for goodbyes and packing up their stuff. Homes of airline families are not normal. I had a trip leaving late Tuesday morning, and I wouldn’t get back until well after the girls had left on Friday.
I sat with the girls at breakfast and tried to explain the logistics of how everything had panned out, that this was our last time together. At ages 2 and 5, they really didn’t understand. It was almost Christmas, our first Christmas with children in our home. The presents were piled up, the tree decorated even more festively than in years past. The girls had commandeered the audio playlist every morning on their way to preschool, demanding “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” on repeat. We debated having an early, spontaneous Christmas morning, but decided we’d just send the presents with the kids for wherever they wound up. There were a lot of emotions in play as I brought them to school, then drove to the airport for my trip.
At work, I relayed the story about the girls to the crew I was flying with, how we’d gotten so attached in our time together, and how the separation was so sudden and difficult for the girls to process.
“You really should call one of our chief pilots,” the captain told me. “I bet they could work something out.”
I really didn’t want to make a fuss. I had posted the last round trip for other pilots to pick up, but there were no takers. In almost a decade at my airline, I’ve been in the bosses’ offices maybe four times. Flying for an airline is one of those rare jobs where you can work for years with almost no interaction with your boss. After the hundredth time I heard the captain ask whether the chiefs had taken my last day away, I sat down and wrote out my official request for a favor. The only other time I’d begged off a trip was when my grandmother was on her deathbed—I don’t take these things lightly. I shot an email to the assistant chief pilot I’d contacted to get my proof of employment from when I was in foster parent training. At least he’d know I wasn’t making the whole story up.
The trip was supposed to wrap up with an overnight in Greensboro, a deadhead to Atlanta, and then a round trip to one of our Mexican destinations. As we prepared to fly from New York to Greensboro, a text message popped up on my phone. “Jeremy, it’s Robert Banks. Got your email. Don’t worry about the last round trip. Even if it’s still on your schedule tomorrow, don’t fly it. I’ve got it taken care of. Go hug those girls goodbye. You’re doing a great thing.”
Being as that the flight from Greensboro back to Atlanta was a deadhead, I was able to waive my rest, catch an alternate deadhead, and I wound up back home in time to wake the girls up for a busy day of breakfast out and some quality time together before the transporter came to get them. The hugs and kisses they gave this time when we said goodbye were a lot more meaningful.
The chief pilot’s favor got me home 12 hours early. It was my little Christmas miracle, delivered a few days before everyone normally celebrates the holiday.
In talks with current and former chief pilots since, they’ve made it clear that getting to help people out is one of the biggest perks of the job. In fact, one chief pilot from another airline delighted in telling the first favor he did for a pilot with his new job as a chief pilot. “I gave a pilot the day off for an adoption…adopting a dog! I figured I’d catch grief for it, but I kind of wanted to see what I could do. I never heard a peep out of it.” Other stories abounded about pilots dealing with stressful events at home, ranging from burying a pet to dealing with the fallout of a recently discovered affair. All the chiefs I spoke to agreed that giving the pilots the time they needed certainly made for less trouble than dealing with the fallout if that stress combined with a workplace challenge that resulted in any sort of mishap.
“We can tell when folks are trying to scheme the system,” a former chief pilot said as we worked our way through a trip. “The rules are there for those guys. We know most of the pilots bend over backwards to keep our operation on track. Being able to help them out was our way of saying thank you.”
Barely even into the New Year, the girls came back—housing them and their brother in the same home didn’t go to plan. This time around, though, I’ve emphasized how my trips work. They understand a little better how things go, and I hope I won’t have to beg for a similar favor soon. But, knowing that the airline is made of thousands of pilots—and that our leaders acknowledge our need to deal with home life—certainly makes saying goodbye a little easier at the start of each trip.
Jeremy King is an airline pilot from Atlanta, Georgia. He and his wife, Amy, are restoring a 1945 Piper J-3 Cub.