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The life of the modern jet pilots tends to be most unexpectedly lonely…foreign countries are places to reach accurately and to leave on time. Distance is a raw material to work with.
—John Pearson, Sunday Times, 4 Feb 1962
Have you ever been lonely? Yeah, who hasn’t? If you’re a pilot, you know that being alone in a hotel room in a place you’ve never been can be a lonely experience. What do you do to ease the ache? Because we travel, we spend a lot of time alone—waiting out the weather in an FBO or in a hotel room. You may be surrounded by a dozen strangers at an airline terminal, but it is no substitute for being with friends. Airline pilots sit on a flight deck with a crew they’ve barely bonded with over a checklist. It’s easy to envy the chatting and laughing family that comes walking in together, and watching them can only highlight the sense of isolation you feel.
The pilot’s life is easier in the air. Though we are essentially alone, the solitude is soothing, and the moments we spend moving through time and space are beautiful, the ultimate payoff.
It gives me a chance to ponder the mysteries of life (many), a recipe I’m going to make, a poem I will write. Sometimes my mind is blank, and I just breathe in the beauty. Alone, but never lonely. The real challenge begins after we land.
The life of a pilot suits me well because I have always been independent and self-sufficient. Perhaps because I was an only child until I was almost 9 years old, I found ways to entertain myself. As an extroverted introvert, I enjoy spending time alone, to reflect and recharge. But I’m no recluse. If I don’t get some social interaction every day, I feel unbalanced. I think most people are much the same. So when I get stuck someplace where I don’t know anyone, I look for ways to feel connected and enjoy the more solitary side of a solo airshow pilot’s life.
There is an art to making solo time work for you, and it takes practice. I think of all the young CFIs today who are starting on their regional and airline careers and how they will have to learn survival tactics on the road to stay in shape and to keep from getting lonely. I used to wonder if that was why airline pilots became eccentric—many of them are such iconoclasts. But I realize now they are often people who are happy with their own company. They have come to terms with being completely themselves and have found ways to deal with a life of travel and layovers. Solo times gives us time to think, time to recharge and be creative. So instead of fighting it, give into it. Here are a few tips I’ve learned in my travels.
If there is one rule, it’s Rule #1: Keep the inertia going! Once you stop, you’re done. Once I get to my room, shut the blinds, turn up the A/C and start watching a movie, it’s very hard not to stay there and order room service. If you’re a guy who enjoys a sports bar, having a beer and watching a game, you know once you sit down that’s going to be your spot for the evening. It’s hard to get up and do anything else but look for a steak dinner. Instead, get outside and move—run, walk or work out—and save the TV and sports bar for your reward.
Pilots sit a lot, so sports and physical activity are really important. Exercise is good for your body, soul, and mind. My father, who flew long flights across the Pacific and over the pole to Europe, said, “Find a sport you can travel with.” He played tennis into his late 70s and always brought his tennis racket with him on trips. He would hit a few balls at a local tennis court and made friends he could play with on his layovers. There are so many options to staying active.
Some pilots I know take long walks. I’m a big fan of yoga, and studios have sprouted up everywhere, plus it’s a great way to stretch out after hours of sitting. If the hotel gym is small and cramped, go find a bigger one where at least you’ll be around people. Orange Theory fitness training is a great option, and there are studios popping up everywhere. An easy way to find almost any workout is through the “Mindbody Fitness” app or go to www.mindbodyonline.com. Almost every type of wellness option is listed near your location, and you can sign up for classes online.
For those inclined toward intellectual pursuits or simple relaxation, one travel tip is to read a book in the hotel lobby. You’ll be around people but won’t be bothered and won’t feel weird sitting there alone; same with sitting at a restaurant table or counter. If the town is big enough, hit the local bookstore. A lot of them have cafés, and you can get lost in the books and magazines for hours. Some pilots I know visit museums. If you like to study, get a degree online. I know at least one airshow crewmember who did that. While everyone else was hanging out in the lounge, he was improving his future. Write a novel! Every pilot has good stories. I’ve known more than one aerial firefighter who has written a novel while waiting for fires.
Specialize and collect experiences. Go to museums, libraries, even restaurants. One idea is to find the best Thai (Mexican, Italian) restaurant in every city you visit (then keep a list or write about them in a blog). Have fun with it. This is your chance to be creative. It might turn into something big.
Some people are leery of social media because they fear privacy issues. That’s all for good reason, but unless you’re involved with shady pursuits, you can set your privacy settings to manage the data that other people see. Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram are great ways to stay connected with friends and family. You can find others who share the same hobbies and interests, and it’s a great way to have fun and stay connected to people and things you love for hours. However, it can suck you in, so it’s best to get up and exercise first. I usually save social media on the road for when I am eating at a restaurant by myself. And speaking of eating and being merry, eat at good restaurants…treat yourself. Always bring a book or your tablet/phone, so you can check social media or check emails. Adults need to learn to eat out alone. I remember a birthday I spent alone in a hotel restaurant in Kansas early in my competition travel days. I worried that it would be a depressing event, but it turned out to be memorable. The food was good, the atmosphere nice…and I felt very grown up and independent being able to enjoy my own company. I wrote a poem.
Go where the people are to get outside of yourself. It’s so easy today with apps and social media to find options. I love to hit the movies when I’m traveling. If it’s a rainy day, I’ll go to the mall. These are great ways to be around people and be entertained. Then, once I’ve hit the gym, done yoga, gone to the movies, I can go back to my room, shut the blinds, watch TV and just relax.
There are a thousand ways to combat the inevitable sense of loneliness you will experience from time to time when traveling. It’s really up to you to create your own roadmap and your own story. Get out, do things, find ways to be around people, learn to eat at restaurants alone, go to the movies. Even better still, when you get there, write about it.
I once saw a novelty button that said: “I used to be lonely—then I got a divorce.” I’m not sure what I was going through at the time, but I’ve always remembered that button. Being alone is not as lonely as being in a situation with other people that you don’t want to be with, and, ultimately, being lonely has nothing to do with being alone. Enjoying solitude can be fulfilling and can lead to self-awareness. It can give us a chance to be our most creative. Knowing you can be alone without being lonely is a powerful sign of maturity and personal growth. There’s a certain freedom in knowing you are truly self-sufficient and independent. It’s a beautiful thing to be happy with your own company. It’s a gift that pilots all need give themselves.