On Final
Where Am I Going?

By Capt. W.D. (Mike) Lucas (US Airways)
Air Line Pilot, October 2003, p. 55

"An Air Line Pilot  will keep uppermost in his mind that the safety, comfort, and well-being of passengers who entrust their lives to him are his first and greatest responsibility.."
—excerpt from the ALPA Code of Ethics

My father, Capt. Bill Lucas, a professional corporate pilot, owned a book, The Airman’s World, written by Gill Robb Wilson. As a very young child, I enjoyed looking at that book because each page had a picture along with the written words. I couldn’t believe that my father (being one of the old generation of "iron ass," cigar-chomping, round-motor drivers) possessed such a work, but he did.

Because of my age, the written words had little meaning to me, but I could certainly appreciate a good picture. These photos were mostly of those beautiful but fleeting glimpses of nature that we pilots see, but that the rest of the world misses because they are on the ground. Much of the exquisite beauty that nature displays can be seen only in its midst and not from afar, and this book showed well what we see from the cockpit.

My favorite of all of these pictures was a photo taken from the captain’s seat of an old DC-4 looking back at the wing with two stately radial engines turning those big props. I’m not sure why that particular photo was so intriguing to me; it just was.

As I grew older, I looked at the old book less frequently until it became little more than a fixture in our house. Nonetheless, I can re-member noticing it every so often. It just quietly sat on its shelf, ever present, like a secret old friend.

Many years later, I finally realized my childhood dream of becoming an airline pilot, and in 1990, I checked out as captain on the Boeing 737.

I can clearly recall one of my first flights. It was a nonstop flight one afternoon from Baltimore to Los Angeles. A couple of hours into the flight, all was well. I remember drifting into a reverie that went something like this:

"Well, ya finally made it, Big Shot. Here you are in your big, fat, Boeing jetliner cruising coast to coast—a hundred and how many people sitting behind you? Feels good—livin’ the dream.

"Now what? Now that you have your dream, what’s next? Are you going to be happy doing this for the rest of your career? It’s another 20 years, you know!"

A couple of minutes into this thought process, a surprising thing happened. I turned my head just so, and when I did, the late afternoon sun illuminated the side of my face. In the corner of my sunglasses, I caught the reflection of the "crow’s feet" lines at the corner of one of my eyes. To see this skin magnified was a shocking sight, and my musing continued: "My God, is that my skin? That’s terrible—I look like an old man." I looked down at my hands. "Those are my dad’s hands. Look at them, they’re so wrinkled. How could I have gotten so old, so fast? This is just not possible.

"And what am I doing with my life? Flying airplanes—the stuff of a child’s dream. I’m certainly not going to leave much of an imprint on society doing this—won’t make any history books in this line of work. Am I really happy doing this? I can’t believe how old I suddenly feel. Where am I going with my life?"

After what I guess was about 15 minutes, these thoughts were slowly replaced with others of our more immediate world. Eventually, they were all submerged, but it was a very poignant moment, and those thoughts never really left me. They were always present just below the conscious level at which I lived my life.

My mother died in 1992, and 11 months later, my brother passed away at the age of 37. I went to Houston for a funeral for the second time in less than a year. I stayed with my Dad at his place during my visit. The whole period was a rather depressing time. The night of the funeral, we arrived back at the house. While I was standing around thinking about various problems, an amazing thing happened. I saw that old book on the shelf. To this day, I cannot explain why I decided to take that old friend from the shelf that night, but I’m really glad
that I did.

As I turned the pages, I was immediately swept back to my childhood. The old familiar pictures that had remained closed between those covers of that book for so many years brought back gentle and soothing memories.

Then the most astounding experience happened. The next page that I turned revealed my old favorite picture, and a work entitled "One of the Trusted" (copyright 1957 by Gill Robb Wilson, from The Airman’s World by Gill Robb Wilson. Used by permission of Random House, Inc.). The last time that my eyes had seen this page, I had not yet learned to read. Now for the first time in my life, I would read the words of this book. Written nearly half a century before, the author wrote the poem below.

This story is many years old now, but its lessons move me even today. Somehow a power greater than any of us can understand led me to the words on a certain page in a certain book at a certain time when I needed an answer. And it answered a question I had asked years earlier. Each of us has questions of our own, and somewhere out there the answers exist. Good luck in your search. Be safe. Maintain the trust.

One of the Trusted by Gill Robb Wilson
You are at cruising altitude.    They always seem a little gayer after the landing
The westering sun is pink on the disc.    than before the take-off. Beyond doubt
Your eye flicks the gauges. The engines are contented.    they are always somewhat apprehensive aloft.
Another day—another dollar.    But why do they continuously come up here
  in the dark sky despite their apprehension?   
You look down at your hands on the wheel.    You have often wondered about that.
They are veined and hard and brown.    You look down at your hands again
Tonight you notice they look a little old.    and suddenly it comes to you.
And, by George, they are old. But how can this be?     
Only yesterday you were in flying school.    They come because they trust you—
Time is a thief. You have been robbed.    you the pilot. They turn over their lives
And what have you to show for it?    and their loved ones and their hopes and dreams
A pilot—twenty years a pilot—a senior pilot.    to you for safekeeping.
But what of it—just a pilot.    To be a pilot means to be one of the trusted.
Then the voice of the stewardess breaks in on your reverie.    They pray in the storm
The trip is running full—eighty-four passengers    that you are skillful and strong and wise.
Can she begin to serve dinner to the passengers?    To be a pilot is to hold life in your hands—
The passengers—oh yes, the passengers.    to be worthy of faith.
You noticed the line of them coming aboard—     
the businessmen, the young mothers    No, you have not been robbed.
with the children in tow, the old couple,    You aren’t "just a pilot." There is no such thing
the two priests, the four dogfaces.    as "just a pilot." Your job is a trust.
  The years have been a trust.
A thousand times you have watched them    You have been one of the trusted.
file aboard and a thousand times disembark. Who could be more?