We Are Airline Pilots
By Capt. A. Paul Morell (Northwest)

June 5, 2004, red-eye, Seattle to Detroit. 3:30 a.m. Eastern Time, 37,000 feet.

To the south, it is dark with an almost full moon, which illuminates a layer of cirrus clouds to the right of us into what looks like a soft, white blanket covering the dark earth below. In the distance are random flashes of lightning from dying thunderstorms that have been pounding the Midwest all day. The night sky barely displays the beauty of the stars because of the bright moon and the competing light from the northeastern horizon, where morning light is already creeping up.

This very early morning, I sit here wondering—pushing the thought back to the far recesses of my mind—if this will be my last flight on the B-757, and the last flight of my life as an airline pilot. In 3 days I am scheduled for exploratory lung surgery. But let me digress. Since my diagnosis of colorectal cancer 2 years ago, my oncologist and I have been following a small spot in my lung.

I got back into the air a year after the surgery, but now things are starting to get scary again. It has now gotten to the point where it is time to have lung surgery and find out what this “spot” is. I’ve been told that there is a 70 percent chance it is a recurrence. Here the road diverges. If it is a recurrence, I have to deal with at least a 3-year lapse of flying due to the FAA revoking my Class I certificate. During that time if another recurrence happens, I can basically kiss my aviation career goodbye.

One of the things that my upcoming surgery has forced me to do is to re-appreciate how good my airline job is. Right now, for instance, I am the captain of this flight in charge of 180 passengers and a crew of 7. I enjoy doing it, and I think about how lucky I am and have been all my life. (I used to always appreciate my airline job, but that appreciation has been worn down by the state of the industry.) As captain, I am also responsible for this $80 million piece of equipment that was dreamt up in someone’s mind, took years to design, and probably cost more than $100 million to initially create. With more than a million parts, most likely tens of thousands of intensive hours of labor went into making this one single, beautiful machine—Boeing ship No. 5811, a 757-300 with a maximum weight of 266,000 lbs. 

I am given this amazing opportunity several times each month to take on a “Clark Kent/Superman” dynamic. While home I am just a normal husband, dad, and neighbor. My fellow aviators and I have a secret; we are more than just a husband, dad, neighbor—we are airline pilots! As an airline pilot, I am on top of the world (literally), and people look to my authority to guide them and make them feel secure during the flight.

I am in command of this aircraft and, with my first officer, I determine how to safely maneuver this machine on takeoff, around towering clouds that can harm even this aircraft, and confidently land our passengers safely at their destination despite any man-made or natural adversities we may encounter. No, I am not afraid during these daily, challenging situations. I enjoy making command decisions and taking decisive action.

As an airline captain, I am not just a citizen of Hingham, Mass.—I am a citizen of the world! I fly above things; I take in the awesome beauty and raw natural power of God’s nature and universe. I can turn down the lights in the cockpit on a dark night and count the stars, see satellites, watch the planets, the constellations, and even the aurora borealis on winter nights in the higher latitudes. I’ve flown over the Rockies, the Badlands, the Grand Canyon, Lake Powell, the Sierra Nevadas, and the Cascades. And I can describe them all as if they were my best friend. They are…because I am an airline pilot.

Many people go to work to push papers through the bureaucracy. When airline pilots go to work, we literally defy the laws of nature on a daily basis. I do what men have dreamt of doing for centuries, and even today still wish they could do—fly above it all, to look down on it all and take it all in, to see the beauty of the earth from above. Yes, we pilots truly have a picture window to the world!

I walk with my head up through the chaos and anxiousness of a typical airport terminal knowing that I will soon relax when I return to the calm order of the flight deck, which I alone am responsible for. I start discussions and end them. I pontificate till I am blue in the face. I am an airline captain!

Someday, maybe soon, I will not be able to fly this beast through the air like someone strapped to the neck of a great flapping bird, pulling the reigns to give it direction and altitude. Then I will join the inevitable ranks of those who flew and those who have never flown. Aviators will always be a part of a brotherhood, but ultimately, there are those who do and those who did. I’d rather be flying than be nostalgic.

Those who fly have that special spark of insight in them. We know that no matter what happens to us (on the ground), we will soon once again look out from the flight deck and see the great expanse of the world and know that it is beautiful. We have a special understanding that we are witnessing something that mere mortals will never see when they open their eyes in the morning and peek out their windows into their backyards.

Flying the B-757 has been awesome! The power. The freedom that power gives you. The beauty of the clean lines of the airplane. The simplicity of the glass cockpit and the great domestic and international flying. I’ve also always enjoyed going to my yearly training (despite the normal pre-checkride jitters). The professionalism of the instructors and the constant honing of our intellectual and flight skills over the years reminded me that I was part of a bigger brotherhood.

Speaking of a flying community, it was 22 years ago when I first read Flying the Line, the book on the history of ALPA. I remember how moved I was at the sacrifices of fellow aviators from previous decades who fought to give present-day pilots such an awesome job. Motivated by past struggles, my wife Tahni and I choose to volunteer in the Northwest pilots’ Family Awareness Program leading up to our 1998 contract. 

During that volunteer period, I saw ALPA at its best: all the hundreds of other dedicated pilot volunteers working tirelessly for a common cause, a decent contract for our pilots and families. Now, if I do have to medically retire, I’ll be thanking both God and ALPA for the medical disability and health-care benefits that we collectively negotiated for all Northwest pilot families. 

I appreciate all of the people in this industry who I’ve come in contact with over the years: The great captains I flew with when I was an up-and-coming second officer on the B-727 and then first officer on the B-727 and DC-10. As a captain on the B-727 and -757, I’ve had tremendous help from all of the first officers who have put up with me and kept me safe. They’ve been good friends to me—they’ve shared their life stories and political opinions with me; we’ve shared a few beers. I can’t leave out all the flight attendants I’ve worked with, dispatch, weather, check-in, maintenance, and agents. For the most part, they were all really good people who, like me, took personal pride in doing a great job.

The sun now rises to the northeast. Is it my last sunrise as an aviator? The sky is a beautiful red, pink, yellow, blue, and black that will eventually turn into brighter and deeper shades of blue. What will I do when I can’t fly as an airline captain? Will I ever work in a job that gives me such command authority, power, prestige? 

Even though my job has been ravaged by corporate America and its never-ending quest for productivity in the skies, and even though I am away from my family way too much for any amount of money, I still am in awe and appreciate my airline job and the fact that I am in charge of my passengers, crew, and this machine. 

I’ve had a good run—a 22-year-old to a 48-year-old. Thank you, God, for all the blessings and the amazing life experience I have had in my aviation career!

Morell Flies West
It is with sadness that
Air Line Pilot announces the passing of Capt. Paul A. Morell (Northwest) on October 4, 2009, after a 7-year battle with cancer. Morell, who wrote “Pilot Musings: We Are Airline Pilots!” August, is survived by his wife Tahni and three children.