TWO SIDES OF THE MOON
In the collaborated book, Two Sides of the Moon, renowned astronaut and top gun David Scott cited the massive responsibility of a space mission commander. He remarked of the Apollo 15 mission:
I was the one who would have to make the decision to abort the (launch) mission… This was one of the riskiest times of the entire mission and one for which it had been particularly difficult to train… It was a matter of split-second decision making and very precise reflexes under conditions which were often extremely difficult to replicate in a simulator. (Scott & Leonov, 2004, p283)
I recall a paragraph in this book describing the superiors’ concern over the pilots’ inability to make “correct” (by their standards) abort calls during training. I fail to locate this passage, yet remember the skyrocket- pun not intended- cost that follows each aborted launch. Though the quoted figure is buried deep within the 415 pages of the paperback page-turner, space.com reports that “every launch cancelled after fuel tanking has begun can cost as much as $1.2 million dollars”.
Which is, in durian land context, over RM5 million.
Unfortunately, the incurred cost following a rejected Airbus 320 takeoff beats me, though not for lack of effort (dear google, you have failed this clingy dependant).
In retrospect, the financial considerations of an Airbus 320 commander can never outweigh that of a command-service-lunar-module-Saturn V rocket chief. On the other hand, there is no price on human life, despite Patrick J. Adams’ very convincing portrayal on Suits.
Regardless, at 21 years old, this insight gradually gave me an appreciation for the much parroted expression: the weight of the 4 bars.
capt sully: fly by wire & highest duty
When I was a geeky young cadet, the events on the Hudson unfold like the plot of a movie. Captain Chelsea “Sully” Sullenberger- not to be confused with TVB Triumph in The Skies’ Captain BJ Chong- pulled a feat that amazed not just the aviation industry, but the entire world.
We know the tale. US Airways Flight 1549 played bumper car with a flock of migrating Canadian geese. The dual engine flameout. The glide. The miracle ditching on the Hudson.
Both engines warped, melted in on themselves and then completely surrendered to gravity. And yet not one life was lost in what could have been one of the worst aircraft failures in modern history. (Langewiesche, 2009)
William Langewiesche- a pilot with 10,000 hours under his belt- details the events with profound meticulousness in his book, Fly By Wire. He dissects every aspect; from geese to aircraft, her flight path, and the aftermath, in a thrilling and vivid depiction.
But what truly fascinates me is Captain Sully’s journey- the deep pool of life experiences that gave him the headspace and skillset of a man that landed on the Hudson river. In fact, I love how he phrased it in his autobiography, Highest Duty– “Flight 1549 wasn’t just a five-minute journey. My entire life led me safely to that river” (Sullenberger, 2009, p16).
On top of superb flying skills (honed primarily by West Point and countless flight time), he possess one attribute essential to his miraculous feat: his appreciation for human life.
I paid only RM10 for Highest Duty during my annual Big Bad Wolf shopping spree- score! Over coffee (too young for anything stronger then), this book gave me front row seats of life through his eyes.
Early in life, Captain Sully lost his father to suicide. Later, his wife Lorrie* suffered from infertility. Then, the brutal murder of 28 years old Kitty Genovese aided his resolve to never be a mere bystander.
*To be absolutely frank, my regard for Lorrie exceeds that of her husband- which speak volumes. That woman is one heck a ball of fire. Like, somebody dipped her in a tub of saturated determination, and that’s all she emits since. She struggled with body image and infertility. But instead of wallowing in a realm of self-pity, she used her experience to empower other women and change lives. Literally, as an outdoors fitness instructor heading a group she calls “Fit and Fabulous… Outdoors!”. She is vocal about her struggles, and definitely not shy with encouragement. Captain Sully says of his wife, “I’ve learned a great deal about the power of optimism and acceptance (from her), and about the responsibilities all of us have to carve a path to our own happiness,” (Sullenberger, 2009, p170). I secretly suspect that Captain Sully would have failed his Hudson plight if not for the major role she played in the man he is.
I pour through tales from his young days. His ambition for the great blue yonder. The military. Civilian life. Marrying Lorrie. Their impasse for kids. Eventualities that shaped his utmost esteem for human life. Events that click his decision into detent on January 15, 2009.
Why did (military) pilots wait too long before ejecting from planes that were about to crash? Why did they spend extra seconds trying to fix the unfixable? The answer is that many doomed pilots feared retribution if they lost multimillion-dollar jets. And so they remained determined to try to save the airplane, often with disastrous results… I know about the concept of “goal sacrificing”… by attempting a water landing, I would sacrifice the “airplane goal” (trying not to destroy an aircraft valued at $60 million) for the goal of saving lives. (Sullenberger, 2009, p229-230)
His stance on human life made me explore my own perspective.
When we were in our late teens, my best friend, Jo’s dad passed away. One day after the funeral, I showed up on her doorstep with a large Winnie The Pooh soft toy- she loves that yellow, pudgy bear- and helium balloons on which I wrote “He cares about the sparrows, what more you?” (with reference to Matthew 10:29).
That was the first, in my young life, when I fully comprehend that death is inevitable.
Sir Edmund Hillary, the first man to peak Mount Everest alongside Nepalese mountaineer Tenzing Norgay (who is sadly overshadowed by Hillary) is extremely critical of the controversial David Sharp incident, where a climber was left to die in the deeps of cold near Everest’s peak. Hikers passed him by in pursuit of the glorious summit, offering no help to the dying man. Edmund Hillary said “human life is far more important than just getting to the top of the mountain”.
The coveted summit in sight after days of endless torture; a dying man to my side, gasping his last breaths- what would I do?
really, what’s in a command?
The regard for financial incurrence? The appreciation for human life? The reverent respect for flight safety?
Today marks the 44th day since I earned my 4 bars.
At the narcissistically-loaded epaulette donning “ceremony”, the DFO (Director of Flight Ops) emboldened me with these words: make decisions as if your mother sits among the passengers.
-Which is phenomenal advice, if not for its stark contrast to my adopted philosophy: look out for number one.
P.S.: Spoiler alert for Startrek: Discovery! Spoiler alert!
In Startrek: Discovery’s 4th episode, Michael receives a package that contains the will and final testament of her deceased captain. The smiling figure of Captain Georgiou’s hologram says: “… I imagine you have your own command now, the captain of your own ship…” The Malaysian accent is heavy, missing only the lahs.
“…Keep your eyes and heart open. Always…” She continues.
And finally, “take good care. But more importantly, take good care of those in your care.”
A monumental thank you to the pillars that propped my bare sanity
David Wong (are all tops guns named David?)- the very epitome of a walking and breathing command cheat-sheet. His relentless WhatsApp messages and ever ready guidance are the reasons I survived the ordeal (in every sense of the english word) that is command training.
My family, Jo, Zel, and Gloria for their bountiful prayers and constant words of encouragement.
My SILF (Shoulders I Like French) for playing yellow sun to my wannabe-Supergirl.
My A25 Batch mates who go the extra mile to aid my strive, despite their enigmatic obsession with balls, and all things πr3.
My Heavenly Father for His renewed mercies and unending grace.
Langewiesche, W. (2009). Fly by wire. New York, NY: Penguin Books.
Scott, D. & Leonov, A. (2004). Two sides of the moon. London, UK: Simon & Schuster UK Ltd.
Sullenberger, C. (2009). Highest Duty. New York, NY: Haper Collins Publishers.