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Al Martinez

The Wounds of War: Pilots Face Their Fears to Keep a Country Flying

November 15, 2001|Al Martinez

Ever since the wax wings of Icarus melted when he flew too close to the sun, human flight has had its problems.

He was the young man of Greek mythology who, in an innovative attempt to escape from prison, soared too high and ended up in the Aegean.

No one knows exactly how many efforts to fly were made and how many failed since Icarus attempted to emulate the birds.

But despite all kinds of setbacks and tragedies, we continue to take to the skies, tasting the distance, daring the sun. Disaster may slow the quest to get somewhere faster, but it will never completely ground us.

That's the message I received talking to an American Airlines pilot the day after Flight 587 went down in New York, killing at least 265 people.

He didn't know any of those aboard, but it was still very personal. The plane that crashed was the third company aircraft lost in two months. The other two were victims of the terrorist hijackings on Sept. 11.

Even so, with 14,000 hours of flying time, Les Abend isn't about to give up his wings. He talks in a muted tone of the "pall of grief" that overlays those who continue flying thousands of us from coast to coast, but he also talks of getting on with it.

"There are still strained faces around me," he said in a telephone conversation from Florida. "The wounds of September the 11th exist among those who share the bond of flight, and when a plane goes down, they all feel its impact in one way or another.

The death of Flight 587 is another reminder that getting on with it in this climate of crisis may be the hardest thing we've ever had to do.

*

Abend, 44, was captain of a Boeing 767 I took from Los Angeles International Airport to New York a week after the World Trade Center attack. A pilot with American for 17 years, he isn't the kind of guy who either bubbles or wails.

But if one listens closely to the undertones of men who take justifiable pride in their steadiness, it isn't difficult to sense deeper feelings. The simplicity of a phrase like "so much sadness" vibrates with emotion.

Like the rest of us, Abend couldn't take his eyes away from the televised scenes of fire and smoke that filled our screens the day that the A300 Airbus went down in New York. And, like the rest of us, his first thought was, "Oh, no, not again!"

There was a hypnotic lure to the raw scenes of disaster on Rockaway Peninsula. Fire has a terrible attraction of its own, luring us like moths to the deeper colors of its inferno. Adding to it were dark memories of the World Trade Center collapse just two months earlier, and a reminder that we're at war with shadows, and we're all targets.

"There was almost a sense of relief when we heard that this probably wasn't the result of terrorism," Abend said. "But then we were also terribly sad for the loss of lives and the fact that we are once more in the newspapers."

The deaths of 421 people in all three American Airlines disasters weighs heavily upon the company. The pain of yet another crash, said the airline's chief executive officer, "is very, very hard to absorb."

*

On a normal day in the United States, there are as many as 7,000 planes in the sky at any given time, and most of them make it to wherever they're going without any problem. Even with problems, we're still likely to reach our destination.

Twice I've been on commercial aircraft that have blown tires on landing and once I was on a jet with a smoking engine that had to be shut down. A fourth time my plane had to circle LAX for an hour while the flight crew worked to get stuck landing gear down. I'm always glad to walk away from those situations, but I'll never walk away from flying.

Statistics tell us it's a lot safer than driving. I believe that. I'd rather fly to New York in apprehension any day than negotiate the Ventura Freeway in a storm.

As a "support volunteer" for American Airlines, Abend helps ease the anguish of those who, he says, "are having a tough time of it" following the disasters that have befallen the airlines. When we spoke by phone, he was on his way to counsel a fellow pilot who was under stress.

"I'll tell him that what he's feeling is normal," Abend said. "I'll tell him it's all right to be sad, and talking about it helps with the grieving process. I'll tell him he's OK. We'll all get through this."

Abend sent me a piece he wrote about the first jet he piloted after the attack on New York. It said in part, "Never had I felt such trepidation about entering a cockpit. Never had I felt so far away from home. I took a deep breath before moving ahead. It helped. Time to go to work."

The scenes we watch and the words we read are the talking about it we do. By absorbing the realities, we are able to deal with our own emotions and eventually overcome them. It's as Abend says. Time to take a deep breath and to go to work.

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