Written by: Byron Edgington
Date: October 28, 2015
In December of 2005 I was on top of the world, in my career and otherwise. As a long time helicopter pilot, I’d landed my dream position, a posting to the island of Kauai, Hawaii’s ‘Garden Island,’ to fly tourists around its magical geography all day.
Seven times a day I’d take off, zip around the island’s rainbows and waterfalls, angle into Waimea Canyon, cruise the NaPali coast and low-level down and through the gorgeous Hanalei Valley.
The final must-see location on the tour involved a quick turn inside the ancient crater of Mt. Waialeale, the volcano that formed Kauai 7 million years ago. I’d slip into the crater’s interior, hover around its cascading waterfalls and gloomy, nave-like ambiance, while sacred chants hummed in the headsets.
Seven times a day I took off, tracing the island for six new passengers each time, showing them that little slice of paradise called Kauai as they snapped photos, pointed, smiled, cried and listened to the music that I’d matched to every location. A dream job, as I said.
Then it ended. On December 14th 2005 I took off on a tour. Nearing the end, I experienced a dizzy spell that brought me very close to passing out in the cockpit. I shook off the near syncope, finished the tour and landed. Then I grounded myself, dropped in for a visit with my flight doc and told him what happened. He referred me to several physicians, none of whom could determine what happened to me. The end result was that I never flew again. The career I’d loved for forty years was over.
Many people set a retirement day, typically a Friday, a date that marks their entry into the ranks of the unemployed by choice. I didn’t have that luxury, the option of selecting the day that my career would end. It was selected by events outside my control. To answer the obvious question, yes, it was difficult to accept. Probably the toughest thing I’ve ever had to confront, but also the easiest in some ways, because the options were so clear.
After that one event on December 14th, and to this day nearly ten years later, I’ve not had one dizzy spell, not even a hint of one. When I landed that day, following my final tour, I felt fine. There was no trace of the dizziness, no lingering effects. I could have climbed back into the cockpit, resumed my career and pretended it had never happened. Instead, after forty years of incident free, accident free flight, I simply could not take the chance. I couldn’t jeopardize all the safe, unblemished flying I’d done over all those years, and above all that real estate.
If understanding our responsibility is a burden of age and wisdom, the demand to do what we know is right, then I’ve made my peace with it. Knowing what might have happened had I passed out that day is too awful to contemplate. During my career I made judgments every time I took off, many of them based on the experience I’d gained from a previous event. So the burden of age can easily be seen as a great gift. In his insightful book, The Power of Your Past: The Art of Recalling, Recasting, and Reclaiming, John Schuster expands this ability, explaining the great benefit of learning from our past.
There are great benefits. Moving into my third third has given me more satisfaction than I ever imagined. I was able to spend my father’s last months with him, sharing memories and catching up. I re-entered Ohio State to finish up a long-deferred degree in English, and graduated at age 63. Shortly after, I published my memoir. Best of all, I think, I was able to slow down, look back at a long, satisfying career, and really appreciate all I’d been given because of it. Had I kept flying, I would have loved every day of it. I would have taken many more tours, flown hundreds more happy, camera- toting tourists and racked up even more hours in my logbook.
But somehow that would have diminished the experience I had because of the grounding. It’s not often we see the value of landing instead of taking off again. We’re primed to always be moving forward, looking ahead, jumping into the next adventure. Seldom do we see value in looking back, or slowing down. We prefer green lights to red ones. But sometimes the dizzy signals life sends us are better heeded than ignored. If we disregard their message, we may miss something truly important. I’m glad I landed that day.