Compartmentalization and Your Family, Part 1

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As we’ve seen in our previous articles, it is important that we learn to place what we do in aviation into a compartment that can be isolated from the rest of our life, and that social pressures deserve special attention in this effort. Competition for our attention from family also deserves attention. Your family can provide a solid foundation from which all other aspects of your life benefit, or family problems can detract from what you do.  It is to every aviator’s advantage to make sure the “family compartment” supports the “aviator compartment,” so you can give aviation your complete focus when it demands it.

Getting Family Support

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We often dismiss the risks of our occupation to put our families at ease and that is in many ways the right thing to do. Or is it? You may modestly believe that flying airplanes is no more dangerous than many other occupations, and reason the risks are certainly no greater than being a firefighter or police officer. We undoubtably deal with life and death situations, but no more than does a doctor or other medical professional. But there are key differences. Not many occupations require complete focus from their practitioners in such fluid environments. It is the classic “hours of boredom interrupted by minutes of terror” syndrome. When things go wrong, or even when they go right, we are required to come up with the right answer in an instant. We don’t have the luxury of calling a time out or withdrawing until we can get help. That is why our hours of study and our demands for quiet during rest periods are critical. If your family doesn’t understand this, your efforts at building an aviation compartment will meet resistance.

Be Honest About The Risks

XB-70 smoking
The 1966 crash site of an XB-70 Valkyrie near Edwards Air Force Base, California. Photo credit: USAF

How do you get the family onboard when it comes to allowing you the free space needed for your aviation compartment? And how do you do that without causing them undue stress, stress that could lead them to pressure you to find another way to earn a living? Perhaps a quick story is in order.

The United States Air Force has made great strides over the years to improve the safety of flight training. When I went to Undergraduate Pilot Training (UPT) in 1979, things were better than they had been, but not as good as they are today. That year the Air Force lost four of their Cessna T-37B primary jet trainers and four of their advanced Northrop T-38A advanced jet trainers. We had four deaths at my base that year, the first occurring just before I started flight training. I never brought that or the next two deaths up to my wife and she never mentioned them until our next-door neighbor was the fourth to perish. We talked about it briefly but didn’t dwell on it.

A few years later, when I was flying the Boeing KC-135A tanker, she asked me about a recent crash at our base. The KC-135 had averaged between two and three losses a year up to that point in its history. I explained that most of the crashes were due to pilot error and that her pilot spent a lot of time trying to avoid those kinds of errors. She accepted that and I assumed nothing more needed to be said about it.

After I left the Air Force, I overheard a conversation she had about my 20 years as an Air Force pilot and all the deaths. “Of course, I was worried sick,” she said, “but what could I do about it? I just had to trust that he knew what he was doing. I’m just so happy that part of his flying is over.”

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that the Air Force has gotten its act together in the way it trains pilots and losing eight training aircraft in a single year these days would grind the entire operation to a halt. They don’t accept these losses as normal operating costs anymore. But it does beg the question, how do you let the family know this isn’t just a normal office job while assuring them that you are taking all the necessary precautions?

First, be honest about the risks. While the accident rate in commercial aviation has fallen over recent years, it isn’t zero. Moreover, the rate in general aviation is still much higher. Explain that a vast majority of these crashes were caused by pilots who were not sufficiently trained, rested or serious about their profession. That is why you work so hard at training, getting proper rest and studying.

Second, discuss any recent and notable crashes that may cause them concern or can help illustrate why the aviation compartment deserves the space you give it  As a Gulfstream pilot, I pay special attention to any crashes involving Gulfstream aircraft. On May 31, 2014, a Gulfstream GIV crashed at the end of the runway at Hanscom Field, Bedford, Massachusetts (KBED). It was an unsurprising result given the pilots failed to disengage their gust lock, failed to complete a flight control check, failed to run any checklists and failed to properly execute a takeoff abort. There were a lot of links in that accident chain, and most could be traced to the pilots. 

As the investigation unfolded, I explained to my wife how the GIV and the G450 I was flying at the time were similar, but also where safety improvements had been made. I also explained how these pilots didn’t understand their aircraft systems as well as I did, and how they didn’t place the same importance on standard operating procedures that I do. She asked, “Why would any pilot be so reckless?” I answered that this kind of seriousness requires hard work and time. It requires a solid aviation compartment.

Part 2 of this article series discusses how showing your family vulnerability when learning something new, like pursuing a type rating, can be helpful.

James Albright

James is a retired U.S. Air Force pilot with time in the T-37B, T-38A, KC-135A, EC-135J (Boeing 707), E-4B (Boeing 747) and C-20A/B/C (Gulfstream III…