Compartmentalization and Your Family, Part 3

Credit: StoryBlocks

When you release the brakes and unleash the Jet-A into the burner cans to accelerate from zero to more than 100 miles per hr. in a matter of seconds, what you are doing at that moment is paramount. If you make a mistake, nothing else matters. That’s why you have an aviation compartment. When you are sitting at your desk studying aircraft abort procedures and your son walks in and says, “Dad, I have a problem,” then where does that aviation compartment fit in the big scheme of things?

Maybe you need a dad or mom compartment too. A son or daughter compartment. A friend compartment. Any number of compartments. But no matter how many or few you have the need for, the compartments must have boundaries and you must be able to switch from one to another when the need arises. The aviation compartment is unique in that it has a switch that mutes all other compartments. But that switch is reserved for use only when in the aircraft. That isn’t to say the aviation compartment takes priority. In fact, it doesn’t.

As we saw in the article, Compartmentalization and a Focus on Flight, you cannot hope to fully concentrate on your flight duties if you have troubles at home. You need to cordon off some of your time and effort to ensure the family’s needs are met. I’ve made a lot of mistakes in this area, and I hope to save you from repeating them.

When approaching a fork in the career road, include the family in the decision-making process and make it clear they have a voice. If, for example, you have a great opportunity that includes a large pay raise but also doubles your time away from home, the family deserves a vote. If the kids are in grade school and your influence as a parent is more important than as the financial provider, your decision may be easy. If, on the other hand, the kids are off to college and the extra income could pay the tuition bills, your decision may be the opposite. In any case, include the family before deciding.

Take paid time off and don't let it expire unused! You may not feel the need for time off but not taking it tells the family you would rather work than spend time with them. Even if that isn't true, it can be subconsciously interpreted that way.

When approached by a family member with a request, try to focus on them. Avoid situations where you listen (or pretend to listen) while doing something else. This applies when you are inside your aviation compartment while studying or even in your relaxation compartment while watching your favorite YouTube channel. Picture this: you are typing notes about a new aircraft system when your spouse comes in asking about (insert your least favorite topic here). In the past I would continue to type while assuring her, “I’m listening.” And she would keep talking. After a while I realized I wasn’t paying attention to my studies or to her. I made the decision to avoid all future “half conversations.” I then vowed to immediately stop all work, turn to face her, make eye contact and listen. I think she appreciated this and after she was satisfied, she would say, “thank you, please get back to what you were doing.” That was years ago. Now I notice she is careful to check on what I am doing before interrupting. I need to learn to pay her the same respect when she is absorbed watching her favorite football team.

Learn how to live without checklists and how to be spontaneous for once in your life! As aviators, we appreciate that our minds can skip important steps and that a good checklist works for starting a jet engine, putting together a lasagna or packing a suitcase for a family vacation.  If a schedule gets the aircraft airborne on time, why not use a checklist for the next family vacation? You see a well laid out plan; they see a loss of spontaneity and the spice of adventure. For your next family vacation, try giving up all planning and scheduling. Set a budget and see what happens. You might be surprised how much fun you have.

Switch off the ice water in your veins and let the family know you are human. If you make it a habit to always display the “cool, calm and collected” persona that your passengers value, experiment with showing how much you care about things important to the family. Years ago, a pilot in one of my Air Force squadrons was at a loss to explain his family’s anger following the death of their cat. He came home, found the dead cat and chucked it into the dumpster. “It’s just a cat,” he said. Even if you are in the “it’s just a cat” camp, understand you might be alone in this.

“Wait a minute,” you say. “You’ve gone to great pains to say your aviation compartment is sacred and should not be violated. Like when you’re on an ILS, you cannot allow stray thoughts about the cat or anything else outside the compartment dull your focus. But now you’re saying you need to worry about the cat.  What gives?”

Understanding Your Limits

You have an aviation compartment that you can switch on and off when not actively aviating but can never be switched off while aviating. But what if you find that you cannot do that?  One day you are a poster child of compartmentalization, the next something happens that makes any attempts at singular focus impossible. What then?

There are times when it becomes impossible not to be consumed by a factor outside your aviation compartment. We call these stressors because they place a stress on you that may or may not be debilitating. It could also be that you can easily handle one stressor but after another and another you exceed your limits. 

As an Air Force commander in my past or a flight department manager in my present, there are some situations where I will remove a crewmember from flight duties even if they insist they are fit for duty. Let’s say you experience the death of a spouse. Off flight status, no doubt about it. But what about trouble with the in-laws? Or the foreclosure of the mortgage on your house?  No? What about both? There are two things you need to realize. First, feeling stressed is perfectly normal. Second, there may be times when it is also perfectly normal to say, “I am too stressed to fly.”

Sometimes you need to retreat from a situation before it becomes hazardous, what we called the “knock it off” call. If family demands become too great to handle your flight responsibilities, it may be that your family compartment crowds out the aviation compartment. It may be tempting to withdraw from the family, reasoning that the aviation compartment deals with life and death. Besides, the aviation compartment pays for the family compartment! But if your distraction leads to the end of the aviation compartment, what good did that withdrawal do?

We are not alone in this need to “knock it off” when faced with family troubles. In 2011, a tugboat pilot crashed a barge he was pushing into a tourist boat, killing two tourists and plunging 35 others into the Delaware River. While on duty, he made or received 21 calls on his personal cell phone about a life-threatening medical emergency involving his son.

Even if not presented with such a distraction in the moment, having a family issue weighing on you can lead to equally dire results. There are times the family compartment trumps all others and when that happens, an aviator’s prime responsibility is to call knock it off. If you are flying, fess up, give the airplane to the other pilot if you have one, or land if you don't. If you aren't flying, stop whatever act of aviation is going on, and deal with the family first.

An aviator who places the demands of an aviation career over the needs of his or her family is destined for a crisis in both. Unless the aviator’s family compartment is secure, the flight compartment is at risk.  So, it becomes imperative that the needs of the family come first. Can the same be said of work? If you are a professional pilot, after all, doesn’t flight end if there is no work? We’ll examine the curious relationship between flight and work in the next article in this series about aviator compartmentalization.