Pilots still have a dead head today

The year I stopped being a pilot

1.1.2020, Vienna

Champagne and fireworks over the roofs of Vienna! Friends have invited us over to celebrate New Year's Eve together. I'm freshly shaved, white shirt, dark blue pants. A four-course menu that corks fly. Countdown from the radio, we grab the champagne glasses and run up to the roof terrace.

Three, two, one: Happy New Year! Blue Danube waltz on frozen tiles, there is lightning and crackling, everything is turning, the Viennese waste thousands of euros within seconds in the night sky. We are fine. View on the city. Cheers. Laugh. "Yay, the wild 20s are coming!" Shouts Tiba, my wife, in my ear. I will think of this sentence often. After three hours of sleep, I crouch in the passenger seat of an AUA plane to Chicago. Three Slovaks in the row behind are not sober at all. One of them calls the flight attendant: "I want whiskey!"

3/3/2020, Wichita, Kansas, USA

Rok, my copilot, and I drink red wine from paper cups together at the "Welcome Dinner" at the hotel, and then half a liter of coffee for breakfast, which tastes like dissolved healing earth. But Marteen, the black waitress, is carefree and direct like almost everyone here: "There you go, honey!", She says, smiles and pushes a portion of fried potatoes with gravy onto my plate.

On the simulator, we sweat with engine failures, fire after take-off, go-around with just one engine between mountains in minimum weather. The standard program, once a year, to renew the pilot's license for the jet: "Impressive leadership skills, Michael," says Scott, our instructor.

I look satisfied from the hotel room. It was a long, sometimes rocky road to get here, to the captain's seat.

The setting sun colors the room orange, it disappears behind hundreds of kilometers of corn fields on the horizon. Twelve stories below me flows the Arkansas River, brown with mud, polluted with agricultural nitrates. "You better don’t fall into it", said an American colleague with a laugh.

March 14th, 2020, climbing south of London, flight level 200

"Speedbird 31 on One two one five. Guys, does anyone have any information about a closure of the Spanish airspace?" I have never listened to so many radio messages on the emergency frequency. Corona spills over Europe this Saturday, and unsettled pilots want to get certainty over the radio. Rumors are buzzing through the air, faster than our jets: Allegedly, the Spaniards want to close the airspace. You have to be in quarantine in London. A British charter company has just ordered all planes in the air back to their home base.

We are supposed to deliver passengers on Mallorca, then back to Vienna. I'm worried we might get stuck. The fuel supply in Palma does not work, the airport is closed. At the same time, my wife and my two daughters are standing in front of empty supermarket shelves in Vienna. The stock exchanges have been on a downward slide since yesterday, the USA is closing its borders, and ski vacationers are being evacuated from Ischgl and the Arlberg. It feels like before a war.

"We can't afford to choose flights, we have to perform now," said my boss on the phone the next day.

April 27, 2020, Pörtschach am Wörthersee

Austria in lockdown. Toilet paper not run out. Tiba and I take the 18-year-old camper that was parked in the garage for years and drive from Vienna to southern Burgenland, then on over the Koralpe to Lake Wörthersee. Cooking noodle soup in the bus, spending the night with friends in the garden with the roof open or in a wood storage area next to the street. I have the guitar with me, during the day we go hiking for hours, in the evening we look at the starry sky.

Silence, even more than usual. The air is clean. The rivers clear. Everything is blooming in the valley, up on the summit at 2140 meters above sea level we trudge through the last bits of snow. Nobody meets us. Voices in the press are loud: We have to get back as soon as possible, the economy continues to grow. It's always about more. Why? I think about it a lot.

The answer I find in myself probably has to do with fear. Before not getting enough. In a country that is one of the ten richest in the world.

I start doing research on the internet. What I read worries me: The distribution of wealth, even in Europe, is getting more and more sloping. In the meantime, Austria is building up its meadows and fields, an area the size of 18 soccer fields per day. Chalet is the new magic word of the greedy. And before the lockdown, 30,000 flights were registered over Europe every day, more than 20 per minute. What should stand at the end of such a development?

June 8th, 2020, Vienna

Finally back in the cockpit! My second flight in just under three months. Europe's airports are ghost towns: Berlin, Zurich, Paris: mothballed scheduled airlines are piled up everywhere, thousands of them. At the moment, we pilots in the air have all the freedom to do so: When we take off from Schwechat, we shoot through the cloud cover with our business jet at more than 25 meters altitude per second.

The heart beats quickly, the usual hand movements are initially unfamiliar. But the routine will be back soon. There are no delays, the pilots give us shortcuts where to go. Beside us there are almost only colleagues from the freight on the way. When landing, we can even choose the runway. At the end, pull the control horn at the right moment and 12.5 tons land gently on the ground. I never wanted anything else!

July 21, 2020, Málaga

Full throttle! Paris, Hamburg, Mykonos, Athens, Santorini, Bodrum, Berlin, Zurich, Vigo, Pula, Brussels, Brač, London, Palermo. Anyone who can afford it is now flying a private jet, germ-free and without unknown seat neighbors.

For us that means: every night in a different hotel room, in a different city. Often we arrive at sunset and get up again at dusk. In the end, I don't know where to wake up. Deep doubts return. Does what I'm doing here still make sense?

In addition, Corona, the virus is everywhere: Covid tests, filling out forms, measuring fever, disinfecting hands, mask up, mask down. The tanker driver on the apron in Nice still shakes my hand bravely. Man to man, he comes from Romania. Then I disinfect my fingers for about the 30th time that day.

Taxis limit the number of passengers, and breakfast is served as a packed lunch in the hotel. Orange, plastic water bottle, sloppy sandwich. The long days in the cockpit soon have a physical impact, my back rebels. Thoughts of quitting. When asked, I extend the service twice, the third time I say no, because my wife has been on vacation for days and we want to go away together.

"I didn't expect anything else from you anyway," says my boss. That sits. After all, I now earn 1000 euros less than before the crisis, because we have to save. In terms of salaries. The taxis to the airport. When it comes to catering. The hotel rooms. The management's vision is apparently simple: In the future, it would be best for everyone to fly in a private plane.

There it is again, the more. Someone can't get enough. Me, yes. Between two flights, at Malaga airport, I pull the emergency brake. And quit.

July 26, 2020, Vienna

What if it was the wrong decision? I lie awake in bed. Three o'clock in the morning. I love this job, but something is no longer right. The pace is too fast. It feels like an industry has lost its grip on the ground. And as if someday someone else would have to pay the price for it.

August 8th, 2020, on a mountain peak near Mariazell

A tiny campfire flickers in front of me while the last sunset in the sky disappears and more and more stars rise. It is my third night between spruce forests and mountain peaks, chamois and butterflies, bees and blooming alpine pastures. Without a mobile network, without a tent, without food. Just silence, water and a hammock. And a lot of thoughts: whether it is right to drop a job that is also my passion. To resign in the middle of the biggest economic crisis since the world war. Life is not black and white. I could keep working as a freelancer, I tell myself. That takes the pressure off, because of course I'm scared!

That I am going to ruin my family. Can no longer pay the loan for the house. What about my daughters? Will you be ashamed if your dad is out of work? Or do you think it's cool that he thinks about whether what he's doing makes sense? Is it acceptable that we blow 1700 liters of fuel per hour into the troposphere, sometimes with just a single passenger, while Antarctica is melting and Siberia's permafrost is thawing?

No Answer. Just silence. The crack of the fire. Three shooting stars fall that night. When the sun rises shortly before six, I pack my things. I can't pretend it's none of my business. As I walk towards the morning mist in the valley, I know that I am on the right track. Even if some colleagues shake their heads. I turn on the cell phone downstairs. 13 Messages on the company cell phone. 19 am private. And six ticks, but I won't find them until later.

October 4th, 2020, Airport-Hotel Munich

My last day as a full-time pilot ends before the notice period expires at Munich Airport. Instead of flying to India the next morning as planned, I have a positive corona test in my hands, with no symptoms.

Ten days of quarantine, ordered by the Erding health department, follow. Nobody is allowed in my room and I am not allowed out. Employees put the food in a paper sack in front of the door, knock, then quickly away. A few peek curiously around the next corner in the hallway. I am waving. "All the best!" Wishes the waiter. Bright sunshine outside, but the windows cannot be opened.

From my desk I can see a piece of runway 26 right. Pilots take off and land. Silent. I'm trapped in a soundproof retort with no time. Netflix helps. And podcasts. On the third day I build myself a course and walk for half an hour on a certain route through the room, from the hallway via the bathroom to the window. In the end, I have over 10,000 steps. What is missing? Fresh air. Wind in your hair. The bark of a dog.

December 2nd, 2020, Vienna

Appointment at the AMS. Six unemployed academics came with me, including a young colleague from the tourism industry and a trained painter. The trainer greets us warmly, treats us with respect and introduces us to courses on social media or business management that we can sign up for. A strange world.

You can never cross the ocean if you don't have the courage to lose sight of the coastline. André Gide wrote that, and it's a sentence that has helped me through these weeks. My coastline has disappeared behind the horizon.

December 21, 2020, Gastein

Solstice. The snow is meters high, but the days are getting longer again. I trudge to the end of the valley in Nassfeld. All around three thousand meter peaks, some glaciated. Minus three degrees, the steps crunch in the snow. There is a way of looking at things: lost work, miserable job prospects, no longer the youngest. There is fear. Which is also used to apply pressure. But there is also a completely different view of the world: it recognizes how much we all already have.

Realistically speaking, we only live by a miracle. At almost a hundred times the speed of sound, our earth races around the sun, which is 150 million kilometers away and does not allow us to burn up or freeze to death. The earth is an oasis, the only habitable planet in our solar system. On which everything and everyone would be taken care of. And we? See this gift no more. Serve us, want more. Gambling away with our existence. The valley is over.

I stop, my breath steams, turns into thousands of tiny ice crystals. A frozen waterfall shimmers hundreds of meters above me. It already existed when I was a child. Silence. Clarity, also in the head. Maybe we are there to follow our inner voice. It says exactly where to go. Or not. (Michael Marchetti, 10.1.2021)