I wear a mask and fly

A test pilot’s thoughts for a seven year old.
(This post originally appeared on medium.com.)

Dear Robby,

It’s been all over the news, the crash of a Boeing 777 in San Francisco this week. I didn’t think you noticed. Your older brother asked me several questions about it, but you didn’t.

One of your teachers told me that you were scared about your “dad and airplane crashes.” I’m glad you told your teacher—they told me because they love you and wanted me to know.

Maybe you are scared to tell me that you are scared. That’s normal. For example, at breakfast one morning, I was talking with your brother (Jake, who just turned three) and asked him what scared him during the previous night. He began to recount intricate details about a very large spider that invaded his room during the night.

I asked him if he wanted me to go fight the spider, and I asked him to come fight it with me. His eyes got really big, but he affirmed his willingness.

We both grabbed weapons from the playroom, and we raced up the stairs to his bedroom.

I headed for the closet and began a fierce battle against the horrors that the darkness held. He clutched his sword and watched bravely.

You know that a superhero wears a mask.

There’s something about wearing a mask (or holding a toy sword) that helps to hide one’s vulnerability.


I wear a mask and fly—for my son, it’s heroic. But in reality, it’s not the costume of a superhero—it’s the professional attire of a test pilot. As pilots we take risks, and the protective equipment we wear helps to mitigate some of the hazards.

As a test pilot, I have also been on the front row for an accident investigation. It was a visceral reminder that pilots are human, not superheroes, and that fear is normal.

In July 2010, a C-17 crashed in Elmendorf, Alaska. As a C-17 test pilot at the time, I consulted with the accident investigation board and reviewed data, video, and cockpit voice recorder audio files.

It’s a horrible sound…the fear in a voice the moments before an accident.


Robby, I didn’t tell anyone this, but on Monday this week, the day after the accident, I had some morbid thoughts on my way to work. We were doing some dangerous test flights that day.

I wondered what I would say if I was about to crash.

Sometimes I am scared too.

Your fears are real—I can’t grab a toy sword and head for your closet to fight them off.

It seems like there are two kinds of responses to plane crashes like the 777 in San Francisco this week. One group of people loudly proclaims how stupid the aircrew was, how basic airmanship broke down.

Another group pauses and reflects…behind the mask I wear is a human being, capable of mistakes.

There are only two things I can do.

First, I can thank God that it wasn’t me and earnestly ask for His protection.

Second, I can don the helmet, the flight suit, and the mask again today. I think a pilot’s helmet and mask are a symbol of humility—a recognition of our frailty, our humanity, and an acknowledgement of the need for nobility and character in every aspect of what we do.

It took discipline to learn airmanship, a humble attitude that recognized a need to be instructed, a willingness to soak up the wisdom of instructors and learn the tragic lessons of those who have gone before us.

So today, I will put on my mask and do my job with an even more critical eye on my habit patterns and checklist discipline, and I will acknowledge the need for a humble heart, eager to learn more and do better.

Yes—being safe, being professional, is a battle, kind of like the one Jake and I fought against an imaginary spider last week. But the stakes are so much higher in this one.

I’ll remember that I’m doing what I do, so I can come home safely to you. That will help me do it better, safer.