The Captain’s Log: 35,000′ In the Middle of the Night


A “Symphony of Your Life” blog with Mark Hardcastle

Last week I had the privilege of speaking at the Global Business Travel Association’s annual convention in Denver. As my audience, over 100 travel professionals, and I, an airline pilot, visited about restoring harmony when your world is out of tune, one of the ideas that came up was “conversations that matter.”

The early 2000s was the era of bankruptcy in the airline industry, and many pilots saw their wages cut by 50%. How do you manage a 50% pay cut? “Let’s see… I’ll eat on even-numbered days. I’ll use water on odd-numbered days. I’ll use the air conditioner in the winter!” As you can imagine, those pay cuts stimulated some conversations in our cockpits!

Now, there are two kinds of conversations. There are the conversations you have when you’re taking off out of LAX for London in the late afternoon. The sun is bright as it descends toward the Pacific Ocean, the jet is operating well, the weather’s good, the air is smooth. You cross the San Bernardino Mountains at around 25,000’ climbing to 35,000’, and you can see Las Vegas in the distance.

You finish your post-takeoff housekeeping tasks and start to relax into the 10-hour cruise. And before you know it you’re talking about the Dodgers and Rockies. Or the AVs. Or whatever your favorite team is for this time of year. Those light-hearted conversations take you over Denver and Chicago.

But somewhere between Chicago and the east coast the atmosphere in the cockpit changes. It starts to get more personal. You find out that your Captain has 2 kids. One has special needs, the other has the potential to be an Olympic athlete. Both are expensive endeavors. And you start to wonder how she’s making it with the pay cuts.

Have you ever had a conversation that goes beneath the surface with a colleague? Is there someone you work with who really wants to know you on a deeper, more human level – beyond the platitudes? That’s the second kind of conversation.

And as you head out over the North Atlantic at 35,000’, it’s now the middle of the night. The passengers are asleep, the flight attendants relaxing on their jump seats. And you turn to your Captain and ask, “So really. How are you doing? Are you making it? Are you gonna be able to keep your house? Your car? How are you making it? Did you send your stay-at-home husband back to work to pay for that Olympic-level coach?”

Through the era of bankruptcy, then eventually into the Great Recession, those conversations fell into 2 categories: the pilots who were making it, and those who weren’t. The latter category was filled with stories of personal bankruptcies, foreclosures, and divorces.

But the former category, those who were doing ok, contained similarities of a different sort. There were patterns among those who were successfully restoring harmony during this period of historic hardship. Those patterns boiled down to 3 simple ideas. Those who were managing were universally kind, they were doggedly determined, and they were looking for ways to help others restore harmony in their lives, too. Simple. Not necessarily easy.

All these years later I watch for those patterns among people who are clearly meeting life head-on. For example, I look for little instances of kindness.

Just last week the gate agent came into the cockpit to let us know we had a special passenger on board. She was a “Make-A-Wish” Foundation participant on her way to London. He didn’t have to, but the Captain asked the agent to invite this young passenger to come up to the cockpit before our flight for pictures. Next thing I knew, she was sitting in the Captain’s seat, hands on the yoke and throttles, cheesing for her dad as he snapped pictures of our newest “Captain.”

It was a small gesture. A little kindness. But the Captain turned her long journey into an adventure from the start.

How do you restore harmony when your world is out of tune? We talked about that at GBTA. Are you looking for little opportunities to be kind? How can you change your world in a small way today, tomorrow, next week? What can you do to bring a smile. How can you help someone else fight his or her hard battle?

Do you have “conversations that matter?” When do you have them? What in your world are they about? Let us know in the comments section below. We’d love to know your stories.

The Symphony of Your Life


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Mark graduated from the USAF Academy in 1982. After nine years as a pilot on active duty, he left the military to join a commercial airline. In addition to flying B-777s around the world, Hardcastle spends time in the Rocky Mountains and serves on the artistic staff of the Colorado Children’s Chorale. He lives in Centennial, Colorado, with his wife and four children. Contact Mark today to schedule a keynote or workshop for your organization! email: 720.840.8361