The Game is Different

Aviation’s COVID19 era began for me while I was completing my own transition training from an airplane that I had flown for almost 20 years (the McDonnnell-Douglas MD-11) to the Boeing 777. While flying the MD-11, I had been an instructor, check airman, and FAA Designee for a total of 15 years. In short, I went from being at or near the top of skill and technical authority on one complex airlifter, to a complete novice and newcomer on another.

This was all made complicated by having flown only tri-jets for over 25 years and spent most of that time on a transport built by a different manufacturer than my new aircraft, and one with an entirely different “automation philosophy” designed into the flight deck. As soon as I set the parking brake for the last time on the MD-11, I was no longer a mentor or technical authority – rather, I was thrown into a sudden search for other mentors and technical authorities that could help me climb the ladder of personal performance in a new cockpit. And maybe, with their help, I would get close to where I was on my previous airplane in the time I have left as a commercial transport pilot. It looked then, and sometimes still does, nine months into the journey, to be a steep climb.

Just as I was completing my initial operating experience (“OE”) in the new jet, the COVID19 era hit aviation, forcing me to adjust to that challenge as well. Every disruption to global aviation seems to be different than the one before it, and this one seemed to be drastic but perhaps short-lived, even if it came with uncertainty of what the short- and long-term shape of the industry would be like. Today, the economic brutality of the crisis on aviation operations of every kind has set in and seems not just arbitrary but uneven—and it looks unlikely that the crisis will be over very soon. The longer we are in it, the longer the recovery seems likely to be.

There appears to be nothing but bad news on the horizon; and uncertainty as far as the eye can see. The message of this piece is not intended as a “hang in there and stay strong” encouragement—that would be naïve at best and cynical at worst. Rather, I hope to inspire readers to consider how they have come to think about the profession over the past decade of relative prosperity and plenty, versus how they might think about it in a time of scarcity and need.

Members of the profession will no doubt be forced to leave temporarily—some temporarily and some maybe even permanently. Those close to retirement have already or may soon end their careers in relative disappointment to how they thought about it just a year ago. Those who are fortunate enough to remain in a paid position have been forced to adopt a new way of doing business while adapting their personal economies to endure the economic downturn. Almost no one will see their jobs return to a pre-pandemic, “business as usual” environment. Pushing these facts and many others to the side and out of mind is just flat denial that things will be different from here forward.

These thoughts were dominating my own thinking about the profession as I was already changing my thinking due to the transition from one airplane to another. Like many of my colleagues at work and across the industry, my thoughts about the present and the possible future seemed uncomfortably unmoored from the thinking that had dominated my work-life for the past decade. But a journalistic piece I found in June 2020, about how one scion of high-performance inside the sports world was approaching the pandemic era in his own family and profession, helped turn around my thinking on the present and the future. This elite soccer coach inspired me to re-think how I would turn my own challenges into opportunity—not just during this time of uncertainty, but hopefully well into the era of recovery that will inevitably follow the current disruption.

Christian Streich is the coach of SC Freiburg, a professional soccer team in the German Bundesliga. His approach to coaching and playing soccer at an elite level during the pandemic was profiled by the journalist Rory Smith in June of 2020 and has implications well beyond just professional sports to many other professions that demand high performance, high levels of teamwork, precision, and personal discipline. When the Bundesliga resumed play in stadiums without crowds, Streich says that it felt predictably strange, but his players were able to hear his instructions from the sidelines much more easily; the game became for him and his players more simple without the noise and distraction of the crowds, with some of the same familiar joys from when they first took up the sport. Streich says in Smith’s reporting that he hadn’t coached with such ease since he coached youth soccer. And Streich used the shutdown as an opportunity to reinforce among his players the fundamental beauty and elegance of the game, and saw results in the way his players were able to reconnect with a sport that for many had become dominated by commercial distractions, their elite status as players, and in some cases fame. As Smith reports,

“Since the shutdown, though, he has seen a shift: a desire to work together, an awareness that the health of each club depends on the health of the game as a whole, that the success of the enterprise rests on the individual acting for the greater good.”

I don’t know how many of us in aviation have chosen to evaluate the current circumstances in this way (especially in the face of the economic hardships of the moment). Having himself and his players reconnect to the game in its purest form—people of diverse backgrounds coming together on a playing field and working together in a common effort—and showing that to the public, with or without a crowded stadium cheering at a deafening volume, has given him and his players a new kind of satisfaction. In Streich’s own words:

“If we are really disciplined, and we do it, then we have shown that in a sport that is heavily criticized—loads of money, people who are out of touch with reality—we have done something for ourselves, something that links us together.”

Inspired by Streich’s words and his observation of elite soccer players, I’ve written my own phrase to describe how I will think of my profession, even in its current uncertain state:

“We all started flying for the flying itself; it’s what carried us through the hours of study and practice, and the many years of hard work—long before we could earn a decent living doing it.”

There are many ways to get through the current tough times brought by the pandemic’s impact on our industry. If you’ve had the same feelings as many others, perhaps this angle on the times brings about some inspiration of your own. As Streich tells Rory Smith about his profession:

“The game is a bit different, but it is not worse.”

Think about it.

Until our next post, fly safe, and always, fly first.


Rory Smith: “The Teachings of the Philosopher of the Black Forest.” The New York Times. June 13th, 2020.

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