“I came to acknowledge that I could not go on splitting my time between supporting an unsustainable endeavor like piloting a jet aircraft while at the same time pursuing an intense urge to simplify my existence and reduce my impact on my host planet. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to understand that our short two hundred year love affair with cheap and abundant but finite energy is coming to a painful end. Many of us are in serious denial of the facts, and the people we have elected to represent us are largely unwilling to wake up and implement the drastic changes necessary to avert disaster.
For me, and for us all, it’s now or never.”
How It All Started
An only child, born of an international union between a first-generation Norwegian and a sixth-generation Vermonter, I was lucky enough to realize from an early age that the world extended well beyond the borders of my small hometown. An early love of distance running and bicycle riding introduced me to many back roads and neighboring towns before ever having a driver’s license. My folks and I spent the odd vacation driving around the northeastern USA, including trips along the eastern seaboard and up into the Canadian Maritimes. Traveling farther afield, we flew several times to Norway (including a solo summer trip when I was 13). Buoyed by these experiences, at the age of 17 I left home for a year as an AFS (American Field Service) exchange student in New Zealand, a truly remarkable experience that changed my life and cemented a love of travel in my teenage mind.
Upon my return home, I went off to state university, determined to experience new things. While working towards an individually designed major at university, I moved into a small student housing cooperative and spent several tumultuous yet powerfully formative years as a member/resident. Living and working toward a common goal in such an intense environment forced me to empathize with others and expanded my horizons as to what was possible within a community of people. At the same time, my coursework opened my eyes to the state of the natural world and shed light on the struggles of human communities, both near and far. Egalitarian democracy and social justice, the bread and butter of the cooperative movement, fired an interest, and my eventual involvement with several student activist groups working to promote a progressive ideal and attempting to change the way the university invested its endowment. Through all of this I began making basic connections between poverty and oppression while also starting to recognize the tensions that exist between democracy and industrial capitalism.
Around this time, I sold my car and used the proceeds to buy a touring bicycle. My now 17 year relationship with veganism and whole foods also began, assisted by a wonderful community-owned grocery store and my close friends. I spent a couple of summers working at a Flemish bakery crafting naturally leavened loaves of the best bread I had ever eaten. I was a member of a CSA and I benefited greatly from the hard work and dedication of many local organic farmers whose wonderful contribution, incidentally, has gone on to reinvigorate a vibrant local food system in Vermont.
Following graduation I moved out of the coop and went to work for the local non-profit organization that provided technical assistance to the area housing cooperatives, including my own student coop. Excited at the prospect of making a difference, I was then hired into the local not-for-profit community land trust, which, as it so happened, was the owner of the buildings my student coop had called home. I settled into that position for five years, eventually expanding my job description to include grant writing, affordable housing development, and property management. I eventually found myself part of a small team tasked with securing new funding to sustain the various local housing cooperatives then still in existence. Only partially successful, we were ultimately forced to convert many of the cooperatives, including the student coop, into affordable rental housing. I ended my time at the land trust mostly serving as the rental property manager for the bulk of these properties.
I was lucky enough to travel some in those years, visiting Korea, Japan and India and also spent many hours in the saddle of my road bike pushing my personal limits and reflecting upon my life. I had come to see my work as largely supporting a band-aid type approach to the problems created by the massive income inequality/wealth disparity present in the United States. My work focused on the margins and I realized that there would never be any real change until we changed the entire system. Sufficiently overwhelmed, with my youthful optimism thoroughly sullied, I decided I needed a change of scenery.
A Change of Scenery
I initially considered a few professions, including apprenticing to be a lawyer and acquiring my teaching certificate. What I finally settled on was something else entirely. At the urging of a friend and a coworker, I set my sights on the excitement and mystery of commercial flying. Now, you may ask yourself, “What business does a progressively minded, bicycle-riding vegan have with aviation?” In hindsight, I think I chose aviation because I longed for something that I could exact some real control over. After all, I may not have had any control over where my government chose to spend our money (certainly not on affordable housing or education or healthcare, etc.), but I reasoned that I could exert control over an airplane. In fact, flying an airplane is all about having control; that the task also demands precision and dedication only added to the appeal.
Control aside, I also think that up until that point I had never really tested myself, to see what I was capable of achieving. After all, I had never been a fan of school (I felt more of failure in that department) and the fact that I actually enjoyed the learning aspect of flying was a huge hook. So the more I though about it, learning to fly seemed an ideal challenge. And although I recall feeling like I was turning my back on a sense of responsibility to serve the community, I felt justified given the years I’d spent working on affordable housing. Somewhat selfishly, I felt I deserved a break from the struggle. I had no idea where it would lead.
I excelled first as a student pilot, eventually as a flight instructor, then as a first officer and, ultimately, as captain of a fifty-seat jet for one of the largest regional airlines in the US (when I finally was able to pay off a big chunk of what it cost me to learn to fly). The chaos of being away from home half of each month and the associated hectic lifestyle neatly diverted my attention from the world’s problems and, as it turned out, being responsible for 55 people’s lives at 37,000 feet took on a certain seductive appeal.
However, as the years whipped by at 500 knots, and after thanking my lucky stars that I had fled the housing sector when I did, I came to realize new frustrations as a skilled worker in another declining industry.
The Delayed Realizations of an Airline Pilot
What happened? Well, at some point late into my near ten year piloting stint, while once again reflecting upon my life, I found myself acknowledging that I had moved far away from many if not most of the things I had once held dear. For some time flying had been a convenient and effective distraction. However, approaching a decade into my new life found me out of shape, bitter, chaotic, lonely and feeling heaps of stress. And being on the road pretty much all the time meant I didn’t have much of a life. If I wasn’t on a trip I was thinking about, and preparing for my next one.
My bike riding also took a huge backseat to my career. I was never able to adjust to the variable pilot schedule and it was rarely feasible or easy to bring my bike along even though I have one that folds up. Riding a few times a month never appealed to me so instead I fell back to running to try and stay in shape. The trouble was, all that it seemed to take was a few miserable trips over a few weeks and before I knew it a month would go by and I would have only run a handful of times – not enough to maintain any fitness. I am very much an all or nothing person and if I can’t do something right (read consistently) and well (read expertly) then I tend to move on to something else. So cycling and fitness in general eluded me.
Moreover, I saw now clearly the writing on the wall vis á vis peak oil. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to understand that our short two hundred year love affair with cheap and abundant but finite energy is coming to a painful end. Many of us are in serious denial of the facts, and the people we have elected to represent us are largely unwilling to wake up and implement the drastic changes necessary to avert disaster.As I looked around at the world, I found myself again confronting head-on the tensions between the natural world and human civilization. It became self-evident that for me to continue in my present line of work was to reject that part of me that longed for real change. No longer was I willing to participate in such an exploitative line of work; one that forced me to neglect my family and community and one that so successfully pitted worker against worker in a destructive “race to the bottom” in which basic rights like compensation, job security and quality of life are all sacrificed for company profit.
My conscience caught up with me and allowed me to recognize my own complicity in this flawed system. Mostly, I came to acknowledge that I could not go on splitting my time between supporting an unsustainable endeavor like piloting a jet aircraft while at the same time pursuing an intense urge to simplify my existence and reduce my impact on my host planet.
The New & Improved Plan
I decided to refocus my energies. For now, I plan to engage life head-on from the seat of my bicycle. Sheila and I plan to see as much of the world as we can and then tell anyone who will listen to us about what we’ve seen. I look forward to this great adventure and relish the fact that I will be essentially naked to the world, my home consisting only of what I carry on my bike and my community being the people I hope to meet along the way. There is something cathartic about exposing yourself in this way; something powerful in opening yourself up to your fellow man while placing your existence so blatantly on the line. I look forward to learning new ways of doing things and experiencing different ways of seeking the solutions to our collective problems.
For me, and for us all, it’s now or never.
You may also be interested in :: Reading Kai’s blog post written for Aviation Justice, A Former Airline Pilot Speaks Out or his blog post about the airline industry, Racing to the Bottom :: The Realities of Life as an Airline Pilot. Looking Back, Moving Forward is a podcast interview with Kai about quitting his job as an airline pilot and riding around the world on a bicycle.