Writing The Decline

I wrote The Decline and Fall of Air Arcadia because I was falling off a cliff. One day I was Captain and Training Captain on the A320. The next day I was a former captain, my skills and experience worth nothing, my work gone because I was sixty years old. I needed new work.

Also, to be honest, I needed some reflection and cleansing. The world changes during a forty-year career and the worker falls behind, storing seeds of bitterness. It would not do to let those seeds grow and take me to my grave. So I wrote, exhuming and examining the seeds, remembering and discovering.

It was a long process. For a start, I had to learn a new trade. Learning to write is every bit as difficult and complex and involving as learning to fly. Like flying, writing is a learn by doing trade. There is no substitute for experience. It is also, like flying, an apprenticeship trade – except that the apprenticeship is reading others, finding writing that speaks to you and asking why. Then you return to what you have written and are – well, disappointed. So the cycle begins again.

Discouraging, yes. But the effort and the pattern of my learning began to recall the intensity and the joy of flying the DC-9 as a young man. And gradually what started as a rant became a love story, a eulogy.

The main character of The Decline and Fall of Air Arcadia is the airline herself. This is an excerpt from the Prologue, a brief first-person section where I speak of her:

I owed her my work and I gave her that and she took care of me and my family but there is more: there is a balance due. She and her people taught me my trade. She trusted me with a small piece of her operation and with passing on what she gave me to the next generation. And I know now, today, this afternoon, dead tired from working again, that this is a love story. She was kin. She was my work family. I took from her and in a small way I gave back. I belonged.

She is old now, as am I. I hope that she will live to see me out. It’s just that there is the matter of her eulogy. I know when the moment comes the media will dig into their records and produce a sturdy and factual obituary. I know there will have been many other writings about her. But I love her and I love my work and I know that it will never be again. Not quite like this. I’d like you to know something about it. I owe her that.

The book is a novel, a fictional memoir, a fanciful snippet of Canadian history, and a love story about work. It is also perhaps a roman-à-clef – but not just about an airline. If there are keys here they fit many locks.

 

There has been a satisfying circularity to the book’s gestation. A few years back I had the idea that if I could finish the book and get it into a state fit for publication, I could promote it by flying much of Arcadia’s route structure in a light aircraft, albeit a sturdy one equipped for flying under Instrument Flight Rules in our demanding Canadian airspace. In my dream I chose the Beechcraft Bonanza, one of my old flames from forty years ago. She will be named Arcadia and she will fly, phoenix-like, over the routes I remember so well, defying the Faustian bargains forced upon her namesake in the twenty-first century.

Except that six years and counting from my last flight, my ratings had all expired. So I began studying again for aviation exams, starting with the Student Pilot Written Test, known as the PSTAR. Next was the Instrument Rating Written Test, the INRAT. By a stroke of fortune executives at Pepsi had invented the RedBird simulator and Transport Canada had approved its use for Instrument Rating renewals. Finally my Airline Transport Pilot License was current.

Then to my surprise I was working again. I had been offered the chance to teach instrument flying part-time. As I recount in the Prologue, I knew driving home one day that the circle had closed, that it all made sense.

Recently a friend I have known all my life (we met in kindergarten) brought me a book to read: George Lothian’s Flight Deck: Memoirs of an Airline Pilot. (McGraw-Hill Ryerson Ltd. 1979). George retired from the airline while I was flying a Bonanza more than forty years ago. He was writing his book while I was a young man in my apprenticeship. He lived the era I only heard stories about. He writes of the making of this trade I am still so passionate about. Our books are different but our stories are complementary.

The Decline and Fall of Air Arcadia picks up the baton from Flight Deck. It is 1973 and instrument flying and airline Standard Operating Procedures have matured. The big jets have just arrived, bringing with them an upheaval in aerodynamics and pilots’ assumptions. Arcadia is an adult.

It ends in the aughts, after 9/11, when the pilots who joined when I did were reaching sixty. Arcadia is an old lady. She is suffering as the old suffer when their dignity is stripped away.

Even so, with luck this fall I will yet fly coast-to-coast in my own Arcadia, celebrating her namesake and singing of her exploits to our vast, proud country.