Airline pilots: The unsung heroes of the sky

It is old news by this point, borderline painful for many to hear: The pandemic changed society far more than anyone could have imagined one and a half years ago. Full-time positions transitioned to remote jobs, grocery stores became more like feedlots than places to shop and life as we knew it completely changed in the COVID-19 era. The disease was much more than a minor inconvenience for the general public. 

To date, there have been more than 750,000 deaths in the United States and over 46 million cases of infection, per Worldometer

A plethora of factors have contributed to the relative American success of containing the spread of the virus, and not all of them are due to health care. 

Air travel constitutes much of the way society is connected globally, both in the way humans travel and in the way a country's goods and resources are distributed. 

According to Statista, in 2019, just over 330,000 airline pilots were registered globally. In the U.S. alone, the Federal Aviation Administration watches over more than 45,000 flights on a daily basis, which includes a substantial number of cargo liners. 

In April 2020, the Trump administration announced the launch of Project Airbridge. This initiative aimed to provide daily flights from China chock full of medical supplies and destined for the hardest hit states at the time. The project used domestic airlines and their pilots in order to secure these supplies from China, which removed men and women from their homes at an uncertain time in human history. 

For more than four months, these pilots were called on time and time again in order to continue delivering personal protective equipment to health care professionals in desperate need. 

COVID-19 created an opportunity to highlight a segment of our society that sits largely unrecognized. Commercial airline pilots are largely balancing the fate of hundreds of people every day they step onto the job. 

According to the Pilot Institute, after earning a private pilot’s license, it takes an individual an additional two years — at least — to have enough flight hours to test for a commercial license. Even when the license is secured, there are annual checkrides and constant critiques to ensure the person flying knows exactly what they are doing. This accomplishment is no easy task, and once someone becomes qualified to fly, the responsibility of getting people safely to their destination is paramount to the operation. 

More recently, with the messy military withdrawal from Kabul, Afghanistan, pilots were once again called on to help thousands of innocent bystanders seek emergency refuge in neighboring countries through airlifts. Al Jazeera reported over 120,000 Afghans and Americans were evacuated from the country within 10 days of withdrawal, flying all day without rest. Accomplishing a feat of this magnitude required incredible planning, along with the qualified operators to fly these machines and guide individuals to safety. 

One notion more relevant to the American public, however, is leisure travel. Oftentimes, families plan annual getaways, but so many of these plans would be unattainable without air travel. Traveling weeks by boat, or numerous days and thousands of miles by car, does not appeal to the majority of vacationers. With airlines flying to these destinations on a daily basis, often multiple times, the burden of travel becomes much smaller to a family looking to get away. Modern advancements in technology, and the willingness of pilots to fly these impressive machines thousands of miles across continents, is what allows society to not think twice about how it is getting there. 

Pilots also contributed a substantial amount toward getting doctors to countries with underdeveloped and overrun health care systems. Per the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, over 250,000 health care professionals, both doctors and nurses, were flown to different countries to assist international efforts in the fight against the virus. These individuals played such a crucial role for the citizens of these nations.

 An unfortunate reality for many is that if foreign doctors do not administer medical attention, it is likely no one will. According to the World Health Organization, at least 50% of the global population lacks access to sufficient health care, and more than 100 million have been pushed into extreme poverty because of crippling medical debt. Obviously, the limelight will be given to people on the front lines saving lives — and justifiably so — but do not forget who was responsible for getting those workers to destinations where they were so desperately needed. 

The U.S. faces new challenges every day, some of which are foreseen and others unexpected. What makes this country unique is the innate ability to rise to new challenges, and to overcome them in a way greater than anyone could have hoped. So many individuals in the workforce play pivotal roles in the day-to-day success of the U.S. health care, agricultural, and economic systems, along with so many more. 

I chose to spotlight people of the commercial airline industry because all too often, they don’t receive acknowledgement or thanks for the work they do. Flying massive airplanes through crowded airspace and an array of weather conditions, all while being responsible for hundreds of souls, is undeniably a stressful task, to say the least.

While the world continues to extinguish the flames of the deadly pandemic, take a moment to reflect on how a pilot may have helped you, whether creating good or somber memories, such as saying a final goodbye to a loved one. Chances are, a pilot made it possible.

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