This is a moment my eighteen-year old newbie pilot self didn't even dare dream about. From the December/January issue currently on the newstands:
"There are two ways to tell a flying story: the truth and what everyone wants to hear," Colleen Mondor writes in The Map of My Dead Pilots. "You can't have it both ways."
In describing commercial flying in Alaska, instead of the story you want to hear, she rivets you with compelling non-fiction. Mondor spent four years in the 1990s as an operations dispatcher at one of the small indie airlines tethering the state's remote towns and villages to civilization. Map provides an artful and contemplative recounting of the experience in language as terse as a cockpit voice recording.
Pick any thankless, dead-end gig you ever worked in the Lower 48. Add under-maintained aircraft, double-digit sub-zero temperatures, plus the occasional need to brandish a handgun on the company chief pilot next to you in the cockpit. There are no 9 a.m. conferences in H.R. here. Mondor's world consists of the Bosses, the Owners, and the Company: the "saggy chairs, scratched desks, timed-out airplanes and pissed-off agents." Pilots desperate to move on and those with nothing to come back for. Most of all, there's weather.
The narrative is inhabited by ghosts: a new hire at the dead end of a box canyon, "the good pilot" who flew a Navajo into the Yukon River, and many others. Mondor pores over the cartography of pilot error, overdue flights and "probable cause unknown." Nobody gets closure, nothing emerges unscathed - not the romantic image of Alaskan bush flying, not the writer's own job description: Dispatchers "always lied about the load," she writes of signing off on cargo planes hundreds of pounds over takeoff weight.
At intervals, corpses pop out of caskets in transit, obstinate nuns try to bump a teenage overdose victim off a medevac flight, and sled dogs make just awful air freight. And the time clock ticks on us all.
Writers are frequently advised not to quit their day jobs. Be grateful Colleen Mondor did, then wrote about it.