Contrail Sunset Zupp


July 2020.

It’s deathly quiet.

The airliner is all but empty. Just we six, reclined and in search of sleep with the engines hum the white noise filling our heads. The Pacific Ocean slides beneath us and home edges closer as the hours pass by.
We have just delivered the final Qantas Boeing 747 to her resting place in the Mojave Desert. With much fanfare and media coverage we farewelled “Wunala” and yet it was a distant second in global headlines.

The pandemic was just beginning to extend its sinister tentacles across the globe.

Maybe a few months, maybe a bit more. I wasn’t going to be flying anytime soon anyway with the 747’s retirement necessitating my migration to another aircraft type and the months of training that would involve.

Maybe six months.

Little did I know.

September 2023.

Now, more than three years later, my wife is at 37,000 feet, south of Hawaii and bound for Los Angeles – 4 hours to go. I am at ground level and going nowhere.

Those tentacles went on to strangle the planet. Runways became parking lots and the contrails above us became a distant memory. It would be nearly two years before I entered a classroom, or flew a simulator, in preparation to fly. However, the pandemic was not the only enemy.

I had only completed my training and flown for a matter of weeks when I was grounded again – this time with a health issue. The news of the need for surgery was shattering, the operation was awful and the recovery even worse. Even so, I did as I was told and remained disciplined through the various stages of rehabilitation. Day by day, I got a little stronger and walked a little further until 10 kilometres each day were slipping beneath my feet. And the new runners I had bought in anticipation now bore holes from wear.

Six months lapsed and I began the tests to regain my licence. Treadmills, monitors, ultrasounds and all manner of machines that went “beep”. The results were good and more importantly, I was feeling good. Unfortunately, the paperwork battle is as challenging as any physical recovery. And so I wait.

It is the open-ended timeframe and the inability to plan ahead that represents the greatest source of frustration. As aviators, we like to have a plan and plan b,c and d – just in case. Languishing in limbo is not a familiar route to navigate. I had averaged around 700 hours of flight time every year for the thirty years before the pandemic. I have now accumulated about 70 in three years. I guess I’m that “earthbound misfit” that Pink Floyd described all those years ago.

I have looked behind the curtain a couple of times recently, as a passenger on my wife’s flights. Kirrily up the front and me down the back. Still, to have even a sample of the sights, smells and sounds of flight was a form of therapy. Although it left me wanting more.

How much longer? I don’t know as it’s beyond my control and that is another aspect that pilots are not comfortable with. So, I will wear out another pair of shoes and write my ramblings. I will continue to treasure the memories of family that my constant presence at home has provided. Even if they need to be supported by three loads of washing each day. I will look at the aircraft passing overhead like an envious schoolboy. I will do whatever it takes.

In the end, it’s not about the “when”. It is about the time until then.