Fly by night? Well, yes. And fly by day, too.

The other day my former cat sitter, Carol Wood, landed the 50-seat CRJ-200 I flew from Philadelphia to Burlington. As I was exiting the aircraft she told me that she thought the landing had been a little rough, but it had seemed perfectly seamless to me. One second we were above the runway, and the next we were frantically checking our cell phones and PDAs to see how far the stock market had plummeted in the 60 minutes we had been in the air.

I wasn’t surprised that Wood is an excellent pilot. After all, she had been a first-rate cat sitter and there is more overlap in the two occupations than you might realize:

Cats, like passengers, have a deep sense of entitlement. They hate to be told where to sit and think it’s completely unreasonable that they should have to pay for their food and beverages.

Cat sitters, like pilots, occasionally come across vomit in the darnedest places and figure someone else will clean it up if they ignore it. Although Wood has never gotten airsick herself, one time the captain beside her turned to her immediately after take-off, told her to take the controls, and proceeded to vomit like a Louisiana frat boy after Mardi Gras.

It’s been 15 years since Wood fed my cats and four since she graduated from flight school and I observed in this column that someday she would be ferrying me around the country.

Well, that day has arrived. Three times in the last six months we have been on the same jet — though she has been a dignified first officer in a uniform and I’ve been an undignified passenger in grungy Chuck Taylor sneakers. The first time we ran into each other I was wondering whether I might have more legroom if I pretended I was carry-on luggage and climbed into the overhead bin.

Wood flies for Air Wisconsin, a regional carrier that works with US Airways. She absolutely loves her job, although the life of a pilot these days is far from glamorous. Sure, you get to cut the line at security. But that’s about it in the perks department. And the job is demanding. To wit, on Nov. 20, she awoke in Raleigh, N.C., and flew to Washington, D.C.; then she flew to Pittsburgh; then she flew to Newark, N.J.; and then she flew back to Pittsburgh, where she spent the night. That’s four legs. Eight take-offs and landings. (Some days she has six legs, or 12 take-offs and landings.) Altogether, she worked 15 1/2 hours, and a lot of that time was spent at Newark International Airport, a port of call that is not exactly the French Riviera. Still, it was worth the hard work it took to reach this altitude.

“I really enjoy my job. It’s not simply that I love flying. It’s that my job requires me to learn as much as I can,” Wood said. She then reminded me of the old joke that flying is 99 percent boredom and 1 percent terror: “You can never afford to get complacent. You can never allow yourself to be distracted. And my brain seems to fit perfectly with that responsibility.”

When Wood was earning money for flight school, she worked for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Fort Morgan Beach, Ala. Her job was releasing baby sea turtles into the gulf. Someday when she retires, she pictures herself visiting the seashore and coming across grown turtles which, she imagines, were among the hatchlings she set free long ago. Obviously that job was nothing like flying a jet. But I love the idea that the same part of Wood’s soul that derived pleasure from nurturing turtles — and, before that, from nurturing my cats — is now taking responsibility for the 40 to 50 human lives in her care on every flight.

So, the next time Carol Wood is the first officer on your regional jet, take comfort from the knowledge that years before she was watching my cats play turd hockey in Lincoln, Vt.

(This column originally appeared in the Burlington Free Press on November 30, 2008.)

Chris Bohjalian
Chris Bohjalian

Chris Bohjalian is the author of eighteen books, including his forthcoming novel, The Guest Room. His other novels include the New York Times bestsellers Midwives, The Sandcastle Girls, and The Double Bind.

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