Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Requiem for a pilot.

[A note about the music I chose: Although tastes differ, this is a gorgeous version of a touching Michael Jackson song; it "gets me" every time... Also, the "sandy beach" reference reminded me of the fun times back in Jackson and Lakewood, New Jersey. Those of us who knew and loved the subject of this post can agree that he was surely "gone too soon."]*

Ten years ago, at around breakfast-time on May 14, 2004, commercial pilot Thomas F. Lennon took off in a small freight plane for what was to be a routine courier run between Philly and Baltimore; the cargo bay behind him held mostly canceled checks and other commonplace financial documents bound for the Federal Reserve. Instead, his flight and his life ended in the driveway of a private residence just outside his destination, BWI Airport. Whenever a small plane goes down in some tree-lined suburb and the utter catastrophe that could easily have occurred is avoided, the media tend to report the news in language that translates to "only the pilot was killed." I have heard that exact phrase used on a number of occasions since the crash recounted here. In this case, the "only the pilot," Tommy Lennon, was my nephew. He was 34, the youngest of my sister's five children; her only son. He had been married for just a few short years.

He hadn't even outgrown his baby face.
Tommy was one of the many deferred casualties of 9/11, as they are sometimes called: people who lost their lives as an indirect (but no less inevitable) result of what happened on that awful day in 2001. As is ever true in such cases, Tommy's path to tragedy stretched back decades. His late father, Tom Sr., had been a military pilot, and young Tom's dream was to follow in Dad's footsteps. This required a great deal of perseverance—for one thing, Tommy stood 6-7, too tall for the cockpit of the Navy jets he'd hoped to fly. Not to be denied, he took private lessons, then worked a number of menial flying jobs (for Wendy's-like wages) in order to accumulate sufficient hours for USAirways to offer him his first set of real wings. And such a proud moment that was, for the family: a picture of Tommy, resplendent in his new pilot's uniform, took a prominent place in my sister's living room. But Tommy lost that job in the carnage that befell the U.S. airline industry in the wake of 9/11. So it was that on that fateful May morning a decade ago, Tommy found himself behind the controls not of a time-tested Boeing 737, but a notoriously troublesome Mitsubishi MU-2.** And that is how 9/11 cost my nephew his life. (As a side note, Tommy's wife, Lara, and other heirs did not collect $2.08 million from the government, and I'm not saying they were entitled. But neither, in my opinion, were Lisa Beamer et al. As I've asked before, why is one life worth so much more than another?)

We tend to mythologize loved ones who die in tragic circumstances, so one doesn't want to overstate, but eyewitness reports suggest that Tom made a determined effort that morning to steer his faltering aircraft clear of a school, a bus stop and other public venues, until finally the plane's mechanical issues sent him hurtling through a thicket of trees. That collision dictated his final landing spot in the driveway. He died at the scene.

Tommy Lennon was a joy to know. Ever ready with a smile for everyone. He didn't just find common ground with people; he met you on your ground. Tommy was a nice guy, a good guy—the kind of guy of whom acquaintances said, "He'll do anything for you," and it wasn't just a throwaway phrase. Whether the help you needed involved a wrench or a ride or mere moral support, Tommy was your man. And yet there's no describing my nephew without mentioning his devilish sense of humor. His sister Chrissie, who lives in Boston, might use the local vernacular in describing her brother's wit as "wicked sharp"...and oh was it ever! When we were all younger and got together more frequently, those of us sitting nearest him would be convulsed in laughter at regular intervals by some patented Tommyism. He could fire off barbs with the best of them, comments on the goofs and gaffes unfolding around him...but always in good-natured fun.

In sum, then, this isn't like those eulogies where mourners must strain to find positives to talk about, selectively editing the unkempt narrative of the deceased's life or the inconvenient laundry list of his personality traits. (By comparison, my eulogists, if any, will have their work cut out for them.) In Tommy's case, you'd almost have to temper your praise so as not to sound corny or insincere.

The family get-togethers are fewer and farther between these days. His four sistersthose little girls I used to "water-taxi" on my back as we all cavorted in the lake near Jackson, New Jerseyhave moved into middle age. They, of course, have families of their own to tend to. Like the ever-expanding universe, the relationships have veered off in various directions, far from the original nucleus that bound us years ago: the all too familiar script of familial unraveling. Their kids were still youngsters in 2004, and had barely gotten a chance to know their uncle before he died. But their memories of Tom, though limited in quantity, are abundant in quality. They smile when they're asked about him. 

We all smile when we think about the Tommy we knew in life. And that's as fitting a tribute as the tasteful plaque on the ground that anchors an understated memorial in my sister's backyard in New Jersey. Rest in peace, Thomas F. Lennon. You were far more than "only the pilot," and we'll always miss you.

* Best viewed on a PC. Smart-phone users may have to sit through an ad. Sorry.
** Roughly a quarter of the total MU-2 fleet has been involved in fatal mishaps. In a report published in December 2005, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) conceded that the MU-2 is seven times more likely than similar aircraft to crash due to a loss of control. If a commercial jetliner were at the heart of a similar cluster, there is not a chance it would it still be flying.


Lemon Crush Belize said...

this is beautiful, steve. :)

Steve Salerno said...

Thank you, Lara. It's heartfelt.

Anonymous said...

I didn't know Tommy or really know you either, Steve, but I agree with Lemon Crush, this is a beautiful piece.

RevRon's Rants said...

Steve, I've known a few real heroes in my life, and like you, wondered at the need to label as heroes people who were just in the wrong place at the right time. I define a hero as someone who knows that doing the right thing will cost them dearly, but who does the right thing anyway.

Your nephew might have been able to survive the crash, had he opted to land the plane sooner, possibly injuring and killing others. We can't really know. Perhaps even he didn't know. But the fact is that he used precious time to avoid injuring others, with a pilot's knowledge that doing so would diminish and could well eliminate his own chance for survival, which it did. That makes him a hero in my book. Certainly more than someone who happened to get in the way of circumstances.

And yeah, your post was really beautiful.

Steve Salerno said...

Thank you, Ron. He was a great kid, and based on my knowledge of him in life--his eagerness to help--I do think he made conscious decisions in those final moments that saved the lives of others, while costing him his.

Jenny said...

"(By comparison, my eulogists, if any, will have their work cut out for them.)"

Steve, for what it's worth, you are a hero to me. I always manage to return to your blog, regardless of what is going on in my world. I know I can find a clear, sane voice here. I appreciate your insights, never considering anything you might say here as "off topic."

Just today, I was thinking about various people I know who are grieving for one reason or another, perhaps many reasons: estrangment from loved ones, death of loved ones, or just loss of a cherished belief about the nature of life and our role in it. Sometimes being a member of this human race is plain exhausting. People have agendas, angles, ulterior motives. We fear we're being set up, and often we are.

I come to your blog to learn. There's no gimmick or shtick here. No bottle of snake oil. No self-help spiel, in other words.

Just you being you. Thank you, and I am very sorry for the loss of your nephew. He sounds like an amazing and very loved person.

Steve Salerno said...

Jenny, thank you so much for your comments about my nephew, me, and my blog. The line about my (hypothetical) eulogist(s) was a reference to the "unkempt narrative of" my life and the "inconvenient laundry list of" my personal traits. They will require some editing to make me sound...well, good may be a stretch, but better, at least.

Rational Thinking said...

Long time no see, Steve - what a beautiful piece of writing to find when I stopped by.

Steve Salerno said...

Glad you stopped by again, RT. Where ya been?