Last week, I received some unfortunate news. My childhood friend and neighbor died in a plane crash, just arriving at Teterboro Airport, which is just twelve miles from midtown Manhattan. It is the oldest operating airport in the New York and New Jersey metropolitan area and handles aviation and charter flights.
Monday, May 15, 2017, the Learjet crashed into the industrial neighborhood, badly damaging two buildings and causing a fire that burned sixteen cars in a nearby parking lot. There were no passengers other than the two pilots, according to officials, and no injuries or fatalities had been reported on the ground.
Jeff Alino was one of the two pilots in the devastating plane crash, the other pilot still unnamed at the moment with at least twenty years of piloting experience. Jeff had been flying for about four.
I cried when my aunt called me with the news from home. My tears caught me off guard; I hadn’t spoken to Jeff for several months. I thought about what a punk kid Jeff always was growing up, and how he had matured so much throughout his adolescent years. He had a sweetness to him and his stoke on life was through the roof. I don’t visit home often, but when I did, he was always there to greet me with a smile. He was the only person I’d ever let get away with calling me by my full name (“Kathleen”, he would say and I would just smile. Others, I’d attempt to strangle.)
I spent most of the next day thinking about Jeff’s death, which still seems so senseless to me. Truthfully, every day is a crapshoot as we are all taking a risk stepping out our front door, never truly knowing where the day will bring us. But this is not how we approach every day. Most days, we assume, will be casual: greet the morning with a typical cup of coffee and head to work routine. Maybe go for a run, maybe sneak in a few laps at the gym. Grab a beer with a friend or make dinner at home. Nobody thinks, “I might die today.”
As climbers, we try to approach life the way we do climbing: with great uncertainty and great fortitude. But even behind a brave disposition, we cannot argue that what we do is not dangerous. It isn’t volleyball or ultimate frisbee, where, in a worst case scenario, we risk a muscle strain or broken limb. The ramifications are much greater.
So why continuously stack the odds against us like that? Why choose a career as a pilot? Why climb mountains? My friend, Austin Howell, put it so eloquently:
Because that’s the whole point.
To go big, to be bold. Howell states, “I believe that going big and having cajones matters. Believing that I have the physical, technical, and mental abilities to try for something like that, and then opting out would scar me far more than a failed attempt at glory.”
It’s true, we will all die one day. We are all bound by one thing: our mortality, and it’s a glum truth. Like most of us climbers know, there is a risk that comes with doing something we love.
When we look at high injury or fatality rates attached to certain professions, it must seem absurd to some people. The sanity of individuals who would choose to go into jobs or situations that are inherently dangerous in and of themselves are often questioned. Perhaps not insanity, but passion is a driving force here.
But how do you calculate reward to risk ratio? Can that ratio ever be truly understood, when the risk is so devastatingly high? Just like climbing, the answer is unknown. Despite systems implemented to mitigate the hazard, despite all of the years of experience one might have, the truth is that it could happen to any one of us and the answer is up to each individual.
Those with dangerous jobs know the risks involved yet still get up every morning to go to work. Those who consider themselves well-seasoned rock and ice climbers, mountaineers, and alpinists will continue seeking new summits. Opposed to popular belief, it isn’t necessarily about a level of danger that must be reached or an adrenaline junkie looking for his or her next fix. It’s about feeling an indescribable passion in your bones that moves you in ways you never thought existed. It’s about not being lulled into the habitual patterns of life and settling for the status quo. It’s about feeling inspired and challenging one’s mental fortitude, and in turn, inspiring others to do the same.
We all crave meaning, especially in the wake of a loved one’s too-soon death. But nature, at its core, is unknowable. The people left behind might never get to the truth, but we embrace the journey and continue on. Jeff, along with so many others who have left us too soon, understood that. It is a responsibility he accepted the moment he first sat in that pilot seat. It is a responsibility we willingly accept every time we tie into a rope. Like all responsibility, it is both a blessing and a burden that empowers us and inevitably brings us closer to others, even if it comes with such a high price. When passion and responsibility collide, sometimes the price means death.
More than any one person I knew, Jeff Alino truly had a passion for flight and found a way to live it through a career that he loved. So few people get to say that at the end of their lives. The world is in constant need of more people like Jeff. Despite a heavy loss, the world can be inspired by the fire that lit up Jeff’s heart and soul, that made him take risks and to live a life that he truly loved. May moments like these cause us to question our own lives in the best ways and remind ourselves that even though life is short, we should never limit ourselves and always encourage others to climb on and fly higher.