A Pilot’s Deeply Personal Trip that Encapsulates Life Itself

“Here’s to many more adventures in the cockpit with you.” Pixabay

The phone rang and rang. It was well after 11 p.m. in Tampa, Florida, and I was deeply asleep. Though I had spent 40-plus years as a surgeon and was accustomed to calls at any hour, I thought I was done with all that.

“I have your patient here,” said a man — a gastroenterologist.

“I don’t think so,” I said. “I’m retired and no longer practicing. I fly for a living now.” And why, I wondered, would you be calling me at this late hour, anyway?

“No, he’s yours. I was told to call you. I’m calling from Portland, Oregon.” Even more reason to suspect you’ve got the wrong number, I thought.

Then he told me the patient’s name. He wasn’t my patient; he was my sister’s oldest son. He was my nephew.

I realized the call was for me and this wasn’t good.

“He has metastatic pancreas cancer,” said the doctor. A bad phone connection gave me momentary hope that I had misheard the news. Unfortunately, I hadn’t. Finally,

I was given to understand that one of my favorite people was in trouble. He was not yet 30 years old. As the cancer doctor in the family, I knew I was going to be involved from here on out.

Xan and I were bound together by an appreciation of the good things in life, and airplanes in particular. I remember when he was just 4 or 5 years old, waiting for a commuter flight early one morning at a small airport with Xan and his dad. When a Dash 8 slowly came to life, Xan said, “Look, the airplane is waking up.”

For the past 20 years, I’ve had a blow-up bathtub Blue Angels F-18 floating in the tub. It was a gift from Xan. The grandkids like it too.

I remember trying to sort out Xan’s care by long distance. He called the next week from a surgeon’s office. While the doctor was on speakerphone, I was on a headset, loading bags as the first officer into a Cessna CJ3 on a cold New Hampshire night. The surgeon seemed overly eager to operate and I wanted to ask questions, but the passengers were here and we had to go.

When I caught up with my sister and her son, they were anxious. The surgeon told them this was urgent. From the description of the findings, I thought Xan should have some sort of chemotherapy or immunotherapy before an operation. This cancer had to be attacked on multiple fronts. I did not want them to make a panicked decision.

This was more than three years ago. Xan sought other advice, had a great response to therapy, underwent a major operation (the Whipple procedure) after the tumor had been shrunk, bounced back like a prizefighter and turned his considerable intellect and monumental courage toward living. He became a CrossFit champ, a hang-glider pilot, kiteboarder and a father, all while fully employed.

During this time, we spoke often. Xan wrote me, “In follow-up to my Whipple surgery (an operation you have performed countless times), I could call and ask, ‘Why do I hurt the way I do?’ Every analogy in those conversations was related to aviation. It is a much more joyful bond than cancer is.”

Though the threat of such a lethal cancer is never far from his consciousness, Xan has learned to live with firewall-forward enthusiasm. And so it was that when I bought a jet, my thoughts turned to getting Xan up in it.

I wasn’t the only one to recognize that this brave man should get some airtime. His grandmother arranged for a P-51 flight at the Palm Springs Air Museum in California. “I didn’t throw up until after we landed,” he told me.

Last January, I called Xan and asked if he’d like a ride in the Premier jet from his home in Portland to Los Angeles. His response was immediate: “Sure!”

A few minutes later, he texted, “How about going to San Diego?” Well, I didn’t need to be in San Diego, but it isn’t much farther, so what the heck? A few minutes after that, he texted, “Jake wants to come too.” Jake is Xan’s youngest brother — he lives in Madison, Wisconsin. I concluded that Jake’s doing very well in his job. So, why not?

A few weeks later, I flew commercially from Tampa to Sacramento, California, where I caught up with N323CM — just out of expert maintenance at Mather Aviation. Then, I flew to Hillsboro, Oregon, arriving at dusk. It had been a while since I’d been in the Northwest in the air, in winter.

I smiled quietly to myself as several airplanes complained of icing on the descent. I was smugly protected with that hot wing. The ILS 13R produced a welcome sight: the runway. The airport was notable for the incredibly friendly folks at Global Aviation and the cold, rainy, raw weather.

The next morning, Xan and I did the preflight together. Xan wrote, “We completed the preflight in an uncharacteristically cold rain. But this was the experience. I wasn’t just there for the ride. I was copilot for the day. Not participating in the preflight was not an option.” We took off from 13R and flew the Farmington 6 Departure. We didn’t break out of the clouds until passing 20,000 feet. I kept thinking how interesting it would’ve been in our old Cheyenne — not the greatest climber out of 15,000 feet and above — especially in ice.

With the sun hitting our faces, we talked. Jake is full of life and possibility. Xan knows exactly how valuable every minute of his life really is, yet life has to be lived in the everyday here and now. This makes everything extraordinary and ordinary at the same time. We agreed it is a gift, but a harsh one.

The clouds beneath gave way. The Sierra Nevada came into snowcapped, sunbathed view. We set up the anticipated approach to Gillespie Field (KSEE), near San Diego. We dialed in the “baro minimums,” slowed to 200 knots and commented on the arresting view of various mountains near the airport. “We had two hours of uninterrupted highest-quality family time, with a view to boot,” reported Xan.

The folks at High Performance pulled a rental car up to the airplane. “Hey,” said Xan, “this is some kind of service.” Later, he wrote to me, “It was out of a movie, completely surreal.”

An hour later, we were treated to a behind-the-scenes tour of the world-renowned San Diego Zoo by an old friend of Xan’s. As I fed lettuce (romaine) to an elephant the size of a tractor-trailer cab, I felt the firm tough skin of her trunk. How is it that life can seem so mundane sometimes and so preciously awesome at other times?

Yesterday, Xan emailed me: “Here’s to many more adventures in the cockpit with you.”

Dick Karl
Dick KarlAuthor
Dick Karl is a cancer surgeon who appreciates the beauty and science involved in both surgery and flying. Dick’s monthly Gear Up celebrates the human side of flying. He writes about his enthusiasm for both the machines and the people who fly and maintain them.

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