Learning how to control what I can.
By: T.R. Matson
I was sitting in the forward wardroom on the USS Nimitz aircraft carrier. It was 3am and the end of 2004. The ship was sitting off the coast of Australia, and I could not sleep. My mind was a blur of the previous two and a half years of flight school since graduating college. I had moved five times, flew four different aircraft, and after what seemed to be countless hours and completing carrier qualifications in both the T-45 Goshawk and the E-2C Hawkeye, I had finally made it to my first fleet squadron. As I sit in the wardroom alone wide awake, I realized that even though I had been through a top-notch aviation training program, I was not ready for what was ahead of me.
Hours ago, I just saw the real beast of what Naval Aviation was and flight school didn’t prepare me for that one bit. You see, when you go through flight school everything is done in a very controlled environment. Nothing more so than carrier qualifications. When I went during the day in the T-45 the sea and wind conditions had to be about perfect or they wouldn’t even let us try. Then if you graduate that and move onto your next aircraft, the one you will fly in the fleet, the restrictions for carrier qualifications with regards to weather loosened a little bit. Of course, as I just learned, once you get to the fleet all bets are off. This particular night I had just landed in relatively good weather. There was a full moon and not a cloud in the sky which I would assume would make for a great landing, but I was wrong. This particular night, off of the coast of Australia, the sea conditions were bad. I do not remember the exact size of the waves, but there was a film crew out recording and when the episode aired on TV, I remember people were shocked that we land in conditions like that.
None of that really mattered to me when I was 5 miles behind the ship, and while flying my instruments to try to make a perfect approach, I happened to glance up at the world ahead of me. To this day I can close my eyes and be transported back to that night. I vividly watched as I saw the USS Nimitz roll to one side and then back completely to the other. In slow motion, I watched the giant 21-foot propellers of the ship come out of the water. The only thing I could mutter was “Did you see that?” to my co-pilot who was a much more senior and experienced pilot than myself. He knew exactly what I was talking about and immediately responded with a firm “Fly your instruments!” because he knew looking outside would not help at this point. Somehow, I landed the plane moments later and then did my best to control it while taxiing around the pitching flight deck before the deck crew could get her chained down for the night. To this day I truly believe it was far more luck than any airmanship that caused me to be successful that night.
So, as I sat alone in the forward wardroom realizing that I somehow survived and for the life of me couldn’t figure out how I was going to survive the next time I had to fly, someone entered the room and snapped me out of my haze. It was a young enlisted airman who was getting ready to mop the floor for the night. The exchange that occurred, while brief, I will never forget. I believe it was fundamental in shaping who I am today:
“Rough night, sir?”
“Yeah, it was crazy out there.”
“Well, just remember that all we can do is win today.”
“Just win today” has echoed in my head ever since. As I sit here and write this, we live in an ever-changing world. People are being told to stay home and quarantine themselves because of a virus that we are learning more about every day. A virus that is no doubt taking lives around the world and changing the “normal” we have come accustomed to. A lot of people feel like they are out of control whether it is losing jobs, taking care of the sick, or just being in close quarters with people they don’t usually spend so much time with. There is no real end in sight with no magic date that everything will go back to normal, and that is hard to deal with. We wake up every day and hope this was just a crazy dream, but then we realize that we need to wear a mask to go buy food, we aren’t allowed to go to work, and we can’t visit friends or enjoy many freedoms we love.
With all this going on, that young airman’s words have never been more important. “Just win today.” We cannot control what tomorrow will bring, but today we can get up, take a shower, hug our loved ones and tell them that we love them. We can set up goals that we can control and accomplish. We can take a long look at ourselves in the mirror and decide if we like what we see or not and, if not, we can fix it. All of the things that can be described as life’s daily noise have been put on hold for the time being. Now is the time to simplify things and just win today. Sitting in that wardroom and realizing that I couldn’t control what the weather would be for the next landing, or if the plane would break, or the mission would go poorly, was liberating. Sometimes understanding what you cannot control is just as important as understanding what you can. So, get up, get moving, make a list of things you can control, and get focused on them. Take stock in the important things in life and know that many years from now we will look back at the year 2020 as a turning point in our lives…and it is up to you whether it will be a positive or negative turning point. Make it a positive one!