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The End of a Wonderful Career

Pan Am and all other Airline pilots are subject to having their flying careers ended rather abruptly for many reasons, and primarily due to failing health or slacking skills:

  • Each 6 months an FAA flight physical is required. Fail the physical and the career may be over.

  • Each 6 months a Pan Am simulator check flight and oral exam is required. Fail it and you may be on your way to losing a career.

  • Once each year a check pilot rides on a flight with you. Make a large mistake and you are removed from your seat and sent to training.

The end of my Pan Am flying career came rather abruptly and as quite a surprise.


During the last 8 years of flying for Pan Am, I commuted from San Francisco to New York where I was based and flew the Atlantic routes. Several other pilots and I maintained a commuter apartment in Queens near the airport. On this particular day I had to report for my flight at 6:00 p.m. to go to London. I had arrived from San Francisco the previous evening so I would be rested for the flight. During mid-morning I began hanging some wall paper in the kitchen to dress it up a little. The paper was self adhesive so it was a rather easy job. However, I noticed that I was getting dizzy while hanging this paper. It was intermittent, and I thought the adhesive material may have been toxic to me because it did have an odor. So when this kept up I decided to stop the project.


On the flight to London, there are occasions when I would need to tilt my head back and to the right in order to reach something on the overhead circuit breaker panel. Each time I did this I noticed that I still got that dizzy feeling. After getting my head back to the normal position the dizziness would go away.


On the return flight from London to New York I experienced the same sensation. Each

time I leaned my head back to reach something on the overhead panel I would get dizzy. Then it would stop a few seconds after returning my head to a normal position.


As soon as I got back to San Francisco I made an appointment with our family doctor who referred me to an ear specialist. During a week's period he put me through a series of tests, both passive and active type tests to confirm what he thought I had.


The diagnosis was BPPV (Benign Paroxysmal Positional Vertigo) At that moment I knew my Pan Am flying career was over. However, I still had to go to an FAA doctor to take an FAA physical so that doctor could send a report to the FAA Medical Center who would make the final decision as to whether I would pass the physical or not. Obviously you can't pass a flight physical if you have BPPV, so this was just a formality that had to be performed. The FAA Medical Office sent back a letter denying the physical. After reporting the medical diagnosis and the FAA medical office to my company, I had to be removed from flight status and placed on medical leave.


The doctor said this condition was probably caused by a virus that, a few weeks

earlier, had almost developed into pneumonia for me. It apparently attacked my inner ear and caused the damage. There are tiny calcium "stones" inside your inner ear canals to help you keep your balance. Normally, when you move a certain way these stones move around. But things like infection or inflammation can stop the stones from moving as they should. This sends a false message to your brain and affects your balance. The "good" ear is telling your brain that you are ok, and the "bad" ear is sending the opposite signal. That contradiction creates dizziness until the brain sorts it out. In one more year I would have been forced to retire by age, which at that time was age 60. So I was fortunate that I was only forced to retire medically by one year early.


Since I had several avocations that I enjoyed I was able to adjust without too much difficulty. There were adjustments to the normal routines that I was accustomed to and that my wife was accustomed to. We both had adjustments to make; and with a lot of love and understanding, we got through it. I did miss the people I worked with and the excitement of the job; but fortunately I also had a love for these other avocations, and that eased the pain.

I was a musician, and years before had studied to be a vocalist. So, as a musician, and soon to be singer, I had photography, sailing, and other activities that I could now spend more time with.

Racing photo by Bill Travis while in a San Francisco Bay Race

Bill Travis 17-piece Swing Orchestra on the USS Hornet at Alameda CA

Update: We relocated to Phoenix area in 2004 and I sold the band to one of the musicians in the band. Today, I am still a musician but also a vocalist performing in the Phoenix Metropolitan Area.

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