Where Are the Nation’s Captains?

boeing-airplane-300x200 Where Are the Nation’s Captains?

“A Tale of Two Flights.”

Traveling by air these days can be stressful. It is increasingly difficult to go on a trip without some incident happening like the recent tussle on United Airlines Flight 3411. More often, however, flights are being canceled or delayed due to mechanical or weather problems. This can lead to hours of waiting at the gates compounded by the constant uncertainty about what is going on. However, enduring these incidents can be a real lesson about society in general.

I experienced two flights during a recent trip that displayed opposite ways of dealing with problems. It got me thinking of what is needed in times of crises on a larger scale.

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A Slight Delay Becomes a Nightmare

The first incident was a short one-hour flight that would generally present few problems. This particular six o’clock flight was due to arrive at its destination at seven. The trouble began with a short half-hour delay. Apparently, there was a small mechanical problem that needed to be fixed and would only take a short while to remedy.

The short while soon became a long delay as problems compounded. One hour, two hours, three hours passed and we waited. Waiting is always difficult, but the worst thing was the unknown. No one seemed to know what was going on or at least would not tell us. We were left in the dark. The personnel at the desk, although polite, were hardly reassuring.

The situation started to get ugly when the captain and crew inexplicably walked out of the plane and left the scene. We did not know why they left but later figured out they had timed out their hours and by law could not fly. It was later announced that another plane had been found and that all were instructed to scramble over to another gate in the next terminal.

There was no plane at the next terminal. Passengers started to get angry and confront the poor airline representative left at the desk. People began to make problems and create scenes. No one seemed to be in charge. A plane finally arrived, but then we were told that the pilots and crew had just been called to the airport and would not arrive for another hour. After a time of chaos and confusion, the plane took off after midnight. An hour later, we landed, and our nightmare was over.

A Similar Situation Develops

I would have typically dismissed the incident as just another misadventure that has become part of traveling in these times. However, my next flight a few days later provided such a marked contrast that it helped me see a larger picture.

On this second occasion, the three-hour flight was slightly delayed because of weather problems. However, we soon boarded the plane, and everyone took their seats. We were all ready to leave the gate when the captain announced that there would be a delay because the tower at the destination would not give him permission to land.

Such an announcement hardly pleased the passengers that were cooped up in the plane. Everyone started to get a bit edgy with the news and the prospect of spending an hour or more at the gate.

But then something unexpected happened. It astonished me.

A Commanding Presence Reassures

As I looked down the aisle, I saw the figure of the captain. He was slowly making his way to the back of the plane explaining to everyone what was happening. He would stop and answer any questions and reassure everyone that he was doing his best to get this plane in the air. He was clearly in charge.

After returning to the cockpit, everyone waited. The pilot then made another announcement that the plane would be even further delayed. For a second time, he went down the aisle answering questions and reassuring passengers. The atmosphere aboard the plane was calm. People were not upset or angry. The captain’s prompt actions and commanding presence put them all at ease.

Later the captain made an announcement that by law everyone had to leave the cabin and stretch their legs, which everyone considered absurd. He apologized for the inconvenience yet firmly insisted that all comply. Everyone left without problems or complaint.

Finally, we took off, and the plane landed without incident. As I was leaving the plane, I could not resist asking one of the stewardesses if the captain’s going down the aisle was airline policy. She replied that it was not, but it was the way this particular captain operated. “Everyone likes to work with him. We love him,” she concluded.

A Tale of Two Flights

The contrast between the two incidents could not be more glaring. Here were two crisis situations that demanded leadership. In the first instance, no one seemed to care that all protocol was being followed. In the second case, everyone felt reassured that the situation was under control. The first flight had a pilot; the second had a captain.



The captain’s job is not merely to fly the plane. His role is to coordinate and harmonize the flight, dealing with whatever problems might arise, and deliver his passengers safely to the destination. The captain must connect with those under him and reassure them.

Searching for Captains

I cannot help but think that society is missing many captains today. So many go about the business of piloting and doing what is technically correct. They stay in their cockpits, so to speak, performing the task at hand. They do not go the extra mile to reassure those desperately looking for direction. Too few want to assume the responsibility of showing themselves in authority—for fear of offending others by asking people to do what they might not want to do.

We need captains everywhere today. They are sadly lacking in the family, schools, industry, politics, and religion. This is largely because people do not have a proper notion of what captains are. They think authority consists only in ordering people to do things. They do not realize it also involves unifying, reassuring and harmonizing.

Saint Thomas Aquinas defines authority as an animating and ordering intelligence, the vis regitiva that overcomes the resistance of the individual tendencies in men, organically directing and coordinating many wills toward the common good.

What Does Saint Thomas Say About Immigration?

Thus, captains respect order and do not violate the rules, however difficult or absurd such rules might appear. Captains do not pander to those under them to please them. They do not make grand promises yet fail to mention the sacrifices needed to get the job done. Captains recognize that people need direction and act accordingly.

Above all, captains need to connect with those working with them to distil the best from them. Contrary to our egalitarian times, captains are not just “ordinary guys.” They need to appear as key representative figures, visibly and reassuringly, so as to secure the cooperation and confidence of those under them. Captains selflessly dedicate themselves to defending the common good to the point that they sacrifice themselves for and serve those whom they command.

Indeed, in our confusing and chaotic times, we do not need technocrats, economists, and politicians to craft their complex programs to solve our problems. We need to ask: Where are the nation’s captains?

As seen on crisismagazine.com

  • Emily

    Your tale of two flights is a must-read for airline executives, pilots, ship captains, fire fighters, and bus drivers…but if you want to use it as an analogy for political leadership, it really becomes a cautionary tale. Respectfully, your leap from Saint Thomas Aquinas’s definition of authority to the statement that “Thus, captains respect order and do not violate the rules, however difficult or absurd such rules might appear” lacks logic and moral guidance. Consider that “Morality is doing what’s right, no matter what you’re told. Obedience is doing what you’re told, no matter what’s right” (H.L. Mencken). No matter what you think of Mencken, what Christian martyr would disagree with that statement?

    But back to captains: In situations such as flights, fires, or storms at sea, obedience to the captain is needed. In political leadership, morality is needed — not a demand for total, unquestioning obedience, lacking in challenges or criticism. A flight is a totally different scenario than our daily life and airline policies have very specific, limited goals. I would also put forth that pilots are highly trained and prepared for their jobs, and that no pilot would want to fly without an equally prepared team. In that sense, the flight analogy might work; we do need political leaders who are prepared for their role and who have highly trained, knowledgeable teams working for them – so, yes, experts, including technocrats and economists.

    Finally, you asked (in a rather abrupt transition), but didn’t answer, “What does Saint Thomas say about immigration?” I believe he probably would have thought about the Holy Family, and their flight — as refugees — into Egypt.

    • lucky1933

      The question “What does Saint Thomas say about immigration?”, is a link to the answer to the question. Paraphrasing, it suggests that St. Thomas Aquinas agreed that a nation has the right to protect her citizens from those who seek to harm them.

      • Emily

        Thank you for pointing out that what looked like a heading was actually a link.

        If you think honestly about discrimination, you’ll admit that what is meant by unjust discrimination is discrimination based on characteristics that are not relevant. Of course a patient would choose a brain surgeon for brain surgery as opposed to a heart surgeon. I would not fault a patient, either, for choosing a middle-aged brain surgeon over a very young brain surgeon. Specialty and experience are among the factors that ARE relevant in the situation. But I’m sure you agree that not considering a surgeon because of religion or country of origin would be unjust discrimination. Similarly, sharing your faith was an essential characteristic for your future wife. As you pointed out, she just happens to share your ethnic background, as well. If you fell in love with a wonderful Catholic woman but decided not to marry her because she was not Caucasian, that would in fact be a very unfortunate case of discrimination, wouldn’t it?

        Is it right for a nation to discriminate when it comes to immigration? Of course, a nation should not allow in people who seek to harm her citizens. That’s why refugees do undergo vetting, which is a type of discrimination that is relevant. Rejecting citizens from whole nations, religions, or ethnicities would be unjust discrimination.

        It would be like if I hosted a neighborhood potluck party and posted a guard at the door because it’s a dangerous neighborhood. If I instruct him to only allow in neighbors who bring tasty-looking food, that would not be right. Instructing him to not admit the neighbor who hasn’t had grocery money all week, or who needs a break from fighting at home, would not be right. Instructing him to not admit a drunken and belligerent neighbor who owns a weapon would be right. So, although we all do discriminate, all discrimination is NOT equal.

        • lucky1933

          I would prefer to err on the side of caution. I agree completely, there is unjust discrimination, and as I pointed out, justified discrimination. The very small portion of the population in a nation who live under Sharia law who do not hate Christians, the very few who seek to coexist with us “Infidels” in true peace and harmony, have to suffer for the hatred of the overwhelming majority of practicing Muslims who seek to convert the world at gunpoint….and that is unfortunate.

          • Emily

            If those few who mean no harm have to suffer for the majority, is it only “unfortunate,” or actually unChristian?

          • lucky1933

            Ask Jesus.

          • Emily

            Well, exactly, right?

            And wasn’t a similar question (I mean about “who is my neighbor”) posed to Him and He replied with the parable about the Good Samaritan?

  • Jim too

    Thanks for the info but this is just another example of the overall lack of leadership in so many areas of life today. Kudos to the ‘Captain’ !!

  • Joseph

    Excellent analysis!