I am compelled to tell you a story about my friend John Kounis.
We were at 17,900 feet crammed into flying tin can. The cockpit of a Cessna 172RG is normally a small place, but on that day it was ridiculously so. We were way north of the Norwegian Sea, flying above Arctic waters. There was a life raft, ferry tank, survival gear – heck there was even a rifle. Our bright orange immersion suits and life jackets make us as large as Michelin Men. You’ve got about sixty seconds to once you hit the water to make it into the life raft, even with the suit. John had planned for contingency after contingency, and hadn’t let anything stop us.
That’s what it takes to do the hard thing.
We weren’t “supposed” to be there. A Cessna 172RG has a “service ceiling” of 14,600, so at 3,300 feet over it, we were basically hanging on the propeller at just fast enough to fly. There was a cold front slammed into Norway all along the coast pushing clouds high up, twenty thousand feet at points, substantially higher than forecast. We’d been picking our way through valleys in the clouds for hours. I was right seat piloting (aka “wrong side”) while John told me where to fly while he stared through, I kid you not, a golf shot level – a little telescope of a thing which told you if that wisp of a cloud was really above or below our flight path. You see, all we had to do was scrape a cloud with our wing and, BAMM, we’d pick up ice, loose lift, and have to immediately descend down to the ocean below. Not gracefully either. We’re talking 80 degrees down angle, get the hell out of the clouds right the hell now, or it’s all over.
Needless to say, we were working our ass off, but it didn’t feel at all like work. It was what needed doing, and we did it together.
“John, I can’t feel my hand.”
My right hand went suddenly numb basically from the elbow forward. I could see it. I could move it, but I didn’t really know where it was. Since I was right seat, I needed my right hand to fly the plane. Needless to say, I freaked the fuck out. I became convinced that my hand was no longer there, and started trying to remove the immersion suit to see it. I’m a big guy, so my flailing about cockpit made the plane unflyable – over the Norwegian Sea, IFR on top, within 500’ of clouds, in an airplane without de-icing. I distinctly remember John talking to me and working through what was wrong. There I was, generating a massive fucking problem, at the very definition of a bad time, and he was totally calm and collected. His tone was one which talked me down out of the state of near panic that I was in, nearly immediately, by inspiring trust, and transferring his confidence into me.
I calmed down and promptly blacked out.
You see, you need to use oxygen above 10,000 feet, and now I wasn’t getting any. On top of everything else, We only had one mask and had been passing it back and forth taking breaths in turn. John cranked up the oxygen, held his breath, and put the mask on me. I revived quickly and then he said please when asking for the oxygen mask back so he could breathe too. Deeply consider that for a moment. I had, not but the very minute before, been a full-on crazy man endangering not only my life, but his as well. He had the wherewithal, the gravitas, to say please while being utterly collected. He left the continuous flow of oxygen cranked up, I had 80lbs or so on him, so clearly setting it to his “normal” amount wasn’t enough. Problem solved, we went back to work flying the plane together.
He was an avatar of grace under pressure.
The clouds finally broke at the Arctic Circle. I’ll never forget our decent into the city nestled in the Fjords of Norway. We’d seen nothing but white clouds for hours. There was Trondheim, a city without night, the deep blue sea, the green and gray stone mountains, wind swept breakers and an utterly glorious runway.
The Norwegians went crazy for us once they figured out what we had done. Flying from Spitsbergen to Trondheim in a single go, in a single engine aircraft, blew their minds. Most of them couldn’t get past Spitsbergen. It’s a legendary place, an island far north of Norway where the Polar Bears roam, glaciers calve into the the ocean, the Arctic ice pack stretches out to the horizon, more seals than you can count – a true wilderness. For me, Spitsbergen was the best flying ever. The plane loved that air. The whole time, I was deeply aware of connectedness with all things.
On the ground in Trondheim, John and I were utterly drunk on air. We’d been flying for over 10 hours, and were totally exhausted, but the sea level air made us giddy like schoolchildren. I felt more alive than I had ever been.
The knowledge that such a life was possible was the greatest gift that John ever gave me.
As modern life goes, jobs took us to to different continents and we drifted apart. I stayed in Europe and he went off to fully embrace his truest destiny. He started a magazine, flew to more places than one could count, and encouraged countless people to do the same. Through his actions, he demonstrated that a more full life was possible, as he had done for me. All and all, he lived a life truest to himself.
John Kounis died of a pulmonary embolism on July 13th. He was 51.
I have spent the better part of days in a fetal position weeping for my friend. His departure leaves behind a colossal hole in the world. I know not how, but I am up off the floor, determined to go back to the business of living life and moving along a different heading, a better one, than before.
I ask of you two things.
First, please look at a picture of my friend: http://pilotgetaways.com/mag/ja15/RememberingJohn. That… That is what it looks like when you’re living the life you’re supposed to be living. Doing what is your best destiny. Being true to who you are.
Second, I was closest to John as he truly took flight. I know for certain that the act of flying had a profound impact on him. It was something he loved to share, and something we shared in. Please consider a donation in his name, so that others may also. The AOPA has established a flight training scholarship to honor John Kounis’ legacy. Contributions to the John Kounis Memorial Scholarship can be made here: https://ebiz.aopa.org/Default.aspx?TabID=175&offercode=R1507WXMEM. One hundred percent of the funds will go toward an aviation scholarship for a student pilot.
Thank you for reading about my friend John Kounis.
He was a great man.