Flying Blind

Dennis Friedman

IN THE EARLY 1990s, my employer—an aerospace manufacturer—sent a small group of employees to Winnipeg, Canada, to help set up a production line. We were chosen because of our familiarity with the product involved.

The company provided us with a furnished apartment, a rental car and $40 a day for food. They flew us back home every two weeks, so we could take care of personal business. I’d fly to Los Angeles on Friday and return to Winnipeg on Monday. This went on for about one year.

I’d take Northwest Airlines—now part of Delta—and the flight would always make a stopover in Minneapolis-St Paul. I never liked the flights between Minneapolis and Winnipeg, which were typically on smaller, older planes. One time, I noticed some of the overhead compartment doors were held shut with duct tape. I wondered what other parts of the plane were held together with tape. The plane seemed to rattle more than other planes.

If you fly often, you’ll eventually encounter some problems. I’ve experienced my share of cancellations, delays and lost luggage. But my flight one morning from Winnipeg to Minneapolis was by far the most alarming.

About halfway through our flight, the pilot told everyone to return to their seats and fasten their seatbelts immediately because of a severe storm in our path. The flight attendants, who were in the process of serving snacks, stopped what they were doing and hurried back to their seats.

The flight got bumpy right away. You could see the lightning from the storm. Then the turbulence got intense. The plane was bouncing around like a rubber ball. There were loud noises as if the plane might fall apart in midair. I was wondering if they were still using tape to hold things together.

I noticed a woman to my left in a window seat with her head down as if she was praying. Meanwhile, I was struggling to stay in my seat. I couldn’t get the seatbelt fastened tight enough. I didn’t know if it was me or the seatbelt. I was training to run a marathon and was thin as a rail. I clenched the armrests and had my feet firmly planted. I was fighting to keep from sliding under the seatbelt and onto the floor.

Everybody on the plane was quiet as a mouse, except for two men to the right of me. They were talking and laughing while they looked out the window. They were having a good time. I thought they must have had one drink too many or they were traveling salesmen who were used to these kinds of flights.

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The pilot told everyone to prepare for landing. I was wondering how the pilot was going to land the plane with us bouncing around like this. There’s no way he could land with so much turbulence. As we descended, the plane suddenly leveled out. Then I could feel and hear the tires touch the runway. We made it.

As we taxied over to the gate, the stewardess said over the intercom, “Let’s give Captain Riley a round of applause for the safe landing.” All the passengers were clapping loudly. As I waited in line to exit the plane, I could see passengers hugging and shaking Captain Riley’s hand. I shook his hand and thanked him, too.

Afterward, I walked through the airport’s concourse with another passenger, laughing about our flight. At the time, I didn’t appreciate life’s fragility.

When I look back, I realize how financially unprepared I was when I boarded that flight. I wasn’t certain who my beneficiaries were on my retirement accounts. I didn’t have a living trust. I had financial accounts with multiple financial institutions. The saving bonds I’d accumulated were in a plain envelope thrown in a filing cabinet with miscellaneous paperwork. I had hundreds of dollars hidden throughout my apartment, including in clothes hanging in my closet.

Instead of leaving a legacy, I would have left a major financial problem for my heirs. There was no roadmap they could have followed that would have led them to all my financial assets. Some of those assets might have gone unclaimed and wound up with the state of California. Since I didn’t have a living trust, part of my estate’s assets would have been tied up in probate court.

Today, I’m better prepared. My living trust, will, and powers of attorney for health care and financial decisions are in a three-ring binder located on my wife’s side of our walk-in closet. The binder also includes spreadsheets with all financial information, including our online accounts. Every once in a while, I point to the binder when my wife and I are in the closet, as a reminder of its importance.

Dennis Friedman retired from Boeing Satellite Systems after a 30-year career in manufacturing. Born in Ohio, Dennis is a California transplant with a bachelor’s degree in history and an MBA. A self-described “humble investor,” he likes reading historical novels and about personal finance. Check out his earlier articles and follow him on Twitter @DMFrie.

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James McGlynn CFA RICP®
James McGlynn CFA RICP®
1 year ago

Dennis I was surprised you didn’t think about life insurance for the legacy as well which I am sure you had. It always surprises me when breadwinners don’t have term insurance.

Ginger Williams
Ginger Williams
1 year ago

I stopped carrying term insurance when I no longer had a mortgage or other debts, because no one is financially dependent on me. Dennis may not have had dependents at the time.

Dennis made a good point about keeping financial matters organized for heirs. No one expects to die in their prime, but few people want their grieving relatives to deal with a financial mess or want their savings to escheat to the government. In these days of online accounts and bills, heirs may not be able to learn about assets and debts from the mail.

1 year ago

I think statistically you are far more likely to die in a car accident within a few miles of your home than in an airplane accident. Everyone should get their affairs in order this week if they haven’t already.

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