Inspiration Defined: The Heroic Journey of Captain Brett Anderson
Written by Tim Burke
The inspirational and heroic journey of Brett Anderson started when he was just a young boy. This is the story of a man who didn't haphazardly throw around the phrase, "Live life to the fullest," just because it sounded good. No, he epitomized the phrase. It was an unshakeable belief that Brett molded his everyday actions and what his life revolved around. Everything Brett Anderson did was done at 100% full take-off power. He worked hard, played hard, and loved his family and friends hard.
Now, at 5'10" (177cm), Brett Anderson isn't exactly the type of monstrous action-movie hero that you read about in comic books or see projected onto the big screen in iMax movie theaters.
By most accounts, he was just one of us. He represented hardworking people just like me and you. Another guy with a career, a great family, and an obsessive motorcycle hobby. He was the everyday-kind-of-hero that comes in the form of a Dad, Granddad, Dog-Dad, Husband, Friend, Coworker, Motorcycle fanatic, and Airline Pilot. But when you scratch the surface, you start to see a man much bigger than that. He was far from average. He was one of the best there ever was at each one of the "roles" listed above.
In June 2022, life for Brett was almost perfect. He was married to the love of his life, had two grown children, three grandchildren, and the best dog, named Daisy, all of whom he routinely got to spend time with. On top of that, he was three decades into his dream career as an airline pilot. Trust me, flying careers don't advance beyond holding the rank of a long-haul, international Airline Captain (high on the seniority list, flying the largest twin-engine aircraft in the world, for one of the greatest legacy air carriers in the history of aviation!) With the FAA-mandated retirement age of 65, lying just 10 years ahead, Brett had a great pension and lots to look forward to in retirement.
He held onto a dream of riding a motorcycle around the world someday. Don't mistake the fact that Brett loved aviation, but arguably, his favorite hobby was, in fact, motorcycles. Outside of the thrill of adventure and freedom that they offered, he loved how they allowed him to connect with like-minded folks around the world.
Let's rewind a bit, though. This story of determination and willpower starts when Brett was just 12 years old. You see, Brett was born to fly, and he knew it. There was no question about it. Even as a child, Brett knew that he belonged in the cockpit of a jet, looking down on the earth from 36,000 feet. At first, he wanted to be a US Military fighter pilot and decided at a young age that nothing would stop him. Everything he did was geared towards becoming a fighter pilot one day.
Then, a hurdle: At just 12 years old, though, that childhood dream came to a screeching halt when Brett was diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma. Not even a teenager yet, Brett clenched his fists, squared off against cancer, courageously dealt with invasive procedures to remove tumors, and then endured years of torturous radiation and chemotherapy. By the time Brett turned 13 years old, he had lost all his hair. He wore a San Diego Padres hat almost everywhere to cover his bald head. Doctors would spend the next 3 years quite literally burning and poisoning that cancer out of his system. The treatments made his body so uninhabitable that even the cancer didn't want to be there. He spent the years of his early teens sicker than a dog and wondering whether he'd live through it.
On par, and totally in line with the Brett that we've come to know and love, he stuck his middle finger up at "fate," turned the tables, and kicked cancer's ass. It was through a sheer refusal to ever give up that he survived. It was then and there that he learned that stubborn willpower and determination are life's best medicines.
That battle and ultimate victory against cancer set something in motion - something powerful. As Brett charged forward, he maintained a determined pace that makes most of us tired just thinking about keeping up. There was no stopping him now. Brett Anderson became a living, breathing freight train of determination with overwhelming momentum. Brett was on a one-way track to becoming a pilot, and nothing was going to get in his way.
The hurdles weren't over yet though. You see, in the American aviation industry, archaic (and often nonsensical) medical standards are so stringent that any medication taken, even as a child, can disqualify you from the ability to become a pilot. Brett would have to fight to prove his ability to fly.
By the time Brett was 16, he learned that the United States Navy would not allow a former cancer patient to fly their airplanes. By this point, Brett had fully recovered from cancer and was in tip-top physical shape. He spent 2 years fighting with the Navy, attempting to prove his physical abilities and worthiness. They weren't budging, though. Brett would not be authorized to fly military airplanes under the existing medical standards.
Did Brett put his tail between his legs and give up his dream of earning his spot in the cockpit? Hell no. Like any pilot with good discretion, he simply looked at his maps, altered his course, and deviated around the storm to find a new route towards his destination.
Through civilian flight instruction and lots of studying, at the age of just 17, Brett earned his Private Pilot Certificate. Brett was officially an FAA-certificated pilot before graduating high school.
Over the next few years, more advanced flight training would continue, and he earned his instrument rating, commercial pilot certificate, and numerous flight-endorsements like complex, high-performance, multi-engine, and turbine-engine ratings. After graduating from college, Brett officially began his commercial-flight career in Germany where he flew freight for Tempelhof Airways.
It didn't take long for Brett to rack up thousands of hours of flight time and earn his "Airline Transport Pilot" license. For those unfamiliar, this is the highest flight rating possible, under FAA standards, and is often referred to as the "PhD of piloting."
Eventually, Brett earned a spot amongst the ranks of one of the world's most respected airlines. Brett would spend the next 28 years flying nearly every aircraft-type in United Airlines' fleet, including the Airbus A320, Boeing 737, 757, 767, and the Boeing 777 (aviation's largest and most powerful twin-engine aircraft ever built!)
Brett went from being a deathly-sick 12-year-old with cancer to captaining Boeing 777s on long-haul international routes around the world. Life was good – it doesn't get better than this for a family man, motorcycle-adventure junkie, and aviation nerd like Brett.
Even when Brett was technically on work trips, he managed to squeeze in adventure - and somehow combine it with the ability to help others. It was late-February 2022 when Putin's Russian Army invaded Ukraine and started committing atrocities against civilians. By mid-March, on a 48-hour layover in Amsterdam, Brett inserted himself into the midst of it. He had rented a van, drove it towards the border of Poland and Ukraine, drove INTO Ukraine, and transported refugees of the war to safer grounds. If that isn't an instance of selflessness, I don't know what is.
Then a hurdle: It was June 2022. For no apparent reason, Brett's health started to change. He couldn't catch his breath and didn't know why. As a health-conscious person, he was dumbfounded. Brett had never smoked and always stayed in good shape through a variety of rigorous activities. Well, a few doctors' visits exposed a problem: His body wasn't processing oxygen like it was supposed to. His lungs had signs of scarring and stiffening. They just weren't operating efficiently, and he was diagnosed with Pulmonary Fibrosis – a progressive disease with no cure, just treatment.
In the midst of a highly decorated and accomplished 34-year aviation career, the FAA Aeromedical division yanked his medical certificate from underneath him. Brett was crushed, obviously.
On June 26, 2022, for the last time for the foreseeable future, Captain Brett Anderson flew a 400,000lb Boeing 767-300 across the Atlantic, from Zurich, Switzerland to Washington-Dulles International Airport. Unsurprisingly, Brett remained positive and posted the video of his smooth-as-butter landing on his Instagram. He mentioned that it was the last landing for a while he worked through yet another of life’s hurdle.
Well, for those of you that know Brett, know that he never was good at sitting back and feeling bad for himself! Not knowing whether he had one year left or many, within just a few weeks, Brett decided it was time to start pursuing other dreams.
He just wasn’t going to sit on his butt. He decided there was no better time than the present to pursue his dream of riding a motorcycle around the world. It was the beginning of what would become famously known as “The Last Big Ride.”
This adventure became a testament to Brett's own words, "A bad medical diagnosis doesn't mean you have to stop living your life!"
Brett simply didn't know any other way to live than to live life to the fullest.
The first part of Brett's journey was conducted on a 2003 Yamaha FJ1300 that he used to travel all over Europe. And he did so while raising almost $20,000 for research into his disease. As if life wasn't unfair enough, while in Edinburgh, Scotland, some lowlife scumbags stole his motorcycle.
Brett was pissed! He didn't have time for this BS.
Crushed, Brett stayed positive. Without skipping a beat, he flew back to the US, threw his Mosko Moto luggage onto his Aprilia Tuareg 660, and pointed his handlebars south. He wasn't giving up on the dream. He'd never given up on any dream. Why would he start now?
Before any of us could even blink, Brett was southbound over the Mexican border with Ushuaia/Tierra del Fuego, Argentina as his destination. He rolled south through Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and finally Panama!
Brett was crushing it! His fan base was growing by the day as the motorcycle community watched "The Last Big Ride" unfold and play out before our eyes. In the garbage-filled social media world that the internet seems to have become, Brett's story was one that was refreshingly authentic. It was a gulp of cold water on a hot day. It was the latest "show" to binge on, and I know I wasn't the only one that looked forward to Brett's updates, every step of the way.
Then, another hurdle: Brett's breathing became increasingly more labored. Against Brett's own determination and willpower, his health seemed to decline faster by the day. His doctors were concerned that as his journey progressed into less developed areas of the world (days or weeks away from decent medical care), the risk of contracting a different respiratory infection could be that much more serious.
Brett, by his own admission, made one of his most difficult decisions: Prematurely end "The Last Big Ride" to prioritize medical treatment.
Yet again, Brett stayed positive. His bike was shipped from Panama to Florida. He returned home and continued to blow away his followers with his commitment to physical fitness and staying active. His posts turned from rides in the hot, humid jungles of Central America to rides in rural Virginia – oxygen tank strapped into a motorcycle tank bag. Brett wrote about how much he looked forward to getting onto the lung transplant list so he could return to the life of "hard motorcycle rides and piloting airliners."
Then, another hurdle: As further tests were done, Brett's doctors found lung cancer amongst the already-terminal disease of PF. One thing after another, it seemed.
A few days later, Brett wrote to his followers: "It doesn't matter though, because I'll continue to make the most of what I have, and I'll continue to help myself. That's all any of us can do. Do what you can with what you have."
Then, another hurdle: Brett's cancer diagnosis disqualifies him from being the recipient of a lung transplant. Brett posts from his Instagram page, a video of him working out, staying fit, and staying positive. Brett wrote, "Either way, I'll keep doing the things I like to do and living my life to its fullest. I will keep riding, keep working out, and see as many friends and family as possible."
Brett and his medical team, left with no other options, begin cancer treatment for the second time in his life. It's no secret that this would be more complicated though. The treatments may interfere with some of his medications and symptoms of the other disease.
Brett writes, “I'm going to fight this though because I'm mad now. And because I love life.”
Then, another hurdle: April 2023: Brett, well into treatment for cancer, takes a turn for the worse. Oxygen levels tank. He is coughing blood. He is admitted into the ER to learn that the cancer treatments may have caused drug-induced pneumonitis and bleeding.
Brett was fighting for his life. He remained in the ICU while his family, his friends, and his fans from around the world hung on for news.
April 27, 2023: Brett gets enough strength to update his family and friends. He compares this battle for life and the possibility of going on a ventilator to "ditching an airplane at sea... You only want to do it if there are no other options."
In typical Brett-fashion, he incorporates positivity into every aspect of his life by telling us about Celeste, the wonderful therapy dog who he got to play with in the ICU. Brett never, ever leaves positivity and glimmers of hope out of his story or his perspectives. It's something we all can learn from.
The post continues and quickly becomes heart-wrenching, as Brett says how his family is present to say goodbye – Just in case.
He writes, “My family is all here to say goodbye, and, just in case, because, while I like to be positive, I also like to be prepared for the worst-case scenario, I'd like to say goodbye to all of you too. Thank you for being my constant champions and supporters. Thank for all your interesting lives that keep me entertained. Thank you for your involvement in mine. I've made some good real-life friends from this little Internet experiment. My hope is my writing this I'll do well and look silly, but at least I'll have said it and I'm fortunate to have that opportunity. Much love and I wish you all much happiness - Brett.”
I was sitting on my couch when I read it and started crying. I imagine thousands of others did the same that day. How could a person be so strong? How could a person continue to stay positive and remain an inspiration to us, as if it were their job to make sure we were okay!? Brett's positivity, love for life, and determination are what put him into superhero status.
May 5th, 2023 – Brett's fighting spirit, yet again, pulled him through the darkest of times. Home at last, he posts a video of himself walking with the assistance of a stroller, while hilariously wearing a motorcycle helmet.
He provides an unfiltered update about the uphill battle he still faces, but once again, ends with positivity: "Meanwhile I'll be working towards getting back to where I was and being able to ride, hike, and enjoy life. I'll embrace the suck along the way. And before you know it, I'll be back on a bike!"
During the summer of 2023, Brett and his wife Karie, unwilling to give up, travel to Chicago where they met the renowned doctors at Northwestern Memorial Hospital to explore the options for a lung transplant.
Then, another hurdle: Weeks later, after several medical procedures, Brett learned that his application for donor lungs was denied due to the extreme risks involved. Brett, in true Brett fashion, refused to give up. Not being one to ask for help very often, Brett was running out of options, so he reluctantly asked everybody to write letters to the doctors on his behalf. His family fought. His friends and followers fought. His motorcycle community fought. His aviation family fought. Letters were sent to the hospital, and he was admitted to the transplant program!
It was a huge victory after a slew of disappointments, and all of us (the thousands of fans) could feel the elation in Brett's update. Brett wrote, "Never underestimate the power of persistence and positivity, as well as meeting people face-to-face."
Then, another hurdle: Brett writes, "Insurance has denied my transplant authorization because they say it's experimental."
Rage. Anger. Frustration. Those words do nothing to show the scale of devastation Karie and Brett must have been feeling. Brett and his family appealed this decision and won. It was a big fat "W" in the face of the corrupt and crooked medical insurance system in the United States.
As Brett thanks his base, he explains how uncomfortable it was for a person like himself to have to ask for help. "I believe in living tough and being self-sufficient. While I also believe in helping others, I prefer to do the helping, not be the one being helped." It showed the type of person he was.
There was a new glimmer of hope though: Brett was now officially on the lung transplant eligibility list! He must stay in cell service, available, and always remain within 2 hours of the hospital.
Unbelievably, less than 24 hours passed when Brett and Karie got the call of a lifetime! Almost unheard of for things to happen this quickly, they are told that lungs suddenly became available and to rush to the hospital for preparation. Brett and Karie pack their bags and begin their walk through downtown Chicago towards the hospital.
Brett films a video of the walk. He has tubes running from an oxygen tank, over his ears and down to his nostrils as he excitedly updates everyone to share the great news. "I can't believe this is happening!"he says as he walks to the hospital. "I'll talk to you all soon!"
Then, another hurdle: The transplant gets canceled due to damage to the lungs during transport. Hopes and dreams, yet again, are squashed.
Brett writes, "To say that Karie and I are disappointed would be an understatement. It's like it was too good to be true, especially given my run of the worst-case scenarios at every junction..."
Brett was getting tired, and I think we could all start to feel it through his words. We were all crushed - Thousands of us.
It was, once again, a waiting game - A waiting game that was happening as cancer grew and spread in the background. A waiting game while lung function and oxygen absorption continued to diminish. A waiting game while family and friends were far away, a awaiting game while Karie and Brett had to remain within 2 hours of a Chicago hospital and not venture far.
Brett writes, “I continue to live tough every day and I try to push myself, every day, to maintain my strength and be ready for anything. Being able to deal with all this is about staying positive and not allowing the difficult times to get you down. I just don't get how so many people these days seem to have no grit and they give up at relatively simple things when it gets hard. That has never been me. For better or worse I've always been scrappy, and I fight for what I want and what I believe in.”
I want you all to reread that last paragraph. Let that sink in. Incorporate that attitude into your everyday lives, like Brett did.
It was mid-morning, September 1, when Brett and I were texting about something random. At the end of the chat, I said, "New lungs are coming soon. I can feel it in the air."
Two hours later, he messages me back and says, "S**t dude, you are an oracle or something! I just got the call. Headed to the hospital soon. Hopefully it won't get canceled again."
I offer a congratulatory response and tell him something to the effect of "You got this! We'll see ya soon in Chicago to eat Pierogis!"
Throughout the early morning hours of September 2nd, Brett underwent a double-lung transplant. It finally happened! He freakin' did it.
And not only that, but the damn overachiever blew doctors away when, within just 29 hours of being on a ventilator, post-op, Brett was able to breathe on his own! His only complaint was that he was aiming for sub-24 hours and was disappointed in himself for overshooting his goal! ...Typical Brett with the highest of standards for himself.
While emotions were running high and just when Brett's family could breathe a sigh of relief, things went south. Brett's body started to reject the new lungs, and his condition deteriorated rapidly. There was no hiding the fact that it was serious. Over the coming weeks, his wife Karie would, through Brett's Instagram page, share the stories of his fight for life.
During his last weeks, the man that had influenced so many with his positivity and determination continued to push forward. Like a man who just won't give up, he bravely fought until the end.
On October 2, 2023, after a valiant and heroic battle against overwhelming odds, Captain Brett Anderson, the man who inspired thousands, the motorcycle-riding pilot who lived life to the fullest, breathed his last. The world lost a real-life superhero.
To say that Brett's journey was inspirational is an understatement. He embodied resilience, courage, and determination. Despite facing numerous setbacks, life-altering health issues, and an uncertain future, he chose to live life to the fullest and inspire those around him to do the same. His story serves as a testament to the power of a positive mindset and unwavering spirit.
Brett Anderson's journey may have come to an end, but his legacy lives on in the hearts of all those who had the privilege of witnessing his incredible story. His unwavering determination, zest for life, and the ability to find hope even in the darkest of times will continue to inspire people around the world.
Brett Anderson, a true hero in every sense of the word, will forever be remembered for his indomitable spirit and the way he touched the lives of so many. His story serves as a powerful reminder that we can overcome even the most daunting challenges when we approach life with unwavering determination and a positive outlook. Brett's journey, which took him from battling childhood cancer to becoming an airline pilot, and and embarking on "The Last Big Ride," will continue to inspire generations to come.
We thank you for being you. We’re going to miss you, pal but we’ll never forget you.
“Blue skies and tailwinds” to Captain Brett Anderson.
08/12/1967 – 10/02/2023