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Divert to Kenai (or “How To Test A Pilot”) – Part 7

December 16, 2014

Our beat-up minivan taxi rumbles to a halt astride the curb outside the Kenai airport terminal building. There appears to be a beehive of activity going on this morning, and it strikes me. Dozens of people stream in and out of the building, tripping the sensor for the sliding glass door at the entrance. The result is a vacuum-like gush of frigid air sweeping inside the mostly open passageway. For just a moment, the scene resembles the airport terminal at Rochester, Grand Rapids or Peoria—much larger cities in the lower 48 with much more passenger traffic. I pause momentarily and look around to get my bearings. The March morning sun is still low in the sky, but its’ angle is blinding. At least I know where East is.

As if on cue, our four flight attendants walk up, each pulling along their black rollaboard luggage. Their timing is perfect. I greet the closest, Kelly. She still looks as youthful and spritely as when I met her yesterday, but there is weariness on her face. All four of them look haggard, for that matter.

“How’d you sleep? Was the hotel okay?”

Kelly responds carefully with a sheepish grin. “I guess…” her voice trails off, then she adds. “I just want to get to Anchorage so I can really get to sleep.” She offers no other details. Perhaps she sums up what we all feel like at the moment. John and I lead the pack as the six of us walk through the sliding glass doors of the terminal building. Cold air rushes in behind us.

It’s darker inside than out. Once our eyes adjust, we realize that conversations have ceased. Everyone is looking directly at us. From the appearance of the terminal, it is evident how many of our unfortunate passengers have spent the night. Most stand with pillows and blankets under their arms, many still in their packaging, like they had just returned from Bed, Bath and Beyond. Some folks are still curled up against walls and in corners, as if someone hosted a giant slumber party at the airport. Nearby, haphazardly scattered on folding conference tables is the detritus of breakfast–cans of soda, cases of bottled water and orange juice, bunches of bananas, bags of apples, assorted bagels and plastic-wrapped pastries—each well picked over. At least everyone has something in their stomachs, I think. I can only image how their backs feel after a night of sleeping on the tile floor, blankets or no blankets.

Someone yells. “Hey! The crew is here!”

“Are we glad to see you!” calls a middle-aged man to me as I pull my black crew bag. My sincerity/sarcasm meter is not fully warmed-up just yet, so I attempt to navigate this possibly loaded social exchange with as much politeness and professionalism as I can muster. “Glad to be here, too.” I respond guardedly. My eyes look down while I speak, not wishing for eye contact. I remember the tense exchange I had with one of our passengers in about the same spot just 10 or so hours ago. John doesn’t stop to acknowledge anyone. He says nothing and walks briskly toward the Era Air ticket counter.

Our crew luggage trailing us, we all make our way into a small office behind the ticket counter. Other than twin desks, chairs, a fax machine and some shelves, there’s not much back here. Here, we again meet up with Karen, the Era Air station manager at Kenai.

“Well, we’ve been trying our best to make everyone as comfortable as possible…” she begins with a sigh. “Your company gave us authorization to buy pillows and blankets for everyone that didn’t get a hotel room.” She goes on to describe her staff descending upon the local Wal-Mart and buying up all the soft bedding they could find on the shelves. They also purchased and distributed the food and drinks we saw as we walked in.

Karen tells us she has been up most of the night. “I got about two hours of sleep, I think.” Her long blonde hair is pulled back in a ponytail. Her face looks red and weathered. She’s still wearing the same dark blue coveralls she was last night when she came aboard our airplane for the first time. Still, she seems to have command over what has become a refugee operation in her little town. From the looks of things, her staff has labored extensively. We are greatly appreciative.

“So, what’s the plan?” asks John.

“Well, the company just wants you to load up the folks and go. They will park you at a non-sterile gate in Anchorage, where all the passengers and their carry-ons will be screened. We’ll be loading the four dog kennels and bringing you your flight paperwork once we receive it.” Karen says all of this matter-of-factly, as if she’s done this before. We haven’t, of course.

All that she says is essentially a repeat of what I heard from John during the taxi ride to the airport. Nothing new except the information regarding the loading of the dog kennels. I ask one of Karen’s coverall-clad coworkers standing closest to me how the pooches did during the night. They were shipped as cargo on this flight, so their owners did not claim them at the terminal here in Kenai.

“Oh, they were good. We fed them, gave them fresh water, allowed them to run around in the back room a while.” He’s smiling when he tells me this. The little dogs must have provided the staff a bit of warmth and levity during a challenging night. “They’re good.” He says again.

I’m relieved to hear this, having a dog of my own at home. I tell John that I’m going to head out to the airplane to wake it up from its’ cold slumber and get it warmed and ready. I’m hoping for no mechanical issues. After every unique issue that has presented itself in the past day, I am wary. I will appreciate the soft, quiet rest waiting in Anchorage today, too. When we get there.

Logan, one of the three younger flight attendants, catches up to me as I walk across the asphalt ramp toward our plane. He comes up close to my side and leans in to speak to me, as if he doesn’t want anyone else but me to hear what he’s about to say.

“So…did I hear correctly? There is no TSA security here this morning?”

I was expecting this question from somebody. “Yep, sounds like it. Kinda disappointing, if you ask me.” I sigh, inhale again and continue to walk toward the jet. “They had all night to figure this out and set something up.” I speak flatly.

“But…how do we do this?” Logan responds. It’s an honest question. Even though our flight is supposed to be a quick 20 minutes, it is not a typical airline flight.

“Well, like the station manager said. We just load ‘em up and go. They’ll park us at a non-secure gate when we get there. Believe it or not, I’ve actually done this before…” I add this in an attempt to instill some confidence in the plan as I perceive it. I go on describing how I did this as matter of course when I flew with my first airline back in the 1990s.

Logan says nothing after I finish my spiel. He looks unconvinced. But he doesn’t ask me any more questions.

From a distance, our airplane looks stately and handsome. By far it is the largest aircraft on the ramp here at Kenai. Silhouetted against the clear Alaskan sky in the morning sun, its’ paint shimmers. Her tail alone is taller than the control tower on the field. Logan helps me push the portable stairs against the left entrance door of the plane. I clamber up the steps.

The door has been closed since last night. It is not locked however, nor is it equipped as such. There is no guarantee that anyone hasn’t illicitly “inspected” the interior of our plane since then. A possible threat, intentional tampering, rests in the back of my mind. More caution is advised.

Pilots rarely get to open large commercial aircraft doors, especially from the outside, so I’m actually looking forward to this. Besides, no ground personnel from my company is there to do it. I pull out and twist the thick aluminum handle in my leather gloved hands. The door responds by pivoting inward slightly, then outward. It’s heavy, like a bank safe. A forceful pull and a shove and the door swings wide left and locks open with a metallic thud and click.

Inside the entryway is a stack of empty pizza boxes and trash bags leftover from last night’s impromptu meal service. The smell of cardboard and pizza have mixed with the omnipresent odor of jet fuel and leather seats. The cabin is bathed in natural light from the windows. Logan and I can see our breath. It’s cold.

I stow my luggage in the cockpit, then perch atop one of the sheepskin covered pilot seats. My left hand traces a few arcs on the overhead panel as my eyes inspect the correct position of all switches and levers. This well-choreographed movement of my hand is specifically described in our aircraft flight manual, and one of the first procedures that crews memorize when they transition to this airplane. We call this act a “flow”. I do this flow to insure that when I do turn on the battery master switch, only the devices that need to be powered receive this electrical current, lest any of our onboard battery power gets squandered before our auxiliary power unit can be started. Batteries have a notorious reputation for poor performance exactly when the demand for them is greatest—when it’s cold. And any mechanical issue at this point would be very detrimental to our hopes of departing Kenai today. It would be the last thing we need. But sometimes an unwary pilot, acting in haste, can cause problems that he never meant to cause. Knowing this, my eyes move slowly, my hands carefully follow them.

A few flicks of switches thrown in the proper sequence brings the battery online to power the most basic of systems on the plane. Control panel lights flash, displays flicker and various electronic tones sound. A couple of more toggles and the APU surges to life. Soon, warm air and electricity are flowing inside our airplane. So far, our aircraft has successfully been coaxed awake from a cold sleep with no issues.

The rest of our flight attendants, Kelly, Heath and Joann, stow their own luggage and commence in tidying up the cabin. It has been left in relative disarray after last nights’ ordeal. Usually a dedicated staff of aircraft cleaners descend upon each jet after our passengers deplane to remove trash, wipe up tray tables and lavatories and vacuum the carpet. Given the absence of company support personnel here in Kenai, our flight attendants are pressed into duty.

It’s not hard, crossing seatbelts and picking up empty water bottles and coffee cups, but it’s not terribly pleasurable either. If a presentable cabin is what is necessary to begin the boarding process and expedite our departure to Anchorage, they are working to make that happen.

Logan enters the cockpit. He’s a young man; trim, about five and a half feet tall with scruffy facial hair, a trendy look.

“Can I talk to you again…out here?” He motions for me to join him in the first class cabin. I was in the midst of my cockpit setup duties and don’t normally like to be interrupted. I’m trying to do as much of my job—and John’s, too—before he boards the plane. But Logan’s choice of words and his gesture to speak in the forward cabin indicates that he has something more than a typical flight attendant preflight request.

I lift my body over the center console in the cockpit and walk the ten steps toward first class. There, Kelly joins Logan and me. She’s a short girl who can easily stand upright in the row of wide leather seats and still not hit her head on the overhead compartments.

Logan starts out. “Um…” His voice is hesitant as he searches for words. “I was talking with Kelly here about our plan to load up everybody and go…” He looks at Kelly, then back at me, and then swallows hard. “We aren’t comfortable with it.” He says finally, shaking his head.

My head tilts down and I ponder what I’ve just heard.

As equipped with 16 first class seats and 138 coach seats, our Boeing 737-800 is required by regulation to be staffed with four flight attendants. This is a minimum number. It has nothing to do with precisely how many passengers we are carrying this day. It is based on the FAA-derived certificated carrying capacity. Any less than four able-bodied flight attendants and we can’t even begin boarding passengers, let alone fly.

“So you don’t want to go?” I ask Logan. Even if one of our four flight attendants decline, we would be in a pickle. We have no “reserve” flight attendants on call. Our airline hub locations do, but we are over 1400 miles from the nearest one of those.

Footsteps are heard climbing up the stairway to the airplane. The three of us turn and see John appear in the doorway. He’s carrying a stack of white paper which holds our flight plan and other associated documents. His timing is perfect, too.   Because my normal preflight activity would find me up in the cockpit, he seems a bit surprised that I’m back in the first class cabin. He glances at Logan and Kelly, then at me. “What’s up?” he asks.

Logan beats me to the point. “I don’t think it’s safe just boarding the people and going…” he begins. John calmly steps past me to more clearly hear what he has to say. He stands in the middle of the aisle abeam row 2, only a few feet from Logan. Logan continues.

“I mean…I’ve never done this before. There is nothing in our Flight Attendant Operations Manual that covers this.” Logan speaks crisply. He’s not pushy sounding nor whiny, though his voice quivers ever so slightly, as if he’s nervous about what he’s saying. John and I pick up on this and lean closer to make sure we hear him clearly.

“Plus, did you guys see what was right across the street from our hotel?” This question hangs in the air.

What, indeed? All John and I know is there’s a hotel right across the street from the airport. This is where Logan, Kelly, Heath and Joann spent the night. We didn’t pay much attention to the other local sights as we drove to Soldotna last night.

“I’ll tell you what’s across the street. A Wal-Mart. And a Home Depot. And they were both open.” There’s chagrin in Logan’s tone. John and I exchange glances as we process this tidbit of information.

Logan continues. “And what does Wal-Mart sell? Guns. Knives. Ammo. “

I can picture the Sporting Goods department at the Wal-Mart in my mind. Vertical racks of rifles and shotguns in glass cases. Rows of hunting knives. Boxes of shotgun shells and small arms bullets on the shelves. All under bright flourescent lights.  My head nod imperceptibly.

“And Home Depot? Box cutters. Flammable liquids.” Logan connects the dots and makes his point. “And now we have no way of telling if something like that has been smuggled on the airplane.” He crosses his arms for non-verbal reinforcement of his stance.

“I’m not comfortable with it, either.” Kelly’s voice, much softer, intones. She looks at John and I. Her face is still youthful, but her lips are pursed. She and Logan are standing tall.

“Okay…lemme tell you what I know about this operation we’re planning to do here…” John replies quickly. “Joann, Heath…can you guys come up front here?” Until now, they have been outside earshot of this conversation. John raises his voice because both of them are standing well in the back of the cabin—just forward of the last row of seats. Still, John’s tone is measured. If he’s affected by what he’s just heard from Logan and Kelly, he hasn’t told his face or vocal cords yet.

Joann makes her way up front to the last row of first class. Heath follows behind and stands abeam the divider between first class and coach. Now that we are all together to hear, John proceeds to fill us in on what he might have learned since we boarded the aircraft.

“First off, the flight time is 20 minutes. The weather in Anchorage is clear, pretty much like it is here in Kenai, so getting up there shouldn’t be a problem.”

I’m not quite sure I understand what constitutes a problem in John’s mind, but I do know that Logan has just described one here in Kenai. And we cannot ignore it. But I don’t say anything.

“Now, this is the story on the security issue.” John gets to the heart of the matter.

“Our Operations Manager, working with the dispatcher, Flight Operations Duty Manager, the Inflight supervisor and the company Corporate Security department have informed the U.S. Transportation Safety Administration Operational Control Center—or what they call ‘TSOC’ for short—what our requirements are to get this plane and our passengers up to Anchorage today.” Says John.

“And I was told that the plan is ‘acceptable’ to the TSOC. They know exactly what we’re trying to do.  They say it’s safe.”  John concludes flatly.

“But why didn’t they just get TSA down here this morning? They’ve had all night.” Joann asks a question all of us have been asking in our minds.

“Apparently Anchorage got somewhere like fourteen to sixteen inches of snow last night when the forecast called for four to six. And the only road between Anchorage and Kenai was impassible until only a few hours ago. “ John sighs then he completes the briefing. “That’s why there’s no TSA down here this morning.”

This news is allowed to settle in for a few seconds to allow everyone to comprehend.

“Still feel like it’s not safe now?” John asks, looking straight towards Kelly and Logan.  His tone is sincere, but I sense the direction John’s leaning.

Logan’s rebuttal is fast and quite literal. “I don’t care. TSOC or whatever they’re called…Corporate Security…. they aren’t on this airplane. We are.” His voice trembles a little.

His point is simple: if there truly are guns or knives or box cutters or flammable liquids on the airplane, brought aboard by one of our unscreened passengers or possibly stowed away on the aircraft somewhere while it sat overnight—these are all threats.  Threats to all of us.

Ironically, in the aftermath of 9/11, all airline cockpits are isolated from the rest of the aircraft by an armored, bulletproof, locked door. So, the pilots are least likely to be harmed—at least directly, and only as long as the cockpit door is kept closed. And even if a violent disturbance occurs, our strict protocol requires that the door stay shut at all times. We cannot play airborne heroes. The Captain and I will be protected on the flight deck. In essence, everyone in the cabin behind us will need to fend for him or herself while we attempt to land the aircraft as soon as we can. It is a cruel, potentially gruesome scenario, but one that could play out. Even today. Here, between Kenai and Anchorage.

John keeps his cool. I feel my heart thumping in my chest so I force myself to inhale deeply and exhale as slowly as I can. He asks Kelly if she feels the same. Kelly silently nods.

“What about you guys? Joann?” asks John.

“I don’t care. I mean…it’s such a short flight.” To underscore her opinion, Joann shrugs her shoulders.

“How about you Heath? John turns his head to face him. Heath is bookish looking, soft spoken and thin. He was the one who forgot a winter coat last night. He might be a neophyte logistically but I’m not a psychologist on how he might perceive our situation here.

Heath merely states “It’s alright by me if we go. No big deal.”

The cabin crew total: two for going and two for not, regardless the flight length or TSOC approval.

John turns to me. I’m not sure if he wants me to break the tie.  At least he asks me.

“What do you think Dave?” (To be continued.)

One Comment
  1. permalink

    OMG…the plot keeps getting thicker!

    Sent from my iPad

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