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Divert To Kenai (or “How To Test A Pilot”) – Part 10

October 9, 2015

There’s only a brief lull in the conversation before Cam reacts to what I’ve said.

“Dave, I’m not trying to diminish what you’re saying to me,” he exhales with a huff.

I can tell he knows that he’s pushed me too far. Now, he’s trying to backpedal.

“It’s just that you’ve got to try to see it our way.”

But he’s still trying to persuade me. I have been trying to see it the company’s way—ever since I heard that they weren’t going to provide TSA for us up here. But that conflicts with our standard operating procedures, how I was trained and my own judgment. I can’t do it.

Even though Cam has just disrespected me, he’s not stupid. Just as John knows my job is not in jeopardy, so does Cam. But if he continues to act as though my judgment is questionable, he’s now on the wrong side of our written policy. I cite our bible, the Flight Operations Manual (FOM) to remind him of it, just to make sure. I am required to know this manual from soup to nuts, and so is Cam.

“Cam, Chapter One, Page One of our FOM clearly states that of all our operating priorities, safety is the single objective that can’t be compromised.”

I’m paraphrasing, but I get the gist right.

Further, I quote the last sentence on the page, engraved in my memory; “The best judgment of our pilots is the ultimate tool in ensuring this objective.”

Period. The end. I am out of bullets.

Really, that should have been enough for me—and for Cam. I thought I hit the proverbial target by quoting the reference to which all our pilots must adhere.

Once again there is a pronounced silence on the phone.

In my entire career I have never had to dig my heels in to protect the operation as I have had to this morning here in Kenai. I have never had to tell my boss that he’s disrespected me.

Adrenaline still pumps through my veins, tripping a nerve. I break the silence first.

“So what do you want me to do Cam?”

“Well, I want you to think about it!” he says in exasperation. It sounds like his final salvo, too.

All I’ve been doing is thinking about it.

I chew on his words for a few seconds while staring at my black leather boots. I’m done talking with Cam.

“Okay Cam, yeah. I’ll think about it. Goodbye.” The conversation is over. I tap my phone to disconnect the call and shake my head.

I tuck my phone back in my uniform coat pocket and look down the aisle of our plane. Rows and rows of empty seats separate me from the rest of the crew. My shoulders slump. I sigh and walk towards the front of the cabin.

There, I catch a glimpse of Joanne, coiled into the left window seat in the last row of first class. Her cellphone is pressed to her ear, but she’s not speaking. I look at Heath, seated in the row ahead of her, also on his cellphone. Not talking, either. Then Kelly and Logan. Each one of them is clutching their cellphones, and none of them are speaking. From the intensities of their stares, it looks as though each one is being lectured about something quite serious, like a parent lectures a teenager after being caught with booze.

John is standing in front of them, leaning next to the coat closet between first class and the entrance door. He lifts his head to get my attention.

“Each one of them has just received a phone call from their supervisors.”

“Is that who they’re speaking with now?” I ask.

“Yep.”

I’m not certain I know what these supervisors are discussing with each of our flight attendants. But I have a very good suspicion.  They’re getting the heat, too.

“I just got off the phone with Cam again,” I relay to John. “He didn’t sound so chipper this time.”

“I’ll bet…” John responds. “I figured when I spoke to the FODM, it would somehow get back to us before long.”

John using the word “us” heartens me. Although he has clearly stated his position as go-oriented for our flight to Anchorage, John has not turned on me or Logan or Kelly. If we all cannot agree, we won’t go. And, like he was last night, John is being professional about it. He’s keeping his cool.

And I appreciate his fidelity, however grudgingly it might be.

One by one, each of our flight attendants hang up the phone. Each reports to the others the same synopsis. “It was some supervisor from Chicago Inflight.” Logan says first. That’s what the flight attendant office is called, Inflight

In her soft, tired voice, Kelly fills in the blanks. “They want each of us to meet with an Inflight supervisor after we land in Chicago tomorrow morning.” She’s wincing.

Heath groans and slumps into his seat. Joanne shrugs and shakes her head.

“We’re totally gonna get fired,” says Logan.

“No you’re not.” I scoff, irritation creeping into my tone. “They won’t be able to fire you over this.”

This may or may not be true. But I feel that Logan needs to hear my support anyway. I’m irritated that I have to continue to convince him.

John’s speaking with someone on the phone again. He pivots the microphone away from his mouth and cups the receiver with his hand.

“Guys, I’m talking with the FODM in Chicago. He wants us all to speak with him together—a conference call. I’m going to turn on my speakerphone.”

John taps the speaker button on his cellphone and moves to the middle of first class holding the phone face up in the palm of his hand. We each move to huddle around it.

“Hello?” the overamplified, slightly distorted voice of a man crackles through the air.

“This is J.R. I’m the Flight Operations Duty Manager here in Chicago. Can everyone hear me?”

A chorus of affirmatives follow. We each lean in closer to hear. “Okay, great. All right…”

There’s a pause for several seconds. J.R.’s probably collecting his thoughts.

I used to work part time right next to the FODM in our System Operations Center. I know how hectic the FODM position is. There is usually only one FODM on duty worldwide at a time, so they’re pretty busy. J.R. is probably trying to free up brain energy to focus on the problem children in Kenai we have become to him.

But he’s there to broker solutions, too. From my personal experience, the FODM is able to put out all kinds of fires. I’ve seen them bail pilots out of Mexican prisons to helping sick crewmembers find a doctor in Moscow. FODMs are doers. Things happen when they gets involved. And they speak in pilot.

J.R. finally starts running through what he perceives our situation to be here in Kenai. His summation is general, but accurate—concluding with, “Does that sound about right?”

Logan answers him, “Yes, pretty much, but…” His voice is thin but he again speaks with conviction. “You gotta understand—each one of our passengers could have bought a weapon from Wal-Mart last night or this morning. We’ll never know.”

“I know, I know. I get it. I understand.” Irritation is creeping into J.R.’s voice too, but he keeps going.

“Lemme ask you guys. Were there any LEOs or FAMs aboard the flight last night?”

A LEO is an acronym for Law Enforcement Officer, a generic term; FAM stands for Federal Air Marshall. Both of these types have appropriate training and qualifications to carry concealed firearms aboard a commercial aircraft. A major stipulation is that the flight crew must be apprised of this. The pilots must also verify the credentials of these individuals, and note where they are seated.

Typically, this verification takes place during the boarding process prior to flight. Post 9/11, it is quite common and routine. And until this moment, I had completely forgotten that John and I had a female visitor to our cockpit before we pushed from the gate at O’Hare yesterday. An agent from the F.B.I. A LEO.

“As a matter of fact, yes! We totally forgot!” recalls John, a smile of surprise lighting up his face. Mine too.

Yes! Yes! Immediately, the circumstances of our predicament have changed. Suddenly, there’s hope.

The presence of an armed individual such as this typically provides a modicum of comfort to flight crews. The tacit “I’m one of the good guys—I got your back” could be quite valuable to us here this morning. It would be reassuring to know that there is someone armed and trained to quell any disturbances we might have on our way up to Anchorage.

There is a small but important difference between a LEO and a FAM, however. LEOs are merely people who are traveling from place to place with the tools of their trade—in this case a handgun. Like an electrician carries wire cutters.

FAMs, on the other hand, are truly “on-duty” when aboard a commercial aircraft. That’s their job. They travel undercover and typically sit in first class—but not always. Most importantly, they are rigorously trained to rise up and defend the safety of an aircraft in flight. If that means using their concealed weapon, so be it.

Quickly, J.R. and John flesh out a plan.

“Okay, let’s do this,” J.R. starts. “Check the passenger manifest. Let’s find out who she is. Then, have someone go back inside the terminal and page her. John, you can pull her aside and quietly fill her in on the situation. Does that sound good to you?”

J.R. speaks with authority.

John nods his head, “Yep. Sounds good.”

“How about you, Dave? Would that make you feel better?”

It’s not a complete panacea, but I recognize the benefit. This LEO can help.

I muster, “Sure.” I shrug too.

“What about the flight attendants? What do you guys think?” J.R. polls our crew.

Joanne quickly nods her head, her eyes wide. Heath does too. Kelly assents with “That sounds okay.”

Logan looks down before replying. “I guess…I guess that’ll work.”

“Looks like we have reached a consensus.” John proclaims. Finally, we are all in agreement.

J.R.’s voice pipes up from the speakerphone. “Okay, great. John? You know what to do.”

John smiles again, “Yep. I’m on it.” Tasked with a mission, John taps his phone to hang up and heads back out the entrance door of the plane.

There’s a collective sigh of relief among the rest of us. We all really, truly do want to get out of Kenai as soon as we can. Hopefully now we have the plan to do so.

By now, it’s been well over an hour since we’ve arrived at the Kenai airport. Our passengers still wait, restlessly, inside the small terminal building. I’m sure everyone is wondering why we haven’t begun boarding yet. I have no idea how our security issue is being telegraphed to them. Words would have to be chosen very carefully here, lest real concern foment among our passengers.

Which leads me to a stark realization. What if we were having this discussion within earshot of our customers? How would they feel about us bartering their safety like an actuary in some cubicle within the bowels of an insurance company?

To be honest, we do this all the time. Decisions are made to fly aircraft with select inoperative equipment on a regular basis. Routes are flown to traverse areas of thunderstorms, turbulence and icing. Hazardous materials are carried as cargo beneath the feet of our customers. Even convicted criminals, in shackles, are carried aboard our aircraft, seated next to LEOs, of course. With handguns tucked out of sight, but at the ready. And they might be sitting two rows behind you. You’d never know…

Which is my point. Some safety-of-flight/security issues are better left discussed behind the scenes. Our security situation here at Kenai is one of them. In the interest of detent, our struggle to reach consensus about how to operate the flight up to Anchorage is well to take place away from our customers.

John’s back on the airplane.

“They can’t find her.” He says simply.

By “her” he means the F.B.I. agent—our LEO.

Of all our passengers who have checked in this morning from our prior evening’s manifest, only about 75 remain. She’s not one of them. A page over the terminal P.A. system goes unanswered.

“Shit. Now what?” asks Logan to no one in particular.

John’s poking the face of his phone. “I’m calling the FODM again,” he says to me.

He walks up the aisle between all of us here in first class, then taps the speakerphone button. J.R. the FODM once again addresses us.

“Okay, got it. No F.B.I. girl. Got it.”

J.R. tallies it up accurately again. Plan A no good.

There’s another pause at the other end of the line as J.R. collects his thoughts. I imagine him sitting at his desk in the middle of the NOC, absentmindedly rubbing his chin in thought.

“Um, this is out of the box here, but go with me…”

We’re staring at the phone in John’s hand as if we expect J.R. to rise out of it like some Genie in a bottle.

“How about this? What if we have some local law enforcement from Kenai…a sheriff, a policeman—whoever, come to the airport and monitor the boarding of the people?”

This is out of the box, indeed. J.R. continues.

“He’ll be appraised of the situation, he’ll be on the lookout for drunks or disorderlies or whoever…”

“And—after everyone who looks ‘good’ gets on the plane, he rides up in first class with you guys. Up to Anchorage with you. We’ll get him back to Kenai afterwards.” A pause.

“Whadda you guys think?”

I look up at John. He’s shrugging his shoulders, a slight grin on his face. Joanne and Heath don’t react. Kelly just shifts in her seat.

I shrug my shoulders too. At least we will have one of the ‘good guys’ on our plane. This should suffice.

Logan speaks up. “But will he have his gun with him?”

“Of course. He’ll be up in the front of first class, in case anything happens,” says J.R.

“That’s fine,” is Logan’s quick answer.

J.R. responds. “Okay. John…that sound good to you? You’re the Captain.”

“Yep. It’s alright by me.”

“Cool. Okay, let me make some calls on my end. I’ll get back with you, John, in a minute.” J.R. signs off.

John announces he’s going to go back inside the terminal to meet with the LEO and then supervise the boarding. He’s down the stairs in a flash. I can tell he’s getting restless, too.

He’s only gone for a few minutes. He’s back up at the front of first class again.

“That was fast,” I proclaim to John.

“They shot it down,” he replies.

I’m surprised. “What? They shot what down? Who?”

“TSOC. The Transportation Safety Administration Operational Control Center shot the plan down.” John defines the acronym again just to make it clear.

A chorus of why’s follow.

“Because TSOC doesn’t want someone that hasn’t been specifically trained in the use of a gun aboard an aircraft to be doing just that.”

I ponder this, and it makes some sense. Although one would think that all law enforcement officials are trained to the same level, with the same strategies and tactics, that’s not really the case. A wide range of budgets, skillsets, training and equipment make this a lofty standard to meet. Plus, if there were bad guys aboard our airplane today, they certainly would know what person within the cabin they would overcome first. And then there would definitely be a deadly weapon aboard the aircraft. In the wrong hands.

Who knows? We could get Officer Barney Fife of the Kenai Police Department, or some equally inept facscimile. It could end badly.

So, plan B is dead. (pardon the pun)

And we are back to square one.

The quizzical expression of “Now what?” is written on each of our faces.

By now, our consternation has filtered down to the Era Air employees trying to help us out. They are anxious to get us and our remaining passengers, four dog kennels and one hulk of an airplane off of their doorstep. They mill around the base of the stairs outside the plane. Once we are gone, the routine pace of life here at the Kenai airport can resume.

A woman in a dusty SUV labeled “Kenai Airport Authority” parks nearby and just looks in our direction. Perhaps I should go over to her and try to convince her to get TSA here at the airport.  Or at least more than one fuel truck.  I can see people standing to watch from the other side of the chain link fence that rings the airport tarmac. The tail of our airplane dwarfing all others on the field, we must be talk of the town right now.

Karen, the Kenai station manager appears behind John then walks past him towards me. She’s shed her bulky blue coveralls that she was wearing earlier. It’s warmed up a little since we arrived, though it’s still not exactly Miami outside. Her long hair up in ponytail, she looks tired. Being up most of the night trying to help us has certainly disrupted her life, too.

“Listen, I’ve heard the captain tell me about what you guys are worried about…” she begins.

I perk up. I’m interested in anyone else’s input right about now.

“And,” her voice lowers to a level just above a whisper. “I’ve worked here at the Kenai airport for over 20 years. In fact, I’m even a part time flight attendant on our Dash 8 over there…”

She’s speaking of a turboprop airliner with capacity for 34 people and one flight attendant sitting idle nearby. This type is commonly used to fly in and out of more remote places, which describes most of the towns up here in Alaska.

“…and I don’t think anything is going to happen to you.”

Karen’s gaze is level with mine. I notice crow’s feet emanating from the corners of her eyes. She has smile wrinkles on either side of her lips, but she’s not grinning.

Her posture is upright and strong, yet nonthreatening, like someone who’s telling you everything as a matter-of-fact.

My eyebrows rise. I challenge her.

“You’ve seen a lot of these types of folks, have you?”

“Yep. And after talking with them and trying to help them the better part of the night, I don’t see anyone I would feel nervous around being on my airplane.”

This from someone who sees her share of hunters, fishermen, locals and tourists. She can probably spot a troublemaker at 300 yards.

“So, if you were working this airplane, would you feel safe enough?” I ask.

Karen replies succinctly.

“Yep.”

Karen’s words of advice bounce around in my head for a few moments. I purse my lips and swallow.

So many thoughts rattle around in my head. Our flight attendants, worried about their jobs. These customers of ours, stranded here. We still have paying passengers awaiting our arrival in Anchorage so they can get on with their travel plans. Of course, those that have been put out by us—literally dropping in from the sky, a plane full of refugees. Our company, even—that big mega-carrier with the big reputation and big expectations of us.

Here we all sit. With no resolution in sight.

Maybe Karen’s right. I think hard about what she’s said to me.

Maybe she is correct in considering our passengers. Maybe there’s nobody within the group who picked up something prohibited and wants to use it against us on a 20-minute flight.

Maybe everything’s going to be fine.

For if we go, it means our passengers will arrive at their intended destination. Our flight attendants will keep their jobs. Our company can once again use this Boeing 737 as a revenue-producer instead of an expensive lawn ornament. And things in Kenai can get back to normal.

If we go.

It seems simple enough now. It makes sense to me.  Right this second.

We’ll go.

That’s my decision.

“Okay,” I motion to John.

John comes and stands next to Karen.

“Let’s go. I’m good.”  I proclaim.

John looks at Karen then back at me. He had seen Karen speaking with me. Now he’s connected the dots as to what we were discussing.

“So you’re okay with it? You’re ready now?” John wants to make sure.

“Yeah. If Karen thinks it’s not as big of a risk as I do, I’ll believe what she says.”

John nods his head solemnly. “Okay.”

He wastes no time delivering the news. He turns to Logan, who’s standing in the forward galley now.

“Dave’s good with it.”

“Wait. What? What’s this?” Logan looks confused.

John speaks for me. “Dave’s ready. We want to go now.”

Logan looks at me, still quizzical.

I answer his silent query.

“Karen has worked here over twenty years. She’s also a part-time flight attendant on their planes. She’s seen a lot,”

“In her estimation, she doesn’t see anybody waiting to get on our plane that would cause us any trouble.”

I sum it up.

“I believe her.”

“What does this mean?” Logan gives John an astonished, furtive glance.  “We’re going?!”

John nods his head. I sigh and do the same.

Logan erupts.

“This is bullshit! If I don’t agree, I know I’m gonna get fired!”

One more time, I tell Logan I will back him up.

Alas, I am certain I have failed to convince him this time.

“No! This is crap!”

Logan’s protestation rings in our ears. Other than that, silence. And the white noise of our APU.

Logan glares at John and I.  He’s sizing us up, measuring our conviction.  Then he speaks again, one last time.

He raises his index finger to our faces to make it blunt.

“If anything fucking happens, I told you so.”

Rueful, too.

Logan lowers his arms, disgusted, and walks toward the back of the plane.

Heath and Joanne take their places along the length of the cabin. Kelly slumps her shoulders and stands in the galley. She says nothing to John or me. Her body language speaks for her. She’s defeated too.


It takes only a few minutes to board our remaining passengers. The embarkation goes without incident, as hoped. Some folks still clutch the pillows and blankets provided to them in lieu of a hotel room, an ignominious souvenir of sorts for their detour to Kenai.

Our paperwork double-checked with the final passenger count, John gives the command to Kelly to close the main cabin door. The rickety mechanic’s airstair is pulled away from the plane.  Aboard our aircraft now are 75 frazzled looking men, women and children. The four dogs we rescued from the aft baggage compartment last night have been carefully reloaded there.

Rex, our jumpseating cargo pilot, is nowhere to be found. He must have procured some other transit to Anchorage overnight. His rollaboard is still keeping the dogs company in the baggage compartment. I wonder to myself if he had been able to find another uniform to wear.

At John’s command, and with the appropriate clearance from the Era Air ground personnel who are seeing us off, I start both of our engines. Checklists run, air traffic control clearance to Anchorage granted, we lift off from the runway at Kenai.

Loaded with a fraction of the fuel and passengers with which we departed Chicago yesterday, we reach our truncated cruising altitude of 10,000 feet a scant 5 minutes later. In the clear, post-frontal air this March morning, the Anchorage International Airport is readily discernible, only 35 miles distant.

We are cleared to descend towards runway 7 Right, easily identifiable as one of only two surfaces cleared of snow from last night’s blizzard, the other being runway 15.  Their concrete surfaces form a slanted, inverted letter T from our perspective, and look black against the fresh white snow.  We touch down exactly 20 minutes after takeoff from Kenai.

They park us at at an non-secured gate, as planned.  Each of our customers eventually collect all of their belongings and trundle down the airstairs onto the snow-covered ramp.  Only a few “thank you’s” are uttered.  Most of our passengers just look at us with faces of pity.  It’s been an ordeal for them, too.

For this short duration, none of our passengers rose from their seats.  None of them caused any further trouble.  Karen, the station manager from Kenai, turned out to be right.  Or lucky.  I’m not sure which.  This should bring me relief.

Instead, I feel exhausted.  I have failed.  For almost two hours this morning, I was convinced that there was a valid security threat, brought to my attention from two sharp, sensible, well-trained flight attendants.  I backed them up by not wanting to fly up to Anchorage either.

But I was persuaded by Karen, someone with knowledge and experience, too.  But who’s life would not have been in jeopardy had anything untoward occurred on our short flight.

I have taken my test as a pilot and fellow crewmember.  I earned the F.  I felt I had failed our passengers, and especially Logan and Kelly.  But like any vivid experience, I have learned some valuable lessons.  John and I walk in silence out of the airport baggage claim area to our waiting hotel van.  I file my report card in my mind, hoping never to fail again.  (Postscript to follow.)

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