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Eventful? Yeah.

Have you ever had one of those days that is more eventful in ways than you could ever imagine?

‘Eventful’ in this instance is defined as the ability to jar one’s conscience into the realization that life presents itself in ways and examples that blows the mind.

If that sounds too cerebral or numbingly self-important, let me put it another way: my life shocks me in breathtaking and heartbreaking ways. I felt like the needle of a Richter scale tracing my world. Sharp peaks and jagged valleys. All really close together and totally unstoppable.

I woke up 23 hours ago in the bed of my hotel room in Munich, Germany. 7 hours ahead of the central time zone, I had ample time to shower, dress and then wander the nearly deserted streets of this quintessential German city just as the sun was rising. It was cool and still, -1°C. Simply walking the cobblestone sidewalks and plazas, mostly devoid of others this Sunday morning. The intermittent chime of bells hung in century-old spires gave me hymns for a church service I attended with my senses. I ducked into a local bakerie, finding the perfect pastries to accompany a bracing cup of tea as my breakfast.

A few hours later, plopped in the right seat of an enormous Boeing 777, I was steering the aircraft north and west over the North Sea, then off the coast of Iceland, over Greenland and down southwestward across Canada. My first actual landing here at O’Hare in gusty winds as gently as I could manage and hope for. My check airman and both of our “relief” pilots said I did well and shook my hand in congratulations. “Welcome to the fleet!” Thanks. Really.

That’s been a dream of mine since, I dunno, 6? Check that box.

I drive home, a couple of presents for Drew and Alex tucked into my suitcase and a bottle of German wine for Kat under my arm. Triumphant, I wave to her as she sees me pull up the driveway. She looks surprised to see me.

“I thought you weren’t coming home until tomorrow!” No, silly, today! Alex is at her knees, pushing against the door to get outside.

She relents and he succeeds, rushing up to me in that kinda vacant, kinda “hey, I know you” look that I’ve grown accustomed to given his autistic mannerisms. His eyes meet mine, then shift away. He yanks at the left rear door handle of my car and climbs in. He wants to go for a ride.

Fine with me. But where’s Drew, I ask.

Kat tells me Drew is at my moms–his grandmother. “Drew has had a terrible day.”

Why? Kat points down to the driveway we are standing on. Beneath our feet, Drew has written–to no one in particular–a five sentence paragraph in blue sidewalk chalk. Obviously of his own volition.

“Alex was not being nice to me. Today he kicked, punched and scratched me. It makes me very sad. I don’t know what to do. Do you?”

Kat adds, “Yesterday was one of the toughest days I’ve ever had with Alex. He lashed out at me, Angela (one of our caregivers) and Drew. He took it especially hard. I brought him over to your mom’s so he could have a break of his own.”

“I didn’t want to tell you when I spoke to you yesterday. You were having such a great day…” She admitted.

The sublime beauty of my morning in Munich, my smooth flight home and my first honest-to-goodness landing in a 450,000 pound widebody jetliner has been eclipsed by news that my family was haggard and reeling from a physically and emotionally exhausting weekend.

That Richtor scale needle jumps up, then down so so so fast sometimes around here.

I buckled Alex up in his seat, closed the car door, ran inside and changed out of my uniform. Sometimes Alex needs a car ride, or a trip to the playground–or both–to reset his disposition. I told him we were going to do both.

To a big local park we drove–his favorite. He leapt out of the car, proceeded to run to the slides and swingsets. Other boys and girls and their parents were there too, taking advantage of the mild temperatures. I shadowed Alex closely, knowing well that he could easily run off a ladder, or into a swing or, worst of all, into another kid. I chased him like this for about 15 minutes. Alex moved constantly. Other than pulling ropes of saliva out of his mouth and playing with them, he actually behaved quite well.

Another dad called out to me. “How old is your son?”

Not expecting such an inquiry from a stranger, especially when it’s obvious Alex is truly different than any other little boy or girl at the playground, I turned to look at this guy. Before I could answer him, he asked another question. “Does he have autism?”

This made me freeze. “Yes, he does. Alex is 8.”

“I kinda thought so,” the stranger dad said back to me, then motioned to the much smaller boy at his feet, scooping up handfuls of wood chips and obsessively kneading them with his fingers. “My son is 3. He has autism too.”

I looked at his son. I could tell he was in his own little world, just like Alex. Oh man. This father is just trying to allow his son an outlet–and maybe a little release–from the straightjacket of autism. Just like I was trying to do.

“It’s good to see you doing what you’re doing with your son”, said the dad. Funny, I felt the same way. I smiled back at him and offered my hand. “I’m Dave.” He told me his name.

“Right back at ya. Others will never know the lengths we will go to or the depths of our patience we will show…sometimes.” He smiled back and nodded.

By now, Alex was darting off again, so our little bonding moment was quickly over. Scarcely a minute later I had loaded Alex up in the car and was driving him home. In the whirlwind of events around here, I had already forgotten the other dad’s name.

After dropping Alex back off with Kat at the house, I went to pick up Drew. Since he was expecting me tomorrow, not today, the surprise was a delight. For both of us. Drive-thru cheeseburgers, a new Minecraft figure and a big bag of genuine German gummi bears later, Drew crowed, “This was the best part of my weekend!”

And that’s it. The seismic needle that is my life works both sides of the case whether I want it to or not. I was furloughed for a total of 8 years, but that’s what happens in my chosen profession. I didn’t bargain for a son with autism, but I knew I always wanted to be a dad. You just get what you get. I chose this.

Divert To Kenai – The Postscript (Finally!)

Now that I have finally given painful birth to the entire story of our divert to Kenai, I am compelled to tie up a couple of loose ends.

First, I did take a few photos from our predicament.  Most I cannot share due to limitations associated with my employer.  This photo, I can.  It shows the view from our cockpit window looking southeast across the vast parking ramp toward the tiny terminal building.  I shot this just after we arrived at the jet the morning after the divert.


My reason for writing about this whole odyssey was simply because many of my friends and colleagues are professional pilots.  They, too, might find themselves in an intractable situation just like we had found ourselves.  Perhaps a nugget or two of insight or wisdom or absurdity will be remembered.  I certainly will not soon forget the lessons this event richly provided me.

The biggest lesson I learned was based off of my feeling of regret and failure–after being convinced to go, leaving Logan and Kelly vulnerable to punitive action by their supervisors if they chose not to.  They were just doing as they were trained.  So was I, initially.

But I should have stood up for the two of them.  How?

I should have walked off the airplane. Packed up my stuff and trundled off into the terminal. “Find someone else to fly the plane,” is what I would have said.

Really, nothing punitive was going to happen to me. My job was safe. I had all the legal, procedural and ethical right to do so firmly on my side.

Of course feeling the wrath of 75 customers would not have been terribly enjoyable—there was little space for me to hide in the Kenai terminal building. Word would have traveled quickly. I would have had a big red target on my head for everyone to shoot at.

But…my actions would have bluntly shown to my airline just how unsatisfactory Kenai served as a “legal alternate” for poor weather in Anchorage. Yep, doing so was legal and safe. We did arrive in Kenai with no issues other than poor weather in Anchorage.

However, soon after that, the prickly enormity of our problems began to manifest. No dedicated ground personnel to assist us. No lavatory service. No jetway. Only one fuel truck. Most of all, no TSA security. Because if there was a problem with something of ours—a mechanical problem with the plane, serious weather conditions or, what ultimately befell us—a duty time issue—we would be sunk.

And so would another of our company aircraft if they had the misfortune of having to divert to Kenai.

Which leads me to another point. As used, our Boeing 737 aircraft is sometimes a poor choice for this route—at least from a standpoint of flight range. We really and truly had only one legal alternate that night with the forecast weather for Anchorage—Kenai. We did not have the range to legally fly to Fairbanks—a much more suitable alternate airport had we needed it. And this cold, snowy evening in March of last year, we did.

What could the company have done in this case? They could have planned on us stopping for fuel somewhere along our route, short of our destination. This, too, is not so simple. It adds flight duty time and complexity to our day’s mission. Still—the ramifications of diverting to Kenai easily surpassed any 45-minute “tech” stop in Edmonton or Winnipeg for extra fuel.

Other technical gotchas reared their ugly heads. Captain John and I knew next to nothing about the Kenai airport before having to divert there. What little our company provided us regarding airport facilities really was after the fact. No facilities for our passengers if we get stranded there? Really? Then why the hell are we using it as an alternate anyway?

Two words: economic convenience.

Kenai works as an alternate “on paper”. As I said, over 99% of all our flights land at the intended destination. That’s pretty damn good. Rare is the flight that has to divert, but it does happen. However, landing in Philadelphia instead of New York City is much, much less of a hassle. There are more facilities there, more options, better care. In Kenai, uh…not so much.

This economic convenience—given the high likelihood of completing the flight as planned, makes listing Kenai as an alternate a compelling choice. “You won’t actually be going to Kenai!” our flight dispatchers would crow. “You’ll be landing in Anchorage!”

Of course we will, silly us.

Mother Nature had a different plan. It was up to us—John, our dispatcher and me, to figure out a Plan B—before we left O’Hare. But we didn’t. And so it went.

Economic convenience also defined the company’s insistence that we just fly our plane and passengers up to Anchorage without the screening. Getting three chartered buses down to Kenai would have cost money. And time.

But when this same company sends an aircraft like the Boeing 737 on a mission like this because the economics of operating said plane (as opposed to the Boeing 757, which used to operate this route), they should pony up the cash to pay for the occasional interruption to service. In other words, pay for buses. It’s the cost of doing business, simple as that.

But I don’t work in the rarified air of our company finance department. I’m just a pilot, a worker bee.

I did decide to buzz over to Cam’s office to discuss what had transpired in Kenai. I was especially disappointed with his lack of support to what I was describing to him. Disrespecting me aside, my points I raised to him were essentially dismissed.

I flagged him down in our Flight Operations area. “Hey Cam, can I speak to you, in private?”

“Sure, sure! I’m Cam! Have we met before?”

He didn’t know me.  I guess I was just a voice on the other end of the phone, though he could have found my employee photo in the company directory.  But he was all courtesy and friendliness just like he was on my first call with him up in Alaska. He motioned me to join him in his office. I shut the door behind me.

I introduced myself to him, mentioning that I was the First Officer on the flight that diverted to Kenai. It was only a week or two since I returned from that trip.

“I’ve been so busy around here…so much going on.” He paused, looked off into space, then…

“Oh yeah, I remember you now! Tough day that day!”

Yeah, tough day. Kinda.

I didn’t waste any time explaining to him how poorly supported I felt that day. Briefly rehashing all that had transpired, I summed it up. “I should have walked off the plane after what you said to me.”

He was taken aback again. Eyebrows raised, forehead wrinkled. When he spoke, his response was more backpedaling; more explaining how much work had taken place ‘behind the scenes’ there that day. I had heard it all before. Good grief.

I brought up the fact that the 737 wasn’t then and still isn’t the ideal aircraft for this route when Kenai is the planned alternate. Like a good middle manager suddenly pressed into a corner, Cam flipped my issue back at me. He responded that I should write down my opinions about this and then he would present it to the powers that be higher up on the food chain.

I just shook my head. I knew why he was saying this. He just didn’t want to have to deal with what I was accusing him of, nor did he wish to do the legwork associated with seeing the issues I raised reach a conclusion. He might be asked why he did what he did and said what he said that day to me.

“Why do I have to do all the work?” is all I could think. Shouldn’t this be his responsibility? I guess I now know the answer to this question.

Disappointed with my meeting with Cam, I decided the best way to make people aware of this weakness in our Chief Pilot’s Office was to tell as many other pilots about what had happened that day. I filled out formal written reports, carefully entering them into two separate databases. One would go to our pilot union; the other would go to our event reporting division of our flight safety department. The latter is shared with the FAA. Hopefully these reports would help trigger some change in our company procedures here.

I resumed flying my typical 80 to 90 hours a month. Most every Captain I told my story to just shook their heads in disbelief. Only one or two disagreed with what I had done (or not done). But all agreed that this was an isolated event, though likely to happen again somewhere, at some other equally dubious “paper alternate” airport.

Finally, I did run into two of the four flight attendants from that day, Logan and Heath. Logan, the man who brought up his objections first, saw me about a month later. He never heard a word from the company about what had happened that day. Heath had the same story. As I said, I didn’t think much would happen to them regardless, but I couldn’t guarantee this. The fact that the flight ultimately operated and our passengers got to where they were going was probably the reason here more than anything else. I’m happy of course that the company chose not to dole out any punishment.

Our travails found their way into public media the next day. Front page news on the local Kenai newspaper, and at least a few minutes of videotape from the local Anchorage television station. It didn’t make my company look terribly favorable—especially when they described the fact that most of our customers slept the night on the floor of the airport terminal.

We found out that quite a few other aircraft had diverted away from Anchorage that night. Most went to Fairbanks because they had the fuel to do so. Some equally long-haul flights that night were operated by Boeing 757s, an aircraft with much more fuel capacity. Not our company, given their economic leanings.

Finally, approximately two months later, a policy change was issued regarding flights outside of the contiguous 48 states to any destination requiring an alternate airport due to weather or other operational restriction. Essentially, the procedure now is for the Captain to verbally speak with their specific dispatcher (we have hundreds of dispatchers) in order to discuss alternate airport options and any contingencies that might benefit the situation.

This is good news, but Kenai is still used as a listed “paper” alternate airport for Anchorage. Many dispatchers have no knowledge of what happened to us that night in Kenai. Many pilots don’t, either.

One day I will earn the privilege of commanding a Boeing 737. Most likely I will one day fly back to Anchorage. But wherever I go, wherever I have to divert, I shall recall what I went through at Kenai. And I will back up my crew if there are sensible objections. And if I have to walk away from the airplane as my ultimate protest, I will do just that.

Thanks to all of you for reading this, my blather about the esoteric workings of a diverted airline flight to the middle of nowhere.  But also thanks for sharing your thoughts and interest.  Above all, I have much gratitude to you all for being patient with me while I tried to find the time and place to write this down.

When Your House Burning Down Isn’t So Bad

(I wrote this on my FB page three days ago.)

If this is nuts, just tell me.

A lovely lady and single mom who happens to be a former grade school classmate of mine posted shocking news yesterday on her Facebook page: her house with her entire family (4 kids) was on fire. She was several thousand miles away on a business trip. Frantic, she proceeded to fly home as quickly as she could.

Luckily, the local volunteer fire department in her town acted fast. All her children were rescued uninjured. However, her home (of only a few months) was gutted–a total loss.

Most of you know how difficult it was here at our house during the last few days. Alex has been exceedingly self-injurious. Most alarming were his bouts of aggression toward others–everyone. Kat, Drew, Merrows, even my dear old
sweet mom got kicked, punched, head-butted or scratched by Alex.

All likely associated with a med change intended to quell his recent propensity to falling asleep in the middle of the day. That, it did, by the way.

But the aggression and uncontrollability was over the top. All this rage manifested itself over the weekend when I was away on a three day trip getting food poisoning from some dubious ceviche in Panama City.

Kat was left to deal as best she could after picking him up at school yesterday. A bus ride wasn’t going to be possible.

So today Alex stayed home.

Kat and I planned on taking him to his primary care physician and his psychiatrist–both appointments squeezed in during phone calls I placed in as flat, relaxed tones as I could muster. It wasn’t an emergency what he was going through, but it was acute. We needed help.

I shepherded Alex and Merrows to both appointments alone. Kat had long before made plans that couldn’t be broken. Besides, I’ve taken Alex to the doctors office dozens of times by myself.

I had not, however, taken him to two separate offices in one afternoon. But I had to today. I even brought my travel Pepto-Bismol with, queasiness be damned.

To make a long story only slightly less long, Alex proceeded to have a head-banging, fist-throwing High Speed Come Apart (tantrum) in the middle of both doctors waiting rooms. The second was even more fun as I got to strap his protective helmet on his head when his willful thrashing looked hard enough to crack his skull into the floor.

Trust me when I say, there are few depths of despair in one’s life deeper than when you see your child tortured and writhing in discomfort–of his own doing, natch. And other than literally using your own hands/arms/legs/chest to try to soften the impact, there is little you can do.

With relief, his appointments determined a few things only guessable yesterday. 1. He has no physical ailments or maladies 2. His decrease in medicine was reversed and changed. We shall see tomorrow if he reacts in a favorable way.

Tonight, after Alex fell asleep and after our Cubbies dropped another, I laid my weary head down and pondered the day.

I can say this. It’s over. We are all alive. And mañana, a new day. A fresh start. For me, Kat, Alex, the Cubs, all of us.

Even my old classmate Anne, her home destroyed, gets an equal stab at what the new day offers. (We are thinking about you, Anne.)

But after the day I just had today, I would have rather my house burned down. Then again, maybe I’m nuts.

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

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.


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.


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.)

Louts, Service Dogs, (In)tolerance and Tact

I finished a four-day trip yesterday. As scheduled, it looked good. 11 legs taking me coast to coast and to numerous cities in between with a total flight pay of over 25 hours. That’s pretty productive around my lowly seniority number.

Some guys don’t like so many takeoffs and landings. I’m just the opposite. I love them. After all, I like flying—paws on the wheel and throttles, feet on the rudder pedals—not monitoring the autopilot.

So, yes, I liked the flying. Gorgeous weather everywhere (this time of year is my favorite), gratifyingly gentle landings of my accord and enjoyable layovers in places I don’t usually get to visit.

But the trip was miserable. And it had nothing to do with the actual flying, or the airplane. It had to do with the captain I worked with. Simply put, he was a lout. An oaf. A toolbag. After four days, I couldn’t wait to get home.

I enjoy decent relative seniority in my airplane and pilot base. As such, I am given my monthly schedule approximately 2 weeks prior to the next month. Each trip assigned therein will show cities, departure times and layovers. They will also show the person with whom I will be working—my Captain.

Knowing the details of ones’ trip is valuable. I can pack for the beach or the snow, as appropriate for the layover city, maximizing my quality of life while on the road. And when I know who’s paired up with me, I then have the luxury of recalling whether or not we have flown together. Again—quality of life stuff. But in a domicile as large as mine, I fly with people new to me on a regular basis.

The cockpit of my plane, the Boeing 737, is snug. Not Learjet 35 snug—that’s an airplane that you pull on like a pair of bike shorts. But really any cockpit isn’t necessarily spacious. And when there’s just two of you, together for four full days, individual personalities present themselves. For better or worse.

“Don” (not his real name) walked up to me as I sat at a long worktable within our preflight planning room at O’Hare. Don is not a lineholder. He’s a reserve pilot. On call.

“You going to DCA?” he asked.

I looked up from my iPad, recognizing him immediately. I’ve flown with this guy before. He was not the fellow I was originally scheduled to fly with. Don’s filling in for him. I offered a weak smile and handshake. But inside I grimaced.

I noted Don didn’t wear our pilot union pin on his tie like virtually every other pilot at our line—except for the scabs. Don is not officially on our master pilot scab list—he hasn’t crossed any picket lines as far as I know.

The simple display of our pilot union pin on our tie is a tradition steeped in pride, forged by strikes and picket lines and driven by unity. Unions have strength in numbers. Our pilots have for years shown their support of our union and the piloting profession simply by wearing the pin. It is as much a part of our uniform as the epaulets we wear on our shoulders. To us, showing up to fly without our union pin is like showing up without pants. We wouldn’t dare think of it—on many levels.

Don’s pin didn’t fall off, either. Not wearing your union pin in the center of your tie is an aggressive, deliberate act. We had this “pin” discussion the last time we flew. He just didn’t like our union, that’s all. This was his way of showing his displeasure, among other things, of his placement on our company seniority list after our merger.

And I could not convince him otherwise. Then again, it’s not my battle to fight. If he wishes to be thought of as a “slick tie”—in other words a scab, a pariah, that’s his problem. Scabs are treated with indifference at the very least up to and including cold distain and hatred. If you wish to have any semblance of warmth and respect at our workplace, you would never scab. And you would always wear your pin.

Oh the irony. The position as captain that Don presently holds was fought for vigorously by his union. So are the payscales that he happily accepts. But the union pin? He summed it up for me when we flew together for the first time.

“That’s nothing I want to associate with. I got screwed by the seniority list integration. They’re all douchebags.”

Unions work for the collective good. Not for the individual. So much for Don and his feelings of unity.

“We’ve flown together, right?” his forced joviality spilling out of his mouth. I nodded yes. We had. A few months ago. Although I recalled flying with him, I couldn’t remember where. It didn’t really matter. I didn’t like the experience. So I blotted it out of my mind.

“How you doin’?” I offered, feigning interest.

“Oh great! I picked this trip up because there were two that I knew I would get and this one paid more and so, I just scooped it up!” he bragged.

Don liked to brag.

This is what I remember most about my first experience with Don. He liked to talk about himself. Brag. Boast. Gloat. Crow. On and on. It was going to be a long four-day trip for me, I thought ruefully. But Don seemed as happy as a pig in shit.

Suffice to say, on our first leg, Don wasted no time regaling me with all of the exceptional things that he had been doing since we last flew together. He apparently just got back from Munich after touring Europe with his new fiancé in his shiny black BMW M4 sports car that he had just purchased over there. They lived it up, he cackled, driving through Switzerland, Italy, Austria, the undersea world of Atlantis, probably. 5 star hotels. Fine dining. 200 kilometers per hour on the Autobahn in his German car. I think he saw the Loch Ness Monster. Twice.

Now back stateside, Don lavished me with photos of a 7000 square foot house he, a divorced father of two, and his fiancé are buying. Combined, there will be their four kids and the two of them living under its massive roof.

“It’s so much more affordable than around here! And you know what I’m paying in taxes? 3,000 bucks!” he exulted. “That’s probably less than half of what you’re paying around here!”

At least he remembered that I lived nearby. Of course he has to commute 4 hours each way whenever he has to come to work. My commute is 10 minutes. My car barely warms up. My 3 brothers and I lived in what I considered a huge home when I was growing up—2000 square feet. But Don likes his space in the middle of nowhere, I guess.

The grand tales continued. Rock climbing. Skiing virgin double black diamond runs in fresh powder. Mountain biking—but not where he presently lives. “I grew up in California, so I know mountain biking. You can’t mountain bike where I live.”

“Really?” I said. I’ve always enjoyed riding my mountain bike wherever I could ride it—even on a street (gasp!). Don scoffed.

He would always ask where the local gyms were at each of our layover hotels. He sounded like a fitness nut. But with his ample spare tire, he was hardly Charles Atlas. After witnessing him devour such health food as fettuccini Alfredo and three egg omelets with a side order of everything, I kinda thought he was making his goal of acquiring a beach body a bit of an uphill slog. He was being a little hypocritical to his waistline.

On and on, Don’s stories foamed from his mouth. Lusting over massive $5,000 Breitling wristwatches, GoPro cameras and his new laptop computer that he had to show me. Plucky tales of derring-do in King Airs and helicopters in one of his prior lives.

I have some tales, too. But he never asked. I dutifully sat in the right seat of the plane, verified it was pointed in the correct direction, radio calls answered right away, checklists completed.

Don asked me nothing about myself. Nothing. No questions about my life, my beautiful wife, my sons, even the old softball standby—my prior employment. Nada. Zero. Zilch. Any details he knows about me are because I offered it. He just never asked.

Mostly, after I was done reading every word of text I carried with me, I just worked on my “two o’clock stare”. That’s when you’re so bored—or over this boob sitting next to you that you just turn your head about 60º to your right. Even a dull undercast cloud deck is more thrilling than one more story about how Don spends his paycheck.

I know what you might be thinking—I’m just jealous. He’s got it all. And I am every shade of green with envy. Who wouldn’t be? He’s even a captain with our airline after only being here for 10 years. (I am into year 15.)

How do I answer this with anything other than “no”? Easy. I don’t compare myself with him, or the likes of his kind.

My life is totally different from his. My desires, beliefs and responsibilities point in such markedly different trajectories that they could travel around the world a million times and never intersect. My car is 11 years old. My house is 1650 square feet. My watch was 45 bucks. I don’t know how to ski. I have a special needs child.

I’ve heard it said somewhere that the act of comparison is the biggest thief to joy. I believe this to be true. If there’s something I love in my life, it’s joy, in whatever form it takes.  Don’t try to steal my joy.

But back to my trip with Don.

Don had one more personal tic, and it was pretty disgusting.

Don farts.

Ask anyone who’s ever shared a small space with someone else. It could be an office, an elevator, a cockpit. If someone is flatulent, you’re gonna find out quick. Even if you don’t hear it, you’ll smell it—and it’s not going to be fresh lavender or pumpkin spice.

Truth be told, we all do it from time to time. I have been known to stink up the joint several hours after a plate of steak fajitas and a glass of milk. But I will fess up to it, too. And if I have access to a bathroom, I’ll excuse myself and try to purge my colon of the offending material.

But Don wouldn’t fess up. The first few times I smelled something, I thought it might be the lavatory immediately aft of the cockpit. This proximity can make the occasionally dropped monster dookie rather fragrant up front where us pilots live.

But on this trip, that wasn’t the case. We could hear people opening and closing the lavatory door. When I smelled something evil for the second time (day one, leg one), the seatbelt sign was on and we were about to land. There was no one in the lav. I gagged. It smelled like rendered pork fat. Don said nothing.

During leg two, it happened again. Day two, more stench. I waited for him to say something. Silence from Don. It’s about the only time he wouldn’t be blathering about how he spends his money.

Did he think I didn’t notice? That I couldn’t smell? Was his nose broken? How much gall did he possess? What the hell was wrong with him? He indeed was a pig in shit. Full of shit, too.

By day three, I had had enough. Sure enough, leg one, after he told me about his fantastic three egg omelet he inhaled at the hotel restaurant, I got to smell what it was like as his digestive tract turned it into lethal mustard gas.

“Was that you?” I turned to look at him.

“Yes” was his sheepish but instant reply. I caught him. Worse, I called him out on it.

“Oh my GOD! What the hell, dude?” I said incredulously, fanning the invisible fumes with my hands.

“Oh don’t be a pussy!” he shot back, like he was a sixth-grader on the playground and I wasn’t being tough enough.

And now he’s calling me names. Nice guy, this Don.

“I’ve got to fly four more legs with this dude,” was all I could think about.

“Really, it’s disgusting. Please, use the bathroom. Something.”

I offered him a solution. What was I going to do? Get off the plane and call my chief pilot saying my captain was gassing me out of the cockpit? Was it gross? Yep. Uncouth? Of course. But reason to walk off of a trip?

Not really.

A call to our union Professional Standards committee wouldn’t do much, either. Those wheels rotate slowly, likely not to get back to captain Smallbrain Stinkypants for several days. Perhaps if I just wore my oxygen mask for the rest of the trip…not a bad idea.

However, sucking on a hose for 5 hours enroute to Baltimore didn’t sound pleasant to me, either. Those masks aren’t exactly comfortable.  Though the thought of breathing like Darth Vader did secretly delight me, because I knew it would have driven Don bananas.

Which led me to our final day together—yesterday. The aforementioned transcon flight from LAX to Baltimore. Weather gorgeous the entire way, as it had been for our whole trip so far. At least there wasn’t much I had to deal with outside the aircraft.

After I was done with my cockpit preflight duties, I decided to stretch my legs and retrieve a cup of orange juice from the galley. There, I noticed our passengers were beginning to trickle aboard our plane. The first one I saw, a middle-aged lady, was clutching a leash. I looked down to see a long-haired dachshund wearing a worn grey and red vest with a patch that said “service dog” on the side. I smiled.

My son Alex has a service dog. She is an amazing creature.

But I also didn’t make a big deal about this lady and her dog. I merely watched as the dog led this lady to the first row of coach seats and gingerly hop onto her handler’s lap after she had settled into her seat. I didn’t need to know anything more.

It’s a bittersweet feeling of pride and sadness I feel whenever I see someone else with a service dog—a child or an adult. Some people call them guide dogs. Some call them comfort animals. Whatever they call them, I think these creatures are wonderful. They do incredible work.

But they are not pets.

Presently, the topic of service animals aboard commercial aircraft is controversial. Legislation codified and signed into law in 1990 called the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) makes it illegal for any U.S. airline to deny anyone possessing such animals access to air travel.

The ADA does not define what a service animal or comfort animal is. Indeed this law is pretty vague. It goes further by saying that any airline, or its’ employees, cannot ask any questions regarding said animal—other than what the animal provides the handler—comfort, tethering, tracking, etc. No written documentation, proof of training or other certification is required.

Therein lies the problem. Some people abuse this. Airlines typically charge customers to transport pets aboard aircraft. If they are small enough to fit in a bag which is also small enough to fit beneath the seat, that’s where the animal must reside. That goes for a snake, dog, cat, bird, pig, whatever.

But if they cannot fit beneath the seat, these animals must be transported as cargo in approved carriers and loaded beneath the aircraft with all the luggage.

The problem is, airlines charge money for this now. And some people don’t want to pay. So what some have done is buy a vest that says “service animal” or “comfort dog” or something like that. After all, it is the word of the handler of the animal as to what the animal provides as “service” or “comfort”.

But most people are truthful. In my experience, most animals denoted as “service” or “comfort” are truly that. No need to question it.

After I returned to my seat with my cup of orange juice, Don plopped down in his.

“We got one of those ‘comfort animals’ aboard the plane. What a joke.” Don sneered.

Don has struck a very sensitive nerve of mine. I could not contain my disgust.

I tried to say it with as even a tone as I could, but my voice cracked.

“Uh, Don…my son has a service animal.”

I look up at Don. His puffy face looks shocked. He’s pale.

He’s also speechless.

For once, I’ve gotten him to shut the hell up.

After about 10 seconds of merciful silence he tries to retort. “Well, there’s no doubt that they provide comfort…”

“Then why are you even saying anything then?” I interrupt. “What difference does it make to you?”

There’s acid in my tone.

“Well. They just abuse the system, that’s all. They are just trying to get their pets a free ride.”

Ah yes. A conspiracy. It’s a conspiracy to rob our company of 100 bucks.  They may as well have been reaching into Don’s wallet for the Benjamin.  That’s all Don can come up with.

I just looked at him and shook my head in disgust.

“It’s like those handicap stickers on cars. You can buy those things online. I used to see them all the time when I was a sheriff.”

More stories from my captain the cop.

He might have seen some abuse, I admit.  These fakers ruin it for all of us honest people that benefit from these wonderful creatures.

Don’s not done, though. “My brother was severely injured in a car accident. He has one of those placards, too.”

I am sorry to hear about his brother. But at least he can still talk. He can even drive a car.

Comparisons are the biggest thief to joy, remember?

We have one of those handicap parking placards ourselves. And we use it only when Alex is in the car with us. The fraudulent use of these placards is a stiff fine. We would never think of it. Neither do most people.

And most people wouldn’t with animals, either.

“Frankly Don, a tiny minority abuse many privileges we enjoy here in our society. And if it takes mandatory certification of each service animal to stop it, I welcome it.”

I’m pissed.  “Our service animal already has achieved this. But the law doesn’t require it.”

First the slick tie. Then the bragging. Then the flatulence. Now the intolerance and ignorance. I am so done with this asshole.

“The vast majority of animals carried in the cabin of aircraft as service animals are just that. Don’t believe the hype,” I say in my most withering voice.

I look at Don for a moment. His face is blank. He says nothing. Just like when I spoke with him about wearing a union pin.  I fall back in my seat and look straight ahead.

And like the bell saves a boxer staggered against the ropes, our gate agent pokes her head into the cockpit.

“You guys got everything you need?”

Don looks at me then mumbles, “Uh…yeah. We’re good.”

A minute later we push back. 10 minutes later, we’re airborne. 174 souls and one service dog.

And one grade A, lower-case “c” captain.

I don’t think I said one non-aviation related word to Don the entire way to Baltimore. Thankfully, he didn’t say anything much, either.  I was done listening.

Divert to Kenai (or “How To Test A Pilot”) – Part 9

As I see John approaching our aircraft, I rise out of my seat. There is only space to stand in a 737 cockpit if Logan moves out of the way. He does so, backing into the forward galley. Hearing John’s shoes skipping up the portable metal stairway leading to the open front door, I lean out of the now fully warmed cockpit and peer into the doorway.

“What’s the news?” I inquire.

John doesn’t answer me. Instead he motions me to join him in First Class. That’s where Becky, Joann and Heath are seated. Each is slumped in one of the wide, navy blue leather-trimmed seats absentmindedly poking at their smartphone. Unlike last night when we arrived, cellphone service seems to have been miraculously restored at the Kenai airport. Logan follows behind me after I follow John.

John looks at all of us to make sure he has our attention. Joann is last to put her phone down.

“The company doesn’t want to do the bus thing.” He exhales with a sigh. John is referring to my suggestion of chartering a handful of buses to deliver our ‘non-secure’ passengers to Anchorage.

He goes on. “They said that the single road between Kenai and Anchorage has just recently reopened after last night’s snowfall. And the buses would have to come from Anchorage anyway. Company reports there are no buses for us to use here in Kenai.”

In my mind I picture that solitary two-lane ribbon of pavement winding through the remote wilderness connecting Kenai to Anchorage. There are mountains between here and there. It’s probably not an easy drive either, especially after last night’s snowstorm. Avalanches are common around here.

John tells us it is 158 miles to drive from Kenai to Anchorage. But only 52 miles by 737—a mere 20 minute flight. Fickle weather notwithstanding, travel by air is easily the most convenient way to go from one place to another. I once read that there are more pilots per capita in the state of Alaska than any other state. No wonder.

“Am I going to get fired?” Logan suddenly blurts out.

“What? No!” John stammers.

It’s obvious that John wasn’t expecting this question.

Now, other than the distant whine of the APU, there’s a pronounced silence in the cabin. The echo of Logan’s query and John’s reflexive answer hangs in the air. Until now, I sensed a certain nonchalant regard toward the whole predicament by Heath and Joann. When John is caught off guard by Logan’s question, even they now look alarmed.

I look up at John. I expect him to provide some supporting information as to why Logan, Becky, Heath and Joann should not fear for their jobs. But he doesn’t say anything. Perhaps he’s formulating a response, but with each second that passes the tension in the cabin rises.

Well, if he’s not going to speak, I will.

“No one’s going to fire you.” I begin.

Still vitalized after reaching the same conclusion that Logan and Becky have, my head shakes at the thought of any flight crewmember losing their job over trying to protect the safety of themselves, their passengers, fellow crewmembers and their aircraft—let alone the reputation of the airline. To me, it’s an absurdity.

Words come fast for me now. “You’re just doing your job. The one the company had you spend almost three months in training for. Where you learned the ‘CUS’ words. You know, ‘concern’, ‘safety’, ‘uncomfortable’…”

That’s a reference back to our company mandatory crew resource management training given to all pilots and flight attendants. Each word is a gradual escalation of the perceived threat.

“…And I’ve heard you use every one of these today,” I add. “Correctly, too.”

It appears that John has been mulling over what to say, given his delay in saying something—acting like a Captain—what leaders are supposed to be doing. When he does I will shut the hell up. I practically feel like I’m speaking for him already. But I’m not the captain here.

As if resigned to play the role of leader, he finally speaks—weakly. “Nothing’s gonna happen to you.”

That’s all he says. John’s statement falls gracelessly through the air and lands with a thud.

I blink twice. He’s just rehashed what I’ve already said. The tone is gutless. He’s not going to convince anyone. No support for Logan and Becky and the courageous stance they’re taking.

Frankly, I don’t know if the jobs of Logan and Becky are safe. And neither does John. The tension remains.

Up until this point, I have not mentioned much of John or his background. But it is common for pilots who share the snug confines of a cockpit to quietly size up each other. The question “What were you doing prior to us?” is often posed upon first meeting. It’s a deceptively open-ended query that basically asks, “Given that we are at the top of the commercial aviation food chain here, what kind of flying were you doing to get to this level?” Translation: Tell me your flying chops, mister.

In other words, “What the hell do you know?” Or think you know.

Sometimes my captains are older than I, possibly near retirement age, with thousands and thousands of airline flying hours in their logbooks. Or perhaps a military veteran with scores of missions over territory hostile and friendly in addition to his “civilian” time. Maybe the captain was the lucky beneficiary of timing, blessed by the fickle, meandering gods of fortune with a hire date provided after only a few years of light general aviation flight instruction or charter work.  “Right place, right time,” we say.

Whatever the background is, each and every pilot must rise to a certain position on the company seniority list to even bid for a captain vacancy. Once awarded, this pilot must first pass a rigorous flight training regime and checkout. Any non-hackers are typically sent back to the right seat, where us first officers reside in our “apprentice” role with the hope that this seasoning will eventually allow a successful upgrade.

At this level, those that are awarded a coveted opportunity for captain upgrade seldom fail in their attempt. At our line, these promotions usually take many years in coming—at least 10 to 15 years on average. However, expansion by the company into new markets, the acquisition of more aircraft or, in John’s case, the pending merger of two airlines into one allowed him the chance to become a captain. At 40, John is five years younger than me. Though not unheard of, that’s relatively young to be a captain at a major airline.

From what little we touched on our mutual pasts during the course of our one leg flight to Kenai yesterday, John told me that he had been hired by our soon-to-be-merged partner airline back in 2005. Prior to that, John had been with one of our regional affiliate airlines, plying the skies over North America in 50 seat regional jets. Total time on the regional roster about five years, two of that as captain.

This is good seasoning, yes. As far as I can tell, John was not the beneficiary of any preferential hiring schemes sometimes concocted by human resource departments far removed from the flight line. His experience that led him into this Boeing 737 cockpit here in Kenai, Alaska is, at least, relevant and true.

Mine is also. I’ve been flying for over 27 years. My present employer (and hopefully my final airline) is actually my fourth major airline. I’ve also flown air freight, turboprop airliners and business jets big and small. I have specific type ratings in nine separate turbine aircraft. And prior to all of these jobs, I spent four years as a noble but lowly flight instructor helping to mint new aviators.

I’ve been a captain, too. Not in a Boeing aircraft, but in smaller jets. My five flight logbooks and the inked contents carefully scribed within are one of my most proud accomplishments. I have no doubt in my mind I could command this aircraft if given the opportunity.

But right now, that honor and responsibility has been bestowed to John. He retreats to the cockpit to stow his suitcase. His attempt to mollify our flight attendants has failed. Like a good wingman, I follow him. I feel he needs my support.

“You know the company’s gonna try to force them to fly,” John levels with me, his voice is just louder than a whisper. “If they don’t, they will get fired.”

I fall into my seat and sigh in agreement. We silently share a nod.  John and I may have different viewpoints on the risks associated with flying from Kenai to Anchorage this morning, but we do agree on a few things.

First, our jobs are safe. Specifically, my job is safe. After all, I am the only pilot here that has sided with Logan and Kelly regarding the risk associated with attempting our flight. I am sticking my proverbial neck out by doing so, however, because I may have to justify it well after this issue has been resolved. My pilot union membership provides me with robust legal council in the event of punitive action against me. Our company standard operating procedures, regulations and past precedence are firmly on my side. Additionally, the company has provided me with hundreds of thousands of dollars in training me to be as skilled as possible while flying the 737. They have a lot of money invested in me. If either of us got fired, it would be very costly to replace us.

Second, Logan and Kelly’s jobs are not safe. Neither are Heath and Joann’s. Although I just stated flatly to Logan that his job is safe to his face, the reality of the matter is I have no guarantee. Here’s why: to the company, a flight attendant is a relatively inexpensive-to-train, abundant commodity. For every flight attendant we have, there are scores that would love to do this work. Compared to a pilot, no specific prior experience as a flight attendant is necessary to be thusly employed for a major airline. And although our flight attendants enjoy the formal membership in a union, including legal support when necessary, both John and I know their attorneys are much weaker than ours. In other words, flight attendants are relatively expendable.

But we don’t say that to them.

Logan and Kelly and I have a point. Boarding up a bunch of weary, disgruntled and possibly inebriated passengers—all of whom had access to not one but two stores where they could purchase items prohibited from being carried onto a commercial airliner—then sending them off into the sky without being properly screened for these items (like they would be at any other commercial airport in our service network) is just too big of a risk to take.

“Well, I’m going to go back inside and tell them what’s going on,” John rises out of his seat to walk back outside to the terminal building where our passengers wait expectantly. It’s been at least 45 minutes since we arrived back at the airport this morning. I watch John dial his phone and hold it to his ear as he walks away. He’s probably calling the FODM again.

Logan waits until John leaves to speak.  “Is he pissed?” I hear Logan call to me from first class. I rise out of my seat again and head back to answer him.

“No. Just frustrated,” I start. “We’re just stuck, that’s all.”

I break out my vocal highlighter.  “Listen, I feel strongly about this. You feel strongly about this. Kelly feels strongly about this. But the company doesn’t agree with us.” I sum it up again. “We are stuck. But—“ I pause for effect and look straight at Logan. “None of this is your fault.”

Logan looks away and exhales in disgust. “That’s not the way it looks to me,” He says.

“But that’s the way it looks to me. And I’ll back you up on it.” And I will, too. If anyone from the company asks me what happened, I will back my flight attendants up for standing up for what they believe to be the safest, lowest-risk course of action here.

Suddenly, within my uniform coat pocket, my cell phone rings. Up until this point, my cell phone has shown zero service connectivity at the airport in Kenai. Although the phone worked fine at the hotel in Soldotna earlier, I haven’t tried to place any calls on it since.

I pull it out and look at the caller ID. The same South Bend, Indiana number appears just like it had while I was eating breakfast with John this morning. I know no one from South Bend except for one person—Cam, from the Chief Pilot’s office in Chicago. He’s the boss of me and almost 2000 pilots there.

I tap the screen to pick up the call and hold the phone to my ear. “Hello?”

“Dave…this is Cam,” Cam’s tone of voice is low and forceful. It is markedly different from the relatively ebullient timbre of our earlier conversation. “I hear you’re having a problem flying to Anchorage up there. Care to tell me what’s going on?”

There is no mistaking his tone. Cam’s upset. He’s even leaned on the word ‘problem’. Knowing the following conversation will reflect greatly on my immediate future both here in Kenai and long term as an employee of the airline, I step quickly down the aisle towards the back of the plane. I need the privacy.

“Sure, Cam…” I clear my throat to begin. “I’m concerned about this plan of ours to take these people for a flight without screening them. It’s full of holes…”

Cam challenges me on my definition of the word ‘holes’.  I hear a mixture of skepticism and distrust.

I take a deep breath and go on to carefully describe to Cam our odyssey at Kenai ever since we landed here last night. In chronicalogical order I rattle it off.

No ACARS radio to communicate. The single cell phone that we had to rely on. The deicing we had to get. No jetway. No TSA. The airstairs someone from Era had to find for us. The toilets that showed full. The majority of our customers that were more than 8 hours without food. Even the pizza guy wouldn’t help us. Plus, only one jet fuel truck on the whole airport. Then, even after getting the proper amount, discovering that the fueler had pumped it into the wrong tanks.

We run out of duty time and the flight cancels. Then the passengers wanted their bags back. Then we had to empty the water system and rescue four dogs from the aft baggage compartment in sub-zero windchills. Then we get surrounded by half of our pissed-off passengers when they find out that there are not enough hotel rooms for everybody in Kenai.

Which brings me to today, where we find the company has done little more than provide food and blankets for our hapless customers. Nothing regarding security of the aircraft. No passenger screening. Just the assumption that we pilots and flight attendants are going to be a-okay with the idea of loading up our poorly-treated customers, some of who have been drinking all night—and all of whom had access to two stores where they could have purchased weapons or other prohibited materials. And other than us, there is no one who can help us screen them. No ground security coordinator. It’s all on us.

And when two of our flight attendants tell John and I their concerns, how uncomfortable they are, and how they think safety is now being compromised, I reach the same conclusion they do. That is—their fears are valid. I don’t want to go flying either.

“Cam, I was hired by the company back in 2000—almost 14 years ago. Recall back then that each and every pilot and flight attendant had to participate in several days of cockpit resource management training—together? You remember that, right?”

There’s a noticeable pause before Cam replies, “Yes.”

“Well, one of the things that stuck with me the most from that class was the use of the ‘CUS’ words, Cam. Remember those?”

My throat is getting dry and tight. I feel my pulse throbbing in my temples.

“Every one of those CUS words have been used this morning, Cam. And we as pilots were trained in that CRM course to listen for them,” My voice rises slightly and I slow my tempo of speech to put emphasis on each word. “I’ve been listening, Cam.

Maybe that’s my ‘problem’, Cam.  I’ve been doing what I was taught to do.

But he doesn’t hear that last quip.  It’s just my inside voice yelling.

My soliloquy concluded, I hold my breath until my Chief Pilot says something back. “So what do you suggest we do then?” he asks finally.

The response is at the tip of my tongue. I put on my best salesman’s voice and try to sell it.

“Charter however many buses it takes to accommodate everyone and drive them up to Anchorage. We will be more than happy to fly the airplane empty up there.” Sounds like a workable plan to us. I hold my breath again.

Another pause. “Nah. The company doesn’t want to do that.” Cam slams the door closed in my face.

“Listen Dave,” Cam fires back at me. “You gotta understand how hard we’ve been working on this issue ever since you guys diverted there last night.”

I press the phone as hard as I can against my right ear and use my left hand to jab a finger into my left ear to block out all ambient sound nearby. My right index finger mashes the Volume Up button on my cellphone.  I don’t want to miss a word he says.

“We have had our System Operations supervisor working with the Corporate Security desk. They have been working with TSOC in Washington DC…” Cam intones.

I’ve heard this before, I think to myself.

“…and they have taken our passenger manifest and carefully vetted everyone on the list against the national No-Fly database. And no one has come up as a security risk! No one!” Cam’s voice sounds like a barking dog.

“That’s fine, Cam,” I retort. “But none of those people who say it’s safe for us to fly are on the airplane with us.”

I gratuitously borrow this line uttered so succinctly by Logan just a little while ago.

I imagine this statement has caused steam to shoot out of Cam’s ears, because I only hear silence in mine.

Regretting it now, I try to tone down my swagger. “Listen Cam, my job as a pilot is to help identify risk and lower that risk level as much as I can for each situation. And to me, busing the people up to Anchorage is the least-risk scenario of our choices here.”

What Cam says to me next astonishes me.

“Dave, if we tried to lower the risk level in everything we do in our lives, we would never get out of bed in the morning.”

Whoa. My mind wrestles with this image Cam describes and I’m sent reeling. To think that my efforts thus far to lower the risks posed by this flight today are likened to someone so obsessed by it as to be paralyzed by fear is stupefying. In fact, it is preposterous. Cam has just insulted me, whether he realizes it or not.

I’m now standing in the corner of the aircraft rear galley, as far away from everyone else as I can be. My restless feet have carried me back here.  It’s still pretty chilly, but I feel my neck radiating heat. I pull at my tie to loosen it.

I know little about Cam other than seeing him a time or two while passing through the Flight Operations office at O’Hare. He’s at least 15 years older than I and has been a senior captain on our largest widebody aircraft for quite a few years. It’s a lofty position. Until today, I’ve never personally spoken to him.

“Cam,” I measure my voice as best I can. My body is shaking now. “This is my fourth major airline I’ve worked for. I’m not a spring chicken. This is not my first rodeo.”

I’m certainly no cowboy, nor am I nuts. I’m just some suburbanite twerp first officer who likes what he does, takes pride in his job and tries the best he can when he’s on the clock.

“With all due respect to you, Sir, now you’re disrespecting me.” I finish.

Thus far in my decorously long and somewhat tumultuous aviation career, I’ve never had to tell my boss that he’s treating me like shit. But that’s pretty much what I’ve just told Cam. I have no idea how he’s going to take it. (To be continued.)


Note:  Thank you, all readers of my little blog.  Interest in this true story of mine, along with other topics on which I blather, has humbled me.

I know many of you wish to hear the rest of my diversion to Kenai, Alaska from last year.  I have not forgotten you.

Alas, a perfect storm of writers block, family concerns and distractions with work have kept me away from the keyboard.  I apologize.  I will attempt to finish telling this tale as soon as I possibly can.


Divert to Kenai (or “How To Test A Pilot”) – Part 8

During the course of the workday, one of the most pressing concerns of an airline pilot are the concepts of threats. What’s a threat?   Here are a few examples: Racing a line of thunderstorms to the runway. Or dealing with a mechanical anomaly that could be indicative of a greater problem. Or threading your aircraft around mountains shrouded in cloud. Or grappling with customers who boarded the aircraft with sound intentions, only to sour when the combination of ill fate, personality and perhaps alcohol has made them obstinate, cantankerous—or worse. Usually the latter threat is handled deftly on the ground—before departure, and typically by ground staff well versed in the art of removing troublemakers simply by stating “the aircraft isn’t moving until you leave”. Works like a charm.

All of these hazards require our attention. Years of experience in the pursuit of my career have proven that the occurrences of most threats are low. They can be minimized but they cannot be completely eliminated. The very act of strapping onto an eighty-ton machine filled with 3,000 gallons of jet fuel and then launching one’s self at fatal airspeeds and altitudes has in itself formidable risk. This risk can and must be minimized. That is where tact becomes important.

My airline has two processes in place for flight crews to use in order to combat these threats. One process is called Threat/Error Management. The other is called Crew Resource Management. No, these are not classes taught at some business school somewhere. I do not have a collegiate degree in either. But I am reasonably educated in these nonetheless, so I may use these appropriately.

These processes did not occur with the advent of commercial air travel. Rather, they are borne from the smoldering wrecks of shattered aircraft, spilt blood and ruined lives. Aircraft accidents seem to have many disparate causes, but deep beneath the surface, most do have a common thread: human error. Therefore, it is important for a pilot to pay close attention to what tends to be the weakest link in what accident investigators call the “error chain”—people. People can make mistakes. People can cause trouble just because, well, they are human.

Threat/Error Management (T/EM) is an active filter our pilots use to analyze all of our threats and actions done in the course of our duties of flying airplanes. Crew Resource Management (CRM) is the ‘tact’ that all of our pilots and flight attendants try to use.

I’ve been an airline pilot now for over 20 years. During that time, I have sat through many, many hours of classroom discussions about CRM, about perceiving threats and how to handle them. Even prior to my flying career, I would study old accident reports in an attempt to familiarize myself with any causes that might have been quelled with effective use of CRM. I find the topic fascinating.

Often, to help underscore the discussion, a classroom instructor might use a prior accident to help illuminate a certain thorny issue. But other than the fallout from 9/11 (which was understandably extensive), rarely are passenger issues discussed.

Today, on this bright morning here in Kenai, we have passenger issues. I am now being asked to assess our predicament by John, our Captain.

The very fact that John has asked me my opinion means he has paid attention to the T/EM and CRM courses our company has presented. And although we were strangers to each other until just yesterday—and have only flown one flight leg together—John knows that I have a wide breadth of experience. My opinions are valid. He knows that I know this, and I appreciate it.

And right now I know the exchange rate for my two cents is pretty high. John, Logan, Kelly, Heath and Joann each await my reply.

I look down at my boots, then off towards the light streaming in from the opened passenger door. Beyond this portal, still inside the diminutive airport terminal await our passengers anxiously. They have now been marooned in Kenai with us for over 15 hours.

I deeply want to get our customers to Anchorage. I know full well that revenue from their airfare pays my salary. In this day and age, the passage from one city to another via airliner is so commonplace, so routine, so safe—that anything other than swift passage is downright shocking. I also remember that half of our customers just spent the night sleeping on the terminal floor.

I cough slightly and swallow so I may be clearly heard. All of my training, reading, research and experience culminate in my utterance. “I am not comfortable either.”

Without me, John cannot go anywhere. This 737, like all Boeing 737s, requires two pilots to fly. John cannot order me to fly. Although the pecking order established in commercial aviation requires me, the First Officer, to report to the Captain, I am not obliged to blindly follow his every wish. He cannot make me fly if I don’t think it’s a good idea to do so.

In fact, it’s one of the reasons two pilots are required in cockpits of all large commercial aircraft. These ‘checks and balances’ between two skilled professionals are robust and tend to catch all threats with great success and positive outcomes.

John and I look at each other in silence for just a second. Processing what I’ve said, he lowers his hands, still clutching the flight’s paperwork and speaks. “Okay, so what do you think we should do?”

A fine question. In other words, what options do I think we have for getting our customers safely to Anchorage today. I rattle off one as a review.

“Well, getting TSA security down here from Anchorage would be the best. But as we all know, that hasn’t happened thus far. And from what we know, it won’t happen any time soon.” I say flatly. “So that’s out.” Logan and Becky nod their heads in assent.

“So what I think is the least risk scenario for everyone is simple,” I continue. “Just have the company charter three buses and drive everyone up to Anchorage. And we will just fly the airplane empty up there. Easy and done.”

Now Joann and Heath nod their heads. Logan follows with a strong “Yeah! How difficult could that be?”

I’m hoping my solution is as effortless to do as it seems.

Ever calm and unflustered, John raises the rolled up flight plan to his mouth in contemplation. “I have no idea. But one of the station people here said it’s about a three and a half hour drive from here to Anchorage. And I don’t know if any buses are available here.” He lowers his arm, leans against the first class seat and turns to me.

“You really think there’s a threat here?” His eyebrows are raised as if to say, “I’m surprised that you would think so.”

I don’t take his question as an affront because he’s using his CRM skills, too. He’s challenging me. During difficult times, difficult questions need to be asked. These are challenges.

“I do.” My voice is clear and even. “And frankly the threat is not to you or me, the threat is to you guys.” I hold up my hand and point at our flight attendants.

“You guys are the ones that will have to deal with any unruly passengers. We’ve got an armored, locked door to hide behind.”

I don’t say this to brag. It’s just the fact of the matter.

Ultimately, if our flight attendants are not safe, neither are any of our passengers.

Echoing a passage from the Security chapter of our Flight Operations Manual, I finish making my point. “There’s no ground security coordinator in place here in Kenai. We are it. And we are not equipped to do this job.” My head moves from side to side.

Again, several seconds of silence. John turns back to Logan and shrugs his shoulders. “I’ll call our dispatcher back and see what the company has to say.”

There is a faint but unmistakable tone of resignation in his voice. Still fully dressed for the cold air, John steps past me and back out of the airplane towards the terminal building.

Once inside, John will dial the dispatcher assigned to our flight on the telephone. He will then describe to him what has just been discussed among his crew. Our dispatcher, knowing he has no authority in matters such as this, will then transfer John to the Flight Operations Duty Manager (FODM). Unlike our dispatchers, each FODM is a captain-qualified pilot. Each FODM works a 12-hour shift at our Network Operations Center (NOC). Each is carefully chosen and specially trained for this position.  Operationally speaking, FODMs put out fires.

One of the primary duties of the FODM is fielding calls from pilots systemwide with all kinds of operational issues. These FODMs have great resources at their disposal, be it customer service, dispatch supervisors, flight attendant supervisors or even corporate security supervisors. Each of these individuals sits at desks literally right next to each other in the NOC. Other subject experts on all manner of airline related issues are available too, another telephone call away.

Then and there, John and the FODM will discuss the situation, Captain to Captain.

I suddenly feel a surge of energy. I have put my foot down with my decision. We are stuck in Kenai. Knowing that my analysis of our situation will be scrutinized by every aforementioned person in the NOC—and perhaps even people above them within our airline—I retreat to my seat in the cockpit, subconsciously going there because that’s where I’m most at home.  I feel safest here.

Logan follows me. He’s got one more question. “Do you think we’re going to get fired for this?”

Just then, I see John exit the terminal building and briskly walk towards our plane.

I smile wanly.  “I guess we’ll know in a minute when John gets back here.”

Neither of us know the answer to this question.  (To be continued.)

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

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.)

Divert to Kenai (or “How To Test A Pilot”) – Part 6

The sound of my cellphone alarm clock rattles me awake. My body jolts beneath the covers as my right hand reaches toward the sound on the bedside table. I fumble to silence the bell. I look around in the darkened room, my eyes focusing on what shadowy shapes I can make out. Nothing looks familiar.

For about 5 seconds I have absolutely no idea where I am.

Then my brain puts it together, peers through the mist and things become clear again. I’m stuck somewhere outside of Kenai, Alaska. At some no-name hotel with a design ethos apparently focused on and inspired by the magnificent color beige. Beige walls, beige carpet, beige furniture, beige bathroom, beige towels. Even the little wrapped bars of soap are beige.

I look at the little placard above the telephone keypad, also beige. It lists the hotel address as someplace in Alaska called Soldotna. I’ve never heard of it. Before yesterday I had scarcely heard of the town of Kenai, either. But, due to a long string of bad luck requiring us to divert and cancel our flight to Anchorage, ultimately culminating with a lack of hotel space in Kenai, John and I have been banished here to rest.

I grab the edge of the window curtain and stick my head into the light. Instantly I’m blinded by the glare of the sun reflected off of dirty glass. I squint across an open field to the road that likely runs back to Kenai. Beyond that, not much more than a nondescript strip mall and a fast food restaurant of indistinct lineage. Blue sky, though. It still looks cold. Probably typical of weather in Alaska in March, I think to myself.

It takes a few moments for my fuzzy brain to convert local time to Central Time and my family, but I come up with somewhere around noon there. That means it’s about 8am here in Soldotna. I figure I’ve slept about 7 hours. This total is typical for me after a normal day. But probably on the low side of the scale after being up for 23 hours straight, like I was yesterday.

A hot shower in the beige bathroom wakes me up more. I pull on some jeans and attempt to call my wife. Surprisingly, the call goes through. My cell phone works here—unlike back on the airplane in Kenai. The Missus picks up the phone and I regale her with my Awesome Alaskan Adventure still in progress. Like a good spouse, she offers compassion and tells me that she’s just glad I’m safe. I tell her I wish I were back home.

“Tough day.” I mumble, summing it up. She says she wishes I were home, too. I explain the time difference to her and she lets me go with the admonition to get some breakfast. It occurs to me that I haven’t eaten anything in almost 18 hours.

I meet John downstairs at the little beige breakfast bar adjacent to the hotel lobby. Over soggy beige corn flakes and poorly reconstituted orange juice, John and I catch up.

“Hear anything from the company yet?” I ask John. He looks a little tired, although better than he did last night.

“Nope. I haven’t spoken to anybody since last night, after I got to my room.” He says between sips of coffee from a Styrofoam cup. “I told them I was going to call them back in nine hours…” This 9-hour reference is a contractually mandated minimum rest requirement ‘free from duty’ including work-related phone calls, of which we are well aware, and have taken full advantage of. “Have you heard from anyone?” John asks.

I shake my head. There’s a brief silence as we finish our meal and clear the table. We both wonder aloud at what the plan is for us, our crew and our airplane today. Noting the clear blue sky outside the window, we are guessing that the weather will not be the impediment it was for us yesterday. Then again, we are not in Anchorage yet, nor do we know what the weather is doing there. We shall find out soon enough.

Suddenly, my phone rings—now irrefutable proof that the thing actually works better than it did all night at the airport in Kenai. It startles me. John and I both look at the caller ID on the screen. It displays a telephone number from South Bend, Indiana. I don’t know anyone from there but I answer it anyway, curious to know who might be trying to call me in Soldotna, Alaska. Maybe it’s just a wrong number.

“Is this Dave?” a male voice asks. “Yeah, this is. Who’s this?” I reply. Doesn’t sound like a wrong number now.

“Dave, this is Cam. I’m one of the Assistant Chief Pilots here in Chicago. Given it’s the weekend, I’m the guy on call here today, which explains the funny number you see on your phone. I understand you and your crew had an eventful night in Kenai last night…” He begins. ‘Eventful’ is right, I think.  Cam’s tone sounds engaging, maybe a little boisterous, but still cordial.

Each pilot base has a Chief Pilot and several Assistant Chief Pilot positions. They are our supervisors at the base level. If I am one of thousands of anonymous pilots at our company just doing his or her job without any drama or fanfare, my phone won’t ring with one of these guys on the other end. It is evident now with this phone call that John and I are no longer anonymous.

Knowing what one of our “chiefs” is doing calling me piques my curiosity. Word must have gotten around from our FODM and dispatcher last night to our mutual supervisors. They either have kudos or concerns. Usually the latter.

The timbre of Cam’s voice indicates he’s trying to establish a rapport with me.

I answer his question briefly in the affirmative, though I am hesitant to go into further detail. I look up at John. It strikes me that the company has chosen to call me first. Usually the captain of the flight should get the first call from the company, not me. But that’s my logic.

“Listen, I’m going to call the captain here in a minute. But I called you first because you’re a Chicago-based pilot and you guys took off from Chicago. I understand he’s Houston-based.” I verified that for him, looking across the table at John while I say it. I ask him if he knew what the plan was for us today.

“I’m not sure, actually. I’ve just begun to follow your flight this morning. I just wanted to call each of your first thing today to see if you were doing okay. And, if there is anything you need, just ask. Now you have my number!” Cam sounds downright chipper from way off there in South Bend or wherever he is.

It would have been redundant for him to answer the same specific questions that John might have, so I just thank him for his concern, say good-bye and hang up. I’ll let John get the details, I reckon.

I put my phone back down on the table. “Some assistant chief pilot from Chicago—I don’t know him from Adam.” I shrug my shoulders, feigning any association. “Said he doesn’t yet know what the plan is but that he’d be calling you in a minute. Sounded nice enough, though…” I add.

John shrugs his shoulders back at me. “My phone’s up in my room charging” He states flatly. “How about we meet back down here ready to go in 15 minutes? I’ll have the front desk call us a cab.” John motions toward the stairway going up. I nod, follow him up the stairs and tell him I will be ready. I can hear his phone ringing as he opens the door to his room.

Now fully attired in our midnight blue and gold uniforms exactly 15 minutes later, John and I board the same dilapidated minivan taxi that dropped us off at the hotel last night. As we leave the hotel, John shares with me his conversation with the company.

“Well, I spoke to Cam, that assistant chief pilot. Also our dispatcher. And the FODM—a new guy today. The weather’s fine in Anchorage…” As he speaks, I peer out at the wilderness. Everything I see is new to me in the light of day. Deep evergreen forests and patches of brown scrub line the two-lane road, which gives the landscape a stark, austere beauty. Not a trace of snow, ironically.

“They want us to meet up with the flight attendants, get the plane ready, load everybody up and go.” comes John’s distilled summation.

Well, no kidding, I think sarcastically.

“But what about screening our passengers? Have they set up TSA security?” I inquire.

“Nope.” John says simply. “They want us to board up and fly to Anchorage. There, we will park at an ‘unsecure’ gate where the passengers will deplane, enter the terminal, get re-screened, and then go on their way.” Simple as that.

I am surprised to hear this. Our ordeal yesterday was made immeasurably more difficult because of the lack of TSA security screening at the Kenai airport. Everyone had to stay on the airplane while we waited for fuel and food, waited to be deiced, waited for the weather to improve—just waited. Almost three hours total time waiting after we touched down on the runway at Kenai stuck inside the cabin of a Boeing 737-800.

All because a U.S. mandate states that everyone aboard a scheduled commercial air carrier operating across state or federal borders must first be screened for weapons, explosives or other dangerous goods. Kenai Airport, tucked a scant 56 flying miles from Anchorage and not privy to scheduled flights from other states or countries, did not have this capability last night. Apparently, they do not have this capability this morning either.

“Why didn’t they just send TSA agents down from Anchorage to Kenai to screen our passengers?” I wonder aloud.

John merely shakes his head. “I dunno.”

Although I am vaguely familiar with the concept of flying unscreened passengers aboard an airliner, I haven’t done it in almost 20 years—long before 9/11 changed everything and created a new paradigm in aviation security. At the time I was flying small turboprop commuter airplanes with 19 seats and no flight attendant. Back then, the prevailing belief was someone might try to smuggle a weapon on a small plane to get to a big aircraft—then hijack that plane. Not us little planes. The rules were much more general—even cursory—and so was the security screening.

I tell this to John. Although he also has flown smaller regional aircraft, he has never personally flown an airliner with passengers in this manner. But in the spirit of the moment, under this cerulean Alaskan sky, after the night we had last night—we are both energized with the prospect of leaving Kenai and all this unpleasantness behind. It is to be a 20-minute flight.

(to be continued)

Divert to Kenai (or “How To Test A Pilot”) – Part 5

“We’re done. That’s it.” John states flatly. Our sighs can fill an airship.

Have you ever been rooting for someone, say a favorite but hapless basketball team? You know…they are in the championship game, final period, a few ticks of the clock left in regulation. Your team’s down by one point. Everything is riding on this last play.   The team has a good chance. If they make it, they will make many people very happy. It’s been a tough slog, but deliverance is within reach.

Your pulse quickens as your adrenal glands secrete that magic stuff. Which makes you rise out of your seat crossing your fingers and holding your breath. You are hoping to cry out in joy and relief. You’ve been waiting for so long.

You watch the player pass the ball inbound. Your team has to hurry to cover the length of the court. A player is open at the far end. All he has to do is get the ball and make an easy layup.

The athlete is passed the ball. He eyes it, the spinning leather and rubber hurtling his way. Just as the player is to catch it, his mind shifts to the vision of a glorious, completed shot an instant too soon.

But he hasn’t caught the ball yet.

Instead, in this eye blink of inattention, the ball careens off of his fingertips and skitters away, out of reach. Time runs out. The final buzzer blares. The game is over.

Time has run out for us here in Kenai. John’s duty time, essentially eclipsed by our fueling catastrophe, has led us to the end of the road.

A mixture of anger and embarrassment bubble up inside me. “I should have watched what the fueler was doing.” I mutter ruefully to John. “Yeah, but we asked him if he knew how to fuel our airplane. And he said he did.” He replies in words meant to salve my bruised ego, but he’s just as disgusted.

We must now tell our hopeful, patient, faithful customers. They don’t yet know this finality.

What happens next for them, and for us—is unknown at the moment. In the torrent of phone conversations John has been having with our dispatcher, our crew schedulers and the FODM—all have focused on what needs to happen to get us the hell out of Kenai tonight—before we time out.

Now, on the bitterly cold, windswept and darkened tarmac here in Kenai, all 109 passengers, 1 jumpseater, 4 frazzled flight attendants and 2 very weary pilots need to be told of our fate. John and I exchange hangdog looks.

“Well, fuck.” concludes John.  I sigh and nod.

This could get ugly.  Or weird.  Or both.  Dave’s Awesome Adventure continues.

Logan, one of the two flight attendants up at the front of the airplane, pops his head into the cockpit. John tells him he’s timed out. A mix of surprise and grief contort Logan’s youthful, slightly scruffy mug. Logan blurts a string of questions. “What’s gonna happen to the passengers? What about us? What do we tell ‘em?” He’s obviously energized with the knowledge that his day will hopefully be over too, but his voice trails off with fatigue as he contemplates a hazy, indeterminate future for all of us. He and the other three flight attendants have been busy front and center with our passengers for almost 10 hours now.

“Don’t know yet.” John answers in a clipped tone. And he really doesn’t. Our airline might. I say ‘might’ only because we’ve been concentrating on all of our logistics to get us out of Kenai for the past three plus hours. Not what will happen if we can’t get out of Kenai. Lord only knows what our operations people are working on back in Chicago.

The company knows that John was running low on duty time. The company also knows that we have now been misfueled. It is up to John to connect those dots so our company can draw the picture of a now-completely marooned Boeing 737-800 in Kenai, Alaska. This will take yet another phone call to the company to do so.  But first, it seems to be John’s obligation to tell the bad news to our customers. No sense in delaying the inevitable.

Normally, most P.A.s are done from the cozy confines of the cockpit. This is not always deliberate—mostly it’s just convenient—that’s where we are sitting most of the time. And honestly, reaction to bad news seems remarkably muted when blocked by an armored cockpit door. At least to us pilots. One can’t much hear the groans of hapless customers through reinforced steel.

But as anyone who has ever flown on a commercial aircraft knows, there’s more than one P.A. microphone.

Here John surprises me. He rises from his seat and leaves the cockpit, steps over to the forward flight attendant jump seat and there picks up the microphone. Then he moves with it until the coiled cord stretches fully extended. He’s now standing in the middle of the aisle, almost parallel to the first row of First Class. He is definitely not hiding when he keys the mic.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” his voice measured but weary “…this is your captain speaking—again.” The few pockets of chatter in the cabin fall silent except for the distant roar of the wind and whine of the Auxiliary Power Unit.

“I know you are tired of hearing my voice, but I have bad news. It is my sad duty to tell you that I have run out of duty time here.”

As expected, a collective of grumbles rises from the rows of seats. He goes into further detail.

“We have had a technical problem while fueling the aircraft. And to fix it would exceed my legal duty time. We will have to fly you to Anchorage tomorrow.”

That last sentence is a complete guess. We have no idea what we will be doing tomorrow, though flying this aircraft to Anchorage certainly sounds plausible. Maybe not by us, though. We don’t know. John at least offers them some hope.

John goes on with what little detail we do know about how all of our passengers will be accommodated tonight here in Kenai. As I mentioned, there are but two hotels in this town of 7,000. And there is no one here from the airline customer service department. Just John, me and our four flight attendants. For all practical purposes, we are the airline.

John explains this last detail once more, stating that he will be making some more phone calls to our operational control center, and that all pertinent information will be relayed as quickly as it is received—and for the passengers to sit tight. Besides ruminating their fate and staring out the window into the bleak Alaskan darkness, there is little else they could be doing.

Just after the microphone is replaced in its’ holster, a young, rugged-looking woman in thick coveralls enters the aircraft. She works for the small regional airline in Kenai. After introducing herself, she says she is the local station manager. Her name is Karen. She turns towards the cockpit and stands in the doorway.

“All right, I just got off the phone with your company customer service and here’s the deal…” Her long blonde hair whips around her head as a cold blast of wind once again slices into the cabin. The tone in her voice is loud and a little shrill, as if she’s used to speaking with dolts most of the time. “Everybody is to grab what they have aboard the plane and come with us into the terminal building. We have free Wi-Fi in there, so anyone with a computer or smartphone can go to your company website and download a $75 hotel voucher.”

A voucher worth $75. That’s it. Believe it or not, ‘severe weather’ alone can indemnify most airlines from providing anything for their customers, harsh as it seems.

John and I look at each other and sigh. We know that our airline cannot control the weather. We also know that unfortunate circumstances sometimes befall even the most earnest of crews. We both hope this plan will accommodate everyone.

“Are there enough hotel rooms for all of them?” we inquire in stereo. Karen shrugs.

“What if someone doesn’t own a computer or smartphone, how will they be helped?” I ask.

“Well, it’s just me and another gal. We’ll try to help people as much as we can get online… “ Replies Karen. “Plus, the bar is open.”

This last feature of the Kenai Airport pastes a cynical smirk on my face. To summarize the charms to which we have been privy thus far: no TSA security available, no lavatory truck to empty our toilets, no Jetway to insulate us from the elements. But at least there’s a place to get drunk. Maybe that’s the reason there’s a bar in the airport. Whatever. Irony never fails to amuse.

John is back on the phone with Operations in Chicago. He confirms that six rooms have been reserved for our four sapped flight attendants and us. Further, he is told that none of the baggage will be unloaded from the two cargo compartments below the passenger cabin. There is no one in Kenai qualified and available to unload and properly deliver these bags to their rightful owners as per company policy.

John passes along this information via one last P.A. The outside air temperature still hovers in the upper teens. He broadcasts a fatherly reminder to bundle up against the subzero windchill. Our passengers file slowly forward down the aisle to the open doorway, wobbly stairway and cold darkness beyond.

Until this point, I have not made much eye contact with our customers, my focus being our crew and the logistical tasks at hand. Eye contact, or better yet a brief conversation with our unfortunate souls makes me feel self-conscious, embarrassed. Still I think it’s the right thing to do, to put a face on the other one of those voices from the cockpit.  I stand in the cockpit doorway with my overcoat and hat on, exchanging wan smiles with some. Others just look at me blankly and shake their heads. All I can do is nod, lips pursed tight and neutral in a non-verbal response to their show of dissatisfaction. There is nothing much to say, really, though some appear appreciative of our efforts and smile weakly. They are in the minority.

I look back into the cockpit at John. Again he has his phone pressed to his ear. He’s discussing our fuel situation. Given our predicament with too much fuel in the center tank, not enough fuel in the wing tanks and no way to safely balance it out (by us, anyway), the decision to add more fuel to the two wing tanks is made.

Through all of this drama, our burly, gruff aircraft refueler has wisely remained clear of the aircraft. He sits ensconced in the warm cab of his truck. We expect him at any time there seems to be a break in the steady stream of passengers filing off the aircraft. He still has not received any payment for goods provided, a point he made so clearly to us both prior to his misfueling—and after.

Drained deeply from the economy section, the aircraft is now almost empty of passengers. A few small children, remarkably composed, lead their parents down the aisle. Each clutches some sort of carry-on, rollaboards, purses, brightly colored stuffed animals and shopping bags that say ‘Garrett’s Gourmet Popcorn’, procured so long ago from the terminal at O’Hare. They look as bushed as we do. No one is in any particular hurry to leave the confines of the airplane.  They move with a certain trepidation.  However cramped and devoid of creature comforts, our aircraft is at least familiar and temperate. There is no telling what accommodations await them within the Kenai airport terminal building or beyond.

Finally pulling up the rear, Rex, our freight pilot jumpseater, trudges toward the front of the cabin. “Any chance of getting my bag out of the baggage compartment?” he asks simply.

I look back at him for a second before I respond.  My weary brain yelps reflexively.  “Why in the world do you, Mr. Jumpseater, not have your luggage with you??!?”

When commuting to or from work, it is common for a prospective jumpseater to always have his entire ensemble of luggage with him in the cabin of the airplane. This arrangement is preferred in case the jumpseating pilot needs to be removed from the aircraft due to revenue passengers arriving to claim his or her seat at the last possible moment, resulting in the need to find another way to one’s destination without much hassle. It has happened to me on numerous occasions.

My mind wrestles with the sentence but my lips know better to speak it. It’s an insult. And the guy seems like a very nice fellow, someone I’d be very pleased to beg a ride from if I needed to jumpseat someplace. Plus, he’s been through all of what our paying passengers have been through. There’s no need for me to be a jerk.

“You checked your bag?” I ask with the tiniest amount of incredulity.

“Yeah. Stupid me.”  Rex smirks and shakes his head.  “I thought the plane was going to be full, plus I had tons of time in Anchorage to claim my luggage, so I just thought it would be easier.” His response shows generosity and common sense. It suddenly makes me sad to think I came close to haranguing him for what I thought was a rookie ‘commuter pilot’ move.

“I’ve got my flight case with me, but no clothes. It’s supposed to be a three-day trip…” Rex continues. The prospect of flying halfway across the world with no other clothes than a wrinkled uniform shirt, scratchy wool blend pants and stinky undergarments sounds miserable indeed.

Before I tell him what I think the answer will be, I choose to defer the question to the boss. “Hey John,” I call up to the cockpit. “Rex checked his bag before we left O’Hare. Any chance of him getting it tonight?”

John responds quicker than I thought he would. He must have been expecting this question from somebody as they exited, though incredibly no one has asked. Perhaps everyone understood his P.A. describing this. “I don’t think so.” he states dejectedly while shaking his head.

He goes on stating our company’s policy of only allowing trained ground service staff to do this work plus our inability to know in which of the two baggage compartments his bag resides.  And those pesky logistics of literally crawling into the cargo holds 7 feet off the ground without proper equipment, namely a belt loader. He also restates the frigid temperature outside and the fact that other passengers could possibly learn of this ‘favoritism’ (really just professional courtesy) which allowed one of the other ‘customers’ to retrieve their bags. With all our passengers have been through, this might be the final spark to ignite a riot.

I don’t agree with all of the above given our particular circumstance, as I feel for this poor guy. He’s a compatriot. But once more tonight I shrug my shoulders and apologize. Rex nods mournfully. He gets it.  Rules are rules.  He thanks us anyway for trying, but his voice sounds funereal. He wishes us luck, turns and shuffles into the gloom with his flight case. This exchange saps what little energy remains in my body and I lean against the cockpit doorway dejected.

Our fueler now reappears. In his absence from our flight deck, he informs us that he has been in communication with his boss over the phone. More fuel is to be loaded aboard our plane to cancel our limitation, and this will be done promptly. He has also been provided that heretofore-essential payment information. Given the gravity of events that has befallen us, he now speaks softly, almost apologetically.

While this fueling takes place, our flight attendants begin to gather their own baggage from the overhead bins and bring it forward to the first class cabin. Heath, one of our two male flight attendants, has no uniform overcoat with him, a mind-boggling oversight, given his scheduled layover in Anchorage in March. He feigns concern for the bluster awaiting us outside. Logan, his coworker, shakes his head and chimes in. “Dude, you’re going to freeze to death out there.” I reach into my own suitcase and pull out my ‘off duty’ winter coat, a packable down jacket, and hand it to Heath. He takes it with a sheepish grin and puts it on. Everyone else in our crew is now wearing as many sweaters, overcoats, scarves and hats as we have brought with us to stave off the cold.

In what seems like only a few minutes time, our fuel has now been loaded aboard the aircraft. Satisfied finally with the correct quantity, John signs the fuel receipt and keeps a copy for our records. It is now time to put our aircraft to bed.

This procedure is complicated by a requirement made necessary by the arctic chill—all water must be drained from the aircraft. This is stipulated to prevent any damage from freezing and expansion of ice; much like what is done to RVs before they are stored in colder climates. Neither of us have had the need to do this before in this aircraft.  In fact, this task is typically done by our maintenance staff, who are obviously not here.   So John and I reference the appropriate written procedure in our flight manual. This book states that all water is to be drained from the aircraft, including toilets. Given the lack of lavatory servicing equipment here in Kenai, draining the toilets is not possible. Yet another phone call to our maintenance department yields approval to simply drain the freshwater tanks.

The control for this is not inside the aircraft. Rather, it is on the underside of the aircraft, toward the tail, behind a small hinged servicing door. John pulls on his overcoat and hat to tackle the chore. Curious about how this will go, I mirror him and grab my flashlight.

Outside now, beneath the scream of the still-running auxiliary power unit above our heads, we together find the appropriate panel in which to access this water valve. I hold the door open against the cold wind and steady my flashlight beam on the brass lever. John moves it counterclockwise and a gush of water spurts out of a small tube a few feet away, the spray partially atomizing in the gale. Eventually a long streak of ice forms on the frozen asphalt beneath. The flow of liquid subsides, indicating all water that can be drained has been. John closes the valve and snaps closed the fasteners that keep the door shut.

As we head back toward the front of the aircraft, I look up at the closed baggage door. “Too bad about the jumpseater and his bag, you know?” I offer, the sadness of our final conversation still present in my psyche. John stops in mid-stride.

“Oh my god.” John says.

“What? What’s up?” I ask. John looks back at the aft baggage door.

“We’ve got live cargo! Holy shit!  I forgot all about it!”  It’s easy to hear John even with the racket from the APU.

The realization hits me like an electric shock; a quick conversation took place between our ground crew at O’Hare and the two of us on the airplane interphone just before we pushed back from the gate.  “Hey guys…just to let you know, we’ve loaded 4 dog kennels into the aft bin as cargo. Four dogs.” John and I both heard it.

In fact, our paperwork containing the final weight and loading information made mention of this. Normally the presence of live cargo is a non-issue.  Small animals are transported all over our route system with care by our staff, all specially trained to load and unload them.  Usually the paper with our “numbers” on them is noted once before takeoff, then filed haphazardly in a stack with other papers, most with information quickly obsolete to our operation, such as hourly weather reports.

And in the rush to depart in a timely manner, this “Live Cargo” message can be quickly forgotten. Just like we have done. Until now.

“We got to get them out of there!” John says quickly. “They’ll freeze to death if we don’t!” I run back up the airstairs and into the cockpit and grab our radio microphone.

“Kenai operations, 1425.”

“Go ahead 1425…” comes the reply from the terminal building.

“Do you guys have a pickup truck or maybe a baggage cart that we might use? We forgot that we have four dog kennels in the aft baggage compartment that we need to rescue.” I’m trying not to sound desperate. At least the baggage compartment has been heated as a matter of course throughout this whole ordeal. But the thought of us forgetting about these creatures, then shutting down the aircraft and walking away would have meant that we had killed them.  I would have been devastated.

“We’re on it.”

In less than two minutes, the headlights of a pickup truck round the corner of the terminal building and head our way. John and I meet the truck as it backs up to the aft baggage compartment door. John pulls down the tailgate and hoists himself up, giving him the necessary height to climb into the cargo hold. I click on my flashlight and aim it at the door handle while John twists it open.  This is a task that pilots do only in the most uncommon of circumstances. We pretty much are redefining that term here in Kenai.

The door opens and pivots inward and up, revealing large plastic netting that has been fastened to the ceiling and floor of the compartment.  This is present to keep any shifting of cargo away from the door. The bottoms of four medium sized dog kennels can be seen behind one of them. John peels off his gloves to work with his bare hands to release the metal clamps holding the netting in place.

Once out of the way, he bends forward at the waist and reaches for the closest kennel and pulls it toward him. Inside rests a small terrier, not more than 18 inches long, trembling. John works with the driver of the pickup truck who has joined us in the cold to gently lower the kennel to the bed of the truck. This is repeated three times more.

Once all the kennels are in the pickup truck, I shine my flashlight in them. Through the metal grates, each of their sets of eyes glow in reflection, skittering dogs of indeterminate pedigree. They appear healthy, if not more than a little terrified. A small ziplock bag of dog food is taped to the top of each of their kennels.  John pulls the cargo door closed and hops off the truck. The Kenai ramp worker drives them back to the terminal and carries the kennels inside for us.

John and I once more climb aboard the aircraft to get out of the cold.

By now, our flight attendants have gathered their belongings and are ready to get to the hotel. They are waiting merely for us to escort them back to the terminal, each sitting in one of the wide first class seats with their hands deep down in their coat pockets, as if attempting to capture as much warmth as possible before they have to leave. John tells them about the canine calamity we’ve just narrowly avoided.  They are all too exhausted to offer up much more than a “wow”. I climb in the cockpit and proceed to shut down the APU.

Moving the APU master switch to OFF instantly causes the cabin lights to flicker to their emergency setting, greatly dimming the available light in the cabin. As the whine of the turbine fades, our flight attendants shuffle out the open front door and down the airstairs. A couple of more switches and the aircraft is completely dark. The only sound now is the omnipresent cold wind that roars over everything in Kenai.

I climb down the stairs as John turns to shut the cabin door from the outside. Pale light from the terminal building beckons us as we pull our luggage behind us. Even with my hand pressing the collar of my overcoat as tightly as I can against my chest, the cold air slices into me. My ears sting so much I gasp. It seems to take forever to walk back to the terminal, but none of us have any choice except to keep walking.

The inside of the terminal looks different from what I had imagined. For one, it’s bigger than I thought it would be, and two, most of our passengers still appear to be standing around, waiting. The reason for this is quickly evident.

“They don’t have enough rooms for us!” an obese middle-aged woman wearing a Chicago Bears parka states to Kelly, our perky brunette flight attendant.  She happened to be the lucky first of us inside the door. “There’s no other place for us to go.”

As if to protect ourselves from what looks to be an ambush, the six of us clump into a circle.  The florescent lights of the terminal seem especially harsh and bright compared to the interior illumination of the aircraft.  We are quickly surrounded by a gaggle of passengers.

“When are we going to get to Anchorage?” asks another. “They’re telling us nothing here!” Their disgust is hard to hide. Like it or not, we are still the face of the airline. But in the time it took between deplaning our passengers and putting the aircraft to sleep, we have not been privy to any further information about how our passengers are going to get to their destination, or how any of them might rest in the meantime.  None of us have spoken yet.

John finally speaks for all of us and restates what little is obvious. “Myself and my crew need to get some rest. After we are rested, we will hopefully be able to get you up to Anchorage.”

This doesn’t seem to satisfy one man. He’s tall, thin, unshaven, wearing a faded hunters ball cap. “Why didn’t your airline just fly another airplane in here to pick us up?!” He begins. “I used to be in the Air Force!”  

I consider that for a fraction of a second before I realize that means absolutely nothing to us or our situation.  The guy may have well stated that he landed on the moon. Not relevant. But his diatribe continues. “Why don’t you guys just fly another pilot in from Anchorage—one that isn’t timed out?! And why didn’t you just land in Fairbanks?!”

That does it for me. My hackles are up. Before John can get a word out of his mouth, I set my jaw low and dig in. “Sir,” I look the man straight in the eye. “…there is a blizzard raging in Anchorage right now. No aircraft are flying in or out of that airport.” More passengers begin to lean in to hear me speak as I continue my defense. I will not raise my voice because I will sound pissed off if I do.  I am kind of pissed off, come to think of it.  But I don’t want to show it.

“And…our airline does not have a spare aircraft in Anchorage that they could fly down here even if there wasn’t a blizzard.  And to answer your last question, we could not carry enough fuel from Chicago to use Fairbanks as a legal alternate.”  I keep looking at him squarely in the face after I am done speaking.

My recitation of logic and common sense must have hit the target as the man with the ball cap simply glares back at us.  He says nothing.

“But why did we come here? They’ve got no room for us here!” a young, thin female passenger exclaims. “It was our only choice in this storm, ma’am.” John replies, calmly.

“But there’s no one from your airline here to help us!” retorts the lady.

“Ma’am, no one is as disappointed in our airline as we are right now.” I state slowly in a low, flat tone, looking to our flight attendants and John. “All we can do is apologize, get adequate rest and hopefully get you to Anchorage tomorrow.” The questions stop coming. The skirmish has ended.  The group of passengers huddled around us disperses.  They realize that we can provide them with no other information.  Or at least I hope they do.

Karen from Kenai operations walks up to us and states that our four flight attendants will be staying at the hotel closest to the airport. She also states that our company has found John and I two rooms at a hotel about 20 minutes away. Why 20 minutes away, we wonder aloud. It appears that the local hotel in which held our reservation decided to give them to some of our passengers, she tells us. We shrug our shoulders and simply ask how we get there. Anything to get us out of this terminal building and away from our passengers. At least for a little while.

John and I climb into a worn minivan taxi and proceed to drive to this distant hotel. By pilot contract we are to be provided at least nine hours of time “behind the hotel room door” free from any work-related activity. Even in my fuzzy, tired mind, I think clearly enough that this will be barely sufficient.  A clock above the check-in counter at the hotel says 1am. I have been awake for the past 23 hours.

Tomorrow promises to be a time-compressed day at the very least.  Given our divert, what was supposed to be a 29 hour layover in Anchorage will be down to 12 or so.  Then we are to operate an always-challenging red-eye flight to Denver.  That is, if we get out of Kenai.

(To be continued.)