Inflight Insanity: My Top 5 List
Twenty-four years and counting as an airline pilot–the past 19 as captain–have taught me to never say or think “now I’ve seen it all.” Because just when you think you have, something like #1 below happens.
I still expect to have many more years of flying ahead. But I can say that over these flying years so far I’ve seen a lot of almost unbelievably bizarre things that I wouldn’t have thought could ever happen in the airline world had I not seen them myself–even though often, I wished I hadn’t. Here, then, is my list of the top five weirdness, at least so far, and the valuable lessons in each.
5. A short, stocky taciturn man connecting onto our flight south after clearing Customs from Shang Hai boarded our plane early. He headed to the last row, sat down, dropped his tray table and pulled a strange device from his carry-on bag. This calculator-sized gizmo had blinking lights, a few loose wires, and an LCD display that flashed an ever-changing series of numbers. He then draped his jacket over his head and most of the tray table, tenting himself in seemingly intense concentration on the strange device’s number display.
Of course, that freaked out the flight attendants supervising boarding. They called me on the flight deck and reported the whole oddball situation. Sigh. Why couldn’t he be on someone else’s flight? I called operations and requested a Passenger Service agent to investigate what certainly was abnormal passenger behavior.
The guy spoke only Chinese and tried to ignore any requests to deplane. Eventually, law enforcement officers were summoned to ask him a few questions. As he was led off the plane by Passenger Service agents, glaring at everyone and muttering in some Mandarin dialect, I made sure to stand behind the waiting police officers just in case he went Ninja-crazy with some obscure martial arts move from deepest China, ripping out your heart with one hand and showing it to you as you collapse.
Found out at our next stop that investigators–and translators–determined that the man’s strange device was a “random number generator”that he liked to stare at because it “calmed him down” since he was afraid of flying. Lesson here: don’t act like a weirdo-zombie with a strange device during boarding. It freaks out the crew.
4. In flight, I kept hearing a male voice outside the cockpit door. We had an all-female cabin crew on that flight, so I knew it wasn’t one of their voices I heard. I had made the standard P.A. reminding passengers that congregating near the galleys was not allowed. I also heard a muffled female voice sounding urgent in between words from the male voice. The seatbelt sign was on, so no passengers should have been up anyway.
Sigh. Can’t everyone just stay seated when the seatbelt sign is on? Of course not. I called back to the forward flight attendant, asking what was going on. “You wouldn’t believe it if I told you,” she answered, then asked me to make another seatbelt P.A.. That worked–the male voice vanished.
Later, the #1 flight attendant came up to explain why the man was standing outside of the cockpit door and mostly in her galley. “He had just come out of the forward lav and was doing calisthenics of some sort. I asked him what he was doing and he said he’d been feeling gassy, went into the lav to pass gas but couldn’t, so he was trying to work out a big fart.”
Lesson #4: share your gas with your fellow passengers near your seat–not up front. We’re busy flying the plane and breathing is key.
3. During boarding in Puerto Vallarta, a woman with a grating New Jersey accent poked her head into the flight deck and demanded “can you guarantee that there are no peanuts on this plane?” I thought about it and realized I really can’t guarantee that. We don’t have any peanuts in the catering, but who knows if other passengers may have some with them as a snack? Peanuts are not a prohibited item. “No,” I answered slowly, pretty sure I was correct, “I really can’t guarantee that.”
“Well,” she snapped back, “my son has a severe peanut allergy and if there’s so much as one peanut on this plane, he’ll go into convulsions. So you’d better be sure.” Then she huffed off to the back of the plane where her husband and son were seated.
My first officer looked at me with a raised eyebrow and a sly grin that said what are you going to do, captain?
Sigh. I called Operations on one of the VHF radios and requested a phone patch with the 24-Hour Physician On Duty at Headquarters. After hearing the woman’s story, he made the corporate recommendation: deplane the family. That would be my choice as pilot-in-command as well, because I don’t really want to do an emergency descent and landing on some crude runway in a foreign country with questionable medical help anyway.
I called to the back of the plane and asked the flight attendants to pass along the directive to deplane to the peanut-sensitive family. Within the twenty seconds it would take to stride the 130 feet from the back to of the jet to the front, we suddenly had an irate man with a grating New Jersey accent standing between the First Officer and me.
“We’re not getting off,” he announced, “so you just go about your business.”
I put on my game face. “Well sir, the decision has been made at corporate headquarters. It’s out of my hands–you’ll need to gather your belongings and deplane. We can’t risk your son going into convulsions in flight as your wife warned us.”
“Ignore her,” he said with a wave of his hand. “She doesn’t know what she’s talking about. And we’re not deplaning.” He stomped off.
Sigh. I called Puerto Vallarta Operations and explained that we would need law enforcement to escort some passengers from the flight. “Si, senor,” came the cheery reply,” we will send you some help.”
Good enough. I went back to gazing at the palm-studded landscape, the sunny breeze, the ocean in the distance . . . the dumptruck full of soldiers with semi-automatic rifles pulling up in front of of the aircraft.
Huh? “Looks like the cavalry is here,” my First Officer remarked idly.
I called the Flight Attendants in the back of the plane. “Could you send Mr. Congeniality up front one more time?”
Shortly, the Jersey guy reappeared, looking annoyed. “You can’t make us get off. I know my rights.”
“Well, if you look out there,” I pointed to the twenty-some soldiers fidgeting in the hot sun, now line abreast with their weapons unslung in front of the camouflaged dumptruck. “Those folks there are going to help you off the plane if you don’t go on your own.”
He stomped off with mild cursing; shortly the whole family deplaned with Mr. Congeniality muttering threats about “rights” and “lawsuits.” The soldiers looked disappointed as they climbed back into the truck. No guerilla assault today.
Lesson #3: get your story straight before you board. And try to avoid phraseology like, “you can’t make me.”
2. Flying with my favorite flight attendant of all time as #1 flight attendant. We’re inbound to DFW from somewhere up north, and about an hour from landing, The Gorgeous One calls me on the flight deck.
“Just so you know,” she tells me, “we have a guy in First Class saying he needs oxygen, he’s having trouble breathing, and he’s already had three heart attacks.”
Sigh. So close to home, and yet so far away; imagine the paperwork in this. But no one ever dies in flight, I tell myself–they’re just incapacitated. Much less paperwork that way.
The Most Beautiful Flight Attendant of All Time finds a nurse on board who takes the guy’s vital signs while I query the navigation data base for the closest airport with at least a 5,000 foot runway: Tulsa.
The First Officer starts the divert procedures without me having to say anything. The nurse reports that the guy is having chest pains, too. The corporate Doctor-on-Call concurs: land the plane, get the guy some help. I tell Darling Bride we’ll be on the deck in fifteen minutes. Sorry hon–your day just got longer, but I know you want to get him on the ground before he needs the jumper cables.
Like clockwork, we secure the necessary clearances and point the nose towards Tulsa. Medical help on the ground is standing by, ready to whisk Mr. Cardio off the plane and to a medical center. Good deal? Nope.
The passenger doesn’t want to land in Tulsa. Maybe the thought of dying in Oklahoma–living there would be awful enough–is too much for him to contemplate. Whatever–he’s now livid. That’s not helping his heart rate any.
We land safely and taxi right to a gate were an ambulance waits.
Medics strap him to a gurney and wheel him off the plane, protesting all the way, yelling about the pilot’s (that’s me) incompetence. Well, there’s certainly that, plus the thousands of dollars the divert cost, never mind the inconvenience to the hundred or so other passengers with normally operating central circulatory pumps who would likely miss their connections in DFW as a result of the immediate action to save his life. And to save me the paperwork, but regardless: buh-BYE.
Lesson #4: no good deed goes unpunished. Nonetheless, if you’re going to have cardiac problems, we’re going to try to save your life. So have your heart attack quietly if your downline connection is that important.
And the Number One bizarro experience, at least most recently:
1. We’d pre-boarded a thirty-something individual who had mobility issues. A travel aide whose sole purpose was to attend to this passenger’s needs also boarded. Once they were comfortably settled and we were about to start general boarding, a mechanic announced that a necessary system check would cause a delay. So we stopped boarding, figuring the passengers would prefer the more spacious terminal for their delay. But the pre-boarded folks remained in the cabin.
After about twenty minutes, the passenger sent the travel aide into the terminal to fetch some junk food.
I saw the travel aide leave the jet bridge because I was at the gate counter on the phone with dispatch, coordinating a new flight release.
Then I noticed on the computer screen I was viewing that the crew list had changed: the number one flight attendant position was vacant.
Huh? I’d only been off the plane for a matter of minutes.
My First Officer filled me in when I returned to the cockpit: as soon as the travel aide left, the individual decided a trip to the lav was an urgent necessity. Which couldn’t happen without the travel aide.
So the number one flight attendant, being somewhat of a saint with perhaps a touch of insanity, agreed to help, holding a styrofoam coffee cup for the still seated passenger.
THREE TIMES. And apparently, on the last “cupful,” through some anomaly of aim, trajectory or hydraulics, our flight attendant ended up hosed down.
And so we ended up with a replacement flight attendant. There’s no “sigh” with this one–just “ewwwwww,” plus see also lesson #4: “no good deed goes unpunished.”
And here’s lesson #5: just when you think you’ve seen it all–watch out. I just don’t say those words any more, and now you know why.