I flunked Christmas bidding this year. As Len Morgan says from Flying Magazine, “Anyone can fly a trip—but it takes a genius to bid them!” I think he’s right.
I have no idea what happened. All I know is that with almost 30 years of seniority at my airline, I was unable to “hold” Christmas off and as I write this, I’m on day 3 of a 4 day trip that began Christmas day. Sigh.
Nonetheless, there’s still been times this month where I’ve been able to be with friends and loved ones and celebrate what Christmas is about. In those settings, maybe because of the novelty of being an airline pilot and certain perceptions about my livelihood, non-fliers will often ask:
“Have you had any close calls?”
The best answer I’ve ever heard was from Foster Brooks back in the 70’s doing a skit with Dean Martin when Martin, realizing that Brooks was an “Airline Pilot” asked the same question. Brooks, pretending he was a nervous pilot needing a drink to “steady his nerves” before going to work, stammering said,
“Oh sure! Especially when they moved the mens room to the back of the plane!”
That makes me laugh every time.
Invariably, when you do a lot of traveling and eat foods from all varieties of sources, something is “not going to agree” with you. Years ago, as a First Officer on the “three-holer” (the Boeing 727) we were flying back from Curacao to Miami one afternoon. That leg can be pretty long (around 3 hours) and somewhere over the ocean, I was ready to head back to the lavatory to meet my “physiological needs.” As I was leaving the large cockpit, the First Class Flight Attendant was coming into the cockpit to have some quiet time and to eat her lunch. We chatted briefly as I headed out of the cockpit door.
Stepping into the cabin, an elderly woman was just entering the forward lavatory—she closed the door and slid the lock to “Occupied.” Shrugging my shoulders thinking “oh well—“ I looked down the aisle and another woman, probably in her forties, was charging up the aisle with a panicked look to her face.
Looking at the locked lavatory, and looking back at me, and then looking back at the closed lavatory door she exclaimed, “I HAVE to get in there!!”
In my most official airline voice: “Sorry Ma’am,” I said. “Someone just walked in! “
“Yeah,” she said—“but I’m really feeling sick!”
It was obvious. She was not doing well…and it would become very obvious shortly that I was in over my head!
“Ummm….Can I get you a bag or something…” I blurted out with feigned confidence.
“Yes,” she said, “that would be great.”
Now—I really know the front end of an airliner and I know some things about the galley—the important things like, how to make coffee.
But beyond that—where stuff is located or what to do if a lady is getting ready to puke…that’s “pushing it!”
“Bag, bag, there’s got to be a barf bag here somewhere” I was saying to myself looking all over the galley. And then I saw it!
“Aha! a plastic trash bag!! —this will work!” I confidently thought
Taking the large bag to the woman who was now standing in the doorway of the main entry door, I said, “Will this be ok?”
“Yes,” she said. “That will be fine.” Then, with all the dignity she could express, she buried her head in the trash bag and her shoulders came up and she “discharged” into the bag as I stood there helplessly watching.
She took a breath and I asked—“Can I get you a cup of water or something?…”
She said “That would be nice” and I headed back to the mysterious galley.
“Water, water, there’s got to be water here somewhere…” “Where’s the cups?” I thought. “And the ice?”…
After a period of time, I victoriously had gathered all the necessary elements to help this woman and strode over to her. She was now squatting with the open bag between her legs and anger all over her face.
Seeing her anger I cautiously approached and reached out to hand her the glass of water.
“I JUST MESSED MY PANTS” she exclaimed. “AND IT’S NOT NUMBER ONE!”
I was stymied. “Uhhhh” I blurted out. And then with my airline voice. “You just exceeded my capabilities—let me go get a Flight Attendant!” With that, I left that poor woman in the white pants and quickly opened the cockpit door.
The Premium Flight Attendant who was happily enjoying her meal was sitting in the aft jumpseat.
“Hey, ah—there’s was a woman back there who got sick!” I said.
Stopping her chewing she gasped and looked at me with horror and before she could say anything—
“But I was able to get a bag for her!” I exclaimed.
“Oh THANK YOU!” she said with relief!
“Yeah, but”—I hesitantly began saying, “she messed her pants and she’ll need some help.”
I smiled and quickly took my seat.
Relaying to us later the events that unfolded, our poor Flight Attendant stepped back into a “mess” and tried her best to remedy the situation. Suggesting that the woman change into some other clothing in her suitcase, the woman with clenched teeth said, “My bags are in the cargo compartment!”
She left the plane with a wrapped blanket around her waist.
I did feel for her! Which one of us has not experienced that kind of “problem” when out in public.
So in the holiday gatherings I’ve been in, the “close calls” of the biological kind are easier to explain to the non flying public…trying to explain those things that will sometimes wake me up at night to the uninitiated can be “lost in translation.”
Like the time flying the DC-3 for the Mosquito Control and barely missing the high tension electric line just to the north of the bridge…concerned the cable would grab the tailwheel as we yanked back on the yoke.
Or the time when we had a TCAS alert of an airplane coming straight at us over the ocean that ATC didn’t see.
Or the “WHOOP WHOOP PULL UP TERRAIN” alarm over the mountain at BHM on a dark and stormy night and seeing the radio antenna go shooting by the left wing.
Or the night we almost ran off the end of a 13000 ft runway in Mexico City hydroplaning in a rainstorm and 8 knot tailwind…
Yeah, I don’t tell those kind of stories at parties…and I don’t tell them much anywhere else either. Like “close calls of the biological kind” we’ve all had them and if they didn’t kill us, they’ve shaped us to be the pilots we are today. I for one am glad that my Guardian Angel is alongside as I fly—who knows how many more of these I never even knew of but were protected from?!
As I reflect on the holiday season this year and the many blessings I enjoy, I’m also reflecting that a babe in a manger would later say, “I’ll never leave you or forsake you” —I’m sure glad that He’s in my cockpit ever vigilant even when I’m not!
Have a happy and safe and blessed holiday season.
About The Author
Jeff Collins is from SW Florida and is an Airline Captain flying the “big iron’ for a major airline. The son of an airline pilot, he learned to fly in high school, has spent his whole life in aviation, and loves to share the stories that have followed his career. When not in the air in the Flight Levels, he can be found in his SR22 flying to see his kids and grandkids and enjoying the view from down low.