“Did He Say Bomb?”

Two days before Thanksgiving, 1994 dawned cold, misting rain and generally just plain crappy. That’s the only way to describe the weather as we left the gate in that sprawling city on the banks of the “Big Muddy”. I swear if only Elvis were still alive there in Memphis…he would have done something about it. “Bill, do you want the engine heat on?” “Yeah Terry, it’s below 10 degrees C, let’s turn it on…Ken, would you make the EPR corrections on the take-off data card?” (Exhaust Pressure Ratio…essentially, the gauges we use to set the thrust.) As we taxied for departure that grey morning, First Officer Terry and Second Officer Ken were busying themselves with their respective “before take-off” duties. I, on the other hand, simply concentrated on taxiing the aircraft without swapping paint with any of the other jets jammed back in the alley with us. After a layover in Little Rock the night before, we had flown the 20 minute flight to Memphis, and were now Northwest Airlines Flight 632, destination: New York’s La Gaurdia Airport. The aircraft was a Boeing 727-251, ship number N298US, and except for the garbage weather, life was good. All this was to change in the next few moments.

As mentioned before, in aviation one experiences many firsts. Most of these are wonderful occasions: your first solo, your first time in command of a multi-engine aircraft, your first time solo-ing a student as a new Flight Instructor, etc. However, some of these little events aren’t so full of joy: things like your first FAA check-ride, or maybe your first in-flight emergency come to mind quickly. I’ve heard it said on more than a few occasions, that during your career as a professional pilot “you’ll get one of everything”, and that seems to be true. Before this day was done, I would be able to put a check in the box marked “Bomb Threat”; and that’s not necessarily a good thing.

Just about the time I had called for Terry to set the flaps to their normal take-off position of 15 degrees, we received a “ding dong” chime from the Lead Flight Attendant. S/O Ken answered it, and by the tone of his voice I could tell that it was something important (not the usual issues like we’re out of Colombian coffee, lol.). Needless to say, my ears began to perk up. “OK, I’ll tell him, and why don’t you come on up” was Ken’s response. He hung up the interphone mic, and turned to face me. What he was to say, would affect the lives of 146 strangers and my crew of six for the next several hours. It came out as, “Bill, you’re gonna love this, we’ve got a bomb threat.” My “steely-eyed, squared-jawed, Captain-like” response came out as, “Huh?”

Before we go any farther, I’m going to take a break from the telling of this tale, and introduce you to the cast of characters in this little melodrama .

Playing the part of Captain and aircraft commander was yours truly. At the time, a 38 yr. old, rather brand new “four striper”, with about nine months experience in the left seat of the Boeing 727. I was feeling fairly comfortable, for coming back from the right seat of the DC-10 to fly the “7-2”, was like meeting up with an old friend. I had crewed her as a Second Officer, been a simulator instructor and Check Airman on it, and had flown it as a First Officer for about a year in the mid-80’s. It’s a tremendous machine (albeit old technology), built like a tank, and when the “going gets tough, put me in a Boeing every time”.

Sitting to my right, was my trusted First Officer Terry. A tall, handsome, gregarious fellow Texan from the bright lights of Houston. At the time, he was in his early thirties and in another life and time, there’s no doubt he would have been a riverboat gambler. His gold chains and Rolex watch were evidence that he did pretty well within the world of wagering, but his mood would change as did his fortunes. This is not to say that Terry had a problem with gambling, but at each and every stop during our trips that month, he would be on the phone to his bookie. They may have been your friendly “how’s the wife and kids?” type calls, but I got the impression that he and this person were maybe a BIT closer than he and his bride back in Houston. A terrific pilot, full of opinions (what pilot isn’t), and generally fun to share the cockpit with.

Ken was even more of a hoot then Terry.. In his early fifties, head full of grey hair, retired from the Navy at the rank of Captain (isn’t Admiral next?), and was playing the part of the Flight Engineer (or “switch flipping fool” as we called them), just to get out of the house and have some fun. He had done it all, seen it all. From flying fighters from the rolling decks of carriers, to serving in the Pentagon, to sitting behind me at the Second Officer’s panel on a twenty year old airplane. His wit and sense of humor were sharp as a blade, and the fact that he had two “young pups” driving him around the system, was a constant source of jocularity for him. He stayed planted rather firmly in Terry’s face (good naturedly, of course), and kept “the kid” riled up almost constantly. (It didn’t help that they went out gambling on the layover the week before in New Orleans, and he kicked Terry’s ass on the craps table… not having any idea what he was doing!  He spent the entire next day counting out his $2400 winnings on his Second Officer’s table over and over again, while asking Terry “how much did you win last night?”….I loved it).

The last member of the troupe to get an honorable mention is Rose, the Lead Flight Attendant. Wonderful lady, and a true source of help during all that was to transpire. She was from the “old school”, always made sure her hair and makeup were perfect, was hired back in the days when all “good” things started with N…Nixon, Napalm, Namath and Nicotine. She was in her mid-fifties, still loved her job, and had logged many an hour flying for Braniff, and following their demise, had hired on with NWA. There was no doubt who was in charge in the back of the jet, and I was lucky to have her there during all of this.

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(A Northwest Boeing 727. When we first switched to this livery, we called it “the bowling shoe” paint job. Most of us didn’t much care for it at first, but it grew on us.)

With that said, the cockpit door opened and in stepped Rose with a magazine in her hand. “Bill, I think you’re going to want to take a look at this” Well, since I can’t taxi and read at the same time (at least not in the confined alley we had found ourselves in), and since the F/O has no “tiller wheel” to taxi from his side, I stopped the jet, set the brakes and took the magazine from her. It was our version of the complimentary in-flight magazine that all carriers have. You know the one; it’s full of interviews with people you couldn’t give a rat’s ass about, junk you would never buy if you weren’t so friggen bored (do you REALLY need a heated litter box for your cat to take a dump in?), and a crossword puzzle that Albert Einstein couldn’t figure out. On the page adjacent to our “Welcome Aboard” message from the CEO, some moron wrote; “I have placed a bomb on board this aircraft. If you choose to ignore this, it could be FATAL. You choose.” Lovely.

After reading it to myself a couple of times, I decided to share it with the other two heads trying to read over my shoulder. Terry’s eyes began to take on the “doe in the headlights” look, and Ken just started to smile and shake his head. Rose looked at me like, “O.K. new Captain, now what are you going to do?” I had three heads peering at me for some guidance, and I was desperately trying to figure out how I felt about all of this. This is, of course, “the rub” with wearing that fourth stripe. When the excrement begins to strike the proverbial fan, all eyes look to you, and you have to make a plan, and it HAS to be right. Even though this was my first time with someone making a threat against my aircraft, I was determined to do it by the book.

Since we were off the gate, the last place that ATC and law enforcement authorities wanted us, was back at the terminal. We were committed to doing this out on the tarmac. As most of you might well imagine, the moment you mention the “B” word over any ATC frequency, telephones start to ring in offices all over America (from the local FBI, to the airline, to the aircraft manufacturer, to the FAA folks in D.C….it gets serious in a hurry). We are briefed, trained and practiced at the art of what to do when this starts to happen, but it’s a bit like getting pregnant… it’s no big deal until it happens to you! We fessed up on the ATC Ground Control frequency, and they hit the big red button (I don’t think they actually have one, but it’s a cool imagine, right?). The first thing that they had us do was to get the hell out of the crowded alleyway (for obvious reasons). Unbeknownst to most laymen, every commercial airport has a “ground zero” area designated for just such an aircraft (be it a bomb threat, or a hijacking, etc), and we were instructed to taxi to it. This area affords the best access to your aircraft, and just as importantly, it will keep you well away from anything important in the case of any collateral event (nice way to say big explosion, eh?). We began our taxi to just that spot on the Memphis airport, while I had Terry suggest to ATC to have the other folks on the taxiway keep a safe distance from us.

I know it’s hard to believe, but now the questions began to race around in my head. Is this a “for real” bomb threat where something explosive actually is on the jet? What will we do if we find said explosive device? Should we evacuate the aircraft? What the hell am I going to tell the 146 customers that think we’re on our way to NYC? And most importantly, is this all going to play out like when we train for it? I had to come up with some answers to all this, and do it pretty darn quickly. I started by having Rose stay with us in the cockpit for a few minutes, so she would hear what the game-plan would be, and thus be on the same page of music as the rest of us.

With the same three heads giving me “the look”, I stopped about halfway to the ground zero spot, set the brakes and began to formulate the plan. I started by eliciting opinions about how “serious” they thought this little note might be. We all agreed that it was serious, but we also thought that it was almost certainly put there by some snickering pimply-faced 15 yr. old, or some drunken moron pissed off because we had lost his bag the last time he flew us. We all agreed that had we had an actual funny ticking thing to look at, then we’d all be off the jet like we were shot out of a cannon! I felt very certain (and they all agreed) that this was your basic hoax. We would treat it seriously, and we would ALL be getting off this thing shortly, but we would not be conducting an emergency evacuation (invariably, someone is injured breaking an ankle, etc). Rose left the cockpit knowing how we were going to play this, so now it was time to tell the New Yorkers in the cabin that they would be a bit delayed. I picked up the passenger P.A. mic, and told them what was happening, that is was most certainly a hoax, and what we were going to do about it (only I didn’t use the 15 yr. old, or pissed off drunken moron analogy).

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(Converting Jet-A fuel into smoke. She was a joy to fly…)

So far, it was all going rather smoothly, well as smoothly as a bomb threat can go I guess. The local authorities were scrambling to find enough busses to meet us at “ground zero”, deplane the passengers, take them into the terminal and brief/interrogate them. The FBI bomb team was to be on-site ASAP, and the NWA Memphis Station Manager would meet us when we shut down to coordinate anything else we may need. Cool, just like in the movies.

About that time, Rose came back into the cockpit to tell me that “most of them are doing fine with all this, but one little old lady wants to know WHY we aren’t evacuating the airplane.” Really lady? Ray Charles could’ve seen that one coming. Stop the jet, set the brakes, and back on the P.A. mic to explain why we were going to keep this from turning into a “Chinese fire drill”. Rose was doing a great job of keeping everyone in the back informed and focused on what she needed them to do, and I couldn’t help but wonder if “Riverboat” Terry was mentally calculating our “odds” on this one. “Let’s see….I’ll take $5000 on Crazy Legs Bomber to WIN in the daily double.” I was hoping that if he had to place a wager that he was at least betting on the Boeing crew. “Admiral” Ken was as cool as a cucumber…after all, this wasn’t like going downtown over Hanoi in an A-6 or something REALLY serious…right? I would expect no less from him.

So by now we were famous on the airport property; evidenced by our escort of about a million emergency vehicles (all with lights flashing…oh and we would learn later that we did indeed make the evening news in Memphis…lol.). As we reached the designated spot, I brought the big jet to a stop, set the brakes and was once again speaking into the P.A. mic. “Folks, this is where we’ll be parking the aircraft during all of this. You will be seeing the busses arrive very shortly. In a few minutes you’ll be hearing us shut down the engines, the authorities will be boarding the aircraft from the stairs in the tail, and then we’ll have you deplane and wait in the terminal while we have everything checked out.” So far, so good. “O.K. Ken, let’s have the “Shut Down Checklist” please.”

“WAIT!” (It was Terry the F/O speaking)

I won’t go as far as to suggest that “Riverboat” Terry was spending too much time in a world other than the one MOST of us find ourselves, but maybe his over active imagination was starting to get the best of him. He and Ken had gone to the movie the day before on our layover in Little Rock, and guess what cinematic adventure they had witnessed? None other than the film “Speed” with Keanu Reaves and Sandra Bullock. You know the one with the BOMB ON THE BUS?! You can see it coming, right? As I was reaching for the Fuel Cut-off Levers to shut down the two screaming Pratt and Whitneys, he grabbed my hand. “What if the bomber hooked up the device to a Tach Generator on one of the engines, and when it winds down…..BOOM?”

My only response, was “Huh? What the hell are you talking about?.” Terry: “You know, just like in “Speed”….only they have to keep the bus above 55 mph or it goes KA-blooey!” Me: “Uh, Terry, you’ve definitely got to get out into the real world more often. Now, I’m going to move these both to the “Cutoff” position….and if you’re right, the next sound you hear will be your ass flying through your eyeballs.” Of course, I could go an entire career and not get the chance to do what I did next (I winked at Ken…he caught my drift, and immediately became part of the gag). As I lifted both of the levers over the “Run” detent toward “Cutoff” position….we BOTH let out a big “BOOM”! Terry almost crapped in his pants…I don’t think I’ve laughed that hard ever….still gets me giggling.

B727 4

(All three seats [plus the “First Observers Seat] of that beautiful jet. I used to say the most automated thing on the entire machine was the mirror light that came on in the bathroom when you locked the door…that was about it! [Many thanks to Justin Cederholm for the use of his wonderful photo.])

Once firmly anchored at ground zero, engines shut down, the “Securing Checklist” accomplished, things began to happen rather quickly. On Ken’s S/O panel we were showing that the aft air-stairs were unlocked, and the aft entry door was open; “Elvis was in the building”. Within a few seconds some rather stern looking gentlemen came into the cockpit and informed me that they were the local “response team”, here to assist in getting all the passengers onto the busses and headed for the terminal. The next face I would see ended up pissing me off to no end. In walked a guy that was about as tall as he was round, and he immediately started to hit me with what “we were going to do” (he was the aforementioned Station Manager for my line). “We’ve been on the phone with all the appropriate security folks, and have decided that this is a “sterile flight”, so we’re just going to do a quick search of the cabin, re-board the folks, then you’ll be on your way to New York in no time.”

Wrong there Mr. buffalo-breath! This scrawny-assed (four striped) home-boy had no intention of playing it like that, “Now just a minute there cowboy. I don’t know who the hell you’ve been talking to, and I don’t really care, but I’m not taking this thing anywhere until every inch of this aircraft is searched. Every seat, every overhead bin, every suitcase, and every friggin matchstick is taken off and searched. If that’s not good enough, then YOU fly it to New York….the keys are in the ignition!” Jeeeezzz, what kind of a moron did this guy take me for? Yeah, no question, the note most probably was a hoax, but I don’t get paid to take that kind of a chance with anyone’s wellbeing. And I didn’t give a rat’s ass how long it was going to take, they were going to be looking at ol’ Mr. Boeing’s airplane long and hard before I would take it anywhere. “Mr. Personality” got really pissed off, spun around and marched out of the cockpit. I think Terry and Ken were wanting to give me a big kiss right then and there (ugh, sobering thought).

So now out into the cold drizzling rain steps your intrepid flight crew. As I was speaking to the on scene commander for the FBI, I noticed that my two stout cohorts had taken refuge in the black government Suburban (read heated and dry)…wimps. All of the passengers and my three flight attendants were now safely in the terminal, so the process of turning this thing inside out was to begin. The FBI Bomb Squad was on site with their two K9 companions, and were in the process of testing them before turning them loose on the aircraft (one gentlemen was planting packages of C4 in an adjacent field for the dogs to individually search for and find….if they failed, then they’re not used for that mission). To my relief, they both passed their tests, and into the cabin they ran (and I do mean ran). I followed them in, and was amazed to see them up in the overhead bins moving and sniffing everything at an amazing rate. They covered every inch of the inside of that jet in no time. I’ve heard that a dog’s sense of smell is thousands of times greater than ours, and I was hoping that whoever relayed that little tidbit to me was not mistaken.

As we exited the plane, the ramp personnel had unloaded all of the suitcases, and lined them up very neatly in several rows on the pavement. Each dog had a turn sniffing the bags, and when they would “target” one (signified by sitting down next to it), the handler would remove the dog, the ramp folks would play a game of shuffle the suitcases, and the dog would return to do more sniffing. This went on for quite some time, and BOTH dogs ended up targeting the same three suitcases each time! Oh, oh….not looking good for the home team. I noticed that “Mr. Personality” had changed his tune. He actually said to me, “maybe it WAS a good idea to have them search everything.”….brilliant statement there Sherlock Holmes!

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(One of my dearest friends recently retired from American. I always thought their “shiny” paint job was totally cool. Thanks again to Bob Garrard for use of his amazing photo.)

Now the FBI agents swung into high gear. They headed for the terminal, rounded up the folks that owned the three suspicious pieces of luggage, and back to the jet they came. Each one was asked to open the offending bag, and display its contents. One was an elderly gentleman that had a butane hand warmer in the bag (good pooch, smelling that butane), one was a lady from Korea, and she had some sort of cooking spices packed in her suitcase (poor dogs had probably never sniffed Kimchi before…been there, done that), and the last was a young lady that looked to be in her twenties (I don’t even want to think about what they sniffed in her suitcase). When they were examining it, I was talking to the “fingerprint expert” about all of our prints on the magazine, and since I never heard a “Freeze, FBI!”, then I assumed that the contents were O.K. All we had to do was load everything (and everyone) back onboard, and away we’d go.

So after our 3+ hour delay, everyone (minus one lady that just didn’t want any more to do with my operation that day) got back onboard and we began the process of taking 175,000 pounds of metal and people into low Earth orbit. The passengers all seemed to be in a rather “who gives a sh*t” mood after all of this, and we flew the next two hours without one bad comment about the entire episode (they were after all New Yorkers). The weather cleared over eastern Tennessee, and we sailed right on into La Guardia without incident. Well, almost without incident.

For those of you who have never landed at the “mess” called La Guardia Airport, let me describe it for you. It was built back in the Roosevelt days (hell, maybe even in the caveman days), on a sandbar in the middle of Flushing Bay. It’s got two short runways (by transport category jet standards) and if you run off the end of them, one ends with a trip onto a very busy freeway, the other three end with a splash into the water. IMHO, this place was obsolete the day the first DC-4 landed there, and it’s been getting worse by the day. The volume of traffic is insane, the ramp areas are nightmarish, and the NYC “attitude” (with regards to the ATC people) just add to the level of tension. In a nutshell, when landing at this place, finesse is not in the cards, you drive the jet in, slam it on the runway, and do your best to get it stopped quickly. BTW, it’s the same as the way you get into the other two really “interesting” airports that accept big airliners: Washington’s Ronald Reagan and San Diego’s Lindbergh Field. I was to perfect this “no finesse” progam to an art form on this very day.

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(The approach plate for the “Expressway Visual 31” at that mess of an airport. The top down view…you BETTER hit the DIALS fix ON speed and ON altitude or this gets ugly quickly (and remember, there are about a hundred planes behind you and you’re following some other yokel). Shea Stadium sits right about where the little arrow says “Flushing Meadow Park”…I’ve never had a problem making steep banks so close to the ground (here and on the “River Visual 18” to Ronald Reagan D.C.), but it can be rather scary from the cabin. What the note that says, “in the event of a go around” fails to mention is that you’ll be southbound down the Hudson all right, but you’ll be about number 50 in line to land! Better have plenty of fuel…)

The “Expressway Visual 31” approach went off without a hitch. Hell, the ATC people didn’t yell at us once (a first,…on occasion, I’ve heard them yell at EVERYONE), and the tight 135 degree turn over Shea Stadium to line up with RWY 31 came off nicely (“I got her wired today”….famous last words). I wish I could say it was the gusty crosswinds, or the wake from the airliner in front of us, or even that the sun was in my eyes….but none of that applies. I got the beast into the flare, thought I had it just about an inch above the pavement, just ready to kiss the big main wheels on, when …”Uoh, oh”, we dropped about five feet, and …..WHAM! “Contact!” was the smart-assed response from Terry, while Ken said something about “You got the 3 wire, and I got whiplash!”…..”Bite me!” was my response.

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(In the middle of the left bank turn, almost over Shea Stadium. This is actually a fun approch in good weather….in the wind, rain, snow…it’s sucks big time.)

After wrestling her to a safe taxi speed, I turned off the runway and we contacted Ground Control. We immediately found ourselves in line behind dozens of aircraft on the taxiway, so we were going to have some time before we got to the gate. My two “partners in crime” were still giggling and making smart-assed comments about my arrival, so I did the only thing that I could think of….I grabbed the P.A. microphone and spoke thusly:

“Ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain speaking. I would like to welcome you to New York. Again, we’re sorry about the delay today, and I would like to sincerely thank you for all your patience. Also, if you were wondering about the “firm” arrival a few minutes ago, that was just one more effort on my part to find out CONCLUSIVELY if we had any sort of explosive devices on this aircraft….for if there was anything hidden onboard, it SURELY would have gone off with that landing.”

After hanging up the mic, I was greeted by two faces sporting two very big smiles. However, it was what I was hearing from the cabin that made the day for me….the sound of loud laughter and clapping…

Till next time,

BBall

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