“Little Max”

Greetings fine folks!

Good news on the medical front! Looks like I may be going back to being a “working stiff” soon. The mysterious eye affliction has cleared itself, the Opthalmologist has cleared me, my FAA doctor has cleared me, and now it’s just a matter of HIS bosses in the Regional FAA Office doing their papework dance and issuing me my “1st Class Medical Certificate”. It seems like years since I was in a cockpit (only four and half months to be exact), but I must confess I grow tired of the doctor’s offices, the hoops that require jumping through, and all the hard work that my lovely bride has asked of me!

Actually, that last one is a lie. If there’s been any silver lining to all of this, it’s the fact that I’ve had the joy of spending more time with my wonderful wife (and youngest daughter) than I have in years. From a person that’s travelled non-stop for the last 35 years, it’s been a bit weird being in the same time zone for so long. What’s this about sleeping through the night? Eating at the same body-clock time every day? The hell you say! I have enjoyed being on a REGULAR work-out schedule (and my waistline has shown the results…lol)…but…

…it’s time to get back to work and let the journey continue.

I’ll keep you in the loop.

In the meantime, here’s a piece I wrote several years ago. His name is “Max”, and I can still picture his face.

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Over the years as I’ve piloted my airliner through the heavens , I’ve spent time thinking about the lives I have in my hands,. Technically though, that statement is something of a misnomer. My hands only control the physical operation of the aircraft on any given flight, it’s actually my brain that holds my charges well-being in the balance. Most of the time, the only contact I have with the folks that sit on the other side of the cockpit door is at the end of the flight as they exit the machine. If at all possible, I try to finish my shutdown duties quickly enough to stand in the cockpit door and wish my customers a heartfelt “thank you” and “goodbye”. Occasionally I have an experience like the day I will describe below, for on those rare flights, I have the chance to meet some of the people that put their trust, their faith, and their lives in my hands for safe keeping. When that happens, it invariably leaves me with a feeling of awe and respect for the awesome magnitude that my life’s work holds.

Gate LGA

(Parked at Gate 5 in KLGA)

It was a clear and warm this particular evening in New York and we found ourselves moored at gate 5 at arguably the ugly step-sister of the 3 airports serving the “city that never sleeps”. We were preparing to leave La Guardia airport for a short milk-run trip over to Detroit, and the preliminary look at all the paperwork showed that this should be a ho-hum event. That would change quickly, for as our departure time grew near, three very special, very different people would come into my life and interrupt my happy little world in the cockpit.

I had finished my preflight duties early, and found that I had little to do but watch the clock tick down to our scheduled launch time, so I took the opportunity to enjoy a brief respite from the harried world of aviation in the New York area, and simply sit back to enjoy a fresh cup of my airlines best java. From behind me in the boarding door I heard a woman saying to her little someone, “see, that’s were the pilots sit”. As I turned to greet them, I found myself face to face with a young lad of about four or five years of age. His smile met mine and I immediately waved him up into the cockpit. With two cobalt blue eyes as wide as saucer plates, he cautiously came forward and we talked for a few minutes.

He was an adorable little boy. Standing about three foot nothing, he was dressed like many of his age…adorned in a mini version of a football jersey with little rumpled blue jeans, all complete with the (required) untied tennis shoes. In other words, he was the picture of a rough and tumble little tike his age; truly from within a Normal Rockwell painting. He shouldered a backpack full of little boy treasures, was beside himself with many questions, and judging by their smiles, he was the pride and joy of the two people standing in the cockpit doorway. We greeted each other, I gave him some plastic aviator wings, a Boeing 757 “baseball” card, and we conversed as only a fifty year difference in ages would allow.

He told me his name was Max, and that he was going to be a football star when he grew up. The F/O and I introduced ourselves, and we talked for a bit. I showed him some of the cool flashing red and green lights we have on our instrument panels, and even tested some warning systems that have “voices” associated with them. His big eyes grew bigger and his bright smiled suggested that he was having almost as much fun as I was. Within a few minutes he was gone and I turned around in my seat to smile and reflect about my three wonderful children, and how very lucky I am to have them in my life.

Me cockpit MSP

(Yours truly at the gate in Minneapolis several years ago. I know what my daughters would say…”Hey that’s back when you HAD HAIR!” Lol…women.)

The next person to interrupt my cockpit tranquility, was someone I never actually met, for I was merely informed of his presence by the Lead Flight Attendant. He boarded with two agents of the Secret Service, and was immediately rushed to his First Class seat to be guarded and sequestered from the other passengers as much as possible. This man held the esteemed position of the Secretary of the United States Treasury, and with his hands on the purse strings of one of the most powerful nations in the world; he would indeed fit the definition of a V.I.P. In a few hours we would taxi into the gate in Detroit and be met by a dozen or more very stern looking government agents, both in the jetway and on the ramp next to their vehicles. Their job of making sure this man would have the luxury of his next breath (in an age where too many people believe that murder is a fine means to a political end), was neither to be envied nor taken lightly. At the termination of this evening’s flight, he would be rushed off to whatever destination his duties required.

And that brings me to the last person that carved a place in my psyche on this flight. She was at first glance a very ordinary looking woman in every respect. Average height, average build, mid-thirties, and seemed to be very un-remarkable except for one small detail; she was utterly and completely terrified to be on my aircraft. She came forward into the cockpit, sat down behind me on the jump-seat, and with a large dose of trepidation, began to explain to us her problem. It seems that she suffered from severe bouts of claustrophobia…not a good thing to have in a metal tube crammed with hundreds of human beings.

I could immediately tell that the look in her eyes was born from the terror of two demons, the known, and the equally horrid unknown. The known of course, were her familiar feelings of being trapped in this cramped vessel seven miles above terra firma, with the unknown being exactly what her reaction to those feelings would be. She nervously questioned me about how long we would be taxiing for take-off, how long the flight would take, and if we would be delayed on the taxi into the gate after landing in Detroit. The expressions on her face were a mixture of fear, dread and anxiety, softened slightly with a glimmer of hope based on my answers to her questions.

Naturally, as her Captain I’m responsible for not only her well-being, but in this case, to a certain extent her sanity. She would expect me to “have all the answers” for her, and I was not sure I was up to the task. Of course I had absolutely no idea how long we would wait at both ends of this journey, for that can depend on literally hundreds of things beyond my control. I’ve pushed back from the gate here at La Guardia during what seemed to be a non rush-hour, only to find myself in a line of jets two dozen deep. This little airport is nothing more than the cross of two short stretches of concrete, squeezed between cramped neighborhoods, on a sand bar in the Flushing Bay off of Long Island. It was popular (and very busy) back in the 1940s bathed in the sounds of DC3s and Constellations, and today with that popularity intact, it can define the word “gridlock” on the taxiways.

 

LGA taxiway

(The view rounding the corner in LGA headed for RWY 04. As mentioned, I’ve sat on these stretches of pavement for HOURS waiting to take-off…frustrating to be sure.)

In addition, I’ve had to sit in the “penalty box” taxiway area in Detroit waiting for our gate to free up many times. The choreography of moving a hundred jets off the gates as the next hundred are landing can obviously be challenging on its best day. With as much compassion as I could muster, I explained those two unknowns to her (being sure to leave out the part about the possibilities for long delays…the last thing she needed from this Captain was a reason to borrow more worries than she already had). My last statement to her was that if we indeed experienced a delay at the other end and she was severely feeling the effects, she was to inform the Lead Flight Attendant, and I would do whatever I could to get my jet to the gate as quickly as possible…up to and including chewing some ass on the “gate radio” frequency. Yelling is not my style, but if this would get us an open gate sooner and keep her from an attack, then I was prepared to do it and suffer the consequences.

As luck would have it, the flight was very routine, which was obviously a good thing for all of us. We rounded the corner on the taxiway for runway 04 in La Guardia and unbelievably, we were number one for departure! We lifted off without delay, climbed quickly to our flight level, and settled down for the hour and a half journey. The evening air was very smooth, the ride superb, and we were treated to a spectacular sunset shortly before landing (any pilot that tires of seeing this type of display from 35000 feet should possibly find employment elsewhere). With no hint of delays from the air traffic controllers inbound over Lake Erie, it began to look like Lady Luck was indeed riding comfortably with us on this flight.

 

Sunset Mt. Fuji

(Sunset looking west at Mount Fuji. On this flight last summer, we were inbound to Tokyo Narita from Guam.)

I purposely pulled all the tricks out of my “pilot skills” bag, made a smooth approach to runway 03R in Detroit, and a better than average landing. Truth be told, I was trying especially hard for a gentle touchdown for the lady with the health issues. Rare is the pilot that will say he doesn’t wear the shame of a bounced landing long after the fact, I know I do. Being a few minutes early, I was concerned about arrival gate availability, but low and behold, our gate was open. I’m certain it was due to the Secret Service needs for expeditious handling of their charge. Whatever the reason, I was pleased that there would be no “penalty box” for us tonight, and we taxied to the gate rather quickly. In no time, I was setting the brakes, and asking the First Officer for the Parking Checklist. With this “milk run” over and everyone safely deplaned, I now had time to think about the people who had just given me their ultimate trust…their very lives to safeguard. In particular, I found myself thinking of those three very different, but important people, and the ramifications of my decisions during the last few hours.

How would I have changed countless histories had I NOT safely gotten these three to their intended destination this night? For instance, would one of the richest economies in the world have been affected with the loss of this cabinet level Secretary? Would his successor have the wisdom required for the job, or would he/she have steered the country and its economic engine in the wrong direction. And if America’s economy failed, how would this effect millions of lives across the globe? His demise might well lead to economic chaos and heartache on a massive scale.

Would the woman with the claustrophobia have been just another statistic in a news flash or a number on an accident report? Would the media learn of her story and the nightmarish battles she fought with her affliction? Would the hell that any simple flight might hold become her legacy, or would her problems die with her? With no personal experience regarding her medical condition, I could but guess how she must have felt for those couple of hours trapped in that metal prison. I shuddered at the thought.

Truth be told though, my overpowering thoughts this evening were of little Max, with his cherubic smiling little face. He almost certainly has a long life to live, little boy things to accomplish, and when manhood is reached, a family to have and to love. I couldn’t help but follow farther down the path with my thinking. Would he grow up to lead an industry? Paint the next Mona Lisa? Maybe cure some hideous disease? How about the possiblity of becoming the mighty football hero that lives in his dreams? Someday his grandchildren will sit on his lap and listen to stories of when he was a child, and how different things were “way back when”…and this made me smile. Had I not fulfilled my part of the bargain that night, his future and the family genealogy he would supply, would have perished with us, and the ramifications of that were more than I cared to think about.

He of course, will forget his encounter with me on that warm November evening in New York, but I doubt that I will soon forget him. Maybe it was his sweet little “childlike innocence” that made his trust in me more real, more special than usual. I’m convinced that he didn’t understand that the funny man he was talking to in that room (with all the cool lights and funny sounds) could alter his future, or even destroy it if he’s negligent in his duties, but rest assured my little friend, “that man” understood it.

It goes without saying, but all professional aviators feel that every one of our passengers are very important people; as well we should. However, maybe on this night, that little angel with the excited voice, the glowing eyes, and the big smile seemed just a little more important, maybe just a little more special than the rest. Have a wonderful life my little friend Max, and come fly with me again anytime.

See you in the skies…

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