Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Into the Stupid Zone

I thought you might be interested in a flight attendant story, although this one may not be the one flight attendants hoped I would tell.

People have been focusing on Captain “Sully” Sullenberger a lot these days (see my blog entry of March 2, 2009) but it's unfortunate that Sully's flight attendants are not getting a fair piece of the credit for their outstanding job of evacuating that aircraft. Yet any of them will tell you they're accustomed to playing second fiddle to the pilots and they accept it. They're hard working people. But I remember when a coupl
e of them got into deep suzuki on a layover in Jacksonville and I had to make a tough decision.

A piercing tone jolted my eyes open that morning. I saw the ceiling pulsating with amber flashes from the phone. Oh-five-hundred already? This life is cruel. I looked aside at the clock. 1:10. It was no wake-up call, and it boded no good.

It was the front desk. Some police officers wanted me to come down to the lobby. Why, the desk clerk didn’t know. Not good. I pulled on a t-shirt and jeans and went down.
I got off the elevator and saw two officers standing beside two of my three flight attendants, both males. One, about 30, was slumped and bruised. His face was patched with band aids. The other one, younger, appeared unscathed, but looked shaky and scared. An officer looked at me. “Are you the captain of these two?” I told him I was.

“Well, they got in a fight at a club.”

“With each other,” I asked.
“No. They fought some other people. Got their asses beat, from the looks of it. They said you were their captain.” The officer looked aside at the sorry sight of the two and shook his head. “Boy, if these are pilots, I sure as hell don’t want to fly anywhere with them.”

“They’re not pilots!” I instantly assured him. “They’re flight attendants.”

“Okay, Captain. I’ll leave this up to you. You want ‘em in jail. I’ll take ‘em. But I’d rather you just take ‘em off my hands, and I don’t want to see ‘em outside this hotel tonight.”

I stood wondering if this were a dream. It was too much like military flying. I ha
d dealt with wayward loadmasters and flight engineers before. Then, though, I had a command obligation to those guys, as well as a moral one. You take care of people you go to war with.

But this was different. I had no command authority over the two flight attendants outside the aircraft, and I felt absolutely no obligation to save them. The officers waited for my answer.

The two obviously had been drinking within 12 hours of our scheduled takeoff―a non-no. I should let the cops book them. It would teach them a lesson. Of course, ou
r flight would be canceled and obviously these two would never work here again. Not that I cared.

“What do you want to do?” the officer asked.
I studied the younger one, the one who looked scared. He looked like a decent, clean-cut kid. I knew he was still on probation, having just recently been hired. I remembered from the previous day’s flight that he had been very conscientious of his duties and respectful toward me. I imagined him being off a farm or from a small town, reared up right, seeing the world for the first time, then getting caught up with the older guy and getting dragged into trouble. What would his parents think of him if he got fired so soon, and for so sleazy a reason? That boy needed a second chance.

The older flight attendant moaned and rubbed his eyes. I thought he might
throw up. I saw the two policemen get impatient.

But there was a lot more at stake here than a second chance for the kid. Federal regulations say that any pilot who knowingly allows a crew member who is in violation of the drinking rules to fly is also guilty. That “knowing pilot” would be me.

I had a son about that kid’s age. If Rusty got into this kind of trouble, wo
uld I want someone to intervene and give him a second chance, even if that intervention meant that that “someone” had to put his own neck on the line to do it? Yeah. I would. I would want that for my son.

I knew I was about to make a decision that was dripping with bad judgment. “Okay, officers. I apologize for their bad behavior. Thanks for your help.”
I turned toward the older flight attendant. “You! Where’s your room?” He fumbled in his pocket for his key card. I took it, told them to follow me, and started for the elevator. On the way up the older one started to thank me and apologize with a slurring tongue. I cut him off. “I DON’T WANT TO HEAR ANYTHING OUT OF YOU UNLESS I ASK YOU A QUESTION. UNDERSTAND?” He looked back at me, astounded. The kid started shaking again.He started toward his bed when we got in his room and I stopped him. “STAND UP. I’M NOT FINISHED WITH YOU!” I looked at the kid. “YOU TOO!” I knew the guy didn’t have to obey my order to get up and face me, but I still had the option to cancel tomorrow’s flight and report him to the company. He knew it. He got up.
He started to explain the fight and again I cut him off. “I said I don’t want to hear any of that! Now both of you listen up.” I looked at my watch and swallowed. I was about to cross a line most airline pilots are familiar with, the one marked Stupid Zone―Stay Back!
That was the bluff. Of course I didn’t have to power to fire them. The older one dipped his head. The kid nodded vigorously. I told the kid to get to his room, and he scurried out.
I turned back to the older one. “You’re a lucky SOB.” He nodded. “I like that kid, and to save him I have to save your sorry ass.” He nodded again. He opened his mouth and I let him speak.
“I’ll be ready to go, boss.” He wavered, about to lose balance, and glanced at the bed. “Promise you, boss.”
I went back to the room knowing I had crossed into the stupid zone, and for what? For the company? For that kid? Or was it something else? I don't know. You tell me.
Common sense should have prevailed but it didn't.
Sleep didn’t prevail either, and I got off the elevator at 0525 feeling like I was the one with the hangover. I looked around and saw the crew waiting near the coffee urn. My first officer stood chatting with the female flight attendant. The two wayward ones stood aside eying me. I wondered if the others knew what happened last night. I approached the two and looked them over―not a hair out of place, not a wrinkle in sight, all whiskers whacked. The kid still looked a bit bug-eyed, but the other one smiled broadly, chin held high. “Here we are, Captain! Ready, willing and able!”
I looked at the kid. “You too?”
He nodded.
The older guy chatted constantly on the van ride to the airport, laughing and bantering much more vigorously than we expected or desired in the pre-dawn gloom. I knew it was a demonstration of sobriety aimed at me, but I marveled at what a recovery that guy had made.
Still wary though, I watched them both as they inspected the aircraft’s cabin safety equipment and prepared to receive the passengers. I looked back at them frequently during boarding and listened to their PA announcements. Each time I peered back toward the cabin, the older guy looked back at me with his broad grin and winked, then resumed enthusiastically greeting passengers.
In flight I called back to the female attendant and asked her how the guys were doing and she bragged on them. “Great,” she said. “No problems whatsoever!” I had not told her about the events of the wee hours but suspected she knew.
When we landed I went to the cabin after the people had gotten off and looked at the two. “I laid my ass on the line for you guys. You’ll probably never get another break like that again.” The kid smiled and nodded. The other one grabbed my hand and shook it, smiling somewhat artfully.
I walked away to the next flight, yawning, not able to shake off the thought that the older flight attendant regarded me as a dupe, chuckling at his good fortune to have a sucker like me pull him out of the crap hole he dug for himself.
But, of the kid, I’ve no doubt he needed a break. I did it for him. I did it for his dad. I hope he remembers it.
Here are a some picks from the last few weeks. Click on
them to enlarge.

This one is for Joe. It's a northwest view of the Sangre de Cristo Mts. in south central Colorado. Joe, can you pick out the one we climbed?

This is Ship Rock in New Mexico. It's a volcanic neck. Think of it as a volcano that never made it to the surface. It cooled and the soft rocks around it eroded away. Can anybody say what the wall-like structures are that radiate out from it?

This is in northwestern New Mexico. What are all those little dots?

Here, in western New Mexico, is a volcano that did make it to daylight. The view is south. Which way was the wind blowing at the time of eruption?

Angling opposing traffic, 12 o'clock high


Anonymous said...

The dots in the photo are oil or gas wells.

The wind was likely blowing from the west.

Thanks for your blog, I know it takes up a lot of your time, but I appreciate it.


Anonymous said...

I think the one we climbed, Mt. Adams, is in the center of the photo. Or, maybe Adams could be the peak on the right end of the photo. I tried to located Creston Needle (to the south of Adams), but could not recognize it.

The dots are either wells or weapon storage sites.

The walls radiating from the mountain are igneous dikes formed by a magma that poured into a fissure. The surrounding material eroded away.

Great blog. Always enjoy it. Thanks. -Joe

scott said...

The dots are windmill locations.

JP said...

You, sir, are a class act for how you handled the flight attendant situation.

Great blog. You have the best seat in the house. Keep it up!

Anonymous said...

Great story and cool blog. Keep 'em coming. Good to see you last month in DEN.

Steve O.

Anonymous said...

Always nice reading your blog... but surely did I not expect read about a situation like that!