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Harold F. Hester

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At 30,000 Feet with a Crazy Person
By Harold F. Hester
Sunday, January 13, 2008

Rated "PG13" by the Author.

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A first person look at an in-flight “Emergency”

 

Perspective: Always remember, if a dozen people see the same thing happening, there will be twelve different versions and none of them may be 100% accurate. In the following story there were 182 passengers and a crew of eight on a non-stop cross-country flight from Washington DC to Seattle WA – This accounting is from one of those people using his senses, intellect, and a wee bit of literary licenses.

 

Remember the word Predestination.
 

I was born just three weeks before Neil Armstrong made his famous “One Small Step for Mankind…” statement as he stepped onto the face of the moon. I wanted to tell you this so you will know something about my time period growing up and mind-set of my schooling, my peers, the world and my parents.
 

My parent were not that religious but they believed in a Supreme Being, life after death, streets paved in gold and dead folks with wings and eternal happiness. As an adolescent they did their best by taking me to church and teaching me to sing off-key on Sundays. Mom taught me how to put Offerings in the plate and not take change out. 

 

My dad fought in Vietnam so I have a feeling his thinking may have been a bit askew as he was always telling me about his thoughts, feelings and beliefs in life. He was raised in the Deep South and sometimes when he tried to explain Life I was never sure if it was a combat tale he knew first hand or a Southern Baptist belief. 
 

When we would discuss life around us and life and death stuff he would most times throw his favorite at me; “If it’s written in the book of life there is nothing you can do about it. It is predestination and if it’s going to happen you can’t affect the outcome. If it’s not your time to die, you need not even think about it…” 

 

My dad really believed those words… Me? Not real sure, but I always wondered.
 

As is my yearly custom I had gone home to Virginia for the Christmas Holidays. This year as I was sitting in the passenger lounge awaiting my flight back to Seattle when for no apparent reason I picked up a thin almost square well worn hard copy novel left in the seat next to me. The Soldier's Friend: A Life of Ernie Pyle.

 

I had no idea who or what Ernie Pyle was but soon came to realize he would be a most important part of my life.
 

911 made me a bit gun-shy while I was traveling by air. Each trip while sitting in the waiting area at pre-boarding I found myself eyeing the walkers in the concourse and all those waiting at my gate. Those of dark complexions with Middle Eastern origin I would try to judge how well their clothing fit; if there were bulges that could be C4 or box-openers or a Thompson sub-machine gun or bazookas. Plastic is fine for kids to play with and is fine as the main material in our autos; it’s the C4 plastic explosives where I have the problem. I always check out the business suits to see if any had had a bad day, the middle-aged house wives that may look a bit distraught, and any GI combat soldiers that may be late for their PTSD meetings. As I looked over the old, the young the fashionable the nice-looking and the ugly my mind would always tell me to relax and think about my own problems and my own life. I tried, but I always found myself surveying the people that would be waiting to board the same aircraft wondering if their names had been written in their Book of Life. There always seemed to be the same mix of ladies carrying babies; adolescents; old men; old ladies; business suits, fashionable ladies, and of course the blue jeans and cowboy boots groupies. 

 

I always hoped within these crowds there was no one that “Their time was up.”

 

Today, my visit with Ernie Pyle and the wait to board was most enjoyable. There was this one guy that could have fallen into my “Weird” category but maybe because he was dressed comfortably and sitting with a rather pretty young lady, I dismissed the idea he could be a bad-guy or one short on time left here on earth.

 

It was the day before the last day of 2007; the wind was whistling outside the Dulles Airports windows and looked cold. The Ernie Pyle book cover was of a slight-built older man with hollow cheeks wearing a heavy military issue winters coat with its collar pulled up under his chin. Behind him were silhouetted soldiers wading waist deep ocean waters toward a shore. It was early into World-War II.

 

The books cover made me think of the movie “Saving Private Ryan”.

 

Maybe that is the reason I picked it up. I don’t know why I did but something told me to pick it up and read the pages. 

 

By the time my United 197 flight was called I had scanned or read almost the entire novel. One sentence had caught my eye and I read it over and over. Ernie Pyle said “There are no Atheists in Foxholes”.

 

The words burned their weight and power into my brain. I didn’t know why I had re-read them so many times but something was telling me the words were important. 

 

40 minutes into my flight Ernie Pyle’s and my dad’s words rang in my head as United had an emergency.   

 

“Relax Sean” I tried telling myself. 

 

“Relax. Remember what dad always told me.” My inner thoughts were trying to be logical but my adrenaline would not listen to reason. 

 

Something was happening and at 30,000 feet I was seriously hoping United had a handle on the problem – whatever it was.  

 

This whole trip to Virginia for Christmas was just enough different this year that for no apparent reason I decided to pamper myself to an upgraded seat assignment to relax and enjoy the almost six hour flight back to Seattle. Good idea but United computers took my money but refused to change my assigned 32C seat. After I boarded the aircraft my apparent charm and a few empty seats up front next to the main access door got me moved.  

 

After peanuts and soft drinks were distributed was when it all started.  I was wearing my "noise cancellation" headphones which block most outside noise.  But even so, someone in the back of the plane yelled "Flight attendant!!!  Flight attendant!!!"  The words were shrill and full of emotion.  I also heard a baby cry.  I figured someone had spilled something, or thrown up.  A flight attendant bumped my elbow as she hustled toward the rear of the aircraft. At this point, I pretty much ignored it all.

 

20 seconds later, the same flight attendant bumped my elbow again as she ran passed me again saying something to whomever would listen, but I didn't hear her problem because of my headphones.  I decided I was missing something so I took off the headphones to see what was up. Glad I did as she was frantically talking to the purser telling her there was a major problem with a passenger back in economy.  She bent over to talk to someone in first class I thought was a passenger, and he got up and hurried back to the back of the plane.  He turned out to be one of the air marshals and by now I was getting use to having my elbow banged. The flight attendant followed him a few seconds later carrying some of those portable type nylon handcuffs.  All doubt if there was trouble in the plane was erased the fourth time my elbow was hit.  

 

Another flight attendant hurriedly moved toward the front and picked up the bulkhead phone, frantically dialed something, and said "We have a code three going on… right now!" The words were emphatic. At this point all the flight attendants are up and moving. Scuffling kind of sounds were coming from the back of the plane but I could not see exactly who was doing what to whom, so I relaxed – a little.

 

I figured this was bad, and knew something serious was going on.  As soon as I finished that thought, the engines suddenly got quiet.  I knew immediately that meant we were going down, hopefully for a landing and not a crash.  As soon as I finished that thought, I felt the nose of the plane turn down.  Now doubly sure we were going down, I started folding up my headphones thinking that;  there's some serious stuff going on, and I might actually have to get up and tackle terrorists, or something like that. I’m no hero but the thought did actually cross my mind.
 

At this point, another first-class undercover air marshal got up and literally ran to the back. By this time I had my elbow out of harms way. Two flight attendants pulled beverage service carts into the aisles so people could not move around the plane and pretty much had, by this time, the emergency sealed off.  The flight attendants were telling people to stay seated, that there's an urgent situation they now had under control, and we were not to move.  Comforting words but they seemed a bit like they still weren't sure what to do.  All the United crew standing and running in the aisle were all nervously looking around, looking at each other, shrugging, etc...  There was actually a plain clothes flight attendant that got up to help them.  She told us "I know I’m not dressed like it, but I’m a flight attendant so you have to follow my orders"  I never figured out if she was just off duty and got up to help, or if she was another "under cover" type person.  But she did seem to be the one that knew the most about what to do, and immediately became the boss.
 

After a while longer, a woman carrying the crying child that looked to be about 8 or 9 was escorted by one of the air marshals to the front, near me.  They actually were told to sit in the backward facing flight attendant seats.
 

Several minutes later the captain gets on the intercom and tells us there's an emergency and that we will be landing in Pittsburg.  We go through the landing instructions (seats and tray tables up, no electronic devices, etc, etc...) but it's very informal, not robotic like in a usual landing.  
 

We are on the ground pretty quickly.  Maybe 15-20 minutes?  After we brake to a stop, we sit right there in the middle of the runway/airport surrounded by LOTS of emergency vehicles.  Regular cop cars, black FBI looking SUVs and lots of fire trucks and such.  The captain gets on the intercom again and tells us that since we made an overweight landing that our brakes were stressed more than normal, and the fire crews had to inspect them.  I found it weird that he doesn't say we're overweight because we didn't use all the fuel we should have, even though I know that's why, and I wonder how many people figure that out or actually cared to know the reason. At this point my mind is a jumble of thoughts I can’t control. There’s that Book of Life also in my thoughts and I was wondering just who’s name was in it with today’s date.

 

It is amazing the thoughts that flash through your mind during a heavy adrenaline rush.

 

After a few more minutes, the captain tells up the brakes are ok and we taxi to a gate.  We are told to stay seated, not turn on anything electronic like phones, and that police will be coming on the plane shortly.

 

At a time like this why are brakes more important then our emergency? Think about it, if you have a moving 65 ton airplane, you need brakes unless you want to stop 100 feet inside the terminal.

 

The door I’m sitting right across from is the one that opens to cold Pittsburg air and many official looking men and women.  
 

Within a heart beat four white coated paramedics rush in with each carrying suitcase type bags and a folding stretcher. Lots of commotion behind me then what seemed only a few minutes the white coats carried a bloody stretcher toward my seat at the entranceway, bumping heads and backs of seats and more elbows in the narrow passageway. Everyone was now in the act and straining to see what was going on. I was the only one with elbows and head clear of the aisle. A blood stained blanket covering a very still person was the attraction as there was a plastic IV bottle being carried by one of the paramedics but I had the sense it was more for show then any real benefit to the person on the stretcher. 
 

As the ambulance sped away is when the police got involved.
 

There are two police (looked like local Pittsburg police to me) standing at the foot of the gangway on the tarmac.  They don't actually come on board as at this point they seemed to be guards.  

 

My neck was beginning to ach from all the back and forth movement trying to see and understand what the hell was actually happening.

 

Emergency, crying kids, bloody stretcher, mass confusion, big burly air marshals with guns, pretty off-duty stewardess and lots of cold air. My mind had come up with so many different scenarios I could have been a soap opera producer.  

 

Not sure what to call the guy taken off the plane next so for now I’ll just call him “prisoner”.
 

The two air marshal guys take the prisoner off the plane and out to the Pittsburg guards on the Tarmac.  The prisoner is calm and doesn't say anything; he just walks off wearing his handcuffs.  Not the nylon ones I saw before either, these are real metal ones.  I guess the air marshals had them along with two steel blue 9mms.

 

They all stand right outside in the air/gate/tunnel area right where I can see them.  Some more police and FBI guys come join the party, but they never move.  Their conversations were hushed but I have seen enough Law and Order type movies the few words I could pick up told me they were discussing the injured guy taken out and his chances of survival. The “Prisoner” was talked about as if he was two week old lunch meat.
 

I’m right in the middle of everything with my seat.  The door area is where the flight attendants and captain are standing, along with the two marshals and some witnesses that have been gathered to give statements.  I can hear most of the conversations about giving statements and such.  But when someone actually gives a statement, they are taken out to the jet way out of ear-shot of others.  

 

After several minutes a flight attendant gets on the intercom and reminds us to not use phones or electronic devices.

 

Another 30 seconds pass as she gets back on the speaker and says it's ok to use phones, but no other electronic devices.  As soon as she says that, 100 phones are turned on (including mine) as we all start calling people.  My ride waiting for me in Seattle told me united had announced there was a medical emergency on the plane and it would be delayed.
 

I did hear the flight attendants talking about how everyone was confused about what went down in the early minutes.  It didn't seem to go according to plan.  People were in the wrong places, and not backing each other up right, and not covering their places right and such.  I only caught bits and pieces, but they were all pretty shook up about it.  A really pretty flight attendant sitting across from me talking to an older man and he appears to be trying to calm her down.  She’s also talking to us front row passengers a bit and saying that she needs a vacation.  She also says she needs a backrub.  I submit to give her one, but she doesn't take me up on the offer. Her home base is Seattle and she did slip me a phone number so may call her later. J 
 

By this time I and the other 181 passengers are wondering how long we'll have to be here, and how late we will be getting home.  I figure it'll go pretty quick, but we actually spent around 3 hours on the ground.  There was mass confusion about jurisdiction and lots of paperwork by United to be done before we can go.  We all sit there with nothing to do for a while.  Eventually they turn on the in-flight movie for us to watch (To Hell and Back with Audie Murphy).

 

Every half hour or so the captain gets on the speaker and tells us they're trying to get us going but that there's no ETA.  After the 3rd or 4th announcement he tells us we'll all get a free McDonalds chicken sandwich for out troubles. 

 

Eventually all the witnesses are interviewed and the people outside wander off but we're still not going anywhere.  The captain tells us something about how hard it is to work ourselves back into the air traffic rotation.  We wait about 30 minutes after all the people outside have left.  Then the two carts of McDonald’s sandwiches get rolled back onto the plane, and within 90 seconds the door is closed. 
 

Pittsburg in winter is one cold place and our door has been open for hours.

 

After the door is shut the captain tells us we're cleared to go, and we start a pretty standard takeoff.   The movie stops, we shut off the electronics, etc.  The flight attendants make a joke about how we don't need to see the video about how the seatbelts and emergency doors work since we just saw it, but they play it again anyway.

 

The next to last day of 2007 on a cross-country flight to the West coast with 189 other souls, traveling at mock 0.8 MPH at 30,000 feet I was to learn that trouble is not always in the form of C4 bulges or bazookas or something mechanical malfunctioning but what can also be going on in a persons mind or just being very clumsy or horny.

 

Damn!

 

I was there. I know what happened. A television crew from KOMOTV was waiting for us as we de-planed at SeaTac to do their nightly news updates and a newspaper article the next morning gave their versions. Both were close in their details but not 100%. I feel they gave the public enough information to let them know something happened but the general public did not have a need to know ALL that happened.

 

The next morning I read in the Seattle Times that the unruly passenger taken off the aircraft in Pittsburg was Michael L. Hollander, 46. He made his initial appearance before a magistrate on a charge of abusive sexual contact, according to Ted Herskoski, special agent in charge of the Pittsburgh air marshals' office. Mr. Hollander was released on bond and the court was to appoint an attorney for him before he returned in one week for another court appearance, said Margaret Phillips, spokeswoman for the U.S. attorney's office in Pittsburgh. Hollander was held overnight in the Allegheny County Jail in Pittsburgh.

 

Abusive sexual contact is a federal misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in prison and $1,000 fine. 
 

The one glaring fact left out of the Times was the details of just what really happened to all three passengers in row 32 seats A B C.

 

The lady that Hollander (in seat 32A) committed his “abusive sexual contact” was seated in 32B. She had been knitting and dosed off. Mr. Hollander used this time to stroke her hair and fondle her breast. As Hollander became more aroused in his groping he attempted to run his hands under her sweater, she awoke and in her sleep stupor, began frantically flailing her arms. She was still holding her knitting needles.
 

Mr. Louis Irby sitting in seat 32C received a puncher wound in his upper left leg from one of the knitting needle and was treated by a flight attendant. 
 

EPILOGUE:

The statement "There are no atheists in foxholes" is used to imply that atheists really do believe in God deep down, and that in times of extreme stress or fear, such as when participating in warfare or in an aircraft emergency, the belief will surface, overwhelming the less substantial affectation of atheism. The precise origin of the phrase, coined some time during World War II, is uncertain. Various sources credit Lieutenant-Colonel William J. Clear, or Lieutenant-Colonel William Casey, but the phrase is most often attributed to journalist Ernie Pyle.  

 

 
Ernie Pyle was killed from a machine gun burst on 18 April 1945 during the closing year of the WWII.
 
Mr. Irby bled to death while sitting in his seat. The apparent slight puncher wound pierced his Femoral artery in the upper part of his left leg. He appeared asleep as he lost consciousness from loss of blood but no one noticed with all the other activities with the air marshals, harassed flight attendants and crying kids. 
 
Curiously the 39 year old lady in 32B stayed in Pittsburg even though she was on her way home to Seattle. As of this time no criminal charges have been filed.
 
I did try to follow what happened to Mr. Hollander but assume he received some kind of wrist slapping and told to leave his hormones at home the next time he flies. But, depending on his judge, this could be his home for a while.
 
Six week after being home I received a $50.00 credit from United for my “Being inconvenienced”.
 
I lay awake many nights thinking… What if?    
 
32C was my originally assigned seat.
 

 

       Web Site: Harold hester

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