Last Sunday night, October 23rd, I was settling in to fly a redeye from Vegas to Florida. We were scheduled to arrive in Orlando about two hours after Hurricane Wilma was scheduled to slam into Florida’s Southwest coast. It seemed like every flight to Florida was being cancelled, except mine. After a lengthy discussion with my flight dispatcher, I was satisfied that a safe flight could be made. If upon arrival over Florida the weather became severe, I had plenty of gas to divert north into fair weather. The Boeing 757 I was operating that night, has one of those passenger friendly entertainment systems in each and every seat. I knew that many of my passengers would be watching among other things the Weather Channel, Fox News, and CNN. One thing all three have in common is spin. I didn’t want my passengers believing every word that the spinsters would spit out. When it comes to flying and your safety you should know two things. One is that the media rarely gets anything right about flying. Two is that we pilots have more weather data and specific flight information than they ever will. I took my time and made an announcement to the cabin about our situation and that towards the end of our flight, the descent into Orlando would be rough. Indeed, our flight was smooth until we started our descent. I have experienced worse turbulence but the air that night was unforgiving. We got beat up pretty bad on the way down and I know it was uncomfortable for everyone, but the machine took it all in stride. It was raining so hard that we heard the rain inside the cockpit above all the other noise, and I wear a noise suppression headset! I had the wing and engine anti ice on and for an extra precaution I turned the engine ignition systems on to a continuous setting. In the unlikely event that an engine flamed out, the igniters would help automatically restart the engine. The headwinds on final approached 70 knots and lowered to gusts of 45 knots at touchdown. My copilot was flying the airplane and he did a sterling job. The touchdown was fairly smooth considering the high velocity wind gusts. When we slowed down enough to taxi clear I noticed that the rain was blowing sideways. Great sheets of water a couple of inches thick covered everything in sight, taxiways, grass areas, buildings, and the ramp areas. The wind was moving the sheets at about 30 mph. When we cleared the runway, the control tower made an announcement that the airport was shutting down. We taxied to our parking area and were not surprised that I was unable to see the taxi lines used to turn into the gate area. My ground crew was soaked, they could barely see, and the wind was making them all lean in the same direction. I just took my time moving that last 50 feet to the stop bar. After we shutdown the engines and turned the seatbelt sign off, we packed our bags and cleaned up for the next crew. Our schedule was to return in about 10 hours to fly to LAX. We just wanted to get to bed. Suddenly there was a knock on the door. We opened it and the lead flight attendant told us the passengers wanted to see us. This is not a usual occurrence. Both of us went back to the exit door. What happened next took us both by surprise. Every passenger getting off thanked us, hugged us, shook our hands, high fived us, etc. The flight attendants thanked us! We were speechless and that is very rare for a pilot. We left after the last person got off and walked in silence down the concourse, going to bed as people walked by us who were trying to wake up. As we were descending down an escalator into baggage claim a couple of young men behind us wanted to know if we just flew in from Vegas. “Yeah”, I said. “You dudes are freakin awesome”, we heard. “Thanks”, we said. Then we, just stared at each other. Our van driver was waiting for us, nice guy wearing one of those hotel uniforms. He had our keys and sign in sheet so all we had to do was walk to our rooms. I will never forget that flight, not because of an atmospheric anomaly called Wilma, or rain so loud it penetrated the flying bunker I was nestled in or the rough and tumble descent to landing. For people like us these are normal events in a different world. It is simply what we do.
For every touch, hand shake, eye contact, hug, word of thanks and praise from people I will most likely never see again, I just want to say that I will never forget that flight. You people are freakin awesome!