Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Grandmothers from Hell

There is no doubt in my mind that the most abuse I have received from passengers has been from innocent looking elderly grandmothers. They come out of nowhere with no warning, like an Osprey, talons out, wings folded back, me the unconcerned rainbow trout basking in the eddies and currents of time. These are no ordinary human beings as they prey on innocent people, projecting on to them their worst fears and anger. If they were in a coliseum full of fighting gladiators, they would be the ones waiting with smiles on their faces to slowly stick their arm out and turn their thumb down. Death to the warrior.

Many years ago a volcano erupted in a remote part of Alaska. We have all seen the devastating effects of volcanic eruptions. One of its pyroclastic components is volcanic ash which is basically tiny bits of hot rock that number in the billions. It is the black cloud that rises above the volcano, catches the air currents and falls to the ground somewhere downwind from the volcano. When volcanic ash settles to the ground it can bury towns and villages, muddy rivers, and turn to a cement like state when wet.

Airplanes and volcanic ash are a very, very bad combination. When a jet flies through volcanic ash it scours the airplane like a sandblaster taking off paint, metal, the outer layers of the windscreen, and sanding away at the interior parts of the engines. Given enough time in this situation you would end up flying a 300,000 pound glider and not able to see where you were going. This would be very, very bad. So we avoid it at all costs. When a volcano erupts the airspace around it is closed down. The eruption and its ash cloud are monitored and studied in great detail. This information is passed on to us and we decide if it is safe to continue a flying operation once the airspace is opened back up.

I was enjoying trips to Anchorage at that time with 24 hour layovers and 24 hours of daylight. It is a great place to be any time of the year. On this particular day the airport had just opened back up after volcanic ash had fallen for the previous few days. There were huge piles of ash the size of a bus all around the airport where it had been scraped up and dumped to the side. The volcano and the ash had been big news and the airport was busy with travelers who had been waiting to leave for days. I was waiting for my jet to arrive at its gate, when I was approached by a sweet and kind looking grandmother who was using the assistance of one of those big wooden canes. “I am worried about the volcano, are we going to be alright?” she asked. I sucked in a vast quantity of air and in great length told her that everything was just fine, we would be safe and arrive on time. She asked, “How do you know the volcano is not going to blow up again? Another gulp of air and I explained. With a determined look on her face she asked, “What about that ash in the air, wont we go through it?” I said, “No we won’t” and told her why. She had concerns about the ash on the ground, turbulent air, and other aviation maladies that had no bearing on this particular flight. I reassured her over and over that I was there for her safety, and all these areas of concern had been considered. This would be the safest flight she ever had. She then stared at me not saying a word. She had very blue eyes I remember. Then it happened, she took the big curved end of her cane and hit me in my shoulder with it, continued to look me in the eyes and yelled, “Well thank you very much, now I have nothing to worry about!” She turned and walked away, my hand rubbing my shoulder and about 100 people staring at me as though I had just mugged the miserable woman.

Another incident happened while flying into Fort Meyers Florida. The air was cruel that day, bouncing us severely all the way down final. I remember the control column going from stop to stop as I maintained a straight path to the ground. The throttles had to be controlled manually as the auto throttles were incapable of keeping up with the turbulent air. And so it went for many minutes, the nose dropping out of the sky while the fuselage was buffeted left and right, correcting with back pressure, forward throttle, and lateral corrections all at the same time, then just as quickly correcting it all in reverse. The passengers must have felt like a paint can being mixed at the hardware store. The trickiest part of the approach was transitioning to the landing phase as the winds shifted drastically close to the ground. Left aileron, forward on the throttles, right aileron, forward on the pitch, throttles back, left aileron, more of that, back on the throttles again, nose up, throttles forward, right aileron………………………….. As I transitioned to land, in the last moment I chose to land on the left main gear only, using aileron and rudder to maintain runway alignment, the right main gear still in the air. I then rolled the aircraft onto the right main then put the nose gear on the ground. All of that happens in about two seconds followed by spoiler and thrust reverser deployment. It is not your smoothest landing technique but you got to do what you got to do. Once we taxied clear of the runway and got to our gate, I went back to say goodbye to our passengers. The passengers deplaning were solemn, frazzled, some thanking me as they fly often and know the difficult conditions from the easy ones. It was not a good day to be a passenger. Waiting in a front row seat was a grandmother type listening to all of this. When her wheel chair came to get her she stood up and approached me. I smiled at her and realized she was jabbing a finger into my chest. She said, “Young man, that was the crappiest landing I have ever had. Go back to pilot school before you kill somebody!” The flight attendant next to me gasped. I smiled and politely said as she walked away, “Please don’t tell my mother.” She whipped around and screamed, “I’m telling everybody, everybody!” and walked away completely forgetting about the wheelchair and its stunned driver.

My cousin encouraged me to tell this story so I dedicate it to him, one of the most honorable men I have ever known. Be Safe, FlyGuy


Anonymous Jay Turnip Style said...

I sometimes think that older people do enjoy being miserable.

8:21 AM  
Anonymous My Sping On Things said...

You know Flyguy -- I am with Jay, I think sometimes older people get a kick out of being mean. Maybe that's all they have left in life and feel its their god given right?

Too bad you can't just hand out happy pills to everyone who boards your aircraft and send them on to their seat.

I think today I'd almost be willing to fly through ash than deal with Coyotes at my house.

5:00 PM  

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