A Flight of Fancy
To say that Michael Ralston was nervous would have been the grossest of understatements. He looked over at the captain and grimaced. The man looked positively green now and had been acting unwell, despite his protestations, since just after reaching cruising altitude. Pincher was a veteran . . . so why the heck had he checked in to fly if he was feeling the effects of the flu? Ralston spared a quick glance at all the instrumentation and saw that everything was normal. However, that didn’t solve the problem of one very sick captain. Nor did it help any that this was Ralston’s first actual flight since qualifying. Why me? he asked himself. Why indeed? This was an older aircraft—hip, hip, hooray for the 737-100, he thought. It was rapidly being replaced with more modern versions, was overshadowed by the more elegant jets like the Tristar, and 747’s, but one that was a favorite with the exec’s for training new pilots with near to retiring pilots. It was also a mundane route, Chicago to Miami during a time of the year when the flights were a little lighter— late summer.
Reluctantly, he called one of the attendants, Misty, the senior stewardess. Her voice came over the phone. “Misty, you need to come up here. Ed’s not feeling very well. Maybe you can suggest something that will help?”
Her voice stayed calm and modulated. “What seems to be the problem with him?”
“Well, he’s sick as a dog. I think he’s got the flu.” Ralston studied Pincher again and was alarmed to notice a few other things. “Get in here, Misty. I think we have more than just the flu.”
She was soon in the cramped quarters with him. “Oh, no,” she whispered after checking the pilot’s vitals.
“What,” he asked, although he thought he knew already.
“I think it’s his heart,” she responded, her voice almost shaking with anxiety. “You need to make a quicker landing than Miami.”
He nodded. “Uh, yeah.” He looked at the onboard map and studied it a moment.
“Your first flight?”
Her voice quavered.
“I, uh, yes. But we can contact Hartsfield and make an emergency.”
“Do you want me to see if there are any of the reserve pilots on board?”
“It would sure be helpful if I had someone to take care of nav and communications for me,” he said, thanking her resourcefulness. “But a doctor. Doctor first.”
“Yes, of course.” She left him and quickly went to the boarding manifest. There was a doctor listed. Hopefully, he was a medical doctor. She quickly located him and was relieved to find that he was. Soon, the doctor was in the cockpit attending to the sick pilot. Misty gazed at the manifest again. There were no reserve personnel. She did remember seeing a Naval officer on board. Maybe…. Walking to the front of the coach section, she saw him relaxing against the closed window shade. His long legs were stretched out, touching the bulkhead. His companion was also lounging in relative comfort. Both men were napping. She tapped the officer on the arm. “Sir.”
He roused immediately and gazed at her for a moment, his hazel eyes inquisitive. The other man was instantly awake as well. “Yes?” the officer asked. “What can I do for you?”
“Well, uh, the captain was wondering if you were a Navy pilot,” she said, mindful of inquisitive passengers in nearby seats, including the one in seat 7B. The last thing she wanted to do was to start a panic. In her years as an attendant, she had never had to deal with more than unruly, drunk passengers, although that was bad enough.
“Technically, no, but I am qualified and do fly on occasion,” the man answered. He seemed to be studying her more closely, as though able to read her mind. “Why?” he asked in a lower voice.
“Well, sometimes, the PIC, the pilot in command likes to exchange greetings with fellow pilots. And, well, anyway, would you like to visit the cockpit?” Misty asked, hoping she didn’t sound as nervous as she felt.
“Would be honored to,” he answered, getting up with languid ease.
As they walked through first class, Misty saw that the captain was being attended to in one of the first class seats. The passengers within range were gaping, their faces worried, fearful, but apparently Jennie, her counterpart in first class, and the doctor, had reassured them enough so that no one had panicked yet.
The Navy officer stopped for a short moment, watching the doctor caring for the pilot. But, thankfully, he didn’t say a word. She opened the door and they stepped into the tiny cockpit. She shut the door behind them. He looked at the man at the controls and then at Misty. “Now please tell me what’s going on.”
“Uh, Michael, this is….” She turned to the officer and looked sheepish. “Sorry, I didn’t ask your name and I didn’t take the time to look at the manifest….”
“Commander Lee Crane,” the Naval officer replied, still studying the man at the controls.
“Commander, this is Michael Ralston, the co-pilot.”
Crane nodded. His gaze was still watchful, and Misty felt this man missed little. “I thought that was the captain out there. What did you have in mind for me to do? You are qualified to fly this jet, aren’t you?” he asked in a take-charge sort of voice. With that rank, Misty thought, he was probably used to being in charge. She hoped that wouldn’t cause any trouble, but that was Ralston’s problem now. She had done her job and now she needed to get out and do the rest of her job—that of taking care of the passengers and hopefully alleviating anything embarrassing or potentially dangerous. Quietly, she eased out of the cockpit and closed the door behind her.
Ralston immediately began to brief the Naval officer, even as he motioned him to the empty seat. “The captain is ill; we think with a heart attack. This is my first commercial flight as co-pilot and while I know I am perfectly capable of flying this plane alone, I also have to think of the safety of the passengers. I know it would be much easier if I had someone with flying experience to back me up on navigation and radio.”
“I have never dealt with an aircraft this large, but I will do anything I can to assist you, Captain.”
“I’m not the captain,” Ralston corrected as Crane sat down in the co-pilot’s chair and studied the instruments.
“You may not have the rank, but you have the position,” Crane stated firmly as he took up the headset and listened a moment. With quick study of the navigational map, and the communication controls, he turned to Ralston. “Have you contacted Hartsfield yet? They are the closest airport large enough to accommodate this craft.”
“No, we were more concerned about getting a doctor.” Ralston studied his new co-pilot for a quick moment. It was obvious the cockpit layout was somewhat unfamiliar to him. Misty had found him a pilot, but had seemingly found one whose expertise was elsewhere in the Navy hierarchy. But there was something about this Commander Crane that gave him confidence that the man not only could do what he needed him to do, but that Crane had confidence Ralston could indeed get them down in one piece. “Contact them, please. I will begin the change in vector.”
Crane nodded. “Hartsfield, this is Eastern flight one-zero-five-eight out of Chicago, O’Hare. We have a medical emergency and need clearance to land.” Apparently contact was immediate. “The pilot is having a heart attack, Hartsfield,” Crane informed them tersely. He listened and then turned to Ralston. “They have cleared runway two-zero and want you to approached from the south, vector three-three-four. You will need to begin that course correction soon as we are fifty-five miles out.”
“Good,” the pilot replied with a slight smile, beginning the slow arcing course adjustment that would align them with the runway. He needed to let the passengers know what was going on, but the commander seemed to have anticipated that one, too.
“You want me to inform the crew and passengers?” he asked.
“Yes, please, Commander.”
“This is the . . .” then he paused, coloring slightly. “This is Commander Crane. We will be landing in Atlanta shortly. Everything is in order and everyone is safe. A medical emergency has necessitated this unscheduled stop. After landing, accommodations will be made for everyone to continue to Miami. Please put your seats in the upright position, fasten your seat belts, and flight attendants, prepare for landing.”
Michael felt more confident as he guided the aircraft in its slow journey around Atlanta. As he banked the plane, he began to ask the commander questions. “What do you fly, Commander? Harriers or F-14’s?”
Crane laughed easily. “Neither, although I have done simulation in both.” He paused to listen a moment. “Do you have your headset on?”
Ralston cursed softly under his breath and flipped a switch. He began hearing the ground control giving course change instructions. “Thanks. I should have picked up on that when you first contacted Hartsfield. In all the excitement, I had forgotten to turn it back on. Capt. Pincher must have turned it off when we reached cruising altitude. Some pilots do that on the longer flights, leaving the monitoring of the communications to the co-pilot.” He felt like he was making excuses and sighed.
“No problem. I remember the first time I landed at a commercial airport. The admiral and the air controllers were both giving me instructions. Had a hell of a time keeping everything straight”
“Yes. My boss, Admiral Harriman Nelson. Probably tougher than any air controller out there could ever think of being. Ran me through my paces royally,” he said, watching the dials. “And to answer your first question, I mainly fly submersibles when I fly at all.”
Ralston did a double take, then heard Hartsfield give more instruction. He banked the jet as they flew over Stone Mountain, eased and then banked again to the east of the metro Atlanta area. They banked as the airport slid past them on the right. Finally another smooth banking to the west and then the north and they were zeroed in on the runway.
“Landing gear?” Crane asked.
Ralston nodded, with a smile. “Good timing. I was just about to ask.”
Crane engaged the gears and the slow, soft grinding of lowering wheels gave him some relief. Both men were silent as Ralston eased the jet into its landing position, slowly descending, bucking slightly as they hit minor turbulence. Slowly, slowly, flaps, speed, altitude. Everything seemed to kick into place. The craft came in like some monstrous bird, with slow deliberation. Not an albatross, as his flight instructor had once told him, but an eagle. The jet continued to ease down, skimming over warehouses and then over the end of the runway. Down gently, down, down. One wheel touched, then another. Both back wheels were down. Then the front. Now the brakes, and the jet whooshed as the brakes engaged, pulling everything seemingly backward and forward at the same time. An airport emergency vehicle was waiting for them and they cruised easily behind it to a point on the tarmac near the terminal where an ambulance waited.
“That was a fine landing, Captain,” Crane said before instructing the passengers to remain seated until they were given further instructions.
Ralston heard the flight crew opening the hatch, even as ground crews guided a stairway to the doorway. As he opened the cockpit door, he saw several emergency technicians and the doctor loading Captain Pincher onto a stretcher. The captain opened his eyes a moment and caught Ralston’s gaze. “Good job, Mike,” he murmured.
“Thanks, Ed. You just get better.”
As soon as the ambulance had left, the passengers were allowed to disembark, an airport employee leading them to an area where flights to their proper destination could be arranged if they chose not to wait to take this one on to Florida. Finally, only the flight attendants, Ralston and Crane were left onboard.
Ralston turned to Crane. “You know, the pilots’ union isn’t going to believe this,” he said with a grin, relief visible on his face.
“Oh?” Crane asked, with a slight smile.
“That I had a submariner as a co-pilot, and the captain of the Seaview to boot,” Ralston replied. Misty and Jennie just gawked at both of them.
“I don’t think it would be a good idea to tell the union,” Crane offered. “In case they do.” Seeing the puzzled glances, he added drolly. “Believe you, that is. I’m not union.” Then he grinned. “Really, I would much prefer to keep this low key. I didn’t do more than give moral support anyway.” He paused and gazed at the pilot seriously. “I think we both got something out of this without anyone making a big deal out of it.” Ralston gazed at him, waiting for him to continue. “I got to ride in the cockpit of a commercial airliner and you learned that you really have the right to be in there,” Crane said meaningfully, pointing at the cockpit.
Ralston nodded. “Thanks, Captain. I guess that’s something we all have to learn at one time or another.”
Crane nodded, “Indeed it is.” Then he asked. “You going to be flying on to Miami?”
“If I’m cleared to,” Ralston replied. “They will have to call in another pilot, though.”
“Actually a co-pilot would be enough. Just save me a seat behind the bulkhead. I like the leg room there,” the captain quipped.
“Captain, if I have anything to say, you’ll be first class!”
“Even better,” Crane said with a chuckle.
Five hours later, Lee Crane smiled softly from his seat in row two as Ralston and the attendants welcomed the remaining passengers back aboard. He leaned back in the larger seat, hoping this time to be able to finish his nap. And to think he had hoped to get to Miami sooner by going on this flight….
A little vignette about the consequences of not
waiting for a flight on a larger, more modern jet of the time….. (written while riding on a similar jet to Salt Lake City)
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