You may have heard the joke about the airline pilot who goes to hell only to find on arrival that rather than an eternity suffering fire and brimstone, his hell will be spent doing endless walk-arounds in blizzard conditions. (That’s not the punch line, but this is a family blog, and I can’t print the rest of it. Ask Jim Hall or see me later.)
Another version of pilot hell might be something like what happened to the captain of a Chautauqua Airlines/Delta Connection flight earlier this week en route from Ashville, North Carolina to New York.
The poor pilot just wanted a quick “biological break” about 30 minutes before landing at LaGuardia. He might have been inspired by the air traffic controller telling the crew that they would take their place in a holding pattern. Or perhaps he was remembering the recent antics of the actor Gerard Depardieu on a CityJet flight in August.
Whatever, when the captain tried to return to the cockpit, he found the bathroom door would not open. A passenger seated nearby heard the man pounding and tried to help, but no dice. The door was shut tight.
Meanwhile back on the flight deck, the first officer was getting more and more nervous - wondering why his captain went AWOL. What could be taking so long? The Embraer 145 is 98 feet long even walking slowly he should have returned already. With him in the cockpit, it is reported, was the sole flight attendant, who was required to be in the cockpit in the absence of the second pilot.
So that when they heard a knock on the door, and a heavily accented voice tried to explain the situation, the first officer was unsure what to do. Sure, it could be the truth, then again, what if it was not? Who in the post-9/11 world wants to err on the trusting side? So here’s what he told the air traffic controller as transcribed from the website liveatc.net.
“We are 180 knots 10,000 uh, can we leave the frequency for a minute? We are going to try to, uh contact dispatch. The captain disappeared in the back, and, uh, I have someone with a thick foreign accent trying to access the cockpit.
Military jets were notified. The FBI was called and the first officer was advised to declare an emergency and get that airplane on the ground. It was at this point that the captain finally forced his way out of the bathroom and returned to the flight deck.
"The captain - myself - went back to the lavatory and the door latched," he can be heard explaining what happened to controllers, adding, "There is no issue, no threat."
In the highly complex world of aviation we have systems on top of systems plans, backup plans and back up to the backup plans. But who could have imagined this? Sometimes stuff just happens.
The world spins on in all its marvelous complexity and we think we are in control. Then we are treated to a tragicomedy that shows us we are just hangin’ on by the straps pretending there is no force greater than our own magnificent minds. But we.be.wrong.