Friday, November 18, 2011

Pilots, the Devil and the Horns of a Dilemma

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

“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 


Oussama's Take said...

One question, where was the FA? and why did it have to be a passenger coming to the rescue.
Something is not right here.

Unknown said...

That was my question also. Even if the captain had to have the passenger's help, it should have been to get a FA, and the FA should have taken care of notifying the FO.

Christine Negroni said...

I will modify my story to include this detail, I should have put it in the story originally. Because the captain was out of the cockpit, the flight attendant was in the cockpit as required by regulation. On this flight there was only one FA. Therefore, the FA was no more aware of what was happening in the back that was the first officer.

Patrick Smith said...

The flight attendant was in the cockpit.

When this story first broke I rolled my eyes. But having heard the details, on the whole I feel the situation was handled pretty well.

I don't think the captain ASKED the passenger to contact the cockpit. There would have been no point in that. Obviously the first officer and FA weren't going to take the passenger's word for it, and it was bound to trigger an unnecessary sequence of events.

What he needed to do was to break out of the lav as quickly as he could, without involving the other crewmembers at all. But, if somebody, well-intended as they may have been, went ahead and started knocking on the flight deck door, well, now it's too late.

Once the crew gave word that there was no threat and the situation was resolved, that should have been the end of it. This story should never have been in the news.

Patrick Smith