Other Airplane Stories While We Flew Home

My wife and I took a six-day vacation last week to Charleston, South Carolina, and as it happened, our flight returning from Charleston to LaGuardia coincided with two unexpected incidents on other aircraft around the world that day. Sometimes incidents like this happen when you are in a plane elsewhere. It’s a little creepy, knowing about this, but usually it works out, and in both these cases, it did. Both incidents, however, are hilarious.

Leaving Ashville, North Carolina and bound for LaGuardia within an hour of our flight was Delta Flight 6132, operated by a regional carrier called Chautauqua Airlines. On board were 14 passengers, a captain, a co-pilot and a flight attendant. [expand]

Halfway through the hour-and-a-half flight, the Captain felt the call of nature. This required him to leave the cockpit by opening and closing that heavy barrier door that keeps bad people out of cockpits. It also required that before he left, the flight attendant had to go into the cockpit to abide by a security protocol that at least two people are in the cockpit at all times. The captain then walked all the way down the aisle to the only bathroom on this small plane, an Embraer 145, way in the back.

Once there, the Captain did what he had to do, then, as he was about to exit the bathroom, he found the door jammed shut. The door latch had broken. He tried jiggling it and that didn’t work. After awhile, he started banging on it, either to get it open or to alert anyone nearby that he was in there. None of this came to the attention of either of the other airline people.

His banging did bring his plight to the attention of a male passenger with a foreign accent who got up from his seat and, talking through the bathroom door, listened carefully as the pilot instructed him to please walk up front and alert the co-pilot of his situation and to please send the flight attendant back there to help out. The pilot told him there was a password to get the first officer to open the door. He gave it to him.

This passenger did as he was told. The co-pilot, at this point, although flying the plane okay, did wonder what was taking the pilot so long, and when he heard the passenger knocking on his door and realized it was not the pilot but a man with a foreign accent asking to come in so he could talk to him, did the only thing he could think to do.

He called the ground controller. The conversation was recorded of course, and it’s been posted on LiveATC.net if you want to hear it. Here is part of it.

“The captain has disappeared in the back, and uh, I have someone with a thick foreign accent trying to access the cockpit,” he said. “By all indications, what I’m being told is he’s stuck in the lav and someone with a thick foreign accent is giving me a password to access the cockpit and I’m not about to let him in.”

“You guys ought to declare an emergency and just get on the ground,” the traffic controller advises.

At this point, the plane was just 30 minutes to LaGuardia. And so it was, just about 20 minutes after we landed, that with the police and military lining one of the runways, the plane began to come in for a landing. It was at that point that the pilot managed to open the stuck door and march up to the front to renew his command.

“This is the captain. I’m back in the cockpit. Lavatory door malfunction.”

“I just want to make sure,” the controller says. “Was there any disturbance in the airplane?”

“Negative. The captain—myself—was in the lavatory…and I had to fight my way out of it with my body to get it open.”

The result of this was not the arrest of the man with the foreign accent, but a thank you to him for a job well done and a pat on the back to all the passengers, the flight attendant and the co-pilot for their behavior under stress while the pilot was locked in the toilet. There was also the call, of course, to the mechanics to come on board and fix the bathroom door.

The second airport incident that day happened in Vienna. One hundred eighty people were onboard an aircraft chartered by Comtel Air Charter, which had left Amritsar, India bound for Birmingham, England. Each had paid $600 for the flight.

After six hours in the air, the aircraft made its scheduled stop in Vienna, Austria. No one would be getting on and off there. It would be a re-fueling stop.

Once on the ground though, the pilot came on over the P.A. system to say that there was trouble at Comtel Airlines, he didn’t know the details, but that the plane would not go on because Comtel was not providing the money needed to pay for the refueling, which was $31,500.

“We stay here until this all is worked out,” the pilot told them, “which might take a few days, or another possibility is for you passengers to pony up the $32,000 so we can re-fuel. It’s up to you.”

It was pretty easy to figure out that $31,500 divided by 160 was just under $200 per passenger.

“Children under the age of two do not count,” the pilot told them, hopefully.

The passengers talked all this over for about 10 minutes. They went through the usual emotions of shock, anger, denial and resignation, and since many of them had the additional $200 on them and they all wanted to get home as soon as possible—this plane was filled largely with Indian citizens who had visited relatives in India—it was decided to pony up the money, and those who did not have that much in cash could be allowed off the plane with a stewardess to visit an A.T.M. in the terminal to get it.

It was also mentioned by one of the passengers that he had heard Comtel was filing for bankruptcy. So that would explain why suddenly the spigot had been turned off.

In the end, the plane got refueled and soon came in to land in Birmingham, with the passengers happy to be home and vowing never to fly this aircraft company every again—a vow they might easily have kept because, as it turned out, the airline was indeed teetering on bankruptcy and had all its finances frozen while they had been in the air.

The media was all over this story, and many reporters and photographers met the plane in the terminal in Birmingham to get their side of the story. As for the airline, it promises to refund the $200 as soon as it can all be sorted out.

The passengers say they will believe it when they see it, and they expect, after all this, never to see it.

These two stories about aviation remind me of a similar story that involved the ferry services to and from Shelter Island a few years ago.

Roman Roth, the winemaker at the Wolffer Estate Winery in Bridgehampton, had been in Greenport late into the evening. His home is in Sag Harbor and so, knowing that at 1 a.m., both the North Ferry and South Ferry that connect Shelter Island to the mainland shut down for the night, he started off from Greenport at about 1 a.m. expecting to make it all the way across to the South Fork in time to catch the 1:45 a.m. boat.

There was a problem with the North Ferry, however, some sort of delay. He didn’t ask about it but waited patiently, and soon was on the ferry to Shelter Island. After arriving, he spent 10 minutes driving across the island and as he did so he realized it was going to be very tight making that last ferry going to the South Fork. But then he saw the ferry arriving. He had made it!

But he had not made it. As he watched, the lights on the ferryboat got turned off, and a minute or two later, the captain came down the ladder and walked off. Roth got out of his car to talk to him. Behind him, the drivers of two other cars that had been delayed at the North Ferry also got out of their cars.

“That’s it,” the captain said. “Ferry’s over. Next ferry will be at 5:40 a.m.”

Roth and the others pleaded with the captain. None of them expected the delay at North Ferry and none of them had any desire to spend the night stuck on Shelter Island. It was all the North Ferry’s fault!

In the end, the captain offered to take the three of them across to the South Fork for $150. It would be $50 each.

And so they did that, and so the captain ushered everybody on and took them across, making good on an almost impossible gesture of kindness by this captain.

When Roman reminded me of this story the other day after I told him about the unexpected delay in Vienna, I asked him if they paid him in cash and if he gave them all tickets. I was wondering if this delightful little act of charity was even known by the South Ferry.

“Honestly, I don’t remember,” he said. “But it happened, and I was glad of it. I love Shelter Island, but when you have no plans for the night there and it is at that hour, it’s just a lucky thing the captain did what he did.”

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