I was with a woman who wasn't my wife. I had my shoes off, my belt off, and my pants undone, and she was rubbing my tummy just above my "daddy parts." Was I flirting with divorce court? Hell no ... I was simply going through security at Columbus Ohio International.
Friendly enough as security guards go, the security woman in question was very thorough in making sure that I wasn't about to hijack myself that day. Did I have a bomb in my shoes? No, unless you consider stink bombs. Did I have a derringer secreted away somewhere near my man boobies? No, she made sure by giving me a thorough, manual, mini-mammogram. Did I have a shiv in my socks? Nope, she actually scanned my stocking feet, noticing only that I had a big hole near the big toe.
No weapon on my tummy, just below my now-open pants either. She made doubly sure by patting my beer gut with her petite, albeit officially firm, hands.
I was now through security and was completely sure that, if I were to try and hijack myself, I would be unarmed. I came upon my co-pilot, Mitch, who had kindly waited for me with my luggage a safe distance away. For some reason, Mitch had escaped their scrutiny and had passed through their checkpoint with nary a beep.
"That was some going-over you got," he said. "For some reason today, you didn't seem to be too angry about it all."
I can see your reason for surprise, I said. For months now I have been doing precious little other than bitching and moaning about some part or other of this silly security circus. It is out of character for me to just roll over like a puppy and give in to the system. Maybe it is because I got so much sleep last night. This is the most rested I've been on a layover in some time.
Our long layover in Columbus was made even longer when our 6 a.m. departure was canceled, and the last day of our trip was changed from a very difficult six legs and 12 hours of duty, to one leg much later in the day.
Anything abnormal on a trip that makes us do something other than we were scheduled to do is called a "reroute." Normally, a reroute is about as welcome as O.J. Simpson at a Parents Without Partners meeting. A reroute usually means that you get home later than you thought, and that you'll do more work than you imagined doing that week.
Sometimes, the gods of scheduling smile on old captains like me and hand out a goody. This one was, and I was looking forward to getting home early for a change. That pat-down had given me ideas ...
We walked out to the gate just in time for the dark clouds that had been north of the field to unload a torrent of rain. It looked like we weren't going to fly anytime soon. Some pilots tend to push the weather and try as hard as they can to get as close as they can to thunderstorms. I've spent a career trying to do the opposite. Since the company pays me by the minute, I've never seen the advantage in scaring 150 people to death so we could make schedule.
There is nothing more frightening to me than to be in an airplane that is out of my control, and flying into a thunderstorm is the best way to do that. Therefore, I stay the hell away from them no mean feat in a "Cajun Clipper" like the MD-88. If the airlines actually followed the rules about thunderstorm separation all the time, I doubt we could run the airline from April through November.
As we set up our nests in the cockpit, our head flight attendant for that day, Andrew, came up to be briefed.
Looks like a 40-minute flight through some fairly bumpy air, I said. We'll be going pretty low, so I'll leave the "fasten seat belt" sign on for you guys. Don't get up unless I tell you, because I don't know just how bumpy it'll be. Just put your feet up, read a magazine, and relax on this leg, okay?
"No problem," said Andrew as he folded up the newspaper he was reading as I was briefing him. "Have you guys been following the 'pilots with guns' debate in Congress? What do you think about carrying a gat while you fly?"
Mitch gave me a sideways, uncomfortable look and said: "I am all for pilots having guns, but I hear that old numb nuts over here (nodding to me) is against it."
Well, a few months ago I was. I thought that giving me a gun was the most dangerous thing that you could do. Anybody who has seen me fire a weapon would attest to the fact that, if I were in a combat situation, I would probably shoot all the good guys and miss all the bad ones. I always thought that the best solution was to arm the furloughed pilots and have them sit on the front flight-attendant jump seat the one that is next to the cockpit door and faces the passengers with a shotgun on their lap.
The airlines haven't done that or anything else major either; unless you count the "bar of doom" we currently use to secure our door, and the upcoming bulletproof, high-tech, $50,000 door that is coming "someday."
About the only thing that Congress has done in the realm of aviation security since the 9/11 attack is to make absolutely sure that they'll be safe from the next attack. They've completely changed the rules for flying in and out of Ronald Reagan Washington Airport (DCA). Congress has mandated major "rules of engagement" when it comes to airliners landing at DCA. There are dozens of new rules that I could tell you about, but then I'd have to kill you. They have all sorts of missile sites, air marshals, and other new security in place to protect their sorry butts, but when we fly into New York City, we still steam right up the river past all the tall buildings as we make our approach into LaGuardia.
If they were serious about defending Washington from the next airliner attack, they never would have reopened National, but since Congress gets free parking there right next to the gates, and since it would inconvenience their staffs that routinely land there and take the subway to the mall, this poor excuse of an airport is still open. With its short runways that end in water, it was a big hazard before 9/11. After the attacks, with all the new rules, it is an airborne ordeal.
Meanwhile, in New York City, it is business as usual. I suspect that New York has the right idea. Given the same scenario as 9/11, an attack on DCA would still have the same chance of success, even with their new rules. The difference now, of course, is that an attack like 9/11 is neither likely nor probable. Anybody looking like they're going to try to attack the cockpit in flight will have most of the passengers riding on their backs as they try it. I always pity people that have a physical resemblance to the hijackers. Going to the bathroom on an airliner must be a nerve-racking experience for them. As they walk forward to the lav, they must feel the piercing eyes of hundreds of nervous passengers on them.
The main reason I changed my mind and want to carry a gun also has something to do with the government's strategies. When I was against the idea, I was naïve enough to believe that the feds would come up with a great way to defend the cockpits of airliners from future takeovers.
Do you know what ingenious policy they came up with? If an airliner appears to be taken over, they plan to shoot it down with fighters. Brilliant, huh? Instead of arming the pilots and giving them a chance at a last-minute defense of the cockpit that might kill one or two innocent passengers if everything goes wrong, they plan on killing every single living thing on the plane to "make it safer!"
So, let's say that Abdullah-Abdullah-Rajmajee has somehow gotten past all the passengers and the flight attendants, and is beating down my cockpit door with whatever he used to subdue everybody in the back. If I and my co-pilot had our guns, we could open-up on the guy, either when he got the door open or possibly through a gun port in our new security door. We might go down, but we'd go down fighting.
The other option is to wait until he looks like he is going to get through the door and then put the hijack code into our transponder. The United States military will then send up, free of charge, a 26-year-old in a fighter who will either missile or gun us down so we won't smack into Congress as we crash.
Given those choices, I'd choose to take on the risk of having my own weapon.
"Wouldn't that distract you from flying the airplane?" Andrew asked. "I heard some Bush appointee say something like that in the media recently."
Well, nothing distracts a pilot more than dying. The guns wouldn't be there for us to open the cockpit door and rush back into the cabin with both pistols blazing. They would be there for when the hijacker poked his head into the cockpit.
Getting shot down is horribly distracting as well. If you buy the argument that pilots would be too distracted by having a gun, then we better remove the fire extinguisher from the cockpit, as well as the crash axe, the first-aid kit, and the oxygen tank. If a fire broke out in the cockpit, according to the logic of Dubya's sidekick, we'd be too distracted from flying the airplane if we were to fight the fire. Better to burn up and have a full concentration on the instruments as your legs start to smolder.
The thunderstorm that was delaying us at the gate had increased in intensity. Both cockpit windows in every version of the DC-9, including the MD-88, leak like a State Department informant when it rains. Mitch and I had both put drink cups under the leaks and had already bailed out three cups of rainwater. Then, there was a tremendous crack of lightning and a simultaneous clap of thunder. I didn't see where the lightning had struck until after I got my head back above the glare shield, but as I did, Mitch pointed out a 10-foot-wide steaming hole in the ramp about 12 yards from our plane.
"Nice day to go flying, huh?" he intoned. "Geeze!"
Thanks to the short power surge from the lightning strike, our airplane now had the message Number one CADC data inop on our Fight Management System screen. This meant that, according to the airplane, one of our two central air-data computers was toast. The CADC runs such essentials as the corrected airspeed, altitude, yaw damper, pressurization, and altitude reminder. I've had one out before and then lost the other. That is a very bad thing to have happen, so I was very interested in fixing the bad CADC.
Lucky for us, I have many years experience in so-called "magic" airplanes. When something like this happens, the first thing you do, after cycling the circuit breakers, is to un-power and re-power the airplane. It worked in this case, the CADC had magically fixed itself, and we were once again ready to take on today's flying challenge.
Mitch was the first to notice that the rain was getting lighter, so after a nod from good old "numb nuts," he called ground for push-back. I made the usual "thanks for your patience" PA to the "great unwashed" in the passenger cabin, and we prepared to commit a flagrant act of aviation on Runway 10L.
A careful look at the weather radar showed that the nasty storms were well away from our flight path, so I pushed the auto-throttle switch to the "Oscar November" position and launched into the fighter-patrolled skies of America, unarmed and only slightly unafraid.
|With apologies to Oliver Wendell Holmes, who wrote The Autocrat of the Breakfast Table, and P.J. O'Rourke, who penned The CEO of the Sofa.|