Sometimes It Takes An Axe To Get Noticed


By now we’ve all seen the video of the airline pilot beating the snot out of a rubbery airport parking lot gate with an axe. If you haven’t seen it, you probably have a real job. But once seen, it’s difficult to unsee this medieval quest for chivalric justice unravel on the marge of the modern aero community. Although cataloging that parking lot justice remains a bit vague, one should never let a lack of insight stymie a vision quest.  

Let’s review one fact, which is about all I can muster. A close forensic examination of the alleged weapon used in this alleged attack bears the morphology of 12th century broad axe design, making it nothing like the slimmer crash axe I carry in my car when going to the airport. Still, let’s not allow our 21st century prejudices and respect for TSA norms to cloud preconceived perceptions of the pilot’s motivation, which as best I can tell was to smash the snot out of a parking lot gate. If so, mission accomplished, YouTube fame guaranteed. Get an agent because you’ll be headlining at Oshkosh 2024.

Two classic movie allusions prove apt when unraveling this video. First, and more obvious, is Peter Finch in the 1976 film “Network,” portraying a news anchor who’d reached his spiritual limit and screams at viewers, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!” Who among us when on hold with an avionics shop waiting for a transponder cert that was supposed to take two hours but stretched into the third day, hasn’t resisted the urge to go all Conan (Barbarian, not O’Brien) on customer service? Tip: It’s rude and fruitless. In any situation, the person or AI substitute you’re linked to on the phone is never the right person, and when the disembodied voice says, “your call is important to us,” it’s not. Give up.

The other cinematic classic line putting clarity to the muzzy axe event comes from “Animal House” (1978) when Otter expresses his ire—over what I forget—and declares, “…this situation absolutely requires a really stupid and futile gesture be done on somebody’s part.” As an Army vet and former FAA employee who’s encountered and initiated the stupid and futile countless times, I lean out this open window to decode the captain’s psyche.

First, let’s switch power settings slightly to consider a flight instructor’s many responsibilities and expectations when evaluating clients for, say, a flight review, check ride recommendation or tailwheel endorsement. Not only are we tasked with judging the pilot’s ability to not kill us or keep the tires on the rims in a crosswind, but we also have the less advertised charge of deciding if the pilot is sane enough to fly. I realize that can be a rabbit hole of bottomless snark, but the FAA makes it easy with a box on the 8710 forms that asks: “Would you feel comfortable letting this mook fly with your daughter?” As a Dad-CFII, I routinely checked: No way!

So, imbued as I am with flight instructor’s insight into what makes pilots tick, I can say that I have no idea what nudged this online airline pilot over the civility bluff, except that periodically an annoying gate—real or figurative—deserves a good thrashing. Often for no reason whatsoever. In the brave new world of machines replacing humans, we (the humans) must assert our alleged dominance or vanish into the dustbin of history. That said, it might be prudent to pause or at least not dwell on possible consequences when attacking any gauntlet tossed along one’s path to glory. Such ambivalence, though, does not the stuff of legends make.

In 1605, Don Quixote demonstrated that when traveling the hero’s journey, a true knight must break away from the cowed masses to “fight the unbeatable foe,” and generally make a total ass of oneself attacking windmills or the modern equivalent—airport gate arms. To shirk when duty calls is to never “reach the unreachable star.”

I hope the pilot, whose identity I’ve kept secret, is exonerated and after some awkward counseling with FAA Aeromedical Flight Sturgeons, returns to flight status long enough to consider the numerous media offers headed his way. If Sully could milk a flamed-out water landing on a VFR day into a lucrative post-airline TV/movie career, then this had-it-up-to-here pilot can ride his axe-wielding revenge porn into at least 89 minutes on Hulu. I’m picturing Kieran Culkin in the lead role. Maybe Rashida Jones if studios want to explore the Lizzie Borden angle. Either way, I’d watch it. After all, I watched the original version shot on a security cam more than once. Yeah, I need to get a real job.

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  1. The smart airline pilot uses an axe; the cleaning crew pushes the bypass button on the side of the gate mount 😉

  2. God bless you Paul for seeing the sympathetic side of this situation and making an effort to put yourself in that pilot’s position.

    James 1:20:

    ‘The anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God’

    This is true but like all of us I can be pushed to tilting at windmills myself.

  3. Watching the video I had to wonder if a 5 second cordless Sawzall job would have garnered the same public attention and interest as the seemingly endless broad axe effort. One way or the other, the broad axe job must have at the time felt ever so much more gratifying to our nameless pilot than a quick and efficient power saw treatment would have. At least that’s the effect it had on me, for just a brief moment.

  4. I can understand his frustration completely. I don’t understand why he attacked the strong edge of the (probably fiberglas) board or why he didn’t simply push it with a vehicle. That ax may have produced a feeling of satisfaction, though.

  5. Now retired from my airline career, I can recall more than a handful of times where I had reached “my tipping point” . It might have been better for my psyche to have let loose instead of holding on… We all face numerous issues on a daily basis and categorise/prioritise them and carry on. But when the bucket is full it would be smart and look in the mirror (or your glass panel reflection) and say “dude, let’s enter the hold and take a few deep breaths” .

    • I’m with Mauro. When you command aircraft in flight with a couple of hundred people’s lives in your hands, you have to make sure your ego listens to your superego, not your id, when you get frustrated by weather, ATC, the company, or any other player, including an inanimate gate.

  6. Perhaps his ire is not directed at the gate as much as it might be directed at the management of that company. I know I felt that way after my retirement income got the axe and management sailed to a soft landing with their golden parachutes.

  7. Regarding your forensic examination of the ax, I think a closer look will reveal that it isn’t an ax, but a maul, which is a cross between an ax and a sledgehammer used for splitting firewood. It has a lot more mass than an ax and would be much more effective at beating up a parking lot gate.

  8. I saw somewhere P(not so much)IC’s age was 60+, but he didn’t look to be that old from the video, that I only saw part of. If so the level of exertion was impressive… Effectiveness not so much.

  9. Does anyone know anything about the parking situation at Denver? I’ve seen some comments online saying that employees had to wait 30 minutes to get out of the parking lot.

  10. Reminds me of the Michael Douglas movie Falling Down. Watch it! Synopsis (from imdb): “An ordinary man frustrated with the various flaws he sees in society begins to psychotically and violently lash out against them.”

  11. I am sorry but I really do not want a hot head on the edge of meltdown flying any aircraft especially an airliner. Pilot’s need to be able to keep it together under pressure.

  12. The modern commercial aviation experience is similar traveling in a livestock trailer. United is one of the most culpable organizations of all. I’m certain what the crews endure is similar to the passengers misery. When you treat people like animals they begin to act like animals.

    • I totally disagree with You, Mr. John Gebhard. Humans behave much, much, much worst than the other animals. I wish humans behave like animals. The world would be much better in every aspect.

    • Very likely, a deeper look would reveal that any job-related issues he may have had were very much secondary to some other festering life problems.

  13. His name is all over the media. He is (was) apparently a captain. UAL had placed him on “leave.” If he is 63, I suspect he will have retirement as his best option.

  14. I wonder if he first tried to just lift the gate by hand? Several times in the past I have seen people do so in various lots when they have been unable to pass. Not sure if all gates can be hand lifted in an emergency tho.

  15. Just last week I was in a hospital parking garage. I had a validated ticket which was supposed to open the gate when I waved it in front of the scanner. Only it didn’t. So I scanned it again. And it still didn’t open. After a few more iterations of this I yelled to no one in particular, “Is this f***ing gate going to open or not?!” And hey presto, just like that, the gate opened. No axe required.

  16. “ A close forensic examination of the alleged weapon used in this alleged attack…”

    You can clearly see in the video that this was an assault ax. Probably had black tape on the handle along with a forward grip area.

    We need common sense laws to keep assault axes off the street. We need universal background checks to purchase an ax and a ban on axes over 13 3/8 inches.

  17. I’ve seen the video numerous times, but never an explanation as to whether he wanted to get out, or get in.