Monday, October 20, 2008

Lest we Forget

Anyone who can read this true story without shedding a tear and being so terribly proud of our young men and women who have made the ultimate sacrifice for you and me and our country is brain dead. Kudos to our unnamed airline captain, his flight crew and the airline he's employed by.


My lead flight attendant came to me and said, 'We have an H.R.
on this flight'. H.R. stands for human remains.

'Are they military?' I asked. 'Yes', she said. 'Is there an
escort?' I asked. 'Yes, I already assigned him a seat'.

'Would you please tell him to come to the flight deck. You can
board him early', I said.

A short while later, a young army sergeant entered the flight
deck. He was the image of the perfectly dressed soldier. He introduced
himself and I asked him about his soldier. The escorts of these fallen
soldiers talk about them as if they are still alive and still with us.

'My soldier is on his way back to Virginia', he said. He
proceeded to answer my questions, but offered no words on his own. I
asked him if there was anything I could do for him and he said no. I
told him that he had the toughest job in the military and that I
appreciated the work that he does for the families of our fallen
soldiers. The first officer and I got up out of our seats to shake his
hand. He left the flight deck to find his seat.

We completed our preflight checks, pushed back and performed an
uneventful departure. About 30 minutes into our flight I received a
call from the lead flight attendant in the cabin. 'I just found out the
family of the soldier we are carrying, is on board', he said. He then
proceeded to tell me that the father, mother, wife and 2-year old
daughter were escorting their son, husband, and father home. The family
was upset because they were unable to see the container that the soldier
was in before we left. We were on our way to a major hub at which the
family was going to wait four hours for the connecting flight home to
Virginia. The father of the soldier told the flight attendant that knowing
his son was below him in the cargo compartment and being unable
to see him was too much for him and the family to bear.

He had asked the flight attendant if there was anything that
could be done to allow them to see him upon our arrival. The family
wanted to be outside by the cargo door to watch the soldier being taken
off the airplane. I could hear the desperation in the flight attendants
voice when he asked me if there was anything I could do. 'I'm on it', I
said. I told him that I would get back to him.

Airborne communication with my company normally occurs in the
form of e-mail like messages. I decided to bypass this system and
contact my flight dispatcher directly on a secondary radio. There is a
radio operator in the operations control center who connects you to the
telephone of the dispatcher. I was in direct contact with the
dispatcher. I explained the situation I had onboard with the family and
what it was the family wanted. He said he understood and that he would
get back to me.

Two hours went by and I had not heard from the dispatcher. We
were going to get busy soon and I needed to know what to tell the
family. I sent a text message asking for an update. I saved the return
message from the dispatcher and this following is the text:

'Captain, sorry it has taken so long to get back to you. There
is policy on this now and I had to check on a few things. Upon your
arrival a dedicated escort team will meet the aircraft. The team will
escort the family to the ramp and planeside. A van will be used to load
the remains with a secondary van for the family. The family will be
taken to their departure area and escorted into the terminal where the
remains can be seen on the ramp. It is a private area for the family
only. When the connecting aircraft arrives, the family will be escorted
onto the ramp and planeside to watch the remains being loaded for the
final leg home. Captain, most of here in flight control are veterans.
Please pass our condolences on to the family.. Thanks.'

I sent a message back telling flight control thanks for a good
job. I printed out the message and gave it to the lead flight attendant
to pass on to the father. The lead flight attendant was very thankful
and told me, 'You have no idea how much this will mean to them.'
Things started getting busy for the descent, approach and landing.

After landing, we cleared the runway and taxied to the ramp
area. The ramp is huge with 15 gates on either side of the alleyway.
It is always a busy area with aircraft maneuvering every which way to
enter and exit. When we entered the ramp and checked in with the ramp
controller, we were told that all traffic was being held for us.

'There is a team in place to meet the aircraft', we were told.
It looked like it was all coming together, then I realized that once we
turned the seat belt sign off, everyone would stand up at once and delay
the family from getting off the airplane. As we approached our gate, I
asked the copilot to tell the ramp controller we were going to stop
short of the gate to make an announcement to the passengers. He did
that and the ramp controller said, 'Take your time.'

I stopped the aircraft and set the parking brake. I pushed the
public address button and said, 'Ladies and gentleman, this is your
captain speaking. I have stopped short of our gate to make a special
announcement. We have a passenger on board who deserves our
honor and respect. His name is private XXXXXX, a soldier who
recently lost his life. Private XXXXXX is under your feet in the cargo
hold. Escorting him today is army Sergeant XXXXXXX. Also, on
board are his father, mother, wife, and daughter. Your entire flight
crew is asking for all passengers to remain in their seats to allow the
family to exit the aircraft first. Thank you.'

We continued the turn to the gate, came to a stop and started
our shutdown procedures. A couple of minutes later I opened the cockpit
door. I found the two forward flight attendants crying, something you
just do not see. I was told that after we came to a stop, every
passenger on the aircraft stayed in their seats, waiting for the family
to exit the aircraft. When the family got up and gathered their things,
a passenger slowly started to clap his hands. Moments later more
passengers joined in and soon the entire aircraft was clapping. Words of
'God Bless You', I'm sorry, thank you, be proud, and other kind words
were uttered to the family as they made their way down the aisle and out
of the airplane. They were escorted down to the ramp to finally be with
their loved one.

Many of the passengers disembarking thanked me for the
announcement I had made. They were just words, I told them, I could say
them over and over again, but nothing I say will bring back that brave

I respectfully ask that all of you reflect on this event and the
sacrifices that millions of our men and women have made to ensure our
freedom and safety in these United States of America.

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