Monday, May 31, 2010

"This is your Captain speaking ... " Story

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

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. 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

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’,
she said. She 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

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 she asked me if there was anything I could do.. ‘I’m
on it’, I said. I told her that I would get back to her.

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 on board 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

‘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 plane side. 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 plane side
to watch the remains being loaded for the final leg home.

Captain, most of us 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 soldier.”


‘Lord, hold our troops in your loving hands. Protect them as they protect
us. Bless them and their families for the selfless acts they perform for us
in our time of need. Amen.’

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