Piedmont or US Air?

Folks, when Patti and I first conceived the idea of this exchange, the focus was intended to be on the subject of cancer, and particularly pancreatic cancer. However, some who know us know that we have accumulated stories over the years, as most people do.

Denise asked that I share a travel story with you that I shared with her many years ago over a chilly winter’s day with a light snowfall taking place over Cleveland, Ohio. Here goes:

Back in the late ’80s, I was a communications consultant with Towers Perrin in Washington, D.C. I had a client, Nation’s Bank, in Charlotte, North Carolina.

On this particular day, I needed to go to Charlotte to meet with the team there for some benefits open enrollment decisions. I was flying out of Reagan National airport to Charlotte. The airline was Piedmont Airline. Pay attention to this, it will come up later.

I boarded the flight to Charlotte, and after we got closer to Charlotte, the pilot came on the intercom to tell us that instrumentation was showing that we were having problems getting our landing gear down in preparation for landing.

The pilot told us that he was going to fly by the tower at Charlotte so they could see the underbelly of the aircraft and give the pilots feedback  on anything they could see that might be a problem.

That did not yield any results. The pilot then told us that he was going to go through a series of aerial maneuvers  that training had taught them would result in the lowering of the landing gear. Consequently, as we moved through the air, the pilot waved the wings up and down DRAMATICALLY. It appeared that one moment you were much higher than the person across the aisle and the next you were much below as the fuselage rotated up and down.

When that yielded no positive results, the pilot told us he was going to take us up to 35,000 feet and then descend rapidly to 10,000 feet. At that point, he would go into a rapid rise; the gravitational force should release whatever was holding the landing gear. As the plane started its descent, the noise was deafening. The pilot pulled out at 10,000 feet and we all felt about 2 inches high. But what the pilot did not tell us was that he was going to ascend to 35,o00 again and then go into the descent again. When we reached the 35,000 foot level again and he started into his descent, we were, in effect, weightless. Even though I had a loose seatbelt on, for a few moments I could feel nothing but air between my bottom and the seat below me. Pure air.

At this point the passengers were interesting to watch. There was a rather rough-looking woman sitting in the row in front of me. When she got on the plane, she mentioned to anyone who was listening that she had a son at the Citadel who was graduating and she was headed down there to celebrate with her son.

At this point in the flight, she pulled out her flask from her purse and waved it high in the air. She began to sing at the top of her lungs: “It’s a grand old flag, it’s a high-flying flag.” Verse after verse and very loud, while waving the flask high in the air.

Across from me was a young woman who began to whimper. Ironically, in the row in front of her were two men that looked as if they were perhaps veterans from the Korean War. Both of then sat stoically in their seats, unruffled by this change of events. They were nonplussed and nothing ruffled their feathers. They did not utter a word between them or to anyone else on the flight.

The guy sitting next to me in the window seat began crying.

All I could think of at the time was that I was traveling on company business and that Patti would be a wealthy widow.

After a few more interesting intra-air maneuvers, the pilot said we were going to Greensboro, where they had a better runway (read that, it is easier to clean up a catastrophe in Greensboro rather than Charlotte), so off we went to Greensboro.

When we got to Greensboro, the pilot said he wanted to try to jostle the landing gear down through a series of “touch and gos.” What this meant was that the pilot was going to descend in our 727 and bounce on the runway in order to dislodge the landing gear. He did this three times and ultimately, the nose and right side gear descended, but not the left landing gear.

By this time, the Citadel lady was snockered big time and singing at the top of her lungs, many of the words slurring together indecipherably.

Finally, the pilot said that we were running out of fuel and here is what we were going to do next: descend and land on the right side landing gear, then let down the nose and finally skid in on the underbelly of the engine on the left side of the plane. The pilot did this remarkably well and the plane generated a lot of fire on the left side of the plane. When we came to a stop, the doors flew open quickly, passengers descended rapidly through the inflated ramps — in seconds. Everyone left their baggage on board to get out of the plane quickly.

No one was hurt; the pilot did a remarkable job.

Now, here’s the interesting part. As all this was going on, my daughter Carrie was sitting in front of the TV set at home watching this unfold on CNN. On this particular day, Piedmont Airlines had been acquired by US Air. So, when she saw this on TV, she called my wife to mention that this was all over the news and she asked Patti what airline Dad was traveling on. Patti told Carrie that I was on US Air. Carrie said, “Ok, then everything is ok, because this is happening to a Piedmont Airlines flight.” Patti knew instinctively something was wrong, very wrong.

Patti was working at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda and knew that ON THAT DAY Piedmont and US Air were the same airline and that Carrie was too young to understand those things. Patti beat a path to home to watch the events unfold on TV.

As it was, we all left the airplane praising the open communication between the pilots, the flight attendants and the way they communicated smoothly and without tension or anxiety to help passengers remain calm. It didn’t work for all, but it certainly helped the circumstances from getting out of control.

Funny thing, we all had to leave Greensboro on another airline to get to our destinations. When I got home that night, Patti and the kids showed me the newsreel footage of the “touch-and-gos” that took place in Greensboro. Watching this from the outside, I completely lost my composure and wept convulsively as these events took place on the small screen.

I’ve had other dramatic flying experiences, but nothing compares to this flight.

And, of course, working in benefits, I asked an actuary to work out the numbers on the likelihood that I could walk away from an air crash. In his good stead, he never shared those odds with me.