Tailwinds

December 19, 2009 8 Comments A+ a-

I want to tell you about my friend, Phil. He was a Captain at my previous airline.

Phil and I flew the same "lines" in January of 2006. We had a fun First Officer, Curt, and with the ever-changing Reserve Flight Attendant, we trotted across the country in our CRJ. Our schedule that month was one where we didn't really have much time on any of our layovers to go out and do anything as a crew--but, we did manage to all have breakfast together a couple of times, and Phil picked up the check for all of us.

One day, we were stuck in Minneapolis (MSP) sitting in a tiny gate area full of passengers for 5 ridiculously long hours. There, Phil broke out his iPod, just to pass the time. We sat, side by side, for a couple of hours looking at all the pictures he had of his 18 month old daughter, Ella. I think the iPod he had held about 5,000 pictures--and I saw every last one of them!

While showing the pictures of his family, he told story after story--of the little red wagon he built for Ella; of chartering Cessnas and taking Ella flying with him; of buzzing their home in rural Pennsylvania while in the small plane to wave hello to her Mom-his wife, Aleta. Clearly, Phil was in love with his wife and daughter!

So, it was a nice surprise to find I was flying with him again the following month. Our other crew was Flight Attendant CeCe-a beautiful, fun and smart Chicago girl; and Frank, a terribly angry and arrogant First Officer. One of our layovers that month was to Northwest Arkansas (XNA)-(the home of Wal-mart, Tyson Chicken, and JB Hunt Trucking...)

This particular Friday, was non-eventful. We arrived in XNA around 1 p.m. I wanted to get my haircut in the shopping center next door to our hotel--and Phil wanted to walk around a bit. We headed to the shopping center, and I told him that the rest of us decided to meet for dinner at 4:30 at the Outback Steakhouse, and that he should join us. He said he didn't think he would--he didn't want to have to have dinner with Frank there. He continued with telling me how he didn't like him personally and professionally--that he did not like flying with Frank--he flies "too high and too fast above the markers"...and that he lies about a lot of little, unimportant things. (I had always just thought of Frank as arrogant for no really good reason, and was perfectly happy when I closed the cockpit door each flight and he was on the other side of it!)

After doing his thing in the shopping center, Phil came back by the shop where my haircut was just finishing up and we walked back towards the hotel together. We stopped at the office supply mega-store there so he could buy some batteries. As we walked in, he told me that he was taking vacation the following week, and that his wife, Aleta, thought they were going to visit family in California. But, he had a surprise--he was taking his little family to Italy for vacation! He was so excited to surprise his wife!

We went back to the hotel--Phil's room was right across the hall from mine. A couple hours later, I met CeCe and Frank at the steakhouse. And, surprise! A few minutes later, Phil joined us, anyway.

Crew conversation almost always centers around work. Frank was kvetching about how unfairly he was being treated...blah, blah, blah-all company politics...he really was a miserable sort to sit at a dinner table with. CeCe, Phil and I didn't "have a dog in that fight" with the Company, so we tried to steer the conversation away from that. Frank got angrier and eventually left to go back to the hotel.

We finished dinner and Phil started getting antsy. He was ready to leave. CeCe and I wanted to have a drink at the bar before calling it a night, and Phil agreed. We knew he wanted to go back to his room, so we said "Go ahead." He did not want the two of us walking back to the hotel in the dark. Let me explain this to you--the restaurant is IN THE PARKING LOT of the hotel we stayed in. It is 100 feet of well-lit pavement. He was just that sort of a gentleman.

While we sat at the bar, it was (in hindsight) evident that Phil wanted to get out of there--he was not comfortable at all. We had our drink, and I paid the check--it was the first opportunity to reciprocate his breakfast from the month before. We all walked back to the hotel together.

About 15 minutes in my room, the phone rang--it was Phil. He just wanted to say thanks for the drink and "see you in the morning." This was at 7 p.m.

The hotel had a free breakfast in the mornings--and you'd be hard pressed to find a pilot turning away free food. I came downstairs around 6:20 a.m. CeCe and Frank were already downstairs. After a few minutes, I noticed Phil wasn't there yet. I called him on my cell phone to make sure he was awake. No answer. Hmmm...maybe he's running late and is in the shower. After not seeing him for a few more minutes, I called his cell phone again. Still, no answer.

By now, it was time to leave for the airport--CeCe and Frank were in the hotel shuttle. I went to the front desk and asked the clerk if I could use the house phone. Again, no answer when I called the room phone. I had the clerk check the room number and make the call himself. No answer. I knew something was wrong.

The clerk and I went upstairs together and knocked on the door. No answer. I asked him to open the door--he said a manager had to do that. A minute later the manager was there: BANG, BANG, BANG. No answer.

The manager slid her keycard into the lock--and pushed the door open. The door only opened a couple of inches-the interior latch was locked. I could see that inside his room was dark-the curtains were still closed and there was no sound coming from the room-no TV, no shower.

"You HAVE to open this door, NOW," I said. About that same, the shuttle driver came running around the corner, with CeCe and Frank right behind him. He asked, "Do you want me to kick the door in?" "Yes!" I said as I turned to the manager and said "Please call 911!"

Joe, the driver, kicked the door open. Frank and CeCe filed into Phil's room, a suite. I went in behind the driver and the manager.

Joe walked over to the drawn curtains and opened them. Phil was laying on his back, in bed, with his eyes closed. Frank stood beside his bed and just said "He's gone."

CeCe hollered, "Check his pulse!" And Frank did. Our Captain was dead.

Minutes passed slowly and like lightning. The three of us hunkered down in my room, which was directly across the hall. The Rogers, Arkansas Police Department showed up--and we had to fill in detailed reports. The staff of the hotel brought us bottled water and Ibuprofen, and did everything they could to accommodate us.

After writing our individual reports for the police, Frank, who lives in Richmond, VA decided that this was an easy way to get out of the rest of his trip, and he was ready to go home. "if I can get the next flight out of here, I can be home by 2 p.m." CeCe and I, sitting next to each other, just held hands and decided we were going to stay with Phil until they took his body away--that was what we would want someone to do for our family member.

Frank ended up staying with us, by default-the Company, deadheaded us back to Chicago (ORD) and later, home to Washington (DCA) for me and Richmond (RIC) for Frank.

When we arrived in ORD, our Inflight Managers and the Assistant Chief Pilot (ACP) met our airplane at the gate. Up until then, CeCe and I had stayed strong--we had kept our tears to a minimum. I walked off the plane, and was greeted by Robert, the ACP. He hugged me and I handed him Phil's pilot hat. And, I lost it. It was an uncontrollable cry for a few minutes. I cried and cried over the loss of such a good man, my friend.

An autopsy revealed that he died of a massive heart attack. I attended his funeral, which was held here in the Washington, DC Metro. A sea of Navy Blue polyester, worn by his friends from his many years at the airline, filled the church. Pilots and Flight Attendants from American Eagle, American Airlines and Southwest Airlines (where Aleta works) showed up in uniform to pay their final respects to Phil. The family arranged for us to be honorary pallbearers. We were lined up on either side of the church aisle--there wasn't a dry eye in the place when his casket was carried between the uniformed crew members.

It was there I met his wife, Aleta and his brother, Andy. It was also there that I learned his wife was newly pregnant with his baby. Their son, Phillip III was born 8 months later.

It was sad he died alone, in a hotel room, in a strange city. It was sad that his son will never know him, and, at best, Ella will have vague memories of him. The saddest part with Phil's passing, though, is the huge hole that was left in humanity.

Tailwinds, Captain Phil!

Blondie
Blondie

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Tracy
AUTHOR
December 20, 2009 at 11:01 AM delete

OMG, you couldn't have told that story any better! I remember you talking to me about it when it happened. What a great time to remember such a treasured friend. I am so glad you shared his story with us. Thanks.

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Joy B
AUTHOR
December 20, 2009 at 6:10 PM delete

Thanks for the story. I bawled my eyes out! My husband Ted says he knew you when he was a captain on crj now he's back to an embraer captain. It will be two years tomorrow that he was alone in XNA and found out his Mom had suddenly died in the night..... 4 days before Christmas. I'm glad the captain wasn't left alone. You did the right thing.

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Blondie
AUTHOR
December 20, 2009 at 6:32 PM delete

Joy--so you're the one with the angel wings that shine so brightly in Ted's life! Nice to "meet" you!

It is sometimes so hard to be on the road--as your husband can attest. The biggest thing that makes it easier is the support we have back home. Alone in a strange city is never good--I think that is why crews bond like we do--even if we don't like each other that much, we all still look out for one another.

Happy holidays, Tracy and Joy!

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Anonymous
AUTHOR
December 21, 2009 at 10:59 PM delete

Blondie,

On contractual issues I found plenty of areas to disagree upon with Phil. But I always knew he was a "stand up" guy.

Thank you for the beautiful tribute to Captain Phil.

TCAS

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AviatonCrazy
AUTHOR
December 22, 2009 at 9:27 PM delete

I've been reading lots of flight blogs but nothing like this about losing a colleague, while on a trip. Very sad!

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Rich
AUTHOR
January 1, 2010 at 12:31 PM delete

Blondie,

Nice tribute to a great man. Phil was duly missed at American Eagle. I remember filling in for the FO a month before this happened and being stuck on the airplane at DCA with you and Phil. Great times waiting for our ORD slot.

Any word from Phil's family how the kids are doing?

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January 1, 2010 at 2:59 PM delete

I didn't realize that you were flying with him when this happened... You know to this day Bitner will not sleep on the same floor as the one he passed away in?

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