message. It will touch you.
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
'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 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 topped 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 were 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.
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.