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Monday, July 30, 2012

FLYING A FALLEN HERO



Missing Man Formation.
Recently I experienced one of the greatest—and most heart-rending—honors a modern airline pilot can have:  Captaining a flight that is transporting a fallen soldier to his final resting place.



Escorting the hero was a military honor guard consisting of two of the soldier’s comrades, and two young Marines.  Also onboard were the man’s father and a lovely, devastated young woman—girlfriend? Wife? Sister?  I never found out.  I never learned the soldier's name, either.  Or his rank.  Or how or where he died.

But it didn't matter.  Because, like the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, he was ours.  He was us.
Coming on the heels, as it was, of the Aurora movie theatre tragedy, this flight was particularly poignant for all passengers and crew as well.


Comrades and Honor Guard salute the Fallen...
...and then crisply march away...
As soon as our preflight duties were finished, I ordered the gate agents to allow the party onboard.  They were escorted down to the ramp, where they presided over a short ceremony as the casket was loaded into the forward cargo hold.  Simple, precise and crisp, the military detail saluted the casket then made a sharp about face to march away, reminding me of the Missing Man Formation often flown by jet fighters.*


The Missing Man pulls out of formation...
For six hours as we crossed the country, I contemplated my speech.  As Captain of the flight, I was expected to say a few words upon arrival.  At Top of Descent, I took a deep breath and keyed the PA:
“Ladies and Gentlemen, this is your Captain speaking.  I’d like you to pay special attention to this announcement.  (pause)  Today we have the great, great honor of escorting one of our fallen soldiers to his final resting place.  
“Also on board, you may have noticed, is a military honor guard as well as family and loved ones of the deceased.  I would like to personally request that, upon arriving at the gate, out of respect for our fallen hero, you remain seated as the party deplanes to meet their loved one planeside.”
And for his loved ones, I saved the best for last.



“And to those of you worried about connections, I would like to say that we are arriving thirty minutes early.  That is because Air Traffic Control, aware of our status as an escort flight, cleared us ‘Direct to Destination’, in honor of our precious cargo.  (deep breath, trying desperately not to choke up)  Ladies and Gentlemen, in my 30-plus years  of flying, I have never witnessed such a gesture.”



It was true.  Despite pushing back from a major hub airport during rush hour, Ground Control cleared us straight to the runway, Tower immediately cleared us for takeoff, and Center direct to his final resting place.




It was my leg.  I am proud to say that, in honor of the fallen, I was able to make one of my smoothest-ever “greaser” landings, and rolled quietly down and off the runway to the gate.



The entire cabin was quiet and still as the solemn party proceeded off the plane.  I emerged from the cockpit just in time for the father to say to me, with tears in his eyes, a quiet, “Thank you.”
“It was an honor,” I replied.  “Take care, sir.”


God paints a gorgeous sunset to welcome the Fallen to his final resting place.
The party had another brief ceremony planeside as the coffin was loaded onto a specially-painted black tug and cart and driven off-airport.


Crew and Passengers' mood: somber and reflective...
Needless to say, the mood among the crew was somber and reflective.  That was, until a small girl, no more than 4, marched up to the cockpit and loudly proclaimed, “Hi, pilots!  My name’s Gwennie!  But really my name’s Gwendolyn!”  Our hearts melted, putty in her charming little hands.


...And then a little passenger's innocent joy breaks the somber mood...

And then it hit me.  That little girl.  So full of joy.  Of innocence.  Of life.  That’s why our hero had sacrificed his.

And it was not in vain.

"To fly West, my friend, is a flight we must all take for a final check."
—Author Unknown**


I did not have the honor of serving my country like my father, brother and nephew.  It is to them—and to our Fallen Hero and his loved ones—that I dedicate this piece.
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*For more info on military escorts, see:
For more info on the Missing Man Formation, see:

Missing Man formation flown by Huey helicopters (traditional for Viet Nam Vets); Missing Man peels off at 1:56 mark. Thank you Allen:
HueyMissingMan
While doing research, I also stumbled upon a wonderful Captain’s blog, now defunct, with a strikingly similar story: 
Air Traffic Controller Alex shared this beautiful story from the "other side of the mic":
A Controller's Story
**Related poem:
A wonderful music video found by Miss TWA (misstwa.blogspot.com):
Travelin' Soldier
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DID YOU LIKE THIS POST?
If so, I invite you to COMMENTSHARETWEETLIKE, EMAIL &/or +1 below!

It's right after "Cap'n Aux links and just before the next post.
It looks like this: 
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29 comments:

  1. I don't comment much..but allow me to say..I am proud to be your colleague and a Flight Attendant under your command. Most of all, a dear friend! I have no words to add..just to let you know..YOU have only made me appreciate our HEROES and their loved ones even more!! Thank you Captain!!

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    1. Thanks for your comment, Mary Ann! Good to see you here...I'll hoist a coffee mug on tomorrow's flight in your honor! ;)

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    2. Watch it..it's HOT!!! Thank you again ..

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  2. Cappy.......I'm Speechless........!!!!

    Thank you for sharing....this sorrowful story.....It reminds us that "Freedom" is NOT Free..!!!!
    and as we all go through our daily lives.....and complain of the trivial....

    perhaps, make it a point....to 'NOT' allow ourselves to forget....
    the 'Ulitmate'....price that is paid....with out a blink of an eye....our military.....are in harms way...(we should never get complacent...about the dangers......of "Serving".........
    No matter what their positions are......They did 'Volunteer'......and each one knows.....the possible outcome...This soldier...is a "HERO".......plain and simple...!!!
    Cappy......I am so 'Proud'of you....They could not have had a better "Escort".....!!!!!
    ............and your professionalism......with this "Honor" you had..........
    He traveled the width of the Country he served......I 'Love' that it was You...who excorted him.......!!

    You flew him to his earth bound home............and I believe ....the "Angels"........will bring him the rest of the way....!!!

    This all may sound a bit 'Dramatic'....thats because it IS!!!!!!!!
    Thank you for also putting the link to a Beautiful song....by the Dixie Chicks....
    "Traveling Soldier"......
    Through 'heart break'....and loss......we remain!!!!!!!

    MissTWA

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    1. Lovely reply, MissT. And thank you so much for the wonderful song. Yes, Freedom is not Free!! I thank the Lord for the safe return of my father, brother, and nephew from their respective wars!

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  3. Love you Eric! You are somebody's hero too!

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  4. Replies
    1. Thanks, "Daddy, Daddy, Come Back" momma!

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  5. Beautifully written Eric! Brought me to tears. <3 Mind if I repost or link on my blog?

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    1. Of course not! Thanks, Jen!

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    2. PS—Nice to see the famous Costa Rica blogger gets out of the country once in awhile! ;)

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  6. Wow! I sat with my son and read this out loud to him and had to stop because I was all choked up, with tears in my eyes...and this doesn't happen often to me. He asked, "Why are you sad, daddy?" and all I could muster up is, "There was a man that died to make sure you are safe." Wow. I am speechless. That is why I return over and over again to your blog.

    Ryan (ryanthepilot)

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    Replies
    1. Wow, what a great story, Ryan, thanks!
      I also loved your latest blog post on http://ryanthepilot.blogspot.com about hiking the Sierras.
      It's inspired me to do a future piece about my wonderful hiking experiences in the Sierras as a kid with my dad and family!

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  7. Great post. I would also recommend a fantastic HBO movie, based on a true story that closely emulates your trip; "Taking Chance", starring Kevin Bacon. I guarantee you wont have a dry eye.

    Safe Travels

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    1. Howdy JB in Tampa! While researching I came across photos of that movie and was curious about it. Thanks for the share!

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  8. Hey Eric!

    When I saw the subject matter for this post I did not know what to expect.....

    I found it quite an emotional read, especially the little things from the hidden aviation community such as ATC's direct routing and ground zipping you straight out to the runway and your courteous PA to both the family and other passengers who may be unaware of the situation.

    We all see images of the distraught relatives and loved ones, the salutes from comrades who may soon once again have to face the same dangers faced by these unlucky souls but we are normally unaware of the small respectful gestures in the background (no doubt in many countries around the globe)

    So thank you for a balanced piece that certainly tugged at this old fella's heartstrings!

    Respect to you, your fellow professionals and most importantly to all those who lay their live's on the line for people like me.

    Dave from the UK

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    1. Thanks, Dave! Great comment! Well said :)

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  9. Eric...I have to honestly say that out of all the many blogs you have written this one has to be my favorite to date. I don't mean that in a light hearted way, but more as the reminder you gave me that these men & women daily sacrifice everything of themselves in order for us to be free.

    This family could not have had a better escort in flying their "fallen soldier" home to his final resting place. Your love, and care for the family was apparent in your amazingly worded & respectful speech, proven by two little words from the father ,"thank you".

    On a lighter note I find it so beautiful that a child full of innocence, and no knowledge of the somberness around her, made you realize life does go on, that this hero sacrificed his life for "us" to be free, & again restored your heart with her joy of life :)

    Eric, I thank you for sharing this heartwrenching and tearful event, but appreciate the needed reminder.

    Bon

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    1. Thank you so much, Bon! I must say it's mighty hard to write with tears filling your eyes...

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    2. It means it came from deep within...your heart;)

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  10. Excellent post. Thank you for sharing. From my perch in the tower, I often see these processions and only wish we could do more. Here is an article from our (ATC) union on another fallen soldier you might be interested in. http://natca.org/natca_insider.aspx?zone=NATCA-Insider&nID=4405

    I may just have to print this out and post it in the facility.

    Alex

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    1. Thank you so much, Alex!

      I would be honored if you shared this with your fellow Controllers. It was an admirable—and no easy—task that your fellow coworkers undertook to help out our flight...and I was more than happy to share this fact with the family who no doubt was greatly appreciative.

      And what a fantastic post from the "other" side of the mike--thanks for sharing! I will link it to this post as well!

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  11. Very moving story! Glad to hear that the "Fallen Hero" is getting due respect. For Viet Nam veterans the "Missing Man Formation" is usually flown by Huey Helicopters. That was the sound of our war. Thanks for the story.
    Allen Auxier (Brother and Viet Nam Vet)

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    1. Thank you for sharing, Big Brother! I never knew that!
      And I know I speak for other US readers here when I say, THANK YOU FOR SERVING OUR COUNTRY!!!
      It would be fascinating to see it flown with Hueys--but I hope it's at an airshow and not the "real thing."
      Eric
      PS: I found a link to a YouTube vid of a Huey Missing Man flight. I'll add it to the blog!

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  12. your posting is very good about FLYING A FALLEN HERO

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    1. Thank you, Obat Kuat! I appreciate your comments :)

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  13. I've got tears in my eyes after reading this.... had I been on that flight it would have been a full on flood of tears. What an honor that you could be a part of something like that.

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    1. Ashley, forgive me for my very tardy reply. Thank you for your comment! Yes, not a dry eye in the cabin, I can tell you!

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