The vomit comet

Flying - - Contents - By Les Abend

Main­stream me­dia and so­cial-net­work users have not been kind to the air­lines over the past sev­eral months. In some cases of less than ex­em­plary cus­tomer ser­vice, the neg­a­tive pub­lic­ity is well-de­served. That be­ing said, the hand­ful of edited Youtube snip­pets be­ing broad­cast on net­work tele­vi­sion can be mis­char­ac­ter­ized, overblown, dis­torted and taken out of con­text.

I won’t use this fo­rum to oth­er­wise de­fend or con­demn my in­dus­try. How­ever, when you cram peo­ple into a long, nar­row alu­minum tube for an ex­tended pe­riod of time, the worst in hu­man­ity is sure to sur­face. And in some cir­cum­stances, the re­sults fall into the bizarre cat­e­gory of “You just can’t make this stuff up.” I had the plea­sure of be­ing the cap­tain on one of those flights.

Shortly af­ter our exit from the com­pany ramp at JFK, and partly into my first move­ment of the tiller to steer our 777 onto a par­al­lel taxi­way, the alert chime rang in the cock­pit. A mo­men­tary glance at the text on the bot­tom of the cen­ter-con­sole con­trol dis­play unit screen in­di­cated that the purser, our lead flight at­ten­dant, Joanna, was call­ing.

Taxi­ing the air­craft is con­sid­ered a ster­ile en­vi­ron­ment, an oper­a­tional phase of which flight at­ten­dants are aware, so the in­ter­rup­tion im­plied that the forth­com­ing com­mu­ni­ca­tion was not good news. That be­ing said, I had ear­lier briefed all 11 flight at­ten­dants that the ster­ile pe­riod can be vi­o­lated in case of per­ti­nent cir­cum­stances.

I raised my eye­brows and ges­tured at the in­ter­phone. Jack, my first of­fi­cer, un­snapped the hand­set from its cra­dle on the cen­ter con­sole while I con­tin­ued the busi­ness of keep­ing 14 wheels on the con­crete of the taxi­way.

Dur­ing the course of the con­ver­sa­tion Jack main­tained a neu­tral ex­pres­sion, nod­ding a few times. He spoke into the hand­set, re­spond­ing to the flight at­ten­dant at the other end of the line with a se­ries of OKS. Barely 30 sec­onds passed be­fore Jack re­seated the in­ter­com back onto its cra­dle.

Jack shrugged his shoul­ders and said, “Ap­par­ently, one of our pas­sen­gers is an epilep­tic, trav­el­ing with her hus­band. All the ap­pro­pri­ate med­i­ca­tions are in her pos­ses­sion. Joanna and the pas­sen­ger just wanted us to be aware.” “OK. Good to know,” I replied. We com­pleted the be­fore-take­off check­list, tax­ied onto Run­way 13R, pushed the thrust levers for­ward on two Roll­sRoyce en­gines and climbed grace­fully sky­ward. Jack and I fell into the nor­mal rou­tine of be­gin­ning the prepa­ra­tion for a North At­lantic cross­ing to Lon­don, which in­volved ob­tain­ing al­ter­nate air­port weather, es­tab­lish­ing con­troller­pi­lot datalink com­mu­ni­ca­tions con­tact, re­quest­ing an oceanic clear­ance and other as­sorted or­ga­ni­za­tional tasks.

When the chime alert sounded in the cock­pit not quite two hours later, I had a feel­ing that it wasn’t good news. Was the epilep­tic woman ex­pe­ri­enc­ing a seizure? Nope. An­other woman, seated in the first-class cabin, had sud­denly passed out. At some point prior, the woman had vom­ited in a lava­tory and oblit­er­ated the en­tire space to such a de­gree that flight at­ten­dants were forced to block it from fur­ther use.

A mi­graine was con­sid­ered as the pos­si­ble cul­prit, but af­ter fur­ther in­ves­ti­ga­tion, it was dis­cov­ered that sim­i­lar symp­toms had oc­curred when­ever the woman trav­eled via air­plane. Great. In a calm and pro­fes­sional de­meanor,

Joanna in­di­cated that med­i­cal as­sis­tance had been sum­moned and she was await­ing a re­sponse. She would keep me up­dated.

Mean­while, Jack and I dis­cussed med­i­cal-di­ver­sion op­tions. It was de­ter­mined that St. John’s in New­found­land, Canada, would be the best air­port in terms of prox­im­ity and fa­vor­able weather. In ad­di­tion, we re­viewed the re­quired pro­ce­dures to de­part from our as­signed North At­lantic track.

De­part­ing the track re­quires care­ful ex­e­cu­tion. Why? Sim­ply stated: col­li­sion avoid­ance. Be­cause of so­phis­ti­ca­tion and ac­cu­racy, nav­i­ga­tion sys­tems have al­lowed for less sep­a­ra­tion be­tween air­craft both lat­er­ally and ver­ti­cally. Tracks, or routes, are 30 miles apart, with only 1,000 feet of al­ti­tude above or be­low. The avail­able al­ti­tudes start at 29,000 feet and end at 43,000 feet. An air­plane that has to go else­where be­cause of an emer­gency can po­ten­tially cre­ate a con­flict.

Emer­gen­cies that in­volve the in­abil­ity to main­tain the as­signed al­ti­tude — e.g., an en­gine fail­ure — re­quire an im­me­di­ate turn off the track of at least 45 de­grees un­til such time that a 15-mile off­set is reached. Once es­tab­lished on the off­set in ei­ther di­rec­tion of the in­tended al­ter­nate (ahead or be­hind the air­plane), a de­scent can be ini­ti­ated. When the air­plane de­scends be­low 28,000 feet, the flight can pro­ceed di­rect to the al­ter­nate. Al­though med­i­cal emer­gen­cies can uti­lize dif­fer­ent pro­ce­dures, the re­quire­ment to de­part the track, at least via the as­signed al­ti­tude, is still nec­es­sary.

While the track depar­ture pro­ce­dure is oc­cur­ring, the ap­pli­ca­ble emer­gency check­list has to be ini­ti­ated, the air­plane has to be ma­neu­vered cor­rectly via the au­topi­lot and nav­i­ga­tion guid­ance, a may­day has to be declared, com­mu­ni­ca­tion has to be es­tab­lished with the ap­pro­pri­ate oceanic fa­cil­ity, the flight at­ten­dants and pas­sen­gers need to be in­formed and com­pany dis­patch has to be no­ti­fied — just to name a few.

In ad­di­tion, Jack and I con­firmed that satel­lite com­mu­ni­ca­tions were prop­erly set in or­der to con­tact the air­line physi­cian on call via our dis­patcher. All that be­ing said, I felt rel­a­tively con­fi­dent the sit­u­a­tion wouldn’t war­rant any of those pro­ce­dures. My eval­u­a­tion was cor­rect. A ra­di­ol­o­gist had re­sponded to the sick woman. With use of the on­board med­i­cal kit, it was de­ter­mined that her vi­tal signs were nor­mal. No di­ver­sion nec­es­sary. Cool.

Dur­ing the course of my in­ter­phone con­ver­sa­tions with our purser, fur­ther de­tails were brought to my at­ten­tion. Ap­par­ently, a ner­vous flier seated in the vicin­ity of the sick pas­sen­ger had be­gun a se­ries of in­ter­ro­ga­tions re­gard­ing the sta­tus of the woman to the point it reached a level that went beyond idle cu­rios­ity but fell just short of mild hys­te­ria.

Iron­i­cally, the epilep­tic woman, who seemed to be the most likely can­di­date for a med­i­cal emer­gency, had vol­un­teered to as­sist. She claimed to be a qual­i­fied EMT. It was a noble ges­ture if not for one mi­nor is­sue. Ap­par­ently, the EMT’S nor­mal MO be­fore fly­ing was to self-pre­scribe two Xanax, which she read­ily ad­mit­ted to the purser. Joanna po­litely de­clined her of­fer to help.

And fi­nally, af­ter pro­fes­sion­ally su­per­vis­ing the stress­ful sit­u­a­tion, Joanna took the op­por­tu­nity to make use of the flight-at­ten­dant bunk af­ter de­lay­ing her orig­i­nal rest break. When she re­turned to her du­ties an hour and a half be­fore our land­ing at Heathrow, Joanna was greeted with a sec­ond round of vom­it­ing. Only this time, the sick woman had aimed for the floor area just in front of the as­signed purser jumpseat. Adding in­sult to in­jury at its best.

Al­though the term “vomit comet” has be­come syn­ony­mous with air­craft uti­lized to demon­strate the ef­fect of weight­less­ness, mostly with NASA as­tro­nauts, I could now say that our flight had been or­dained as such, but for dif­fer­ent rea­sons, of course.

In any case, the events of the flight lent cre­dence to the fact that some­times you just re­ally can’t make this stuff up. See you on my next trip!

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