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.