It’s never a good sign when you show up for your airline flight and see news helicopters circling the airport.
That was the scene on Monday afternoon at Newark International Airport as I arrived for my scheduled flight to Phoenix on US Airways. Walking into the terminal, I quickly understood the reason for all the excitement: the power at one of the nation’s busiest airports was out.
Except for a few emergency lights, nothing that required electricity was functioning. Not the overhead monitors, or the self-service ticket kiosks, or the shops and eateries or—most troubling—any of the TSA security checkpoints.
I grabbed my smartphone and pulled up CNN.com to learn that a local PSE&G crew working on a power transformer had made a boo boo that knocked out electricity not only to the airport but also to large sections of the surrounding cities of Newark and Elizabeth, New Jersey. The power had been out for more than an hour; Newark Tower was running on backup power but no flights were being allowed to take off. I took my place at the end of a very long line that clearly wasn’t going anywhere.
Just then a woman with two small children in tow filed in behind me. I filled her in on what I knew. Turns out we were all headed to Phoenix on the same US Airways flight.
“There’s our crew arriving now,” she said. “That means they’ve got 14 hours of flight and duty time left. We should be OK.”
Hmm. I asked if she worked for the airline. Yes, she said. She was a pilot. Airbus A320 family. Her husband was a pilot, too. He flew for Continental.
I asked how certain she was that she’d spotted our crew. “Ninety-nine point nine percent,” she said. Phoenix was her home base. She knew the pilots and flight attendants by name.
Next I asked where she learned to fly. Middlesex Valley Airport, she said. It was a small grass strip in Upstate New York. She was 17 years old. Her first flying job was a stint towing banners in Pensacola, Florida. Then she moved to Alaska. That’s where she and her future husband met—in the cockpit of a Beech 1900 flying for Ryan Air out of a little place called Unalakleet.
“Have you seen that TV show, Flying Wild Alaska, on the Discovery Channel?” I asked. Turns out she and her husband aren’t big TV watchers. She’d never heard of it. I explained that much of the program (modeled on the same basic blueprint as the hit Discovery Channel show Deadliest Catch) is filmed in Unalakleet, the base of family-owned and -run airline Era Alaska. And, coincidentally, the most recent episode revolved around a husband and wife who’d met and fell in love flying together in the cockpit of an Era Cessna Caravan.
“Wow, that sounds familiar,” she said.
She related how four pilots she’d known during her four years in Alaska had been killed in plane crashes. Not surprising, I thought, considering that Alaska experienced an average of one crash every two days when she was flying there in the 1990s. The accident rate has declined since then, but 2010 saw a spike in fatal accidents that made it the worst in a decade and included the high profile crash last August that killed Sen. Ted Stevens.
While we were passing the time talking about airplanes, the power at last came back on. A little cheer echoed through the concourse. Our line starting moving.
As we neared the ticket counter I asked whether she ever flew small general aviation airplanes anymore.
“You know, I don’t,” she said. “And I miss it. But with two children and a husband who also flies for a living and a house to keep together, there’s just no time.”
I decided not to mention that Jeff Skiles, the copilot of the US Airways A320 that famously ditched in the Hudson River in January 2009, recently rekindled his own love affair with general aviation by buying a beautifully restored Waco biplane.
No point rubbing it in, I thought.
I wondered whether she or any other US Airways pilots were maybe getting a little tired by now of hearing about Skiles and Sully and the “Miracle on the Hudson.” Still, hitting a flock of Canada geese at 3,000 feet and minutes later finding yourself standing on the wing of your airplane floating in an icy river sounds a lot more like wild Alaska than midtown Manhattan.
Faced with the same challenge, I’d probably be one of the first to go buy myself an old Waco.
I’m betting she would, too.