While the copilot and I began the process of preparing our 757 for a trip from JFK to Montego Bay, Jamaica, my stomach prepared itself for an attack. I was beginning to feel a mild churning sensation. The frou-frou coffee I had ordered at the airport from a franchise chain that will remain anonymous was not agreeing with my system. Quite frankly, its coffee has never agreed with my system. Despite the event that I am about to describe, I have been brave enough (or foolish enough) to try its product again — minus the flying part. Although not as severe, the results have produced similar effects.
After departing the gate, I had considered a brief stop on the taxiway. But I chose to tough it out. The majority of my stomach malfunctions had always dissipated over time. Besides, how would it appear to passengers for the captain to make a mad dash from the cockpit into the lavatory? Answer: better than it appeared later.
Not expecting a slightly uncomfortable condition to affect pilot performance, and considering that my copilot was new to the airplane, I had briefed the takeoff to be my leg. Another mistake. I rotated the airplane skyward off Runway 31L just as my intestines began a rotation of their own. Accelerating through the turn and climbing via the assigned SID, I was having serious doubts as to my abilities of keeping my insides from coming out.
Up until about 1,500 feet, I had minimized the situation to my co-pilot. I vowed to remain in control of my bodily functions at least through 10,000 feet. When the altimeter read 9,990, I simply said, “You’ve got the airplane and the radios.”
Although my copilot’s raised eyebrows expressed his concern for my future absence, he understood the urgency. I reached for the intercom handset. My announcement to the No. 1 flight attendant in the first-class cabin that I would need immediate access to the lavatory was greeted with mild astonishment … and justifiably, a little irritation. After all, we had barely been airborne for five minutes. The flight attendant complied, and I was off to the races while the copilot flew solo.
Usually, close encounters of this kind had me operational after one trip to the throne. I hoped this would prove to be true. It would be a long three-hour flight otherwise. Unfortunately, the coffee had other plans. It would take five more trips and five more eye-rolling episodes by the No.1 flight attendant before I considered myself anywhere near the definition of normal. In the small favors category, I appreciated the fact that, other than an occasional bout of nausea, nothing exited my body from the upper end.
Thanks to a professional copilot, a patient flight attendant and a subsiding of my symptoms, we were able to complete the turnaround back to JFK that day. Why do I bring this red-face episode from my past to light?
Recent events have brought the subject of incapacitation to the surface. In my situation, incapacitation rendered me unable to perform duties as a flight crew member on a consistent basis. Should we have returned to the airport?
Maybe … but that was a tough call. I wasn’t unconscious. My cognitive abilities weren’t impaired. Should my copilot have asserted his authority and made the decision to return himself? That would have been a really tough call.
Just imagine how tough a call it would have been for the JetBlue copilot that locked his own captain, Clayton Osbon, out of the cockpit. Assuming that the witness reports and sketchy cell phone videos of the event are accurate reflections, some of you may consider the decision a no-brainer. After all, it appears painfully obvious that this man was mentally incapacitated and incapable of performing his duties as PIC. What copilot wouldn’t immediately prevent this lunatic from being within close proximity of the flight deck?