Jumpseat: An Airline Pilot Returns Home

Captain Les Abend flew a Boeing 757 home with his crew to Newark from LAX following 9/11 in 2001. This 757 is in the current livery. Adobe Stock

This story originally published in the September 2004 issue of Flying Magazine.

It is about six o’clock in the morning. I am witnessing a brilliant golden sunrise; a few layers of thin clouds accent the picturesque view. The New York City skyline begins to appear as a faint silhouette on the horizon. I am seated comfortably in my office—a Boeing 757. We are the first airplane from our airline to land at Newark airport from Los Angeles since the day none of us will soon forget. My first officer and I had volunteered to fly the redeye; neither one of us cared. We hadn’t slept much over the last few days anyhow.

I glance to the right at my first officer. He is deep in thought as we begin our descent. I am sure he is pondering his reunion with his wife and his three young children. He is a kind and caring man. We have been away for five days on a trip that should have had us back in two. We had spent the extra days sharing our lives with about thirty other cockpit and cabin crewmembers who had also been trapped away from home. Our hotel was the layover destination for the two cockpit crews that never made it.

My eyes, as though drawn by some magnetic force, strain to view the skyline. My mind flashes to the horrific scene of an exploding airplane penetrating the World Trade Center building. I know I had flown that very airplane. I had used that airplane to unite families, friends, and business people. It had become a weapon of mass destruction. I feel violated. As I contemplate the “what-ifs,” a heavy sensation, almost overwhelming in its intensity, begins to weigh on my chest. The sensation rises to my eyes. I have to gnash my teeth to keep tears from moistening them. I reflect on my reunion with my wife. I have never missed her more. It gets harder to fight the moisture in my eyes.

The Focus of Flying an Airplane

The sound of our flight number over the radio interrupts my contemplation. I am grateful. My mind snaps to attention as I watch my first officer key his mike, responding to an unemotional, anonymous voice from New York’s air traffic control center. I focus back to the business of flying an airplane. We have nearly a full load of passengers. They had walked on to the airplane in LA with tired, shell-shocked faces. Some had faint smiles, others appeared nervous and unsure. My flight attendants had the same expressions when I had briefed them on the jet bridge while we waited for the brand-new security procedures to be completed. They had nodded dutifully, with wide-eyed faces. I offered them the opportunity not to work if they felt uncomfortable. None had responded. They just wanted to go home. I then picked up my flight bag and headed for the cockpit door. I swung the narrow door open slowly. Never had I felt such trepidation about entering a cockpit. Never had I felt so far away from home. I took a deep breath before moving ahead. It helped. It was time to go to work.

We are now cleared for the approach. I concentrate on the instrument panel ahead of me. It’s second nature. I glance out the window toward the right side of the windscreen. The ominous gray smoke still billows upward from lower Manhattan. The gray cloud becomes flat, leveling off a few hundred feet above the city. It stretches like a giant menacing finger all the way across the bay to Sandy Hook, New Jersey. My first officer’s attention is drawn away by the view. He has seen the view all too many times on the hotel television. It is much too real now. Quietly, I ask him to look away and to focus on our approach. He responds immediately, as though he is thankful for my interruption. His face is grim and sad, all at the same time.

The windscreen fills up with the parallel runways of KEWR. My first officer’s concentration is completely on procedures, making the appropriate call-outs at the appropriate times. We pass over the threshold with the usual blur of concrete and white markings. I work hard to make the landing smooth. It is. I am sure there is a clap or two from the passengers, grateful to be home safely. I look at the mass expanse of the airport terminal as we taxi toward our gate. There is barely any movement. Perhaps it is the early hour, or perhaps it is the circumstances. Perhaps both.

The guide man, directly in front of the nose, gives me the stop signal by crossing his bright orange wands, forming an “X.” I park the brakes. With a stern expression, the agent drives the jet-bridge toward the forward entry door. I sigh, reaching out to shake my first officer’s hand. He shakes my hand and gives me a weary smile. We are almost home. We finish the parking checklist just like we have always done. I open the cockpit door, watching the tired parade of passengers walking off the airplane. There are no sounds of rejoicing, just an occasional “thank-you.” After the last passenger, we pick up our flight bags and leave the cockpit. I thank the flight attendants on the way out, wishing them a safe trip home to their families. We nod a tired “hello” to the crew about to take the airplane back out on another flight. Nothing really needs to be said. I walk out into the concourse, remembering how much I dislike flying out of Newark because of the distance from home and the traffic. Today, I don’t care.

Almost Home

After a brisk walk to the outside of the terminal, we locate the van that has been scheduled to take us over to JFK, where we had departed five days earlier. The air is cool and refreshing. Another pilot, who had deadheaded on our flight, will be sharing our van ride. My co-pilot engages him in conversation. I hear the other pilot mention that he was flying with a check airman, on his initial operating experience flight, when he was called back to land immediately. I shake my head in sympathy. Their voices drift off into a murmur. We begin to cross the Verazzano-Narrows Bridge. All conversation stops as the island of Manhattan becomes visible. Nobody talks for a good ten minutes.

The sound of my cell phone ringing wakes me from my trance. The caller ID shows it to be my wife. I’ve never been happier to see our home number. I answer, trying to sound upbeat, knowing that I sound tired. I explain to my wife that the traffic is very light, and that I will be home earlier than expected. She is glad that I am back safe. I tell her that I will call when I leave the employee parking lot at JFK. I hang up with that heavy sensation in my chest. I make a deliberate effort to sit upright, noticing the four stripes on my sleeve.

We collect our bags outside the entrance to the employee lot where the van has dropped us off. My first office gives me a warm smile. He has become my friend. He reaches out his hand, and then gives me a hug. I wish him the best when he gets home. I begin to walk in the direction of my red truck. I am happy to see it, as if it were a loyal friend. I am embarrassed at my own sentimentality. I leave the employee parking lot, pressing the quick dial on my cell phone. When my wife answers I have a lump in my throat. I strain to get out the words, “I’m coming home.” I don’t know why such a simple sentence should be so difficult. Fortunately, I think she only hears the words.

I begin the hour-and-twenty-minute drive in complete silence. It is calming to hear only the air rushing by the windows and the whir of the tires on the road. I pass a well-used pick-up truck. Two large U.S. flags are attached to the side rails, flapping rapidly in the breeze. Two men are in the front seat. They see the uniform stripes on my shoulders. One man waves while the other man gives me a thumbs-up. I smile and nod approvingly.

What Matters Most

The lake I have lived on for eleven years looks more beautiful than ever. The water shimmers as I pass. I turn into my driveway. I stare at my house before I get out of the car. It’s the same house I left five days ago. Why does it look different? I collect my flight bags from the back of the truck, and walk toward the front door. There is a lump in my throat. I begin to push down on the door handle, and then my wife opens the door. She is the most beautiful woman in the world. I set my bags down. We hug for a long time. I successfully fight tears. I convince myself that now is not the time.

The phone begins to ring. My wife fields the calls. The calls concern my safe return home, and my readiness to participate in a good friend’s 40th birthday celebration. I nod an “Okay” to her, not totally convinced myself. We are to see a play on Broadway as part of the celebration. We are to travel into the city in a stretch limo with other friends. As my wife talks in an upbeat tone on the phone, I wander outside. I walk to a large bare spot on the lawn where I have obsessed to have grass grow. I thought, after all this tragedy, maybe something new would be born. There is no grass. I am disappointed. It is then that I decide that we do need to celebrate. My friend turns 40 only once in her life. It’s important that we participate in her day. For the moment, I am not tired.

We all meet at our community beach parking lot. Our friends congregate around the white, stretch limo. They smile as they see my wife and I approach. The guys shake my hand. The women give me hugs. They look in my eyes for a long time, saying that they are glad that I am home. I have to look away and gnash my teeth again. I hand out red, white, and blue ribbons to wear. Nobody asks for an explanation. They just put the ribbons on.

I am seated in the back of the limo as we drive toward the city. Smiles are beginning to appear on my friends’ faces. I think about my family. My father had called me almost every day since the tragedy. He knew that I was okay from the beginning because my grandmother, who had passed on years earlier, was always watching. My mother had talked to my wife and knew that it was not me on the ill-fated airplanes. Mom’s only request was to hear my voice for herself. My sister had left a message on my voice mail. She had also talked to my wife. My sister just wanted me to know that she was glad I was safe. A return call was not necessary. I called anyhow.

I have all that I will ever need today. When I forget, I hope my wife will remind me. I am an airline pilot, and I have returned home.

Les Abend
Les AbendAuthor
Les Abend is a retired, 34-year veteran of American Airlines, attempting to readjust his passion for flying airplanes in the lower flight levels—without the assistance of a copilot.
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