Jumpseat: Flying with a Hero

Kent Thorpe was working as a relief copilot on the flight that the infamous “shoe bomber” targeted. Les Abend

I am fortunate to have at my side some of the best professionals in the business. My copilots have pointed out the radio calls I’ve missed, the checklist items I’ve overlooked and the wrong taxiways I’ve almost turned onto, and in general, offered diplomatic suggestions to correct the errors of my ways. They have flown flawless approaches and taken command in my absence. But mostly, my first officers have been the locknut of the bolt that holds the cockpit together. And for the month of January, I had the honor of flying with a bona fide hero.

Kent Thorpe is a name most people have never heard, and if they have, it has been forgotten. But most of us remember Richard Reid. The mug shot of the gangly and scraggly 29-year-old with a large, bulbous nose, wearing an orange prison jumpsuit, is known worldwide as the infamous “shoe bomber.”

On December 22, 2001, Reid failed in his attempt to blow up a Boeing 767, Flight 63, while en route from Paris to Miami. Kent was the relief copilot on the flight and was directly involved with the frantic activity in the cabin. His assertive engagement averted a terrorism tragedy.

It’s important to note that it would have been a tragedy beyond just the lives perished. Americans were still in shock after 9/11, and images of the continuing recovery effort at ground zero served as a constant reminder. Had the shoe-bomber incident become a similar event, the airline industry would have hit a wall, along with the global economy. Not only did the intelligence community gain valuable insight by detaining a genuine terrorist, but airline security also stepped up its game.

Nonetheless, it appeared that, by the last trip of the month with Kent, the curse of Richard Reid had followed us into the cockpit. I’ll explain in a moment. On a positive note, good fortune allowed me the opportunity to temporarily leave the cold of a Northeast winter for the warmth of Miami — and a hotel paid for by my airline.

My wife joined me for the winter escape. In the spirit of Canada geese, we flew our Piper Arrow from Connecticut to Florida, affording us more mobility to move about the state.

My trip out of Miami was simple. Leave every Wednesday at 19:10 and fly to Paris. Arrive back in Miami every Friday at 16:20. It wasn’t until Kent made a remark regarding Charles de Gaulle’s airport security that it registered to me that we were flying the same shoe-bomber flight from 15 years prior, only now the flight used a 777. And the fact that my own copilot was involved in the event suddenly clicked.

As we trekked home across the North Atlantic on our first trip together, I asked Kent to tell me the story. Surprisingly enough, he was enthusiastic to do so despite the many times he must have discussed the incident over the years.

Typical of extraordinary life experiences, Kent was in the wrong place at the right time. He was on his break, sitting in the designated first-class crew-rest seat while the captain and regular first officer were settled into the routine of an ocean crossing. A flight attendant uncharacteristically interrupted Kent’s break with an urgent request that he get involved with a skirmish in the coach cabin.

It wasn’t until another flight attendant ran screaming up the aisle in the opposite direction, exclaiming, “He bit me!” that Kent realized the situation was serious. Arriving in the middle of a chaotic wrestling match, Kent immediately took control. With the assistance of passengers, Reid was subdued and restrained with belts. Because of language barriers, Kent often had to utilize nonverbal communication.

When Reid slowed his struggle and was confined to his seat, a flight attendant described his actions prior to the event.

Reid had attempted to light a hidden object with stick matches and was warned to cease and desist. The object was first assumed to be a cigarette, but when Reid began the process a second time, something more sinister was considered, especially when he physically resisted.

Kent began a successful search for Reid’s belongings, locating his identification. He soon directed a cabin lockdown, eliminating all unnecessary movement. Later, he began a methodical interview process with passengers, row by row. Why? The memory of 9/11 offered the possibility that Reid was not acting alone.

After a period of time, Reid’s shoes were discovered on the floor by his seat. Noticing a cord attached to one of the shoes, Kent picked them up. Just before entering the cockpit to join the captain and first officer in an effort to further coordinate the necessary actions required to handle a disruptive passenger, Kent smelled the plastic explosive.

It was only then that the entire crew was aware a bomb was on board the airplane. The shoes were quickly placed in an area of the airplane where the explosive could inflict the least amount of damage. Many passengers didn’t realize the danger they faced until after Flight 63 landed in Boston.

Meanwhile, it was discussed that attempting to monitor Reid’s struggling for the remainder of the flight could be problematic. A doctor was asked to administer a dose — or two — of diazepam, a common sedative that was stored in the locked onboard medical kit.

Kent continued to maintain control in the cabin, orchestrating almost every activity. The other pilots were coordinating the Boston diversion with dispatch and the appropriate government agencies. Although the landing was uneventful, it appeared by the response of the acting law-enforcement team that the severity of the event wasn’t grasped until hours later. But that’s another story entirely.

Ironically, Kent finished his incredible account of the infamous event five minutes before he left the cockpit for his break. Soon after, the relief copilot and I became aware of the January 6, 2017, mass shooting at Fort Lauderdale International Airport. In three hours, our routing to Miami would take us within that airspace. Concerned that the incident could be part of an organized terrorism event, I took extra precautions within the cabin.

And who better to coordinate with than Kent? Granted, the tragedy turned out to be the act of one mentally deranged lunatic, but I don’t take chances with the safety of my passengers.

Beyond the Fort Lauderdale incident, scattered throughout the month of our Paris trips, a series of minor mechanical and operational problems seemed to plague our flights. Curse of the shoe bomber?

It doesn’t matter to me. I’d fly with that kind of hero any day of the week. And really, all of my copilots are heroes. Fortunately, their contributions rarely become newsworthy.

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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