Wardrobe Malfunction

This 777 captain's wardrobe malfunction makes for an interesting trip.

777 Captain

777 Captain

Usually it's my intent to emphasize more of the flying aspects of the airline pilot career with the Jumpseat column. But on this particular occasion, unique circumstances provided an interesting sequence of events prior to becoming airborne. Albeit embarrassing, sharing this moment is an insightful glimpse into my world. If you are a colleague … well ... go ahead and chuckle.

For the month of September, I included a reserve selection in my monthly bid requests. It was something that I hadn’t done in almost 21 years from the days of being a very junior 727 captain. Rather than explain the dry nuances of our pilot contract, suffice it to say that my logic for choosing reserve was a simple matter of pay versus time off. And for nearly the same pay as some of the regular trip selections provide, I reasoned that trying the reserve option for a month wouldn’t cause too much pain and suffering. As per positive reports from fellow 777 captains, it appeared that my particular seniority position would favor the definition of underworked.

The known quantities in a reserve schedule are the days off duty and the days on duty. Normally, the days on duty can involve a trip assignment to any 777 destination from my New York crew base. But normal disappears in unusual circumstances. In that regard, my timing was perfect. I picked the first of two months when 240 pilots elected to retire. The stock market slide, in addition to the dismal financial state of my airline, affected their decision. Many of the retirees were 777 captains. Great.

I subscribe to an electronic trip trade service that is programmed to send me a text and e-mail message any time a trip becomes available. By late afternoon on Aug. 31, I was certain that my BlackBerry was suffering from epilepsy. The phone chirped and vibrated itself toward certain battery death. The new retirees were leaving voids in the airline schedule.

At the same moment that I had an epiphany about my reserve status, my cell phone rang. Crew schedule was calling in a semi-panic. Another New York captain contractually entitled to a London trip that originated in Miami had temporarily gone missing in action. Before the other pilot was given 50 lashes and a failing grade, I suggested we wait 20 minutes. I promised to jump into my Superman costume if needed. At the 19th minute, my colleague acknowledged the assignment. Although I was hoping to fly the trip, theorizing that it might be my second and last for the month, I was not unhappy with remaining home.

Just as I attained a state of bliss, my BlackBerry buzzed with a trip trade message. Another Miami trip had appeared, this time to São Paulo, Brazil — all night coming and going. The trip was not on my Top 10 list. And I had given away London. No good deed ... Within moments, crew schedule was calling to congratulate me. I was to deadhead down from JFK on a 1730 flight and then lay over in Miami. I would leave at 2340 the next evening to São Paulo.

Arriving at JFK early, I completed a few administrative chores in Operations and then entered the restroom. In all my years of training to appropriately deal with engine fires/failures, hydraulic losses, electrical malfunctions, flight control issues, etc., I was inexcusably unprepared for a different type of emergency: a wardrobe malfunction. I suffered a complete and catastrophic zipper failure 45 minutes prior to my deadhead flight.

Maintaining a captain’s game face, I exited the restroom with the deftness of a tightrope walker. I crossed my fingers hoping that one of our few female pilots would not be in the vicinity. Not only were my wishes ignored, but the female pilot was also an old friend. I scurried away from her line of sight as she studied a computer screen.

A quick and frantic search through my overnight bag found two rather anemic safety pins. They would have to suffice. Despite my marginal tailor abilities, I achieved enough success to brave a walk through the terminal to the departure gate, uniform jacket strategically buttoned.

I am certain that the agent considered my overflowing gratitude for having found me an available first-class seat as simply appreciation for the comfort factor rather than my relief at not having to risk revealing my wardrobe malfunction throughout the entire coach cabin. Although the walk to my seat was quick, a high-difficulty score was required to stow my bags in an overhead bin. Difficulty level also increased when I had to diplomatically decline a flight attendant’s professional attempt to hang my uniform jacket.

Three hours later I arrived in Miami and was met with a different challenge. When I was only a few feet from opening the door to the hotel transportation van, my cell phone rang. Crew tracking displayed on the caller ID. A crew tracking call is usually not good news. (Crew tracking, as opposed to crew scheduling, is responsible for manning issues once a pilot has commenced his or her trip.) Against my 27 years of better judgment, I answered.

It was now crew tracking that was pressing the panic button. The Miami-to-London flight had lost its captain to an FAR legality issue. As a matter of fact, the captain was the same New York-based pilot to whom I had given a 20-minute reprieve. Apparently a variety of circumstances had delayed his arrival long enough to create a duty time overage.

Rather than go to the hotel, would I fly the London trip tonight? Considering our stranded passengers, and the fact that I could return home a day earlier, I agreed. One problem. I had planned to use the Miami layover for a more permanent uniform repair. A covert scan of my trousers indicated that the safety pins required a readjustment. I dashed into the nearest restroom.

Controlled chaos was in progress when I arrived at the departure gate. Because of the now lengthy delay, passengers had been deplaned in the interest of comfort. They circled the podium area with the patience of famished coyotes, preparing to pounce on the nearest airline employee.

The nearest prey was one of my copilots. In the process of attempting to procure flight plan documentation via a paper-jammed printer, my copilot had been verbally attacked by a passenger who was demanding accountability for the delay. I considered intervening, but he was admirably holding his position. When the snarling waned for a moment, I introduced myself and then began a review of the flight plan data.

As I scanned various WSI weather displays via a computer at the departure gate, the agitated passenger periodically ranted about the treatment that our airline was bestowing upon him. It takes only one vocal individual with an attitude to infect others. Before long the crowd began to respond in a fashion similar to that of a Southern revival congregation … but without the love and the amens. Before I could say 777, Miami Dade’s airport police were on the scene as per the request of an overstressed gate agent.

I took that moment to exit stage left with our paperwork. The copilot and I began to take strides toward the airplane. Unfortunately, one of the responding officers added me back into the script after interacting with our infamous passenger. The officer glanced my direction and stated, “Captain, I believe this passenger is incapable of complying with crew-member instructions!”

Sighing inwardly, I marched into the line of fire. I confronted the irate passenger, appealing to the man’s ultimate desire of flying to London and the need for him to take his tone down a few notches. My speech got him back on the airplane and away from a pair of handcuffs.

With crowd control issues dissipating, the copilot and I marched onto the airplane. I was greeted by very grateful flight attendants. If the trip had been canceled, every crew member would have lost hours of flight time pay, customer inconvenience notwithstanding.

After briefing the purser (lead flight attendant), I shook hands with our relief pilot, who was seated on a cockpit jumpseat. I then began the process of preparing a 777 for a flight across the North Atlantic … but not before making an unorthodox request. Might one of our 11 flight attendants have a sturdy pair of safety pins? A wide-eyed expression was the initial response, but no questions were asked. Cool.

As our preflight progressed, maintenance had been in the process of completing an abbreviated ETOPS (extend twin operations) check. The FAA defines an ETOPS flight as an operation that flies beyond one hour from a suitable airport at single-engine cruise speed. ETOPS involves a very specific inspection by maintenance. Because the delay had surpassed the three-hour mark, a recheck was required.

Unfortunately, in the performance of its duties, maintenance had created a perplexing problem that involved control of our pilot display units. The root cause of the problem required the brains of three pilots and two mechanics to solve. As was typical, an abnormal computer function was the culprit. A mere 3½ hours late from the original scheduled departure time, we pushed back from the gate. Our flight to London had no issues.

Wardrobe malfunction? Chock one up to my history book. I’ll leave the incident out of the remarks section of my logbook, however.