Published in May 2016 issue

Air travel is a maelstrom of people, bags, noise and confusion. Over time, I’ve learned that it’s best to keep to yourself in the airport, to stay out of everyone’s way, even in my airline Pilot uniform. I try to fly below the radar, make it from gate to gate quietly unnoticed—but with a few exceptions.

By Chris Manno

The very old, the very young, those who don’t speak the language and, always, our military people traveling—those are the folks I look for, make eye contact with, and ask, “Where are you going? What do you need? Are you all set?”

A young soldier stood to the side of the gate, his back to the plate glass window, brow furrowed, jaw set, clearly uncomfortable in his dress uniform. That had once been me: a Young Air Force officer and pilot, halfway to a military assignment a thousand miles from anywhere and far from home. The passage is awful, watching the civilians doing what civilians do on vacation or business or whatever. You’re not them; they’re not you. Just get me to my duty station.

“You good?” I asked him. Not “Are you okay” or “Need anything.” Because he’d never admit to the former, and would be too proud to ask for the latter. You good?

His eyes remained distant, as if he saw me yet saw through me just the same. “Yessir.” He tugged at his collar, too tight, the dress jacket too small and rumpled from the long flight, attired to accompany the remains of a soldier killed in the combat zone.

“I need to see for myself, see to this.” He was on escort duty, a way for the military to say we value our people, their lost lives. We send one of ours with the lost on the long, final journey home.

I knew what he meant. “Look,” I said, “I’ll escort you to the ramp whenever you need it. We’ll get this squared away.”

Military jargon. The words that matter: never mind the emotional freight or personal cost, we’ll do what we need to do, and do it right. Squared away, mission accomplished.

He gave me a curt nod, then those eyes looked elsewhere: ahead, behind, maybe a thousand miles west, to the final resting place for the soldier below. Passengers milled about the gate, asking about boarding, upgrades, connections. The smell of burnt pizza and strong coffee wafted from a concession stand. I went back to work.

May 2016
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Takeoff is always a beginning, but this one was heavy with the awareness of an end. I knew, though few others did. My First Officer seemed more somber than usual, and he’d mentioned the cargo handlers who’d done their best to load the crated casket with reverence, at least as much as was allowed by the tight compartment and the maneuvering required to fit the casket aboard. That made a solemn difference in the usual preflight ritual we observed—right down to the final salute the ground crew chief gives me as I am at the helm with engines running, signifying: “The ground crew’s clear of the jet, you’re free to taxi.”

The salute was smart and rigid—the crew chief, like most of us, probably ex-military too— and something passed eye-to-eye, more tan remembrance, less than peace. We both knew this was a final westbound flight.

There is, in air travel just as in the theater, a front of the house and the back of the house. Backstage, props are moved, scenery placed and an illusion is maintained for the audience before the stage. At DFW, connections awaited, a terminal full of retail and food concessions and TV monitors blaring news and ads; all around, a throng of travelers in transit flowed here and there, a human tide of leisure and business and family and homecomings and farewells.

Below, on the ramp, the DFW crew paid quiet respect; gently, painstakingly maneuvering the bulky casket from our cargo hold as the now ever-wearier soldier watched from the ramp, me standing silently aside: the escort for the escort. I’d never been prouder of our ramp crew, standing straight, tall and reverent even after manhandling tons of bags and cargo that day. And I’d never felt sadder for those a few hundred miles hence who’d embrace the body at its final destination.

The cart pulled slowly away and the escort soldier was all business again. We spoke of how he’d get to his connecting gate to accompany the body. I took him upstairs, into the terminal, shook his hand and pointed him in the right direction. Instantly, he was swallowed up by the crowd and on his way.

Through the terminal windows, I tried to catch a glimpse of the ramp cart leaving our parking spot, headed toward the final connection, but it was nowhere to be seen. I gathered my flight gear and headed for my next flight, into the crowd myself.

But that just wasn’t right. Throngs of vacationers, business fliers, families, youth groups tours; travelers from all walks of life, en route but oblivious of the silent passage below, a cart, a casket, a fallen soldier, invisible on the ramp among the traffic of leisure and commerce that is air travel. And a flesh-andblood family at the far end of the flight, awaiting the mournful, crushing grief jetting their way.

I wanted to stop it all, to grab a mic to a full terminal PA system, to command everyone: stand, now, and stop what you’re doing, and be proud, grateful, humble, and reverent as a soldier who gave his life for you passes below on his way home.

I strode briskly and alone as I always do, keeping to myself in the flow of humanity scattering to the four winds. As I walked, I called my wife, needing to tell her, someone who mattered and cared, what I’d just witnessed. It rang, she answered, but I couldn’t speak. The words wouldn’t come, couldn’t, not without the sad, unforgivable spectacle of an airline Captain in tears in the terminal, which I wouldn’t allow.

“I’ll call you back,” I said. “Can’t talk right now.”

She asked if I was okay. No, but I will be. There were many more miles to fly, a sky to transit, thoughts to navigate. I joined the human tide in the airport, onward from here to there once again. Not forgetting, ever, but going on just the same.