MIAMI — With a remarkably strong presence in South Florida with its large Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood (FLL/KFLL) hub and nearly 5,000 crewmembers who call it home, JetBlue’s ties with the local community are deeply embedded in the day-to-day of its residents.

The tragic events that occurred at Parkland, Florida last February 14, when 17 teenage students were victims of a horrendous shooting on the grounds of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, left a country shaken in grief and a South Floridian community whose wound has not yet healed from the devastating tragedy.

Joining the massive outpour of support and sympathy that the entire country has wholesomely bestowed upon those affected by the shooting, and in the true spirit of a company with Humanity embedded in its DNA, JetBlue teamed up with the 2018 Fort Lauderdale Air Show to perform a special charity flight to raise funds for the victims.

The flight, which officially kicked-off the 2018 airshow, departed Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport on May 5 and performed a few low passes along the coast of Fort Lauderdale.

Later on, the scenic flight returned to the airport with 135 passengers onboard whose funds from their tickets, purchased at $150 each, will benefit the United Way of Broward County for distribution to those affected by the shooting.

The Star of the Air Show

In the morning of May 5, 2018, the mood at FLL was certainly a special one. Standing on the Mosaic (JetBlue’s loyalty program) check-in line, I was surrounded by a crowd wearing matching Stoneman Douglas red t-shirts with the hashtag #MSDStrong.

With over 3,000 students and teachers, it is hard to imagine that everyone would know each other, but here they all did.

I once heard someone say that tragedy brings people together and standing in that line watching the warm spirit of fellowship shared by those who were directly affected by the shooting made me realize that it is true.

As I stood on the TSA line, I began chatting with a woman behind me who also wore a Stoneman Douglas t-shirt. As it turns out, she was the special ed teacher at the school, and I could not help but wonder how hard it must have been for her to handle the situation keeping students with disabilities calm when the shooting happened.

Fortunately, when I asked about her students, she said that they had made a lot of progress coping with what happened to some of their schoolmates.

Flight B6 9400 from Fort Lauderdale to Fort Lauderdale was scheduled to depart at 10:30.

At gate F1, N598JB appropriately wearing JetBlue’s special ‘Inspiring Humanity’ livery and named ‘Bluemanity’ awaited to take us on the special charity flight.

A ‘Parkland in our heart’ banner and blue, white, and orange balloons with ‘FLL’ spelled on top adorned the gate, where a complimentary breakfast including croissants, muffins, and fruit was available to those on the flight.

In addition, a silent auction table was set up where things ranging from JetBlue Mint travel certificates to iPads, to Justin Timberlake concert tickets were being auctioned as part of the fundraising effort for the Parkland victims.

As the gate filled up with Stoneman Douglas students and teachers, relatives of the victims, JetBlue crewmembers, and everyone else being part of the distinctive flight, JetBlue’s Director of Airport Operations at Fort Lauderdale, Jason Annunziata, addressed the crowd a few minutes before boarding.

He remarked how hard it was to pull off a passenger-carrying flight at an airshow, but that “we do it because it’s the right thing for the community.”

Annunziata proudly introduced and thanked the key people who were able to make the flight possible and restated JetBlue’s commitment to the South Floridian community.

At 10:03 am, Annunziata introduced us to a young and excited boy named Cameron who took the microphone to announce that boarding was about to begin. He thanked us for flying JetBlue and wished us a pleasant flight.

I thought it was a nice detail, and something I sure would have loved to do when I was his age.

I got to board the flight a couple of minutes before everyone else. Onboard, I was greeted by three jolly FLL-based flight attendants, Bilelka, Rosalys, and Rita, who were visibly excited to be a part of this flight.

Distinctive gift bags containing a JetBlue Mint amenity kit and a ‘Parkland in our heart’ pin were found on every seat. Moments later, Captain Paul Hocking and First Officer Scott Morgan walked out from the cockpit and happily posed with the rest of the crew for a photo.

Welcome onboard

The cabin of ‘Bluemanity,’ delivered in November 2004, featured the bulky and comfortable older generation JetBlue seats with the rather outdated IFE system.

These seats, however, will not last much longer as the airline has just begun retrofitting their A320 fleet with new generation seats. These, although featuring USB ports and more modern IFE screens, also see their pitch being reduced from 34 to 32 inches, increasing the total number of seats from JetBlue’s traditional 150 to 162.

Within a few seconds, the first passengers began walking down the jetway and the cabin filled up quickly.

Before departing, Annunziata addressed us from the PA system to wish us a fun flight, followed by First Officer Morgan who commented on what being on this trip meant to him as a long-time resident of South Florida.

Bilelka welcomed us aboard flight 9400 ‘with service to Fort Lauderdale Air and Sea Show’ and made mention of our plane’s name, Bluemanity.

At 10:35 door 1L was closed, the jetway detached, and pushback began.

Captain Hocking took the opportunity to welcome us aboard as well and explained what the flight would be like:

We would take off and climb to 3,000ft heading north towards Fort Lauderdale Beach where we would then descend to 2,000ft and make a few low passes along the coast (so passengers on both sides of the plane could enjoy the view) with 75-degree turns on each end.

Additionally, he commented that they would do anything possible to fly us at 1,500ft, but that would be the lowest he could legally fly us. We would be flying for 30 minutes.

As everything on this flight was planned to the last detail, we were set to take off at 11:00 as part of the Air Show, which meant that we held at the end of FLL’s Runway 10L for about 10 minutes while we waited for the time to come.

Light, Powerful Takeoff

With no bags and not much fuel onboard, our A320 rocketed out of FLL, and we quickly reached our altitude of just 3,000ft before taking the first sharp turn and dropping to 2,000ft towards Fort Lauderdale Beach.

As I was seated on the right side of the aircraft, I did not get to see the coast up close until after the second sharp turn.

Despite the forecast the day before showing a significant chance of thunderstorms, it turned out to be a beautiful day to fly, and we got very lucky.

Flying over the rich-colored Florida coastline never fails to charm, and the thought of being part of the Air Show made it much more special.

I actually wonder how many people down at the beach unaware of the air show thought we were just another JetBlue plane making an odd flying pattern and not an actual show performance.

After the second pass, Captain Hocking gave us the good news that we had been authorized to fly at 1,500ft, so we retreated towards the ocean while we descended before heading back for the coast, this time getting much closer to the beach.

Like before, we did two low passes so people on both sides of the plane can enjoy the view.

Once we did the second low pass, it was time to fly back to the airport. We flew along the coast south of FLL before turning towards the land. As we approached FLL, Captain Hocking mentioned that we could see Parkland from the left side of the plane, which made everyone onboard excited.

At 11:32, 30 minutes after departing FLL, we touched down on Runway 10R.

The Flight attendants made the landing announcement with funny remarks along the lines of “we know you have a lot of luggage with you, so be careful while retrieving it from the overhead compartments” and such, which prompted a few laughs across the cabin.

As we taxied back to Gate F1, we were greeted by a water cannon salute from the Broward County Aviation Department (BCAD), which was a first for me as I never got to experience a water cannon from the inside and a nice touch to end this special flight.