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MOMENTS, MEMORIES and MADNESS with STEVE CAMERON: Those times when the friendly skies weren't so friendly

| August 30, 2020 1:13 AM

One of my close mates married a flight attendant.

Maybe a year or so after the happy occasion, I happened to be chatting with the young lady, and said: “I wouldn’t want some rude passenger spilling a Bloody Mary all over my clothes — but I guess the perks of the job make up for it.

“Flying to Paris for about the price of a Diet Coke, that’s exciting stuff.”

I expected her to laugh and admit that, yeah, getting a chance to see the world for almost nothing does make up for a few unpleasant or clumsy characters along the way.

Instead, she replied: “Honestly, it’s getting tougher. Each flight seems more stressful than the last one.”


“Well, with all the rules and regulations in place these days,” I said, “I suppose…”

She cut me off.

“It’s not that,” she said. “I’m just getting more and more scared to fly.”


Now that feel for things was totally unexpected.

She’d been a flight attendant for nearly a couple of decades.

More than the average flier, she knew the amazing safety rates for commercial jets.

I said: “Are you talking about fear of an actual crash? They’re so rare.”

She answered that, sure, she knew all the numbers, and the fact that flying on a commercial aircraft was, by quite some distance, safer than making the same trip by car.

She even smiled and conceded that spending a few hours at 36,000 feet, in the hands of rigorously trained professionals, was probably safer than lounging around for the same amount of time in your living room.

But, despite all the statistics, the lady insisted that she was beginning to think the odds were stacking up against her.

She mentioned that there were far more scary events, and near-misses, up there in the friendly skies than the general public would ever know.

Look, I haven’t flown all the miles of a crew member, but I’ve been up the clouds for more hours and days than I care to count.

Spending decades as a sports reporter, and then as an opinion columnist, well…

THAT’S going to put you on an awful lot of flights.

I even have a unique theory about long-distance travel.

Four hours is a long, boring time on a plane (although I’m good at getting lost in a novel), but on the other hand…

Once you hit that four-hour milestone, flying on and on and on past it just makes you numb — so it’s not really any more difficult.

In other words, four hours on a flight to New York is inconvenient, especially if (like me) you happen to have back problems.

But once you hit that four-hour mark, the rest is just hours and hours of being brain-dead.

So, yes, that 16-hour slog from Houston to see a magazine editor in Doha (Qatar) was really no tougher than flying to New York.

At least that’s what I tell myself.

Right, so back to my conversation with my pal, the flight attendant.

“I’m sure,” she said, “that there have been times in the air when you HAVE been scared.”

Sure, I said.

Thunderstorms, flights so bumpy that your stomach is on an endless Disney ride, yada, yada.

“No, I mean when you were really and truly terrified,” she said. “Times when maybe you swear you’ll never fly again — because you’re so helpless.”

SURE, I went through a few experiences like that in the Air Force.

One time, we were flying home from a softball tournament — of all things — and the flight deck of our old C-47 caught fire.

We didn’t know about it until we’d landed, for which I was extremely grateful.

“That’s not what I meant,” said my friend. “When were you really, really scared while you were still in the air.

“And not just throwing-up scared. I mean wondering if you’re going to live or die – because those things happen to us more than you can imagine, and I’m getting more scared every trip — rather than LESS scared.

“So, what event made you pray like, you know, like you thought you could die?”


That one was easy.

The most frightening, and yet the time when I laughed the hardest.



IT WAS about a bomb.

But how could I laugh, while we were still in the air and had reason to believe there could be a bomb aboard?

Well, because the situation suddenly reminded me of another flight, a Kansas City Chiefs charter on the short hop home from St. Louis.

That aircraft HAD hit the mother of all thunderstorms, and we were bouncing around the sky like a well-thrown knuckleball.

When the up-and-down, side-to-side was at its worst, I felt a tap on my arm from Bob Sprenger, the Chiefs’ public relations director.

“You know what the worst part will be if we crash?” Sprenger said, waving his arm to indicate an entire NFL team trapped on the flight with us.

“You and I will be listed in the newspaper, under a small headline on page C20, and it will say…

“ ‘Others Killed.’ ”

Despite the circumstances, that was one of the funniest lines I’d ever heard — even if it was a bit of an insider joke that was best appreciated by a journalist.

SO, BACK to the bomb.

This was another charter flight, a red-eye special carrying the Kansas City Royals home from Oakland.

I happened to be sitting next to Whitey Herzog, who’d only gotten the Royals’ manager job at midseason — when about half the team was ready to stage a coup against Jack McKeon.

The Royals had plenty of talent, and they immediately started playing better after the change, but they were chasing a terrific Oakland club that was aiming at its third straight World Series title.

In fact, the flight in question was the wrap-up to a night that had seen the A’s complete a three-game sweep, basically ending the race in the AL West.

Mac McKenzie, the airline rep who handled all the Royals charters, appeared in the aisle and leaned over to talk quietly with Herzog.

“We’ve had a call that there’s a bomb on the plane,” Mac said, as though he were discussing a ham sandwich.

“It’s a strict policy that we land and search the plane, so we’re going into Salt Lake City.

“These things do happen, but we’re a little nervous about this one because the caller knew the flight number, and almost NOBODY knows the numbers for charters.

“We’re scared of this. We’ve got to get on the ground.”

MOST OF the players hadn’t heard what Mac told Whitey, and the pilot made an announcement about a “possible problem that needs to be checked.”

The tip-off, though, could have been our meals — which had just been served, but now were being scooped up in world-record time.

Also, the plane seemed to be going straight down.

We made a steep, banked left turn to approach Salt Lake City, and out of the left-side windows, you could see approximately every emergency vehicle in Utah — and maybe some from adjoining states.

Once I saw all those spinning red lights, one end of the runway to the other, it finally got to me.

And by this time, the pilot had “revised” his message and told everyone the truth.

I was scared.

Really, actually scared.

But of course, with baseball players…

“Reggie Jackson has something to do with this,” came a voice from the back. “Three games weren’t enough damage for those guys.

“Maybe they’re worried about next year.”

JUST AS we rolled to a stop – about a half-mile or so from the main terminal at Salt Lake — the pilot instructed us to leave everything on the plane and get out as quickly as possible.

“We’ll be right behind you,” he added.

You’ve never seen athletes move like that.

Usain Bolt would have had to hustle, just to keep up.

We were herded to an old hangar in the middle of nowhere, and our luggage was brought in with us — which I thought was a strange tactic, since if a device of some sort had been slipped into a suitcase…

Still, these were ballplayers.

When sniffing dogs were brought in and a handler proudly announced that these Utah canines had just finished second in a national competition, pitcher Al Fitzmorris hollered: “SECOND? My God, what did they miss in the finals?”

Eventually, the plane was deemed to be safe — but nobody really felt comfortable on the second leg of the trip.

As we lurched to a stop at the gate in Kansas City (around 9 a.m.), Mac grabbed a microphone and said: “Anyone need clean underwear? The airline won’t charge you!”

Oh, and the grand finale…

A tire blew out on the bus lugging everyone from the airport back to Kauffman Stadium.

See, flying really IS safer.


Steve Cameron’s “Cheap Seats” columns appear in The Press on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. “Moments, Memories and Madness,” his reminiscences from several decades as a sports journalist, runs each Sunday.

Steve also writes Zags Tracker, a commentary on Gonzaga basketball, once per month during the offseason.