Excerpt from NYCAviation is written by Eric “Cap’n Aux” Auxier, who is an airline pilot by day, writer by night, and kid by choice. An A320 captain for a major U.S. airline, he is also a freelance writer, novelist, and blogger (capnaux.com).
I recently experienced one of the greatest and most heart-rending honors a modern airline pilot can have: Captaining a flight that is transporting a fallen soldier to his final resting place.
Escorting the hero was a military honor guard consisting of two of the soldier’s comrades, and two young Marines. Also onboard were the man’s father and a lovely, devastated young woman -girlfriend? Wife? Sister? I never found out. I never learned the soldier’s name, either. Or his rank. Or how or where he died.
But it didn’t matter. Because, like the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, he was ours. He was us.
Coming on the heels, as it was, of the Aurora movie theatre tragedy, this flight was particularly poignant for all passengers and crew as well.
As soon as our preflight duties were finished, I ordered the gate agents to allow the party onboard. They were escorted down to the ramp, where they presided over a short ceremony as the casket was loaded into the forward cargo hold. Simple, precise, and crisp, the military detail saluted the casket then made a sharp about face to march away, reminding me of the Missing Man Formation often flown by jet fighters.
For six hours as we crossed the country, I contemplated my speech. As Captain of the flight, I was expected to say a few words upon arrival. At Top of Descent, I took a deep breath and keyed the PA:
“Ladies and Gentlemen, this is your Captain speaking. I’d like you to pay special attention to this announcement. (pause) Today we have the great, great honor of escorting one of our fallen soldiers to his final resting place.
Continue reading Memorial Day: Flying a Fallen Hero on NYCAviation.com
iPhone photo I was able to take of an Alaska Airlines Boeing 737 and the fallen soldier baggage cart at the airline's maintenance facility in Seattle during a special Veteran's event in November 2011.
Today is Memorial Day, where hopefully most people are able to at least take a moment and think about those who have given the ultimate sacrifice serving our country. It is a day where it shouldn’t matter if you support war or even what political party you vote for. It should be a day where we remember those men and women who have been killed while serving in the armed forces.
When a solider dies while serving, it is a delicate process to bring their body back home. There are special military protocols that airlines must follow when transporting the remains of a fallen solider, but some airlines don’t want to do the bare minimum. Each body must have a volunteer escort that follows the fallen solider from the mortuary to their final resting place.
About a year ago, Alaska Airlines technicians realized that the process of transporting a fallen solider was lacking and they looked to improve it.
“We noticed a lot of violations of military protocols due to a lack of awareness and training,” said Brian Bowden, an Alaska Airlines line aircraft technician. “Our goal is to show respect by ensuring the proper standards are followed.”
Bowden and 13 other technicians created a new “Fallen Solider” program to, “seamlessly transfer the remains of soldiers killed in action through Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.” Part of that program was creating a special baggage cart that would only be used to transport fallen soldiers. The cart was refurbished with carpet and has a retractable American flag curtain with plaques representing the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines.
The program gives details on how to properly load and unload a soldier’s remains, as well as taking care of the escort or families. “These brave men and women sacrificed their lives for you and me,” line aircraft technician Tony Sander stated. “Often, their families are traveling alongside the fallen soldier. Mishandlings are embarrassing and unacceptable.”
Escorts will fly in the main cabin, while the fallen soldier will fly in the cargo hold. During layovers, escorts need to stay with the fallen soldier at all times and that can be challenging. Alaska has gone out of their way to provide escorts or others travelling with the remains, a working station at the airline’s maintenance facility. Airline crew will also make sure that the escort is well fed during any down time and cater to any of their other needs.
Many of the technicians who worked on the program are veterans themselves and take great pride in taking care of their own. “The technicians wanted ownership. The group has many passionate ex-military members who re-designed the process completely on their own time,” said Paul Taylor, director of line maintenance. “They took decisive action and lived up to their word.”
The program has been so successful that it has spread beyond Seattle and to other airports. “This process needs to reach all the airports we serve. Training at our other sites would spread a deeper respect for all the fallen soldiers of our armed forces,” technician Bowden said.
An Alaska Airlines Boeing 737 coming in for a landing. Photo by Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren.
A big cheers to Alaska Airlines and the technicians who took the initiative to do the right thing.
On top of the Fallen Soldiers program, Alaska has a 100 person Employee Military Resource Group whose sole focus is to hire, retain and promote military employees.
Alaska has also recently started a new apprentice program, aimed directly at military experience and the transition to civilian/corporate work. Alaska proudly employees veterans who work in all capacities from maintenance to flying to the executive offices.