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Wing and a prayer: Harrowing memories are found up in the air


I remember the first time I stood next to a jetliner. It was in March of 1970, and I was a hopeful baseball player trying to win a job in the Phillies organization. I was on my way from Philadelphia to spring training at Clearwater, Fla. As I approached the plane, I took one look and was amazed that such a big thing could stay up in the air. It did, thank God, and I’m happy to say that, throughout the years, every other one I’ve been on has done the same. Of course, I attribute this fact to the skills of the pilots, in addition to the rosary I say before each flight! To me, it’s very interesting to see how people react to being passengers on a vehicle that’s defying gravity thousands of feet in the air. It seems we all have stories to tell of our flying experiences.

When I worked as Temple University’s Business Manager of Athletics, it was my job to arrange for every aspect of the various teams’ travel. Of all the sports, football was the greatest challenge because of the number of passengers involved. Among other things, my duties included arranging hotel accommodations, meals, transportation to and from airports, police escorts, transportation for all of the equipment, and, of course, booking the flights themselves. The traveling party typically would number between 75 and 90 players, coaches, administrators, and alumni. It was during this time of my life that I experienced some rather interesting trips into the wild, blue yonder.

In October of 1972, we traveled to Logan Airport in Boston in order to take on Boston University. I chartered a United Airlines Caravelle jet that had a seating capacity of about 90. That evening, after the game, we boarded the plane in a rainstorm for the flight home that was expected to last about an hour. As we took off, the storm got worse, and lightning flashed all around. The small jet was being tossed and shaken, and everybody on the plane was very quiet. I was sitting next to our travel representative from United, and he looked worse than I felt. The plane continued to bounce all around and, when I saw the flight attendants sit down and strap themselves in, I couldn’t help but notice the concern on their faces. By then, some of the players were getting sick, and you could hear various prayers filling the cabin. When we arrived in the Philly area roughly two hours later, we circled around for about 30 minutes, waiting for clearance to land. Our little jet was still being tossed around right up until the time our wonderful pilot landed the plane on the runway. After more than a few “Thank you, Lords,” we all broke out into immediate applause, and many of the pale faces regained their blood supply. Our 280-pound lineman hugged the pilot as he exited the cockpit. My agent, who had flown almost a million miles in his career, told me it was one of his top five scary flights. My girlfriend at the time was there to pick me up, as we were set to attend a party. I’m not a drinker, but I had a couple that night in an effort to calm down.

In October of 1971, we traveled to Morgantown to play the University of West Virginia. My agent told me we would take a Boeing 727 into Morgantown and depart on a Boeing 737. As we arrived at our destination in a mountainous area, the plane circled around as it prepared for landing. Looking out of the window, I admired the beautiful mountain foliage that surrounded us as we descended. It seemed as if we were in the bottom of a bowl, not able to see the sky above. It was very strange. Suddenly, I felt a bump. I was amazed to find out
that we had landed. I then learned that the airport was actually hewn from the top of a lower mountain peak, and the foliage I was observing was that of the higher, surrounding mountains. Before the trip home, I asked the agent why we were taking a different plane, the 737, for the return flight. He calmly said, “We need some extra power to make sure we get over the mountains when we take off.”

OK, that made me feel better!

These episodes aside, one that I’ll never forget occurred over the Thanksgiving holiday in 1972. My travel agent gave me the opportunity to accompany him and a group on a five-day junket to London, England, from Wednesday through Sunday. What made this irresistible was the fact that, to thank me for my business, he would allow me and a friend to take the trip at their cost. So I’d be able to take my first international trip for a total of $171, period! This included hotel accommodations, meals, flights, tips, the whole shebang.

The eight-hour night flight to Heathrow Airport, aboard the DC-10, was a bit tedious, but we were able to kill three hours of it by playing chess. After a nice visit, seeing all of the typical touristy sites, like Piccadilly Circus, the Tower of London, Big Ben, and he Changing of the Guard, we headed to the airport for the trip home. As was the case on the incoming flight, the plane was scheduled to briefly stop at New York on the way. About two hours into the flight, while watching a movie and listening through my earphones, I heard a distinct thumping noise. I had flown many times and yet had never heard such a sound. When we arrived in New York, we were told we would have a two-hour layover so they could “clean” the plane. This seemed strange to me since we only had a short flight to Philly. Who cares if the plane gets cleaned at 2 a.m.? Plus, how long does it take to clean a plane? Two hours? As we boarded the plane, I observed that it was spotless. There were no cups, magazines, or other things thrown around, and as I sat down I noticed that all of the earphones were gone.

When I returned to work, I called the agent to thank him for his graciousness and mentioned that we had a wonderful trip. Then I asked him about the strange decision to clean the plane at that time. I heard a stifled laugh. “What’s up?” I asked. He then told me that, about two hours into the flight, the plane had lost one of its three engines over the ocean. The plane we took home from New York was a DC-10, all right, but was actually a different plane. Hence, no earphones and, yes, very clean.

Thump, indeed!

I thanked the agent again, this time for not telling me what happened during the flight. I hung up and looked forward to the Thanksgiving turkey with sharp provolone sandwich Mom had made me for lunch.

Up, up, and away!

Charlie Sacchetti

Charlie Sacchetti is the author of three books, “It’s All Good: Times and Events I’d Never Want to Change;” “Knowing He’s There: True Stories of God’s Subtle Yet Unmistakable Touch,” and his newest, “Savoring the Moments: True Stories of Happiness, Sadness and Everything in Between.” Contact him at worthwhilewords21@gmail.com.

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