On June 22, 2019, and with much fanfare, the City of Richmond, Virginia, renamed one of its main thoroughfares the “Arthur Ashe Boulevard.” Earlier, and after naming a stadium for him, the City had placed a large statue of this favorite son on its Monument Avenue. Having grown up in what had been segregated Richmond, and after a stellar college tennis career at UCLA, Mr. Ashe went on to become the first African-American ever to win at Wimbledon, won three tennis Grand Slam titles, and was undoubtedly one of the most recognized sports figures in the world. He was also a humanitarian and a perfect gentleman. I had the privilege of attending several presentations he made during the 1970s and 1980s to Richmond citizens promoting one cause or another.
One day in the late 1980s, he and I came within about two seconds of dying together.
My favorite airline of all time was the old Piedmont Airlines, headquartered in the great town of Winston-Salem, N.C. Eventually, Piedmont (now operating out of Maryland) morphed into becoming part of the American Airlines enterprise. But what made Piedmont my favorite airline in the 1980s was that, in my view, its personnel, including its pilots, were unfailingly courteous and always seemed to tell the truth.
I had to fly from Richmond to New York City to participate in a court hearing. I boarded what was one of the last of the old Piedmont jet flights ever from Richmond to LaGuardia. I noticed Arthur Ashe at the gate as we were boarding. There was no first class. He took a seat in the first or second row, and mine was directly behind him.
I had been up close to other famous people before and had purposely tried not to bother them, so I didn’t say anything to Mr. Ashe except “Good morning,” to which he replied in kind.
As the boarding was completed, but before all the announcements and safety instructions, and while I was studying the notebook in my lap with all my court papers, the pilot emerged from the cockpit and introduced himself to Arthur Ashe. One of the crew must have clued the pilot in that the tennis great was on the plane.
From his slow drawl, I could tell the pilot was a North Carolina boy. He leaned in to his famous guest, welcomed him aboard, and with a big smile and in a very polite, low and sincere voice, told him how much he admired him and how happy he was to have him on the flight. Mr. Ashe thanked the pilot, the two shook hands, and the pilot returned to the cockpit.
A few minutes later, we were airborne. Using the intercom, the pilot welcomed everyone aboard without even mentioning the tennis star, who by that time had put his head back to relax. I started making notes for my hearing.
After reaching our cruising altitude, and probably close to D.C., suddenly the plane dropped out of the sky. I had been in air pockets before, including severe ones, and this wasn’t one of those. We didn’t just fall. We nosedived at what seemed like at least a 45 degree angle.
Everyone was shocked. A flight attendant went sailing. Anything passengers had in their laps was floating around weightless as though we were in the Space Shuttle. Fortunately, this was before iPads and cell phones, so no one got hit with any of those. The guy across the aisle from me did get conked by my notebook, though he was ok. My pen flew about three rows back. There were several floating baseball caps. Ponytails and pigtails were aimed at the ceiling but on an angle replicating that of the aircraft’s trajectory. Unfortunately, the flight attendants had just served soft drinks and snacks, most of which landed on the heads of passengers.
Then, as suddenly as we had fallen, the plane leveled off. That’s when the pilot came on the air – calm, smooth and slow-talking as if serving tea:
“Bet y’all wondrin’ why I just done that.”
Passengers were wiping Coke out of their eyeballs, noses and eardrums and removing peanuts from their hair and shirt pockets. Not awaiting an answer from the dozens of passengers with their mouths open and eyes popping out, the pilot continued:
“Y’see, had I not done that, our plane and this here other plane, we would’ve been in the same place. And I figured y’all’d rather be down here than up there.”
At which time the North Carolina boy got a round of applause, including from both me and the famous gentleman in front of me.
Gilbert E. Schill, Jr.
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See more by “Bud” Schill and his partner in crime, Mac MacIlroy in their book ” Not Exactly Rocket Scientists and Other Stories”.