by GILBERT ‘BUD’ SCHILL
One of my favorite airline pilots ever was the guy who flew the commuter leg from Roanoke to Richmond one afternoon in the late 1980’s. Just like the fellow who conveyed Arthur Ashe and me from Richmond to LaGuardia a year or so later (Yall.com/March 6, 2020), this pilot had both a penchant for honesty and a way with words.
I had to be in Roanoke for a few hours on business and didn’t have time to drive there from my home in Richmond, so I bought a two-way ticket on a two-engine prop plane – probably about a 20-seater. We arrived in Roanoke on time. I went to my meeting and took a cab back to the airport for a 4 p.m. flight, scheduled to land in Richmond by about 4:45.
I got to the airport a little after 3 p.m. and was the first prospective passenger to populate the waiting room for the flight to Richmond. The room was approximately the size of three confessionals. Seemingly in charge was a pretty, red-headed, ponytailed female who appeared to be about seventeen (but was probably a young-looking twenty-one). Anyway, she sounded like a fifteen-year-old and made about as much sense. Assuming command of the situation, she informed us, matter-of-factly, “There’s been a slight delay. I’ll have more news in fifteen minutes.” And off she skipped – ponytail bobbing.
We shrugged off this minor delay and waited patiently. As promised, the attendant returned in fifteen minutes, at which time she announced, with a slight sign of frustration, “There’s a problem of some kind. I don’t know what it is, but I’ll find out and let y’all know in fifteen minutes.”
By the time she returned, we should have already been boarding. But she then told us, twisting her ponytail over her shoulder, “I have bad news. Your plane isn’t in Roanoke. It’s in Richmond. I’m sure it will be here soon. I’ll give you an update in fifteen minutes.” Without inviting questions, she trotted off.
Upon her return fifteen minutes later, she announced, “Not only is your aircraft still in Richmond, but it’s got mechanical problems and can’t get here, so we’re going to try to make other arrangements. I’ll be back in fifteen minutes.” Knowing she was delivering unwelcome news, she appeared glum.
Fifteen minutes later: “Good news. We found another plane in Richmond that can come down here and get you. Stand by for an update in fifteen minutes.” Now she was beaming with pride, as though she had found the substitute plane herself.
With each of these announcements, we lost another couple of passengers, as they started renting cars.
Fifteen minutes later: “Good news, your plane is about to land. The turnaround here will be short, and the plane will be ready to depart for Richmond within about fifteen minutes of landing.” There was light applause. She seemed pleased with the reaction to her announcement and took a slight bow.
Fifteen minutes later: “The good news is that your plane has landed. The bad news is that it landed in Lynchburg by mistake. So, they’re flying it over here from Lynchburg. It ought to be here in about fifteen minutes.” Heads started to droop. She appeared to be tying her ponytail in a knot and blew out her cheeks in frustration. Emojis had not yet been invented, but you can imagine which ones she would have chosen here if delivering this message in a text.
Then we saw two small planes land about ten seconds apart. The gate lass announced: “Double good news. Not only did your plane just land, but another did also. It flew here by mistake. So, we have two. They’re gassing up yours, and it’ll be ready in fifteen minutes to take you to, uh, wherever you’re going.” Loud applause by the ten or so prospective passengers who had not bolted. Double smiling emoji by our gate guardian.
In the waiting room were a couple and their two cute kids – a boy about eight and a girl about five, carrying a stuffed bunny. Both kids were toe-heads with soft blond hair. Perhaps future models. Both seemed to be initially excited about their impending plane ride, although that enthusiasm waned as the hours drew on.
About fifteen minutes after the “double good news,” one of the planes pulled up near the gate, and our frazzled agent told us we could all board, which we did. The waiting room had a door leading directly outside. There was no covered ramp. Just tarmac and a waiting plane. The passengers climbed up and piled in.
The plane was so small that it didn’t have a cockpit door – just a curtain separating the two pilots from the passengers. There was no flight attendant. The engine started, the plane proceeded down the runway and picked up speed, and the front wheel went up about three feet. But before the rear wheels left the tarmac, and from the other side of the curtain, we heard, “Shit!” The front wheel slapped down.
Through the crack in the curtains, we could see the pilot shaking a raised fist. The plane quickly turned around and taxied back toward the terminal with all the passengers grumbling and wondering. During that short segment of the trip, the pilot confided in us that the reason we were returning to the gate was that “Some moron back there gassed up the wrong plane, and we were about to take off on empty.”
The little boy was sitting next to his father and seemed distracted by a game he was playing. In contrast, and even though by now it was approaching her bedtime, his little sister seemed to be paying careful attention to the drama, listening to how the adult passengers were phrasing their displeasure to each other and to themselves. She was taking it all in.
When we got off the plane, muttering all manner of epithets, we were on our own for another fifteen minutes. No one else in sight. We let ourselves back into the indoor staging area, as our daffy hostess had floated off, probably to apply for a less stressful job as an air traffic controller. We may be the only set of commercial airline passengers in history to have opened the gate area from the tarmac and let themselves back into the airport.
Anyway, our pilot returned with an embarrassed look and a refreshed plane, herded us aboard, and flew us to Richmond without incident. But by the time we got there, I could have ridden a bike to Ottawa and back. As we were de-boarding in Richmond, the passengers all thanked the pilot for getting us safely to our destination.
To exit the plane, we had to descend about twelve narrow stairs to the tarmac – in the dark. I offered to let the family of four go ahead of me, but the father waived me on and said they would be slow. I was right in front of the little girl and kept looking back to be sure she was ok. Because I was always a step or two below her, her face was right next to my ear. About half-way down, I heard the father remark to his wife, “I like that pilot.” If the wife answered, I didn’t get what she said, but I clearly heard the sweet young daughter mutter, perhaps to herself, while clutching her bunny, “Ok, but the gas guy’s a freekin’ moron.”
Bud Schill is the author of five stories that have been published at Yall.com: “Thank You for Saving My Mother’s Life,” “Munny Talks,” “Bet Y’all Wonderin’ Why I Just Done That,” “I Want Her To Have This,” and “‘I Hate It When My Pilot Says ‘S–T!'” A graduate of the University of Virginia School of Law, he has practiced law in Richmond, Virginia, since 1971, representing colleges and universities throughout the South, as well as teaching at Washington & Lee University School of Law. He has served as an editor of several historical publications and has co-authored a humorous and nostalgic collection of boyhood memories, Not Exactly Rocket Scientists and Other Stories. In the queue for publication is a follow-up book of similar stories, entitled Not Exactly Rocket Scientists II: The Totally Unnecessary Sequel. One of the co-authors of both books is another Y’all contributor, John W. MacIlroy.