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Ben Berman's Return to Flight

Berman waited 3 1/2 years to return to the controls of a Continental Airlines 737.
Charlie Mayer, NPR
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Berman waited 3 1/2 years to return to the controls of a Continental Airlines 737.

Imagine losing the job you always wanted. That happened to Ben Berman. He was among the thousands of pilots laid off by the airlines after Sept. 11, 2001.

The Air Line Pilots Association estimates 11,000 of its members lost their jobs. Of that number, only 3,000 have since returned to work. Until he was laid off, Ben Berman was a first officer, flying a Boeing 737 out of Newark for Continental Airlines.

During 3 1/2 years of waiting to return to the cockpit, he found a research job with NASA and kept up his piloting skills as a flight instructor in small airplanes.

But he dreamed of going back to the airlines. "You have got to love this job to do it, especially to keep doing it," he says. Since airline deregulation in 1978, pilot salaries haven't kept up with inflation. "And a couple of hundred nights a year away from home is hard on families, so much so that my family dreaded the idea that I could be recalled. But I still wanted to go back to flying more than anything."

In his first-person account, Berman describes how, against the odds, he managed to find his way back behind the controls of a 737 at Continental.

 *  *  *

Grounded

Shortly after Sept. 11, 2001, Berman wrote the following essay about his experiences as an airline pilot in the days following the terrorist attacks against America.

I am an airline pilot, or at least I was one, until I lost my place in the cockpit as a result of September 11. As a pilot with very low seniority at my airline, I could predict being furloughed as a result of the attacks. But I still had the job and a duty to fly on the following Friday, September 14, the day that the airlines restarted themselves after a three-day nationwide shutdown. I drove up the coast road into New Jersey and when I walked into the terminal at Newark Airport it seemed strangely normal, as long as you kept yourself from looking out the windows at the smoking skyline of New York City. Security was unchanged that first day, by all appearances: the same badly uniformed guards were snoozing at their tables in the corridors, the baggage was moving through the x-ray machines at the same fast rate, and the soldiers toting M-16s had not arrived yet.

Crew scheduling called to assign me to Flight 1281, the 2:40 p.m. nonstop to Seattle, already running late. I walked down to Gate 93 and found my Boeing 737 fully loaded with passengers. Stepping aboard, I looked to the right down the long cabin and saw 150 pairs of anxious eyes sizing me up. Just who was I? -- and from my point of view, just who were they?

Pilots have a strong feeling that they can handle just about any situation, minimize the risks of what they can't control, and safely ignore -- or maybe deny -- the remaining risks because they are so small. Despite what had happened on the 11th, the risk of another attack did not feel very great to me. So I was not worrying about an attack on our flight, but I was going to be extra careful, as a pilot should be. I was ready to go, and the captain was ready, and certainly the passengers who had been trapped at the airport were more than ready. But there were no flight attendants for our airplane. Like many of the pilots, the flight attendants had been scattered all over the airline's system by the shutdown and were unable to move to their assignments. And there was a rumor going around the terminal that the attendants were afraid to come out and fly so soon after the attacks. Pilots and passengers hung around on our airplane for hours, and the schedulers gradually found us one, two, then the required four attendants. The sun was setting by the time the scrambled-up system got us a complete crew and we pushed back from the gate. With the flight underway, though, and passing through the night and across the country and separated from the earth, I felt soothed by the pilot's notion of safety -- routinely operating a well functioning jet in excellent flying conditions. In hindsight, that is the same conception of safety that I now know was so powerfully violated for the in-flight victims of September 11.

By the next morning, in Seattle, the security apparatus had woken up. Police were stopping and searching all the cars entering the airport, so our crew was late to report for the flight back to Newark. The airport was choked with stranded folks in lines that doubled back on themselves and spilled out the door. I crossed through several of the frozen lines of people with an embarrassed "excuse me," glad I was not stuck in a city far from home and hoping that I could help move a few of these folks along. They checked me out and let me through.

In the ramp office underneath the terminal, the ramp agents told me they had heard that our airline's top managers would be making a big announcement in just a little less than an hour. I was sad that we could not wait around on the ground to hear what I predicted would be bad news about my job. A couple of hours later, cruising at 41,000 feet over the flat farmland in the middle of the country, a datalink message from our flight dispatcher came off the cockpit printer. The company was shrinking 20 percent, immediately. A quarter of the dispatchers were being laid off. The fellow writing me the message had been laid off. When we landed at Newark, I learned that I, too, would be laid off, in two weeks.

For those two weeks, though, I continued to fly, and in a very fragmented way as the system tried to rebuild itself. I would deadhead somewhere in a passenger seat to fly a single flight back to Newark. Fly with a different captain and flight attendant group on almost every trip. We released a planeload of vacation hostages from extended captivity in Cancun, giving them a splendid tour of the beach as we departed. Then we flew a nearly empty flight to Columbus, not accomplishing much of anything for anybody. One morning I lifted the airplane off just after dawn in Newark and saw the smoke from Ground Zero spreading out under a low-altitude temperature inversion, making a solid cap of gray that imprisoned the Statue of Liberty. Before and during every flight I was happy, and, toward the end of my last two weeks in the cockpit, after every flight I was nearly in tears.

During these last weeks, I also took part in the system's first security responses to the attacks -- some of the significant changes came right away, but mostly after I was gone. We were lucky enough to have a burly flight attendant on one trip and asked him to stand in front of the cockpit door when he was not busy doing his normal work. We unsheathed the cockpit crash axe on some flights and kept it at hand, despite the danger of the axe bouncing around in turbulence and hitting us. One captain placed two open ballpoint pens on the center console, to jab at anyone coming through the cockpit door. One for him, one for me.

Then on September 27, I flew my last flight, to Raleigh-Durham and back, through a sky that was as clear and blue as on September 11. Usually we swap the duty of flying the airplane, but on this day the captain let me fly both to and from Raleigh. Back in Newark, we shut down the engines at the gate and I trudged up the jetway, dragging my flight bag of company navigation charts and airline manuals. I was grounded indefinitely, so the bag felt much heavier than usual. The chief pilot gave me an exit interview the next day. He took my charts and manuals, and when he escorted me out of the terminal, the flight bag that I wheeled behind me was much too light.

© 2002 by Benjamin A. Berman. Used with permission.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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