Saturday, March 28, 2015

How a Greek Pilot Handles Crisis

I don’t know what led me to stumble upon this little (unpublished) piece I’d written for The New York Times more than a half-dozen years ago, but yesterday morning I came across it searching for something to write about. My juices weren’t flowing and I just tossed “Greek” and “Greece” into “search” and there it was.  It was the word “pilot” in the title that caught my eye—no doubt because of the horror of Germanwings Flight 9525 front and center in everyone’s mind at the moment.  God rest their innocent souls. 

So, I read the piece more with a self-critical eye on how much my writing had (hopefully) improved than for substance, when it hit me that much more than the writing had changed. It actually meant something far different from when I’d written it.  It no longer was about pilots or planes, but about how Greeks survive today, and everyday, amid a crippling financial crisis with no end in sight.  A situation not in play when I’d written the piece.

Here, see for yourself what I mean:

I’ve spent over [thirty] years traveling between NYC and Mykonos.  Now I live half the year there writing books exploring the Greek way of life through the genre of the murder mystery. 

One would think a non-Greek writing about a killer on a tourist island paradise might galvanize partisan locals toward hanging him from a lamppost in the harbor, but instead, they take pride in saying, “Only a Mykonian could have written Murder in Mykonos!”  I think that’s because we’ve shared so many unique experiences: ones that reveal the essence of a people’s character.   One in particular stands out.  It involved a plane, a pilot, and prayer.

It was back in the days of narrow-seat, turbo-prop planes, and wide-open cockpit doors that allowed pilots to spread their cigarette smoke around.

That morning flight out of Athens to Mykonos started out much the same as every other.  Beige-to-brown, round-hilled Aegean islands rolling out beneath us against a lapis-colored sea. 

Mykonos is called the Island of the Winds, so a choppy approach wasn’t unusual.  The man next to me said “Don’t worry,” he took that flight all the time, and “Greek pilots are the best.”  I sensed he was speaking more to calm himself than me.  

As we approached the airport, it went from choppy to shaky, then to choppy AND shaky.  By the time we were over the runway it was all rock and roll. 

I was in a left-side window seat staring directly at the wing when the plane tumbled 90 degrees to the left and the wingtip was about to touch the runway.  I added my prayers to everyone else’s.  I knew this was it.

But the pilot had other plans.  I don’t know how he did it, but he wrenched the plane under control and flew straight back to Athens.  The passengers said not a word, just listened through the open cockpit door to the pilot screaming into his radio. My seatmate translated:  the tower had told him it was safe to land and he was critiquing their advice and offering opinions on their parentage.

When we landed, the pilot stormed off ahead of the passengers and resumed his screaming, embellished by some universally recognized hand gestures, at a man trying to coax him into the terminal.  

My former seatmate, said, “I think I’ll take the ferry from now on.”

I asked, “Why?  You said it before, ‘Greek pilots are the best.’”  He shrugged and left, I assumed to catch a boat. 

In some cowboy spirit of immediately getting back on the horse that threw you, I boarded the next plane for Mykonos.  But I was a lawyer (then) not a cowboy—never even rode a horse.  What was I thinking?  Then onto the plane walked that same pilot—smoking, smiling, and once again at peace with the world. 

He’d dealt with a crisis openly and aggressively, now he’d moved on.  I got his point: life is too short to do it any other way.

I smiled.  All was back to normal.


Bottom line for today: There are those who flee risk and those who tackle it head on. Only time will tell who’s made the better choice, but the outcome in large measure will ultimately depend upon the Tower making wiser judgments.



  1. Great blog, Jeff. I remember flying when you were allowed to go up to the cockpit mid-flight and chat to the pilots. It seems hardly believable now.

    Sadly, I think Andreas Lubitz's name will be remembered long after that of Capt Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger is forgotten

  2. Hard to imagine is right, Zoë. Harder still to believe there is an entire generation out there who doesn't know what it was like to live in pre-9/11 times!

  3. Great column, Jeff! Yes, each generation loses the 'sense' of the generations before and what life was like for them. That's one of the reasons I like watching old movies and reading historical novels and such. Life in my youth was SO much simpler (not easier, just simpler), and the lives of my parents were even simpler yet. And so it goes...

    I guess it's the price we pay for increased population and advanced technology. :-(

    1. Thanks, EvKa. I actually do remember the days when no one locked their doors, and kids would take off in the morning to play with their friends and never be heard from again until sunset. I bet there are still places like that...but likely due only to mobile phones.

    2. Thanks, EvKa. I actually do remember the days when no one locked their doors, and kids would take off in the morning to play with their friends and never be heard from again until sunset. I bet there are still places like that...but likely due only to mobile phones.

    3. I remember letting the kids out in the AM and then feeding them, only to watch them go out again after lunch and a nap. They would be back for dinner. This was in Pennsylvania, North of Philly. Zoe, "Sully" Sullenberger is now an aviation expert on TV, and they show video of his "miracle on the Hudson," every timeFor me me, the tragedy is that the doctors or hospital didn't notify the airline if his mental health issues. I'm glad you were okay on your flight, Jeff.

  4. Thanks Jeff. That reminded me of my nightmare 20 minute flight from Stornoway to Benbecula. The plane was being blown sideways for the entire flight, the wings nearly vertical. I spent the flight bracing myself, one hand on the ceiling, one on the armrest as we skimmed the black waves beneath. The five locals aboard just smiled as the pilot bobbed about, zooming between clouds and sea like Snoopy in pursuit of the Red Baron.
    The woman next to me assured me we would be fine - as it was a Wednesday and 'it's normally Donal on a Wednesday' and he was good at one wing landings.

    1. Sounds like a fine inspirational moment for composing a drinking song, Caro. How's this for an opening line, "On a Wednesday on the way to Benbecula..."