Uncle Joe's Last Flight

 

“Hey Joe, this is your Captain speaking. We're going to push back now and take you home”. My voice was cracking over the PA. My throat was constricted with a mixture of emotions that I just couldn't keep out of my voice.  I was deeply saddened, but also swelled with pride. We had come together to grant Joe's last wish.

 

Joe was just short of celebrating his 50th anniversary as an employee of Hawaiian Airlines when he was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer. He had fought for life in a Honolulu hospital for two months, but the battle was nearly lost and his doctors had given him just weeks to live. He asked to be taken home to Kona on his own airline, but the only aircraft available was one of our 304 seat Trans Pacific DC-10's. Orders had come down from our head office to honor this man and his last request.

 

Executives and accountants throughout the airline industry would think of many reasons why the idea of such a flight should be dismissed out of hand. But this was Hawaii, and we not the usual airline. We are Hawaiian Airlines.

 

“Ohana” in Hawaiian means “family”. The spirit of “Ohana” is strong in our company. We number 3200 employees and consider ourselves to be one big extended family. The feeling of “Ohana” and spirit of “Aloha” is highly noticeable on our flights, but this morning on Joe's flight it was quite palpable and nearly overwhelming.

 

Joe had already been brought aboard when I reported to the aircraft an hour prior to our 9AM departure. His stretcher spanned the seat tops of three window seats on the left side in the main cabin. He was surrounded by a nurse, his wife, daughter, son-in law, friends and co workers. The volunteer Flight attendant positions were offered by order of seniority and the ten flight attendants on board were among the very most senior. These caring and tearful women had come on their day off or traded assignments to be with Joe on his flight home.

 

Joe's wife hugged each person as they came to be with him. All she could say was “Thank you, thank you for doing this.”  It was clear that this flight had eased her grief with deep feelings of gratitude. Our own sorrow was mixed with thankfulness that we had been offered the opportunity to honor this man who had given so much to us and who had made our company his life.

 

The ravages of cancer made Joe nearly unrecognizable, but that familiar smile flickered across his pain creased face. His nurse monitored the morphine drip that barely helped his pain, but Joe obviously felt the love all around him   Many friends had flown up from Kona just so they could join him on his flight home. Over the next hour more friends and co-workers joined us until we departed with sixty five souls on board. As we pushed back, Joe looked out his window and saw the crowd of people who had gathered at the terminal window to wave a final good by.

 

Our flight number was 346, Joe's employee number. After take off, the air traffic controller seemed to know our special purpose when he gave us a non standard  heading to fly and canceled our usual immediate climb requirement. With a wide turn, our assigned heading took us closely parallel to Waikiki beach. We reduced our thrust to cruise down the beach and past Diamond Head at 1500 feet. We were unusually close to land, but passed quietly out of town with our engines throttled way back as Joe got a last look at Hawaii's most famous landmarks.

 

Up in the cockpit we could hear Joe's friend start to strum his base fiddle and a then a ukulele and many voices joined in. Joe loved playing the ukulele and singing Hawaiian songs.  He could no longer sing or strum the ukelele, but he was finally heading home, surrounded with music and friends.

 

Joe had started with Hawaiian Airlines while he was a 15 year old high school student. As long as he maintained an A average, the principal allowed him out of school for an hour and a half each day. Joe would run down to the little Upolu Point airport on the Island of Hawaii to meet our daily DC-3 flight. He would collect tickets, clean the airplane, refuel it if need be, and tidy the small office before returning to school.

 

We wanted to give Joe one last look at that old airport before we landed at Kona. Our desired  route would require a major deviation, and the final altitude we wanted would take us below radar coverage. In our post 9-11 environment, creative navigation is highly frowned upon and is known to attract F-16's. It was then I saw the perfection in having F/O Don Hackman as my co-pilot. A brilliant negotiator for our union, he was the best man to quickly and concisely inform Air Traffic Control of our mission and desires. Soon came the reply, “Go wherever you wish and contact Kona approach when you are ready to land”.

 

Our lightly loaded DC-10 soared skyward on our new heading from Diamond Head directly to Upolu Point. Our course took us just South of Molokai and Maui. We soon reached 17,000 feet and then started our descent while looking into Maui's Haleakala Crater. The Islands showed Joe their very best on this perfect day. Scattered white fair-weather clouds set off the deep blue of the Pacific and the various shades of luscious green on the mountains.

 

We planned our route and descent so as to put the old Upolu Pt airport right outside Joe's window. We were down in airspace that had never held a DC-10. It was then I realized that we had the best Flight Engineer for this flight. I'd recently written a glowing fitness report on our new hire pilot, Eric Pacheco.  I'd remarked upon Eric's high level of situational awareness, and he was now true to form.  As both a military and civilian helicopter tour pilot who had spent a lot of time flying in this area, Eric was familiar with the low altitude aircraft traffic paths and appropriate radio frequencies. Eric broadcasted our location on our radio and helped us keep a sharp eye out for traffic.

 

As we followed the coast to Kona, Joe could look up towards the ranch grasslands of Kamuela and then see the lava fields he had spent a life time crossing on his way to work. Fifteen miles from the Kona airport we reported to the control tower and obtained permission for a low pass down the runway prior to landing. Joe deserved this final victory fly by. Though defeated by cancer and so near to death, he was returning to Kona as the victor of life - a life so rich with love, good works and dedication. As we flew down the runway, Joe could see two hundred people awaiting his arrival and two fire trucks coming out to add their welcome. Joe had made many good friends at the airport firehouse. He  used to sit in the shade of the airport firehouse, play his ukulele and sing Hawaiian songs with the firemen while waiting for our arrivals.

 

At the far end of the runway, we again climbed skyward, trading airspeed for altitude. As we circled the field for our landing, Joe's friends and family sang his favorite Hawaiian love song, a song he sang to his bride at his wedding forty years ago.

 

We touched down and as we taxied by the two fire trucks, the firemen unleashed an arching cascade from their water cannons. The trade winds feathered the streams of water and the morning sun gifted us with a welcoming rainbow lei.

 

After parking, Joe was lowered into a loving crowd and  was, yet again, surrounded by smiles, tears, and song. He left the airport in an ambulance and left us with memories that will be with us always.

 

Uncle Joe passed away two weeks later. We miss him, but our sadness is sweetened with the knowledge that he received one last grand expression of our love and appreciation for him. On our flight returning to Honolulu, the attending nurse told us she could not accept her fee because she felt so totally honored to be a part this experience. Never, in her entire career, had she ever seen such an immense outpouring of love and support.

 

Homeward bound, our hearts were filled with pride and gratitude that our Ohana, our Hawaiian Airlines, had given us the opportunity to express that love by allowing us to take Uncle Joe on his final flight home. With this grand gesture came a lasting reminder to never miss the opportunity to express one's love and gratitude for those we cherish.

 

By

Captain William H. Noyes

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