I know the topic line is a bit misleading. I don't mean fighter plane escorts on emergency flights. I mean the experience airline employees have has when they have a Military escort taking a body to his home.
is the originating station for most, if not all, Military escorts, since Dover AFB is so close.
I've written down some of my experiences as an agent. I'd like to hear some experiences from other carriers agents. What about at hubs? What in-flight experiences have flight attendants had and Pilots? I wrote a short essay about it just to keep some memories fresh. it is a generalization of many experiences. It needs polishing as well so please forgive:
We sit down to the afternoon briefing at eleven AM
. The agents are in various states of preparation, men with ties half off, women applying eyeliner. They listen with a vague disinterest. They make a mental note of their positions for the day. "We have an N-1 on 371" says the service director. Sad nods come from the agents who will be working that flight, and understanding. This is Philadelphia International Airport. As the closest commercial airport to the Military Morgue at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, it is the starting point for all Military escorts and the bodies of soldiers going home for the last time.
The airlines give radio call signs to situations like this. Considering it unprofessional to announce a casket being loaded on the plane over the radio network, my airline called them N-1. The agents working the flight work hard to get a good seat for the escort. His task is a difficult one. Most times the escort is a soldier on a burial detail. He's done this a couple of times. His task is to never leave the body unattended. But he must when the van drops the casket off at the freight side of the airport Cargo City. The Escort is driven over to the terminal to check in. Sometimes it's a buddy, pulled off the front line by the last request of the deceased to take him home. Sometimes it's a brother. These last are confused. Grieving themselves they fall back on training. They are uncomfortable leaving the casket when they were told to stay with it. They are confused by their task, so unfamiliar to them. They are traveling in full uniform, which the military discourages at any other time. The agents have seen this enough times. A military uniform can mean only one thing. The TSA
and police know it too.
One hour before the departure time, the agents arrive to work the flight. Invariably, one of the first in line is the escort, dutifully alerting the agents to his presence. He is unaware that the agents are very aware of him, they have been working behind the scenes, first to get him a seat with more leg room, then to get him a first class seat. This is not the policy of the airline. But the agents in Philadelphia do this anyway. It is a small thing they can do; it is a small thing they want to do. The agent informs him that they will be told over the radio by the ramp service agents when the casket arrives. At that time they will be escorted plane-side.
The escort usually sits off to one side, out of the way, trying to remain inconspicuous in his uniform. Sometimes, he is alone in his own grief. Sometimes other passengers chat with him. The flight attendants come for their briefing and are made aware of the escort's presence. The pilots, many times ex-military themselves are briefed. When the time comes an agent comes to get him. They politely push through the throng waiting to board.
The agent unlocks the jet-way door and guides him around the dangerous ramp. The Ramp Agents work hard manhandling the casket, supported on a wood pallet and covered in white cardboard protective cover, it is very heavy. The Ramp service men place the casket on the belt-loader. The head towards the airplane the feet down, the casket cover is marked to let them know. The escort verifies the information on the sticker on top of the cover. He then steps back, and draws himself to attention and slowly salutes the agent and pilot standing beside him stand-up straight in reverent respect. All three watch as the casket moves up and into the plane. As gently as they possibly can given the weight and the small cargo door on most planes, the ramp agents manhandle the casket into the pit of the plane. Once again, the head is place forward the feet toward the rear. This is to keep the embalming fluid inside the body when the plane takes off and tilts up. The ramp agents bless themselves sometimes; they come out of the plane and shake hands with the escort. The agent then guides the escort back to the jet-way. He sits in his seat having taken care of his duty for this part of the trip.
The agent makes sure the flight attendants "take care" of the escort. I was never sure what I was requesting of the flight attendants, free drinks, special care and attention? All I knew was that some Flight Attendants understood and did what they could to make the trip as comfortable as possible for the escort, just as the agents did what they could.
A little less Hooah, and a little more Dooah.