page posted 2012-10-20

I told the following story in a Toastmasters humorous speech contest. How much of it do you think is true?

A 35,000 Foot Tall Tale

In 1999 I was the captain of a 747 flight carrying Muslim pilgrims from Jakarta to Mecca for the Hajj. The 3-man cockpit crew and a purser were American men. The flight attendants were all good looking young Indonesian women.

We were 35,000 feet over the Indian Ocean when one of the flight attendants rushed into the cockpit and said excitedly, “Purser scream in hammam. Purser scream in hammam.” When I got her to slow down, I was able to understand that she was saying, “Purser scream in hammam.” The purser was in a hammam—a toilet—at the back of the airplane, screaming.

“What do you mean, screaming?” I asked.

“He saying ‘Oh ... oh ... oh’ ... very loud,” she said.

I asked the flight engineer to go find out what was happening, but he wondered if that was necessary, that the scream might have been one of passion, not pain. Well, I told him that I knew the purser to be gay—exclusively so—and since there were no male flight attendants, passion was not an option. The engineer agreed, and he and the flight attendant left the cockpit.

A bit later another flight attendant came through the cockpit door and said, “Captain, I inform you man has died.” She had been sent by the doctor on board to inform me that a Hajji had died. A Hajji is a person performing the Hajj. All the passengers in back were Hajjis, and a death on a Hajj flight isn't unusual. We carried body bags for that contingency. They wait until very late in life to perform the Hajj because the belief is that if they die doing it, they go directly to heaven ... with 72 virgins waiting ... for the guys ... I don't know what the girls get.

I thanked the flight attendant for having notified me and went back to wondering what was happening with the purser and the flight engineer.

“But, Captain,” she said, “we cannot get dead Hajji out of seat. He stuck. He very big. Purser not help us. He in hammam with flight engineer.”

I told her to have the doctor help get the dead man out of the seat. “But, Captain,” she said, “doctor Hajji also, Hajji must not touch dead person.” Having no other option, I told the first officer to go bag the dead guy, and he and the flight attendant headed down to the main deck.

That left me alone in the cockpit. No problem, the airplane was on autopilot, and we wouldn't need to climb for another four hours.

Unfortunately at this time my body decided it needed attention. At first the call of nature was minimal, but it quickly escalated to critical.

On this 747 the upper deck toilet was just behind the cockpit door. When I exited the cockpit, I left the door open so that I'd be able to hear any of the airplane's alarms even though I would be in the toilet with the toilet door closed.

I hurried my business as best I could, but when I went to finish up, I realized that in my haste I had forgotten one small detail. On Hajj flights there is no toilet paper in the toilets.

You see, prior to this flight very few of the Hajjis would have ever seen a western toilet much less used one. Their toilet, a hammam, is a hole in the floor. They squat over it. They clean up with their left hand using water. A Hajji uses an airplane toilet by standing on the seat, squatting, and then uses water from the sink to clean up. If there's toilet paper, they use that to dry their hands afterwards, and we all know what happens when toilet paper and wet hands meet.

I called the upper deck flight attendant and through the closed toilet door told her to get my roll of toilet paper. To do this, she had to enter the cockpit without having anyone between her and all that gadgetry, sit in the captain's seat, and reach down to the left to the bottom of my flight bag. You have to understand their culture and their superstitions to appreciate how much courage that took on her part.

Murphy's Law tells us that if something can go wrong, it will, and at the worst possible time.

For urgent communications, airline companies send a special signal to an airplane to get the crew's attention. It sets off a loud bell sound in the cockpit. The bell keeps ringing until you silence it. As the flight attendant was reaching into my flight bag with her left hand, the bell went off, scaring her badly. She jerked violently, and her right hand hit the autopilot disconnect button on the captain's control yoke.

The airplane nosed down sharply ... causing momentary weightlessness ... which lifted me off the toilet seat ... along with the blue water used in old-style aircraft toilets ... we won't talk about the chaos in the back.

The flight attendant ran screaming from the cockpit. She was later found in a fetal position behind the last row of seats in the upper deck.

The first officer and the flight engineer headed for the cockpit at a run after regaining their footing.

Myself...well, I pulled up my pants, entered the cockpit, silenced the bell, climbed the airplane back to the assigned altitude, engaged the autopilot, and answered the company's call. Later, with the first officer and the flight engineer securely in their seats, I retired to the toilet with my toilet paper, clean clothing, and a plastic trash bag for my uniform.

You're wondering, of course, why the purser screamed in the toilet. Very simple really, the toilet seats tend to break up what with all the Hajjis standing on them. When he sat down on a broken seat, a crack, positioned under the tender flesh of his left upper leg, opened under his weight, and his flesh intruded into the crack. When he started to get up, the crack closed.

True pain, not passion.