A Tale of Two Passengers

Two passengers on consecutive flights are as different as night and day.

Passenger one was a young boy, about twelve or thirteen years old. He was overweight, with pudgy freckled cheeks. He wore long, droopy shorts and a tee shirt. He sat down beside me and was buckled in by the loader. I handed him his headset as the loader closed the door and continued loading the rest of the family into the back.

When his headset was on, I gave him a cheerful hello. He responded with a very unenthusiastic hello.

“How are you doing today?” I asked him.

“Okay.” The word came out as if I’d forced it from him. It was flat. It told me he really wasn’t okay but he was telling me that he was just so I’d leave him alone.

Of course, I couldn’t do that. “Must be better than just okay,” I said. “After all, you’re going for a helicopter ride. That’s pretty cool, isn’t it?”

He nodded glumly.

I got the thumbs up from the loader and started my passenger briefing, glancing in the back. His mom and dad were facing forward. His little sister, about eight years old, sat behind me facing backwards. They were all overweight. They were American, of course, from Colorado.

I took off a while later. We were on an Imperial Tour. That’s the long one, 45-50 minutes long. I gave them a little bit of a narration. Once, I heard the little sister in back yell out, “Look Mommy!” and say something about seeing deer. The boy beside me was looking out through the bubble at his feet at the trees we flew over. Later, he looked out the windows. But he didn’t react to what he was seeing. It was as if he was watching a television show his parents were making him watch when another show he really wanted to watch was on another channel at the same time.

At one point, he rested his chin in his hand. I had to look at his eyes to make sure he was still awake. He had long, curly eyelashes. His eyes were open, but they revealed nothing but boredom.

For heaven’s sake! He was being flown in a helicopter over the Grand Canyon! His parents had coughed up $169 (each) for this life experience and he had absolutely no appreciation for what he was seeing.

(For the record, I do it ten or more times in a day and I still enjoy seeing it.)

When they got off, I gave him and his sister each an Aero-Prop. (It’s a helicopter-like toy I give out to the kids.) His has probably already been added to the collection of junk dropped by tourists at the rim.

The next group of passengers were from England. The woman who sat next to me was probably in her eighties. She was small and rather frail looking and had some trouble getting into the seat. Dennis, the loader, helped her. She thanked him very politely, looking like she really meant it. I helped her with her headset, then said hello to her. She said hello back, then started looking at my instrument panel and the flight controls. She was really studying them. I thought she was going to ask some questions, but she didn’t. Her eyes just kept moving all over them. I started wondering whether she was all there.

I did the preflight briefing. I had a full load of six passengers, all from the same bus tour. Most of them were middle aged. Two of the women had enormous breasts. (That really doesn’t have any bearing on this story, but it is a fact.) They were all crammed into the back seats, but they looked happy enough.

We took off on a North Canyon tour. That’s the short tour, about 25-30 minutes. The woman beside me was very interested in the collective as I pulled it up. More interested than anyone else who has ever sat beside me. I started to wonder whether she might try to grab it. I didn’t let go for quite a while.

We passed the Grand Canyon Railroad’s steam engine on its return trip to Williams. I pointed it out. The woman beside me looked. Then she untangled her sunglasses from her seat belt and camera strap and put them on. She gazed around like an average passenger and I realized that she was probably as harmless as she looked.

But as we made the turn toward Eremita Tank and she saw the canyon ahead of us, she changed. It was as if she’d been told that she was going to see something good and she suddenly realized that it was going to be better than she’d originally thought. Way better. She took off her sunglasses and, as we crossed the rim into the canyon, she began looking at everything. I’ve never seen anyone look so hard. It was as if she were trying to commit everything she saw to memory. Like she was a sponge trying to absorb everything in. And every time I pointed out something, she looked to make sure she saw it.

I thought about my Grandmother, who passed away about two years ago. For a moment, I imagined that this woman was my grandmother and that I was finally taking her for a helicopter ride. It made my eyes teary.

We were on our way back across the canyon when I saw her wipe her eyes. Her fingers were wet. She was crying. Here was a woman near the end of her life and she still saw wonder in the Grand Canyon.

And I thought about the fat kid who’d been in her seat for the last flight. He had his whole life before him but couldn’t see how incredible the Grand Canyon was — even when he was looking at it from the front seat of a helicopter.

(I’m glad I don’t have kids. I couldn’t bear to have a child like him. Or let my children associate with children like him. Small minded, spoiled, and never happy.)

I’ll think about the woman from England for a long time. The fat kid is someone I’d rather forget.

3 thoughts on “A Tale of Two Passengers

  1. not everyone will understand or actually feel the joy of flying, but when you have soneone who really gets it, it’s magical.

    Last year, I took a lady up in my glider. She was maybe in her late 30s or early 40s and from what she told us, we could only conclude that she had a rather serious medical condition, probably cancer, although she looked perfectly ok to me.

    I usually tell my passengers that in a glider, there are two different ways to fly: either a waltz or rock’n’roll. I asked her if she had a preference and she said since she loves roller coasters, she’d be happy to rock’n’roll.

    It was a nice early summers day and it didn’t take us long to climb to 1000m (~3300ft) agl. Since her time was limited, we needed to lose altitude quite quickly and I asked her to tighten her seat harnesses.

    We then did a few tight turns, wingovers and two 0g parabulas. Throughout most of the flight, she was happily chatting away, pointing out the beautiful landscape and asking me about the instruments and flight controls, about thermals and cross country flying, but when we went through the 2nd 0g phase (really just a few seconds) I heard her voice choke and she said she couldn’t speak anymore, she was choking with tears of joy and happiness.

    We all know why we fly for ourselves, but it’s days like this that really give us wings.


    • Peter: Thanks so much for sharing this. It’s true: not everyone understands or feels the joy. It’s very special when we, as pilots, can share our joy with someone else who appreciates it.

  2. I get people who, from the moment they get in to the moment the engine stops, are on their phones. Texting, taking pics, or video, w/e. Many are families, and each is having a separate and dissociated experience. I figure a quarter of my passengers only see what shows up on their screen, and there’s a disproportionate amount of angst when a battery dies. I find that to be one of the saddest things I see when doing tours.

    One of the coolest things tho was taking my daughter (at 4 yrs old) and seeing her plastered to the window for the whole flight.

What do you think?