Editor’s note: Most airline flights involve simply moving people and things from point A to point B, but sometimes an airline pilot gets a view of the human side. In this touching article by Len Morgan, the legendary pilot and author shares a memorable flight that shows how powerful air travel can be and the lives it can connect. This article originally appeared in the November 1956 edition of Air Facts.
Good Load Tonight
An airplane in flight is a world in itself, its occupants removed for a time from the world to which they rightfully belong. In an airliner, this little world is sharply divided into two parts: the cabin with the passengers in their reclining seats and the cockpit, where we work. Passengers are not allowed up front and pilots are usually too busy to visit the cabin so we seldom learn anything about the people who have paid their good money to come along for the ride. But being curious is part of being a pilot and we wonder who they are, where they are going and why. You like to see where your bit of the day’s work fits into the scheme of things.
Not long ago we got an interesting glimpse of the total picture. It was a late afternoon trip, one of several connecting with non-stops from the east and north to scatter their loads down a line of small southwestern cities. After we had run through the checklist I went back to lock the commissary door, one of a copilot’s duties on my line. There was quite a commotion in the rear of the ship where a small, plump woman was attempting to get nine children settled in their seats all at the same time. They were all young, the smallest being a baby who was sound asleep, and about evenly divided between boys and girls. The oldest was about four, a little blond-headed fellow who had found a window seat. He was very quiet and watched me intently with grave blue eyes. A Swissair tag on his coat made me wonder how far these kids had flown. I offered him some gum and he carefully picked out a single piece. On impulse, I pressed the whole box into his hand and he accepted it without comment or change of expression. He was neither frightened nor friendly and there was nothing about his manner, so strange for a boy, to suggest what thoughts tumbled through his little head.
“Good load tonight,” I told the captain, for nearly every seat was taken.
After we got off the hostess came up with coffee. “They are German orphans and have been adopted by American families.” None of them, she said, could speak English, not even the lady in charge, but the ramp agent had some information on them. The kids had left Germany less than twenty-four hours before and were to complete their long trip at our first stop. A doctor and his wife in this place had somehow become interested in the orphans and arranged to adopt one. Friends heard of it, more pictures were exchanged and letters written over a period of months with the result that nine weary youngsters were now speeding westward to new homes in a new world. And that’s about all she knew.
We landed just after sundown and a crowd of perhaps a hundred and fifty people were waiting at the gate of the small terminal. Several young men came out to help unload the kids. Then came a scene to answer many questions as babies and toddlers were carried out to meet their new parents. It is hard to forget.
“Here she is!” said one of the young men, handing a little girl to his wife. “Isn’t she a little beauty!”
Another man was holding a chubby boy at arm’s length and his wife was saying, “I’d have known him anywhere. Look at him. Look at that smile, will you!” And a slender boy in blue jeans said, “Let me see him again, Dad. Here, let me hold him.”
All over the place it was the same thing. Kids being passed around from parents to grandparents to uncles and aunts in a scene that needed no explanation. Some people were smiling and a few were crying and everyone was happy. It was infectious and you couldn’t watch it without feeling happy for them and wishing this sort of thing happened more often.
“Just like her picture, just exactly like the picture,” someone kept saying as though it was all too good to be true.
“Oh, he’s so tired, poor thing. Let’s take him straight home,” said an older woman, settling happily into her new role as grandmother.
“Did you ever see such pretty eyes. Look at him.”
Somebody from a newspaper began lining up the kids and their families for pictures and then the crowd wandered apart into little groups. It was about time for us to go and I looked around for the little boy. He was with a young man and woman, as quiet as he had been on the plane, studying them with the same grave expression. The lady held his hand and fussed with his coat but not much was being said. They did not seem like people to talk a lot and I imagined the boy had found his way into the right home. I hoped so.
Then we were off again, heading west into the dusk to complete our scheduled rounds.
“Wonderful thing, that,” said the captain after a while. “When you think of those kids coming over here to grow up. Did you notice the little blond boy, the quiet one?”
“It’s quite a change for him,” I said, “having to leave everything he knows for a new life, even at his age.”
“It’s the beginning of a life for him that counts.”
When the hostess came up with dinner she asked, “Did you fellows notice the lady who got on back there with the two little girls?”
We remembered her, yes – an attractive young woman about thirty with pretty daughters about five and nine.
“I’ve been talking with her. She’s had a rough go of it. Her husband has been away a year in the service and he was killed two weeks ago in an accident overseas.” We would never have known it from seeing her.
“No, it’s amazing. She’s completely composed. I couldn’t take it like that. She said, ‘The girls and I now know their Daddy isn’t coming back again and we are going to have to stick together and build a new life without him.’ ”
“Just like that?” I said.
“Those were her exact words.”
“She’s cut from stout fabric, like the people who opened up this part of the country,” said the captain.
“She said she has always lived out here.”
“I believe it.”
The last faint streak of daylight which had clung to the horizon ahead for several minutes was suddenly gone and the darkness creeping up from behind made the night complete. Car lights made the highway below a tinseled thread on which were tied, like so many glittering jewels, the tiny ranch towns that adorn the plains. Each sparkling cluster of lights was a world in itself, with its own joys and sorrows, like ours in a way.
“What is it for this girl, an ending or a beginning?”
“It has to be the beginning,” said the captain and I knew he was right.
When we began the flight an agent had brought out a small white metal can, about the size to hold a pound of pipe tobacco. Some sort of priority shipment, he had said, and would the crew see it was turned in promptly at the final stop. We put it on the baggage rack and forgot it. During the last few minutes of flight one of us remembered the special handling request and we read the tag pasted on the side. It was addressed to a hospital and had been shipped that afternoon from an eye bank in a large southern city. Within hours the corneas it contained would be stitched into place in living eyes and would probably give new sight to someone who, that evening as we flew, lay hopefully waiting behind an awful curtain of darkness.
“You might call it another beginning,” said the captain.
We landed for the last time and our passengers went their ways. By now all the orphans were tucked in their beds back down the line. The widow and her girls were met by an older couple and drove off towards the lights of the city. The white metal can sat on the operations counter, waiting to be collected.
“An interesting trip,” said the captain. “It’s not often we know anything about the load.”
And then our cab man came and we left for the hotel.