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"We are the protagonists of our stories called life, and there is no limit to how high we can fly."

PHD. MBA. MHS. Type rated on A350, A330, B777, B747-400, B747-200, B757, B767, B737, B727. International Airline Pilot / Author / Speaker. Dedicated to giving the gift of wings to anyone following their dreams. Supporting Aviation Safety through training, writing, and inspiration. Fighting for Aviation Safety and Airline Employee Advocacy. Safety Culture and SMS change agent.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Most Memorable Flight

An exciting week of 
Blogging In Formation has just begun.

This week—
The most memorable flight. 

With so many flights logged into my brain, I wondered which I should share…Flying thoroughbreds in a 747, on my way to Rio while listening to Jimmy Buffet? My first landing in a Braniff 727 as a commercial/Instrument rated pilot? Landing in Saudi Arabia after flying 12 hours, single crew without an autopilot? Each flight I take is spectacular in some way. But there is one that has imprinted a video in my mind, and every so often the movie plays.

 Memories are stored with emotion—and triggers bring them back to life. A song, a scent, or place. Today's memory was triggered by an incredible book I recently finished, which has yet to be released—Mark L. Berry’s Memoir. But with any luck it will be on the market soon. A little snippet of what carried me back to JKF on July 17, 1996.

"The sky was that deep shade of blue you only see at dusk during summer, in the moments just before the sun finally sets. The ocean, having absorbed radiation, heat, and light all day, set up a low shimmer above the steadily rolling waves as the atmosphere tried to reclaim what the sun had tirelessly delivered while passing overhead. The sea and sky seemed to be shaking a thousand hands along that stretched horizon. The distant colored sails of leisure boats jibed and tacked—small irregular triangles bending and pulling their water-skimming vessels. And above the were departing aircraft... A recent departure from JFK International airport joins the procession...unaware that anything was about to go fatally wrong."


The fact is, there were a line of up 747 double-deckers that night, and I was in one of them flying with Tower Air, as a first officer. July 17th 1996 was the night TWA 800 exploded. When something of this magnitude happens, people are touched in a variety of ways. This is the night that I remember. Not only the explosion, but the events that transpired before that horrific moment and the many hours that followed with need to tell my family, "I am alive."


We were all delayed, an hour that night. My crew had performed all procedures, and we were waiting for bags to be loaded, and passengers to board. And three sequential, but significant, events occurred before our flight. They stick in my mind to this day, as they were all connected in some small way.

First: My captain had told me that many of the pilots were upset with him because he had been flying high time. Every month, anything he could get… he took. He explained he hated being selfish, but he had a plan to retire early. He had to think of his family. He needed to amass the money. He would work hard for ten to fifteen years, and then retire.

I asked, “Which is it… ten, or fifteen?”

He looked at me quizzically and said, “Whatever it takes.”


Then I explained to him the fallacy of his plan. With a moving goal like that, each year would roll into the next, and tomorrow would never come. There would always be that next paycheck, one more extra flight, and an excuse that would come with why he needed to go for more. His flying was like an addiction. That he would give up his life and seeing his kids grow up, for the dollar. And what if he were hit by a car tomorrow? It would have been for nothing. I told him that it was important to plan for his future, but it was also important to not sacrifice today, for what might happen in the future. We never know how long we have until it’s too late. And that was when we were interrupted with event number two.


Second: The lead flight attendant came to the flight deck and told us that we had a passenger who was very a nervous flyer. He was worrying everyone else. The captain asked her to bring him to the flight deck. When he arrived, Captain Daly explained to this man how safe the plane was—duplicate systems with redundancy. How safe flying in general was. He then had the lead move him as far forward as possible, to lessen the effect of turbulence.

After he left the cockpit I said, “You know, when it’s your time to go, it’s your time. Unless it’s the guy in 5B, then I guess you go with him.” Ha. Ha. We all laughed, and then event three occurred.


Third: The lead flight attendant returned to the flight deck and said there was a first class passenger that was complaining because he did not have a meal. I asked why they didn’t board him a meal. Answer—he was supposed to be on TWA 800 and missed the flight. They had already closed their doors. I offered to give him my crew meal. She said, “We have food for him. He wants a ‘First Class’ meal.” Hmmm. Shouldn’t he be happy just to be on our plane? 

You see both TWA and Tower had scheduled flights to Paris that night, in the exact same plane, departing 15 minutes apart. But the little tidbit that may have gone unknown, was that Tower had been flying TWA 747 flights for about a month prior to that, as TWA had overestimated the timing of bringing this magnificent bird onto their fleet, and they were behind schedule. Weeks prior to this flight, I had piloted a TWA flight from JFK to SFO.

We sat in the long line awaiting departure, and then were cleared for takeoff. The captain pressed the thrust levers forward and we barreled down the runway soon to be airborne. The Tower cleared us to contact departure, and I had just looked down to change the radio when the flight engineer said, “What was that? There aren’t any cells out here, are there?”

We played with the radar to see what storm had emitted lightening in our clear skies. It wasn’t until we were crossing the ocean and listening to the chatter on 123.45, did we learn what had happened.


Silence prevailed in our flight deck most of the night. Occasionally I would say, “I can’t believe that happened.” I fought tears, sometimes unsuccessfully. I had wanted to go back and tell that man who complained about his meal, that he was lucky to be alive. But I didn’t. He would either figure it out upon landing, or not. But the hours drug on in silence.

That plane could have been mine. We could have been in line with that missile… missing it by minutes. If it was boost pumps, we had them on our plane too. Did my family know that I was alive? The TV would have been on, as it was dinnertime in Seattle and I was out of town.

My three daughters ages, 11, 12, and 13 were at home with my husband. They knew that I had been flying TWA flights, and was headed to Paris. As suspected the news broke on all channels with the report of a TWA 747 bound for Paris that had just exploded. My husband said that was his worst night of his life.

Captain Mark L. Berry lost his fiancée and many good friends on that night… TWA was his airline. It took awhile to get a phone line out in Paris, But I was able to give my family that good news call. A call that many never received.

Aviation is the safest it has ever been, but there will always be a reminder that fate happens in strange ways. We as pilots can only do what we can for safety. But when the unexpected happens, such as TWA-800… it becomes as senseless and painful as 9/11. There is no reason. And as much as we want to blame someone, there will be times that we are unable to. And yet must find a way to go on, we owe it to those who are unable.

But those memories of lives lost, and the events we experience will continue to play in our minds each time we see that sunrise, or smell jet fuel, or depart Kennedy.

Please take this week to enjoy my fellow Blogging In Formation pilots. Below is the schedule and a link their blogs. You get a full week of the most memorable.

But before you go…
Please share your most memorable flight.
(as a passenger counts too.)

Most Memorable Flight Schedule:
June 4, 2013 Flight to Success - Karlene Petitt 
June 5, 2013  Adventures of Cap’n Aux - Eric Auxier
June 6, 2013 House of Rapp - Ron Rapp
June 7, 2013 Airplanista - Dan Pimentel
June 8, 2013 Smart Flight Training - Andrew Hartley
June 9, 2013 iFLYblog - Brent Owens

For a taste of Mark's memoir, here is his photo and 34 companion-song page. He's taken up writing music to help heal the pain. Click HERE for more.

Remember to enjoy the journey~
XO Karlene


  1. Thanks so much for posting that truly incredible story Karlene. I can't imagine what it must've been like for you to be on the flight deck of a 747 that night, even witnessing the flash from the explosion. I can't believe that you witnessed that!

    My most memorable flight has also been my worst (nowhere near your kind of story). Instead of my first solo flight or first real cross-country flight... My worst flight lesson ever turns out to be the most memorable.

    In short: My lesson that day is a perfect example of what learning to fly can be like. At one point I was enjoying my flight up the James River, with the canopy open, flying convertible style. The next moment, I realized something wasn't right with the way the plane was flying. I checked around the cockpit and realized the trim lighting bar (showing amount of trim) was off. I checked the electrical fuses and saw that my instructor had popped one out. Depending on the day, this is something completely normal to go through as a student.

    A few minutes later, my instructor asked me to divert to Lake Anna airport with no GPS. I thought "ok, I can do this pretty easily." What I didn't know was that my instructor picked that airport specifically because it was North of the line which separates the sectional chart into two parts. I knew the general direction was North of where I was, but I miss-calculated the direction and distance a little, which resulted in me heading on a NW instead of NE course.

    Later, on the approach into Louisa County Airport, I noticed how rough the air had become. The winds were blowing at about 6kts, gusting to 15kts. This made for a really rough landing (certainly the worst I've done so far). Because of the crosswind and gusts, I had some trouble settling the plane to the ground. It must've bounced 10 feet into the air before settling down with some side-loading. Not good at all, I wasn't happy with the way I had landed.

    I was disappointed to have ended the flight on such a bad-note. Looking back on that lesson, I know that I learned more in that one flight than I probably have in all of my flight training so far. Things won't always come easily. Just like anything in life, there will be ups and downs, rough landings and smooth landings. It's all a part of the journey, and I'm glad I'm a part of it. Personally, I can't wait to get after it again and take another challenge on!

    Thanks for reading. You can see more from this story in this link:
    Many Thanks,
    Swayne Martin

    1. Swayne, you will learn many lessons in your life. Use all those experiences to grow and become the best pilot you can. One thing for sure, you will always keep learning. Thank you so much for your comment and sharing your story!

  2. Karlene

    There are really no words to say to that - except - you are still here - that man in 5B is still here. Many years ago when was still a small site, I used to listen to JFK tower over the internet and heard all the chatter the day that American 587 disappeared over Rockaway. I was listening and I was shocked - I can't imagine seeing it or being there. Thank you for an amazing post!!

    1. Mark, In my first novel, Kathryn had mentioned the pain of listening to an accident.... and the hardest part t is the silence that follows. That statement is how I feel. When I listen to the voice recorder of the pilots before the crash, well... I cannot explain the feelings I experience. Listening to the live ATC of a flight that goes down has got to be the same. It's gut wrenching. Thank you so much for your comment!

  3. Wow, Karlene! "There but for the grace of God go I." I can't imagine how it felt to be on the same route in the same model, much less seeing it happen. Kudos to you for keeping flying after that - as safe as flying has become, it still takes courage and bravery sometimes to keep at it and do what you want, even through proximity to a tragedy such as TWA 800...

    1. Thank you Andrew. Bad things happen in this life. If we change our course for what we fear might be, we won't be. We'll just be running from shadows. What this taught me is that sometimes, life is out of our control. We as pilots strive to always be the best we can. And sometimes we error. Threat and Error management identifies that, and we mitigate damages and learn lessons... and go on. But when a pilot's plane blows up, with no control or fault of their own... that is a totally different story. It short circuits our brain.
      Maybe this is the glass half full concept. I look at that accident and say... that wasn't me, or my plane... I might have something important to still do in this life. Press on!
      Thanks for your comment!

  4. All I can say is ".................."

    I've experienced a few "moments" in the air, but not like that. Although I was once the "man in 5B" - booked on American 11 on September 11, 2001, BOS to LAX. But being lazy and not wishing to get up that early, I switched to a flight the previous evening. So when the twin towers fell I was asleep in California, rather than dead in New York. Life is capricious, and can end without warning - as you told your captain that night.

    1. D.B. This gives me the chills. An amazing story. And I have to ask... did you change your life in any way coming that close to death? Buy a lottery ticket?
      I suspect you are destined to do something grand....and should always follow you intuition...and yet this is another reason why sleep is good for you!
      Thank you for your comment!!

  5. My most memorable flight was as OCA Lead during TOP 2005-5 from Florennes AFB. My OCA force consisted of 4 Tornado F3s, 2 Italian F16s and a pair of F15Es. We smashed Red air without loss!

    1. Wow...and that sounds like a movie in the making. I can imagine that will stay with you forever. Thank you for your comment!

  6. Wow, a very harrowing tale.

    While my "Most Memorable Flight" will post tomorrow about a different flight (, you reminded me of a flight in college.

    An entire fleet of flight students flew up to Sedona for a picnic—and two had a midair. Flying a C-172 on a double date, I was several miles back and didn't witness it, but the four of us will never forget the frantic calls on the radio...followed by silence. Two people died that day, and two—my pilot friends—survived. Both are now Captains at major airlines. But I have no doubt those memories plague their nightmares to this day.

    Thank you for sharing your story.

    Swayne, your comment reminds me of another aviation blogger's mantra: "First comes the Test. Then comes the Lesson." (

    As Karlenes says, MANY, MANY MORE TO COME!

    1. Eric, Thank you for your comment. You have to wonder why those pilots were the ones to live. And yet they continued to fly. That says something grand about the human spirit. And the will to press on. I am absolutely sure they have nightmares.
      Thank you for sharing your story and I love that mantra. Isn't that how it always is?
      Looking forward to your post tomorrow!

  7. There was a midair just a couple days ago between two aircraft north of Phoenix. You just never know when it's your time, I guess.

    Aviation is a small world -- when something bad happens, nobody in our industry is very far away. Case in point: a former student emailed me and said he was near that Phoenix accident.

    "The Man in 5B" sounds a lot like a book or film title, doesn't it?


    1. Ron, I saw that on the news, too. You don't know when it's your time. So true. And yes, we are all connected in this industry. Sometimes I think it may be more difficult to manage accidents like this as pilots because it's just not supposed to be. We work so hard to make sure stuff like this never happens. But it can. And it does.

      And I'm liking the title of that movie. I'm seeing it now.
      Thank you for your comment!

  8. Replies
    1. Thank you so much Justin! I really appreciate you stopping by!

  9. Hello Karlene,

    I will never forget numerous flights as a passenger and air enthusiast, for instance the sunset over the Swiss Alps on a Warsaw-Geneva LOT TU-134 flight, or the sunrise over the Afghan mountains on a Frankfurt-Kabul Ariana Afghan A310-300 trip...

    Personally I associate flight with this Reinhard Mey song...

    The title means "Only over the clouds you will find true freedom..."

    Keep on flying and many happy landings


    1. Danstanmart,

      This is so beautiful! And these are truly the memories that outweigh the tragedies of life. This is what it's all about, and fuels the passion of flight. People wonder why we fly... you just hit the answer.

      Over the clouds and under that rainbow... life is a golden tapestry of connection and beauty. Our world.

      Thank you for the comment!

  10. I had the opportunity to sit through the NTSB presentation on the TWA800 tragedy (required) before viewing the rebuilt fuselage here in northern Virginia. It was a sobering experience. I work in the operations side now and have the opportunity to travel by air for work and recreation, but after that viewing, I'm just happy each time the wheels reconnect with the pavement. I guess that means every flight is good that ends well.

    1. John, I had many photos from the Internet of the recreation. I could not bring myself to post them. I can only imagine how hard that was in person. Sobering is a perfect word. Thank you for your hard work on that accident.

      Yes... every flight that ends well, ends well.

      Thank you so much for your comment!

  11. Karlene,

    Stuff like that gives you so much perspective. And, yes we continue on. What else would we do.

    I have so many memorable flights. I honestly can't say I have one more memorable than any other. I even have a couple of flights were epic things were going on around me yet I wasn't involved--I'll have to tell those stories one time. I think if I had to pick one flight, it would be that last one in the NASA F-15B I've talked about before. I knew it was my last flight in the F-15. I didn't know it would be documented so deeply--I have several photo's as a result. And, I wasn't quite aware how impressed the customers involved were with the whole project until after landing. To me, it was just another day at the office.



    1. Tom, Yes... we go on. What else would we do? Perhaps this is yet another trait of a pilot... or the same trait that keeps us flying the plane despite all that happens around us.

      It's hard to decide which is more memorable than the last, but I am looking forward to those stories of yours too. And, the last flight... there is something frozen in time with that one.

      Thanks so much for your comment!

  12. It is interesting how each of us views our most memorable flight. For some it is an intense emotional event, and for others it may be that flight where everything goes perfectly right, which almost never happens. Either way it is essential for all of us to learn from every flight, and to share our passion with others so that they too may learn, and hopefully not make the same mistakes that we have made.

    1. Yes... we must learn from every flight. I know that I do. And sharing is an important thing... paying it forward to the future of aviation. Thank you so much for your comment!

  13. Think twice before you speak, because your words and influence will plant the seed of either success or failure in the mind of another.

    Mark Duin

    Motivational Speaker

    1. Hey Mark, I normally don't allow spam on the blog... but only from motivational people! With positive comments. Thank YOU!!

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