Captain, can you fly straight?

The Independent, 17/5/1993

When the pilot spoke on the intercom, Peter Rosengard started to panic.

I had been on the plane back from my holiday for about five minutes when the pilot came on the intercom. “Hello, everyone! I am your captain for this afternoon’s flight. We will be taking off in about five minutes. We will be flying at a height of 32,000 feet and our expected flight time is four hours. Weather conditions are fine and clear.”

There was a slight pause and then he continued: “I’ve never been a captain before! This is my very first flight as a captain. I’ve always wanted to be one since I was a little boy.” I looked up from my paper. “We have some lovely girls on board today to look after you – Jane, Fatima and Barbara – and there’s another one whose name I can’t remember, but it doesn’t matter because she’s a little darling as well!”

“This is a very expensive plane, you know,” the captain continued. “I bet you don’t know how much it cost. I do! It cost $17m and I know that because I went to Seattle and paid for it myself – in cash!” I thought for a second that a passenger who had had a few drinks must have grabbed the microphone. Then I had another thought. The captain of our plane is drunk!

I listened intently as he rambled on, and I was certain I detected a slight slurring of his words. I turned back to my wife. “Does he sound to you like he’s had a couple of drinks?” I asked. “Yes, he does,” she said.

I leapt into action. I reached up and pushed the stewardess button. I’m a little worried about your captain,” I told the stewardess. “Is he, you know, all right?” I asked. She looked down at me. “All right?” she asked. “I think what he’s trying to say is ‘Is our pilot drunk?’” my wife said.

“Could you wait a minute, sir?” the stewardess said, as if I’d just asked for another bread roll. She headed off down the aisle. A minute later she was back. “The captain would like to see you in his cockpit,” she said.

I felt myself shrinking into my seat as subliminal thoughts of being summoned to the headmaster’s study flashed through my mind. Surely I had already done my bit by drawing the stewardess’s attention to the fact that one fully laden plane with more than 200 passengers was about to attempt to beat gravity with a drunk pilot at the controls. What was I meant to do now? March into the cockpit and tell the captain – whom I just knew would look like Charlton Heston wearing one of those thick silver grey toupees – that I think he’s pissed out of his mind?

My wife prodded me in the ribs. “Go on, ” she ordered.

I jumped up and fell back into my seat. I then undid my seat belt.

I looked behind me for a bit of moral support from the hitherto silent majority. “Am I the only one here who thinks the captain sounds like he’s had a few drinks?” I asked the other passengers. A couple of dozen Middle Eastern tourists stared at me blankly. An English voice spoke up: “Well, I suppose he did sound a little strange.” That was all I needed to hear. I marched down the aisle.

I had to bend down into a semi-crouch to go into the cockpit, which was about half the size of a bath crammed full of thousands of dials and lights. I looked down at the craggy-faced man with the thick silver hair and square jaw. He had his feet up on the dashboard.

It’s not easy to assume an air of authority when you are bent in half, wearing a collarless cheesecloth shirt and shorts and haven’t shaved for a couple of days. Even though I was the one looking down on the captain, it felt the other way round.

“Oh God! You are in for it now,” an inner voice cried. “Tell him you were only kidding, Peter, and maybe he’ll let you off with a thousand lines.”

The pilot spoke: “Good afternoon, Mr Rosengard, do come in, I believe you wished to see me?” he said amiably (hadn’t she told him what I had just said?). I drew myself up into a slightly higher crouched position. “Yes , Captain,” I said, “I’m sorry to have to say this but your remarks just now have upset quite a lot of the passengers back there (well, me and the wife actually). Now I’ve got as good a sense of humour as the next passenger…” My mouth went dry. Now I was the one who needed a drink. What was I going to do anyway if I decided he was under the influence, grab the keys and call him a taxi?

The captain’s eyes were staring into mine. I finally took the plunge. “Captain, have you, er, have you by any chance, you know, had a few drinks?” I gave him a smile of the ‘go on, captain, it’s OK, you can tell me’ variety. He looked straight up at me. “No, Sir, I have not,” he said, his speech sounding a bit strange.

There was something else wrong. He was just too acquiescent. Surely, if I were the captain and a passenger had barged into my cockpit and accused me of being drunk, I would have torn him off a strip.

I leant down and got as near to him as I could without actually kissing him.

“Are you quite, sure, Captain?” I persisted, “not even one little one?”

“No, Sir, not even one,” he replied. I sniffed loudly. Nothing, not even a slight whiff of duty-free Glenfiddich.

“Would you like to smell my breath again?” he offered.

“No, thank you, Captain, that won’t be necessary,” I said.

I glanced round the cockpit. There was no sign of recent partying, no empty bottles, lipstick-stained glasses with cigarette ends at the bottom, no wrinkled balloons hanging from the joystick.

“I am very sorry if my remarks offended you,” he said. I was just trying to inject a little humour. Of course, I shall apologise to the passengers.”

“I understand, Captain,” I said. Don’t ask me what I understood. As I walked back down the aisle a few passengers looked at me, eyebrows raised, as if to say: is he OK? I gave a thumbs-up. They looked relieved.

For the first time in my life I felt that I had the lives of 200 people in my hands. I just hoped that I had got it right.

The captain’s voice came through the plane again, only this time, far from slurred, he sounded as if he was reading the Nine O’Clock News. “I should like to apologise to you if my earlier remarks upset…”

Ten minutes after take-off the stewardess came up to us again.

“The Captain wants you to know that he had a new dental plate fitted last Wednesday and he is still getting used to it,” she said.

If you want to print this column, you will need to click the button below to open a new browser window – then print as normal!