The day Grandad got up my nose on the way to Chicago

4 min readJun 20, 2019

The terrorist attacks on the Twin Towers in New York changed aviation for ever. Security was tightened, baggage was screened, and thorough searches caused frustration and long delays. Passengers were advised to check in three hours before departure.

It was the death knell for the notion that flying was romantic.

Four aircraft were hijacked, the terrorists forced their way into the cockpits and slashed the throats of the pilots with box cutters. They flew two of the aircraft into the Twin Towers in New York, one into the Pentagon and the fourth crashed into a field in Pennsylvania.

Airlines were forced to fit armoured cockpit doors and no one was allowed onto the flight deck apart from crew. The door was locked at all times and a security camera system monitored the access. We were not allowed into the cabin to talk to the passengers and we became hermetically sealed in our lonely and boring eyrie.

I was a Captain of a Boeing 747 and I must admit that I kept the emergency fire axe by my side just in case.

Excerpt from my book — “Dancing the skies and falling with style.”

We were preparing a flight from London to Chicago. It was snowing lightly and we were de-icing the aircraft as a precaution. The Dispatcher came onto the flight deck, his red cap wet with snow. He looked tired.

“Captain, sorry, but we have a problem. An Indian passenger has the ashes of his Grandfather with him in a small brass urn. It’s a security issue.”

I looked at him quizzically and wondered how an urn full of ashes could pose a threat. Someone could hit us with the urn or blind us with the ashes I supposed.

The dispatcher wiped the melting snow off his face and sighed.

“Security X-rayed the box and there is a ceremonial dagger inside. We can’t have it in the cabin.”

“I see. OK. Can’t we put it in the hold?”

“Captain, I’m sorry, but he won’t have it. He’s making a heck of a fuss, so I suggested that you might consider carrying it on the flight deck?”

I turned to the First Officer who was finishing his pre-flight checks.

“Any thoughts, Jim? Seems OK to me.”

He shook his head.

“Fine with me, Captain” he replied and continued flicking switches and testing systems.

“OK. Bring it up just before we leave,” I said to the dispatcher over my shoulder.

Half an hour later the door-bell chimed and the dispatcher came in carrying an ornately black lacquer and brass etched brass urn about 20 tall.

“Where do you want me to put Grandad?” he asked.

I shrugged.

“Um, just put him on the floor under the observers table, he’ll be OK there.”

Reverently he placed him on the carpet and backed out the door.

It was odd having someone’s remains on the flight deck, but we kept Grandad entertained all the way to Chicago. We chatted to him, told him jokes and explained what all the instruments did.

Thankfully he didn’t show much interest in the cheeseboard.

It was the First Officer’s turn to fly the aircraft. Chicago is a notoriously busy airport and the tower asked us to land on the shortest runway. The weather was poor with low cloud and a stiff cross-wind. The First Officer did an excellent job and arrived over the runway in exactly the right place but a sudden gust of wind hit us in the flare, and he had no option but to land the aircraft firmly. The runway was short and wet, so he hit the brakes hard when we thumped onto the ground. Cutlery and glasses crashed in the galley and we came to a shuddering halt like a nodding donkey.

Gingerly, we taxied towards the terminal. I looked around and, horror of horrors, Grandad’s urn had fallen over, the lid had come off, and the ashes were spread over the scruffy carpet. In the middle of the pile, gleamed a small gold ceremonial dagger.

“Shit!” I said to Jim. “Grandad’s escaped!”

We parked at the terminal and I kept the door locked while we dealt with Grandad.

Two minutes later, I sheepishly handed the urn to the handling agent.

Inside was the dagger, most of Grandad, carpet fluff and a few crumbs of cheese.