If he had been a regular medevac pilot, if it was his job everyday to fly the desperate and dying then maybe Mike James would have been more prepared for what the whole thing could look like. But when he was with the Company there were no regular medevac operations in Interior Alaska. There was just the unwritten rule that the closest plane had to take the patient, you had to get rid of your passengers, dump the mail and the freight if necessary and take the patient. You did whatever it took to make it work. And the Company loved it; every airline loved it when someone got sick. You felt sorry for the family (of course, of course), but medevacs were big bucks and great publicity, so you took them, no question. They were a goldmine. You hopped at the chance for a medevac.
Mike was lucky to get Amber Durrell offered to him on a stretcher all grey and green and dying and he knew it. Everyone but Amber was lucky.
When it happened, Mike was in Galena with a plane-load of passengers, picking up some mail, getting bags all sorted out and giving everyone the five minute warning to head to Town. Then the Clinic PA came charging into the office yelling that he needed the plane, he's taking the plane, he has a patient in Ruby and she is for sure dying if they don't get her to Fairbanks quick. Mike had the only twin-engine on the ground in Galena, so he was the one that had to go. And just like that he had no choice; just like that he was saving someone's life. He was going to be a hero whether he wanted to or not.
So, all bets were off, all the rules were changed. A life or death flight means the pilot does whatever he can do. Whatever he can do. Knowing this, Mike did what any other pilot in Alaska would and says yeah, he'll take the flight, he'll get the girl. He will save her life. He tells the passengers, the Bosses back at the Company in Fairbanks get a phone call and everyone starts to do what they have to do when the schedule gets suddenly thrown up in the air. But it's working, it's going to work. All Mike has to do is get the plane unloaded, yank the seats to make room for the stretcher and leave with the PA to get the girl. That's all he has to do until the fucking nuns refuse to give up their seats.
Here's the deal, to put a patient in a Piper Navajo on a stretcher means you have to yank all the seats out of the back and the aisle is going to be blocked. If the aisle isn't open then the Feds say no paying passengers; it's a black and white safety reg. But the nuns don't care. They heard what he said about the regs; they knew that a medevac was happening, but they don't seem to understand why it had to affect them. Walking out to the plane Mike saw the two of them standing on the ramp in their sensible shoes and Alaska souvenir sweatshirts and he thought they looked more like a couple of retired school teachers than any black habit wearing stereotype his non-Catholic religious memory could conjure up. They looked nice and had seemed nice on the flight up from Kaltag where he had picked them after their two week visit at the Catholic mission. But now he could tell seeing them by the plane that all niceties were about to go out the window.
"We were not told when our tickets were purchased that there was a possibility of being bumped off the flight along the way," said one of them.
"This would never happen like this on a real airline," said the other, turning to her friend. "Have you ever heard of this happening?"
"No," said the first one, turning to Mike. "And since church employees recommended your airline I can't imagine they were aware it might happen."
"This is an emergency," said Mike patiently. "Up here when we have a medical emergency like this then the closest plane has to go. Another flight will be here in a couple of hours and you can wait in the office for it or we can get you a ride to the store for something to eat. It won't be too long."
He didn't have time for this conversation but Mike could understand their confusion. Tourists always expected one thing in Alaska but usually found another and the nuns were no different. He figured that once they understood about the medevac, really understood, they would settle down to wait with the other passengers who were already kicking back and drinking coffee, reading the free newspapers and talking about the weather.
It was just another Bush delay as far as they were concerned.
But the nuns stood there, clearly not getting the message that where they were now there was nothing like Delta Airlines. "We have a connecting flight to meet out of Fairbanks," said the first one, "and we'll miss it if we have to wait two hours here."
"We can't miss our flight out of Fairbanks," said the second, "we're expected in California this evening."
"We have plans," said the first.
"Important plans," echoed the second.
"Look," said Mike, who was figuring out that these two were not going to get it and he just needed to move on past them and not even try anymore, "I'm sorry that your plans are screwed up by all this, but there's nothing I can do about that. I've got to go get a sick kid and that's what I need to be thinking about. You might be able to get an earlier flight out of here on someone else and they'll help you with that in the office." Just go to the office, he thought, go be their problem.
But the nuns wouldn't let Mike get away. When he turned back to the airplane to start on the seats, they followed him, repeating again and again that they could not miss their flight; they would not miss their flight. The whole time he worked on the seats they were standing outside the door, telling him they needed to leave, they couldn't wait and even though they didn't want anyone to die, they couldn't see how giving up their paying seats for some unscheduled person was the way to resolve this. It might be an act of God going on with the kid, thought Mike, but the nuns made it clear they were pretty certain that their dear Lord would not want them to be stuck in Galena. After listening to it for fifteen minutes longer than he wanted to he got the message that they weren't going to give up their seats; they weren't even going to move off the ramp unless they were sitting on the airplane.
"You can't refuse to give up your seats," said Mike, glaring at them, "I'm the Captain and I'm telling you, you have to stay off this plane. That's it; that's how it has to be."
They looked up at him, and shook their heads. They didn't want to be a bother, really, they weren't the sort to be a bother usually but they were flying to Fairbanks, now, with him, and that was all there was to it.
"I think you should phone your superiors," said the one, "and make sure they understand that there are two very upset passengers out here with you."
"Maybe they will have a different idea," said the second, "they could always send another plane for the sick person."
And Mike thought why not. Why not call and dump this on the Bosses and let them deal with it. One way or the other, he had to get moving. The PA was coming to pieces and something had to happen really soon or there was going to be a mess that he couldn't imagine out there between them all. Let the Bosses figure it out for once, he thought. Let them see how crazy it can be.
Crazy was something the Bosses got to miss usually. He was actually happy about the chance to call and dump this mess in their laps.
"It was surreal," Mike said later, telling the story over beers to the other guys who flew for the Company.
"They really just wouldn't let you go, they were going to block the plane or something?" asked Casey.
"Well, they weren't getting all protest march or anything; at least not yet," said Mike. "But they were keeping me busy standing there, in the way, refusing to listen to reason. They just kept making it hard, my job, the PAs, the rampers. Everyone's jobs. They wouldn't let us do what we had to do."
"So you gave them their seats," said Scott. "You gave in to the Jesus freaks."
"I didn't do anything, the Company did. Bosses said since the 3 and 4 seats can't be removed anyway to let the nuns fly."
"You're blocking the aisle with the stretcher out of Ruby though," said Scott, "and that's busting the regs for sure."
"Blocked it all the way back to Town," agreed Mike.
"For a couple of nuns who don't give a shit about anything but their connecting flight," said Scott.
"Yeah," agreed Mike.
"But you did it anyway."
"For some stupid fucking nuns," said Mike, "and because the Bosses couldn't deal."
"But still," repeated Scott, "you did it anyway."
"Yeah," said Mike, "I did it anyway."
It's a twenty minute flight to Ruby and when they got there the agent had Amber and her mother and the health aide waiting. Everyone could tell the girl was in serious trouble. They got her on the plane as fast as they could and Mike had them in the air as soon as the stretcher was strapped down. Five minutes went by, maybe ten, before he realized it was going to be a really shitty flight home. There was a low overcast that wasn't moving and serious headwinds at altitude. He was going to be fighting the clouds all the way and would have to go low to make it a fast trip. And it had to be a fast trip. He'd have to scud-run with Amber's crazy mother screaming in the seat next to him, the nuns whining about their connecting flight to Palm Springs or some other nun paradise and the PA telling him to hurry up, hurry up, get there faster, faster, faster.
The girl will die if he does not fly faster.
Mike heard them and he heard nothing. 'Just fly through the weather,' he thought as the PA kept talking. 'Just fly through the weather'.
"It's his job to say that you know," said Scott later.
"But it's a crappy thing to do to a pilot," said Casey. "It's not like you're not already freaked out enough with a near dead kid in the back."
"Your job to fly, his job to freak you out," said Scott.
"And try to save the girl," said Casey.
"It's everyone's job to do that," said Scott, "the PA just doesn't want you to forget it."
"Her mother screaming in my ear the whole time," said Mike, "how could I forget it? Even if I wanted to, how could anyone forget it?"
So the weather is absolute shit and he can't make a miracle happen, he can't part the clouds or make the sun shine through. Mike sucks it up anyway, just like he's supposed to, like the Company trained him to, and he keeps on flying. There are no instrument routes out of Ruby, and no hole to punch up through the clouds to get up to 8,000 where all the lucky boys are flying IFR. He has to stay under it, avoid the taller hills, follow the river and he's done this a million times anyway right, he knows this place better than just about anyone, he knows this river. So he thinks it through, follow the water, and get to Tanana, then straight on over the flats to Fairbanks. Get the girl to Town and she'll live and no one's ever gonna ask how you did it anyway. It's a medevac, no one's gonna ask. So do what you have to do, what any pilot would do.
Get the job done, period.
And when he looks back to see how it's going with the girl; when he turns his head to make sure she isn't already dead, he sees the nuns looking out their windows, staring off into the clouds and the rain without any sign of praying on their faces. No beads clicking in their laps, no clutching of crosses or Bibles. It was clear to Mike right then that they weren't working their nun hotline to God on behalf of Amber Durrell. They were just checking their watches and tapping their toes like anyone else who wished they were already gone. Obviously they wanted Mike to fly faster too, but not for the girl; they didn't even notice she was back there anymore. Those two nuns on their way home from a village mission weren't giving a moment's thought to the girl on the stretcher behind them.
They weren't thinking about her or him or anyone else but the flight they didn't plan on missing. They were thinking about a different kind of flying altogether, about the end of Alaska and the beginning of where they wanted to be.
And all the while Amber's mother kept trying to reach God on her own in the co-pilot's seat. She kept trying to get someone in heaven to hear her while the church slipped away from seats staring at the back of her head. Seats so close they could touch her, but long gone and miles away for this emergency; long gone for anything that would help this particular mother in her sad little moment of need.
"Give me something," she cried, whining and whimpering and making those noises that were more like an animal than anything human. "Give me something to save my girl, to bring my girl back to me safe," she said into her empty hands. And no one touched her, neither one of those women of God reached forward to place a hand on her shoulder for a moment's comfort.
'Fucking nuns,' thought Mike as he turned away, 'useless fucking nuns.'
He got back in record time and called the tower with the Lifeguard call sign and they put him down with priority clearance, got everyone else out of the way, even Alaska Airlines had to wait. The ambulance was already at the Company waiting for them and Amber was gone just like that, off to Fairbanks Memorial and Mike didn't know if she lived or died that night because he was all about the flight, and his job was done.
The nuns didn't thank him as they jumped into the van for a ride to the main terminal. They didn't thank anybody for anything, they just drove away like they expected to; they just left Alaska behind like they had been planning to all along.
So when Mike told the story that night, it sounded like this: pilot saves the girl, everyone goes home happy and it's just like you read in the old bush pilot books. Right now you're saying to yourself 'I knew that was what they did up there, I knew those pilots were heroes.' It would be even better if I could write that Mike was changed by the flight, that it deeply touched him; that he came in the door and he was high as a kite over it, thrilled by what he had accomplished. But that would be a lie because when it was all over and done with Mike was already halfway to forgetting about Amber Durrell. Funny, but this would have been a better story if he had let it all go.
It would have been better if all of us had.
Amber and her mother come out to the Company a week later to fly back home and we were all happy to see the kid looking so good, walking around and laughing and talking to everyone. We couldn't believe it was the same girl. Mike came in and he saw them there and talked to the mother and wasn't it just beautiful how they were all together again, just beautiful. And when he came back we all wanted to know what the mother said; we were thinking she must have been thanking him, must have been telling him how grateful she was for all the regs he busted and chances he took to get her kid into Town in time. But we were so wrong, so incredibly wrong.
Turns out we were all a bunch of idiots when it came to Amber Durrell.
"The kid did in on purpose." That's what Mike told us, first thing, before anyone could even ask a question. "Stupid little bitch wanted tickets to the Fair so she grabbed every pill in her mother's medicine cabinet and swallowed them," said Mike. "She got herself good and overdosed so she'd get a free ride because Mommy wouldn't pony up the money for plane tickets. She wanted to go on the carnival rides with her friends and her mom couldn't afford it. Getting a medevac meant the flight would be on the insurance."
We just stood there, all of us with our mouths hanging open in shock. Mike was telling us this shit story and we could not believe it. All those passengers gave up their seats, the schedule screwed up for the rest of the day, Mike flying around out there way too damn low for anyone's comfort and it was all for a day at the Tanana Valley Fair. It was all for the Ferris Wheel and cotton candy.
"And here's the kicker," said Mike, "the really funny part. The mother figured that since they were here and Amber wanted to go to Fair so bad that they might as well have a good time, make the whole trip worthwhile. So she took her anyway. They spent three days there, as soon as the hospital cut her loose."
And that's it. That's what a real mercy flight is like up here. You have two nuns who won't give up their seats for a girl who ODs to go to the Fair for free and a mother who screams all the way in that her baby is dying and then spends the day with her on the tilt-a-whirl as a reward for scaring her half to death. And now Mike's supposed to go back out there and fly them both home and act like it doesn't matter, like it doesn't just piss him off so bad that he can not stand it. And the Bosses say what the hell, we got paid for it right? We got our money.That's the lesson here: it was always a good flight when the Company made money.
I don't know if Amber Durrell is dead or alive now, it's been a few years and she wasn't making good choices back then so who knows if she got smarter or not. I know when I ran into Mike a little while ago he said, "I should have dropped them off in Ruby; I never should have brought them into Town."
I wasn't surprised that he couldn't remember Amber's name, in fact what surprises me is that I still can. I wonder if those nuns remember her though. Honestly, right now while I'm writing this, the one thing I wonder is if they remember anything about Alaska at all.