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Midnight in El Salvador

by Ed Stephens Jr.

Private Pilot magazine, October,  2004


If you refer to your airplane as a flying coffin, don’t answer the phone when the moon is full.

This advice comes courtesy of my pal Capt. Slim, a jet charter pilot. Slim didn’t know, of course, that he was jinxing himself when he dubbed the Lear 25 a flying coffin. He was merely characterizing the cramped confines of the interior. The Lear’s famously sexy profile is, in typical supermodel fashion, waifishly devoid of girth.

The moon’s girth was on full and glinting display when a phone call from dispatch roused Slim from slumber city in his bachelor pad. Show up at the hanger right away, he was told. Oh, and bring your passport.

The operational wheels had already been turning by the time Slim, who was then a co-pilot, finally straggled into the hanger. The captain had pre-flighted the bird, fueled it, and filed a flight plan. Slim was still scrambling to get his brain awake so he didn’t bother to pester anyone with questions.

So, yes, while he did see a skinny metal box in the cabin, he didn’t ask about it.

In short order they were aloft. Cruise speed--Mach .76. Destination--El Salvador.
The flight and landing were unremarkable, but he recalls that the airport was graveyard quiet and a bit spooky in the dark.

But they weren’t in El Salvador to dilly-dally and ponder spookiness, they had “quick turn” mission and had to grab their passenger, refuel, and return to home base. The captain wandered off to tend to the usual array of paperwork, and Slim was left with the ramp and passenger duties.

Loading a passenger is not normally a big deal, but this passenger was technically cargo. And oversized cargo at that: He reposed in a large casket, which itself was encapsulated in a larger wooden crate. Which is all well and good from a packaging perspective, but there’s no way the Lear could digest such sizable fare.

No, dead guys in Lears travel in skinny metal boxes.

There are a lot of things I’d rather do at night than fish a corpse out of a coffin and scoop it into a metal box by the light of the moon in El Salvador. Volunteers for this mission were conspicuous by their absence. Slim had two options. He could either do the deed, or he could wind up unemployed and stranded there with $16 American in his pocket.

He did the deed.

Then they muscled the box into the Lear, took care of the other ground chores, and off they zoomed. Although the Lear is, of course, pressurized, at cruising altitude the cabin’s air is thinner than sea level air is. At 41,000 feet, the “cabin altitude” is roughly 8,000 feet, says Slim, and he figures that this reduction in air pressure is what inspired the contents of the metal box to start purging gruesome gasses into the cabin. The stench was wretched, but nobody wanted to return to El Salvador, so they forged ahead.

And there they were: Two souls–or is it three?-- trapped in that tiny metal tube, suspended in the inky void of night over the remote waters of the Caribbean sea.  A flying coffin indeed...

Alas, we do have a happy ending. Slim has quit that job, found another, and is now a captain. He his, admittedly, not in the Halloween spirit this year, but I can’t say I blame him.

As for the rest of us, all pilots like to give their aircraft nicknames. But do be careful, lest you tempt the moon or the heavens to convert words into prophecy.


© 2004 Ed Stephens Jr.