On Thursday, I boarded an airplane in hopes that I would have a easy, worry-free flight back from my first press drive as an automotive writer. Actually, I didn’t even consider that the flight would have the potential to be a chaotic mess. Like most of us, I figured that kind of thing wouldn’t happen to me.
Naturally, it did.
To the guy donning an army shirt and camo-printed hat who managed to scare the life out of everyone on my airplane that afternoon, I sure am glad you’re on the ground. And I sure am glad they dragged you out of that plane in handcuffs.
Let’s start from the beginning, so you all can get an idea of how crazy this guy actually was. I won’t give any details on my flight or our route, since this man is the kind of person who would find me and point missiles at me—just like he said he had pointed at about everyone else on this earth.
I had the unfortunate assignment of the middle seat for the flight, something I’ve only had to deal with when flying with family. After debating for several minutes whether or not to poke the man next to me and ask if I could get up to go to the bathroom, I finally did and made my way to the restrooms at the back of the airplane.
There was a wait, and the man described above was ahead of me in the line. He looked at one of the television screens that now litter the back of airplane seats, begging for bored passengers to purchase access.
“I never buy none of that shit,” he said. “They take your credit-card numbers and give them to those Europeans. They steal money from your account. You look one day and $100 is gone. And the next day, and the next day. Europeans just steal your damn money.”*
“Well, I try not to buy things on the internet either,” I said, wondering why I picked this time to go to the bathroom. I don’t buy things online because of shipping costs, not out of fear that Europeans will steal my money.
He went on to tell me about the “revenue service” stealing everyone’s money, which I can only assume to be the IRS. In the United States. Not in Europe. Anyway, in a profanity-laden rant, he talked about the Illuminati and how he had missiles and bombs pointed at “the Europeans” and “the revenue service.”
I nodded and tried my best not to make the guy mad, fearing I’d be the next person on the missile list. For reference, he told me all about his weaponry and the Illuminati in about three minutes while we waited in line.
He then told me to go in front of him in the line. When I politely asked him if he was sure, he told me, “I’m a man! I’m a God damn man, you go in front of me, girl!” He then cursed at me as I walked into the bathroom. Despite my painfully small bladder, I decided I wouldn’t take a restroom break again on this flight.
I got back to my seat and sighed, relieved both from my bathroom break and from the fact that I’d finally escaped this guy.
As is the natural order of things, he returned to his seat as well. Across the aisle from me.
The poor woman seated next to him was subject to his crazy, violent ramblings for a large portion of the flight, and everyone sitting in the area gave her kudos for being able to handle it. He spent most of his time back in the restroom line, though, likely cursing and engaging in similar ramblings with each of the poor souls who wound up back there.
All of the time he was back at that restroom—and while he was in his seat—the guy held a gray satchel at his chest with a death grip similar to the one I carry my cat around the house with (that’s out of love rather than craziness, though).
I didn’t think much of the satchel, but probably should have. That’s when the meltdown started.
I’d long put the crazy man behind me, content to tell a little bit of a story about choosing the wrong time to go to the restroom when I got home. The pilot came on and said we had 30 minutes before landing, so I was almost there anyway.
Transcribing an interview with headphones in, it took me a second to realize that there was a commotion on the plane. I turned around, and the air marshal was up. The crazy man was yelling. Within a few seconds, nearly everyone on the plane was out of their seats and involved.
The amount of people concentrated in one area made my frantic mind wonder if this would be a dangerous weight distribution for the plane, but we had bigger problems—the person seated next to me heard one of the flight attendants say the bathroom door was locked, without someone in it.
I couldn’t see whether or not the guy still had his satchel due to all of the people crowded around him, but he’d been hanging out at the bathroom for the entire flight. This had to be it.
“The TSA back in San Francisco didn’t do their job, Marshal!” he yelled. “You’re wrong, Marshal! These people aren’t doing their jobs!”
Lord, help me, I thought. What could this guy be referring to? Did the TSA fail to catch one of his bombs saved for the revenue service? It couldn’t be.
The entire time, I detailed the situation in the Jalopnik Slack channel. Here’s a frantic live-Slacking description of the whole thing:
I went silent because we had to shut our electronics down at record speed for landing. That pilot was doing everything he could to get us to the ground, because who knew how long crazy man’s plastic handcuffs would last.
The guy seated next to me stared out the window. I did, too.
“We have to be about 5,000 feet from the ground,” he said. “Almost there.”
The guy in the aisle seat leaned in to check, too.
“We have got to get on the ground already,” he said. He was just as frantic as I was.
It was obvious what was going through all of our minds on that airplane. This man, crazy as could be, had to have snuck something on. This plane had to be in danger.
“Getting closer,” the guy sitting at the window said. We exchanged wide-eyed looks and nervously bit our lips for about the third time in five minutes.
We continued staring out the window, desperately hoping we wouldn’t become the subjects of a news story that evening. The pilot landed that plane in about 19 and a half minutes after telling us we had 30 left in the flight. We came into the runway so hot, I think I had to grab onto another seat for stability. As you can probably imagine, I can’t fully remember. It was a mess.
“Ladies and gentlemen, we have law enforcement coming onto the aircraft to remove the individual,” we heard across the intercom. “Please stay seated until he is gone, and then we will begin exiting the aircraft.”
A handful of officers boarded the plane, heading straight to the man who caused us all a real nightmare throughout the flight.
“That’s right, put some real handcuffs on me!” the guy said. “Not this plastic shit!”
He went off the plane without much resistance, probably due to the fact that he’d been flighting off about 30 people for the last leg of the flight. That was a good thing, too, because we’d all had enough stress for one day.
That flight gave me a new perspective. Fear of the dangerous potential of other people doesn’t become truly present until you’re all in an incredibly vulnerable position, like flying thousands of feet above the ground or being in any other captive situation.
For about 30 minutes of my life, I really thought I’d go from reporter to photo on the evening news, as one of those people on Flight Whatever. I felt truly trapped, only clinging onto the hope that this man was really just a bunch of empty threats. But at that altitude, who knows. At any altitude, who knows.
So, to the violent nut job who terrified everyone on my airplane, thank you for being full of empty threats and statements. Thank you, also, for putting me in that helpless, fearful position of so many people in the news stories that my profession reports on.
It wasn’t enjoyable, but it sure was insightful.
*Seeing as I didn’t dream that this man would have a blog-worthy meltdown on the plane, the quotes are from memory rather than exact.