On Never Giving Up, or Reaching Chicago from the North via Arkansas

We expected a high-school trip across an ocean would introduce our son David to lifestyles far different from his own in southern Arkansas. What we didn’t realize is that one of the biggest lessons and eye-opening experiences occurred before he even boarded the plane.
Japan’s flag

Our middle son, David, has always identified as a Japanophile: as a teenager he studied karate, read manga and anime, and followed the Japanese rock star Gackt https://gackt.com/. During the fall of his junior year in high school, 2005, David was invited to visit Japan with Chicago-based People to People Student Ambassador Group https://www.ptpi.org/, a travel service for young people, the following August. When we told him we’d pay for half the trip, he immediately began washing cars and mowing yards to earn the remainder. He also attended local People to People meetings and researched Japanese history and culture.

We booked a 6:17 Monday a.m. flight out of Little Rock http://www.fly-lit.com/ to O’Hare http://www.airport-ohare.com/ airport, where David would meet his group then continue across the Pacific to Osaka. He was flying to Chicago on a different airline (one not available through Little Rock), and would have to run his suitcase through security again at O’Hare, but it was all part of becoming a responsible traveler. Students were expected to prepare for diverse opportunities. My husband Jeff taught David how to tie a Windsor knot and we reviewed where to find the dessert spoon at a formal dinner. The week before he left, we rolled up khakis, stuffed socks into dress shoes, tucked in Band-Aids, extra batteries, the 5,000 yen we’d ordered for expenses before he exchanged money, a journal. By the time he zipped the bag for the last time, David was tired of packing and especially my non-solicited travel advice

The Sunday night before the trip, Jeff, a private pilot, flew us in our Baron B58, N5476B, to Little Rock.  At the hotel, we confirmed David’s flight: on schedule. We reviewed all he would have to take care of by himself at O’Hare: Go to baggage claim and retrieve your suitcase. Recheck it and clear security again. Go to Terminal 1 to meet your group. Don’t make any jokes. Don’t take candy or gum from anybody. Don’t talk to strangers.

At the airport 5:15 a.m. Monday, the ticket agent informed us that David’s plane had a mechanical problem and they were flying in technicians from Dallas to repair it. The plane would not leave for Chicago before 10:30. As the group plane to Osaka departed Chicago at noon, David would not make it.

The agent helpfully noted, “There’s a flight leaving in twenty minutes for Charlotte SC connecting to Chicago, but you can’t get on it.”

We pleaded, “He’s a minor; he’s got to make that international flight.”

She conferred with her supervisor, and returned with a non-negotiable “no.” She smiled, “If you’d been here fifteen minutes earlier, you could have made the other flight.”

We had arrived when we thought the terminal opened. I wanted to remind her, “If your plane didn’t have a problem, we’d make the flight.” But it wouldn’t help any.

I began calling the Chicago People to People leaders and their national switchboard, located in Washington state. As it was only 5:45 a.m. Central time, the switchboard wouldn’t open for over three more hours. I cruised through about ten Emergency options before finally reaching one of the Chicago leaders, Randy, who informed me he’d be leaving for the airport soon and wouldn’t be taking his cell phone.

Me: “You’re the only person I can contact with the group and you’re not taking your cell phone?”

Randy: “Well, I won’t need it there.”

Thanks a lot. Randy handed me off to Scott, People to People’s “aviation specialist.” Scott rattled off options: “There is another flight for Osaka at 10 pm tonight, as well as the noon flight the next day…Funny,” he mused, “It will land before the 10 pm flight does.”

The idea of our seventeen-year old son sitting in O’Hare by himself, crossing the Pacific by himself, and trusting the People to People representative to find him in a country which didn’t even use our alphabet much less our language, then unite him with the group, neither amused nor appealed to Jeff or me. David needed to make today’s flight. Scott offered to alert the airline in Chicago, but doubted they’d hold the flight for a single passenger.

We reviewed our options. Jeff could fly us south in the twin engine to El Dorado to pick up the flight charts that were mandatory for such a cross country trip, then head straight into O’Hare to reach David’s group. It seemed like a great idea at the time; it was our only hope. We zipped to El Dorado where a loyal employee met us at the hangar with flight books around 6:30 a.m.

A specific example of O’Hare’s legendary traffic: almost 78 million passengers flew through in 2016. Air Traffic Control (ATC) assigns planes a reservation number (slot) good for a 15-minute window for landing. Jeff was concerned that the slot he’d applied for would be too early. Furthermore, we couldn’t locate Illinois airport pages in the books the employee brought. We rushed to a pilot friend’s hangar and commandeered his book, hoping he wouldn’t need to make an emergency flight to O’Hare that day.

We took off from El Dorado a little after 7, our destination the mighty O’Hare International. Before we passed Camden, a town 35 minutes from El Dorado, we learned that O’Hare wasn’t accepting any arrivals from the south. The Air Traffic Controller twice asked, “State your intentions.” Jeff twice replied, “Standby, I’ll let you know.”

Soon the St. Louis Arch loomed on our left. David and I kept repeating, “We’re not going to make it, are we?”

Jeff responded, “We’ll just keep flying north and hope something happens.” He had already requested tracking from Signature, the general aviation FBO (Fixed Base Operation) for private aircraft, where we would land if we were lucky. The tracking would insure that a vehicle would be ready to whisk us to the commercial terminal.

The 12,000-ft altitude reduced my oxygen level. Furthermore my eyeballs stuck to my eyelids from dehydration. I had assumed we’d drop David at LR security for the original 6:17 flight then be home by 8:00. I had planned a yard work day; therefore had taken no pains with my appearance. No makeup, scarcely a brush run through my bangs: I was wearing the same clothes I’d had on the day before.

I sat there like a rag doll. We hadn’t had breakfast and our empty stomachs protested. We finally broke into David’s Pacific-flight snacks. The closest approach to nutrition was a Trix cereal bar. The thought of eating something pink, purple, and lime green nearly made me nauseated. Nevertheless, I ate one and felt better. “Any port in a storm” was the day’s motto. David sat in the back in a fear-induced stupor. He had dreamed of and worked hard to take this trip; how little control we now had.

When Jeff contacted Chicago Approach, stating his intentions, the controller said, “You’ve already tried that this morning, haven’t you, 5476Bravo?  No landings from the south.”

So we were denied a landing slot again. Jeff proposed that we land from the north. Coming from Arkansas!

Wanting to discourage Jeff from landing our twin engine at the busy commercial airport, the controller suggested, “Why don’t you try Midway?”

Jeff shot back, “I have a minor on board who needs to make a connecting international flight. I don’t care how you vector me. I have got to land at O’Hare.”

The controller paused, then spit out, “Turn left, 270.”

Glorious words! We were going to fly west, then north, then east, then south, but we were being routed to land from the north. In the meantime, a storm had popped up west of Chicago. To keep us safely behind it, the controller routed us 45 miles farther west of Chicago, then north. I began to laugh—we were even facing supernatural interference. Maybe David wasn’t supposed to make that flight. I murmured what I hoped sounded more like a prayer than a dare: “GOD, You can surely keep him off this flight. In the meantime, we’re going to do everything we can to get him on it.”

Recounting all the steps we would have after landing gave me the illusion I was doing something to make our quest successful: taxi the plane to Signature, get out, and secure the shuttle. Load David’s baggage, drive to the terminal, locate the right airline. Wait in line for check in, pass through security, dash to the gate. The clock kept moving, tick tock tick. Our chances wouldn’t appeal to a gambler. I planned to throw myself at the nearest ticket agent and only hope that she, too, was a mother.

Consistent with the day’s challenges, the controller assigned Jeff a runway far from the general aviation terminal. A Boeing 737 was barreling up behind us. The controller grumbled, “5476B, can you maintain current air speed?”

Jeff ‘s reply: “If you’ll let me keep descending.” Our air speed indicated the yellow, or caution, zone already.

We finally touched down around 11:15, four hours after takeoff from El Dorado. But many hurdles awaited us. In flight chart books, most airports are represented by a single page detailing their ground map, diagrams for landings and taxiway instructions. In ’05, O’Hare alone had twenty-three pages of taxi diagrams. We were daunted, but we weren’t giving up. Jeff requested “progressive taxi,” or turn-by-turn instructions to navigate the maze of runways and taxiways to reach Signature. The Ground Control tower barked commands:

…Left turn on High speed taxi November 3. Right turn on November to Echo Echo to Bravo to Hotel 3 to Poppa Poppa to Tango Tango to Signature Flight support.  

[Note: these aren’t verbatim directions; they represent what my then-befuddled layperson’s mind absorbed. In fact, all aviation references represent a passenger’s–not a professional’s–understanding of the world of flying.]

Airports list taxiways as single letters, but the alphabet isn’t sufficient for O’Hare, which has doubles: EE, PP, TT, and so on. They move traffic, no amateur dealings. I scribbled as fast as I could, bewildered and unable to find all the letters and numbers on the map. Jeff scoured the field for taxiway signs. We certainly didn’t want to get lost on the runways, especially under the watchful eye of the no-nonsense Control Tower. As we tottered along in front of a jet, I felt like a ladybug. We could easily be squashed beneath that behemoth. To our right, a line of commercial jets sat connected with walkways to the terminal, being emptied and refilled of humans and their trappings. I wondered if one of them were David’s. I also asked myself, if I had known what it would take to get my son delivered, would I have even attempted this trip?

As soon as we arrived at Signature, a gray van appeared right beside our plane: the shuttle to the main terminal, a blessed stroke of luck. We catapulted out, flung in David’s suitcase, and the driver sped us right to the international area.

I began to spill our story to a lady in uniform who led us toward a counter. On the way, a blond, blue-eyed teenager called out in broken English about Frahnk-foort, and she stopped to help him, halting our anemic progress. I thought, okay, kid, we had this lady first. I was terrified that we’d made it this far, against all odds, and some youth from Frankfort was going to spoil our success. He was so tall that the main thing that kept me from decking him and yelling, wait your turn, idiot! was the knowledge that I’d probably only reach his Adam’s Apple. Plus, any violence now would cause David to miss his flight. I could scarcely restrain myself. But the agent answered the youth’s questions and he sauntered off, no hurry, no worries at all.

Flight agents recognized David’s official red People to People polo shirt and uttered the magic words:  “You’ll make it. Your flight has been delayed because of weather.” Thus the storm we had to fly behind had grounded his jet.

As is often the case, our exhaustive instructions about Chicago were irrelevant now. They checked his bag, directed us to security, and suddenly it was time to say goodbye. After so much going wrong that morning, I still wasn’t convinced he’d make it.

The final moments had been extremely critical, and we had survived with scant hope. After practically shoving him toward the checkpoint, I began to sob. I wasn’t crying because my son was flying halfway across the globe (well maybe a little), but from fatigue, hunger, and stress. I tried to hide my anxiety from David, but, still in shock from the morning’s trauma, he was attempting a game face, too. Another Chicago leader telephoned. I assured her David was in the security line on his way. She offered activity suggestions for Jeff and me, supposing we had planned all along to sight-see in Chicago.

We hadn’t thought of anything beyond getting David on board. We still hadn’t had breakfast (it was past noon).  We watched our son clear security then turn to his right. At the last minute he looked our way and waved, slightly pale, before moving out of sight. I felt as if I could have turned into a puddle on the floor.

Back at Signature, our only lunch resources were vending machines. Here we were in this cosmopolitan metropolis, Hog Butcher to the World and Wheat Stacker, having left global menu choices at O’Hare, and all we could get were peanut butter crackers. I nibbled them gratefully enough, still shaking with what we’d been through.

Soon the storm let up, and Jeff filed a flight plan. We walked to our little twin engine. On the tarmac, we studied the flight charts again to determine how to taxi out of the terminal apron and onto the correct runway.

We advanced along the taxiway, assuming our place in line with the jumbo jets for takeoff. I watched a 767 lumbering ahead of us, then it turned.  I waved. Maybe, just maybe, a seventeen-year-old Arkansas boy on board was looking out his window, realizing he was on his way to Japan.

The hard part wasn’t over yet. We had a head wind going home. Again I was oxygen-depleted, dehydrated, and hungry. I’m not sure David or I, as passengers, can appreciate Jeff’s accomplishment in landing a six-seater at the busiest airport in the world, with no previous preparation or planning. Our crazy flight to O’Hare reaffirmed to us all that no matter what’s facing us or who’s telling us what we cannot do, we must keep pushing.

Believe in dreams and keep aiming for the skies-

David shot Kinkakuji (the Golden Pavilion), which he says is really gold, in Kyoto.


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