Rarefied Air

April 21, 2022

FLY ENOUGH, and every so often you’ll encounter this or that famous — or infamous — person.

Maybe it’s a pop star. Maybe a film star. Maybe a newscaster, an athlete, or a washed-up comedian nobody remembers (see below). Maybe it’s 1981 and you’re a ninth-grader, standing in baggage claim at the Los Angeles airport, and the actor known as “Mr. T” walks past you with his entourage.

As a pilot, I have the added thrill of not just seeing or perhaps sharing a row of seats with whomever it is, but being somewhat indispensable to whatever journey he or she is embarking on — be it a flight home from an awards show or a trip to rehab. They’re counting on me.

Or so it’s fun to think…


The thing about Mr. T is that he was short. Or shorter than he should have been, as I understood it. There’s always something about a celebrity that catches you off guard.

Spike Lee was on board once. This was a shuttle flight from Boston to La Guardia. Lee also is on the shorter side, but I knew that ahead of time.

Kevin McHale, the Hall of Fame basketball star from the Boston Celtics, is not short. One afternoon I was working a flight from Atlanta to San Francisco, and Kevin was sitting in first class. “You and me go way back,” I said to him. This was a reference to the days in the early 1980s when I followed every Celtics game, and McHale was the power forward of the team’s “big three” attack, along with Larry Bird and Robert Parish.

(As it happens, some years ago I was waiting to appear on a local television show, and I shared the green room with none other than Robert Parish. It was just the two of us, and we chatted for a few minutes. That was cool.)

About two months after the flight to San Francisco, I was standing at the gate in Boston waiting to board a plane to JFK, when I looked over and there, again, was Kevin McHale. “Hey!” I said. “I flew you out to San Francisco a couple of months ago!”

Kevin McHale didn’t seem impressed. I guess I don’t blame him.

Another time it was Dan Rather. “What’s the frequency, Kenneth?” I said to the captain. He didn’t get the joke. You probably don’t, either. It’s an old reference.

Dan Rather is old. I’m old. Everyone is old.

Kirk Douglas was certainly old. He lived to be 103. And although I never met or flew Kirk Douglas, I did carry his famous son, the actor Michael, on a run from JFK to LAX. I learned later that Michael had been en route to his father’s centennial birthday celebration.

I knew who Michael Douglas was right away, but in general my celebrity recognition skills are poor.

Kanye West was on my plane coming back from Zurich. I remember he walked aboard carrying a glass of cognac that he’d taken from the lounge. I was standing near the doorway, and as he passed I made some goofy remark about people bringing drinks onto planes. A flight attendant took me aside and told me the guy was Kanye West. I had only the vaguest idea who Kanye West was, and until that moment couldn’t have told you what he looked like.

Another night, there was a buzz among the cabin crew because “one of the Kardashians” was sitting in row two. I seemed to be the only person on the plane who didn’t know what a Kardashian was. I’d heard the name enough times, sure, but it didn’t mean much to me. I knew they were a celebrity family for some bizarre reason — though, to me, the name has always makes me think of an arms dealer or a Wall Street villain. When I looked over at row two, I saw a pleasantly dressed woman reading a magazine. This was a Kardashian?

Which one was it? I don’t remember.

At the gate in Los Angeles one morning, a couple come aboard and take their place in business class. They have a kid with them, a toddler. They’re conspicuous for a few different reasons. For one, their clothes and haircuts are — I don’t know how to describe it, exactly. Flamboyant, I guess is the word. The woman has plumes of hair going in all directions, like Sideshow Bob. The kid, who is maybe three, has a miniature version of the same hair, but in a more vertical, mohawk style. He’s wearing a brightly striped onesie outfit that appears to be made of silk. He’s kicking and fussing and screaming. Later I’m told that that the woman is the singer Alicia Keys, and the little troublemaker is her son.

Would you recognize the former news anchor Katie Couric? I didn’t, but she was on my plane a few years ago, and, long story short, ended up borrowing my iPhone charger. I gave Ms. Couric my card and told her to let me know if ever she needed help with a story about airplanes or airlines. One morning, not long afterwards, she called me at home, with questions about something that had been in the news. I forget what the topic was, and nothing ever came of it.

I flew the actor F. Murray Abraham out of Bucharest, Romania. This was a big one for me, because Abraham has the starring role in what, to me, is the funniest scene even filmed in the history of television. I’m talking about the Russian Tea Room scene with Louis C.K. during season three of the show “Louie.” You can view it here. The genius of this scene can’t be overstated. I wanted to tell the actor that, but I kept my mouth shut.

I did not keep my mouth shut the afternoon I flew Anthony Bourdain from Ireland to the U.S. This was in 2012, shortly before my book was published. The title of my book is, of course, a derivative ripoff of Bourdain’s famous book, “Kitchen Confidential.” I’d always felt uneasy about this, and here was my chance to let Mr. Bourdain know. “The publisher forced it on me,” I said to him, lying through my teeth.

He laughed.

And we haven’t even gotten to presidents…

I’ve met three presidents. None of them American presidents, but presidents nevertheless. The first of them was John Atta Mills, the semi-beloved leader of Ghana. Mills died in 2012, but during his tenure he rode aboard my airplane at least twice.

I also had the honor of meeting and flying the President of Guyana, Bharat Jagdeo. (Contrary to what my father and others seem to think, Ghana and Guyana are in fact different countries, on different continents, with different presidents to boot.)

Third on the list is Ellen Johnson Sirlief, Nobel Peace Prize laureate and former President of Liberia. I met her four times, including once at a reception at Roberts Field. On one of those occasions, I asked if she’d be kind enough to sign a copy of our flight plan. She obliged, writing her name in green ink at the bottom of the dot-matrix printout.

Things have worked out well for me, I think. Years ago, when I was puttering around over Plum Island, sweating to death in some noisy old Cessna, the idea that one day I’d be be carrying presidents in the back of my plane would have struck me as ludicrous.

Next we have the would-be presidents…

Doing this chronologically, we have to go all the way back a weekend afternoon in 1980. I’m at Boston’s Logan Airport, planespotting with a pair of my junior high pals, when who disembarks from a TWA jet only a few feet in front of us but Jerry Brown, then-governor (and, later, governor again!) of California. Brown was running for President that year along with Jimmy Carter, John Anderson and Ronald Reagan.

In addition to his political aspirations, Governor Brown, a.k.a. “Governor Moonbeam,” is known for his dabbling in Buddhism, his long liaison with Linda Ronstadt, and his appearance in one of the most famous punk rock songs — the Dead Kennedys’ “California Über Alles.”

Six years after that, on a Sunday morning in 1990, I’m standing at Teterboro Airport, a busy general aviation field in New Jersey, close to New York City. A private jet pulls up. The stairs come down, and out steps Jesse Jackson and several burly bodyguards. Jackson walks into the terminal, passing me by inches.

The following summer I’m back at Logan, using a payphone in Terminal E. Suddenly Ted Kennedy is standing at the phone next to me, placing a call. (Quaint, I know, in this age of wireless, but there’s the famous Senator, the brother of JFK, slipping dimes into the slot.) I’m talking to a friend, and I surreptitiously hold up the receiver. “Listen,” I say, “whose voice is this?”

“Sounds like Ted Kennedy,” she reckons. And it is.

Next it’s 1994. Logan again, and I’m in the captain’s seat of a Northwest Airlink 19-seater, preparing for departure to Baltimore. Up the front stairs comes Michael Dukakis, who in 1988 had lost the election in a landslide to George Bush the Elder. He stops briefly behind the cockpit and says hello.

After we land in Baltimore, Dukakis thanks us for the ride and remarks, “Not a lot of room in here.” Even at 5’8″ he’s right about that. The Metroliner’s skinny, tubular fuselage earned it the nickname “lawn dart.”

“Yeah,” I answer, “It’s not exactly Air Force One.”

Meanwhile, intentionally or otherwise, the Duke has left a sheaf of important-looking papers in his seat pocket — probably because he’s run to a phone to cuss out his secretary for booking him on that stupid little plane with the annoying pilot. I carry the papers inside to the counter. “Here,” I say to the agent. “These belong to Mike Dukakis.” She looks at me like I’m crazy.

In 2012 I shared a shuttle flight from New York to Boston with Chelsea Clinton. She and her husband were sitting just a few rows ahead of me. At one point I was taking something down from the overhead locker when she passed me in the aisle. I was in her way and had to move aside. “Sorry,” I said. “Excuse me.”

“Thanks,” said Chelsea Clinton.

All of those people were Democrats. Rounding things off ideologically, I once had the controversial Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork on my plane. That was in the summer of 1991. Bork was riding in my rattletrap 15-seater from Boston to Nantucket.

That same summer, again to Nantucket in the same shitty plane, I flew David Atkins, better known to the world as “Sinbad,” the thankfully-forgotten actor and comedian who once had his own talk show and HBO comedy special. He sat in the back row of the Beech-99, surrounded by an entourage of beautiful women.

Okay, “thankfully-forgotten” is a cruel thing to say, even if he did wind up emceeing the Miss Universe pageant. Sinbad couldn’t have been friendlier, and in the Compass Rose restaurant at the Nantucket airport he bought me and my copilot chicken sandwiches, asking us for advice on what kind of airplane he should buy. We told him to invest in a Cessna Citation — a twin-engine executive jet — though I can’t remember why. I was making about thirteen grand a year at the time, and would have said anything for a chicken sandwich.

The great New York Yankees catcher Thurman Munson was killed at the controls of a Cessna Citation in 1979, but I don’t think we mentioned this to Sinbad.

 

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33 Responses to “Rarefied Air”
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  1. Clark says:

    After 35 years and 4 million miles of mostly business travel, I’ve got a bunch of celeb sightings:
    – early 1990s, LHR-LIS, BA Club class, sat behind Glenn Close. Chatted briefly as we deplaned, she was friendly but with a bit of that east-coast haughtiness you would expect from her.
    – roughly same time, LHR-BUD, deplaned behind the great Michael Palin of Monty Python. While waiting in the customs line I was able to tell him that nothing made me laugh harder than the Biggus Dickus scene in Life of Brian; he seemed to enjoy that.
    – mid-2010s, MIA-ATL in DL first class, was seated next to Pittsburgh Steelers legend Lynn Swann. Friendliest guy you could imagine, we talked sports the whole flight.
    – just a few years ago, DEN-LAX UA first class, Sean Penn across the aisle from me, on the bulkhead. Dressed exactly like a trucker, complete with baseball/trucker hat. Took off his boots and planted his feet (with socks on) against the bulkhead at eye level – WTF? As we deplaned we made brief eye contact and I said “I’m a big fan of your work”, and he grunted “thanks, man”. And if anyone doubts my comment, watch Carlito’s Way or Falcon and the Snowman, or, of course, Fast Times at Ridgemont High.
    – Richard Branson on a VA short haul flight in my row in COACH! Gotta admire that from the Boss.
    – William Shatner in first on MIA-LAX. I would have happily brought up his Twilight Zone work (not a Trekkie at all), but he cranked his seat back and slept the whole way.

  2. Prasad K says:

    It was in May 2016 when we took a JetBlue flight out of LAX to JFK, and as I was boarding – right near the front seats the stewardess was very chatty with a familiar looking young lady who presumably was in First row seats. Later at JFK as we exited, this young lady looked more familiar and was with her kids – and just as we walked out, one of the tabloid websites flashed news that Olivia Wilde had taken an LAX to JFK flight, and her photos were displayed – this being our exact flight! This was such a facepalm moment for me and my teenage boys who were with me.

  3. Jeffrey Latten says:

    RE: Thurman Munson and his Cessna Citation. I’m not 100% sure of this but from what I’ve read, Thurman had no business piloting that kite. It appears he was fresh out of training in a 152 or 172, something in that class, and a high performance twin jet like the Cessna was just way over his head. Do you have some input on this? I don’t doubt this has happened before…lots of people have more money than brains.

  4. Many years ago, we weborded an LAX-SFO SSouthwest flight with our 2-year-old son and sat behind an older gentleman who scowled at him — George Jessel (if anyone remembers him). Shortly afterwards, Milton Berle boarded and received a round of applause from the passengers, except for Jessel, who scowled more. Berle acknowledged the applause with a big smile. Jessel appeared even more grumpy. 🙂

    Ray Manzarek (Doors keyboard) and I were college classmates. Years late, wre were on the same Pan Am JFK-LAX flight and chatted in the aisle for a few minutes, earning the envy of my colleagues.

  5. Alan says:

    In 2004 I attended as a delegate my first and only Democratic National Convention in Boston in 2004 was giddy from a week of literally bumping into famous people and having a chance to briefly chat with some of them like Jerry Springer (nice guy by the way). On my Northwest flight from Boston to Minneapolis I noticed that some older gentleman got up right after the seatbelt sign went off and spent over half an hour standing in the aisle taking to someone. It took me a while to recognize him and the FA confirmed to me when I asked that it really was former VP Walter Mondale! And it turned out that the person he was talking to was George McGovern! This made an already amazing week even more amazing…

  6. Charles Lief says:

    Very cool mini-memoir, Patrick! Thank you for sharing it!

  7. Marc Friedman says:

    Clearly I haven’t flown as often as you, but I have at least crossed paths with a few interesting folks, including Kevin McHale! He was en route to IAH from MSP when he was the coach of the Houston Rockets. Totally agree that he wasn’t the friendliest guy, but I’m sure at 6’11” he was recognized by lots of people.

    A couple other fun people. I sat across the aisle in F class from Walter and Eleanor Mondale from DCA to MSP. They were cordial and conversational. That’s a trip I’ll never forget.

    But my favorite was with Lou Holtz, the nutjob football coach. At the time he was the U of Minnesota coach, and for some reason he was flying MSP to SNA on Republic Airlines, MD-80 in coach, way in the back on a half empty aircraft. He was the row behind me and very animated and kind of weird. In the middle of several minutes long conversation he decided he had to floss his teeth He had 3 seats to himself so plenty of room to stretch out, floss, and carry on a conversation.

    Did I mention weird?

    Happy trails!

    Oh, and I forgot the dead guy on a Korean Air flight from JFK to SEL. He died a couple of hours into the trip somewhere over Canada, but we continued onward since he was already gone, in his sleep. They covered him with a couple of blankets and everything else in F class continued as usual. Double weird.

  8. Nathan Carruth says:

    I realize this is not a true celebrity sighting, but I have to record this here. I took a UA flight from DEN to DFW last night, and would you believe it – but when the captain came on the PA he introduced himself as Charles Lindbergh. I did a double take, looked around at my fellow passengers as if to say, “Did you hear that? Charles Lindbergh is flying our plane!” But as usual they were engrossed in any number of things; no one else seemed to notice.

    When I got off the plane, it appeared he was standing at the front chatting with a flight attendant. I greeted him and expressed my good natured disbelief that Charles Lindbergh had just been our captain. Both he and the flight attendant laughed,, and he made the comment that he really didn’t have a choice of profession, with a name like that. Indeed.

  9. Vidiot says:

    I work in TV news and live in New York, so occasionally get to see famous people at work and around the city.

    But on airplanes:
    –the Sugar Hill Gang, in matching satin jackets, on an AirTran flight (I believe ATL-LGA);
    –Letterman’s stage manager Biff Henderson on my RDU-LGA flight (he’s from Durham);
    –was in F on an AA shuttle DCA-LGA with Eric Trump in August 2016. He sat one row ahead of me and talked incessantly on the phone (including about the “shoddy paneling in the ballroom” in, I guess, the soon-to-open Trump International Hotel in DC) until the door was closed, at which point he played Tetris non-stop through the flight. (A Russian game seems on point.) He was met by cops at LGA and whisked out of the airport totally unnecessarily;
    –and when I was 21 or so, I was boarding an LHR-DUB flight and walked past Oliver North in F. Saw him at baggage claim and went up to him and gushed over him at length, saying that I was so glad his felony convictions had been overturned on a technicality, and that he was an inspiration for lying to Congress and capitalizing on it for his career. He was bemused.

  10. ChrisGo says:

    He’s no Kevin McHale, but I ran into Manute Bol at Kansas City International in the early 2000’s, OMG so tall!

  11. john goldfine says:

    BGR-BOS: George Carlin, reading the NY Times, had a gig at UMaine night before.

  12. ad_jnk says:

    In 50+ years of flying, my list is really short:
    * Ted Kennedy: BOS-DCA
    * Cecil Fielder: BOS-DET
    * John Williams: bathroom @ BOS. I sometimes refer to him as my “urinal buddy”: he “parked” next to me. 🙂

  13. Mark Harrison says:

    Kai Tak was amazing because it didn’t matter who you were, you could not avoid being seen by everyone because it was so small; and because it was a major hub for Asian traffic.

    I saw Bo Derek (if you’re under 45, y’all gonna have to google her) in the early 90’s. I had never actually seen the movie and it took me a while to remember who she was. A very elegant lady in real life.

  14. Gwendolyn says:

    Stu…I didn’t know who he was til after I got off the plane and met my family in NY. Tho I DID know what he represented.

  15. UncleStu says:

    Gwendolyn wins! She made her first flight with Jimmy Doolittle.

    Can’t top that.

  16. Evan says:

    In BNA today the Ops agent comes down and excitedly says “You have a VIP in 1C, be cool and pretend you don’t know who it is.” Of course me and the A line immediately look at her device and see a name neither of us recognize. Apparently a famous country music star (Nashville…of course). We say sure, we will be cool 🙂

  17. I share your nostalgic appreciation for the Big three and the Celts of the 80s. If I could only get back the hours of time i spent watching them in their first round playoffs and all the rest. Miss those players.

  18. Pete Paradis says:

    “So that he does not catch her wretchedness”.

    I cannot dispute the greatness of that scene.

    Hilarious.

  19. Dave Scheff says:

    Translator had just finished mixing our third album in NY and boarded a plane bound for SF. Richie Havens boarded after us and his seat was next to mine. The flight attendant said to me “bet you thought you were the rock stars on this flight!” He was a great companion, we talked about the 60’s, how he wrote “Freedom” on the fly at Woodstock, about my band and how different things were now, philosophy, politics…it was such a trip. What a great guy.

    On a flight from Burbank to SF I sat next to Wavy Gravy, he was absolutely genuine and sweet, told me to look him up “my phone number’s in the book under Wavy Gravy, nobody thinks it’s really me!”

    Final story – on another SW flight I sat behind Sully Sullenberger, who had the row to himself. He was fussing around looking in all his pockets and said to the FA “I know I had one of those drink tickets but I can’t find it.” “Captain,” she said, “I think we can buy you a drink.”

  20. Daniel C Gless says:

    Only person of ANY consequence that I ever saw at an airport was Dave Madden, AKA Reuben Kincaid, the manager of the Partridge Family. Seeings how it was at Gerald R. Ford airport here in GRR I guess that’s about all I could expect.

  21. Gwendolyn says:

    I’m an old lady.. But as a 16 year old I flew for the first time (from a small city in PA )to NY to be in a cousin’s wedding.
    As I boarded the plane (a DC3) an older gentleman stood aside to let me go first.

    Thus, thereafter, I’ve always been able to say I made my first flight with Jimmy Doolittle.
    (Who’d been in town to address a group of local business men.)

  22. Scott says:

    I too saw Jesse Jackson, waiting for a hotel elevator, the doors opened up and there he was, with security. Stunningly charismatic.

    Aviation wise, stood next to Chick Corea while boarding separate flights in Hong Kong (Kai Tak). Had his band, all carrying their instruments (sans piano). Yes, he was short.

  23. Bob Porter says:

    One late afternoon as I was working on the line at OMNI Beechcraft at Beverly Airport, my friend “Fanjet” came rushing over to me to say that James Brown’s Lear Jet was over at North Atlantic. With that we both went over and started to make small talk with the pilot and copilot.
    The white Lear had “James Brown Enterprises” and “Soul Man Number one” in shining gold letters on the white tail and fuselage. Minutes later the limo pulls in and out in James Brown style he jumps with a couple of beautiful young women. He had done a show/appearance at Salem State I was told. Of course I asked him for and autograph. “Get me a piece of paper,” I did and he writes, “Be Cool and Stay in School” and in to the plane they went. I still have that somewhere fifty or more so years later.

  24. Mad dog says:

    My very short sighting : Rocky Stallone (5′ 10″ my foot; if he is I am 6′ 4″, not!)

  25. Avg Citizen says:

    I got on an American Airlines flight from LAX to BNA (then the only non-stop between LA and Nashville) and just as I rounded the corner to the cabin, there was Dolly Parton to my right in row 1. Startled, I said ‘Hi’ and she smiled and said ‘Hi’ back.

    I like to hear from anyone who has flown with DB Cooper!

  26. Javier says:

    Exellent. Amusing and interesting by equal measure!

  27. D J says:

    Back in the mid 80’s, while waiting at a check-in counter at Philadelphia International, my fiance (now wife) and I saw ’76er, Charles Barkley in the queue close by. He proceeded to change clothes, down to his boxers, seemingly without a care in the world. I wonder if he still does that now….

  28. Michael Kennedy says:

    I had Patrick Smith, famous aviator and author, on my plane once. He worked the radios as I recall.

  29. Thomas Flynn says:

    I have only had a few celebrity sightings in my 50+ years of flying…

    I was on an early morning flight out of YYZ to BOS. I was in row 2 and lo and behold the great Bobby Orr was in the row in front of me and across the aisle. I so wanted to get his autograph on my boarding pass…but did not want to bother the poor guy so early in the morning.

    My boss and I were on the non-stop Delta flight from SVO to JFK years ago sitting in the first row of Business Class. We could see some activity up in First Class…it was Mikhail and Raisa Gorbachev and their interpreter Pavel Palazhchenko (he was the bald-headed man with a mustache who was always seen by Mikhail Gorbachev’s side) – a few times during the flight they got out of their seats and we could see them from our perch. And yes, MG’s birthmark does look somewhat like the map of South America.

    My last encounter was on a Thai Airways flight from BKK to LAX (fuel stop in KIX). We were confirmed in Business Class, but at the gate we and many others booked in Business Class were told we had to schlepp it in Economy. Evidently, one of the princesses of Thailand decided to make an impromptu visit to the U.S. She was in First Class and her entourage basically took up all the seats in Business Class. Since that trip, I have never been impressed by royalty…and my sorry ass still has not recovered from that 15 hour trip across the Pacific!

  30. Speed says:

    Once upon a 727 I was a passenger travelling from Washington DC to Cleveland, Ohio with US Senator Howard Metzenbaum and his aid aboard. About eight minutes after departure, we turned around and returned to Washington — “mechanical” problem of some sort.

    As we deplaned the Senator’s aid assured us that we wouldn’t have to wait long because “We have a US Senator on board.”

  31. Another JT says:

    Having spent some time flying into and out of Washington, DC, it was relatively common to end up on a flight with various political figures. I’ve shared flights with several congress members and some high profile advisors. In general, I’ve tried to avoid them as much as possible rather than say anything I might regret later.

    On the non-political front, most entertaining was being delayed during a December snowstorm in Pittsburgh along with an NHL player trying to get home to Montreal, who was using every bit of his fame and charm to try and get any info or upgrades from the gate staff, and not getting anywhere with it.

  32. Steve Waller says:

    Ah yes, the What’s The Frequency reference – the classic REM song! Full background is on Wikipedia – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/What%27s_the_Frequency,_Kenneth%3F

  33. Eric says:

    Okay, so my brushes with celebrity are pretty infrequent:

    At (don’t remember the airport) John Gruden walked right past me in the terminal; he was very short, dressed in Raiders garb (this was during his second stint as Raiders head coach…before he was fired). I called my wife and told her, and she asked me to get his autograph. I went in the direction I saw him walking, but never found him. He could have been standing behind a trash can and would have pretty much been hidden due to his size.

    At XNA in Arkansas, a woman with a striking resemblance to Meg Ryan walked by me; she was totally alone, without any entourage. I thought “That lady sure looks like Meg Ryan”, but couldn’t think of why she would be at a small airport in the middle of nowhere. It kept bugging me, so I googled for any reason she would be at XNA, and lo and behold there was some art festival in Fayetteville that Meg Ryan was an honorary guest for. So…it really was her, and she was probably flying back home. She had a really weird limp when she walked.

    And Patrick, I consider it a badge of honor that I’ve never seen a single episode of “Keeping Up With The Kardashians”, but all you need to know is that Kardashians are famous…for being famous. That’s pretty much it.