I lost the lottery.
"Who hasn't?" you might ask. Everyone knows the odds are millions to one. Every ticket loses, with the rare exception.
Statistically speaking, flying on an airplane is the safest form of transportation. The odds are far greater of dying on the highway than in an aircraft. Want real risk? Ride a motorcycle, or better yet, mount a horse. In aviation, we have redundancy (at least two of everything), checklists, certified pilots and mechanics, federal oversight, and a long list of other rules and procedures that keep the airplanes safely in the air. The odds of dying in an aviation disaster mirror the odds of winning the lottery, only the consequences are life-ending instead of life-changing.
On a Wednesday summer night in 1996, I sat at my computer in Greenwich, filling out my will -- ironically. I had just received software to help me do it, and a life-changing event was coming up. My fiancee Susanne and I lived with her mom and youngest brother because we were nine days away from buying our first house, from where we would start planning our wedding.
She told me, "I'll be home in a few days, just like one of your trips, Honey Bunny." She picked up that term of endearment from her new favorite movie, "Pulp Fiction," which surprised me because she hated guns and violence and that film was ripe with both. She was on her way to Paris on business and I was sitting around on reserve, ready to fly but only if called out by crew scheduling. I'm a pilot, in case you didn't know, and Susanne was an international portfolio manager. She could balance her own checkbook down to the penny without a statement and spoke Danish, French and English fluently.
Twice before, I'd been able to trade into the flights that Susanne needed to take to Europe for business. This time the flight was a 747 and not what I flew, a 767, so it didn't work out. Plus, I needed to save my days off in the weeks ahead to close on, and move into, our new home. Instead of flying her aircraft, or riding in first class with her, I sat in my temporary bedroom/converted office in shorts and a T-shirt, sweating without air conditioning through an evening slowly cooling down from 90 degrees, when the phone rang.
"Turn on the TV! Turn on the TV!" He was yelling so loud it was hard to tell that it was my long-time buddy Glenn.
"What channel? Why?" I replied.
"Any channel. It's on all of them."
"What's on all of them?"
"Just turn one on, quick! A TWA plane went down."
"Went down? Where?" I asked.
"Off Long Island. Just turn on a damn TV!"
At first I thought, "Damn! Guaranteed I know someone on that flight. They're going to have quite a ditching story to tell. I hope nobody got hurt."
In 1996, I had 10 years as an airline pilot under my belt, eight of those at TWA. There were also the years at my aviation university as a student and as an instructor. I always knew someone when a plane went down, probably because I know so many people in the business.
First, Joe Heuchert died flying freight for Midnight Express when his trim tab jammed and his elevator cable snapped. He was one of my few friends who smoked. He told me cigarettes weren't going to kill him. I wish he was wrong.
My giant commuter airline roommate, Rick Duney, who picked me up over his head when TWA called to hire me and used to dig clams with his feet, later died in a DC-9 icing crash in Cleveland.
My one brush with a close call was when Tim, one of my best friends, missed Pan Am 103 that ended up scattered over Lockerbie, Scotland -- by a day. It's the one "It nearly happened to me" story that I get to occasionally hear. He's now a full colonel with the U.S. Air Force.
Every channel showed the breaking news. It looked like giant yellow rafts were in the water. I'm not sure what I actually saw on TV that night, but at first glance that's what it appeared to me to be, probably because that's what I was expecting. Either they were rescue rafts supplied by arriving boats, or I just saw the aircraft wreckage under yellow night lighting. Either way, I didn't remain a spectator long. I've been trained, and I know my entire airline has, too, to get everyone out of a completely full aircraft in 90 seconds even with half of the emergency exits blocked shut. I've known a ditching can be successful long before Captain Sully and his crew performed it admirably on the Hudson River.
In my head I imagined trained friends of mine coping with a difficult situation. The TV announced, "TWA 800, a flight bound for Paris "¦"
And I froze in my tracks.
"Damn! That's Susanne's flight!"
I dropped my shorts and threw on a pair of jeans. In a split second, I grabbed my airline ID. For no rational reason, I also grabbed my passport. I remember clipping my ID on my shirt like I'd need it to get out of the driveway. I was thinking I'd need it to get into the scene of the accident. I remember stuffing my passport into my jeans while dialing a person I knew would have some answers. Greg was my mentor, friend and the head of the Critical Incident Response Team for TWA. He took my call.
"Greg, I'm heading out the door. Tell me where to pick up Susanne. She's going to be pissed that she's missing her meeting, and stuck in wet clothes."
"Mark, stay right where you are. Don't go anywhere."
"No Greg, Susanne's on that flight. You won't find her on the crew list; she's a full-fare first class passenger."
"Mark, listen to me. Don't leave wherever you are. Don't go down to Long Island."
"Are you crazy? Susanne's plane just ditched. I'm going down there to get her. Are you going to tell me where to go or do I have to figure it out on my own?"
"I need to know if there's anyone there with you. I'll come if I need to. Where are you?"
"I'm halfway out the door, waiting for you to give me some damn directions."
"Mark, sit down. Listen to me. I don't want to have to be the one to tell you this on the phone, but there are no survivors."
"What do you mean? 747s can fly with both engines out on the same wing. What happened, did they lose three? What can fail so many engines -- a fuel problem?"
"Mark, listen to me. They didn't ditch. We don't know why, but it blew up. There's nowhere to go. There's no one to pick up."
It took me 13 years to finally write this story. I've told it a few times. Occasionally, someone wants to get inside my head, so they ask, "What's the hardest thing you've ever had to do?"
Without hesitation, it was the day I had to speak at an overcrowded church in front of 700 people I knew and deliver my final words for Susanne at her memorial service. I spoke a lot about her life, but remember best describing how I'd find Blistex in the pockets of every pair of pants I owned -- all put there while I was wearing them. She was addicted to the stuff but hated to carry it herself. She'd ask me to hand some to her and I'd tell her that I didn't have any. She'd smile and say, "Yes you do," and she was right.
Since then, I bought a motorcycle (I'm allergic to horses). I've been around the world alone, literally. I host an annual party so that a year doesn't go by without the opportunity to see distant friends. I deal with every situation the best that I can and I don't worry about the odds.
When I fill up my gas tank, I buy a single quick-pick lottery ticket. Some call it "the loser's tax." The odds of winning are astronomically against me, I know. Odds and statistics make great theoretical discussions -- but in real life, I've lost the lottery before.
Mark L. Berry, a Greenwich native and 1983 graduate of Greenwich High School, is an MD80 Captain for a major airline and the author of "Pushing Leaves Towards the Sun," which is dedicated to Susanne Jensen. He lives in St. Louis.