Flying America’s Friendly Skies

Published 7:10 am Saturday, June 17, 2017

Commentary by Dr. Don Newbury

Writing about both legs of a plane trip being among life’s most memorable experiences is unlikely. A medical emergency flying out and a fire engine on the return to Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport helped to make it so.

I was en route to interview for an interim position at Indiana Wesleyan University in Marion, IN. During American Airlines’ Flight 306 to Indianapolis, a flight attendant’s announcement was jarring. “We have a medical emergency. Is there a doctor on board…a nurse…any health professional?” (She stopped short of settling for anyone who’d stayed at a Holiday Inn Express last night.)

Learning the emergency was over and that a physician had responded, I joked, “I’m a doctor of philosophy, and almost raised my hand.” She was ready for my “outside-the-box” comment. “No bother,” she answered, “The passenger’s illness was physical, not philosophical.” Well, all righty then, thought I.

AA’s Flight 1382 the following night proved to be touching, amusing and cathartic. Veteran flight attendant Kim was all aflutter, making sure all bases were covered for the retirement of Captain John A. Hechinger. Upon DFW arrival, he would walk away from a 28-year AA career.

Passengers wrote warm notes, as instructed, and were pre-advised about the final moments of the flight. Upon arrival, we knew the flashing lights on emergency vehicles would be in “honor mode.” Much was right with the world as we experienced the “water cannon” salute. While it welcomed him to retirement, it also reminded me there are far worse places to be. I have enjoyed reasonable health after open-heart surgery, and am supported by a wife of more than 50 years and an extended family of a dozen others. As a bonus, there still are some folks who tolerate my weekly columns and speaking engagements.

AA’s newest retired pilot, only 60, is ready to be a tourist. It all begins with a flight to England and Wimbledon.

The New York native and Cornell graduate is married to another Air Force officer. Susanne, a Californian, was a Colonel in the Texas Air National Guard, earlier serving as a wing commander in Kuwait. They met and married at Shaw AFB, SC, 36 years ago.

Their children, Jennifer, 34, and Andrew, 27, both AF Captains, were present at the gate to welcome their dad home. His sister, Vivian Hechinger, flew from Florida to join the hugging. They’d have been on the flight, but there was only one seat available, and it was reserved for the Captain’s wife.

What memories, to wit: A flight attendant once told him a Thunderbird pilot was on board. “Tell him we’d like to meet him,” he said.

When the “Thunderbirder” deplaned, there was much “head scratching.” Hechinger said the man was at least 90, had unkempt hair and missing teeth.” The old timer vowed he’d “flown F-15s for the ‘birds. Hechinger knew better; the Thunderbirds never flew F-15s, so perhaps he was “on leave from make believe.” It was cinched when the oldster said Colin Powell had invited him to teach Air Force Academy cadets.

Maybe someone should tell him that Powell is an Army general, NOT Air Force.

On a Mother’s Day flight, a young boy, maybe 7-8 and travelling alone, was inconsolable. Caught in the volley of divorced parents, he continued weeping on the return to his father. Finally, the flight attendant sought Hechinger’s assistance. Attempting to calm the youngster, he asked if the lad had bought a Mother’s Day gift.

“I wanted to buy her a cup that said ‘I Love You’ on it, but my dad said we didn’t have time to shop.” His tears continued.

With such compassion, it’s easy to understand why AA colleagues think John Hechinger is the best.

   Too bad the new IWU interim Chancellor wasn’t on board. He, too, deserved a congratulatory “water cannon.” Awaiting his arrival is one of the most beautiful universities on the planet, and one that is solidly faith-based.

He’s a seasoned educator, returning to an area where he had served earlier at a nearby university.

I predict that he will serve there with distinction.


Dr. Newbury is a speaker in the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex. Inquiries/comments to: Phone: 817-447-3872. Web site: