This week in his Wall Street Journal "Middle Seat" column, Scott McCartney* compliments Denny Flanagan, a United Airlines captain who goes to unusual lengths to make sure his passengers enjoy rather than endure their flights with him. (Placing mass orders for food from McDonald's if passengers are stranded for hours, calling the parents of children traveling unaccompanied on his plane, etc.)

I have compliments to pass along to two of Flanagan's colleagues, United captains David Valentine, whom I have met, and Raider Ramstad, whom I haven't.

Last Saturday morning China time, when I was in the rural hinterland, I got a very early-morning mobile phone call from a friend on the U.S. east coast, where it was Friday night. For medical reasons I won't go into, it was a matter of life-and-death importance that a close friend of his in New York receive a certain medical supply, available in Shanghai, as soon as possible.

He had contacted the international courier companies -- DHL, UPS, FedEx -- and had learned that, between weekend-service issues and time allowed for customs clearance, they could not deliver it fast enough. Also, it wasn't clear that they could keep it cold, in its insulated box, long enough to survive all the stages and formalities of the journey Did I happen to know anyone flying from Shanghai to the US in the next day, who might hand-carry it?

I sent Blackberry email messages** to several friends in Shanghai, who in turn immediately asked around but didn't find any candidates. Then I thought of David Valentine.

Last October, when returning to China on United's San Francisco-Shanghai nonstop, I'd met Valentine when I got up to stretch in the aisle of the plane and he was out of the cockpit on a break. We talked about flying, sane and insane approaches to aviation security, etc, and exchanged email addresses. Maybe he was still flying in and out of Shanghai?

I sent him a Blackberry message, and he swung into all-out action. He found out through United the names of the pilots scheduled for the next day's flight from Shanghai, and although he didn't know them, he got in touch with them. He saw that the pilot scheduled on the day after that was someone he did know, Raider Ramstad. The two of them began acting as if getting the medicine to New York fast was their responsibility -- even though their connection with the affected parties was attenuated indeed. (The patient-> my friend -> me -> Valentine -> Ramstad.)

Because of a screwup on the Chinese supplier's end, the shipment just missed Ramstad's flight -- and got onto one a few hours later, through other arrangements. But that was not for any lack of time, effort (checking with United to see what exactly was permitted), willingness to expose themselves to hassle (customs-clearing the medicine), and personal expense (many calls to China) by these two United pilots. And all on behalf of someone they didn't know and hadn't heard of before the call for help came in. I thank and salute them.


* I "know" McCartney electronically through the online forum for Cirrus airplane owners.

** The unevenness of today's communications: I was in a place with no internet service and practically no landline telephones. But the phone call came in on my Chinese mobile phone, on the omnipresent China Mobile network; and my Blackberry, running on TMobile, was able to piggyback on that same China Mobile network to send and receive email.

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