Exclusive: Interview with American Airlines pilot who told Christian passengers to raise their hands

BY admin

February 11 2004 1:00 AM ET

"If you have five minutes, I'll tell you why I did it," American Airlines captain Roger Findiesen told Advocate.com as Flight 34 had all but emptied out after its arrival at New York's JFK Airport, on Friday, February 6. "I felt that God was telling me to say something [to the passengers]."

Findiesen is the pilot about whom CNN and other media have been reporting since Saturday; even The New York Times ran a story about how an American Airlines pilot, using the P.A. system before takeoff from Los Angeles International Airport on Friday morning, requested that Christians on his flight identify themselves.

As the plane sat immobile, waiting for its slot to take off, Findiesen asked Christian passengers to raise their hands and said that "everyone else on board" might want to "make good use" of the flight. The implication was that non-Christians should learn about the Christian faith from the passengers who had raised their hands.

Passenger Amanda Nelligan told WCBS-TV of New York that the pilot called non-Christians "crazy" and that his comments "felt like a threat," although other passengers remember the word "crazy" having been playfully applied to the Christians on board. Nelligan said she and several others aboard were so worried they tried to call relatives on their cell phones before flight attendants assured them they were safe and that people on the ground had been notified about the pilot's comments.

Findiesen's identity has been shielded by American Airlines, but the pilot spoke candidly to The Advocate and Advocate.com editor in chief Bruce C. Steele, who identified himself to the captain at the end of the flight. Findiesen then confirmed to Steele his identity, the spelling of his name, and that his home base is Washington, D.C. At no time did Findiesen mention homosexuality or say anything antigay. During the three- to five-minute interview, he was positive and upbeat and interested only in explaining the importance of witnessing about his faith.

What Findiesen said, as best the stunned passengers could recall once they were able to move about the cabin and confer after Flight 34 took off, was this: "I just got back from a mission," Findiesen said after making a routine announcement about the plane being second in line for takeoff. "You know, they say about half of Americans are Christians. I'd just like the Christians on board to raise their hands."

In the suddenly hushed coach section of the airplane, a few nervous passengers raised one hand, most no higher than shoulder level, none above tops of the seats.

"I want everyone else on board to look around at how crazy these people are," the pilot continued, with an intonation suggesting he was using the word "crazy" in a positive, even admiring manner. Evidently addressing the non-Christian passengers, he concluded that they could "make good use of [the flight], or you can read your paper and watch the movie."

The movie on the flight was Under the Tuscan Sun, with Diane Lane and Sandra Oh as Lane's lesbian best friend.

Findiesen did not directly ask Christians to witness, nor did he explicitly ask non-Christians to talk to the people he imagined were raising their hands, but the implication that he hoped such interactions would take place was clear, and he confirmed his desire to foster religious discussion in his interview with Advocate.com.

"I just wanted to give Christians a chance to talk about why they're Christians," he said, standing in the forward galley at the end of the flight as the final passengers departed. "I obviously couldn't go back there and address everyone directly, so I used the P.A.

"I just got back from a mission in Costa Rica," said Findiesen, a tall white man with neatly trimmed thick white hair and a mustache, both lightly peppered with black. "I felt that God was telling me to say something." He went on to explain that he felt God wanted him to witness to the passengers on his first flight upon returning to work for American Airlines after his mission. Despite this feeling, he said, he had decided not to say anything--but then he got another sign from God.

A minor problem with the plane's braking system had developed during final checks before takeoff, he said, a problem that might have grounded the aircraft, on which every seat was taken, in part because another American flight from Los Angeles to New York had been canceled that morning. But after a simple maneuver involving a power source, the braking problem inexplicably "disappeared," Findiesen said, and the plane was cleared for departure, and that's when he knew he had to use the P.A. system to talk about his Christian faith.

Flight attendants were inundated with questions and complaints, and the pilot came back on to the P.A. system a couple of hours into the flight to apologize: Not to the paying passengers, but to the flight attendants. "I'd just like to apologize to the flight attendants" for the remarks he had made before takeoff, he said over the P.A. He said he had heard the crew had "taken a little heat" for his witnessing and that he would be available at the end of the flight to answer any questions or hear any complaints himself.

He then apologized again to the flight attendants and ended his announcement.

Asked by Advocate.com whether he felt he should also have apologized to his passengers, Findiesen paused. "I felt bad for the flight attendants," he said. As for the passengers, he said that he felt making himself available to talk to them as they deplaned was sufficient.

Asked whether it was part of his job as an American Airlines pilot, trusted with the safety of hundreds of passengers, to witness about his faith from the cockpit, he said it was not. But, he asserted, "there's actually no regulation against doing what I did." He also reminded Steele that the plane was not moving at the time of his original announcement.

The case was handed over to the airline's personnel department for an investigation, American Airlines spokesman Tim Wagner said Sunday. "It falls along the lines of a personal level of sharing that may not be appropriate for one of our employees to do while on the job," he said.

Because of privacy issues, there would likely never be any announcement about what kind of punishment or reprimand the pilot may face, Wagner said.

While Findiesen repeated to Steele that he was sorry his fellow crew members had taken heat for his comments, he expressed no regret for having made them and no regret for not having apologized to the American Airlines customers he was serving on the flight. But, he added, "I won't do it again, if you want to make a big deal of it."

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