A pilot's once-in-a-lifetime adventure in Antarctica
Each week we profile one of our employee's adventures across the globe, featuring a new location. Follow along every week to learn more about their travel experiences.
By Houston-based 737 Captain Charles Scott Williams
Antarctica is a desolate, remote part of the planet that intrigued me, and with the help of Lindblad Expeditions-National Geographic, arrangements were made, and the trip was a go. Buenos Aires was the midpoint of a journey to the bottom of the world. From Buenos Aires, a charter flight took my wife and me to Ushuaia, Argentina, where we met our ship, the National Geographic Explorer, for the Drake Passage crossing to Antarctica. The reputation of rough seas across the Drake Passage preceded it and a conversation with my next door neighbor, a United States Navy veteran who had sailed this oceanic region in an aircraft carrier, didn't help ward off my apprehension of said rough seas. He told me of waves that equaled the height of his ship's flight deck. The Explorer, at 6,471 tons, is tiny in comparison to an aircraft carrier, and I envisioned bobbing like a cork on the rough seas of the Drake Passage. As it turned out, the seas provided wave heights of approximately 15 feet, which was an interesting ride, but the timing of the crossing was such that we crossed the majority of the Passage while we slept.
I awoke to bright sunshine and calm waters with icebergs floating all around. Like an excited child on Christmas morning, I lept from my bed and went to the window straight away as I woke up my wife to see this new world. Shortly thereafter, I realized that it was still only 3 a.m., as the sun shines in Antarctica for more than twenty-two hours per day during the Southern Hemisphere summer. The further south we sailed, the longer the sun kept us company. Soon we saw floating sheets of ice in the distance, adorned with black dots, that on closer inspection, turned out to be penguins. In the days to come, the ship would drop anchor and we would ride in small boats called Zodiacs from the Explorer to shore and back. Attire included life vests that we donned just as an executive wears a coat and tie to the office. As it was the 100th anniversary of Sir Ernest Henry Shackleton's voyage to Antarctica, we were given parkas with patches attached with Sir Shackleton's image. The mud room of the Explorer is the boarding point to the Zodiacs for trips to shore for hiking, and on our first foray ashore we geared up with waterproof boots, parkas with liners and gloves. Topping this all off was the life vest to add to the bulky clothing. It didn't take long waiting in the mud room to realize that this clothing makes you sweat quite readily if you are not outside in the cold Antarctic air. Upon landing, we hiked and saw thousands of nesting penguins with skua birds flying about looking for penguin eggs to steal. Penguins use stones to build their nests to protect the eggs and provide a structure while lying on the eggs to incubate them. One second of penguin inattention led to a skua bird flying off with the distracted penguin's egg.
Nature can be cruel, but this is the harsh survival reality of Antarctica. The skua landed a few feet away, broke the egg and had lunch, while a penguin family will wait another season to begin again their quest to reproduce. Another day on the exploration was spent sailing in a Zodiac looking at the different ice formations and bergs floating in the waters. To see a massive block of floating ice crack into two pieces is impressive to say the least, as well as the sound of a section of glacier breaking off, which sends explosive echoes off the surrounding mountains. Thousands of tons of glacial ice hitting the water below sends out a huge propagation wave that ripples across the ocean surface. As we toured in the Zodiac, we came across a crab-eating seal that was sunning atop a small ice sheet. Later in our exploration, we saw a pod of killer whales, 100 meters off the bow.
During the journey, I observed spectacular lenticular clouds above distant mountains that exceeded in size and structure those viewed in the Rocky Mountains in North America.
Our fellow passengers were people from all walks of life, many retired, making my wife I the second-youngest couple on the ship. One of our stops was Port Lockroy, a former English weather station from World War II. The tiny gift shop at the fort offered postcards that could be sent back to the U.S. via the Falkland Islands and then finally on to friends and relatives. The postal trip took our cards about three months! One of the unique qualities of the Explorer is that of limited ice-breaking capability. As we sailed slowly through ice-infested waters, the impact of smaller sheets of ice could be felt through the entire ship as the bow made contact and either moved the ice out of the way or split the ice in half, thus clearing the path for forward movement. On more than one occasion, the Explorer's bow was wedged into sea ice and after inspection, passengers were allowed to walk on "frozen ocean." In my past military service, I was based in Minot, North Dakota, and thought that I was at the end of the world. If you wanted to get away from it all, just go to Minot, and you'd nearly be there. After standing on frozen ocean at the bottom of the world in Antarctica, the relativity of getting away from it all was set to a much higher standard of desolation.
My waterproof boots and thick socks kept my feet warm, and the parka I wore did the same for my upper body. The cold air made my breath visible standing on the ice and taking it all in. I turned about slowly and peering into the empty distance, could hear only the blowing wind. That peaceful quiet magnified the remoteness and isolation of this special place. It's one thing to go to the edge of civilization for a peek, but I did so knowing that my "home away from home," the Explorer, was only about 200 meters away.
Although most folks consider Antarctica a lifeless place, to the contrary, Antarctica thrives with life that fights for survival every day. The life forms in Antarctica have adapted to the subzero temperatures and howling winds that plummet the chill factor much lower. One such life form is that of lichens, an orange growth that can be seen clinging to the rocks of the mountains that towered above. We were told that a sample of this was sent into the hard vacuum of space on a satellite and left for an extended period. Once retrieved, the lichens were still alive! Penguins "queue up," or stand in line to enter the water like paratroopers jammed together awaiting the green light that tells them to jump.
These Antarctic birds do so to increase their chance of survival should a crab-eating seal or other predator lie waiting beneath the water for their arrival. One after another, they dive from shore into the ocean to forage for food. Having snorkeled in The Galapagos Islands, I've seen the aquadynamic shape of a penguin zip past my dive mask and can attest to their rapid maneuverability and very capable velocity. These attributes are often called upon out of necessity to survive when a penguin is trying to "jink" away from or outrun a predator that is eyeing it as a meal.
For much of the trip, there was no, or very limited, communications with the rest of the planet. It was nice being "off line" and having no cell phone or computer beckoning my attention. This left one's focus on just being there and taking it all in. Time waits for no one, and, as the days passed, the time eventually came for us to set sail to the north for the roller coaster ride back across the Drake Passage. I stood on the fantail and took a last look aft as our compass was pointed north for Ushuaia and we left Antarctica in our wake. The light of the nighttime faded as we moved further north and back to the reality of our lives that had been held at bay briefly by the magic of Antarctica.
Right now, around the world, brave members of America's armed forces are on duty, defending our freedom and upholding our values.
When not laser-focused on the mission at hand, they're looking forward to the day when their service to our nation is fulfilled and they can reunite with their families.
They are also imagining how they can use their hard-earned skills to build an exciting, rewarding and important career when they return home.
I want them to look no further than United Airlines.
That's why we are focused on recruiting, developing and championing veterans across our company, demonstrating to our returning women and men in uniform that United is the best possible place for them to put their training, knowledge, discipline and character to the noblest use.
They've developed their knowledge and skills in some of the worst of times. We hope they will use those skills to keep United performing at our best, all of the time.
That's why we are accelerating our efforts to onboard the best and the brightest, and substantially increasing our overall recruitment numbers each year.
We recently launched a new sponsorship program to support onboarding veterans into United and a new care package program to support deployed employees. It's one more reason why United continues to rank high - and rise higher - as a top workplace for veterans. In fact, we jumped 21 spots this year on Indeed.com's list of the top U.S workplaces for veterans. This is a testament to our increased recruiting efforts, as well as our efforts to create a culture where veterans feel valued and supported.
We use the special reach and resources of our global operations to partner with outstanding organizations. This is our way of stepping up and going the extra mile for all those who've stepped forward to answer our nation's call.
We do this year-round, and the month of November is no exception; however, it is exceptional, especially as we mark Veterans Day.
As we pay tribute to all Americans who have served in uniform and carried our flag into battle throughout our history, let's also keep our thoughts with the women and men who are serving around the world, now. They belong to a generation of post-9/11 veterans who've taken part in the longest sustained period of conflict in our history.
Never has so much been asked by so many of so few.... for so long. These heroes represent every color and creed. They are drawn from across the country and many immigrated to our shores.
They then freely choose to serve in the most distant and dangerous regions of the world, to protect democracy in its moments of maximum danger.
Wherever they serve - however they serve - whether they put on a uniform each day, or serve in ways which may never be fully known, these Americans wake up each morning willing to offer the "last full measure of devotion" on our behalf.
Every time they do so, they provide a stunning rebuke to the kinds of voices around the world who doubt freedom and democracy's ability to defend itself.
Unfortunately, we know there are those who seem to not understand – or say they do not - what it is that inspires a free people to step forward, willing to lay down their lives so that their country and fellow citizens might live.
But, we – who are both the wards and stewards of the democracy which has been preserved and handed down to us by veterans throughout our history – do understand.
We know that inciting fear and hatred of others is a source of weakness, not strength. And such divisive rhetoric can never inspire solidarity or sacrifice like love for others and love of country can.
It is this quality of devotion that we most honor in our veterans - those who have served, do serve and will serve.
On behalf of a grateful family of 96,000, thank you for your service.
Each year around Veterans Day, Indeed, one of the world's largest job search engines, rates companies based on actual employee reviews to identify which ones offer the best opportunities and benefits for current and former U.S. military members. Our dramatic improvement in the rankings this year reflects a stronger commitment than ever before to actively recruiting, developing and nurturing veteran talent.
"We've spent a lot of time over the past 12 months looking for ways to better connect with our employees who served and attract new employees from the military ranks," said Global Catering Operations and Logistics Managing Director Ryan Melby, a U.S. Army veteran and the president of our United for Veterans business resource group.
"Our group is launching a mentorship program, for instance, where we'll assign existing employee-veterans to work with new hires who come to us from the armed forces. Having a friend and an ally like that, someone who can help you translate the skills you picked up in the military to what we do as a civilian company, is invaluable. That initiative is still in its infancy, but I'm really optimistic about what it can do for United and for our veteran population here."
Impressively, we were the only one of our industry peers to move up on the list, further evidence that we're on a good track as a company.
The question of where David Ferrari was had haunted retired U.S. Army Sergeant Major Vincent Salceto for the better part of 66 years.
Rarely did a week go by that Salceto didn't think about his old friend. Often, he relived their last moments together in a recurring nightmare. In it, it's once again 1953 and Salceto and Ferrari are patrolling a valley in what is now North Korea. Suddenly, explosions shatter the silence and flares light up the night sky.
Crouching under a barrage of bullets, Salceto, the squad's leader, drags two of his men to safety, then he sees Ferrari lying face down on the ground. He runs out to help him, but he's too late. And that's when he always wakes up.
Italian Americans from opposite coasts – Salceto from Philadelphia, Ferrari from San Francisco – the two became close, almost like brothers, after being assigned to the same unit during the Korean War. When Ferrari died, it hit Salceto hard.
"After that, I never let anyone get close to me like I did with Dave," he says. "I couldn't; I didn't want to go through that again."
When the war ended, Salceto wanted to tell Ferrari's family how brave their son and brother had been in battle. Most of all, he wanted to salute his friend at his gravesite and give him a proper farewell.
For decades, though, Salceto had no luck finding his final resting place or locating any of his relatives. Then, in June of this year, he uncovered a clue that led him to the Italian Cemetary in Colma, California, where Ferrari is buried.
Within days, Salceto, who lives in Franklinville, New Jersey, was packed and sitting aboard United Flight 731 from Philadelphia to San Francisco with his wife, Amy, and daughter, Donna Decker, on his way to Colma. For such a meaningful trip, he even wore his Army dress uniform.
That's how San Francisco-based flight attendant Noreen Baldwin spotted him as he walked down the jet bridge to get on the plane.
"I saw him and said to the other crew members, 'Oh my goodness, look at this guy,'" she says. "I knew there had to be a story."
The two struck up a conversation and Salceto told Baldwin why he was traveling. She got emotional listening to him talk and made a point of fussing over him, making sure he and his family had everything they needed.
About halfway through the flight, Baldwin had an idea. She and her fellow crew members would write messages of encouragement to Salceto and invite his fellow passengers to do the same.
"We did it discreetly," says Baldwin. "I asked the customers if they saw the man in uniform, which most had, and asked them if they wanted to write a few words for him on a cocktail napkin. A lot of people did; families did it together, parents got their kids to write something. After the first few rows, I was so choked up that I could barely talk."
When Baldwin surprised Salceto with dozens of hand-written notes, he, too, was speechless. He laid the stack on his lap and read each one. At the same time, the pilots made an announcement about the veteran over the loud speaker, after which the customers on board burst into applause.
"It seems contrived, and I hate using the word organic, but that's what it was; it just happened," Baldwin says. "Mr. Salceto was so loveable and humble, and what he was doing was so incredible, it felt like the right thing to do. And you could tell he was touched."
On June 27, Salceto finally stood before Ferrari's grave and said that long-awaited goodbye. As a trumpeter played "Taps," he unpinned a medal from his jacket and laid it reverently on the headstone.
"I had gotten a Bronze Star for my actions [the night Ferrari died] with a 'V' for valor, and that was the medal I put on Dave's grave," says Salceto, pausing to fight back tears. "I thought he was more deserving of it than I was."
For the first time in years, Salceto felt at peace. His mission was accomplished.