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Bangor is used to surprise landings

Nestled in the northeastern corner of the country, Bangor International has made a cottage industry of taking in flights that run into the trouble over the Atlantic.
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

Yusuf Islam, the pop star formerly known as Cat Stevens, was a "perfect gentleman" when he got dumped at Bangor International Airport last month — unlike most of the passengers who get pitched off their flights here, the local police said.

"He was very polite," said Don Winslow, chief of the Bangor Police Department.

Winslow could not say the same about 20 drunken British men who were swept off an American Airlines flight earlier this year. The London-to-Chicago flight was diverted here when the men started celebrating a bachelor party over the Atlantic. Some of the party hounds threw a fit on the ground and refused to get off the plane. When no other airline would sell the group tickets, the men sobered up, rented eight sport-utility vehicles and drove to Boston hoping to find another flight.

This city of 32,000 is used to diverted flights. Nestled in the northeastern corner of the country, Bangor International has made a cottage industry of taking in flights that run into the trouble over the Atlantic. It has a runway more than two miles long, a U.S. attorney's office and FBI agents who live within minutes of the terminal. For airline pilots, the combination makes Bangor a favorite unscheduled landing spot.

The incidents are so common that local nurses say they often treat patients from the diverted flights: an assaulted flight attendant, a heart attack victim, a woman in labor.

"It's not a major thing" to get a patient from a diverted flight, said Karla Adams, a local nurse at St. Joseph Hospital in Bangor.

Bangor International also plays a small supporting role in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as flights ferrying troops to and from the Middle East often stop here to refuel and allow service members to make a quick call home. Many remember their touchdown here fondly because it is the last or first chance they have to step on U.S. soil.

It also makes a great photo op for a politician hoping to capture Maine, a swing state whose voters are known to be independent thinkers. President Bush, Vice President Cheney and Democratic vice presidential nominee John Edwards have visited the Bangor airport in recent months.

"Things like that place us on the unique list of airports in the country," said William "Bill" Knight, who organizes a group of veterans and volunteers who meet the service members upon arrival in Bangor and who recently had his photo taken with the president.

The airport's small, two-level rectangular terminal, decorated with 1970s-style airport chairs, has seen better days. Transatlantic flights used to stop here to refuel and process hundreds of passengers through Customs and Immigration as recently as the late 1990s. But that ended when carriers purchased more modern aircraft that could fly longer distances, thus eliminating the need to stop in Bangor.

Long before the terrorist attacks, Bangor became the favorite spot for airlines to dump and run: drop unruly passengers and get back in the air. The airport took in as many as 10 diverted flights one year during the peak of the "air rage" incidents in the 1990s.

Not all abandoned travelers are kicked off planes, however. Erwin Kreuz, a German tourist, became the first passenger left behind at Bangor when he stuck around after his charter flight stopped for refueling in 1977. Kreuz thought he had reached his destination — San Francisco. Three days later, he realized his mistake. When the governor came to his assistance, Kreuz's ordeal was featured on the "Today" show. He was given a key to the city, and one Maine family gave him an acre of land. He was also named an honorary member of the Native American Penobscot tribe before he returned to Germany.

Today, a handful of major airlines offer two daily flights to cities such as Cleveland, Philadelphia and Boston on small jet planes, an upgrade from the turboprops that served Bangor a few years ago. Every month, the Bangor airport also attracts a few dozen VIP jets carrying wealthy part-time Maine island residents such as actor John Travolta (who flies his own plane) and corporate executives and royals who find Bangor a convenient refueling stop en route to Europe.

The airport lounge sells some of the best lobster rolls in Bangor and discounted Budweisers to service members. There is also a coffee shop and a gift store selling lobster and moose T-shirts. Outside, a fence surrounds the runway to keep moose and wild turkey from wandering onto the tarmac.

From his small office tucked into a corner near the Delta Air Lines ticket counter, Bangor police sergeant Donald "Ward" Gagner serves as the resident expert when it comes to diverted flights — he once handled two in one day back in 2001. A tall, imposing figure, Gagner said he and his law enforcement colleagues have earned the respect of transatlantic pilots who know Bangor can swiftly take care of any trouble on board and send the plane back into the sky.

"Yeah, try to land an unscheduled flight in Boston or New York," said Gagner, who said it would take hours to get a plane on its way again at those busy airports. "Someone called [diverted flights] our cottage industry." Then lowering his voice, he jokes, "We take out your garbage."

Gagner has developed a technique he uses for booted passengers, many of whom initially put up a fight or make a scene on board. But once in handcuffs in the squad car, the obstreperous tend to calm down.

"We give them a reality check," he said. "We handcuff them, sit them in the car and then pull out just a bit, and let them watch the aircraft" leave them behind. "Soon, they are very cooperative."

Gagner was rewarded for his expertise with his first trip to London recently, where he was called to testify against two rowdy British passengers who were forced to deplane in Bangor after becoming intoxicated. The experience led Gagner to conclude that Britain is more forceful than the United States when it comes to prosecutions of unruly passengers.

"The Brits try to make an example out of them," Gagner said. "They'll give them a year" behind bars, he said.

The airport has seen a steady decline in the number of diverted flights for unruly passengers since the terrorist attacks in 2001. Officials attribute the change to more vigilant passengers who are less tolerant of bad behavior. On the flight with the drunken bachelor party, for example, several off-duty police officers who happened to be on board helped control the situation, Gagner said.

Besides the incident involving Islam, there was only one other security-related diversion this year. A Chicago-to-Casablanca flight was rerouted to Bangor over concerns that a bomb was on board. It turned out to be a false alarm raised by a man who had recently left his wife.

More common in Bangor these days are the military flights that make a pit stop on their way to Iraq or Afghanistan or on their return home. Bangor is their first, or last, chance to set foot on American soil, a fact that the local veterans group takes seriously. A board in the volunteer office keeps tally of all the military flights that have passed through Bangor since May 2003 — 648 planes carrying 116,116 service members.

On a recent morning, elderly Bangor residents formed a greeting line for arriving service members, with women volunteers hugging each one. Another volunteer handed out cell phones to service members who wanted to make an immediate call to family or friends.

One wall of the volunteers' office was plastered with newspaper pages displaying the faces of hundreds of service members who have died in the war. Many of the photographs were circled, with short personal notes from service members who had passed through.

"We love and miss you Duff, Love, Amber" read one handwritten note next to a photo of Army Spec. Christopher M. Duffy, a young man in dark sunglasses and camouflage fishing hat. He was killed June 4 in Baghdad.

Another note, in Spanish, said: "Que descanses en paz." It was an anonymous wish for Sgt. Joel Perez, 25, who died in Fallujah, Iraq, on Nov. 2, to rest in peace.

A note scrawled next to the photo of Army Capt. George A. Wood, 33, killed Nov. 20 in Baqubah, Iraq, read: "I can only hope to be half the leader you are and walk in your footsteps."

Robert Solden, 35, a Navy reservist from Front Royal walked into the Bangor airport to stretch his legs before his plane took off for his first tour in Iraq. A local Bangor veteran mistakenly greeted him, saying "Welcome home!"

"I'm missing it already," Solden said. "I wish I was coming back. I'm just looking forward to getting this over with."