Con Aired

Along the Way. . .

Experiences, Insights & Humor on the “Long Road Home”

By Steven Maisenbacher

Walks On The Grass

Sometime along the way, it’s been so long ago, I’m not sure when, but I am sure where – about 30,000 feet in the air, somewhere over the state of Michigan, or between Michigan and Chicago. It was back in the 80’s, I was on a disciplinary transfer I think, from USP Leavenworth, KS to USP Lompoc, CA. So it’s like late January, or early February, absolutely freezing outside, snowing pretty hard, actually really hard. I was surprised they were even flying us.

First let me give you a little lesson in how this all worked. When you’re going to be transferred, before leaving for the airport, you are herded into a big pen area, usually a hundred in a pen built for 45 people, but hey, it isn’t supposed to be comfortable. So they take 5 of us out at a time and march us to another pen where we are strip searched: “Hands in the air run your fingers through your hair, behind the ears, open your mouth, lift your genitals, squat and cough, ok put these on.” Usually “these” were old clothes from a million other transferred people, but they toss you a t-shirt, pants with the stretchy waistband, no pockets, a pair of socks and then a pair of “Jackie Chan’s” or deck shoes, the blue ones, slip-ons with just a rubber sole. It’s not unusual to get 2 different sized shoes, or 2 of the same side, but it’s, “they fit, wear em…”

Now it’s on to the next pen, where you may wait for three hours standing up or sitting on a concrete floor, with a toilet and a sink and 99 other men in plain sight. from there it’s out and down the line to be chained up with shackles, then a belly chain with handcuffs to the belly chain pretty much immobilizing you. If you’re high security as I was for more than a decade of my 37 years, they have a little added something, called a “black box.” This device snaps over the hand cuffs, then the belly chain hasp is run thru it and the contraption is then padlocked so that you will definitely not move your hands together.

The black box is such a cruel and inhumane device that I’m surprised it hasn’t been outlawed and done away with. A little side note for you: the black box was invented by an inmate and given to the cops as an extra measure for securing aggressive or violent or escape risk inmates. The inmate who invented it was later stabbed to death for his trouble, undoubtably by another inmate who had been subjected to it at some point.

Anyway, once you are chained up you are marched to a bus where they again pat search you, before putting you on the bus. You are then taken to the airport of choice to await your flight on CON AIR!

These “Con Air” planes are usually 727’s with the seats intact and seat belts to give you an added securing – nothing like the Nicholas Cage movie. There has been a bunch of rumors as to where these planes come from. Some say they were confiscated by the DEA from drug smugglers, others say they rent them from rich senators. The one I have heard that makes the most sense is that they are leased from different federal agencies that have a surplus of materials and are not using them, so the Department of Justice leases them. Who knows?

Whatever the truth is,  I want to tell you about what actually happened on this particular air transport.  As I said it was a mid-winter flight from one penitentiary to another penitentiary. Because I was a high security-high risk inmate I was of course in a black box with all the other “jewelry” that attends it. One thing about the black box inmates, they always keep them on the far inside, up against the fuselage on the window seat, simply because that’s the furthest position they can put you from where the marshals walk up and down the aisleway during the flight, seeing to the security and all of the inmate passengers.

We’re in the air and I happen to be looking out the window into a snow-filled sky when I notice a piece of the wing’s skin appears to be gone; I can actually see the ribs that are under it. As I’m looking at that, Whoosh! The panel next to the one that is missing goes whipping off, into the sky! Gone! I’m like, “Hey Marshal, is the wing supposed to be flying off?”

Immediately, he’s on his radio and literally dived on top of all three of us in the seat to look at what I’m talking about. Within seconds there is a swarm of air marshals at my row, all trying to see. I can feel the jet descending as this is going on. The marshals instantly start closing all the window shutters that slide down so that we can no longer see what the heck is for all appearances, the wing falling off, or rather flying off.  

Now I feel the plane decreasing speed and the wheels going down. The pilot comes on and announces that we are making an “unscheduled” landing in Detroit, Michigan. The weather is in full force and the pilot instructs all marshals to secure the passengers. So the marshals scramble, making sure everyone is buckled in.

We land in what I can only call white-out conditions, but I don’t know this right away. I couldn’t see out and we sat there on the ground for an hour or more before they even try to get us off the plane. The delay of course was because they had to get buses and make arrangements to house a jet-full of federal inmates until they could get another plane to get us out of there. So they are trying to do all this in below zero temperatures and all we have on are t-shirts, stretch waist pants and canvas deck shoes. From somewhere the marshals come up with a few Anorak coats to throw over our shoulders and they begin taking us off this jet one at a time.

When I get to the bottom of the stairs, I see they have a rope tied from the stair railing on the plane running some 25-50 feet to the bus door. I literally could not see the bus from the plane, it’s snowing that hard, sideways. So they have one cop holding the rope and one arm on me, another cop holding my other arm and they’re screaming, “Walk with us,  just keep walking, we got you, we got you.”

By the time we made it to the bus I was beyond numb with cold. The bus was a ratty old thing, but at least the heater worked. They put me in a seat and took the coat to use for the next guy. They kept bringing in people until the bus was full. Then they untied the rope from the door and moved the bus away from the plane. By this time there are a zillion cops posted up around the busses, armed with shotguns and machine guns, like we were going to try to go anywhere in chains, deck shoes and a t-shirt. The whole scene was so surreal that I didn’t even bother to look around at how many busses they were filling, had to be at least six. 

So finally off we go in this bus caravan headed to various jails in the vicinity. My bus ended up at a county jail about 45 minutes from the airport. They didn’t even bother with the rigamarole intake they usually do with all the paperwork in transit they make us fill out at any stop. I find out it is almost 11 pm in the night and I last remembered it being about 5:30 pm, when the wing started flying away. I only know when it started because I had been thinking about my medications and wondering how long before I was going to get them, so I asked a marshal what time it was. Anyway, they managed to feed us green bologna sandwiches and we survived until they came back late in the afternoon the next day to take us to another plane and on our way.

This was some frightening stuff, but in the end as soon as I spotted the wing thing missing and said something, all bets were off. The marshals did not play. The whole operation came off like a military maneuver which now in hindsight is pretty cool. After this little escapade, I have never had a problem getting on a United States Marshal’s air lift. I saw right then on Con Air, the cops are not trying to go down with the plane, so if they trust their lives to it, I’m good to go. I will say this, I think I’d rather fly a little less restricted, or daringly, in other words, less of the chains, more of the wings. I have been thru probably 20-25 flights in my years of incarceration with the feds, and this was by far the worst thing that has ever happened to me while flying “CON AIR.”

© Steven “Walks On The Grass” Maisenbacher, 2021

Published by Edna Peirce Dixon

I am an elder well into my eighties. I have lived an ordinary life doing all the ordinary things expected of women of my generation. But through it all, I have also been a seeker, an outsider by nature, always looking through cracks in the fences of life, questioning, challenging, learning, trying to make sense of the world and its conventions. A registered nurse by profession, I have long had a strong interest in writing and genealogy with a special interest in Southeastern Creek Indian history and culture. In my golden years, just when I was thinking “retirement,” some unexpected things happened that led me down a totally unfamiliar path. I’ve since learned it took a lifetime of experiences to prepare me for the challenges to come. My journey – indeed my calling – led me to a remarkable man, a Mvskoke & Ani-yun-wiya known as Ghost Dancer, hidden away for decades behind bars in state and federal prisons. Communicating daily by e-mail for the next nine years I had the opportunity to walk many paths with Ghost Dancer discussing many common interests with candor and respect. Most remarkable to me was Ghost’s absolute dedication to his spiritual leadership role within the Native population. With loving kindness at all times, Ghost shared many of his teachings, including lessons from within the sacred sweat lodge. A full index to Ghost's shared teachings can be found at GHOST DANCER'S SACRED PATH. Over time, Ghost gradually revealed his personal life story in small bits, like pieces of some gigantic puzzle. Now with his health a shambles, Ghost Dancer is at last free and has begun putting those pieces together; he wants the world to know the whole truth of his amazing personal journey in the chapters of his book in progress, ALL FOR THE RIGHT TO PRAY. As his friend and editor on JOURNEYS OF THE SPIRIT, I can say this is indeed a story so big that even after these many years, I continue to be astonished as Ghost reveals new details of his solitary walk on the Nene Cate (Red Road). From the day he was born, a happy, loving, gifted child, he felt a strong bond with his cultural heritage in a world where family loyalty was a sacred trust and Native roots were kept secret. As a result the callow youth endured many heartbreaking sorrows, betrayals and exploitations. As a young teen, Ghost heeded the call to learn from the great Native spiritual leaders gathered at Wounded Knee. The influence of the elders and spiritual leaders on his young mind was profound but the political conflicts of the moment ultimately cast this loyal young boy as a target of a system determined to destroy him by any means. For the next 40 years in and out of prison, Ghost would struggle to remain true to his calling both as a teacher and an activist fighting for the religious rights of Native Americans. (Note: Currently Ghost is focused on things he must do to regain his health and has put writing the final chapters about the the wrongful convictions that put him in federal prison for the past 28 years on hold. He still has dreams for the future so he will be back!) Ghost Dancer would later introduce me to Walks On The Grass, one of his spiritual brothers and another federal prisoner. Walks’ story on JOURNEYS OF THE SPIRIT is totally compelling, though very different. In LONG ROAD HOME, Walks has shared his decades-long spiritual journey from deep addiction to wholeness. He follows up with ALONG THE WAY and finally, LIGHTS IN THE DISTANCE as he prepares emotionally and mentally to transition to life outside after 37 years of incarceration.

One thought on “Con Aired

  1. Amazing that the plane did not come completely apart in mid-air. Generally, when the skin peels off, it is only seconds before the whole wing is ripped off by the air turbulence. You folks were lucky to be alive.

    Liked by 1 person

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