A Black Passenger Saved My Flight From An Emergency Landing. Here's Why That Matters.

I knew too much about the unlikelihood of this man's achievements to be unmoved.

In the days leading up to Black History Month, I boarded a flight from Huntsville, Alabama, to Denver — a brief stop during a long month of layovers. It was my eleventh work flight of the month, and my first near-miss.

After sleeping through my 4 a.m. alarm, I raced down I-65, barely beating the clock to Huntsville International Airport. Pleased with my success, I smiled through the security line, boarded my flight victoriously and plopped into my seat.

“21F? I think that’s my seat,” a woman whispered across the aisle, before adding, “Actually, it’s fine. We’re already sitting. You can have it.”

Relieved at not being made to move, I slouched further into my seat and closed my eyes. But as the caffeine of my early morning coffee had yet to wear off, I couldn’t sleep, so I occupied my time with a daily question: What should I share on Instagram today?

On one of my previous 10 flights, I watched a teenager record a time-lapse video of takeoff. And as my plane began to roll forward, and curiosity set in, I propped my phone between the window and its shade and hit record.

Peering through my iPhone screen, I watched the plane leave the ground in an unspectacular fashion. A few minutes passed and, as nothing beautiful happened, I soon began to question whether the video was Instagram-worthy. However, I suddenly realized one thing separating this flight from the previous 10: a slight surge of white fluid streaming from the right wing of the plane.

At first I wasn’t concerned, and quickly dismissed the fluid as some kind of exhaust. But then I noticed the man in front of me flagging down a flight attendant.

Though I could barely hear his words over the rumbling of the plane’s engine, I could see him urgently motioning toward the wing. The flight attendant immediately sprang into action, and moved toward the cockpit. Soon after, the pilot spoke into the PA system, “Due to a fuel issue, we’ll need to return to the Huntsville airport. Once we arrive, you’ll receive assistance to rebook your travel. I apologize for any inconvenience this has caused.”

My initial reaction was the same as any inconvenienced passenger: “Jesus. This airline is such trash.” And, while frustrated, the pilot’s calmness convinced me that the “fuel issue” was undesirable, but nothing to be alarmed about.

As the plane turned back to Huntsville, and dozens of passengers grumbled with frustration, I found myself more curious than annoyed. I asked the man who spoke to the flight attendant if he knew what had happened. I soon learned that the passenger, Rumaasha Maasha, recognized the spewing fluid as a fuel leak, and was the sole reason my flight avoided a potential emergency landing — or something far worse.

Maasha explained that when the pivotal parts of a plane malfunction, response time is a crucial factor to ensure the continued safety of the flight. Increased speeds at higher altitudes can increase suction on the fuel tank, expediting the leak. And as a plane moves farther away from nearby airports, emergency landings are more likely to become crash landings. But Maasha’s immediate action meant the pilot could turn back and thankfully avoid an uncertain fate.

Flight attendants and passengers were quick to applaud Maasha’s heroic efforts, labeling him everything from a guardian angel” to “our flight’s William Shatner.”

Last June, passengers on a different flight played a similar role. When Rachel Brumfield and her husband alerted her flight’s crew about fuel gushing from the plane’s wing, they were told, “Sit down, it’s normal.” That dismissiveness transformed into panic when the crew realized the severity of the situation. Thankfully, that plane never left the tarmac.

Both incidents make me wonder: With a highly trained pilot and crew aboard, why was a passenger ultimately the one responsible for the safety of these flights?

NASA engineer Rumaasha Maasha.
NASA engineer Rumaasha Maasha.
Rumaasha Maasha

Then again, Maasha is not an ordinary passenger. He’s an aerospace engineer at NASA, where he specializes in structural dynamics. From shuttles to satellites, Maasha is charged with ensuring that NASA’s hardware can withstand the perils of space. As I watched him use his expertise to protect me and my fellow passengers, I became fixated on a fact that others might not think was interesting — or even relevant to this situation: Like me, Maasha is black.

I wanted my appreciation for Maasha and his heroism to be untainted by what he’s overcome, but I was in awe. I knew too much about the unlikelihood of his achievements to be unmoved.

As a black person in America, I take pride in fully understanding my plight. I’ve studied the unending legacy of slavery — masochistically memorizing statistics that affirm an expectation of black failure. I’ve also studied the more hopeful parts of our history, rife with marches and movements, as necessary today as they were 60 years ago.

And as a black man working in tech, I’ve become overly familiar with the systemic racism plaguing STEM careers — careers like Maasha’s.

In Silicon Valley, black people occupy just 2.7 percent of engineering roles. Since moving to San Francisco, I’ve endured entire work days without encountering a single Black person — let alone a black engineer. But solitude is often the precursor to solidarity. With all of this swirling in my mind, I became determined to learn everything I could about the man who had saved my flight.

I caught up with Maasha after we exited the plane — now surrounded with emergency vehicles and support — and asked him more about himself. As Maasha offered more details about what had just taken place, humbly explaining both what he saw and the physics of the fuel leak, our conversation sparked a specific type of magic: an inherited sense of familiarity for someone I’d never met, stemming from a shared struggle known only by black people. Far from a friend, but still family. Waiting to speak to a gate agent, I asked Maasha how he got to NASA.

“In some ways, it feels like things have come full circle,” he said, reflecting on his first job as a refueler for Delta airlines in Atlanta. After graduating from Columbia University 1994 and receiving his master’s degree from Georgia Tech soon after, Maasha faced a common challenge for black engineers: finding a job. “Here I was, an Ivy league educated dude, refueling airplanes,” he told me. And while Maasha was disappointed with his first gig, his comfort on the tarmac was undeniable.

“I can’t help but wonder how many other Maashas exist in America, excluded from the jobs they dream of — and are more than qualified for — because of their race.”

From age four to 13, Maasha’s family lived and worked in Liberia. His father was an engineer by trade, and a professor of geophysics at a local university. After school, he would take Maasha to the airport to watch airplanes. From there, Maasha developed an obsession with aviation. Maasha still credits the time he spent with his father on the hangar for sparking such a longstanding love.

Although we have airports in every community, not a lot of black kids get that exposure,” he said, and commented on the noticeable lack of black pilots. But being a pilot was not enough for Maasha. “I didn’t want to just fly planes. I wanted to design them.”

So when Maasha completed his first job refueling hundreds of planes for near-minimum wage, he continued to seek out aerospace engineering positions. He went on to become an aircraft mechanic, and held several other aviation jobs before finally landing at NASA — the result of a connection he’d made during a previous role. “Getting in the door was the hardest part,” he said.

The more Maasha grew to love engineering, the more he had to fight for the chance to pursue it. And years later, he used that love to protect others. Upon pointing out the luck of him sitting in the most opportune place to spot a fuel leak, Maasha told me that he sits in that seat on every flight. Why? To ensure, as best as he can from a passenger seat, that each plane he’s flying on is functioning properly — and that his fellow passengers are safe. “This isn’t the first issue I’ve caught,” he said.

At NASA, Maasha’s ability to “get in the door” meant a chance to learn skills that could one day help humans survive in space — or to simply fly safely from Huntsville to Denver. I can’t help but wonder how many other Maashas exist in America, excluded from the jobs they dream of — and are more than qualified for — because of their race. And they’re not the only ones suffering. When an industry systematically excludes people who want to help others, everyone loses.

Black history is too rich to go uncelebrated. But as Black History Month comes to a close, we must remember that those celebrations cannot occur without also remembering the adversity our community has faced ― adversity baked into our country’s DNA ― that has and continues to negatively dictate culture, legislation and outcomes for too many black people.

Maasha’s story, and the heroism he exhibited on my flight, reminds us that Black History Month — and every day following it ― is best spent preparing for a future where he is the standard, not the exception.

Follow A.T. on instagram and twitter, and check out his work at atmcwilliams.com.

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