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In over 30 years of commercial aviation I have had the honor of flying with millions of passengers who had chosen Alitalia. Obviously, I did not know them personally, but at every takeoff, for both short flights and interminable routes, for me the flight has always been—and still is today—an experience to share with them. Of course, I have had the chance to meet many well-known people from the world of show business, science and politics, but two in particular struck me and left me with an unforgettable memory. These two were very different from each other but equally fascinating.
"ONE GIANT LEAP"
One morning about ten years ago, at Fiumicino airport working on an MD 80, I was completing the pre-flight checks with the First Officer. The ramp agent handed me the passenger list along with all the information about the cargo. Glancing quickly down it, I noticed that a passenger by the name of Armstrong had been accepted. I thought it must be someone with the same name and my colleague and I recalled with great admiration the Commander of Apollo 11.
He was a pilot with the United States Navy who served in the Korean War, an aeronautical engineer with a master's degree in aeronautical engineering and countless academic awards. Neil Armstrong was also a test pilot who, in the North American X-15, reached an altitude of 68,200 meters at a speed of Mach 5.74 and, during his career, he was an astronaut on the Gemini 8, back-up pilot on the Gemini 11 and commander of the historic Apollo 11.
Overwhelmed by the countless duties of normal routine, I immediately forgot the episode. When boarding began, the flight attendant and I stood in front of the cockpit door and began to welcome the passengers. One of the last two was an elderly gentleman. Looking into his eyes, I immediately recognized him: This was the man who, on July 20, 1969, on touching the lunar surface, said "That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind." I only had the opportunity to exchange a few worlds with him and I was struck by his simplicity. Meeting that man, even if only for a moment, the epitaph written on his death by his family seemed totally fitting to me. It went more or less like this: "We remember a hero and, while we mourn his death, we celebrate his life in the hope that it serves as an example to young people around the world to work hard to make their dreams come true, to be willing to explore and push the limits."
A BLESSED FLIGHT
Another "special" passenger who left a lasting impression was none other than the Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI. I had the good fortune to be the Supervising Captain on all the papal journeys of Pope Joseph Ratzinger from the launch of the new Alitalia. Every time it was exciting and somewhat laborious in terms of organization, which usually began several months before the flight, but was always repaid with an important experience. From the scheduling to the choice of crew, planning all of the protocol and the meticulous attention to the minutest details make this type of flight something unique.
One of the most complex that I can remember was the papal trip to Mexico and Cuba in March 2012. We landed with the B777 in a small Mexican airport at Leon, Guanajuato, and then at Santiago de Cuba and Havana. Each moment of these flights has a special "aura," like the message to send to the various heads of state as we flew over the air space of each nation. But the most moving moment for me was when, during the flight, sat next to the Holy Father for the usual photos, I had the opportunity to exchange a couple of words with him. He would take you by the hand and look at you with infinitely good and serene eyes. Never has a saying seemed so relevant as in this case: The eyes are the mirror of the soul.