At about 25,000 feet, right after the oxygen masks popped out, the plane banked sharply to the left. Then came that familiar, strong, calm, soothing "nuthin'-to-worry-about-folks-we-have-this-little-problem-with-the-plane" drawl to tell us we were turning bac

The drawl belonged to Donald D. Engen, head of the Federal Aviation Administration.

The plane belonged to the FAA.

The "little problem" turned out to be mainly a hole in a duct in the cabin pressurization system. But we di

"Do you suppose we should put these on?" asked Jon Seymour, a Transportation Department official, as he pee

"Don't worry, everything is safe," came that reassuring drawl.

When he travels, Engen usually flies the FAA's white four-engine Lockheed Jetstar. And he said, in the name

The trip was to be a pleasant one -- a two-day jaunt across the continent to attend a dedication ceremony f

The trip, one of Engen's last before he retires from the FAA next month, also offered him a temporary respi

While Engen and his crew tried to fix the problem, we in the back feigned light conversation. Engen's wife,

Chit-chat gave way eventually to increasingly bleak humor as the plane descended and we began to hear stran

"Maybe it's ice hitting the fuselage," someone said.

"Maybe it's bolts," said someone else.

Ha, ha, we laughed in that weak sort of way that people do when they realize they have no control over what

We landed. Engen, looking perplexed, emerged from the cockpit and said the computer, the radio and the trim

The mechanics rolled out the tool box.

We retired to the lounge to await a verdict and share a few flying stories. Engen's were the best. He was a

"I was just about to experience how plywood reacts to concrete on long exposure and the engine caught again

An hour later, the tool box was rolled away, and we took off again, with Seattle five hours away.

Twenty minutes out, the same little problem again, and we went back. The plane went into the shop. We will

"Of course, this trip is all off the record," joked Steve Hayes, the FAA spokesman.

Of course.