Are pilot layovers full of intrigue?

"Pan Am" makes the life look like nonstop adventure. Plus: What's with Obama's "fishhook"?

Topics: Ask the Pilot, Air Travel,

Are pilot layovers full of intrigue?The Octavio Frias de Oliveira bridge, Sao Paulo, Brazil, from room 1017 of the Grand Hyatt. (Credit: Patrick Smith)

My wife and I enjoy the new prime-time soap “Pan Am,” but we noticed that the crews on the show seems to have an awful lot of time on layovers to go sightseeing and get mixed up with affairs and intrigue in foreign capitals. I know that television takes some liberties with reality, but do airline crews really have much time during layovers in, say, Paris, Madrid, London and Berlin?

Sometimes, yes, though some airlines intentionally separate their crews, with pilots staying in one hotel and flight attendants in another.

On international routes the typical layover lasts between 24 and 48 hours. They can sometimes be shorter, but just as often they are longer, especially in the low season or in cities that don’t have daily service. I’ve been fortunate enough to enjoy four or five days at a time in some pretty special places. My Flickr archives serve as a sort of layover photologue

Accommodations for international crews are usually four- or five-star properties in the heart of the city (Marriotts and Hyatts are my favorite, in case you’re wondering). In the old days, captains were routinely given a suite. This still happens in some places. (Once, in Brussels, after an especially late arrival and with our normal rooms occupied, I was given a deluxe apartment with a six-person hot tub and eight-place dining table.)

So the dazzle of commercial flying isn’t totally buffed away; you just need to know where to find it.

Domestically it’s another story. Twenty-four-hour layovers in a downtown Hilton aren’t uncommon, but neither are nine-hour rests at a motel next to the runway. These can be decent places, but they’re the kind of fast food hotel you find everywhere; you’ve seen their office park contours and over-fertilized lawns all over the country: Fairfield, Courtyard, Hampton. I know these places well, mostly from my regional pilot days. My ballpoint pen collection is like a drive down I-95 or a loop around O’Hare, and I possess an unsettling ability to tell a Holiday Inn Express from a La Quinta blindfolded, by the smell of the lobby.

Rest and recovery, not local attractions, are the focus when time is short. Thus, in the minds of pilots and flight attendants, some destinations are perceived not as cities at all, but as rooms, beds and amenities. “Where are you off to?” a colleague might ask.



“Westin.”

As my photos might attest (and videos, too, here, here and here), I’m known to be adventurous on layovers. Most crew members, for better or worse, are not. I’ve seen many a colleague spend the better part of a week in an exotic city without so much as stepping beyond the hotel perimeter, perfectly content to spend the entire time reclining by the pool.

Recently, waiting to board a long-haul flight, I witnessed the entire crew — three pilots and a dozen or so flight attendants — huddled together in a quiet part of the departure lounge. It appeared that the captain was conducting some sort of speech or briefing. What do you suppose was going on?

Most airlines require a crew briefing, convened by the captain, prior to every flight.

Domestically these meetings are pretty quick and casual; often it’s nothing more than the captain calling aside the lead flight attendant and going over the flight time and whether to expect any turbulence.

On international flights it’s more elaborate, and typically the entire crew is present. At some carriers — mainly those outside the United States — this meeting takes place in a designated briefing room before heading to the aircraft. At U.S. carriers it most often happens on the plane prior to boarding — or, as you witnessed, in the gate area or some other spot that’s convenient.

It starts with an exchange of names. The captain will introduce the cockpit crew to the purser and cabin attendants, who do the same in return. The captain then speaks for three or four minutes. Bullet points include the flight time, anticipated turbulence, in-flight security protocols, arrival weather, layover information, and anything else pertinent or peculiar to the trip. On long-haul assignments crews are sometimes together for a week or more. Aside from the practical aspects, the briefing is, if nothing else, an introduction to the people you’ll be spending the next several days with.

How long does it usually take commercial airline pilots to prepare for a flight, and what goes into that prep? How far in advance does the pilot arrive at the airport?

At my airline, sign-in time for international flights is 90 minutes before departure. Domestically it’s 60 minutes prior.

Maybe that sounds like plenty of time, but sometimes it’s barely enough, especially for international. We start in the crew lounge, gathering up the paperwork and reviewing the intended routing and weather. On transoceanic flights the route needs to be physically drawn on a chart. Once at the plane, your gear needs to be stowed and assembled; flight attendants need to be briefed; the interior and exterior inspections need to be completed; there are pre-flight checklists to run; cockpit systems to check; the logbook has to be reviewed; and all of the route, wind and performance data need to be loaded into the plane’s flight management system. And most important of all: going over the menu and deciding which entree you want for dinner.

Airline pilots do not file flight plans, or plan the flight for that matter. This is taken care of by the licensed dispatchers and planners at the carrier’s operations center. When we show up in, say, Madrid, for a flight back to the U.S., there is a big fat folder of paperwork waiting for us. It’ll be at the podium, or sometimes the station agents will place it inside the cockpit. It contains all of the flight planning data, all necessary weather charts and forecasts, NOTAM summaries (don’t ask) and a slew of supplemental information. Everything that needs to be filed or requested, from the flight plan itself to foreign over-flight permissions, is already taken care of.

Domestically the paperwork packet is a lot smaller, but it’s handled the same way. The gate agent will run everything off the podium printer and hand it to the captain or first officer.

Once airborne, any amendments and updates are uplinked to the crew via radio datalink. There’s a printer in every cockpit.

And maybe you’re wondering: What is a “flight plan,” anyway? Officially it’s a document listing the essentials of a flight: aircraft type and registration, fuel on board, the requested routing and altitudes, flying time, etc., filed with air traffic control (that is, the FAA and/or whichever foreign agency or agencies need to be dealt with prior to departure). The crew never sees this document or, in most cases, even a copy of it. What we do see and carry with us, however, is a comprehensive printout, often as many as 10 pages long, containing not only this basic information, but a highly detailed, waypoint-by-waypoint breakdown of the entire flight, start to finish, including everything from anticipated fuel burn figures to wind and temperature analyses to aircraft performance data. We call it “the flight plan.” Technically it’s not, but in practice it is.

Some of the paperwork is laser-printed on standard-size office paper, but most of it comes rolling off in splendorous dot-matrix. This might seem a little backward, but it’s practical too, having things together, at least initially, on a single continuous sheet.

- – - – - – - – - -

Now, allow me to introduce a new feature to Ask the Pilot. It’s called Diversions. Like the Go-arounds feature, which I employ to address previously discussed topics, it borrows a common aviation term — except this time to describe a total non sequitur that has nothing to do with airplanes or air travel.

My first Diversions installment is called “POTUS.”

Have you ever seen footage of Barack Obama (POTUS) signing a document?

Watch closely. When he writes, his left arm is twisted up like it was caught in a bear trap or something — all crooked and curled and hooked. The first time I saw this I thought he’d suffered some terrible accident or birth defect.

What happened is, he’s left-handed. Apparently at a young age, POTUS was taught that the “correct” method of longhand is with a right-handed, left-to-right slant. For a southpaw to affect this slant, he or she needs to bend the wrist around like a fishhook. Try it.

I am told this was a big thing back when they actually taught penmanship in schools. It was sort of like having your feet bound; teachers would bend and twist the errant wrists of youngsters until they learned to slant their words in the proper fashion. (It also allows the lefty to have a clearer view of what he or she is writing, and reduces smudging.)

I had noticed Obama’s fishhook before, but I never understood it. Now I know the truth. He can blame the public schools in Nairobi or Riyadh or wherever POTUS went to grade school, according to my father.

Meanwhile there used to be this guy, Bill, who ran the Americar Auto Rental place up on Highland Avenue here in Somerville, Mass. As the only airline pilot in the world who doesn’t have a car, I would rent from Bill two or three times each year.

Whenever I’d walk in, Bill would be sitting there at his desk, writing, with his left arm hooked around in this painful, hideous fashion, just like POTUS.

I always felt terrible for Bill. I honestly believed that he had a deformity. But the joke was on me. Bill’s hand was just fine. Although he was never elected president, he was one of those lefties forced to write as if he was right-handed.

It’s all clear to me now.

I would explain all of this to Bill, maybe, except that the Americar Auto Rental place on Highland Avenue closed down several months ago.

- – - – - – - – - – - -

Do you have questions for Salon’s aviation expert? Contact Patrick Smith through his website and look for answers in a future column.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 14
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Pilot"

    One of our first exposures to uncomfortable “Girls” sex comes early, in the pilot episode, when Hannah and Adam “get feisty” (a phrase Hannah hates) on the couch. The pair is about to go at it doggy-style when Adam nearly inserts his penis in “the wrong hole,” and after Hannah corrects him, she awkwardly explains her lack of desire to have anal sex in too many words. “Hey, let’s play the quiet game,” Adam says, thrusting. And so the romance begins.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Elijah, "It's About Time"

    In an act of “betrayal” that messes up each of their relationships with Hannah, Marnie and Elijah open Season 2 with some more couch sex, which is almost unbearable to watch. Elijah, who is trying to explore the “hetero side” of his bisexuality, can’t maintain his erection, and the entire affair ends in very uncomfortable silence.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Charlie, "Vagina Panic"

    Poor Charlie. While he and Marnie have their fair share of uncomfortable sex over the course of their relationship, one of the saddest moments (aside from Marnie breaking up with him during intercourse) is when Marnie encourages him to penetrate her from behind so she doesn’t have to look at him. “This feels so good,” Charlie says. “We have to go slow.” Poor sucker.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Shoshanna and camp friend Matt, "Hannah's Diary"

    We’d be remiss not to mention Shoshanna’s effort to lose her virginity to an old camp friend, who tells her how “weird” it is that he “loves to eat pussy” moments before she admits she’s never “done it” before. At least it paves the way for the uncomfortable sex we later get to watch her have with Ray?

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Hard Being Easy"

    On the heels of trying (unsuccessfully) to determine the status of her early relationship with Adam, Hannah walks by her future boyfriend’s bedroom to find him masturbating alone, in one of the strangest scenes of the first season. As Adam jerks off and refuses to let Hannah participate beyond telling him how much she likes watching, we see some serious (and odd) character development ... which ends with Hannah taking a hundred-dollar bill from Adam’s wallet, for cab fare and pizza (as well as her services).

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Booth Jonathan, "Bad Friend"

    Oh, Booth Jonathan -- the little man who “knows how to do things.” After he turns Marnie on enough to make her masturbate in the bathroom at the gallery where she works, Booth finally seals the deal in a mortifying and nearly painful to watch sex scene that tells us pretty much everything we need to know about how much Marnie is willing to fake it.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Tad and Loreen, "The Return"

    The only sex scene in the series not to feature one of the main characters, Hannah’s parents’ showertime anniversary celebration is easily one of the most cringe-worthy moments of the show’s first season. Even Hannah’s mother, Loreen, observes how embarrassing the situation is, which ends with her husband, Tad, slipping out of the shower and falling naked and unconscious on the bathroom floor.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and the pharmacist, "The Return"

    Tad and Loreen aren’t the only ones to get some during Hannah’s first season trip home to Michigan. The show’s protagonist finds herself in bed with a former high school classmate, who doesn’t exactly enjoy it when Hannah puts one of her fingers near his anus. “I’m tight like a baby, right?” Hannah asks at one point. Time to press pause.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Role-Play"

    While it’s not quite a full-on, all-out sex scene, Hannah and Adam’s attempt at role play in Season 3 is certainly an intimate encounter to behold (or not). Hannah dons a blond wig and gets a little too into her role, giving a melodramatic performance that ends with a passerby punching Adam in the face. So there’s that.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Shoshanna and Ray, "Together"

    As Shoshanna and Ray near the end of their relationship, we can see their sexual chemistry getting worse and worse. It’s no more evident than when Ray is penetrating a clothed and visibly horrified Shoshanna from behind, who ends the encounter by asking if her partner will just “get out of me.”

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Frank, "Video Games"

    Hannah, Jessa’s 19-year-old stepbrother, a graveyard and too much chatting. Need we say more about how uncomfortable this sex is to watch?

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Desi, "Iowa"

    Who gets her butt motorboated? Is this a real thing? Aside from the questionable logistics and reality of Marnie and Desi’s analingus scene, there’s also the awkward moment when Marnie confuses her partner’s declaration of love for licking her butthole with love for her. Oh, Marnie.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Vagina Panic"

    There is too much in this scene to dissect: fantasies of an 11-year-old girl with a Cabbage Patch lunchbox, excessive references to that little girl as a “slut” and Adam ripping off a condom to ejaculate on Hannah’s chest. No wonder it ends with Hannah saying she almost came.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>