Back in the saddle

These days, because I am an airline pilot, people want to know if I'm scared. Of course I'm scared. I would be nervous flying with a pilot who wasn't.

By P. Smith
Published April 11, 2002 7:37PM (EDT)

I junked my car, an old red Hyundai, back in 1993, and started riding the subway out to the airport. With my black case, and sometimes in full polyester regalia, I was, maybe, one of the more interesting curiosities on the Blue Line.

In time I became an expert at gauging the intent of peoples' stares. Businessmen would check out the stickers on my flight bag. College kids would try to decipher the logo on my brass wings. Others would contemplate the number of stripes on my gold shoulder epaulets: What did three bars mean? Four? Now and then strangers would strike up conversations. "My sister-in-law," they would say, for example, "is a flight attendant, too." And with that I'd politely explain I was not, in fact, a flight attendant, but a pilot.

I won't say that people were impressed, exactly, to run across an airline pilot slogging it out with the rest of the commuters, but I was at least unusual. And I was young enough -- still in my mid-20s when I bought my first monthly pass for the Boston subway -- to seem something of a novelty.

But lately, the looks and glances have changed. The precise meaning of these new-style stares is something I can't quite fathom. But they are different, full of some strange uneasiness. Is it sympathy? Is it appreciation, respect for a job and responsibility? Or are people merely happy not to be in my polished black shoes, having to deal daily with the pageant of chaos and automatic weaponry we've come to find in our airport terminals?

The news these days is brimming with stories that in some way touch the lives of pilots: discussions about the armoring of cockpit doors, the controversy about arming pilots with guns, the danger of bombs hidden in suitcases.

And all of us saw the videos of two stolen planes crashing into skyscrapers, something a pilot had no choice but to take, well, personally.

Four on-duty crews -- eight qualified flight officers -- were victims of last September's skyjackings. They were disrespected in the worst way, killed after their beloved machines were stolen from under them and driven into buildings. I didn't know them, never met any of them. John Ogonowski comes to mind, the good-guy captain of the first crashed airplane. Of all the millions of people who would, in the end, be appalled and mesmerized by the happenings of that day, and of the thousands who would be victimized, Captain Ogonowski was, in a way, the first of them. He lived near here; his funeral made the front page, where he was eulogized for his work with Cambodian immigrants.

But while it would be annoyingly melodramatic to say I felt a bond or kinship with these eight men, there's an underlying -- and wrenching -- empathy I cannot avoid. I can understand, maybe, what it must have been like. I can imagine it. For the rest of you, if you've never worked in the cathode-ray glow of an airliner cockpit, you won't quite get it.

What brought Ogonowski and the others to the world of flying jetliners I can't say, though I assume their stories are similar to mine, harking back to that nugget of boyhood fascination you always seem to discover among pilots, including myself. In the fifth grade I could point out the difference between a 727-100 and a 727-200 from the far side of the tarmac.

Whether I consider myself more, or less, cerebral about flying than most pilots is open to debate. My obsession as a youngster was -- and remains -- with workings of the airlines themselves. I have no fascination with the sky. I feel no ecstatic glee at the breaking of any "surly bonds." In junior high I would pore over the system maps of Pan Am, Aeroflot, and Lufthansa, memorizing the names of the foreign capitals they flew to, then drawing up my own imaginary airlines and tracing out their intended routes.

It was all about far-off countries and cultures, and I'd imagine flying to whichever of them at the controls of my favorite airplane, the majestic 747, flagship of the world's fleets. The sight of a Piper Cub meant nothing to me. Five minutes at an air show watching the Thunderbirds do barrel rolls and I was bored to tears.

Whenever the topic of my job comes up, one of the questions I'm asked is: Aren't you ever scared? This always has struck me as both a profound and completely asinine question. "Yes," I answer. "Of course I am scared. I am always scared. And I'd be nervous flying with any pilot who wasn't scared." You can take that with the wink it deserves, but it contains an important, if obvious, element of truth.

And people often wonder what the single most difficult and stressful aspect of a pilot's job really is, a question I can only answer in the negative. I can't tell you what the hardest part is, for there are lots of them. But I can tell you what the easiest part is. The easiest part of being a pilot is flying the airplane. And I don't mean that in a swaggering, "Top Gun" sort of way.

The hard part of the job -- the other side -- rests in the peripherals. This is the stuff of divorce and high blood pressure: short layovers in noisy hotels, 45-minute waits for a shuttle bus on an icy sidewalk, long stretches away from home. And, for those of us who commute, sometimes thousands of miles, to our company-designated "domiciles," there's the constant schlepping through terminals with 40 pounds of gear, hoping to catch a standby seat on the next overbooked departure. Finally reaching the flight deck, strapped into the four-point harness of a cockpit seat, a pilot feels about as much stress as in front of the TV or kicked back in a favorite chair.

Exaggeration? Of course. A pilot's job, after all, is the management of pure contingency. Fires, explosions, physics gone bad, all the nasty scenarios the simulator instructors love so much. It's all there, coiled beneath the instrument panel, waiting to spring -- theoretically, at least, in a game of comfortable, but never comfortable enough, odds. And the pilot's role is to spring right back.

I sit in front of my instrument panel -- a wall of dials and switches, all arranged in a perfect working sequence, with a collective purpose nothing short of mechanical infallibility. Green lights, red lights, blue lights, circular windows with quivering white needles. I slide back my seat and consider it all, with all the criticism and respect an artist might give to his canvas. In that moment I am a maestro of ordered technology.

But if only you could see what lurks behind that console. The maintenance people sometimes rip the panels off to make repairs, and trust me, there's chaos back there -- huge, wildly knotted bundles of wires and cables, like a spaghetti factory has exploded. Most people have never looked into the guts of an airplane, at the hideous blocks of machinery combining to fool gravity (at least until you run out of fuel or hit something). Hydraulic pumps are grinding, stressed metal is moaning and pulling itself apart. That is, it's all working perfectly, though it sometimes feels less like we're flying than merely hurtling accidentally through the sky, screaming in for a kill like some colossal bird of prey.

Do pilots think about crashing? Of course they do.

In an interview years ago, the novelist Kurt Vonnegut was asked how he'd like to die. And most of us, I suppose, occasionally play out our own deaths in line with some exciting script. "In a plane crash on Mount Kilimanjaro" was Vonnegut's answer. And if you think about it, there's something evocative about that -- a jet getting lost in the fog, smacking into the side of that big Tanzanian mountain. Is it the Kilimanjaro part or the plane crash part? Or both?

You'd be hard pressed to find people who think of airplane crashes as anything but the cold hard triumph of gravity over some hulking contraption, but frankly, there's a certain mystique to some of them. Not a morbid, bloody mystique, but something romantic. Don't miss the point. It's not the violence that makes the difference -- the ascending G-forces or the body count. The mystique is a contextual thing -- the event as a whole, and as we come to see it in retrospect. Not just plane crashes, but all disasters. If the Titanic sinking hadn't had a mystique about it, it wouldn't have been a blockbuster love story 80 years later. A boat hits an iceberg and 1,200 people die -- and somehow we make a love story out of the wreckage?

Some nightmares have it, some don't. Pan Am 103 had it over Lockerbie. ValuJet in the Everglades did not. Auschwitz had it. Rwanda did not. Pompeii had it. Hurricane Andrew did not. Sometimes there's mystique, and sometimes there's nothing but the pitiful tackiness of violent death. And none of this, of course, means a damn thing to the people who die.

Which brings us to the post-Sept. 11 mind of the pilot, and how our usual anxieties have been supplanted by something more brutal and sinister, something bigger than the tangible betrayals and failures of our machinery.

I was deadheading on a flight from Boston's Logan airport, en route to Florida, on the Tuesday morning when everything happened. Because of a "security issue," our captain told us about halfway through the flight, we would be diverting immediately to Charleston, South Carolina. Pilots are polished pros when it comes to dishing out semi-comforting euphemisms, and this little gem would, in time, be one of the more laughable understatements I shall ever hear a comrade utter.

It wasn't until I joined a large crowd of passengers, some of whom had their hands covering their mouths, in one of the concourse restaurants in Charleston that I learned what was going on. Dan Rather says: "The World Trade Center has collapsed."

Had the airplanes crashed, blown up, and reduced the upper floors of those buildings to burned-out hulks, the whole event would nonetheless have clung to the realm of believability. But it was the groaning implosion, the buildings dropping, and the white clouds of wreckage funneling like a pyroclastic tornado through the canyonlike streets of lower Manhattan that catapulted the event from a disaster to an event of pure, historical infamy. The sight of those ugly, magnificent towers collapsing onto themselves is the most sublimely terrifying thing I have ever seen in my life.

And in that very moment, I knew that something about the business of flying planes had changed for good. Pilots, like firemen, policemen, FBI agents, and everyone else whose livelihood has been touched, even tangentially, by the events of that day, were destined to take things a bit more to heart.

So people ask me now, "What is different?" Maybe I'm more philosophical than many of my peers, but I haven't measured a change by any quantifiable means: security, cockpit doors, baggage screening, and the like. It's something intangible, something that can't be armored, upgraded, or fenced in by razor wire. It's a state of mind, a state of unease and disappointment and, to some extent, anger. Anger to have had our industry taken advantage of so ruthlessly, our beautiful planes so brazenly stolen, our co-workers fooled and killed, thousands more thrown out of work.

The ineffable aside, however, what drives it home for pilots are the same pains and inconveniences now faced by passengers everywhere: long lines, chaos at the metal detectors, angst and fear in the terminals. Flying was enough of a hassle before September.

Today, at the same security checkpoint through which I passed the morning of 9/11, you'll find a showcase of excess. The guards now wear paramilitary style uniforms, complete with hideous gold shoulder braids, combat boots and berets. Across their backs it says SECURITY in bold yellow lettering. But the too-sharp creases in the pantlegs, the cheap fabrics and the lipstick, all belie the phoniness and desperation of the scene. These aren't even the trappings of a Third World nation -- something you'd see at an airport in Quito or Entebbe. This is a carnival imitation of one.

"Take your shoes off, please." Thank you, Richard Reid, who marched his explosive feet past the guards at normally button-down Charles de Gaulle. What is next? Body cavity searches? At the risk of sounding flip, I can't help thinking of the movie "Brazil," Terry Gilliam's 1985 film about a totalitarian state under a constant barrage of terrorist bombings, brought to the brink of both collapse and hilarity by its own foolish, hyperextended authority.

The paramilitary troopers are cracking jokes; bags are toppling from the X-ray belt, a National Guardsman is flirting with a group of teenage girls. This is supposed to look like the ordered efficiency you'd encounter at Heathrow, Frankfurt or Amsterdam. Instead it feels like a set from Saturday Night Live. The uniforms of "Worldwide Security" are straight from an old Monty Python wardrobe. I feel ashamed, embarrassed that it has come to this. Is this the new world of flying?

It would be hyperbole of the worst order to speak of lost innocence or the world being changed forever. But yes, flying is different now. As with the fallout from any trauma, we hope the more uncomfortable -- and unnecessary -- aspects of this difference are reckoned with in time.

It will take a while, I suppose, for things to settle and reach whatever state of permanence they are destined for. In the meantime, pilots try hard to maintain standards of professionalism and safety in an environment running a gamut from justified apprehension to outright silliness. Like the rest of you, we were cast into a fray we never wanted a part of.

P. Smith


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