Ask the pilot

How hard is it fly an airliner? And why can't I keep my tray table down during takeoff?

Published August 23, 2002 7:30PM (EDT)

Some people still aren't buying my bit about the low salaries of many airline pilots. I was ready to share my older W-2s with anyone who doubted me, but now I'm unsure if I'm willing to so embarrass myself.

Maybe it was that fellow on C-SPAN recently who shamed us spoiled airline pilots for, according to him, making $300,000 a year and working 65 hours a month. In reality, a pilot works 65 hours a month the way a football player works an hour each week. Not counted in that total are the many hours between flights, the nights laying over in distant hotels, and so forth. Meanwhile the number of pilots making salaries over $200,000 is a very small fraction of an airline's roster -- a list, in the case of giants like United and American, that includes some ten thousand names. Those at the very top, however, are handy ammunition for management during labor negotiations and tough economic times. Ironically, however, most pilots furloughed after last September, yours truly among them, are those with the least seniority, earning around $30,000 (or less in the case of the regional carriers).

When it's all said and done, the business of flying planes is a blue-collar job, much as pilots are loath to admit it. We are sometimes so defensive about what it means, or doesn't mean, to be a professional, that our pride comes across like some quivering self-help mantra. But a blue collar, in and of itself, in no way precludes the true tenets of things "professional," and it isn't something a pilot, or anyone else, needs to be insecure about. Regardless of collar color, we're in no way off the hook as far as needing to maintain the highest standards, and a job with a major carrier (a position that in my case took 16 years to achieve), at least when the ink is running black and people aren't crashing planes into buildings, is a good one.

What sort of qualitative and quantitative differences are at hand when operating an airliner versus a typical single-engine private plane? One often hears amazement that the WTC attacks were carried out by pilots with such limited experience.

It depends what you mean by "operate." Certain individuals showed us -- and not to this pilot's surprise -- that basic flying skills, transferable from light Cessna to jet-powered wide-body, are enough to drive an already airborne 767 on target into a skyscraper. But landing that airplane, or operating its various systems or navigating it across great distances, would be a different story.

The importance of a hands-on "feel" for flying (and yes, some pilots are better than others in the innate talent department) versus that of the acquired knowledge of the vastly technical workings of airplanes, is something we can debate, but a certain proficiency in both is required. Climbing, descending, and turning are nothing a student pilot couldn't handle at the helm of a Boeing, but at the same time one glance at its computerized flight deck is a serious dose of technological intimidation. You'll notice certain similarities even to a World War I biplane -- all of them overwhelmed by some pretty complex instrumentation. A working knowledge of all those buttons, dials, and keypads becomes more crucial with the breadth of the task at hand. Is the weather less than perfect? Are we handling a problem? Are we landing? Managing a flight (and "managing" is such the right word) is so much more than hands-on flying. Messing with gravity is the easy part.

Could a private pilot land an airliner in good weather? Maybe. It depends. But he or she would have no idea how to handle the various onboard systems. Could somebody with no flying experience do either of these things? Never.

What is the difference between a pilot, a copilot, and a captain?

All modern aircraft are flown by a two-person crew consisting of a captain and a first officer. The first officer is often referred to in a kind of shorthand slang as the "copilot." The captain normally wears four uniform stripes, and the first officer three. Both are fully qualified to fly the plane in all regimes of flight and usually do so in alternating turns. If a crew is going from New York to Chicago to Seattle, the captain will fly the first leg and the first officer will fly the second. The pilot not flying is still plenty busy, trust me, working the communications radios, programming navigational computers, and so forth. Regardless of who is driving, the captain has ultimate authority and command over the flight and a larger paycheck to go with it. First officers upgrade to captain as their seniority allows.

A few older-model aircraft still in service, such as the Boeing 727, require a third pilot called the second officer or "flight engineer." Uniform-wise, this pilot is indistinguishable from a first officer as he or she typically wears the same three-stripe epaulets. On many long-haul flights, one or more relief crewmembers may also be aboard to temporarily take the place of a captain or first officer during designated rest periods.

Sometimes when landing, I see a long thin trail of mist coming from the wingtip. What is this? My friend says it's fuel being dumped to lighten the plane.

Maybe that friend is the same person who told another reader that the contents of airplane toilets are jettisoned into the sky after flushing. What you're seeing is moisture, condensed into a stream as the airflow whips around the wingtip. Wingtips spin off an invisible vortex of air -- something like a miniature sideways tornado -- and this moisture stream is, in part, a visible manifestation.

Why am I asked to store my tray table for takeoff and landing?

So that in the event of an impact or sudden deceleration you don't impale yourself on it. Additionally, keeping the trays up allows for a clear path to the aisle during an emergency evacuation. The restriction on seat recline is for similar reasons. First, it restricts head and body movement, (the high seat backs lessen the severity of whiplash-style injuries), while also allowing for a fast dash into the aisle.

As a businessman who travels frequently, I've considered getting a pilot's license and buying or renting small airplanes to commute around the Midwest. How safe and practical is this idea?

Private flying, commonly referred to as general aviation, or "G.A.," flying, is, as you'd expect, entirely different from airline flying. As a flight instructor who routinely evaluated private pilots, my general rule for friends and family members was this: Do not, ever, step into a small plane with somebody I have not met or spoken to first. By typing that sentence I've invited more hate mail from G.A. pilots than Salon's computers are equipped to handle, but so be it. No matter how bright or competent somebody might seem, it is often impossible to gauge how his or her skills as a lawyer, software engineer, or, um, celebrity magazine publisher, might manifest themselves behind the yoke of a small plane. The old Beechcraft Bonanza, a popular G.A. plane for decades, was nicknamed the "doctor killer."

Operating your own single engine plane would not necessarily be more dangerous than driving, but it would depend how often, how far, and in what kind of weather you'd be flying. To commute safely, you'd need to allow yourself considerable flexibility. A basic private-pilot's license will allow you to fly a single-engine plane only in the best meteorological conditions. An instrument rating, good for gray skies and lower visibility, will nonetheless keep you grounded in icing conditions, for instance, or when the weather is very poor.

You would be operating under a completely different set of rules -- both the FAA kind and those of common sense -- from the airlines. Many private pilots are killed when, like JFK Jr., they put themselves in situations above the level of their abilities and/or the capabilities of their airplanes.

Which is the oldest airline?

Tracing the genealogies of various carriers can be complicated, as many companies have changed names and identities. But most airline historians (there really are such things) agree that the world's oldest continuously operating airline is Amsterdam-based KLM (that's Koninklijke Luchtvaart Maatschappij for those of you speaking Dutch), which lists its founding date as 1919. Other pioneers include Colombia's Avianca, also harking back to 1919, and even the national airline of Bolivia, LAB, which started flying in 1925.

In the United States, Northwest is the oldest, having begun operations in 1926. (Northwest's pilot uniforms pay tribute to the airline's origins as a mail carrier by featuring the words "U.S. Mail" in the center of their emblems.) As many people know, KLM and Northwest joined several years ago in the first of the big strategic alliances, but for whatever reason they never exploited their status as two of the world's first airlines.

Do you have questions for Salon's aviation expert? Send them to AskThePilot and look for answers in a future column.

By Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith is an airline pilot.

MORE FROM Patrick Smith

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Air Travel Ask The Pilot Business