Letters

Readers respond to Patrick Smith's "Ask the Pilot" column and share their own experiences of flight.


Salon Staff
September 13, 2002 11:30PM (UTC)

[Read the column.]

Thank you for your column. It is terrific. I am particularly taken with your descriptions of the beauty and wonder that flying can put in your lap. As a very frequent flyer, I could add an unnecessary testament to the inconvenience and indignities of air travel. As you note, such testaments miss the point. Air travel is one thing; flying is something else. Air travel is O'Hare on a hot summer afternoon with thunderstorms up and down the East Coast and losing time traveling eastbound against the clock. Flying is aurora out the window at 35,000 feet. Flying is looking down on Manhattan at sunset. Flying is seeing your house from the plane (and yes, I've managed it in three different houses here in Toronto).

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I always sit by the window and I always look out, at least on takeoff and landing. And it's always interesting. But you have to make an effort, I think. You have to remind yourself what you are doing. That those are real people and houses and cars down there. That you are traveling 500 miles per hour seven miles above the ground. That you can figure out where you are if you concentrate. Those who love flying don't notice the effort. Those who do not love flying don't make the effort. And why should they? Its been good business for everyone to make flying routine in every respect. Which is proper for commercial air travel. Most people don't want exciting flights. You don't want exciting flights. The result is an environment that says over and over, "nothing interesting here," "just like every other trip you have ever taken," "so safe it's boring."

That is why you have to make an effort. Because almost every cue you get is aimed at deadening the experience, not heightening it.

Lastly, you are no doubt aware of the Gimli Glider. Just in case, on a sunny summer afternoon in the early '80s, a brand-new Air Canada 767 ran out of fuel at cruising altitude over Manitoba. The pilots found themselves with no electric power, no hydraulics and fewer instruments than a common Cessna. Fortunately, the co-pilot knew an abandoned strip 20 or so miles away. They made a visual approach and a successful dead-stick landing. The plane, No. 604, is still in service. I have flown it often from Toronto to Los Angeles and consider it lucky.

Thanks again for a great column. Keep it up. Our world is full of wondrous and beautiful things; it is easy to lose sight of them. A trick I often use is to look around myself and imagine I was taking care of someone from the 17th century that accidentally tumbled out of some time thingy. What would they find interesting? Frightening? Stupid? And how would you explain things to them? Great fun in O'Hare on a summer afternoon.

-- John O'Sullivan

I've been reading your series as well as your feature articles from the beginning and have been consistently slack-jawed with amazement at your writing. Bravo!

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In your latest article, you write: "If pilots are cheap it's because it often takes them years and years of slugging it out at low-paying commuter airlines before they ever make a halfway decent blue-collar salary ... Those working for smaller regional carriers often make embarrassingly poor salaries." This is what made me actually take up my (electronic) pen and write in!

Many many years ago I gave up on trying for an airline career, and instead went into computers, got a Ph.D., and now I fly for myself, whenever I want, wherever I want -- some days in a tail dragger, others in a glider, or perhaps shoot a few approaches just for fun. Perhaps the turning point was when, on the day of my private flight test, I was hanging out at the FBO [fixed-based operator]. There was a giant thunderstorm in the area, which grounded a freight pilot, so we ended up talking and watching the storm. He told he made 25 cents a mile (and a Beech 1900 doesn't fly that fast!), flew the FAA max, usually slept in FBOs and ate out of vending machines, and had an apartment in Denver -- a one-bedroom place he shared with 14 other pilots so anytime they were in the area they had a place to sleep. (Whenever I heard about all those fat-cat airline pilots pulling down ridiculous amounts of money I felt like weeping.)

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The only analogy I used that was successful was: OK, you know that all those movie stars make millions each year, right? And when someone says he or she is an actor, we ask, "So which restaurant do you wait tables at?" For every Brad Pitt there are a million busboys. You might mention what a starting FO at a regional makes and point out that making it to the regionals is considered "making it."

However, when I sit and reflect, I am still not completely certain I made the right decision!

Keep up the good work,

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-- Shamim Mohamed, D.D.

Holy flying thunder, Batman, Patrick Smith sure is defensive! No wonder a reader has accused him of being a "shill for the corporate bullshit airliners." Here's a guy who writes in his first article, "Don't we forfeit a bit of our pride when we sneer indifferently at the sight of a jet airplane -- something that is, at heart, a world-changing triumph of industrial design?" and then by article two is making the dismissive point that "many people are too distracted and spoiled to get it." By the time he's written his fourth article, the inanity of the flying rabble seems to have really gotten to him. "I am not qualified to dissect irrationality or wavering, ambiguous fears of undefined situations," he writes regarding those inexplicable "white-knuckle" flyers. "I cannot pretend to be a psychologist, nor, to at least one reader's disappointment, am I able to recommend nerve-calming sedatives."

However, if he's to take on the task of explaining a phenomenon so beyond the understanding of the normal Joe, he might at least do a little research outside his current area of expertise (which would make him a good journalist, not an amateur shrink). Or, even less time-consuming, he might attempt to develop a measure of empathetic understanding. But this would require him to forgo his super-defensive stance, exactly the quality that makes him (not only appear to be) a "shill for the corporate bullshit airliners."

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I'm not accusing him of being in the pocket of the major airlines, though in a way he is. Rather, the problem seems to be that he has so identified his own "self" with commercial aviation that the job of explaining flight has become the task of defending himself against the anti-aircraft fire of so many personal affronts. Which is exactly the situation in which the "bullshit airliners" find themselves. The airlines must make our flying fears and apprehensions seem silly and "irrational" to protect their cash flow. (It has been estimated that as many as one in six Americans is afraid to fly and that, in 1982, the airlines lost $1.6 billion in potential revenue because of flying phobias.) Patrick Smith, whose cash flow is also at risk, finds himself defending something much more valuable: his beautifully idealistic view of modern flight as the eighth wonder of the world.

Our best writers on flying have always emphasized, if not the "irrationality" of flying, then its counterintuitive nature. Wolfgang Langewiesche thought that the "screwball laws of air" was the cause of "aeroneurosis" among pilots. His son, William, wrote about the "strange logic of the turn," which resulted in movements that could not be physically felt. He called it an "eerie lack of feeling where feeling should be."

Saint-Exupéry, a writer with more talent and at least as much flying experience as either father or son, wrote of the vertiginous experience of finding yourself way up in the silence of a lonely sky and realizing that far away "the season is advancing ... and other men will gleam the harvest." None of them were dismissive with either flying fears or misconceptions, perhaps because they thought of flight as a brave new world and considered it their pleasure and duty to explain this world to the masses. And then, they were thinking men, considerate writers with a passion for a type of flying about which (I'm supposing) Patrick Smith can only daydream. Langewiesche flew at a time when a pilot was as much mechanic as technician, and his son has the bad habit of chasing storm systems around the country in his small plane, something Smith asserts "is not anything you want to try, trust me." Saint-Exupéry flew and crashed during the early days of the French airmail service, at one point in his career volunteering for the job of finding flyable passes through the nearly impenetrable Andes. Perhaps Smith's problem, then, is that flying for him is either too rote or, in some way, too remote.

And the reason for this is probably to be found in the nature of the beast. Commercial jets like the 747 forbid the kind of familiarity earlier pilots had with flying: 6 billion parts, 171 miles of wiring, 5 miles of tubing, 147,000 pounds of aluminum. There's enough space in economy for the Kitty Hawk flight to have occurred. I ask, how cozy could a pilot, much less a passenger, be with this machine, beyond the fairly superficial level of cabin instrumentation? Yet Mr. Smith asks -- no, demands -- that we, the flying public, accept it as an awe-inspiring feat of technology, one we should utterly trust -- based partly on statistics but mainly on faith. (To the statistics, we all might respond as Satchel Paige did, "Airplanes may kill you but they ain't likely to hurt you.")

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Since I'm already well over the letter-to-the-editor page limit, I'd like to take him to task on two more specific points. First, he glides over the cabin-pressurization issue with the half-truth, "Pressurizing the cabin re-creates the conditions on the ground (or close to it, as normal cabin pressure aboard a plane is actually a little higher than sea level)." In a later article, he clarifies that "What I meant is that the altitude the cabin is a little higher [sic]. At 35,000 feet, the cabin altitude (not the same as the altitude outside the airplane, in accordance with the purpose of pressurization) will read 5,000 feet or so, roughly that of Denver." What he does not mention is that, on some airliners, "cabin altitude" can be upwards of 8,000 feet, but that even 5,000 feet would be more than enough to warn us, if we were, say, planning a hardy holiday in nature, against the perils of mountain sickness. Either way, it's enough altitude to significantly decrease our available oxygen -- thus increasing the risk of hypoxia, especially for those with certain preexisting medical conditions. (NASA pressurizes the space shuttle to ground level, not 5,000 feet; Boeing does not do the same with its jets primarily for economic reasons.)

At cruising (or cabin) altitude, our ability to learn new tasks is diminished (because of this lack of oxygen). We may feel giddy, light-headed, vertiginous, tired, confused, breathless and nauseous. All of this can occur to the most non-phobic flyer. Add in the cramped spaces of the economy cabin (which amplifies any existent circulatory problems), bad food, mediocre service, a long wait on either side of the flight, and a host of psychosomatic issues that Smith dismisses as "irrational" and "ambiguous," and it's no wonder "you get an attitude of pure contempt, a witch trial in every airliner's cabin."

As for those "irrational" and "ambiguous" fears, NASA is not so dismissive. They spend a great deal of time and money researching the phenomenon of space sickness. A great deal of the focus is on (physical) motion sickness, but part of the problem remains purely psychological. Valentin Vladimirovna Tereshkova, the first woman in space, made Soviet Flight Control all too aware of this issue when she found herself stuck in tin can far up in space, unable to sleep, nauseous, unintelligible and sobbing. Jerry Linenger, one of NASA's current space cowboys, speaks to the same in an interview with Terry Gross. During an EVA he suddenly realized that he was falling at 18,000 mph and came damn close to panicking. He shook himself out of it by reminding himself that it didn't matter how fast he was falling so long as he didn't hit bottom -- and by screaming "yahoo!" at the top of his lungs. (Perhaps the god Pan, known for his terrific scream, can only be answered likewise.)

You might answer that commercial flight has as little in common with space flight as an economy passenger with an astronaut. However, both involve technologies that can only be fully understood by teams of engineers, cramped spaces, the inability to "escape" for a determined amount of time and, most important, the experience of a location that is, no matter how often we fly, far outside the more common embrace of our planet. Mr. Smith would come closer to understanding flying fears if he had not brushed them aside as irrational fears of crashing. Even a cursory examination of the psychological literature would have informed him of the multifaceted nature of such phobias, involving a lack of control, fear of heights, fear of falling, claustrophobia, etc. (It would have also informed him that education as to the safety of flight does little to assuage anxiety.)

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But what should be emphasized and what even the shrinks often ignore, is the extremely unusual experience of flight. It makes us all too aware of our tenuous and small existence, of possibilities that few individuals can grasp and that even our brightest theorists don't understand completely. Sure, our expressions of this experience may often be "ambiguous" (as are so many of our significant expressions), but this is not the same as being "irrational" and certainly not to be equated with vagueness. The latter are the fault of the speaker. The first speaks to the particularly large nature of the experience. Yes, the 747 is "a world-changing triumph of industrial design," but all flight, for reasons that have very little to do with technology, occurs in the awesome realm of Pan. And what both the Greeks and the shrinks could tell the cocksure Mr. Smith is that even he is but a susceptible moment from being stricken.

-- Josh McCall

I've been reading with great enjoyment your pieces in Salon.com. I'm a guy who loves to fly even with all the delays and inconveniences of today's airlines (I used to do it more often, now too seldom). The airships, no matter what they are doing, taxiing, taking off, landing, cruising -- hell, just sitting at the gate -- are magnificent machines. They are the very synthesis of poetry and engineering. What a thing it is, that we can soar above the ground with such routine regularity in a contraption made of metal.

Once, on a flight to the West Coast, I was the only one on the plane who ignored the stupid in-flight movie and risked the ire of my fellow passengers to lift the window shade and watch God's own production unfold below me. I was rewarded with the sight of the Monument Valley -- easily recognizable even from above at 30,000 feet. I never fail to be thrilled by the whole thing, even after all the trips I've taken, even when I've been stuck in a airport for hours. "How my great-grandparents would have marveled at this" is what I say to myself when I'm forced to endure long lines and even longer waits.

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Anyway, thanks for adding to my appreciation. It's nice to know that a seasoned pro feels the same kind of thing I do when I'm up high in the sky.

-- Dean Mougianis

I've been flying my entire life and just wanted to say thank you for the informed perspective. My first flying experience (as a 1-year-old) is one of the favorite family stories (I ran away when a woman vomited on my dad's shoes and the flight attendants and pilots of good old Wardair kept me occupied for most of the flight to Hawaii, until they returned me, sleepy, to my seat with my wings). I fly quite a bit and trust the pilots of whatever size plane (little Cessnas to 747-400s) I'm in to know their job and to be concerned about our safety (mine and theirs). At base, I really just wanted to say thanks for your attempt to inform the masses and for standing up against the "My mother-in-law read on the Internet that someone saw on Oprah that ...," which plagues us all.

-- Megan J. Bulloch

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I would just like to say thank you for your articles on the excitement of flying, if I may call them that. As someone who flies several times a year, I must say I still get pleasure out of it. I am also very disappointed that the airlines so often try to make the process as boring as possible. In February of last year (I think), the late Ansett Australia in-flight magazine had an article that showed how the airline had changed over the years. It struck me immediately how the flight attendants' uniforms had become more and more boring. The whole airline had become some sort of extension of the corporate boardroom -- clinical and impersonal. I haven't flown them yet, but I hear that Virgin Blue has managed to put some of the fun back into flying. If only the big boys could do that too.

Finally, could I put in a plea for the resurrection of that old word "aeroplane" - so much sexier than "aircraft," don't you think?

Keep up the good work.

-- Les Chandra

May I just say what an interesting and useful column this is! I am absolutely fascinated. I ask myself these sorts of questions all the time and love the idea that it has been deemed worthy of a public forum. Like the author says, travelers are no longer mesmerized by the idea of air travel and what a true feat it really is ... thanks so much for this!

-- Cameron Bell

I am a private pilot and a frequent flyer, and I just wanted to express my appreciation for the articles you are writing.

The world of aviation and airline travel is one of the most misunderstood and urban-legend-prone businesses that exist.

Given the commuter-travel aspect of commercial flying, it is not surprising how little people understand about what is going on around them. After all, it's supposed to be just another form of transportation, right?

But at the same time, understanding what is going on behind the scenes is a big help for me when I travel. With my pilot's training I understand the factors behind the influences of weather, and how other delays can back up air travel. So I just put my faith in the system and let it do its job the best it can. While I regret delays, I don't get frustrated by them.

One story I'd like to pass on. I know several people who are very nervous air travelers (especially my wife), and I have been successful in getting some of them to go flying with me in a light aircraft. Some of these people were cautioned by their neighbors or family members that it was a crazy thing to do, but they came anyway. I promised them that I would help them understand what flying is about and hopefully make them much more comfortable.

I bring them to the airport, they participate in my preflight planning, weather check, and the preflight of the aircraft. As we walk around the airplane I draw their attention to the common elements of all aircraft, and the fact that every aircraft, simple or complex, is flown using a checklist methodology to ensure safety and consistency of flight.

The most important thing is, I tell them everything I am doing and warn them before I make any change in altitude, or especially engine noise! They really freak out if you cut the power without telling them. I also have to stress here that I never perform any abrupt maneuvers with nervous passengers. I have seen too much damage done by cowboy private pilots who seem determined to scare the piss out of their passengers.

They are usually very nervous on takeoff, but within only five minutes they begin to relax. They hear all the conversations with ATC [air traffic control], participate in spotting that 737 at my two o'clock, and their view of flying begins to change significantly. At this point I usually emphasize what is really different about a light plane and flying as a jet passenger ... they can see out the front of the aircraft! This is a huge help, as they at least can see what is ahead of them, and can anticipate what is happening, and begin to understand why.

Then I deliberately take them away from the terminal area, and they are stunned at how much open sky there is with no other aircraft in sight. This is the point where I compare flying to getting in the car and driving at 65 miles an hour directly against opposing traffic, with only a few feet between you and the multitudes of anonymous drivers who I know have very little training and most of whom are occupied with things other than watching out for me. Now that's a crazy thing to do! And we all do it every day.

Then it is back in the circuit for landing, downwind checklist, and then turns to base and final. They tense up for landing as well, but the interesting thing is how often they comment on how jets seem to be wobbling all over the place on some landings. With even a slight crosswind in a small plane, the same adjustments are necessary to keep on the centerline, and when looking out the front window, they can see why this is necessary. So, the airplane isn't about to fall out of the sky -- we are just doing what we need to do to land in the middle of the runway! Amazing revelation.

If I am lucky, a nice, easy landing and roll-out, and my nervous flyer is now wearing a grin ear to ear. It's very satisfying.

So I share your interest in promoting aviation and am really pleased with the way you are speaking to people's curiosities and concerns. Your analogies are good ones; don't worry about those who state you are oversimplifying, I don't think the intent here is to provide technical training, just to develop some way for people to relate to their aviation travel experiences in a way that makes their trips more comfortable.

One last comment. Much as I travel with the airlines, I still spend a lot of time with my face plastered to the window. I have seen some remarkable sights ... but I have to tell you, I still envy the view you pilots have from your office. Pre 9/11, I managed to get a few flights and even landings in the jump seat (alas, no more). I was awestruck on one flight, descending into Vancouver over the mountains in an A319, the peaks slipping past under the nose. Another memorable flight up front was a descent and landing in a DC-9 at night through two layers of overcast. We dropped through the glowing dome of the lowest layer of stratus, and circled noiselessly toward the field (with engines idled and at the very back of the aircraft all you can hear in the cockpit is the whisper of air outside the windows). It was spectacular, like we were floating effortlessly over a carpet of light.

At the age of 38 I gave serious thought to becoming an airline pilot, but the prospect of dropping to the bottom of a seniority list and going back to a starting salary of $21,000 (or below) was not really a viable prospect. Still, I have those days when I wish I'd had the ability to take the hit and go do it. There is still a lot of beauty and romance in flight. I don't think it would ever become entirely mundane for me. From your writing, I can see it hasn't for you. Congratulations, you are a lucky man indeed!

-- Ron Parker


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