Ask the pilot

Dreaming of the long-forgotten Caravelle: Why do today's jetliners look so ugly?

By Patrick Smith

Published October 11, 2002 7:30PM (EDT)

Feedback to my jabs against general aviation (G.A.) have been unexpectedly tame, and those who've commented have, for the most part, agreed with my assessment of the pleasure-flight realm as something to be wary of. My last ride in a piston-powered airplane was in the summer of 1990, and I swore I'd never be back.

This might seem treasonous to many airline pilots, lots of whom indulge in G.A. flying on the side, but it all goes back to the forces that drove me to airplanes in the first place. As a kid I had no particular obsession with flying, but just the same I loved studying the airlines and the places they flew. On weekends between grades 6 and 9, I made trips to the airport and amassed a footlocker of airline-issue collectibles -- timetables and stickers and baggage tags and barf bags -- which today would be piling up the bids on eBay if only I hadn't thrown the entire locker into the garbage when, in the early 1980s, I decided I was more intrigued by the lyrics of the Dead Kennedys and Bad Brains than the air traffic control chatter on my scanner.

In the mid-1990s, Boeing ran an advertisement in Air Transport World magazine that featured its famous product, the 747. The ad was a two-page spread, with a nose-on silhouette of the 747 against a dusky orange sunset. "Where / does this / take you?" asked Boeing in letters decreasing evocatively in size across the centerfold. Below, the text read: "A stone monastery in the shadow of a Himalayan peak. A cluster of tents on the sweep of the Serengeti plains. The Boeing 747 was made for places like these. Distant places filled with adventure, romance, and discovery."

OK, it was syrupy and melodramatic, but I so related to this weepy bit of corporate P.R. that I clipped it from the magazine and kept it in a cardboard folder. Whenever it seemed my career was going nowhere (which was all the time), I'd pull out the ad and attempt to draw some inspiration.

Ironically enough it was a good friend of mine, not me, who got to fly the 747, thus becoming an almost larger-than-life figure to me (and a much wealthier one), heading off to Shanghai or Hong Kong while I flew to Hartford and Columbus.

So I apologize if you're upset that I can't tell you the technical specs of an F-18 and don't share your appreciation for the lines of a Piper Cub. It just ain't where I'm coming from.

The 747, by the way, remains in production, now in its 33rd year. There have been various incarnations of the basic type, the newest of which, the extended-range 747-400, recently made its maiden flight. As many of you know, the new Airbus behemoth, the A380, is destined to replace it as the biggest-ever passenger transport. (The absent designators in the chain of Airbus models -- A350, A360, and A370 -- are missing and presumed skipped.) Upon the A380's inauguration, the Europeans will have achieved a new standard not only in size but, alas, in ugliness too. The bulbous A380 will debut with none of the 747's grace.

Regarding the ruthlessly generic designs of today's airplanes, I beg to differ that, as one designer put it, "air does not yield to style." Must the best new airplanes, by aerodynamic necessity, lack even vaguely assertive aesthetics? Virtually all modern airliners are made by two companies, homegrown Boeing and the European consortium, Airbus Industrie. The shrunken gene pool has stuck us with a lineage of inbred look-alikes.

At a major airport recently, I watched an Airbus A320 taxi past the window, and as it did so three women sitting against the glass burst out in a collective giggle. "Look at the goofy little plane," one of them said. And you've got to admit, the twin-engined A320 is something less than elegant, a kind of utilitarian caricature that looks as though it might have popped from an Airbus vending machine, or maybe hatched from an egg laid by an A380.

I point out exceptions, such as the A320's big brother, the much more urbane A340. Unlike most recent designs, the A340's calls for four engines instead of the standard two, but why does a plane need to be ugly just because it has two engines? Regardless of the number of motors, why can't an attractive and distinctive profile, like that of the long-forgotten Caravelle, or even the quite sexy 727, be fitted with modern systems and avionics?

Call it pop aviation culture. I believe a corporate unwillingness and a lack of imagination, not the rules of aerodynamics, are responsible for so many uninspired copycats. That's a romantically cynical way of seeing it, of course, as the standardization and interchangeability of parts and assembly lines make for a better use of resources and bigger profits. But I fear the Boeing 747 is probably the last true icon of commercial aviation.

How are pilots evaluated for promotions and raises? Presumably nearly all pilots take off and land safely, so how are distinctions drawn?

Where to begin on this one? Within an airline, everything, and I mean everything, from promotions to route assignments to vacations, happens in order of seniority. Pilots (and flight attendants too) bid their preferences for position, aircraft type, vacations and so forth, and these are awarded according to seniority. A first officer becomes captain not when his boss thinks he's earned a shot, but when his number is up, depending on attrition or expansion. At which point he's run through classes and put through the rigors of simulator testing.

When business is bad and airlines are contracting, the same things occur in reverse: Captains become first officers, and those nearest the bottom of the list find themselves at the unemployment office. It's all very structured and, if I can say so without refueling the ire of some pilots, blue collar. The process has little to do with merit and everything to do with timing.

If a pilot is furloughed or his airline goes bust (as happened to thousands at Pan Am, Eastern and Braniff), and he takes a job with another carrier, he assumes a position at the very bottom of his new employer's list and is back to making a probationary salary. There is no sideways transfer of skills or pay.

What are some ways in which passengers can make the crew's job easier?

Silly me, I thought it was our job to serve you. There's not much you can do for the sake of the pilots, save leaving your weapons and suicidal tendencies at home, but to help out your flight attendants and fellow passengers, here are two recommendations, common sense as they may seem:

1. Please do not stand in the aisle during the boarding process surveying the dimensions of the overhead bin. Stow your luggage quickly and move into your row so others can pass.

2. If possible, use an overhead compartment close to your assigned seat. Try not to stow belongings in the first available compartment you come to. Passengers who do this fill up the forward compartments, and those coming aboard are often forced to find a compartment behind their row. Then, after landing, they must travel backward down the aisle to retrieve their things, which clogs the deplaning process.

Why do seat backs have to be in their "full upright position" for takeoff and landing?

For one thing, it allows easier access to the aisles in the event of an evacuation. Also, it keeps your body in the safest position during an impact: It reduces the distance your head would travel backward, thus lessening whiplash-style injuries, and it prevents you from "submarining" under the seatbelt in a crash.

What is the purpose of the complicated watches I always see pilots wearing?

Their purpose is this: to tell them what time it is. Many pilots feel these gaudy little devices are an essential part of their uniform, perhaps a tribute to the days when goggled aviators used their watches to  I don't know. For a number of years I owned a Mickey Mouse watch as a kind of quietly irreverent protest to this practice (it also was the only kind I could afford). My red-bezeled Swiss Army watch also does the job wonderfully. Watches are required as backups to the ship's clocks, but nothing more elaborate than a sweep hand is needed.

And what do you carry in those black bags?

The bulk of the ubiquitous black flight case consists of aircraft operating manuals, a company operations manual and heavy leather-bound navigational binders. In these binders are the maps, charts, airport diagrams and other technical documents needed enroute. They are more elaborate than those a G.A. pilot might use, and they're tailored to the specific airline. Different crewmembers carry slightly different volumes.

The only thing a pilot dreads more than a Chapter 11 bankruptcy is having to collate and insert the constant revisions to these books. The pages are replaced by hand, one at a time. (When I was a second officer, one captain offered to pay me $5 for each batch of revisions I took care of for him.) If that sounds unnecessarily tedious, it is, and some airlines are turning to virtual manuals, equipping their crews with laptops and easily updated CDs.

The rest of the inventory includes a headset, a flashlight, and a library of checklists, booklets and miscellaneous pages of company or aircraft-related literature. Then there are the personal sundries: stickies, pens, calculators, earplugs and ramen noodles to be heated in the hotel coffeemaker during those nine-hour layovers.

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

Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith is an airline pilot.

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