Ask the pilot

Flying Beech 99's, ogling Gulf Air's stunning stewardesses and other career highlights. Plus: What are the scariest airports?

By Patrick Smith

Published October 25, 2002 7:30PM (EDT)

Special thanks to those of you who didn't interpret last week's sob story as a kind of entitlement tantrum. Not all pilots have such whoppingly woeful pasts, and my point was only to chronicle one of the many less than glamorous experiences so common in the profession. There are thousands of pilots with equally humiliating résumés. Be happy I spared you the accounts of my own personal bankruptcy filing and how I've eaten nothing but macaroni and cheese for the past decade.

On that note, it was 12 years ago this week, according to my logbook, that I made my first-ever flight as an airline pilot. (Logbooks are good for one other thing aside from what I mentioned last time: rekindling this or that better-forgotten memory.) The company that hired me, now defunct, was Northeast Express Regional Airlines, which did business as the commuter affiliate of a certain major airline. We carried its passengers, code-share style, as a corporate surrogate along routes in the Northeast. Our planes, like its planes, were painted handsomely in red, but we were neither owned nor otherwise associated with it. That would be important later, when the paychecks started bouncing.

But for now I was finally an airline pilot, and on Oct. 21, 1990, I departed on the prestigious Manchester, N.H., to Boston route -- the 15-minute run frequented, as you'd expect, by Hollywood stars, dignitaries and sheiks. I'll always cherish that day -- having to drive to Sears at 8:30 in the morning, an hour before my sign-in time, because I'd already lost my tie. And then the clerk's face when I told him I needed something "plain black" and "polyester, not silk."

My first airplane was an old twin turboprop, the BE 99, aka Beech 99 or just "the 99." It was a ridiculous anachronism posing as a viable mode of commercial transport, fooling nobody and forced into continued service by a cheap (and doomed) airline. But it was my first job, and hey, for 800 bucks a month why turn down danger and embarrassment? There was no flight attendant and I had to close the cabin door myself. When I performed this maneuver on my inaugural flight, I twisted the handle and dragged the first three knuckles of my right hand across the head of a loose screw, cutting myself badly.

I remember flying into Logan that morning, at the controls of the silly 99 and looking over at the terminals from, finally, a pilot's point of view. I thought of my days in grammar school when I'd come to this same airport and roam these same buildings, watching the planes and wishing I could fly one of them. On Valentine's Day, 1991, I went for my captain's checkout on the 99. I was 24 years old.

Next up was the Fairchild Metroliner, a more sophisticated, 19-seat jetprop. I got my captain's rating for this one in late '92. Then came the De Havilland Dash 8. The Dash was a 37-passenger job and the biggest thing I'd ever laid my hands on. A new one cost about $8 million, and it even had a flight attendant. I loved that plane and it remains my favorite. I went for my captain's check on July 7, 1993. I was 26. Only 13 of us, out of more than a hundred, got to fly the Dash from the left seat. I was number 13, bottom of the bottom, but I would call each morning begging for overtime.

By the following summer I was out of work. I bounced around from job to job, at one point plying the featureless Midwest in a French-built ATR, and was later based at JFK as captain on the Jetstream 41, a sexy 30-passenger machine built in very unsexy Scotland. My bloody-knuckle takeoff from Manchester in 1990 was forever my answer to the "What's your proudest moment?" question when I interviewed for those positions. But there were also some moments I kept to myself:

There was the time we flew in from Halifax, Nova Scotia, when I swore at the immigration officer in Boston and she wouldn't let me into the country. I was tired and cranky and our plane had been hit by lightning during the descent. The officer was rude and I said something I shouldn't have. Next thing I knew I was in a holding cell -- a kind of no-man's room where, technically, your citizenship is not yet applicable -- with a group of handcuffed Haitians. I got a call from my boss about that one. He wanted to know why I was late for my outbound flight to Newark, and I told him it was because I was no longer an American.

My most savored practical joke, however, was one I never got around to actually pulling off. A few of our Metroliners and Dash 8s wore names, stenciled in white beneath the cockpit windows. There was, for example, the "Spirit of Partnership," the "Spirit of Acadia" and even the "L'Esprit de Moncton," in honor of our new routes into the Canadian Maritimes. My plan was to sneak onto the tarmac and stencil some names onto planes that didn't have them. I wanted to christen them after some infamous and colorful former employees -- pilots who'd recently been terminated (and whose names are changed below).

The first was going to be the "Spirit of Skip Fallon." Skip was a guy nobody could stand, and he'd been let go a few months earlier. Then there was the "Clipper Mark Levereaux," another canned character. Mark was a really nice fellow with a body odor problem and an indescribably bizarre personality. He sure deserved a Metroliner. There were the "Captain Charbennau," the "K.C. O'Brien," and others. I had the stencils and paint ready.

At the last minute somebody talked me out of it. I'd gone over the line when I was ready to name a plane after one pilot who still worked there. This was Dick Harris, whom I hardly knew and probably had never spoken to. He was an older and overly serious guy with a big flume of white hair. A friend of mine used to call him "Santa Claus," which I always thought was the funniest thing in the world because somehow he did look like Santa Claus even though he didn't have a beard.

One of my favorite airplane photos, from a book I own, shows an Air India flight attendant standing on the stairs outside one of the airline's 747s. It's the "Emperor Ashoka," and the picture was taken in 1971, when 747s were still drawing crowds every time one landed. Air India's paint scheme, which is unchanged from the days of this photograph, is one of my favorites. Each fuselage window -- and there must be how many down each side of a 747, a hundred? -- is carefully outlined with the shape of a little Hindu temple.

The book also has some pictures of the women from Gulf Air, too. Gulf Air -- as in Persian Gulf -- is the airline of Bahrain. On a rainy night several years ago I was at the Bangkok airport trying to catch a flight to Narita. It was four in the morning and the terminal was mobbed. Suddenly the crowd parted and I saw something I could hardly believe. It was the cabin crew -- a dozen flight attendants -- of the Gulf Air departure for Bahrain, making its way to the gate. Never in my life have I seen stewardesses like those. Each was stunning, and each seemed at least 6 feet tall. They were not Arab women but most likely Brits or Australians working in the Gulf. And they were walking single file, as if down a runway during a fashion show.

Adding to the effect was the standard Gulf Air flight attendant uniform, which featured a long beige coat and a chic redesign of a Muslim headdress -- a purple hat with the "Golden Falcon" -- the Gulf Air emblem -- and a swirling purple veil dropping to the neck and shoulders. People dropped their luggage and stared. It was the most glamorous thing I'd ever seen -- these gorgeous women in purple veils towering over the throng of anxious Thais.

No sooner was I home when I'd dashed off a résumé to Bahrain. A month later Gulf Air wrote back, telling me I needed 1,000 hours in a Boeing 767 to be considered for a position. My time as a Dash 8 captain flying back and forth to Baltimore wasn't going to cut it. The Gulf Air stationery, I remember, was as thick as a slice of Swiss cheese and had an embossed Golden Falcon at the top.

Why can't I use my cellphone during flight, and why are laptops also restricted? Even more annoying, we are asked to turn off devices as innocuous as portable CD players. Can these things really interfere with flight?

I'm asked about this frequently, but in researching the answer I'm confused by much of what I uncover. While I'm not an electronics expert, there have been several cases where devices (mainly cellular phones) have indeed interfered with the electronics aboard airliners. I can assure you the rules are not arbitrary or a scam to make you splurge on a pricey onboard satellite phone. One report cites a regional jet forced to return to the airport for an emergency landing after a fire warning sounded in the cockpit. Investigation revealed the alarm was triggered when a cellphone in the luggage compartment had begun to ring. I've also heard anecdotal evidence from pilots about times when cellphones have caused trouble.

Something of an easily digestible explanation can be read here.

There appears to be little evidence that laptop computers pose a similar threat, but the airlines are erring on the safe side. And a laptop, like any other carry-on, must be stowed during takeoff and landing to prevent it from becoming a 200-mile-per-hour projectile.

Remember that some devices, like Walkman or Discman players, are prohibited during takeoff and landing not necessarily because of interference, but so passengers are able to hear P.A. announcements and instructions in the event of trouble. In this spirit, maybe airlines should demand the removal of earplugs and wake up all the sleeping passengers, but it seems they've drawn the line at listening to music.

I was on a flight from Amsterdam to Manchester. While accelerating for takeoff we stopped suddenly on the runway due to conflict with a plane ahead. After a few minutes we restarted the takeoff from the point where we'd stopped. I can't help wondering how much of the runway we'd used up in the first attempt. How did the pilot know we had enough runway left?

Well, it's not like the crew figures, "Yeah, this is probably enough room," and gives it a go.

Runway length must always allow for two things: 1) a successful climb (the data includes off-airport obstructions) assuming an engine failure at the most critical point of takeoff and 2) sufficient distance to stop after an aborted takeoff initiated at this same moment. This length will vary depending on weight, temperature, wind, atmospheric pressure, etc.

If it seemed your crew was able to calculate rather quickly, it's because the info can be processed by the folks backstage (dispatchers and flight planners) and relayed to the pilots via computer in a matter of seconds. Alternatively, it's available in the tables and graphs in the onboard performance manuals.

Airplanes will typically use the full length of a runway, but once in a while this isn't entirely practical or necessary. So-called intersection departures are not uncommon and aren't necessarily a case of bad judgment. Amsterdam to Manchester is a very short distance, so I doubt your flight was heavily loaded, and the runways at Schiphol are long. Not the usual procedure, but neither was it unprecedented.

Which airports do pilots dislike most, and which do they enjoy?

Three things pilots don't like are congestion, short runways, and complicated arrival and departure patterns. When it rains it pours, and in places like Washington National (are we really calling it "Reagan" now?), Boston and La Guardia, we win the Trifecta. Chicago's Midway is well known (which is to say disdained) for its compactness, as is San Diego. Newark and JFK, meanwhile, have nice long runways but often suffer agonizing delays and aren't very popular either. I happen to love flying into Kennedy, but only because I enjoy its mix of exotic airlines.

Aside from flight operations, you've also got terminal access, facilities and restaurants, etc., to consider, which can be crucial during multi-hour breaks or when transiting to a layover hotel. Passengers and crew are generally in agreement here. Everyone hates Miami, for instance, but I've never heard a disrespectful word uttered about Amsterdam, Singapore or even Pittsburgh (so long as shopping is your thing).

One of the more exhilarating experiences in commercial flying was the old "checkerboard" approach to Hong Kong's now shuttered Kai Tak airport. Pilots would follow an ILS-style (see ATP number 8) beam toward a mountain on which a giant red-and-white checkerboard was erected. With the board in sight, and now at less than 700 feet, jets would bang a 30-degree turn toward the runway, skimming along the hotels and high rises of Hong Kong, and rolling at wings level only moments before meeting the pavement.

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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