Ask the pilot

Why are pilots so scruffy? What happened to the mile-high hanky-panky of yesteryear? Plus: More entries for the rock 'n' roll jetliner hall of fame.

By Patrick Smith
Published November 26, 2002 11:30PM (UTC)
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All of the following are actual questions sent recently by Salon readers.

Entertaining and informative as your column is, you've missed the central question on everyone's mind. Back in the days when flight attendants were called stewardesses and pilots wrestled their airplanes around without GPS or computer-controlled approaches, movies and TV loved to imply that these young and attractive crews were hopping from bed to bed like rabbits. With flight attendants looking more matronly and pilots attaining the same level of mystique (thanks, in part, to your efforts) as assistant managers at Wal-Mart, it's difficult, if not painful, to imagine that there's much hanky-panky still going on. Is there?


If there's any hanky-panky going on, I was certainly being excluded even before I lost my job. I dunno, all in all it's no different, I suppose, from any other work environment, though things are faster and looser, which is to say younger, at the smaller regional airlines than large ones. Pilots tend to be a strait-laced sort, which I'm sure contributes to our collective chastity and restraint, but I've heard the same stories from the '60s and '70s you have.

Which is too bad, maybe, depending on how you look at it. Getting laid is a lot more fun than getting laid off. If I am assistant-managing at Wal-Mart, no offense to all the tens of thousands of Salon subscribers who are Wal-Mart workers, may an errant 757 come crashing through my cheap corrugated rooftop and put me out of my misery.

Mile-High Club?


If you're asking me about membership status, do you mean currently, or would I like to join?

What are some of the dumbest things passengers have ever done on your flights?

I'll skip the "air rage" stories since those get enough coverage already, but I once had a passenger hand me a barf bag full of urine on his way out the door. Correct that: He waved the bag at me and said, "Should I just leave this here?"


And what about celebrities? Have you ever flown Marlon Brando?

Does anyone remember Sinbad, the stand-up comic and actor from the early 1990s?


Also, the following people at one time or another have ridden aboard planes I was piloting: Michael Dukakis, Al Gore, Ted Kennedy, Jerry Brown (what ever happened to Linda Rondstadt?) and Jesse Jackson. I am not making this up. Can anyone tell me what all of those passengers had in common and, with that in mind, why at least one political party should never hire me to fly its candidates around. (Note: Dukakis, who deplaned in Baltimore, left a whole sheaf of important-looking papers on his seat. I thought about selling them to the Republicans but instead took them inside to be reclaimed.)


I was reading your article about Concorde from the Salon archives. Does Concorde have a numeric designation? If so, what is it? And why can't they refer to it as "the" Concorde?

No, it doesn't, and they most certainly can, though it would be unsavorily gauche, don't you think? It's something Dan Rather might have said when reporting the airplane's unfortunate deviation into that Paris hotel a few summers ago. But never Peter Jennings or, needless to say, Christiane Amanpour, who is known to hang around Air France's L'Espace lounge on her days off, just for the canapés. In normal conversation from this point on, I'll try to drop "the" from all Boeing and Airbus models as well.

Why do pilots wear such bad shoes? Why don't they take better care of their footwear? Indeed, many pilots look scruffy. Why?


Most of us, remember, are the sons of cowboys and soybean farmers, and we worked hard in the fields, hammering on horseshoes and digging wet sod from the teeth of combines before going off to the Air Force Academy. Style has never been our strong suit (though we were required, often at gunpoint, to polish our shoes nightly at the academy). But I don't think my Rockports are "bad shoes," apart from the blue toilet-fluid stains and where the glycol de-icing fluid has eaten through the uppers.

Are pilots healthy?

Most pilots, if not all of them, are on the controversial Atkins diet, which seems to advocate eating only red meat, butter and egg yolks while forgoing carbohydrates (both complex and the other kind), all vegetation and its derivatives, and water. Pilots work out regularly in hotel gyms, which gives them something to do when laying over in those scary foreign cities.


Are cockpits all backward on Airbus planes the way everything is all backward on European cars?

No, but the cockpits on Airbus aircraft are located at the back of the airplane, not unlike the bridge of an oil tanker. The new super-ultra-jumbo A380 will have two cockpits, one forward and one aft.

Remember the old show "Hawaii Five-0?" I saw it the other night on cable and when they roll the opening credits they always show film of a jet engine intake and of the underside of a jet fuselage through a fish-eye lens. My question is: Do you know the name of the hula girl all a-dancin' 'n' shakin'?

No, but she could well be an Aloha Airlines flight attendant. I don't think Aloha paid very well in those days, and the flight attendants (and a few of the pilots, I'm told) would often dance for tourists in the restaurants of the big hotels. (Aloha was famous for handing out ukuleles to all its passengers.)


I saw a commercial for a charity called Adopt-a-Pilot. It went like this: You call a toll-free number and pledge some goop every month to support a pilot and they send you his picture. Next came some photos of pilots and, "For just pennies a day you can provide Manuel in Colombia with a new pair of shoes." "Your generous help supplied Ibrahim in Mali with a goat." "Your kind sharing brought a satellite dish and hope to Franco in the Philippines."

It's true, but there's an easier way to help this dole-sponging pilot. Simply send a donation via PayPal, and I'll e-mail you a pic for the fridge. As you know, I could use some shoes.

Thanks, I think, to everyone who chipped in with examples of airplane songs. Here were the most common submissions. Remember to check the first list before citing missing entries, and please note the author did not verify titles and lyrics for every apostrophized verb, so please don't bother him with petty inaccuracies 

Steve Miller Band, "Jet Airliner"
Yes, well, I suppose it'd be disrespectful to the idea of quintessence to leave this one out, much as I'd like to. The "big wheel" that "keeps spinnin' around" is, one assumes, the first-stage turbofan at the front of the engine.


Peter, Paul and Mary, "Leavin' on a Jet Plane"
Same sentiments here.

The Beatles, "Back in the USSR"
"Flew into Miami Beach, BOAC." In the old days you didn't take British Airways, but British Overseas Airways Corporation.

Gordon Lightfoot (and others), "Early Morning Rain"
"Out on runway number nine, big 707 set to go." Gordon's departing eastbound -- 090 degrees -- on the old Boeing.

Freedy Johnston, "Western Sky"
"After his father crashed/ He moved his family back/ And vowed to never leave the ground."


Elton John, "Daniel"
"Daniel is travelin' tonight on a plane."

Joni Mitchell, "This Flight Tonight"
"Turn this crazy bird around ... I shouldn't have got on this flight tonight."

John Conlee, "California Memory"
"Two Allegheny engines broke the silence of the morning." Allegheny Airlines is called US Airways today, their engines, at least for now, still causing a racket.

Sarah Harmer, "Uniform Grey"
"And I meant to write it on the plane... But I slept right through the flight."

Donovan (and later Jefferson Airplane), "Fat Angel"
"Fly Trans-Love Airways ... gets you there on time." (And those stewardesses ...)

The Boxtops (and later Joe Cocker), "The Letter"
"Give me a ticket for an aeroplane."

The Animals, "Sky Pilot"
"Sky Pilot ... how high can you fly?"

Liz Phair, "Stratford-on-Guy"
"And the cabin was filled with an unearthly glow."

Chuck Berry, "Promised Land"
"Cut your engines, cool your wings, and let me make it to the telephone." Cry of the frequent flyer, except today it's "... and let me use my cellphone."

The Dead Milkmen, "Air Crash Museum"
Maybe it's in Amsterdam, adjacent to the sex and torture museums.

Mark Eitzel, "When My Plane Finally Goes Down"
Who submitted this? Thanks for the bad karma.

Pop Will Eat Itself, "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet"
Were you reading the dry-ice story?

After going back through his own collection, the author adds these:

The Clash, "Spanish Bombs"
Joe Strummer is "flyin' in on a DC-10 tonight."

Nick Lowe, "So It Goes"
"747 for the midnight condition, flyin' back from a peace-keepin' mission."

Hüsker Dü, "Crystal"
Bob Mould sings, "Important man ... sucked out of the first-class window!"

Hüsker Dü, "Private Plane"
Mould is being metaphorical here, but the title can't be skipped. OK, and while we're at it, the band also did a song called "Up in the Air" and a cover of the Byrds' "Eight Miles High."

And in the miscellaneous department, the cover art of the Beastie Boys' 1985 "Licensed to Ill" record features the tail section of an American Airlines 727. The AA logo is airbrushed over with a Beastie Boys emblem. The cover of Hüsker Dü's "Land Speed Record" features airplanes both front and back, including a DC-8, the same type immortalized in my dry-ice story.

Sub Pop records of Seattle once ran an advertisement picturing the wreckage of a plane crash -- the shattered tail of a jetliner resting in the middle of a city street, surrounded by debris and firemen. The coats of the firemen were airbrushed over, so where their backs would normally have the block-letter initials of the fire department, the Sub Pop logo showed. The picture is an actual news photograph from December 1960, when a United Airlines DC-8 collided in midair over New York City with a TWA Lockheed Constellation. It's anyone's guess whether the Sub Pop people had any idea of this.

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Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith is an airline pilot.

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