Ask the pilot

Who are the best writers about airplanes? And can autopilots really land planes by themselves?

Published January 31, 2003 8:30PM (EST)

My gratitude to those of you who took the time to read "Tarmac" and "Muir Woods" from last week's column. Who would have guessed I was a quasi-poet as well as a semi-journalist? Not to mention an erstwhile pilot. Do yourself a favor and keep your life far from all such occupational modifiers, clear signs that your career has imploded and you'll soon be borrowing money from friends and pitching free verse to online magazines.

Incidentally, the first poem I ever wrote, which will not be excerpted anytime soon in the New Yorker, was called "On an Airplane." It was three lines long and it went like this:

On an airplane I might be sitting
Next to Oswald's widow,
and I wouldn't even know it.

Doubtless at this very moment George Plimpton is typing me an offer on letterhead from the Paris Review.

I'm sometimes asked which writers, aside from Patrick Smith, most fully evoke the spirit of aviation (whatever that is). Maybe I'm the wrong person to ask, for while I'm definitely no gearhead, I'm not the type to sit before the fireplace with St.-Exupéry either. Somebody once called Ernest K. Gann "the Melville of flight." Lofty praise. My personal preferences won't inspire such heady comparisons, but if you're looking for recommendations I can offer a few samples of my favorite nonfiction.

You can do no better than a book called "The Airport," by James Kaplan. I've plugged this title before, but its insights into the lives of pilots and the culture of commercial flight are peerlessly accurate. Kaplan's a literary type -- an industry outsider and novelist -- and his writing is at least a runway's length better than any of the pilot-penned memoirs heaped into the back pages of the aviation hobby catalogs. Kaplan's account of the 1975 crash of Eastern flight 66 is the most eloquently suspenseful disaster chronicle I've ever encountered.

Meanwhile, nascent aviators and armchair students of aerodynamics will savor Wolfgang Langewiesche's classic "Stick and Rudder." If you're an architecture buff or commercial artist, behold "Building for Air Travel," a beautiful hardcover from the Art Institute of Chicago, or Keith Lovegrove's "Airline: Identity, Design and Culture." Both of those are requisite titles for serious designers and aviation devotees alike.

For briefer reading, Langewiesche's son, William, authored a revealing and provocative piece on the crash of EgyptAir 990 for the Atlantic in November 2001. Another memorable article is Barry Lopez's account of riding around the world with the crew of a Federal Express 747, which ran several years ago in Harper's. (And fiction fans may also enjoy Barry Hannah's award-winning short-story collection "Airships," which includes the well-known "Testimony of Pilot."

Which brings us to periodicals. My latest inventory at Out of Town News here in Harvard Square reveals no fewer than 985 airplane magazines (which for a reason I'm hoping isn't tactical are arranged directly above the porn section). Quality and style vary wildly, from weekend aviator faves Flying and Private Pilot, to the glossy photos of hobbyist mags like Airways, to the more button-down Air and Space or Flight International. But if you're like me and it's fleet summaries and graphs of "revenue passenger kilometers" that get your wings flapping, the best publication on earth is Air Transport World, the industry standard for reference and statistics. If the $60 yearly subscription keeps you grounded, the next best thing is something from England called Business Traveler International. Don't let the dry name fool you -- if you're a frequent international flyer, BTI's airline news and travel advice is the best around.

Next week, Hollywood.

After the terrorist attacks in 2001, it was suggested that onboard software could be developed that would physically prevent airplanes from being guided into restricted airspace. Is this possible or practical?

This is one of those things, maybe, that keeps the writers at Popular Science busy. More power to them, but to me it's on par with the idea of establishing colonies on Mars: It'd be within our engineering abilities, rife with potential dangers, extremely expensive and only vaguely useful.

In a way, this is an extension of something Airbus Industrie pioneered when it developed the A320, the first "fly-by-wire" commercial transport. That is, using software to keep human beings from crashing the airplane. The high-tech Airbus (now past its 12th birthday) will not allow pilots to maneuver beyond certain aerodynamic parameters. Apply some navigational extrapolation and voilá! a plane that won't fly into the White House or the Eiffel Tower either.

Beyond conceptual practicality, the real issue is usefulness, or lack thereof. Honestly, it's a lot of overkill. Here we are again fighting the last war, looking to outsmart what the terrorists already have done and are unlikely to try again. There are many things we could be doing to improve air safety, and this is not one of them.

A recent article stated autopilot features are now so advanced they can land airplanes in bad weather on their own. Is this true?

Yes, this is true, but autoland has been around since the 1960s. The British-built de Havilland Trident was the first jet to have this capability, in 1967.

Even in good weather a crew will occasionally execute an autoland for practice or to maintain currency. Practice? Yes, because while it's technically correct to say "the plane lands itself," the operation is vastly more elaborate than simply pressing a button marked Land.

For a flight to take advantage of this technology for an actual low-visibility touchdown, the airplane, crew, and runway itself must all be equipped, current and qualified. A true zero-visibility automatic landing is extremely rare. Fog-prone airports, as you might expect, tend to be outfitted for them.

On every flight, there are always some dinging sounds that come through the announcement system. Is this some sort of signaling device for the cabin crew?

Yes. Every airline has its own rules for how many dings mean what. It's the likes of "We'll be landing soon, so get the cabin ready." Another set of chimes tells the attendants that the plane has passed through a certain altitude, which means they now may contact the cockpit without fear of interrupting a critical phase of flight.

On some flights, the audio system has a channel through which passengers can hear communications between pilots and controllers. I always found this enthralling, but often it's switched off. Why?

At United, its biggest purveyors, this is called "channel 9" in honor of its position in your armrest dial. It's either a fascinating onboard distraction or tediously boring, depending on your level of infatuation with flight.

It is often unavailable, at the crew's discretion, because of the unfriendly letters people send and the litigation they threaten when it's perceived the pilots have made some "mistake." Seriously, busybodies (private pilots? Would they really?) of one kind or another are notorious for this. Also, passengers not familiar with cockpit vernacular may misinterpret a transmission and assume nonexistent or exaggerated troubles.

What's up with those safety cards in the seat pockets? They are impossible to understand, and nobody looks at them anyway. Why are they there?

So you can fan yourself, obviously, on an overbooked flight baking on the Phoenix tarmac in July.

The fold-out cards are a supposed to be a graphic transcription of the speeches given by the flight attendants. They are a rather unimaginative nod to government regulations requiring their content and presence. The talent level of the artists speaks for itself, and the images appear to be a debased reinvention of Egyptian hieroglyphs. At the very least they ought to be cleaned up and simplified to show the basics: the location and operation of the flotation equipment, oxygen and exits.

A game: Take a look at the card where it lists the emergency exit row seating requirements. Begin reading prior to takeoff and see if you can finish by the time you dock at the other end. If you're able to get through the list and can coherently recall even one of the mandated conditions, go buy yourself a frozen yogurt or a new tie. Rumor has it that some airlines also will award you 50 thousand bonus miles.

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