Ask the pilot

From Addis Ababa by way of Bahrain: The pilot contemplates African dignity, and understands why he wants to fly.

Published March 28, 2003 8:30PM (EST)

At Charles de Gaulle Airport at midnight, three men in olive uniforms are standing near a doorway. They are straight and tall and their polished shoes are glistening in the fluorescent light. They are from Africa. Their skin is the color of root beer -- an exotic, equatorial brown. Their olive uniforms are crisp and spotless, with gold stripes encircling the cuffs and sharply crested hats. The captain looks at his watch, and you can almost hear his sleeve -- starched and stiff as ironed green aluminum -- snapping taut like a sheet.

I am tired and sweaty and the wheels of my luggage need to be oiled. As I approach, the three men nod without smiling. I know they are pilots, but their impression is almost one of soldiers, of an elite military unit protecting some corrupt head of state.

We are sharing the doorway, waiting for taxis to arrive. Surreptitiously I read the stickers and tags affixed to their flight cases, and I learn they are a crew from Ethiopian Airlines.

Minutes earlier I'd spotted their jet parked on the fog-shrouded tarmac, its old-fashioned livery a resplendent throwback to an earlier, more prestigious era of flight: three colored stripes along the fuselage twisting sharply into a lightning bolt that charges forward to the nose, bisected by the figure of the Nubian lion. High on the tail the letters "EAL" fill three diagonal flashes of red, yellow, and green.

I feel my pulse quicken as I respond to the captain's nod. "Nice flight?" I ask him.

In perfect English he answers. "Yes not too bad, thank you."

"Where did you come in from?"

"Addis," he says. And of course he is referring to Addis Ababa, the mysterious, jagged Ethiopian capital. "By way of Bahrain," he adds. He speaks quietly, flatly, but his voice is stern and dark and full of command.

I look at the smooth brown face of the first officer, and it strikes me that he's probably no older than 25, a fact obscured by the seriousness of his handsome uniform. I remember myself at that age, not so long ago, and how mundane and inconsequential my life and ambitions were, and by most accounts remain. I'm unable to decide in what amounts his presence mocks, dishonors or impresses me, but here is this young man who somehow rose from the rugged, war-torn highlands of East Africa to unprecedented dignity, carrying his nation's flag to places like Rome and Moscow and Beijing. In his passenger cabin, unshaven Russian bankers, Ethiopian businessmen and Eritrean warriors have flung themselves to impossible corners of the world.

Meanwhile, I already know that later I will try to write this down, and when I do it will almost be impossible to find the right words. And the next time someone asks why I wanted to become an airline pilot, I'll wish I could just spit out the image of those three men standing at the doorway in Paris.

Addendum (as contributed by Mr. Russell Helms):

The pilots' names are Getachew, Abera, and Theodros. They have just flown in from Addis. The people are very friendly in Addis. An Ethiopian stewardess lingers behind them. Her name is Edit. She was named after a Swedish maid her mother once employed. Edit's father was a general in Haile Selassie's Imperial Army. He is old now and near death in Washington.

Recently she met an American on a routine London-Addis flight. While at Heathrow this American, Jack, made the mistake of eating a chicken sandwich from Burger King. On board he became ill, nauseated. Twice, three times, he left his seat. In the cramped bathroom, a soiled diaper clogging the commode, he vomited and vomited. Edit became concerned. She brought him a blanket and Seven-Up.

A month or so later she received a gift from Jack. She remembered telling him about learning to play tennis during her overnights in Singapore. She was thrilled at the titanium racquet he had sent her. Yesterday she played with the racquet for the first time. Now she stands almost invisible behind three of her pilots. They are dressed in green.

We left the gate on time, but a warning indicator on an engine thrust reverser required us to return before reaching the runway. Shouldn't this have been caught in the preflight checklists? We conspiracy-minded individuals wondered if the problem wasn't known from the start, and that a decision was made to leave the gate on time, knowing we'd return, so that on-time departure statistics would not be affected.

While I'm not familiar with the thrust reverse systems of every aircraft, I can safely say that this type of malfunction, whatever it was exactly, might not have been present prior to departure.

And had it been, you wouldn't have left the gate. While it's good to hear that passengers have lively imaginations, they should probably be applied to more productive uses, because the sort of scheming you put forth simply doesn't happen. You'll have to take my word for it. I realize many people begin rolling their eyes every time an airline customer service agent opens his or her mouth, but as I've written in previous articles, the "lies" the airlines tell are typically the inadvertent products of miscommunication between departments, and/or overly simplified explanations, and not active concealment.

In any case, the Department of Transportation is one step ahead of you. On-time performance is determined by arrival time, not departure. Airline personnel are often anxious to get flights out for their own operational reasons, as yes, a late departure often equates to a late arrival, and somebody has to account for a tardy pushback. But the official stats aren't gathered this way, and in no circumstances would a plane intentionally be pushed with the expectation of it returning to the gate.

In a recent column you remarked that landings are sometimes intentionally "crooked" or firm, and that the smoothness of a landing is not a legitimate way for passengers to gauge a pilot's skill. What, then, is an accurate yardstick?

I suggest there isn't one. And to take my prior comments, which drew a few protests, a step further: regardless of whether a touchdown is purposely or accidentally firm, a flight should no more be judged by its landing than the success of organ transplant surgery is judged by the alignment of the sutures.

Facets of skill, technique and knowledge are obviously brought to bear numerous times over the duration of a given flight, but this happens in an environment that is extremely complex and dynamic. Indicators of competence are not the kind of thing a passenger in Row 14 can pick up on, and I recommend travelers not appraise pilots through the jigs, turns, bumps and grinds that occur while aloft.

Sure, a particular angle of bank might seem unusually, even capriciously steep, or a landing might feel unusually awkward, but any number of operational factors could be at hand, and things like this make lousy criteria. The severity of a maneuver, whether perceived or actual, is not always a crewmember's whim or lack of finesse. Within an airline all pilots are taught the same methods, and they all fly the same procedures at more or less the same angles, rates, and speeds. When vagaries of technique or personality do manifest themselves, it's normally not in a way -- say "going too fast" or "turning too sharply" -- that a passenger is aware of. (And thus the appropriate wisecrack is: So it's only when things seem normal that you should be afraid.)

And while I don't intend to belittle your worries or powers of observation, remember that perceptions are strongly influenced by nervousness or lack of understanding. Often a pilot hears remarks like, "Geez, how come you descended so rapidly back there?" when in fact the descent was perfectly tame.

This subject inevitably will lead to a discussion of "pilot error." Defensive as this nastily ambiguous buzzword makes me, the notion of pilots screwing up is not to be scoffed at or taken lightly. But even the most seemingly cut-and-dry mistakes often turn out to be wildly complicated affairs, and they rarely have anything to do with overly steep turns, too-rapid descents or bumpy landings. So you can, at least, dispense with your image of the cowboy airman hot-rodding his passengers to doom.

But after a hard landing I once heard a frequent flyer comment, "This guy lands like a Navy pilot." Are there distinctive styles between military and civilian pilots?

Styles of haircut, perhaps. If you're landing on an aircraft carrier, yes, probably, but as a rule, no. See previous explanation. There's a customary prejudice that says Navy pilots land one way and Air Force pilots another (where that leaves us civilians is never made clear). But you can chalk this up to friendly bickering between service branches. It gives them something to tease each other about during simulator training.

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By Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith is an airline pilot.

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