Ask the pilot

The pilot goes south, to the anti-paradise of Santo Domingo and the tropic embrace of Guatemala City.

Published April 11, 2003 7:30PM (EDT)

Santo Domingo, October 1998

Santo Domingo, oldest city of the New World, is the filth-and-stucco capital of the Dominican Republic, and one of the most un-paradise-like, although no cooler or less humid, spots in the Caribbean.

The neighborhoods around the airport are some of the poorest on the island, or at least they seem that way as my jet drops its landing gear and aims for the runway of Las Americas International. Most of the houses are missing roofs after a recent hurricane, and from the air we can look straight into these people's concrete-block lives: four cement walls filled with a colorful assortment of wind-strewn debris -- plastic bags, rain-soaked clothes, a table impaled by a sheet of corrugated tin.

And in all directions are the triangular, tornado-shaped plumes of white smoke from the fires. At the airport, a man will tell us how he dealt with the sudden problem of a yard full of gale-blown bushes, palms and trash: "I spend two days making a pile," he explains. "Then I buy a drum of gasoline and light it on fire."

The D.R., as savvy travelers and baseball announcers love to call it, shares the island of Hispaniola in an east-west split with the nation of Haiti, perhaps the only less glamorous landfall in this strange Technicolor sea of turquoise and teal. I've been to Haiti as well, the only place in the world where taxi drivers will refuse $20 to take a pilot into town for a quick tour, claiming "it's too dangerous." The border between these two countries is one of the few national demarcations clearly visible from 20,000 feet -- the D.R.'s green tropical carpet abutting a jagged death-scape of denuded hillsides the color of sawdust.

To me there's something about the name Santo Domingo that evokes images of 15th century explorers, their gray-sailed ships anchored offshore. To others, maybe, it's thoughts of the slave trade, of indigenous Dominicans keeling over from those special European gifts of smallpox, flu and typhus. Or boats taking cannonballs through their wooden hulls, bars of gold falling to the ocean floor.

Santo Domingo is home to more than a million people. And as with every big city down here, from San Juan, Puerto Rico, to Panama City, Panama, the stark whiteness of the buildings is striking. White paint is splashed over everything: hotels, apartments, schools, barracks -- the entire city concealed in a great white cluster of anonymity. Rows of white buildings against the blue beachfronts; white against the green hillsides; white against the mushrooming, oil-black storm clouds.

With two hours to kill, I am going to see Christopher Columbus, who died in Spain in 1506 but whose remains were later interred beneath the cathedral here. And as the taxi brings me closer, I can see, taste and feel that inevitable tropical force, a mixture of humanity and heat that pays no mind to the whitewash -- a grimy equatorial ooze coming through every crack.

Guatemala City, February 1999

It's 2 a.m. and the first thing I notice is the smell. If you've ever been to the tropics, you'll understand. It's not a bad or foul smell, necessarily, and this isn't to be taken as some Ugly American pejorative of things foreign or other-skinned. But it's pungent. For those who live with changing seasons, it's the equivalent of that smell of a neighbor's fireplace or wood stove on the first cold night of the year. Except it has no season; it's simply always there, ceaseless and permeating like the heat of the Sahara or the numbness of a glacier.

It's the odor of burning rain forest, of incinerated foliage, charcoal and garbage -- these destructive, ubiquitous pastimes of the Third World -- and it hits you the second you step from an airplane in almost every latitudinally challenged republic on earth, be it a tourist-choked Caribbean island or in the humid hinterlands of Southeast Asia.

Watching from the metal stairs of my cargo jet, it seems there isn't much to set this ugly tarmac apart from any other in the world, near or far. It's Columbus, Ohio, for all I know, and in any event I'm only here a few hours so it makes little difference. They'll unload our pallets of automobile parts and tractor tires -- tools that will help turn the landscape of this small country into parking lots and strip malls like the rest of the world -- and we'll be gone.

I was here once before, and the memory makes me laugh. In 1994 I rode a Jeep through the jungle to see the Mayan ruins at Tikal. I was 27, and things were a bit different. There was a time, even only a handful of years ago, when I might have felt the tang of adrenaline, when I might have found it important to see a corner or two of the world, even in predawn airport darkness.

But now I don't care much, and my captain is a retired Air Force pilot who's got more stories than he can remember: adventures of earthquakes in Pakistan, crash landings in the Kenyan countryside. He's old and his face is wrinkled and it makes me miserable to hear him, because who gives a shit, really, about his stories, now that he's just some old retired serviceman with three ex-wives who's lost all his hair?

I feel myself slipping, my heart giving way as he talks. I feel myself, like a disease, turning into just another version of this bald old guy who never found his way in life, no matter his crawling from the wreckage of earthquakes and crashes.

I'm tired and I smell. I've got grease on my shirt and I'm thinking of the girl I saw in Brussels only two days ago. From the metal railing I see the moon. It's an odd, eerily dangling crescent surrounded by an inky redness, like the moon of the Turkish flag.

There's something wild and strange about it, as wild and strange as the shouting frenzy of dark young boys throwing boxes from our airplane, and suddenly, for whatever it may or may not mean in this new different life, I can feel it in my bones that this ain't Columbus after all.

How do flights get their flight numbers and do they overlap? Can more than one airline have a Flight 235?

The assignment of flight numbers is more or less random, but airlines often give lower numbers to their more prestigious, long-distance routes.

While private aircraft use their registration numbers for identification over the radio, commercial flights use their airline name and flight number. For example, "Delta 235, you are cleared for takeoff on Runway 22." They can and do overlap. It's not unheard of for there to be two flight 235's, in the same airspace operated by two different companies.

Usually, after a crash or incident, one of the first things an airline does is change the involved flight number. There is no longer a Flight 11 operated by American Airlines after the 2001 terrorist attacks (though, sadly, that Boston to Los Angeles morning departure had carried that same number for decades).

Technically, a flight number is a combination of numbers and letters, prefixed by the carrier's two-letter IATA (International Air Transport Association) airline code. In the U.S. we tend to ignore the letter portion, but overseas it's used quite routinely. In Europe or Asia, the airport arrival/departure screens might show, for instance, flights "LH105" or "TG007" (Lufthansa and Thai respectively). When filling in your immigration forms before landing, you're supposed to use the full designator.

We often hear an airplane described as a "widebody." What exactly does this mean, or is it just a generic term for a large airliner?

Well, you're not going to find this expression in the glossary of the Federal Aviation Regulations or IATA's Compendium of Civil Aviation, but in fact it's neither an arbitrary distinction nor marketing babble. A widebody is any airliner with more than one aisle bisecting the passenger cabin.

A single-aisle plane is known in parlance as a "narrowbody," though the layperson rarely hears this, since things bigger and wider imply more comfort and safety. Which isn't really accurate, but we're stuck with the perception.

The first widebody, and for now still the widest, was the Boeing 747, which entered service in 1970. The McDonnell Douglas DC-10, Lockheed L-1011, and most of the Airbus family also are widebodies. The smallest -- or thinnest -- of the widebodies is the Boeing 767. The 767 has two aisles, but it's more of a psuedo widebody. With seven-abreast seating, its economy class cabin is only one seat wider than a standard six-abreast narrowbody. By contrast, a typical widebody features 8, 9 or 10 abreast.

Why are the American flags backward on the sides of airplanes?

Well, they are and they aren't. In honor of our nation's alliance with all things godly and noble, we've all purchased numerous flags in recent days, so go grab one and you'll see: The traditional template of the U.S. flag has the field of stars (there are 50 if you've never counted) in the upper left corner. But all flags have two sides; if hung from a pole, the opposite side has to have the stars in the opposite (right) corner, or else it would be attached by its stripes and not its stars.

Some U.S. airliners wear flag decals, others don't. But on those that do you'll find the left-starred banner on the left side, and the "backward" one on the right. This is to simulate the flag, affixed to a flagpole, billowing in the airstream as the plane moves forward.

If you've been watching a lot of TV lately, you'll notice the uniforms of U.S. soldiers often have "backward" flags stitched to their right shoulders. As our troops march swiftly forward, carrying glory and righteousness to all corners of the world, their flags wave appropriately.

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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.

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