Ask the pilot

Are jet contrails really CIA poison? And how do gay flight attendants get along with redneck pilots?

Published April 25, 2003 7:30PM (EDT)

Yes, it's true. Beginning Sunday, April 20, 2003, airline pilots began bringing handguns into the cockpit. As of that day, 44 pilots had graduated from a federally approved course to become certified flight deck officers, with many more to follow. Surveys show about 70 percent of pilots are in favor of the new program, though it's doubtful anywhere close to that many will actually participate.

Basically I find it a distraction and a waste of time. Granted it's impossible to measure the deterrent factor, but there's probably a higher probability of a cockpit gun being used in a suicide, or discharged accidentally, than ever being used to ward off a terrorist. Neither scenario is particularly likely, and I will not use the suicide/accident scenario as a lobbying point against the program, but if we have to split hairs, that's my position. Let's not belabor the point, and instead you can click to my earlier article.

You should know the only time this pilot packs heat is when he's reading his e-mail from Salon readers. So don't rile him up.

The idea of gun-toting pilots is a symptom of a more encompassing issue: A year and a half after Sept. 11, we're still in full blown capitulation to the notion that just about anything, no matter how unreasonable or inconvenient, is acceptable in the name of safety. Is flying safer than it used to be? Sure, but then it was never exactly dangerous to start with, even as 19 hijackers legally carried boxcutters through security. What happened that day was a breakdown of intelligence and geopolitics; not a failure at the X-ray machines or metal detectors. The system remains safe, secure, and reliable, just as it was to begin with.

Unable to grasp this, we are in an unrelenting, 19-month stupor. Addled by misguided fear, it seems we're more than happy to empty our pockets, rat out our neighbors, pull down our pants. No, not everyone, but enough of us to keep the beast fed and happy. The TV cameras and newspapers have quoted us time and time again, acquiescing with a sigh: "Well, it sucks, but if it makes flying safer I'm all for it."

The airlines, suffering mightily from all of this, don't like it one bit, but they too are handcuffed by the reality: this is what democracy wants. Attention all passengers: forfeit not only your weapons and plastic explosives, but your corkscrews, umbrellas, patience and dignity.

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Is it true that Qantas, the Australian airline, has never suffered a fatal accident?

Yes, it's true. But Qantas is also a relatively small airline (111 aircraft in 2002), at least compared to U.S. and European majors, and historically a strong percentage of its flights have been of the long-haul, intercontinental variety. This equates to fewer takeoffs and landings, the times when most accidents occur. What sets the Aussies apart, however, is that their national airline, Queensland and Northern Territory Aerial Service (QANTAS) dates back to 1920 and is one of the world's oldest.

Which is all well and good, but construing the exemplary record of Qantas as a means of branding it the world's safest airline is sticky business. The list of airlines that have gone fatality free over at least the past 30 years is surprisingly extensive, and includes such names as Aer Lingus, Tunisair, and Air Jamaica. Should we include one or two fatal events, the list would comprise dozens more -- some from unexpected corners of Africa and South America. Presence of an accident or two -- the causes of which might be anything from pilot error to terrorism -- does not establish a pathology of incompetence, and should not imply an airline is any more dangerous than another.

One example I love to cite is LAB -- Lloyd Aero Boliviano -- the national airline of the poorest country in South America. LAB, like Qantas, is one of the world's oldest airlines, founded in 1925, and its routes ply the treacherous peaks of the Andes, in and out of La Paz, the planet's most highly situated commercial airport. Since 1969, LAB has suffered two fatal crashes on scheduled passenger runs, both of them turboprops, killing a total of 36 people. LAB, with a dozen or so planes, is not a major airline running thousands of daily departures, but two crashes in 34 years, amidst jagged mountains and the hazards of the high altiplano, is outstanding.

Does that mean LAB is safer, or as safe, as Qantas? No, it means they're both very trustworthy. This isn't a knock on Qantas. The point is to illustrate the ambiguity of statistics and the relative safety of many other airlines.

Why do some planes leave those white trails in the sky, while others don't? And what is this, exactly?

Contrails are formed when humid jet exhaust condenses in the cold, dry, upper level air. It's not unlike the fog that results when you exhale on a cold day. In other words, contrails are clouds. Water vapor, strange as it might sound, is a byproduct of the combustion within jet engines (and other engines too), which is where the humidity comes from. Whether or not a contrail forms depends on atmospheric conditions, mainly temperature and something known as vapor pressure, but generally the aircraft you see leaving them are at very high (i.e. cruise) altitudes.

If you live near a major airport and spy a contrail overhead, chances are the plane is merely transitioning the airspace en route to a more distant location. Here in Boston they are a common sight directly above the city, especially in late afternoons, and always aligned in the same northeasterly/southwesterly direction. That's because the majority of these white lines belong to jets destined for, or coming from, New York. Every day, dozens of flights to and from Europe serve Kennedy and Newark airports, and the transatlantic routings often carry them overhead Boston.

The environmental impact of contrails is the subject of study and debate. While you might be tempted to marvel at the innocuous beauty of these mile high etchings, remember that there's more to jet exhaust than moisture. While worldwide use of fossil fuels by commercial aviation hovers around 5 percent, the injection of pollutants directly into the upper troposphere is potentially more harmful than their amounts would suggest. Emissions include not just water vapor, but carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxides, unburned hydrocarbons, soot, and sulfate particles. Some of these can react with the atmosphere to increase levels of ozone.

Meanwhile, clouds breed clouds, and some experts contend that regional climates are affected by air traffic, as the presence of contrails propagates the development of high, thin (cirrus) overcast. It is claimed that cirrus cover has increased by 20 percent in certain traffic corridors, which in turn influences temperature and precipitation.

Not to be outdone by mere science, there's also an ongoing conspiracy theory claiming that contrails are, in fact, noxious chemicals being sprayed by the military. Some have drawn a connection between contrail presence and illness in certain communities. Of course, all it takes is a decent pair of binoculars to realize the culprit is usually a Lufthansa A340 or a Delta 767, and not some shadowy spy plane piloted by the CIA. If this all sounds particularly cuckoo, I'll mention that three times in the past year I've answered queries from Salon readers convinced we're being doused with experimental materials from high-flying government aircraft.

For a good primer on the realities and fallacies of contrails, try here.

How do pilots get along with gay flight attendants? I would expect that many macho (often ex-military) pilots would be prone to disrespect and perhaps mistreat male cabin attendants who exhibit effeminacy. And what about gay (and lesbian) pilots? Any queers in the cockpit?

Well, pilot/flight attendant interaction, regardless of personalities or sexual orientations, tends to be businesslike and terse these days. Cockpit and cabin crews often stay in separate hotels, for instance.

But to answer the question, the word I'd go with is cordial. Cordial doesn't always mean friendly, exactly, but for the most part the interplay is very professional and free of hostility. How much of this is due to fear of litigation or getting fired, etc., is open to debate, but even that counts for something. I have never once seen or heard a pilot openly mistreat a male flight attendant. There's a degree of sarcasm and fun-poking behind the scenes, but while I don't suppose that's terribly surprising, it's a lot more tame than you'd expect. Many pilots, even the most macho Republicans, can be surprisingly open minded and easygoing. Perhaps working closely with gay co-workers over an extended period of time breaks down ingrained stereotypes.

As for gay pilots, I've worked with at least three, including a former military flier.

I've also been acquainted with three male flight attendants who eventually became airline pilots. Interestingly, none were gay as far as I know. One of them, married with kids, was killed in the crash of a cargo plane a few years ago.

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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