Ask the pilot

The pilot confesses his many sins and explains the strange aviation mystery of Gardner, Mass.

By Patrick Smith

Published September 19, 2003 7:30PM (EDT)

First, some backpedaling:

You cannot fly nonstop between Cincinnati and Zurich, as I erroneously reported on Aug. 22. Delta may have done this at one time, but today its European services from CVG are limited to Paris, London and Frankfurt.

Nor, as I wrote in the same piece, will a powerless Boeing 757 "hover" if towed from a hangar and pointed into a 200-knot hurricane. In my excitement over pointing out the difference between airspeed and groundspeed I made the ridiculous hover comment, which would have earned me some well-deserved laughter from my coworkers, if only I still had any, and maybe a visit from the company psychiatrist. Indeed the airplane would be capable of remaining motionless, relative to ground, or even drifting backward, but not without enough forward thrust to maintain minimum flying speed.

Several of you also noticed errors in my ranking of the world's busiest metro areas. When combining passenger totals in cities with more than one airport I neglected to include Chicago's Midway, as well as London's third, fourth, and fifth airports -- Stansted, London City and Luton. The data my intern was using showed only the top 50 finishers, and those were not among them.

We shouldn't go too far with this, as it gets into the definition of what, exactly, constitutes a metropolitan area. Since we're already stretching, I've gone ahead and included some outlying New York facilities (Islip's MacArthur airport is 50 miles from Manhattan). Liz Harris at the British Airports Authority, and Midway's Dan Curtin gave me the rest of the needed numbers, and a more accurate top five goes like this:

1. London -- Heathrow, Gatwick, Stansted, London City and Luton (117.9 million)
2. Tokyo -- Haneda and Narita (90 million)
3. Chicago -- O'Hare and Midway (83.4 million)
4. New York -- JFK, Newark, La Guardia, Islip, White Plains and Newburg (81.1 million)
5. Atlanta (76.9 million)

Notice Atlanta, even with no second airport, is strong enough to hold the top five, though it only exceeds Southern California's five-headed airplex of Los Angeles International, Long Beach, John Wayne, Burbank, and Ontario by a fraction. The bulk of ATL's traffic comprises connecting passengers who never leave the premises. The Parisian combo of Charles de Gaulle and Orly would place next, with just under 72 million. If you've never heard of Tokyo's Haneda, it's a bustling in-city property serving only the domestic market. Think of it as a Japanese La Guardia.

Somebody pointed out that Van Nuys, Calif., is in fact the eighth-busiest airport in the world when measured by takeoffs and landings, and chided me for VNY's absence among airports with the highest number of "movements." Technically he's right, just as Hanscom Field, in Bedford, Mass., is the second-busiest airport in New England. The vast majority of VNY's and BED's traffic is noncommercial, and it's my standard protocol to omit statistics involving private or military aircraft.

It seems readers were less ticked off by any technical miscues than by my use of the word "exotic" in my agitated discourse on the geographic illiteracy of Americans. "Who's patronizing now?" asked an e-mailer from the Philippines. "I used to write for Asiaweek," he went on, explaining how the editor "absolutely forbade writers from using the word 'exotic.'"

I realize my choice of the word, a controversial, culturally insensitive adjective in the minds of some, was a strange one, potentially butting against the very point I was trying to make. But it's all relative, audience depending, and to me a Mongolian yak herder is no less entitled to the term in his first-time impressions of the New York skyline or a basket of wings at Hooters, than I am in descriptions of a Malian meat stand or a souk on the outskirts of Fez. Both of which I've seen and both of which I deem, guess what, "exotic."

More caustic was one reader's analysis of my essay as "neo-Marxist" and "horseshit." The letter was unsigned but fiercely articulate in that cold, smarmy way so popular with right-wing commentators and conservative pundits. I'm thinking maybe it came from Bill O'Reilly. In taking issue with my suggestion that the United States is a nation too young to have exported any true culture, Bill rebuts:

"Eleven Nobel Prizes in literature; masters in sculpture, art, and poetry; and the refinement and development of every major invention of the last 200 years. It is not the fault of the United States that the 'enlightened' peoples of the world grab on to the weaker parts of American culture."

Point taken. (I paraphrased him a bit, actually.) But "horseshit?" No, not quite, though I probably should stay clear of gratuitous phrases like "no real understanding" and "any true culture." The paragraph he seized upon indeed could have used some editorial chewing.

Another dissenter says it like this:

"If our foreign friends don't care for corporate mass culture, they are free not to patronize it. And if that is what certain people choose to believe represents all of American culture, then that is all the American culture they deserve to know about."

That's a compelling suggestion (and another paraphrase), and I'm obliged to agree that no, obviously, Americans are not the world's only inhabitants with myopic views, crass obsessions, and limited attention spans. The difference is that we are the leaders. My ultimate point is that our example as the richest and most powerful should be something more, for lack of a better expression, attentive and responsible.

"Xenophobia" is a strong word, and singling out the United States of America for any fear of and hatred toward other people or cultures is, to some extent, a cheap shot. This is a world where slavery continues to be practiced in Africa, and where tribal and religious violence kills millions. Suffice it to say we have it pretty good here, in a relative state of harmony many fractured places can't imagine. But for now we seem to be heading toward the fray rather than away from it.

That's all I meant in my otherwise histrionic tantrum. I won't apologize for the gist of the column, but I'll admit it was composed during a spell of post-trip fluster -- a kind of reverse-culture-shock hangover that lingers a few days after returning from abroad.

As for our acumen in geography, I once met a guy from North Dakota who thought Maine was part of Canada. If we're going grassroots, we should start, as it were, at home.

Whenever I fly from California to New England, the pilot never fails to mention we'll be passing over Gardner, Mass. Gardner is a tiny town in the middle of nowhere. Why is a spot like this so relevant to a plane at 30,000 feet?

Little Gardner, Mass., is home to a radio beacon used as a sequence point for air traffic, and it appears on certain maps and charts.

Despite advances in direct-route, satellite-based GPS navigation, point-to-point routings using such ground stations, known as VORs, remain the norm in the United States. ("VOR" stands for VHF omnidirectional range.) Whether flying cross-country or up and down the coasts, planes travel between these facilities in a kind of connect-the-dots pattern. If this sounds anachronistic, it is. Even if equipped with modern GPS equipment, a plane is still enslaved by air traffic control's fundamentally outmoded standard. Crews may use GPS to determine a VOR's position, creating virtual waypoints in lieu of homing to the actual beacons, but conceptually it's still a ground-based network. In late 2003 the FAA revealed its "road map," spelling out a 20-year transition to satellite-based traffic management. That's about 15 years too conservative, and hence we look forward to another two decades of needlessly congested airways.

Across oceans aircraft follow more direct patterns. It's a similar connect-the-dots routine, only now the dots are invisible meetings of latitude and longitude. Airspace over the ocean is broken into "tracks," or long strings of lat/long fixes. If GPS isn't available to follow these routings, something called the INS (inertial navigation system) remains fairly common. Entirely self-contained, INS hardware uses complex, in-unit gyroscopes to calculate location. For accuracy, passenger jets certified for oceanic crossings are outfitted with three independent INS boxes.

If you've ever paid attention to the air-ground communications through a plane's entertainment system, you've probably been mystified by the calls of controllers directing flights toward all kinds of strange, fantastical-sounding places. "United 626, proceed to ZAPPY," you'll hear. Or, "Southwest 1407, cleared to WOPPO." A look at a navigational chart reveals the entire United States, and the rest of the world for that matter, overlaid by thousands of point-in-space fixes, or "intersections," that carry these peculiar five-letter monikers. I invented ZAPPY and WOPPO myself, but I'll bet they're out there somewhere. They are determined by angles and distances from VORs, or else by crisscrosses of latitude and longitude, allowing them to exist virtually anywhere, even over the middle of an ocean.

Once in a while an intersection is coined with folksy reference to a geographic or cultural characteristic below. SCROD is a transatlantic gateway fix off the coast of Labrador. BOSOX is one not far from where I live (baseball fans will understand). God only knows what's going on below the closely aligned trio of BLOWN, LAYED, and BAABY.

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Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith is an airline pilot.

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