Ask the pilot

Before a holiday on which more people fly than any other, the pilot remembers why he loves commercial airlines and solicits readers for Thanskgiving aviation memories.

Published November 26, 2003 8:30PM (EST)

Even before I'd completed last Friday's column -- part mini temper tantrum, part somber exposé -- I knew what was coming: If the business of flying planes is truly the all-or-nothing crapshoot I've detailed, why would anybody go through the trouble of joining such a lousy profession?

That's not a question submitted by readers, but one I was asking myself. By Friday afternoon, however, my mailbox was getting its share of likewise sentiment. "How could you stand it?" "Why bother?" And so on.

Those are questions many artists, musicians, and other more soulful tradespeople probably hear all the time, and while the drive to fly and the drive to create or perform may seem to emanate from opposite hemispheres of the brain, there's a shared thread of inspiration -- that being, if nothing else, one of total ineffability. Ask where a pilot got his vocational mojo, and you're likely to invite blather about "passion" or "boyhood dreams," and Mom and Dad will start remembering that long before Patrick Smith could drive a car or dress himself for school, he could demonstrate how to tell a 727-100 from a 727-200 by the shape of its engine intakes.

All very stirring, and if pilots are beholden to anything, it's normally not a paycheck. Instead, it's something in our veins that assembled there in childhood. But in adulthood, with your checkbook bleeding, your body a mangle of circadian chaos, and an unsettling ability to tell a Holiday Inn Express from a La Quinta by the color of the in-room carpeting, those same visceral longings that felt magical at age 7, or even 27, can feel like a curse -- your dreams turning against you while holding better judgment hostage. Even as my long-sought career lies in shambles around me, I cannot make myself un-love commercial flight any more than I can make myself enjoy the taste of mushrooms.

You'll notice I say "commercial flight." For whether I consider myself more, or less, cerebral about flying than most pilots is open to debate. My enthrallment as a youngster was -- and remains -- with the workings of the airlines themselves. I have limited fascination with the sky; I feel no ecstatic glee at the breaking of any "surly bonds." In grade school I would pore over the system maps and timetables of Pan Am, Aeroflot, Lufthansa and British Airways, memorizing the names of the foreign capitals they flew to, then drawing up my own imaginary airlines and tracing out their intended routes. It was all about far-off countries and cultures, and I'd imagine flying to whichever of them at the controls of my favorite airplane, the 747, flagship of the world's fleets. The sight of a Piper Cub meant nothing to me. Five minutes at an air show watching the Thunderbirds do barrel rolls and I was bored to tears.

Airplanes helped me appreciate the world. They turned me on to geography, travel and culture. By studying the airlines as a kid, I was inspired, later in life, to visit places like Malaysia and Botswana and India. It was a direct connection, and my aim is to remind you of that potential. The disconnect between air travel and culture seems to me wholly unnatural, yet we've seen virtually a clean break. Nobody gives a damn anymore how you get there. I'll ask friends about the trips they take, always wanting to know which airline and aircraft they rode on. Often enough the answer is "I don't remember." A shame for the means to be so coldly separated from the ends, for people to find travel so valuable, important or enriching, but to find a certain irrelevancy in the tools that allow it to happen. For most, regardless of whether the destination is Kansas or Katmandu, the airplane is a necessary evil, incidental to the journey but no longer part of it.

Planes are complicated, sophisticated and, dare the biased enthusiast submit, beautiful (some of them). A lack of knowledge about the workings of planes can seem a bit, well, uncivilized, or even disrespectful to those who bestow passion on them. And that's not the adrenaline-charged passion some might feel at the sight of a motorcycle or muscle car, or the way a collector might coo lovingly while oiling the barrels of his rifles and handguns. Planes can be sexy, I say, but spare me anything trite about phalluses and hormones. I'm talking about a passion that takes all of humanity into account: the world's airlines bridging the continents, linking nations and peoples of the world. If that sounds hokey or far-fetched, I propose a stroll through the International Arrivals Building at Kennedy airport during the nightly transatlantic departure push.

And what's at the root of all this weepy culture bridging? The aircraft itself, the graceful ship docked outside that nobody is paying attention to. How many travelers with their passports full of stamps and visas can tell you the difference between an A340 and a 777? How many can tell you which is the world's oldest airline (KLM), the largest plane (still the 747), or whose face is up on the tail of EgyptAir (it's Horus, the ancient Egyptian sky god)?

I remember a former girlfriend of mine, an artist named Samantha, who, while she'd have no trouble appreciating the play of light in 17th century paintings by Vermeer, found my fondness for aircraft to be utterly perplexing. While I could see urbane elegance in the shape of a 747, or a heady significance in the color scheme of a prestigious airline, she analogized airplanes not as works of art themselves, but merely as the tool. The sky was the canvas, the plane nothing less discardable than the painter's brush. I disagree, for as a brush's stroke represents the moment of artistic inspiration, what is travel without the journey?

Opinions like these once got me called "a shill for the corporate bullshit airlines." I am not extolling the virtues of 17-inch seats or the culinary subtlety of half-ounce bags of snack mix. The idea is to show some beauty where you don't expect it. The indignities of flying aside, there are, at least for now, still many jewels, both aesthetic and existential, to be found. OK, flying sucks, but if you can't value the idea of zipping to Hong Kong in 12 hours in a million-pound machine, then there's a problem.

Here I am, sitting in a Boeing 747, a plane that if tipped onto its nose, would rise as tall as a 20-story office tower. I'm at 33,000 feet over the middle of the Pacific Ocean, traveling at 600 miles per hour, bound for the Far East, a voyage that once took seven weeks in a sailing ship. And what are the 400 passengers doing? Complaining, sulking, reading the paper, and tapping grumbly rants into their laptops. The man next to me, having paid a $5,600 business class fare, is upset because there's a dent in the lip of his can of ginger ale.

Progress, one way or the other, mandates that the extraordinary become the ordinary. In the case of commercial aviation, luxury and privilege were distilled into common vinegar for the masses. But don't we lose valuable perspective on our own capabilities and triumphs when we begin to equate the commonplace, more or less by definition, with the tedious? Don't we forfeit a bit of our pride when we sneer indifferently at sight of a jet airplane -- something that is, at heart, a world-changing triumph of industrial design?

End of rant.

If any of the preceding paragraphs sound strangely familiar, that's due to their having been culled from a column of several months ago. They also provide a sneak peek at the opening pages of the still unnamed Ask the Pilot book. "The Painter's Brush," courtesy of pretty Samantha, wherever the hell she is, will be the title of my introduction. This being Thanksgiving, a holiday that brings with it more in-transit human beings this side of the Hajj than any other, a revisit seemed in order.

Wednesday before the holiday is historically the year's busiest travel day. This year, however, the Air Transport Association is predicting that Sunday, Nov. 30, will be the single busiest day in U.S. airline history, with an estimated 2.2 million passengers systemwide.

To those of you who plan to be among them, I'm assigning a task to see if you're paying attention. Contracting what inspiration you're able to from my paean above, see if your travel experience this Thanksgiving can't be just a little different: something you notice about the lines of the 757, a curious airline you never recognized before, a nugget of architectural whimsy from the terminal. This time, keep your window shade up. If you're leaving from La Guardia on the Delta Shuttle, walk the extra 20 steps left of the awning to see those gleaming art deco doorways of the famous Marine Air Terminal.

And if you want, tell me about it. An observation, a query, a noted pleasantry where you didn't expect one. Anything but a complaint about legroom or another sordid account from the security line. I'll publish the choicest submissions in the weeks ahead.

I will not be flying this Thanksgiving. But each year when the end of November rolls around, I always think of 1993, when I was a captain still, assigned to a 37-seater for the Northwest Airlines affiliate based in Boston. I was heading to New Brunswick, Canada, that day, and my first officer was the always cheerful and gregarious Kathy Knight. If you're a very astute reader you might recall Kathy as the co-star of my "Getting Started" anecdote two weeks ago. Kathy is one of only three people I've ever met who'd been a flight attendant before becoming a pilot. While learning to fly and building time, Kathy spent a few years serving peanuts to passengers at Delta.

Today, she was serving me. Literally, for she'd brought along an entire cooler full of food -- huge turkey sandwiches, a whole pie, and plastic tubs of mashed potatoes. We assembled the plates and containers across the folded-down jump seat. Just one of those sentimental oddities a pilot files away in his mental logbook. They don't reflect on wind shear and near misses; they reflect on dinner at 20,000 feet on the way to Moncton. Or at least I do.

Kathy went to work at one of the majors after not too long, and I never heard from her again. I imagine you can fit a much larger feast across the jump seat of a 777 than the skinny cushion of a Dash-8.

One of the other flight attendants-turned-pilot I'd met was a young guy named George Land. I never had Thanksgiving with George and only knew him for a couple of months, during training class at a small airline in 1996. He had some funny stories of working the aisles at TWA. In 2003 I know exactly where George is, mainly because he is dead, killed in the crash of a cargo jet in 2000.

Speaking of cargo jets, and diametric to my vignette from '93, I recall Thanksgiving of 2000. Flying to Brussels that morning, an eight-hour haul, I'd avoided breakfast in full anticipation of a well-stocked galley of holiday comestibles. No respectable caterer would skimp on Thanksgiving, and my appetite was prepared. As second officer on the old DC-8 (not unlike the one poor George rode to his grave), roughly 80 percent of my job involved heating up dinner and emptying the trash, and today I would produce my pièce de résistance from trays of cafeteria-cooked turkey and potatoes from a box. I was hungry just thinking about it.

Alas. The freight is loaded and the doors are about to be sealed, when it's realized the caterers have forgotten us entirely, too busy stocking the galleys at Delta, United and American to worry about three undernourished pilots in a freighter at the back side of the tarmac. Not even a soda can. When we're told it would be at least an hour's delay, the company orders us to depart, broken-hearted and empty-stomached.

At the last second, a pickup truck whirls to a stop and an agent climbs the stairs. He's smiling and carrying three large bags. Before he reaches the top step I see the Golden Arches and smell the greasy hash browns.

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Do you have questions for Salon's aviation expert? Or Thanksgiving aviation stories to share? Send them to AskThePilot.

By Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith is an airline pilot.

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