Ask the pilot

Why is commercial piloting the third most dangerous profession? Plus, visions of icebergs in the North Atlantic and the aurora borealis in full bloom.


Patrick Smith
January 31, 2004 1:30AM (UTC)

Last week's paean to windows and views brought another round of firsthand accounts to my in box: A star-dappled midnight skyscape over Africa; a breathtaking landing at Lukla, Nepal, in a Twin-Otter; the Grand Canyon from a 707 as the pilot made a circle so everyone could see. One reader, who asks that his age be neither revealed nor (he hopes) construed, remembers low-level flights through the Andes on a Braniff DC-6.

My own panorama pantheon ranked views of New York City and Hong Kong at the top, though I wish I'd expanded the list. While the rules of this column banish the realm of non-commercial flying, I could have mentioned that Cessna ride I took over the Okavango Delta in northern Botswana -- the sight of loping giraffes and elephants in the swamps and savannas below.

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A reader from Arlington, Mass., reminds us to keep watch for two easier-to-see but no less dramatic phenomena: the aurora borealis and the iceberg fields of the North Atlantic. These I can vouch for, and flying between America and Europe you can often catch both in the same trip -- the Northern Lights on the eastbound overnight leg, and bergs on the afternoon return. The aurora in its fullest glory -- a quivering, horizon-wide curtain of fluorescence -- has to be seen to be believed. And you needn't traipse to the Yukon or Alaska; the most dazzling display I've ever witnessed was early one night between Detroit and New York. The heavens had come alive with immense, wavering sheets of color, as if god had hung his brightest laundry in the night sky.

With clear weather and in the proper season (think April and Titanic), you'll sometimes see clusters of icebergs drifting in the North Atlantic, their crazily sculpted tops easily visible even from 30,000 feet. Chances are best on the most northerly patterns, as close as possible to the southern tip of Greenland. This is usually around the time the crew has ordered the window shades down so people can sleep or watch movies, but check the moving map and try to sneak a glimpse.

Turning this around:

While the view from airplanes is prone to bring out the little kid in all of us, the view of airplanes is typically less celebrated.

Most airports, large or small, at one time or another featured observation decks. Among the more spectacular, if not the most well-known, was that of Boston's Logan International -- a 16th-floor platform slung between the enormous concrete legs of Logan's 285-foot control tower. With floor-to-ceiling glass on two sides, the room boasted not only a dramatic vista of the runways and taxiways, but a sweeping panorama of the downtown skyline, harbor and islands. It was an almost meditative space, dramatically poised yet oddly detached and quiet, insulated by its height and thick windows. In the '70s and '80s, before the Massachusetts Port Authority bolted shut the doors in the name of security, passengers could rest here between flights. Kids and families from Winthrop, Revere and East Boston came on the weekends, stuffing quarters into the mechanical binoculars, and even (I saw it) picnicking on the carpeted benches. In a way this corner of Logan clung to the fast-vanishing idea of an airport as public space. The deck wasn't merely for itinerant flyers or plane spotters, it was a destination for locals, like a park or a museum. In the '40s and '50s families drove to airport observatories for Sunday excursions. Logan's 16th floor was a vestige of that spirit -- a place of excitement and curiosity.

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And it was free.

Residents of Hong Kong lived for years beneath Kai Tak airport's famous "checkerboard" approach, bombarded by the whine of engines and the startling -- perhaps disconcerting -- sight of jetliners banked steeply overhead at arm's reach from windows and balconies. Good riddance to the noise, I suppose, but when Kai Tak closed in 1998, hundreds of citizens lined the rooftops to watch the last of the incoming planes, shouting and applauding as the arrivals twirled past. "Animated, cheerful souls," as described by a reporter from Time, "absolutely passionate about their beloved airport." Undersized and dingy, Kai Tak was nonetheless one of the last major terminals to evoke a kind of civic pride, and it was the checkerboard's constant reminder -- the sound and sight of treetop-skimming planes -- that people have come to sentimentalize.

Those who miss the thrill of Kai Tak still have some options. Spotters and gawkers can visit Maho Beach, for one, on the island of St. Maarten (St. Martin when speaking of its French half) in the Dutch Antilles. Here, along this otherwise small and unattractive oceanfront, the threshold of Princess Juliana International Airport's single runway extends nearly to the tide line. Judging from these pictures, which are not retouched in any way, you'd be advised to hit the sand to keep clear of jet blast and the swirling vortices from a 747's wingtip. The beach is posted with signs warning swimmers and sunbathers of these very hazards.

The crash of a Flash Airlines jet off the Egyptian coast in early January is being blamed on mechanical problems. An earlier Flash charter reportedly suffered an engine fire, and a passenger was quoted: "To say that the plane was decrepit would be a compliment." This seems to discredit your insistence that Third World airlines are trustworthy and reliable.

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First and foremost, nobody knows why the Flash Airlines 737 went down. It crashed after takeoff from Sharm-el-Sheik, a Red Sea resort popular with scuba fans, and sank into water more than 2,000 feet deep. (There's an irony in there somewhere; many of the passengers were divers.) Rare is the accident whose cause or causes, primary or secondary, are determined in less than 30 days. Conjecture and rumor will surface, if you'll grant me the pun, but you can expect many months before determinations are official. Until then, "mechanical problems" can refer to almost anything.

The vast majority of foreign and lesser-known airlines are trustworthy and reliable. I've never claimed that all are equally tight-shipped; only that most are perfectly safe, and some remarkably so. I'll withhold final judgment on Flash, though evidence indicates they were likely on that lower rung of the safety ladder. The company's name alone, I'll admit, is something less than professional sounding. More than a year before the Red Sea disaster, Flash was banned from flying to Switzerland by that country's authorities. For a commercial passenger line, such drastic measures are highly unusual. That doesn't deem the carrier "dangerous," necessarily, but obviously it was not up to standard. Understanding the difference is being able to grasp the statistical hairsplitting of air safety data.

Importantly too, Flash Airlines is a tiny charter outfit with, at this point, only a single 737 to its name. It is not to be categorized with the likes of a national flag carrier, be it EgyptAir or whomever. The national airlines of Syria and Tunisia, since we're in the neighborhood, are on the list of airlines that have gone fatality free for more than 30 years running.

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As for the eyewitness report, the superficial appearance of an aircraft isn't always a fair gauge of its upkeep. This is especially true with respect to interiors. Seats, bins, galleys and panels are routinely swapped out, and while threadbare cushions or stained carpeting aren't exactly points of pride, neither are they telltale signs of faulty maintenance. Flash's 737s were, at the time of that account, only a decade old, which is adolescence for a jetliner.

Speaking of the earlier fire, Flash chief pilot Hassan Mounir claimed such incidents aren't unusual. "It's normal," he said. "You can have an engine fire in flight." This sounds absurd.

It's disingenuous, but not wholly ludicrous. You can think of a jet engine as a kind of high-tech furnace -- a contained but ongoing combustion of compressed air and fuel -- and the nature of the beast lends itself to some rather colorful anomalies. Compressor stalls and other malfunctions can manifest themselves through powerful surges, bangs and even tongues of flame. These are routinely miscast in news reports as "fires" proper. They are not "normal," but they're usually not dangerous either. Add to this some translational mismatching between Arabic and English, and Mounir's remark may not be as crazy as it sounds.

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Last fall, a story on CNN/Money ranked commercial piloting as the third most dangerous profession according to the Department of Labor. What gives?

Commercial pilots, per se, encompass a pretty big vocational sphere -- anything from crop dusters to banner-towers to airline pilots. Even still, I'm surprised, but the underlying lesson here, maybe, is there simply aren't that many on-the-job deaths in any profession. One or two fatalities really skew the data. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, lumbermen have the worst mortality rate of anybody, with 118 deaths per 100,000 workers. For pilots it's 70 kills per 100,000. Alaskan bush pilots, included in the commercial pilot grouping, have an astounding one-in-eight chance of death over the course of a 30-year career.

There's a nomenclature issue here. Officially, a pilot needs fewer than 300 total hours to qualify for the FAA's commercial certificate, which entitles you to nothing more than a generic, fly-for-hire waiver. I was barely 20 when I had mine, with virtually all of my experience in single-engine, four-seat Pipers and Cessnas. With this in mind, it's sometimes a good idea to be skeptical of media stories citing this or that "commercial pilot" as a witness or source. (As we know, "erstwhile airline pilot" is the more appropriate badge of expertise.)

Most airline pilots, whose logbook totals average in the thousands of hours, hold the somewhat more restrictive Airline Transport Pilot (ATP) certificate.

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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.


Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith is an airline pilot.

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