Ask the pilot

The pilot refuses to get into a Boeing vs. Airbus name-calling match. Plus, never-to-be-heard highlights of the pilot's NPR appearance.

By Patrick Smith
Published March 5, 2004 8:30PM (EST)

Somewhat in line with our ongoing audit of pilots and public speaking, I'm relieved to announce that virtually no Ask the Pilot readers were tuned in to hear my recent and shamefully inarticulate appearance on National Public Radio.

Fortunately, judging from my e-mail, very few of you are Saturday afternoon radio listeners, and were spared my pathetic performance as a guest of NPR's game show gag, "Wait, Wait Don't Tell Me!" That is, provided I'm not interpreting your silence exactly the wrong way.

What you missed was the opportunity to hear Patrick Smith stuttering and stammering his way through 10 minutes of woeful on-air banter. Fittingly enough, the worst moment came when I was asked to elaborate on the how and why of pilot P.A. announcements. Halfway through my response I was struck by a thought, obvious as it was to thousands of people: I have no idea what I'm talking about.

Too late. Long gone is the forgiving nature of radio, the ephemera of error, when my mangled syntax could have drifted off into nothingness, lasting only as long as it took the confused listener to furrow his or her brow and wonder who the hell this idiot Patrick Smith is. Instead, the entire pageant is digitized forever, sealed in virtual amber on NPR's "Wait, Wait" Web site. I might as well put this out there, lest you find it unexpectedly and not be prepared. Go listen if you want. Just don't tell me about it.

What you won't hear, by the way, are the show's two best moments, carefully edited prior to broadcast. Since the purveyors of Salon are less choosy about who they offend, I'll share the uncut version, to the best of my recollection ...

Before I managed to miss two of three panel questions came the following dialogue, in the middle of a conversation about U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft. The host was NPR's Peter Sagal, and the panelists were P.J. O'Rourke, Roy Blount Jr. and Sue Ellicott ...

Patrick Smith: Ashcroft, now isn't he a Pentecostal?

Sagal: I believe so, yes.

Patrick Smith: No offense, but aren't those the people who writhe around and speak in tongues?

Panelist: I'm not sure, they might be.

Patrick Smith: I don't think the attorney general of the United States of America should be writhing or speaking in tongues. Unless he's swallowed poison or something.

Sagal: Um.

Patrick Smith: I wonder if any pilots have ever spoken in tongues over the P.A. [laughter)

Panelist: I don't think any pilots should subscribe to any apocalyptic religions! [laughter]

NPR saw fit to excise this whole exchange, apparently uneasy with the religious aspect. Or else they didn't want Ashcroft writhing and sputtering next time NPR's budget comes up in Congress. From there it only got worse. Or better, maybe, depending how you see it ...

Patrick Smith: I'd like to verify one thing.

Sagal: What's that?

Patrick Smith: That I am the least famous person ever to appear on this show? [laughter].

Panelist: Now that's not true at all!

Patrick Smith: I'd like to apologize to the audience. These poor people have no idea who I am.

Panelist: Oh, come on now.

Patrick Smith: [wryly] I was a last minute fill-in for Spalding Gray.

OK. And no sooner had "Gray" tumbled from my mouth when a long, embarrassed and extremely awkward silence followed. Finally after a number of seconds somebody -- I think it was P.J. O'Rourke, bless his heart -- started cackling. Except it was more of an incredulous cackle, not the funny kind.

Sagal: Well, er, um, I'd say that was about the most distasteful remark ever uttered on this program. Fortunately we're live-to-tape and can snip it out.

Which they did.

Poor Spalding Gray, who is/was a heck of a lot funnier than I am, now missing and by many accounts a presumed suicide. The irony is that I happen to be an enormous Spalding Gray fan, dating back to the day in 1986 when I read "Sex and Death to the Age Fourteen" for the first of about 10 times. There's an airplane connection here too: In the summer of '89 I rented a small plane and flew to Martha's Vineyard to watch Gray perform his classic "Terrors of Pleasure" monologue at a church in Vineyard Haven. Or maybe it was Edgartown. It was a long time ago, and now Gray looks to be dead and I'm guilty of making fun of him on the radio.

Apparently, NPR's Doug Berman, producer of "Wait, Wait" and "Car Talk," is a big fan of my column, as is -- or was -- Peter Sagal. If only they'd known just how awful an off-the-cuff orator I happen to be. I assume I've sealed my fate and can dispense with my ideas of a "Plane Talk" offshoot.

Do you think there is a difference in the quality of Boeing aircraft versus Airbus? I get the impression Airbus planes are made more cheaply, and they seem to sound that way too -- loud and tincanny. Boeings feel much more solid, are quieter, and don't seem to rattle. What do you think?

I despise this question, but I need to answer because it comes up all the time in various and slippery forms. To describe an Airbus as "tincanny" belittles the complexity and impressiveness of an airliner, no matter who makes it. When I accuse the ATR of being "fragile," or if I call the DC-8 a "relic," as you've come across in past columns, this is a pilot being colloquial. The ATR is not a Yugo and neither, even by the most lenient sense of extrapolation, is an A340.

The guts, if you will, of an Airbus are different in many ways from those of a Boeing. It's not unlike comparing Apple to IBM, and each has its diehards who'll hate crossing over. Different planes abide by different philosophies of construction and operation, with all fashion of pleasant and annoying quirks within. It gets technical. Opinions on which is the "better" plane delve into the nuts and bolts of the systems -- the kinds of details that will get you (and me) yawning fast, and that do not reveal themselves as squeals, moans, or rattles during takeoff. It comes down to preferences and, in a way, style, more than quality or lack thereof. There is no statistical safety difference that merits citing.

Both Boeing and Airbus have their fans and detractors for many reasons, but neither is cheap or tincanny. In the end it's probably a wash. It ought to be when it's $60 million for your choice of a 737 or A320, or $150 million for a 777 or A340. At those costs, nobody could get away with selling junk.

Noise levels are about equal, too. Exposure to noise, and the kind of noise, depends greatly on where in the cabin you're sitting and the position of the engines, most notably during takeoff. On planes with wing-mounted turbofans, those seated closer to the front will hear a very distinctive grinding sound that emanates from the engine's fans and compressors, while a louder, whooshing roar is heard in the back. In planes like the MD-80 (DC-9), with aft-mounted engines, takeoff noise is almost nonexistent in the most forward rows.

Can a 747 fly a loop?

Surprisingly -- or not -- this is a question I get all the time. Any airplane can perform more or less any maneuver, theoretically, from loops to barrel rolls to a reverse inverted hammerhead Immelman (I just made that up). Whether it's a good idea, however, is another story. Airliner components are not designed for aerobatics and may suffer damage -- or worse -- if forced into such scenarios. Plus, the cleaners would be up all night scrubbing out coffee stains and cleaning vomit.

During a demonstration flight in the late 1950s, a Boeing 707 was intentionally flown upside down.

After takeoff during our post-departure maneuverings, our plane went through a long series of very steep banks -- I'd say about 60 degrees. This seemed a bit excessive. Do some pilots tend to hot-dog it more than others?

Typical passenger guestimates of pitch and bank are about double the actual value. A plane will not be banked more than about 25 degrees in normal circumstances, and anything beyond 30 would be a pretty drastic maneuver. A 60-degree tip would throw twice the force of gravity in your lap (two Gs), and you'd be struggling just to lift your legs from the carpet.

It works the same for climbs and descents. The steepest climb you'll ever see is about 18-20 degrees pitch up or about 5 degrees pitch down.

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Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith is an airline pilot.

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