Ask the Pilot takes off

In honor of the publication of his first book, the pilot answers a few more questions ... from his editor.

Andrew Leonard
June 1, 2004 11:30PM (UTC)

Not quite three years ago, during the terrible aftermath of 9/11, an unsolicited article on airline security appeared in my e-mail, ostensibly written by an actual pilot. The piece glowed with attributes that would be immediately appealing to any editor: it was smart, provocative, cleanly written and eloquent.

In other words, it needed very little editing, a quality that, as an editor, I find irresistible. Once I had proven to my own superior's satisfaction that yes, the mysterious "P. Smith" was a bona fide airline pilot, little more needed to be done. Salon's readers promptly ratified my belief that Mr. Smith was a darned good writer, and they have been pouring down their praise ever since.


Today, some 88 columns and a half-dozen features later, it gives me great pleasure to brassily announce the publication of Patrick Smith's first book, "Ask The Pilot: Everything You Need To Know About Air Travel." An extension and elaboration of Patrick's work with Salon, "Ask The Pilot" is, despite, its nuts-and-bolts title, a heaping dose of that same smart eloquence that was so recognizable in his first published essays.

Yes, I'm biased -- I'm his editor.

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In your columns, you frequently mention your love of air travel. But your passion doesn't appear to be grounded in the technical joys of piloting -- there seems to be something else going on, a real excitement about going somewhere -- anywhere -- through the air. What exactly has caught and kept your interest in air travel?

The visceral, left-brain act of flying is savored by all pilots, but for me it extends beyond the cockpit. As a kid, it was the airlines themselves that compelled and fascinated me. As I've written, five minutes at an air show watching F-16s and I'd start yawning, but I could spend hours poring over the timetables and route maps of the world's airlines. I'm a throwback, maybe, in the sense that I still see planes as a way of bridging people, cultures and continents.

My passion for aviation came to nurture a passion for travel. I'd never have traipsed off to 50 countries if I hadn't fallen in love with airplanes first. This connection, as anybody who reads my column knows, is something I promote relentlessly. What underpins my columns -- and the book -- is a hope that you, too, will come to see the airplane as more than an inconvenient means to an end.


I didn't realize, until you wrote of it recently, that your mother had worked for an airline for many years. So you kind of grew up in the business, didn't you?

I was in seventh grade when my mother went to work the counter at Northwest, in 1979. My status as an aviation obsessive was established long before that. If anything, it was my enthusiasm that inspired her. But yeah, sure, her job exposed me to certain inner workings of the industry I wouldn't have seen elsewhere. And best of all, now I could fly for free!


Do you recall when you first knew the flying life was meant for you?

No. I have crayon sketches of airliners that I drew when I was 8 years old, so it began even prior to that. There may have been a point -- a moment or incident -- that got things humming, but I don't remember it.

The list of pilots who write is pretty short -- I'm not aware of anyone who does exactly what you do. Have you always been interested in writing? What encouraged you to start writing about air travel?


I'd always had a mild compulsion for writing, but never gave it much attention, vocationally, beyond occasional minor league efforts -- a small music review here or there, for instance, and at one point a self-published poetry zine that was more an attempt to meet girls than to hone my skills (ripoffs of my favorite Stephen Dobyns poems).

The best flight-related writing I've come across is from industry outsiders, which is to say writers, not pilots, who best understand which ideas and nuances people will find meaningful. Am I a decent writer? That's not my call, and neither is it totally key. In my case, inherent grace with words takes a back seat (see, what an awful cliché) to the good fortune of having an unusual and exploitable niche.

You began writing for Salon shortly after Sept. 11, 2001. That date was a watershed moment for most Americans, but for you it hit on a personal level. You were furloughed from your job as a result, and since that point you've been a writer, not a pilot.


After the attacks, flying was on everybody's mind, and there I was with an opportunity to meld two interests of mine into something useful. It's ironic, because while I'm heartbroken over the collapse of my day job, it provided me with a chance to leapfrog many of the rigors that for most people precede any chance to have a book published.

You've expressed in your columns a nostalgia for the era when flying was something special. Do you think it can regain that splendor, or are those days gone forever?

They're gone, as they probably should be, and per the evolution of technology they have to be. Don't confuse the sentiments I expressed a few minutes ago with any nostalgia for the pomp and circumstance of air travel's glamour days. All I ask is that people not take flying for granted, and that they stop for a moment to appreciate the marvelous machines that allow it to happen. Next time you're jetting to the Far East in a state-of-the-art A340 or 777, a trip that once took 14 weeks in a sailing ship, I hope you'll step back for a second and think "Hey, this is pretty damn cool." Once you start looking around -- at the designs of the planes, the liveries of the airlines, the architecture of the terminals -- a whole new splendor, as you say, springs up.


Much ink has been spilled over the possibilities of interactivity between readers and writers in online media, but you are one of the few writers I've worked with who seems to have really taken it to heart. Do you answer all your mail? And how has your writing evolved, given the intense personal reaction so many readers seem to have to what you have to say?

I try to answer everybody, though I tend to start with letters beginning "Is it true that ..." or, "Somebody told me that ..." Nothing eats at me more than leaving some lingering myth or falsehood unaddressed.

But of all the letters I receive, most flattering are those from people who admittedly rarely fly. I'll get an e-mail that says, "I didn't think I'd find your column worth reading, only to be drawn in ..." That's become the magic of the column, and can work for the book too: a measure of attraction beyond the expected. Air travel incorporates history, culture, geography, and so forth, and this is the stuff that makes Ask the Pilot unique. Not at the exception of buzzword topics -- turbulence, wind shear, crashes -- but in addition to them. I try to appeal to people's general sense of curiosity, above and beyond anybody's vested interest in flying, and I've learned that I can take even the most peculiar aspects of the business and make them entertaining for the layperson.

What question are you most tired of hearing from you readers?


I rarely get questions that are stupid or irksome, in and of themselves. The problem is repetition. Concerns about using electronic devices during flight, for instance, or vaguely defined anxieties over turbulence are things I hear again and again. "I'm afraid of turbulence," somebody will say. "Isn't it dangerous?" That's the kind of query I could spend five pages answering.

Over time, your column has moved away from the straight Q&A format that it began with to a more essayistic form. Why is it that? Are there no more questions left to be answered?

The basic Q&A was a great way to jumpstart people's interest, but commercial aviation is such an enormous realm. Constricting it into blurbs doesn't do it justice, nor does it allow people to truly see under the hood. A Q&A layout is, by nature, very one-dimensional, and the point of my writing is to move aviation away from that kind of presentation. Plenty of questions are left, though often I'll begin what I expect to be a brief answer to a brief question, and six pages later it's a full article.

What do you hope readers take from your book?


When you put the book down, you should feel rejuvenated about flying. The next time you fly, you should not only feel more secure, but you should notice and appreciate at least one thing you never noticed before.

Was Hüsker Dü really that good?

It's one of my beliefs that the things you hold near and dear -- even a band you were infatuated with at age 19 -- should stay with you permanently. What worries me, though, is the idea of somebody I knew 20 years ago stumbling across one of these references and going, "Oh my, that's really creepy." But we all have our obsessions. I just happen to evangelize more than most people, and music is the easiest thing to throw out there. It's fun to see who notices.

To answer your question directly: Yes. It's a shame that kids today, caught in the clutches of commercialized alt-rock, don't have a sense of what the 1980s indie scene was all about. People think of the '80s and it's Culture Club or A Flock of Seagulls that come to mind, stuff people giggled at even then, as if that was the cutting edge, ignoring what was the richest and most prolific underground rock scene ever.


But don't get me started.

Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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