Ask the pilot

How confirmed airliner geeks express their terminal love of travel in a world of "destinations," but no borders.


Patrick Smith
September 24, 2004 11:30PM (UTC)

"I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel's sake. The great affair is to move."

-- Robert Louis Stevenson

Picking up from last week, we can add Turkey, Peru, Kyrgyzstan and Japan to Ask the Pilot's rapidly widening empire.

I reckon my overseas readership is a testament to one of two things: either the trans-border appeal of Salon.com's general content (in other words, Salon as the world's voyeur-portal for America's embarrassing political woes), or, perhaps more boringly, the internationalist appeal of civil aviation.

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All airliner nuts, by rule and by nature, are internationalists. Check the postings some time on Airliners.net, with their little U.N.-style designators. That's the way life unfolds when, like I was, you're a seventh grader mesmerized by the routes and fleets of the world's airlines. Your infatuation carries you, almost literally, up and out of your country and into a huge, unaligned realm of "destinations." To the air-flight aficionado, Earth is a borderless place of stopovers and hubs, demarcated not by the fences of state and politics, but by the networks of the airlines.

To this day my favorite part of any airline timetable or in-flight magazine is the route map. Next time you fly, check out the back pages of the seat-pocket magazine. I could spend 90 minutes immersed in a kind of pilot porno, studying those three-panel foldouts and their exploding nests of arcs and lines.

Through the headlines of industry periodicals like Air Transport World, or in hobby mags like Airways, one learns geography as rapidly as aviation. Beneath the stats, graphs and aircraft data is a never-ending lecture on countries and capitals: Oman Air's new service from Katmandu to Muscat; PIA opens training center in Karachi; China Airlines crashes in Taipei. In the sixth grade I could have told you that Dhaka was the capital of Bangladesh -- for no greater reason than an article I'd read about Biman Bangladesh Airways.

In the life of an aero-apostle, one of two things happens. For some, the diagnosis of "airliner geek" becomes, to put it one way, terminal. The world beneath those lines remains forever an abstraction, countries and cultures irrelevant beyond the airport perimeter.

For others, there's a point when those cities and countries become real. The goal, suddenly, isn't just the airplane, but the place it happens to be flying to; the full and beautiful integration of flight and travel, travel and flight.

Two years ago I traveled to India. Why? Because I grew up with a thing for curry or an obsession with ancient Sanskrit? No; because I grew up with a thing for the Boeing 747. The Boeing 747 became Air India. Air India became a line on a route map between New York and Delhi. Delhi became India. India became a place I wanted to see.

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If ever this struck me in a moment of clarity, it was in November 2002 on the tarmac in Bamako, Mali. You might remember my trip to Mali, and my pinasse voyage up the Niger River to Timbuktu. Though I could write for pages about the wonders and strangeness of West Africa, one of the trip's most vivid and memorable moments took place at the airport -- the arrival scene as our plane touched down in Bamako from Paris.

Deplaning from the Air France A330 at midnight, two hundred of us descended the drive-up stairs into the murky, rust-colored mist. We were paraded solemnly around the perimeter of the aircraft, moving aft in a wide semicircle toward the arrivals lounge. There was something ceremonial and ritualistic about it. We were, in a way, saying farewell. Farewell to civilization, at least as we'd left it in Paris.

The final touchstone was passing beneath the soaring, blue-and-white tail of Air France, the plane's auxiliary turbine screaming into the night air. Through the glass doors we passed, digging out our visas and that yellow-fever vaccination card, and into the cauldron of West Africa. It was all so, to use that word so politically incorrect, exotic. And the airplane was the centerpiece. I felt like an explorer whose sailing ship had landed on some strange, undiscovered continent.

For the proper thrill, one should always travel by air, and always on the airline of the country you're visiting. Not practical in every case, but definitely sexier. Going to Morocco not long ago, part of the excitement was flying on Air Maroc. Not merely on Royal Air Maroc, but on the identical 747, registration CN-RME, that I remember spotting at Kennedy airport in 1979.

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True story: you can whittle down the thrill to the very airplane. I can tell you the exact South African Airways 747 I rode home from Jo'Burg. It was ZS-SAW, the Bloemfontein.

All of this constitutes a dogma that finds its way, week after week, into this corner of Salon. Some would say I've beat you over the head with it. So be it. From thus comes the whole inspiration for Ask the Pilot. I'm happy to assuage your fears with straight talk on turbulence and wind shear; pleased to inform you about the composition of jet fuel or the workings of a transponder. But whatever levels of knowledge and eloquence I appoint to such tasks, they're symptoms of something much more heartfelt.

It's critical to remember that I write not strictly as The Pilot, but as something else too. I would guess that half, possibly more, of what I discuss in this space are things as unknown to the average pilot as they are to the layperson. Pilots are adept with aerodynamics and the physics of flight. I understand those things, but I also bring an enthusiast's knowledge of the world's airlines; the places they fly; the genealogy of civil aviation. Ask the Pilot, name aside, is neither about planes nor about flying, strictly speaking. My subject is the greater realm of air travel in whole. The difference is an enormous one, and the goal isn't only to inform, it's to inspire.

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Which -- qualifier time -- isn't to ignore or downplay the hassles of a journey by air. The evolution of flight, both in strict technological terms and through economic accessibility, has rendered it ordinary, unexciting, a pain in the ass. Flying is easier; more of us can afford it. We don't marvel over airplanes because we're used to them, just the way we don't marvel over computers or television. You could say we're not supposed to marvel.

However, growing accustomed to something and taking it for granted are different things. Plus, there's a difference: You don't sit on your computer, or hop into your television, and fly halfway around the world. The TV and computer bring the world to you, if only in a virtual sense. Flying, which is to say traveling, is such a physical act.

The disconnect between flight and travel is, to me, unnatural and not to be forgiven. Nobody gives a shit anymore how you get there. I'm trying to change that, one jaded passenger at a time.

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You've posted several columns from afar -- Malaysia, Peru, Laos. How do you manage to head out on far-flung adventures when, at the same time, you're always whining about being laid-off and broke?

My jaunts tend to generate queries like this, often arriving with a subtly accusatory tone.

Spending several days on another continent costs money, but not as much you might think considering the places I like to visit. Meanwhile I live an exemplary low-impact lifestyle. By that I mean Spartan and grungy: no car, no cable, no cellphone. And if you've ever visited Somerville, Mass., you'll have the right mental picture when I say, "wood frame two-family, first-floor apartment."

If that all sounds depressing, it is. Except for the chance to have my passport stamped in a slew of exciting places. The idea, provided (1) the airlines haven't all gone Chapter 7, and (2) Messrs. Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld spare us from World War III, is to return to work believing my travels were a good and valuable thing, not an exercise in irresponsibility.

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How many countries have you been to?

About 50. I say "about" because having been a pilot makes things muddy. Does it count if you're only at the airport? Does it count if you spend the night at an airport hotel? How about if you leave the airport, but only for an hour? Technically I've been to Ireland and Haiti, for example, but I won't put a pin on my map since I never went beyond the duty-free store. On the other hand, I once paid a cabby $20 to take me on a tour of Santo Domingo during a stopover. I was only on the island for a few hours, but I saw the capital and so the Dominican Republic gets a pin. Most on-the-job flying I've done, however, is domestic. The majority of the countries I've visited have been on my own time, and all of those are pin-worthy.

I imagine pilots must be adventurous travelers, especially in light of their benefits.

All airline employees, actually, get the same travel freebies, and I've found that pilots are no more adventurous than ticket agents, mechanics or flight attendants. Maybe less so. I've known plenty of airline pilots who do not possess passports and have no intention of ever leaving the United States of America.

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Which place most exceeded your expectations?

My favorite-ever trip was a camping safari I took through Botswana. What I expected to be a featureless expanse of Kalahari turned out to be one of the most beautiful landscapes I've ever seen -- remote, primordial vistas that seemed to belong in another epoch. Also, Botswana is a very wealthy country, relatively speaking. Whatever your preconceptions might be, I'm sure they don't include the spotlessly clean supermarkets I saw there. Botswana is referred to as "an African success story." You'll be tempted to accept this with a grain of salt, but it's peaceful, prosperous, and splendidly scenic.

Another good example is Bali. First impressions of Bali are not good ones. The island's main city, Denpasar, is a blighted sprawl of traffic and fast food joints. It could almost be Miami, Honolulu or any of a dozen other sun-splashed shitholes. But everything changes once you're in the countryside. It becomes, to use a horrible and condescending term, magical --- terraced rice paddies dribbling down mountainsides; fields of swaying palm backdropped by conical volcanoes; women in sarongs carrying baskets of Hindu offerings on their heads.

You were there in 2003. With the bombing not long before, weren't you afraid?

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The Bali bombers struck in the Kuta enclave of Denpasar -- a kind of East Indian Cancun -- and had come from Java, the Muslim island next door. Bali is not a Muslim island, it's Hindu. More correctly, it's a pantheistic amalgam of Hindu and Buddhist traditions. The place is covered by temples. Every home and village includes at least one of these rectangular, open-air courtyards decorated by ornately carved altars, statues and façades. You get used to the gargoyle stares of countless gods and monsters -- Shiva, Vishnu, Brahma, Garuda -- leering at you from every nook. I have never seen a place so utterly consumed by one thing as rural Bali is consumed by piety.

In terms of culture shock, has any place impacted you more than expected?

Two countries come to mind: Morocco and Mali. Morocco is one of the most visited places in the world, and so you'd anticipate a solidified tourist infrastructure, which really isn't there. Overall the country is a lot more underdeveloped than I guessed it would be. The exception being the roads, which are fabulous. We rented a Fiat for 10 days and never hit a pothole.

Mali is in another category altogether. After India I thought I'd seen everything, but the sights, sounds and atmosphere of rural Mali are borderline indescribable. To a Westerner, the mosque at Djenne, on market day, might as well be another planet. It was amazing.

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That's interesting about the roads in Morocco. What about other surprises?

The bus system in Turkey. Turkish buses are modern, immaculate, and they go absolutely everywhere. (If you ever read Orhan Pamuk's "The New Life," however, you'll be given the wrong idea.)

What about biggest disappointments?

Chiang Mai, Thailand. The country's proclaimed "Jewel of the North" is in fact a pollution-choked sprawl of about a million residents and a roughly equal number of tourists. Chiang Mai makes a decent hub from which to explore other parts of Thailand and neighboring countries, but the city itself is awful.

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Back in Morocco, Marrakech was a similar letdown. Dirty, noisy, snarled by cars and overrun with visitors. Fez, one of the other imperial cities, was moodier and much more intriguing.

You once wrote of your "anti-city bias."

That was in my description of Lima, Peru, possibly the ugliest metropolis I've ever seen. There are lots of miserable cities out there, and I don't care where you are -- Asia, Africa, South America -- they all look the same. A day or two in any big city is more than enough for me. A few I've enjoyed in moderation -- Istanbul, Budapest, Amsterdam and Kuala Lumpur -- but anybody who sees only cities is missing out. We have a tendency to associate countries only with their urban centers. When I got back from Peru a pilot said to me, "Peru? Why the hell would you go there?" The only part he'd ever seen was Lima, on layovers.

You've lamented Americans' unwillingness to travel beyond the comfort zones, as you put it, of Western Europe or the Caribbean. Is there one place you'd recommend to a first-timer willing to venture further?

Turkey. I can't say enough about Turkey -- the scenery, the Roman ruins, the otherworldly landscapes of Cappadocia. And with an established and reliable infrastructure for tourists, the culture shock is fully manageable even for the squeamish. And it's cheap.

Otherwise, Latin America is special in that it's not only exotic -- that word again -- but close. In less time or money than it takes to reach Paris, you could be standing atop Machu Picchu (which, trust me, is 50 times more spectacular than anything you'll see in France), or discovering the Mayan ruins of Central America. There are 2,000-year-old pyramids just two hours from Miami -- in Guatemala, Honduras and Belize.

People accuse me of being too cerebral about travel. Folks want to go somewhere to have fun, swim and relax. I have to laugh, because in most of these places you can do all of those things, and more, without being holed up in some gated resort. And usually for less money.

Do you recall your first plane ride?

Quite clearly. It was an American Airlines 727, from Boston to Washington. That's in my book, and I've mentioned it on Salon a few times. I have a photograph of my sister and me walking up the stairs. They served us cheesecake and offered me a second slice.

This will sound insane, but I can remember every airline, and every specific aircraft type, of every trip I've ever taken.

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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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