Ask the pilot

USA Today invades the pilot's turf. Outraged readers rise up in unholy wrath. Mongolia and Finland are somehow involved.


Patrick Smith
October 8, 2004 11:30PM (UTC)

"Look what you've started!" read the subject line of an otherwise anonymous e-mail. Inside was a link. Sometimes -- and maybe I'm alone in this regard -- those little blue strings of characters seem to give off a smell: a sweet, morbid odor that invites and repels you at the same time. Do you dare?

I dared. And reaching for the mouse there came a feeling -- just a feeling -- that I wasn't going to like it. Then the page began to load, and clearly it was gin and tonic time. Ladies and gentlemen, click here to meet Capt. Meryl Getline, USA Today's answer to "Ask the Pilot."

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What's that they say about imitation and flattery? Well, yes and no. Granted there's plenty of room in this field for Getline and me to duke it out amicably, and our approaches are stylistically very different. But it's the name that irks me. Ask the Captain?

I know, sour grapes, but try to feel my pain: A major U.S. newspaper chooses to run a series strikingly similar to my own column and book, using almost the identical name? This "Ask the [pilot, captain, lion tamer, etc.]" concept is never the most imaginative choice of wording, but feathers get ruffled when both the topic (air travel) and arena (news Web sites) are snugly mutual.

Speaking of wording, here is the leadoff question from Getline's column above: "I am nervous every time I fly because of turbulence. Should I be afraid?" Haven't I heard that somewhere before?

I thought so. Direct cut from one of my older columns, also available on Page 44 of my book: "Turbulence scares me to death. Do I have reason to be afraid?"

I won't go throwing around the P-word, but still. And how about this, from just below Getline's byline: "Is there something you want to know about air travel? Send her an e-mail, and she may publish it in an upcoming column." My ears are ringing again. Compare and contrast with: "Do you have questions for Salon's aviation expert? Send them to Ask the Pilot and look for answers in a future column." You've been reading the latter for two and a half years at the bottom of my articles.

Meryl Getline is 51 and lives outside Denver. She says she wasn't aware of "Ask the Pilot" prior to commencing her gig. "I didn't know about the book or the column," she tells me.

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Fair enough. USA Today, on the other hand, ought to have full knowledge, having penned an above-the-fold review of my book this past summer. The column was also cited in the paper's Feb. 20, 2004, "Weekend" section.

Something tells me I won't be the paper's go-to guy next time they need a quote.

I'm in a tough position here, coldly peeved at USA Today while trying to preserve some pilot-to-pilot camaraderie. Getline has been cool to my olive branch, but in a perfect world we'd be sharing expertise and reaping some mutual exposure.

Getline has been flying commercially for 30 years and was one of the first female airline captains in America. She was the first woman ever to receive a pilot-in-command certification for the McDonnell Douglas DC-10. Like many cockpit veterans she's endured the wringer of career setbacks along the way, including six furloughs and the collapse of at least four prior employers.

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Unlike yours truly, however, she still earns a paycheck from a major airline. Why then try her hand at writing?

"I already had my forum at FromTheCockpit.com," she explains. "It was so successful I took the idea to USA Today. They published an article about me, with some sample questions and answers, then agreed it would make a great column."

It remains to be seen how adventurous her topics become. For the time being her approach is safe, impartial and flavored in a comfortable, recognizable pilot-speak. She calls herself "Cap'n," for heck's sake.

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Would she consider more provocative issues -- salaries, crashes, security or an aero-political melee similar to the Annie Jacobsen affair?

"Not anytime soon, and never political," she maintains. "I hate politics. I don't see myself writing a controversial column, at least not on purpose. Mine is just a place for passengers to go to address their questions directly to an airline pilot."

"The World at My Feet" is Getline's self-published memoir. "I'm promoting it to death," she says, "with TV, radio and signings." The book shares a lifetime of (mis)adventures, including the author's travels through Europe, Israel and Iran.

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According to the book's synopsis, Getline once found herself clinging to the wing of her own airplane, 10,000 feet over the Gulf of Alaska. But to really challenge her mettle, I recommend peppering her with the following questions. She might be a salty pro when it comes to stick and rudder, but let's see if she can handle the inevitable torrent of e-mails. Believe me, a year from now she'll be seeing these very questions in her sleep. Might as well test her upfront:

1) Dear Meryl, has anybody ever survived a water landing?

2) Dear Meryl, why are pilots always complaining when they make so much money?

3) Dear Meryl, what if the wings fall off?

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4) Dear Meryl, is it true that [insert random, totally implausible scenario here]?

My gratitude to everyone who tried their luck with my Sept. 17 quiz. The challenge, if you missed it, was to identify the exact specs -- airline, registration and place of purchase -- of the die-cast model plane seen in this photograph. No fewer than a dozen of you chimed in with a perfect score. You're all winners.

But in another, more accurate way, Craig Schweickert is the winner. Schweickert, writing from Montreal, gets a free book, while I get the flattery that comes from knowing dozens of people are allegiant enough (read: bored and neurotic) to waste their valuable time on my self-absorbed games.

For those of you sleeplessly awaiting the answers, they can be found here. I suppose I could simply give you the answers, but what fun is that? Instead I'll send you clicking back to one of my best-loved columns. Best loved by me, that is. I'm often asked which selections from the "Ask the Pilot" archives I'm most fond of, and "Meandering in Miami," as I like to call it, is one of my sentimental faves. Actually, nobody has ever asked me that. But I thought you'd like to know.

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Thanks also to everyone who wrote in from around the globe. If you missed it, I'd received a sudden slew of letters from overseas readers and became curious how many countries are home to "Ask the Pilot" readers. Who knew: I made a half-joking plea to readers in Mongolia, only to receive an e-mail from, yes, the Mongolian capital of Ulan Bator.

In fact I heard from people in 55 countries, from Pakistan to Sudan to Peru. My favorite was a letter from a U.S. serviceman stationed in Ar-Ramadi, Iraq. (Almost as intriguing were three separate letters from Finland.)

Being the cutting-edge sort of guy that I am, I've chosen to forgo my original pins and wall map idea for something we all can share. For a graphic representation of "Ask the Pilot's" ever-widening multinational domination (at least before Getline stepped in), check this out. If you notice yourself unaccounted for, let me know.

World66.com does not allow you to select individual cities, so the swaths of color are a bit misleading (Canada, Russia). Still it's cool. Also cool is the site's choice of cartographic projection. Getting back to the picture with the toy plane, one e-mailer pointed out how my apartment decor includes a framed Rand McNally employing the dreadfully misleading Mercator projection. Here, look again. In real life, Africa is about 10 times the size of Greenland. Thanks to the grossly widened poles of Mr. Mercator (Gerardus Mercator, 1512-1594), my atlas shows otherwise.

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That's what happens when you crush a spherical planet into a rectangular map. There are many different types of projection, but one that attempts to maintain perpendicular intersections of latitude and longitude -- helpful in calculating courses without need for a globe and some fancy math -- gives us giant Greenlands and oversized Antarcticas, the deformity worsening in distance from the equator. World 66 isn't perfect -- it looks like it might be a Robinson projection -- but it's closer to scale. Says Rand McNally: "Mercator's projection, upon which true bearings of course can be measured directly, has been used by nearly all navigators since about 1600. To the north and south, distortion increases rapidly."

(If any of this sounds familiar, it was part of a column I wrote in 2002 about "great circle" air routes, addressing why passengers are often mystified to find themselves over the Arctic on flights between Europe and America.)

I once met a really cute clerk who worked at the Globe Corner Bookstore over in Harvard Square -- one of my favorite local haunts, and one of country's best outlets for maps and travel guides (including a single, still unsold copy of "Ask the Pilot"). Before refusing to give me her phone number, she explained how this was known as the "Rand McNally syndrome," an affliction through which thousands of American children grow up thinking Greenland is larger than the United States, Iceland larger than Texas.

Good for navigation, bad for kids.

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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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