Ask the pilot

Time to get political: The pilot recalls his encounters with Brown, Kennedy, Jackson, Dukakis and Gore. Extra credit for guessing the link.


Patrick Smith
October 29, 2004 11:30PM (UTC)

This week was going to be an old-timey question-and-answer session. But then I glanced at the calendar and, hey, look at that, here comes the Apocalypse. And I don't mean the Red Sox and the World Series; I mean the election. So I'm shelving my explanations on center-of-pressure fulcrums -- and my very annoyed thoughts on the American 587 ruling -- for next time, provided I'm not busy loading a truck for Vancouver.

Pilots, a Republican-leaning bunch, have been described as their own worst enemies at the ballot box. I'm hardly the only anti-Bush pilot, though it's easier for me, grounded in the aftermath of Sept. 11, to sit here slinging arrows. I don't have to worry about rotten eggs turning up in my flight case. Far braver are the leaders of the Air Line Pilots' Association, the profession's largest union (64,000 strong), who for only the fourth time in the organization's history have endorsed a presidential candidate, John Kerry. They've broken ranks proudly and, I might add, vociferously. The comments of ALPA's president, Capt. Duane Woerth, have been particularly scathing of late. No small share of "values issues" airmen are unhappy.

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I could, I suppose, write a column detailing all the many ways the Bush administration has harmed -- and assuredly would injure further -- the airline business and the livelihood of pilots: its ambivalence over foreign ownership and cabotage restrictions; overt hostility toward labor; absurdly high ticket fees and surcharges; war-related spikes in fuel prices. But I've chosen not to, partly because it's too depressing, and partly because Salon will not grant the 50 screens and 35,000 words I would need.

Let's go political lite instead.

Below are five vignettes, true stories all, and then a question...

One day in 1980 I'm airplane watching at Boston-Logan with a pair of my junior high pals. Who disembarks from a TWA plane only a few feet in front of us but Jerry Brown, then governor of California, and his entourage. You might remember Brown, aka "Governor Moonbeam," known for his dabblings in Buddhism, his long liaison with Linda Ronstadt, and his appearance in one of the most famous punk rock songs of all time -- the Dead Kennedys' "California Über Alles."

A decade later, on a Sunday morning in 1990, I'm standing at Teterboro Airport, a busy general aviation field in northern New Jersey, close to New York City. A private jet pulls up. The stairs come down, and out steps Jesse Jackson and five burly bodyguards. Jackson walks into the terminal, passing me by inches.

The following summer I'm back at Logan, using a pay phone in Terminal E. Suddenly Ted Kennedy is standing at the phone next to mine, placing a call. (Quaint, I know, in this age of wireless, but there was the famous senator, slipping dimes into the slot.) I'm talking to a friend, and I surreptitiously hold the receiver up and say, "Listen, whose voice is this?"

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"Sounds like Ted Kennedy," she answers. And it is.

Next it's 1994. Logan again, and I'm in the captain's seat of a Northwest Airlink 19-seater, preparing for departure to Baltimore. Up the front stairs comes Michael Dukakis. He stops briefly behind the cockpit and I say hello.

Later, in the late spring of that same year, Al Gore is making the commencement speech at Harvard University, close to my Cambridge apartment. Out riding my bike, I stumble on the vice president, his wife Tipper, and his two blond daughters as they make their way across the back of Harvard Yard toward a rope line. He shakes my hand.

There you have it. Politics, planes and some unintentional black magic. And I'll be happy to award a free copy of my book to the first e-mailer who can tell me what makes those five separate encounters so collectively significant, and why I should, perhaps, barricade myself in a basement for the next several days. Each of the five has something in common. More correctly, two things.

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While you're mulling it over, I'll give you the longer versions of my run-ins with Dukakis and Gore.

Mike Dukakis and his family reside in Brookline, Mass., an affluent quasi-suburb bordering Boston. I once met his daughter, Kara, at a party there in the 1980s -- one of those three-second introductions people have no business remembering. So naturally I remember it, and feeling mischievous, I say to Dukakis as he passes the cockpit door, which is actually just a curtain: "Hey, how's Kara these days?"

He whips around and looks at me sharply, "How do you know Kara?" The way he did this was fairly intimidating. He ought to have employed that same tone and incisive stare in his debates with ole George Herbert Walker a few years earlier.

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And he knows I'm not bluffing, because I'd gotten the pronunciation of Kara right -- the pretentious way, the "a" as in "car." It's all I can do to keep from laughing, because, of course, I don't know his daughter. Later I imagine the ex-governor asking Kara if she knows some young airline pilot, and her having no idea what he's talking about.

After we land in Baltimore, Dukakis thanks us for the ride and remarks, "Not a lot of room in here." Even at 5 feet 8 inches he's right about that. The Metroliner's thin, tubular fuselage earned it the nickname "lawn dart," among other, less tasteful derisives.

"Yeah," I answer, "It's not exactly Air Force One."

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Meanwhile, intentionally or otherwise, the Duke has left a huge sheaf of important-looking papers in his seat pocket, doubtless because he's run to a phone to cuss out his secretary for booking him on that skinny little plane with the annoying pilot.

I carry the papers inside to the agent and say, "Here, these belong to Mike Dukakis." She looks at me like I'm crazy.

A couple of years later, Dukakis wrote an editorial for the Boston Globe in which he lambasted Massport's plans for building a badly needed new runway at Logan Airport. Having written two pro-runway editorials for the paper myself, I sent copies to Dukakis' office at Northeastern University, where he'd gone to spend post-political life as a professor.

He wrote back personally on a sheet with Northeastern letterhead, restating his case and apologizing, thank you, for use of the term "puddle jumpers." I guessed he wouldn't remember me, but just to be safe I didn't bring up Baltimore, Kara, or the Air Force One crack. "Let's keep working on a solution," he wrote. I still have the letter here, which endearingly looks as though it came out of a typewriter from the 1950s, the letter "e" all blotted and smudged.

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It's true, and maybe unfortunate, that my meeting with Al Gore, unlike the others, did not take place at an airport.

I remember that afternoon well. May of '94, sunny and humid. My airline had just declared bankruptcy, on the road to shutting down about a month later. It was one of those days when I'd ride my mountain bike aimlessly around Cambridge, hoping to meet a cute girl or find a bag of money on the sidewalk. I never had much luck on those counts, but then I'd never run into a vice president either.

I come down Broadway, then up Kirkland Street to the corner of Harvard Yard. The graduation ceremonies have just ended, and Gore -- his wife, daughters and a handful of Secret Service men in tow -- have come through a back gate and are walking toward the small concrete plaza in front of the Science Center. I lock up my bike and follow them.

A crowd of about 50 people quickly gathers. Those of us in front form a straight row, and Gore comes down the line to shake each of our hands. Most of those around me are Harvard alumni, the parents and families of graduating seniors, and people are introducing themselves with lines like, "Charles Tipton-Dune, sir, class of '68. It's an honor to meet you."

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And Gore says, "It's a pleasure."

As he approaches me, it's my plan to say, "Patrick Smith, sir, class of '59," to see if I can make him laugh. But instead I get nervous and do something ludicrous. I look up at Al Gore, the vice president of the United States of America, stick out my hand and say this: "How ya doin'?"

Bear in mind, too, that I'm sweaty and wearing a T-shirt, surrounded by people in suits and gowns. Gore looks at me, a bit crookedly, wondering if I'm not some protégé of John Hinckley or Squeaky Frome. "Great," he answers.

How ya doin'?

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After that I broke from the crowd and went over to the black limousine parked on the plaza next to the fountain. This was Gore's car, an '80s-model Cadillac that looked like the cars of my Sicilian neighbors when I was a kid growing up in Revere. The tinting, I remember, was peeling from several of the windows. It surprised me that such an important person was asked to ride around in such a shitty car. The Secret Service men inside eyed me lazily. Like their buddies monitoring the crowd, they wore sunglasses and had coiled wires sticking from their ears. They didn't seem particularly concerned with my loitering, and I nodded to the guy in the driver's seat. How ya doin'?

For what it's worth, and rounding things off ideologically, I once had the controversial Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork on my plane, but that's different.

My defining brush with non-greatness, however, probably came in the summer of 1991, when I flew David Atkins, better known to the world as "Sinbad," the thankfully forgotten actor and comedian who once had his own talk show and HBO comedy special. He sat in the back row of our Beech-99, surrounded by an entourage of beautiful women. OK, "thankfully forgotten" is a horrible thing to say, even if he did wind up emceeing the Miss Universe pageant. Sinbad seemed a perfectly nice guy, and in the Compass Rose restaurant at the Nantucket airport he bought me and my copilot chicken sandwiches, asking us for advice on what kind of airplane he should buy. We told him to invest in a Cessna Citation -- a twin-engine executive jet -- though I can't remember why. I was making about 13 grand at the time, and would probably say anything for a chicken sandwich.

The great New York Yankees catcher Thurman Munson was killed at the controls of a Cessna Citation in 1979, but I don't think we mentioned this to Sinbad.

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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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