Ask the pilot

Isn't that cockpit a little drab? Perhaps a spider plant, or a simple lithograph, would liven it up!

By Patrick Smith
Published February 2, 2007 12:00PM (EST)

If you were here last Friday, you caught my crotchety, around-the-world critique of jetliner interiors. Something about a pilot embarking on a long-winded appraisal of upholstery patterns (replete with high-pitched sallies like, "I absolutely love ...") had people smirking. "What is this, 'Ask the Flight Attendant?'" cracked an e-mailer from Texas. "You could change the name of your column to 'Queer Eye for the Flyboy,'" quipped another. "It's nice to know a straight man can discuss interior decorating and be serious about it," posted one reader, but by that point I couldn't help feeling a little, you know, misunderstood.

What would people think if they knew about the framed poster of Bob Mould that hangs in my living room? I twice replaced the inside matting on that poster because I didn't like its particular shade of orange. (And truth be told, one of my all-time favorite songs is the Smiths' "Cemetery Gates," with Morrissey's effeminate crooning: "Keats and Yeats are on your side, while Wilde is on mine.")

Um. Before this hole gets any deeper, I'll remind you that living room Bob Mould is the old Bob Mould, of the early 1980s. That's the boozy, unshaven, barrel-chested Bob (to put it politely), with his duct-taped Flying-V, who wrote kick-in-the-teeth songs like "First of the Last Calls" long before he slimmed down and reinvented himself as a pretentious downtown hipster, shooting off lines like, "I'm just enjoying life as a gay man." Not that there's anything wrong with that. (If some of us hold a grudge, it's not about the man's sexuality, it's about the long river of disappointing albums his coming-out party seems to have inspired.)

Nevertheless, it's time to get this column out of the cabin and back where it belongs, in the ... cockpit. Cockpit? Where did that word ever come from, anyway? Flight deck, that's what I meant to say. Let's head up to the flight deck, where men are men (except for the 3 percent who are women) and nobody dares talk about interior design. Well, except for me.

The average flight deck is a cozy enough place. The feng shui is sometimes out of balance, but options for rearranging the furniture are limited. As a rule, pilots have to reach their controls and need to see where they're going. The base color is most often gray -- ash-colored consoles, slate-gray sidewalls, gunmetal floors -- giving the room a certain militaristic feel. Boeings are a bit warmer, employing a lot of brown and beige. This dullness is neither accidental nor impractical. The instruments, screens and dials incorporate a great deal of yellow, green, red and blue. Too much surrounding color, and they become harder to discern.

Still, some greenery would really liven the place up -- maybe a spider plant or, if you can't remember to water, and it's not "too gay," a cactus. (The latter are better suited to the painfully dry air experienced aloft.) In some of the more cutting-edge cockpits, I recommend accenting with industrial tones and chrome. A Man Ray lithograph in a silver frame would look fabulous on the bulkhead behind the aft jump seat.

Flight-deck seats are upholstered in high-strength fabrics and commonly sewn over with sheepskin. Patterns, where they exist at all, are conservative. Gray cloth is highly popular, sometimes tattered at the seams and corners.

As perhaps you'd expect, the chairs themselves are a lot more comfortable and ergonomically advanced than the typical economy-class digs, without being luxurious. The idea is to keep crew members restful and alert, not lull them to sleep. The latest seats are electrically powered for vertical, horizontal and lumbar alignment, and are topped with adjustable headrests. There are cup holders, clipboards and assorted storage nooks. Flight cases fit into a rectangular cubbyhole adjacent to your thigh. Airbus models, because they feature a side-stick controller in lieu of the standard wheel or "yoke," provide each pilot with a fold-down table that's ideal for completing paperwork or working out performance calculations on your laptop -- and, yeah, for eating.

Of course, the comfort level can vary, depending how modern your plane is. I spent four years as a second officer on antique DC-8 freighters, on which the seat backs barely reached my shoulder blades and the bottom cushions actually angled my body away from the instrument panel. At the conclusion of an eight-hour run to Europe I was calling for paramedics and a backboard.

The typical cockpit has at least two, and as many as five, seats. The captain sits on the left, first officer on the right. Older aircraft like the 727, classic-model 747 and that blasted DC-8 feature a third position used by the second officer or "flight engineer." (The media has a habit of calling this person the "navigator." There haven't been real navigators since the Howard Borden character on "The Bob Newhart Show" in 1972.) Here's a good shot of a three-man crew at work in the sky over Rome.

Additionally you'll find one or two auxiliary crew stations, known colloquially as observer seats or "jump seats." A jump seat might unfold in sections or swing out from the wall, or it might be a fixed chair not much different from those of the working crew. They are occupied by training personnel, Federal Aviation Administration staff and off-duty pilots commuting to work.

Most of the time, even the tightest jump seat is a better ride than a middle seat in steerage. Certainly the scenery is more interesting, and although pilots are known to whine for extended periods of time, there are no colicky infants. Most enjoyable of all is the forward jump seat on the McDonnell Douglas DC-10 (and its later variant, the MD-11), particularly when flying over mountain ranges or on nights when the northern lights are in session. Not many of these aircraft remain in passenger service, but their cockpits' enormous aft panes offer the lucky freeloader a literal wall of glass, extending from forehead level to the knee, and equally as wide. Here's an outstanding shot of it from the outside, with a jump seater clearly visible. During steep approaches or up over the Andes, the panorama is worthy of an IMAX ticket.

That's the chief advantage of a flight-deck seat over a cabin seat, I think (aside from the privilege of flying the plane) -- the view. You won't behold a cityscape like this from Row 26. It is, however, surprisingly difficult to see aft. Look at another picture of a DC-10. You'll find it hard to believe that the wing -- all 165 feet of it, tip to tip -- is almost totally invisible from that same oversize window, but it's true. Because the forward end of the fuselage is so sharply tapered, even pressing your face against the glass allows you to glance only at the very tip.

Another peculiarity of cockpit windows is that some of them can be opened. You'll occasionally see an aircraft parked at the gate, or even taxiing, with a pilot's hand resting on the exposed sill, or even waving. The apparatus that does the latching and sliding is strictly mechanical, and allows the window to be used as an emergency exit. It's a long way down, so an escape rope is usually tucked into an adjacent sidewall or ceiling panel. When commandos stormed a hijacked Air France flight in 1995, first officer Jean-Paul Borderie fractured an elbow and thigh after leaping 16 feet to the ground from the cockpit of an Airbus A300. (And much the way an aircraft's doors cannot be opened during flight, neither can the windows be opened so long as the plane remains pressurized.)

While all that glass makes for a splendid view and the chance for some fresh air, it also has a downside. Namely, noise. Going nose first into 600 miles an hour of onrushing air produces an exceptional racket. Ambient cockpit noise levels average about 75 decibels. Over the course of a multihour flight, that induces fatigue. Over the course of a career, it induces hearing loss. Engineers have tinkered with active noise reduction technology and better insulation, but the easiest way of dealing with the problem is with either a noise-reducing headset or, more routinely, a pair of foam earplugs.

With long-haul flights now exceeding 14, 15 and even 16 hours, pilots can't be expected to remain in the cockpit the entire time. In addition to the primary crew, one or more relief pilots are also brought along. The total number of pilots, and their specific duty periods, depend on the length of flight, the plane's country of registry, and the airline's in-house requirements or union stipulations. As a rule of thumb, if the flying time is scheduled to be eight hours or longer, there's likely at least one supplemental pilot on hand. During takeoff and landing, it's customary for everyone to be present on the flight deck, with relief staff taking the jump seat(s). During cruise, each member of the primary crew will retire for one or more extended breaks, or in some cases will be replaced for the duration. The assignments have nothing to do with skill or qualifications; it's a function of seniority bidding. Those who pull relief are sometimes called b

The style and location of those quarters vary airline to airline, aircraft to aircraft. They might be nothing more than a curtained-off seat in business class or a cushy suite of bunks nestled snugly in a lower-deck annex. Cabin crew too are entitled to en route breaks and have their own slumber zones. Sometimes they are shared. There's little to comment on décor-wise, as these spaces tend to resemble those morgue-style Japanese motel pods, but they're practical and comfortable, and make innovative use of confined space.

On the 747, you'll customarily find a pair of bunk beds on the upper deck, just behind the cockpit, used by the pilots. Flight attendants have access to another, larger room in a rear fuselage attic near the tail, as photographed here on a Northwest ship. Four of the eight cubicles are shown. This location is very close to where the "black box" recorders are installed.

Options for the 777 include rest suites forward or aft; upstairs, downstairs or main deck. This picture shows a KLM 777's ceiling alcove. There's room for six, complete with laptop outlets and crew pajamas. Or try this upstairs apartment at Etihad Airways, with eight Pullman-style beds. Other 777s, like this one at Singapore Airlines, feature a lower-deck module reached by a staircase. As the caption indicates, the compartments include an audio feed from the carrier's award-winning entertainment system. Others (not shown) have personal video screens.

The Airbus A340 has a similar underfloor area. Constructed in the shape and size of a cargo container, the entire module is removable on shorter flights to make room for additional freight. The outside looks like this, the inside like this. Entry is through a stairway from the main cabin. Additional options for the A340's lower deck include lavatories and a galley complex similar to that of the old Lockheed L-1011.

Not all employees have it so nice. Behind those blue curtains is where the flight attendants on a United 777 get to chill -- basically in some cordoned-off economy seats. You'll see it this way too on smaller planes like the 767, or on airlines whose longest hauls aren't so long. Pilots get a business-class chair, flight attendants get this.

However much it feels to the contrary, particularly on American carriers, flight attendants do not sneak off into their rest areas and hide there to avoid serving you. That's one way to tick off the purser and get written up. And meanwhile, looking at some of those tucked-away compartments, I know what you're probably thinking. We've all heard the stories from the '60s and '70s of randy pilots and promiscuous stewardesses mixing it up on layovers -- or even during flight. The answer is no. For one thing, many of the senior crews assigned to long-haul trips are the same crews from 35 years ago, now on the verge of retirement.

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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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