Ask the pilot

It's trial by fire in the author's long-awaited return to the cockpit. Can you say "barf bag"?

Published August 31, 2007 11:02AM (EDT)

So much training, so little time. For those who've complained because this column has been shorter of late and the schedule somewhat erratic, cut your author some slack. Over the past six months or so, since returning to my day job after five-plus years of layoff, I've endured two complete training programs on two different aircraft. The end result works to the reader's benefit. For the first time in my repeatedly hiccupped career I'm assigned to a wide-body aircraft flying exclusively on international routes. Think of the fodder.

Five years of involuntary leave was a long time. During that stretch, despite being broke, I traveled to more than 40 countries, started a popular online column and wrote a semi-successful book. That was, I suppose, making creative and rewarding use of a bad situation. Certainly it beat selling real estate or turning to a life of crime. On the other hand, such pursuits left me ill-prepared for a return. A majority of laid-off pilots find one or more flying jobs in the interim. For me, living the thrill vicariously was interesting, was enjoyable and made me an extremely famous celebrity (at least in Italy). But it also made for a stressful and challenging readjustment period once I was called back.

In the end, retraining went smoothly and was on schedule. But it was long and tiring, and none of it was easy. That would explain the tenor of frustration in last week's column, in which I pooh-poohed the notion that pilotless planes are just around the corner; I'm a bit touchy when it comes to the mythology of cockpit automation. It's the belief of too many people that a pilot's job involves little more than watching the aircraft "fly itself." In some not-too-distant future, the wisdom goes, we'll be engineered out of the picture altogether.

Especially irritating is how often the pilotless-planes conversation turns up -- in magazines, on television, in the science section of the papers. You'd think the world couldn't get rid of its pilots fast enough. Why the rush? Nobody's pushing for doctorless hospitals or for courtrooms with computerized juries (to cite two other environments in which human errors often result in tragedy). We understand the limitations of such proposals, and why, at least in our age, the task would be far too great. Perhaps that's it: The public has a more intuitive understanding of basic medicine and jurisprudence than it does of flying 747s across oceans. People are gullible because they don't know better. It sounds good. If the "experts" say it's possible, then why not?

Almost always the idea is presented in a purely technical sense that ignores the day-to-day practicalities of commercial flight. A flight is a very organic thing -- complex, always in motion, always changing -- in which subjective decision making is constant and critical. You'd be surprised how busy the most automated cockpit can become during a critical phase of flight, even with the two required crew members.

Case in point, my inaugural return to the cockpit this past spring ...

"For all intents and purposes, it's the real thing," I wrote a week ago, describing the experience of training in a full-motion flight simulator. "Real enough that, assuming you pass your final check ride, you proceed fully qualified from the box and directly to an actual aircraft, full of paying passengers, without any sort of practice flight."

For me that would happen on a Saturday in April. For the first time in over five years, I button up my polyester pilot shirt, zipper up my phony zipper tie, throw a few packets of ramen noodles into my black leather case and head for the airport. (I'm not at liberty to reveal which airport, exactly, but let's just say it's in a reasonably large city east of the Mississippi River.)

It's a pleasant and calm morning, a nice day to fly -- so long as you're not flying to the Northeast, where a spring storm is scheduled to arrive with gale-force winds and driving rain. Earlier, I'd seen New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg on CNN, advising residents to stock up on water and spare batteries. In the van from the hotel I hear two women talking. Says one to the other, "I'm glad I'm not headed to New York."

Naturally, I'm headed to New York.

When I arrive at the terminal, I see that many of the day's departures, those later on, have already been canceled. I'm hoping mine is next. How to put this, but I really don't feel like going. Everything is new, difficult, overwhelming. There's a storm brewing, and I'm just not in the mood.

But that's not reason enough. The forecasts are acceptable through early afternoon -- winds, ceilings and visibilities all within legal parameters. Crew and aircraft are qualified and capable. We're going.

I'll be flying under the tutelage of a so-called check airman, a training captain, as do all pilots who are new to a particular aircraft. We meet downstairs in the cavernous and dingy crew lounge. He's an agreeable guy with one of those stereotypical Western drawls. Let's call him Clay. We shake hands and make small talk. Clay's a firebrand libertarian with a house and a small ranch out past Phoenix. He collects old books and enjoys astronomy. He tells me how much he loves the privacy of rural Arizona. "I can take a piss in my own backyard" is how he puts it. "And ain't nobody gonna know or care."

Clay asks what I did during furlough. I tell him that I wrote a book and traveled to Timbuktu. I'd been waiting five years to say that. We grab our stuff and head for the plane.

Unpacking my gear, it strikes me how filthy the cockpit is. Even the most modern cockpits are often layered with dust and grime -- one of flying's odd little nuances that I'd forgotten about. I remember how the first "Alien" movie (1979) was revolutionary in its portrayal of spacecraft as industrial machines, greasy and unkempt, a departure from the antiseptic order of "Star Trek" and the like. It's much the same with an airplane -- no longer a novelty of transport but just another bus. The cabins are swept and straightened because they need to be, lest people make certain, not-quite-accurate inferences involving cleanliness and safety. Flight decks, though, can be nasty.

I mention this to Clay, more or less verbatim as it appears above. He looks at me for a long moment, chews his lip a couple of times. His expression is one of amused, somewhat pained empathy. "How about I take this leg," he says. "You just relax, help me out, work the radios, get a sense of everything."

Captains and first officers typically take turns at the controls. One pilot flies and works the autoflight systems, while the other takes care of communications and a host of other duties. On the next leg, they switch. I'd been wondering whether Clay or I would fly first, but it seems my dissertation on cleanliness and set design took care of that.

We depart on time. The flight is full.

The first hour or so passes without incident, but we're checking the weather at Kennedy every few minutes. The trend is bad. I'm doing double takes with the printouts. Gusts hitting 35 knots, hail, icing, moderate to severe turbulence. It's all out there, waiting. "Better pull up the latest for our alternates too," advises Clay. I type in Philadelphia, Bradley, Boston and Providence, checking the ceilings and running fuel calculations. Should Kennedy fall into a hole, we'll need legal weather and fuel for a diversion.

Out the window, the contours of the storm are clearly visible -- a canyon face of ragged cloud, thousands of feet high and immeasurably wide. The sky turns from blue to white to an oily, gunmetal gray. Then the turbulence starts. Our descent is, to put it one way, aggressively bumpy. We're tossed and heaved as intermittent downpours pelt the windscreen. The intensity of the rain has a certain tropical strangeness -- the sheets of water starting and stopping, starting and stopping. It's eerily smooth and silent for a few seconds, then brutally turbulent. The noise is so loud that Clay and I can hardly hear each other.

The approach queue is a long one, meaning lots of low-level vectors and maneuvering. As we're banking and bumping, speeding up and slowing down, the flight attendants chime in, asking if we could please cool the cabin because "people in the back are throwing up."

Finally we're cleared for the ILS approach to Runway 31L. At 2,000 feet, we're showing winds at an astonishing 80 knots. On the ground, the gusts are topping 40, with braking action "fair" along the rain-swept tarmac. Braking reports are normally a snow and ice thing. I'm not sure I'd ever heard one pertaining only to rain.

The ride down final approach is horrendous, with the airspeed fluctuating so rapidly it's impossible to call out the changes. Plus or minus 10, 15 ... who can tell?

We're at a thousand feet when the plane in front of us breaks off his approach, reporting a 30-knot shear. That's just crazy, and Capt. Clay opts for a go-around. "Missed approach," he says, hitting the go-around switches. The switches command the proper climb angle and simultaneously drive the engines to target power.

We're bouncing around, the altimeters staggering upward. I'm making my callouts, dialing in speeds and altitudes, raising the landing gear, adjusting the flaps, making sure I get the sequence right.

The controllers offer a second approach. Thanks anyway. "Let's go to Bradley," says Clay. I'm good with that.

Bradley International Airport, halfway between Hartford, Conn., and Springfield, Mass., is only about 15 minutes away, and now things become even busier. I feel like I need six hands and three brains. I'm retracting the flaps and slats; resetting the autopilot and flight directors; readjusting the bank limiter, dialing in more airspeed and altitudes -- all this while coordinating the diversion with air traffic control.

Climbing through 5,000 feet comes the next slew of tasks: digging out the charts and maps for Bradley; reprogramming the flight management system for the new destination and appropriate instrument approach; double-checking the weather; running the checklists; talking to the passengers; talking to the flight attendants; sending an ACARS (Aircraft Communication Addressing and Reporting System) message to company dispatch. Mind you, the plane continues slamming through some of the worst imaginable weather -- maybe the harshest low-level stuff I've ever experienced.

"Yeah, I'll take this leg," I say to myself, mocking Clay's earlier decision. "You just relax." I manage to get everything done without him screaming at me, but I wonder if he would rather have somebody else -- anybody else -- in the right seat instead of a rube like me.

Shortly thereafter, we're on the ILS into Bradley, where the weather is deteriorating rapidly toward minimums. The storm is moving in over Connecticut. We've got fuel and weather for Boston, if need be, but the prospect of a double diversion is something we'd like to avoid. We touch down on Runway 6, breaking out at about 300 feet. A few minutes later the heavy winds blow in, bringing ice pellets and freezing rain.

Welcome back. Reinitiation by fire.

Flights like this are frustrating for a couple of reasons. Aside from the obvious challenges, it can be difficult to console the passengers. They're frightened, airsick and not easily convinced that they weren't in mortal danger. The turbulence was uncomfortable, we admit to a handful of rattled customers outside the jetway at Bradley, but nothing a jetliner can't handle. And the go-around, although noisy, jostling and unexpected, was routine. An abrupt transition from descent to ascent, while dramatic to the senses, is perfectly natural for an airplane. We did the right thing not in direct response to danger but to avoid it.

Some of the people are grateful to hear this. Others look on skeptically.

Mostly, though, everybody is eager to get going again. Call it a day? Heck no. After a 90-minute wait, recatered, refueled and restocked with barf bags, the weather having somewhat improved, we're ready to launch again for New York.

First, however, we need to be deiced -- a procedure that's a bit more complicated than simply spraying the plane with fluid. The guidelines in our manual go on for several pages. There are precipitation intensities to consider, "holdover times" and so on. Then, just as we're ready to taxi, we're hit with a malfunction. There's an overheat indication in one of the cargo compartments. The indication turns out to be false, but in order to proceed with the balky light, the book tells us that maintenance staff must go into the cargo compartment and manually close a particular valve. This means returning to the gate and unloading the entire compartment. It also entails rerunning all of the checklists and getting a fresh weight-and-balance report and a new takeoff performance sheet. By the time this is all complete, another hour will pass.

Capt. Clay does his best with a lengthy P.A. announcement, the response to which is a collective, angry groan from the cabin. As you'd expect, the passengers are miserable. It's probable that many are connecting the cargo light problem with the terrible weather. At this point, right or wrong, there's an unshakable presumption of danger enveloping the entire operation. People are edgy and distrustful -- even more so than normal. It becomes important that we communicate carefully and honestly.

At long last we're airborne, headed for another wind-whipped approach into Kennedy. Clay's at the controls again, and conditions are still awful -- just not as awful. Second time's a charm; we land.

Still no reprieve. Two hours later we lift off again with a new contingent of customers, none of whom realize that their crew has already endured two trips through a virtual hurricane.

But this time our destination is Florida, where things are balmy and calm -- almost jarringly peaceful by comparison.

It's my turn to fly, and my sunset landing will be the first nonsimulator touchdown I've made since 2001. "Switch off the autopilot once we pick up the glide slope," coaches Clay. "And the auto-throttles at a thousand feet. Hand-fly the approach. It's good practice."

Coming down finally, adjusting the power, I picture the engines -- the big forward fans of the Pratt and Whitney motors -- spinning faster as I nudge the levers. I listen for the sounds of acceleration, many feet behind me. And maybe that's a bad idea. Pilot Psychology 101: You never fly the aircraft, you fly the instrument panel. Too much awareness of the ship itself -- its size and tonnage -- is unhelpful, not to mention intimidating. The aircraft should exist only in abstraction, as the values and settings displayed by the instrument panel. There is no aluminum, no flesh or fuel; only numbers.

From a pilot's point of view, the smoothness of landing doesn't mean a whole lot. Some touchdowns are intentionally rough or "crooked," as dictated by crosswinds and other factors. To me, a landing is little more than the final punctuation mark in a much greater body of work. Most passengers don't see it this way, and have a tendency to judge the entire flight by the sensations of this one small moment. Better make it a good one.

My touchdown, if less than sensational, is smooth enough to avoid dirty looks from our riders as they disembark.

Well, in truth there are loads of dirty looks -- the usual grunts and snarls of disgruntled fliers. But I try not to take them personally.

Do you have questions for Salon's aviation expert? Send them to AskThePilot and look for answers in a future column.

By Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith is an airline pilot.

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