All your questions about in-flight horrors

Plus: What happened to "The Simpsons"? And REM? The weird phenomenon of pop-culture tailspin

Published October 2, 2009 7:06AM (EDT)

A Qantas 747 aircraft takes off from Sydney airport August 19, 2009.   (REUTERS / Tim Wimborne)
A Qantas 747 aircraft takes off from Sydney airport August 19, 2009. (REUTERS / Tim Wimborne)

Not that my single-topic essays aren't brilliant, but keeping this column grounded (if you'll pardon the unfortunate pun), requires that it be periodically turned over to the readers, in the form of an old-timey Q&A session.

Apropos of your Sept. 25 discussion of cabin air, I accept that pilots do not manipulate the flow of oxygen to anaesthetize passengers, but what about temperature? I have heard that pilots make it warmer (or is it colder?) on overnight flights to facilitate sleeping.

Some pilots will raise the temperature slightly in the belief that it helps people sleep, but this is pretty rare. Adjusting the temp controllers is very common while on the ground or during climb and descent, but once at cruise, we set the dials to a recommended position (a known and stable comfort zone) and basically leave them alone until somebody complains.

On the jets I fly, there are three temperature zones adjustable from the cockpit (forward, mid and aft, plus a separate controller for the cockpit). The equipment does a very good job, though the temperature values we see on the gauges aren't always reflective of the exact comfort level. Over the course of a long flight, we'll typically get three or four calls from the cabin attendants asking us to raise or lower the temperature slightly.

Many times I have been on a plane when, just after pushing from the gate, the interior begins to fill with the strong smell of jet fuel. This odor usually hangs around for a while and then dissipates.

This is a semi-common occurrence during engine starts. What you're smelling is backflow of exhaust fumes drawn into the air conditioning units. It's not an ideal situation, obviously, but usually it lasts only a minute or two, until the engine reaches idle speed. To some extent it depends on the wind. As you would being stuck in traffic next to a truck or a bus, you get a quick taste of the vehicle's exhaust if the breeze is blowing a certain way.

Our regional jet had started its takeoff roll when suddenly the pilots slammed on the brakes. We pulled off the runway and stopped for several minutes. When the captain finally made an announcement, he told us that such-and-such a system "didn't come on" during takeoff and that he would "give it another try." We then departed without incident, but I kept thinking: What system wouldn't activate until takeoff? Shouldn't everything be up and running by then?

Not necessarily. Some systems are designed to engage at certain speeds or certain engine power values. The auto-throttles, auto-brakes and auto-spoilers, for instance. A failure to arm wouldn't by itself be unsafe, but it might entail a discontinued takeoff.

However, takeoffs are aborted for such failures only at low speeds. Any systems designed to engage during takeoff will (or will not) do so quickly, within a few seconds of commencing the roll. Pilots will not abort in the high-speed realm unless it's something very serious. Only a small handful of things will bring on an abort if a jet is anywhere close to liftoff speed.

As for that 10-minute delay before the second attempt, aborted takeoffs are taken seriously regardless of the speed or reason, and usually a crew needs to get clearance from its dispatchers or maintenance staff before, as your captain so inelegantly put it, "trying again." This can take a little while, especially if a system also needs to be reset (or deferred as inoperative). There are also brake-cooling issues to consider. A subsequent attempt can take place only if the brake temperatures are below a certain value for a certain amount of time.

I recently flew on Lufthansa from Frankfurt, Germany, to London. After takeoff the plane banked abruptly and repeatedly -- beyond 30 degrees, I'd estimate -- with a significant pushed-into-the-seat G-force feeling. Is the training different for European pilots? I'm just curious if certain airlines have a reputation for training pilots to fly "harder"?

There are no significant differences in the way European pilots are trained. In any case, airline training does not teach basic flying technique. It teaches procedures, aircraft systems and crew coordination. What you experienced was probably just a product of the departure profile. In Europe, because of noise abatement rules, departure paths are often tightly packed with turns and climbs.

I doubt your pilot would have gone past 20 or 25 degrees of bank while turning. When hand-flying, you are following a guidance device known as a flight director, and it will not command anything higher than that. If he'd gone a nudge past the commanded angle, it would have been a momentary thing.

Passengers have a tendency to grossly overestimate the angles of bank, descent and climb. For turns, figure 20 degrees maximum. You'll never be more than 15 or 18 degrees nose-high, and even a steep descent is under 10 degrees nose-low.

Two weeks ago, a Fokker 100 jet landed in Stuttgart, Germany, without its main landing gear. Is that kind of emergency taught and practiced in flight training, or did we see a mixture of talent and good luck?

This was fairly serious since it involved failure of the main gear, beneath the wings and fuel tanks, rather than the nose gear. But there was no fire or major structural damage, thus little chance of death or injury.

This is not something you can train for in a simulator. If you know the gear has a problem, you touch down as slowly and gently as feasible -- basically you make a normal landing.

In an incident like this, the crew shows its mettle in the way it prepares for and carries out the emergency evacuation. The hands-on aspects of "flying" have fairly little to do with it.

Landing gear (and engines too) are great sources of passenger worry, but to an extent they're an airframe's most expendable zones. Gear problems sit pretty close to the bottom on a list of a pilot's worst nightmares. If the public has become hard-wired to panic over gear mishaps, much of that is due to the televised landing of a JetBlue Airbus back in 2005 -- perhaps the most grotesquely overhyped airplane incident of all time. The plane's nose tires were cocked, and the forward strut collapsed on landing, sending a rooster-tail of sparks down the runway. It was made-to-order fare for the news channels, but a minor event from the crew's point of view.

More on gear and tire dangers here, in one of my favorite-ever columns.

One of the things that bothered me most about last winter's Air France crash was the lack of a Mayday call prior to the plane going down -- something you didn't address in your coverage of the accident. Does the absence of a distress call strike you as unusual? Does it mean anything?

No. At the point over the ocean where the crash occurred, the pilots would have been communicating with air traffic control by voice over high-frequency radio and/or by means of an on-board datalink unit. Sending even simple messages by these methods is relatively time-consuming and is not something the pilots would have been concerned with in the heat of a serious emergency. Maybe you have this Hollywood-inspired image of a pilot with a microphone in his hand, saying, "Mayday, Mayday, this is Air France..." It doesn't happen that way. The first order of business in an emergency is to keep control of the aircraft and deal with the problem. Once in a while -- diverting off the organized "track" system over the North Atlantic, for instance -- communicating takes a higher priority, but as a rule you do not make radio calls until time and circumstance afford.


Re: Music and pop culture

The theme I want to explore this week is the phenomenon of great artists tailspinning unexpectedly into mediocrity.

Creative decline is to some degree inevitable and happens to everybody. It happened to my idols Kurt Vonnegut and Spalding Gray. It happened to Patrick Smi ... Well, not to everybody. But the fall is often strikingly sudden and unattributable to the usual suspects -- to old age, say, or substance abuse.

We see this a lot in music, which we'll get to in a minute, but first, can we talk for a minute about "The Simpsons"? I lamented this popular show's remarkable downfall in a column a few weeks ago, but I need to elaborate.

How tragic it has been for something once so brilliant to become so crass and embarrassing. Poor Matt Groening -- only those six-figure royalty checks, I imagine, keep him from drowning himself in the California surf. From 1990 through 1995, "The Simpsons" presented what was arguably the most cunning satire in the history of television. What made it so was its style -- its masterfully hewn characters, rapid-fire comic timing, and a welcome lack of the sort of self-congratulatory comic vanity the networks normally give us. The scripts were wry and irreverent but never obnoxious. "The Simpsons" was art.

And then something -- I don't know what, precisely -- began to go terribly wrong. There is no single moment -- a switch of writers or producers, for instance -- that commenced the demise, but within a season or two the scripts began falling apart. By 1998 the show was unwatchable, and it has remained that way: tediously self-conscious, bloated with slapstick and annoying plots hitched cheaply to various events and celebrities (and products) drawn from popular culture.

Am I the only one who feels this way? In October 1990, the openly gay actor Harvey Fierstein appeared in a fondly remembered episode playing Homer's personal assistant, Karl. Watching this episode today, you see how deftly the writing and directing were able to incorporate the theme of implicit homosexuality. Not once is the word "gay" uttered; there are no political overtones or kitschy ironic references to Karl's sexuality. By comparison, one need only to endure the 1997 guest appearance of filmmaker John Waters to see how weak and witless the scripts would become. When Fierstein was asked to appear in a sequel to his 1990 appearance, he found the script so void of subtlety and overflowing with kitsch that he refused not only the initial offer but a rewrite as well.

What ever made the show sick, it so unraveled its DNA that today, in reruns, the eras are plainly distinct: A veteran fan can usually differentiate "Simpsons" old from "Simpsons" new within the first 10 seconds or so.

Sadly, the longer "The Simpsons" plays on, the weaker and more diluted it becomes in our cultural memory. Somebody kill it, please.

Switching now to music:

In a column this past summer I made reference to the Jesus and Mary Chain, and how that band was never able to replicate the mastery of its debut album, "Psychocandy." Not everybody agreed, and similarly I caught some grief for my dissing of the Replacements in this space a week ago. I expected that to happen, though frankly it wasn't much of a dis. I described the Replacements' debut LP, 1981's "Sorry Ma Forgot to Take Out the Trash," as nothing less than "the greatest garage rock album of all time." It might be more than that, actually, and at the very least it is a must-have for any connoisseur of American underground rock. But then I went on to submit that the Replacements' late-career material was by comparison a big disappointment. That's what got your letters coming in, calling me an idiot and "old" and such.

But I believe that I'm right. There's a tendency, I think, for once-marginalized musicians to grow overconfident. And when they do, their albums become overextended, self-conscious and self-indulgent. "Tim," released in '85, was the last memorable effort from the Replacements. Next came the gutless "Pleased to Meet Me," marking the unfortunate point where the 'Mats jumped the shark. (If you need additional proof, Wikipedia reports that Green Day vocalist Billie Joe Armstrong said of seeing the Replacements perform live after the release of "Pleased to Meet Me": "It changed my whole life.")

This was around the same time that Hüsker Dü, that other indie sensation from the Twin Cities, also jumped the shark. They signed with Warner Brothers and promptly treated us to an album named "Candy Apple Grey." There are two outstanding cuts on that record: the bookends "Crystal" and "All This I've Done for You," both written by Bob Mould. But they are poor compensation for the horror of Mould's "Too Far Down" or the piano-laced abomination that is Grant Hart's "No Promise Have I Made," one of the most pretentious rock songs in history. Every copy of "Candy Apple" ought to be tracked down, baled up and scuttled at sea, the owners given even-exchange copies of "Metal Circus," "New Day Rising" or "Zen Arcade."

These sorts of collapses can happen surprisingly early in a band's career. Consider REM, whose first two full-length albums, "Murmur" and "Reckoning," are masterworks. But the latter was released in 1984, more than a quarter-century and dozens of watery, throw-away albums ago.

I think REM lost it around the time Michael Stipe decided to sing in actual lyrics rather than in tongues. If you've got a copy of "Murmur" around, throw on the song "Shaking Through." It's beautiful. And it's also hilarious, because although Stipe sings in a slow and meticulous voice, with every syllable perfectly audible, you still can't understand a single word he's saying! As a sign on a bin in a Boston record shop once put it: "REM: The only band that mutters."

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Do you have questions for Salon's aviation expert? Contact Patrick Smith through his Web site and look for answers in a future column.

By Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith is an airline pilot.

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