Professional jealousy? Really?

Give me a break. My gripe isn't with the idea of heroics, but rather with the hype machine that misuses the term


Patrick Smith
October 5, 2010 5:01AM (UTC)

For better or worse, I still can't break the habit of reading through the comments section at the end of my posts. And although the cranks and trolls are easy enough to ignore, now and then a critique really sticks in my craw.

Last week, on the heels of my party-pooping analysis of the Sept. 26 gear-up landing accident at JFK, multiple readers accused me of, of all things, professional jealousy.

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"Jealous again, Pat?" asks a reader using the moniker Check Airman. (It's impossible to tell if Check is intentionally invoking the title of the old Black Flag song, but either way he should know that I despise being called "Pat.") "A common thread in Mr. Smith's writing," he tells us, "is that whenever a pilot uses every bit of their experience to bring a successful outcome to a hazardous situation, we can count on Mr. Smith to sniff that it wasn't all that hard."

This sentiment was dittoed in a post from somebody named Louise. "That's exactly what I was thinking," she says. "I think Mr. Smith has sung this refrain a few too many times! It just reeks of his envy of Sully (and others) every time I read his protests!"

Really? What these comments tell me is two things. First, that the readers have missed the point of the article. And second, that they aren't as familiar with my work as they think they are, or would lead us to believe.

If I'm counting right, this "common thread" cited by Check Airman has come up exactly three times in over eight years' worth of columns. We had Sully-Upon-Hudson, the JetBlue fiasco in California in 2005, and now the JFK wing-scrape.

For the record, I never once stated that anything in these predicaments was easy to deal with. And my gripe isn't with the idea of heroics -- cloying and overused as that term is, be it in reference to pilots, soldiers, firefighters or whomever -- but rather with a hype machine that doesn't bother differentiating between a relatively minor mishap and a dire emergency, and doesn't understand the pilot's role in either. By celebrating every survivable mishap as one of miracles and heroes, we lose critical perspective and we diminish the value of pilots, flight attendants, aircraft designers and everybody else who's a part of the safety chain.

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And, we lose sight of who the real heroes might be. Contrary to Check Airman's assertion, I have never denied that certain airline pilots have, when they absolutely needed to, gone above and beyond the call of duty. They're just not the pilots the media tends to tell us about. If Check Airman is a regular reader, he apparently has forgotten about the time I told the story of Brian Witcher and his crew aboard United Airlines Flight 854, a 767 flying from Buenos Aires to Miami in April 2004. They never made the headlines, but what they had to deal with was almost unthinkable: a complete electrical failure over the Andes at 3 o'clock in the morning. Under darkness, with their cockpit instruments dead or dying fast, including all radios and navigational equipment, they managed a successful emergency landing in mountain-ringed Bogotá, Colombia.

I have also written about the 2004 emergency faced by American Eagle captain Barry Gottshall and first officer Wesley Greene. Moments after takeoff from Bangor, Maine, their Embraer regional jet suffered a freak control system failure resulting in full and irreversible deflection of the plane's rudder. That's a bit like your car's steering wheel turning instantly to the stop and freezing there as you cruise down the interstate. Struggling to maintain control, they returned to Bangor under deteriorating weather. Visibility had fallen to a mile, and as the 37-seater approached the threshold, Gottshall had to maintain full aileron deflection -- that is, the control wheel turned to the stops and held there -- to keep from yawing into the woods. It was pure seat-of-the-pants improv. A fully deflected rudder? There are no checklists or procedures for that one.

Not to be outdone, and also given fair due in the Ask the Pilot archives, are the crew that glided an Airbus A330 to a safe landing in the Azores after the failure of both engines, as well as the DHL cargo crew that survived a rocket attack over Baghdad, Iraq.

You otherwise haven't heard of these incidents because they didn't lend themselves to the cameras. They weren't carried live and nobody came splashing down in broad daylight a few yards offshore of the world's media capital. Sully is debatable, but for last month's JFK landing, or the 2005 JetBlue circus, to have received the kind of attention they did is insulting to every pilot out there, and an embarrassment for the media.

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"So, Patrick," asks another reader. "What would happen if ... the media called you a hero? Would you milk it (à la Sully), or go out of your way to explain that pilots aren't heroes?"

First of all, while it's easy to accuse Capt. Sullenberger of "milking it," he's been duly humble in explaining what actually happened that icy afternoon. He has been truthful, deferential to the rest of his crew, and has used his celebrity pulpit effectively. It's not his fault that the media chooses to interpret this as false modesty -- or ignore it entirely.

Am I jealous? Sure, I'd love a few limo rides, a movie deal (heaven help us) and a six-figure book contract. But that doesn't negate the points I've made in the past. Neither does it suggest that I might relish the idea of having to steer an engine-less Airbus into the Hudson River. If you believe a scenario like the one faced by Sully is any pilot's idea of fun, or the type of adventure we covet for posterity, you are sorely mistaken.

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Thus far in my airline career I have been privy to dozens of critical malfunctions and emergencies. Thankfully, they have all been in the simulator. I have lived through only a single, truly harrowing close call, and that was in a single-engine Piper when I was still a private pilot.  Since then I have participated in one or two precautionary landings, scattered weather diversions, assorted mechanical snafus, a couple of loss-of-pressurization incidents, and a lone in-flight engine shutdown (see story below). Nothing too blood-curdling.

The majority of pilots, over the course of their careers, be it through luck or fate, remain well clear of the Grim Reaper (and CNN). We'll experience our share of abnormal situations, maybe a mild emergency or two, but on the whole they're pretty innocuous. That's fine by us. There's a tired adage that describes the pilot's career as interminable stretches of boredom punctuated by rare split seconds of sheer terror. Who needs that? More to our liking are the cushy quasi-emergencies like that of a sputtered-out turbofan; the occasional crackle of the laminated checklist and the need to blow dust off some seldom consulted charts.

In any case, the media would never portray me as the hero even if I actually did save the day. I am a first officer, not a captain. As we know, in the eyes of most reporters, first officers don't exist. Or if we do, we're mere apprentices. We "assist" and "help out." "The pilot" would get all the credit, meaning the captain, and not The Pilot.

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And as to what reporters do and don't know, well there, too, I'm getting grief. It seems that my semi-regular explorations of how and why the media screws up its aviation coverage is getting a little old.

"A column inveighing against perceived injustices in the media?" complains another reader. "I'm sorry, I just don't care ... Please, no more columns that consist mainly of lists of grievances against the media."

I'm a little flummoxed by this. To begin with, how can anyone be at ease with a mass media that consistently botches its coverage of something as integral to our society and economy as commercial air travel? But even so, scanning a catalog of my posts ought to reveal some chronic fixation with the media. Certainly it's there in places, as it should be, but so are many other important topics. Airport security, for example. Not to mention literally hundreds of miscellaneous subjects I've tackled dating back to this column's inception. Moreover, I often use the media critique format as a means to an end. It's a useful vehicle for myth busting, and for giving people what I hope is valuable or interesting information.

Now, about that shut-down engine.

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Commercial airplanes can fly just fine with the failure of an engine. Certification rules state that they must. The four-engine jet in the anecdote that follows can fly just fine even with the failure of two engines. But because a situation isn't harrowing doesn't mean that it's not challenging and potentially complicated. And with that, let me share with you a brief story that first aired in this space several years ago. It's a good illustration, and I reckon that most of my newer readers never saw the original.

It starts on a cloudless April morning over northern Maine. I was third in command, the flight engineer, on a four-engine freighter jet flying from Ohio to Belgium. I'd just finished heating the eggs and emptying the trash, when the fire alarm rang for the No. 3 engine. Imagine a bell, with the volume and tenor of a dozen Big Ben alarm clocks. Imagine coffee everywhere.

Almost immediately, even faster than you'd slam your palm down on one of those infernal clocks at 5 a.m., the bell stopped. The three of us, suddenly owl-eyed and zoomed with adrenaline, stared momentarily at the instruments, then at each other. Fire? Yes? No?

Then a panel light began to blink. The light told us that one of the No. 3 engine's fire detection circuits had fallen offline. Except maybe it wasn't offline, since the bulb is supposed to illuminate steadily, but in our case was flashing erratically, as if it couldn't make up its mind. About 10 seconds later, and to our considerable consternation, the bell commenced its hideous clamoring again. And this time it didn't stop, not until the captain hit the cut-out silencer, killing the bell while its accompanying red annunciator -- FIRE -- continued to burn brightly.

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At hand were two indications, either an aggravating contradiction or a perfect accord, depending on how you saw it: that of a fire alarm, and that of a flickering light implying that the fire alarm might in fact be broken.

We also had a third indication -- a clue. Having gone through the maintenance log prior to flight, we knew the very same fire detector had, on a recent prior occasion, malfunctioned, touching off a faulty alarm. (Making nothing easier, each engine has two detectors, and the second one, the gauges told us, was working fine.)

So, cutting to the chase, it was probable, though in no way provable, that the fire alarm was dubious. Unfortunately, in the world of big league flying, and especially when fires are in play, "probable" doesn't cut it.

We now introduce the captain -- a tall, bearish fellow who tended not to say a lot. He stared intently for a moment, fingered his heavy mustache, then spoke in a raised whisper. "Oh, fucking fuck," is what he said.

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"Engine fire checklist," he said next, and I grabbed the yellow card from its holster. And promptly the three of us, snapping into well-rehearsed roles, commenced the weird ballet of the in-flight emergency shutdown. We put No. 3 to bed with the snap and click of cutoff levers, generator switches and a goodnight spray of the halon bottle.

The red FIRE bulb ceased to glow and there were no further bells.

Then it was time to land.

Or not. After securing the disorderly motor we consulted our airline's dispatch team via radio. Convinced the warning had been illegitimate, company tech staff basically left the choice between continuing or diverting up to us.

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Had we opted to keep flying, first order would have been several minutes of poring over on-board charts to ensure we'd have adequate fuel for a three-engine Atlantic crossing. High-altitude air is thin, and with less available power and heavy gross weight, we'd be restricted to a lower than planned cruising level, increasing overall burn. Certain aerodynamic factors also intensify fuel consumption: That disabled power plant is now hanging out there like a great round sail, and because the engine is not on the fuselage centerline, it results in a torquing force that wants to yaw the aircraft sideways. This is offset by trimming the plane's rudder and ailerons to hold opposite force. Loosely put, the plane is now flying slightly crooked, causing greater drag and, in turn, drinking even more fuel.

Back at headquarters, company personnel would crunch these same numbers before allowing us to proceed.

Weather too would be scrutinized. Our destination, Brussels, is often plagued by late-night fog, so the reports for nearby diversion points would be no less important. Regardless of how many engines are working, alternate landing spots must adhere to very specific minimum ceiling and visibility forecasts, bearing in mind that while a three-engine landing is relatively effortless, a three-engine missed approach (aborted landing) is less fun. Throw a serious crosswind, icy runway and any additional malfunctions onto the palette, and the picture is even messier.

Maybe that sounds complicated, and to some degree it is. To be totally frank, however, pilots itch for such occasions. That's how I saw it, anyway -- the rote tedium of preparing omelets and doodling in the margins of the flight plan at long last arrogated by something exciting, dammit. Not dangerous, mind you, but challenging and, should all go smoothly (which it would), rewarding.

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Except, pilots aren't paid to get their kicks. They're paid to fly the path of least resistance; to keep everyone alive and everything intact with an absolute minimum of fuss and worry.

Which is why, after a quick and unanimous vote of 3-0, we turned and went to Bangor.

I trust we'd have been perfectly comfortable to aim our 300,000 pounds of aluminum, freight and fuel toward the Bay of Fundy, Newfoundland, and beyond, and our hunches about the spurious detector would later be proved correct. But, at the time, there was no way of knowing.

"Have you ever lost an engine?" is a query I'm sometimes hit with -- a good, old-fashioned question to ask any pilot. It's a mildly perplexing one, since the specter of failed engines is, as I hope you're learning, generally not the sort of thing that keeps a pilot up at night, but now you know my answer: yes, once, sort of.

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


Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith is an airline pilot.

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