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Cockpit Confidential: Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Being a Pilot

Patrick Smith is an airline pilot, author, and host of His second book, “Cockpit Confidential,” will be published in May 2013. We asked him all the questions we’ve always wanted to ask our pilots but never could. He places the following disclaimer on his answers: “I should start by pointing out that pretty much any question pertaining to piloting needs to be prefaced with the words, ‘It depends.’ Commercial flying has a great many variables. It depends on the type of carrier you work for (i.e., regional or major airline), your relative seniority (junior or senior), and your position (captain or first officer). Your salary, your schedule, the plane you fly, and the places you fly to, all can vary widely.”

Why did you become a pilot, and how old were you when you started flying?

I had a fascination with commercial air travel dating back as far as I can remember. This is typical. Many if not most airline pilots trace our ambitions to early childhood. I certainly do. I first took flying lessons at age 13. Just the same, I have never met another pilot whose formative obsessions were quite like mine. I have limited fascination with the sky or with the seat-of-the-pants thrills of flight itself—fun as those things are. As a youngster the sight of a Piper Cub meant nothing to me. Five minutes at an air show watching the Blue Angels do barrel rolls and I was bored to tears.

What enthralled me instead were the workings of the airlines themselves. In the fifth grade I could recognize a Boeing 727-100 from a 727-200 by the shape of the intake of its center engine (oval, not round). I’d pour over the system maps and timetables of Pan Am, Aeroflot, Lufthansa, and British Airways, memorizing the names of the foreign capitals they flew to. It wasn’t about airplanes so much as the greater theater of air travel in whole.

What do you think about the TSA and airport security in general?

This is something I could talk about all day long. Getting my arms around all that is wrong and wasteful about TSA is very difficult.

There are two fundamental flaws in our existing approach: The first is a strategy that looks upon everybody who flies—the old and young, fit and infirm, domestic and foreign, pilot and passenger—as a potential terrorist. That is to say, we’re searching for weapons rather than specific people who might actually use them. This is an impossible, unsustainable task in a nation where some 2 million people travel by air each day.

Second is our lingering preoccupation with the tactics used by the terrorists on September 11th. We are spending billions of taxpayer dollars and untold hours of labor in a delusional attempt to thwart an attack that has already happened and cannot happen again—guards pawing through our luggage in a hunt for what are effectively harmless items: hobby knives, scissors, screwdrivers.

One tragic irony in all of this is that the success of the 2001 attacks really had nothing to do with airport security in the first place. Conventional wisdom says the terrorists exploited a weakness in airport security by smuggling aboard box-cutters. But conventional wisdom is wrong. This was a failure of intelligence at the FBI and CIA levels, not at the concourse checkpoint. What the men actually exploited was a weakness in our mindset—a set of presumptions based on the decades-long track record of hijackings and how they were expected to unfold. The presence of box-cutters was merely incidental. The men could have used almost anything; even a child knows that a deadly weapon can be crafted out of virtually anything, from a ballpoint pen to a broken first-class dinner plate. Thus the success of the hijackers’ plan relied not on hardware but on the element of surprise.

Can you opt out of a flight if you are feeling sick or tired?

Yes, of course. Most airlines have perfectly reasonable and accommodating policies for crew members who are are sick or fatigued.

What do you wish passengers understood better about flying?

That’s a huge question. There is so much bad information out there. I could almost begin by saying: Everything you THINK you know about commercial flying is wrong. The problem is made worse by a media that constantly repeats and perpetuates various myths and exaggerations.

Just to pick one: I wish that people better understood the differences between the terms pilot and co-pilot. There’s a widespread assumption that a “co-pilot” is somehow not a full-fledged pilot, but rather some type of apprentice or pilot-in-training. This is nonsense. Although the captain is technically in command, both cockpit crew-members are fully qualified to operate the aircraft in all regimes of flight. Co-pilots perform just as many takeoffs and landings as captains do.

Additionally, I wish that people had a better sense of how damn CHEAP it is to fly. It costs about the same to fly in 2012 as it did in 1985, and it’s far more affordable than it was, say, 40 or 50 years ago. People gripe about bag fees and a lack of legroom, yet they want and expect dirt-cheap tickets. Flying is inexpensive, mostly reliable, and astonishingly safe. Yet for all that, people DESPISE air travel.

What advice do you have for someone who’s afraid of flying?

A certain level of anxiety is normal. That holds whether you’re a first-time flyer or a seasoned crew-member. I can’t be surprised that millions of reasonable people find it hard to reconcile with the notion of traveling hundreds of miles per hour, far above the earth, inside pressurized tubes weighing hundreds of thousands of pounds. Flying is not natural for human beings, and while it doesn’t quite violate the laws of physics, it does seem to violate any and all common sense. Technology has made it work, but while airplane travel isn’t statistically dangerous, inherently it’s another story.

As for what advice I can give you, however, it depends more on the nature of your fears than my skills of explanation. Most pilots aren’t psychologists, and not everybody’s fears are rational. In a high percentage of cases, what fearful flyers actually fear has little or nothing to do with flying itself, and cannot be dispatched by explanations or statistics. They don’t need a pilot; they need a mental health professional.

Do you ever lie to passengers about the reason for delays?

No, I don’t. In spite of what most people think, airlines do not, as policy, intentionally lie or mislead. What passengers often take to be lies are more accurately garbles, caused by the faulty transfer of information. Such is the rigidly compartmentalized structure airlines, where specifics of a circumstance are passed along from department to department, each with its own priorities, vernacular, and expertise. It’s not unlike that game played in grade school, where a short anecdote is whispered around the room, growing more and more scrambled each step of the way. At the airport, the person in charge of picking up a microphone and announcing that your plane is delayed is liable to have little understanding of what the problem actually is.

What do you wish you could change about the airline industry?

Well, ignoring the TSA for a minute, I wish that airlines would wean themselves away from their reliance on regional jets. Today around 50 percent of all domestic flying has been outsourced to regional affiliates. For the legacy carriers this outsourcing is cheaper than operating your own aircraft flown by your own crews, but overall it’s an inferior product. Not to mention, the growth of the regional sector has helped drag down wages for employees industry-wide. Regional airline pilots can make as little as $20,000 per year.

I also wish that US airlines (and airports too) could be more like their overseas counterparts. Foreign airlines tend to provide better service (sometimes much better), while the airports of Europe and Asia—the latter especially—are much more efficient, convenient, and packed with amenities.

Third, I would enact an industry-wide ban on those infernal CNN Airport News monitors you find blaring away at the gate. Between babies crying, people yammering on their phones, and an endless loop of mostly pointless PA announcements, U.S. airports are so bloody LOUD as it is. Those gate-side chatterboxes are just one more layer of noise.

What’s your favorite airport to fly into? And the worst?

I’m not sure that I have a favorite from a flying perspective, strictly speaking, but my favorite airport to BE IN is probably Incheon Airport, serving Seoul. It’s beautiful, immaculately clean, cathedral-quiet, and generally the most flyer-friendly airport I’ve ever been to. Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport is another favorite. It’s more crowded than Incheon and doesn’t have quite as many amenities, but it’s architecturally spectacular.

At the other end of the spectrum you have Dakar, Senegal. Some of America’s terminals are pretty bad, too: loud, dirty, overcrowded.

What are the best and worst parts about your job?

The best part is getting to do exactly what I always wanted to do: to fly jets to cool places around the world. The worst part is dealing with the uncertainties of the airline business. It’s a ruthlessly cyclical industry, and the risks are high. I’ve already been through two bankruptcies, an airline shut-down, and an extended furlough that lasted more than five years.

And many people are surprised to learn that seniority and experience are not transferable from airline to airline. When a pilot is furloughed or for any other reason is forced to move from one airline to another, the seniority system dictates that he begin again at probationary pay and benefits, regardless of experience. You take your place at the bottom of the seniority list, and the long, slow climb begins again. This is industry standard and there are no exceptions.

What’s your favorite spot to visit, and what would be your dream route to fly?

This is an unfair question; there are so many places worth seeing. My all-time favorite place to visit, though, if I had to pick one, is probably Botswana. Some years ago I took an unforgettable, two-week camping safari through the country, and have wanted to return ever since.

Dream route to fly? Well, although I’ve been to Asia many times on personal visits, I’ve never been there as part of a working crew. I’d love to fly into Bangkok, Seoul, Hong Kong …

Can you tell us what a typical month would be like, i.e. how often would you fly, and where would you go?

Nowadays I fly a mix of domestic and international routes. I’ll fly four or five multi-day assignments over the course of a month, accounting for 14 or 15 days away from home. Las Vegas, Madrid, Ft. Lauderdale, Mumbai—all are possible.

But it varies, and there is really no such thing as a “typical” pilot’s schedule. It depends very much on the airline, the aircraft you fly, your relative seniority, and so forth. Every 30 days, usually around the middle of the month, we bid our preferences for the following month: where we’d like to fly, which days we’d like to be off, which insufferable colleagues we hope to avoid, etc.

What we actually end up with depends on seniority. Senior pilots get the choicest pickings; junior pilots get whatever is left over. A top-of-the-list pilot might be assigned a single, 13-day trip to Asia worth 70 pay hours; a bottom-dweller might work a long series of two- and three-day domestic trips scattered throughout the month. Those at the very bottom are assigned to on-call “reserve” status.

How much time do you generally get in between flights, and do you get to go out and explore a destination, or mostly spend the time sleeping?

Just as there’s no such thing as a typical schedule, there’s no such thing as a typical layover. Domestic layovers can be as short as nine or 10 hours, or as long as 24. Overseas, downtime is usually a minimum of 24 hours, though 48 or even 72 hours in a city aren’t unheard of. I’ve resided on seniority lists in both high and low standing. I have fond memories of five-day layovers in places like Cape Town and Cairo. Then again I get the shakes remembering nine-hour rests at cheap hotels in Lansing and Syracuse.

For cabin staff it works similarly. A senior flight attendant might grab the same swanky layovers in Athens or Singapore that a senior captain does. There are, however, fewer duty-time restrictions and contractual protections for flight attendants, and they tend to work more days. A pilot might fly three, four, or five multi-day trips in a month, while a flight attendant might fly seven or eight, sometimes totaling a hundred or more flight hours.

How much of flying is autopilot?

Most of it. However, people’s notion of what the autopilot is, and what it can and cannot do, are highly misunderstood. The autopilot is a tool, along with many other tools available to the crew. You still need to tell it what to do, how to do it, and when to do it. I prefer the term auto-flight system. It’s a collection of several different functions controlling speed, thrust, and both horizontal and vertical navigation—together or separately, and all of it requiring regular crew inputs in order work properly. On the jet I fly, I can set up an automatic climb or descent any of about six different ways, depending what’s needed in a given situation.

The idea that modern aircraft are flown by computer, with pilots on hand merely as a backup in case of trouble, is utter nonsense. Yet the press and pundits repeat this garbage constantly, and millions of people actually believe it. This is so laughably far from reality that it’s hard to get my arms around it and begin to explain how.

Essentially, high-tech cockpit equipment assists pilots in the way that high-tech medical equipment assists physicians and surgeons. It has vastly improved their capabilities, but it by no means diminishes the experience and skill required to perform at that level, and has not come remotely close to rendering them redundant. A plane can fly itself about as much as a modern operating room can perform an operation by itself.

Do you eat the same in-flight food as the passengers, and which airport has the best food?

As a general rule pilots are fed on any flight longer than about five hours. Some stations will stock a designated crew meal, but normally we get the same food that is served in first or business class (yes, all the courses, including soup, salads and desserts). At my airline we are given a menu prior to departure and will write down our choices for dinner and breakfast (first choice, plus at least one alternate). Some foreign stations will also stock a tray of sandwiches or appetizers for the crew, in addition to our regular meals.

Airbus planes have a fold-out table at each pilot station. Boeings do not. Eating in the cockpit can be messy. On international flights I usually take my meals in the cabin, on my rest break. With potential illness in mind, pilots are encouraged to eat different entrees, but this is not a hard and fast rule. In practice it comes to down to your preferences and what’s available. Shorter-haul domestic and regional pilots are on their own. It’s pretzels, peanuts, the food court, or whatever you carry from home.

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