Best Flying Moments

At the end of October I promised a column of my most memorable flying experiences. Some you’re already familiar with — careening along Manhattan in a 19-seater, unleashing hell in a toilet, or listening to a ballgame high over Greenland.

To come up with the others, I blew the dust off my logbook and revisited the “remarks” sections of some 7,000 flight hours dating back to 1986, when I was a 19 year-old private pilot flying Pipers from the small airport in Beverly, Massachusetts.

Not an easy task when most of the notations are the likes of “Lunch at HPN with Dave B.” Or, as evidence to the rigorous schedules I once endured as a first officer, how about a day’s rotation that went: “BOS-ACK-BOS-ACK-BOS-PWM-BOS-PWM-BOS-EWR.” Nine legs in a 15-seater in the pouring rain, the book tells me, yet I have no recollection of that day, or page after page of similar ones. (Granted it was 12 years ago, but even the next morning I’m fairly certain my memory would’ve been hazy.)

Doubtless some of you are itching to hear thrilling recounts of inflight fires, exploding engines, or the time I deftly steered a 747 from the clutches of wind shear, passengers weeping appreciatively back on terra firma. For the record, I am setting aside one particularly exciting tale, which you can read about in more deserving detail in an upcoming column, but overall I’m either disappointed or proud, depending how I look at it, to have a record nearly empty of such episodes. If the careers of airline pilots share anything, it’s usually a similar dearth of adrenaline. Which is less a statement of modesty, steely nerves or courage, than a testament to the safety of flying.

I have no memories of sunsets over the Himalayas, takeoffs from La Paz or shooting the old checkerboard into Hong Kong. I never launched from the Nimitz for a 3 a.m. sortie into Baghdad, the cockpit illuminated by tracer fire. When Hollywood adapts my upcoming book to film, they’ll be forced to take a decidedly impressionistic tack and can give their special effects people some time off (although, if striving for any degree of realism, they’ll have their hands full when it comes to the toilet). My memory banks have settled on certain sentimental, if not exactly spellbinding moments.

Here are four:

New Day Rising (Fall, 1990)

It’s October 21, 1990, my first-ever day on the job as an airline pilot. I’m 24 years-old. I’ll be departing on the prestigious Manchester, New Hampshire, to Boston run — the 15-minute hop frequented, as you’d expect, by movie stars and dignitaries. In the room of a cheap hotel near the Manchester airport, I’m getting dressed. Unable to afford the standard black flight bag to hold my maps and charts, I’ll be using an old briefcase that I found in somebody’s garbage on Beacon Hill.

If that’s not embarrassing enough, I’ve lost my tie. Suddenly I’m racing to the mall at 9 a.m., less than an hour before sign-in time. And then the clerk’s face when I tell him I needed something “plain black, ” and “polyester, not silk.”

My first airplane is the BE-99, a.k.a. the Beech-99, or just “the 99.” It’s a ridiculous anachronism posing as a viable mode of commercial transport, fooling nobody and kept in service by a cheap (and doomed) airline. But it was my first real job, and hey, for 11 grand a year why turn down danger and embarrassment?

There was no flight attendant and I had to close the cabin door myself. When I performed this maneuver on my inaugural flight, new tie from Sears freshly knotted, I twisted the handle and dragged the first three knuckles of my right hand across the head of a loose screw, cutting myself badly. I went to the cockpit and wrapped a white napkin around my fingers. Welcome aboard.

Getting Started (Summer, 1991)

What the above job provided in addition to $660 of take-home every month, was the vicarious thrill of Northwest Airlines. We carried their passengers, code-share style, as corporate surrogate along routes in the Northeast, based out of Boston. Our 25 turboprops, like their 747s and DC-10s, were painted handsomely in gray and red.

Though, alas, the association ran no deeper — important later, when the paychecks started bouncing. But for now I would code-share my way to glory, and when girls asked which airline I flew for, I would answer “Northwest” with at least a borderline degree of honesty.

Passengers at Logan would show up planeside in a red bus that was roughly twice the size of the airplane. Expecting a 757, they were dumped at the foot of an unpressurized wagon built in 1968. I would be stuffing paper towels into the cockpit window frames to keep out the rainwater, while businessmen came up the back stairs cursing their travel agents. Then they’d sit, seething, refusing to fasten their seatbelts:

“Let’s go. What the hell are you doing?”
“I’m preparing the weight and balance manifest, sir.”
“We’re only going to goddamn Newark! Manifest? Jesus Christ.”
And so on.

With no cabin attendant, either the other pilot or myself had to make the safety briefing. Nor was there any air conditioning until the engines were spinning. In July and August, out on the asphalt at BOS, the 99 became a heat box.

Midsummer flights to Nantucket were the worst, as we were always full and the island-bound passengers were always the most petulant. We’d be loaded to our max weight, with 15 people — all from tony suburbs and all wearing mirrored aviator glasses, straw hats and Tevas — and a cargo hold bursting with wicker bags from Crate & Barrel. After several hot minutes of organizing carry-ons and dusting off whichever unfortunate soul managed to trip over the center-cabin wing spar, it was time to wipe off the sweat and get started.

I reach down and hit the starter switch for the number one engine. The propeller is rotating, fuel is flowing. But there’s no combustion. The engine is turning, but it’s not running. Oh great. So I let it wind down and try again. What’s missing, I notice on the second try, is the click-click-click of the igniters. Damn, the igniters aren’t firing. “Kathy, can you see if there a breaker out for the ignition, left side?”

There isn’t, and so now we’re waiting for a mechanic while the inside temp hits 106. I realize the woman directly behind Kathy has a giant Crate & Barrel bag on her lap. Somehow we’d missed it.

“Miss, you’ll need to stow that bag; it can’t rest on your lap for takeoff.”
“Well,” she says and pauses, lowering her aviators. “Maybe you oughta see if you can get the fucking plane started before you worry about my fucking luggage.”

Wake (Winter, 1993)

This time I’m the captain of a Fairchild Metroliner carrying 19 passengers, a half-mile from touchdown on runway 27R at Philadelphia International. A Delta Air Lines 757 has touched down just ahead of us and is turning clear of the runway. It’s 1994, and the FAA has recently mandated increased separation distances when following 757s, a jet notorious for leaving behind a peculiarly virulent form of wake, turbulent vortices spun from its wingtips like sideways tornadoes. Technically the 757 is not a “heavy,” to use some radio parlance, but we’re pretending it is. Not only are we beyond the necessary distance, but we’re flying the glide slope intentionally high.

For naught. At 300 feet, just 20 seconds or so from touchdown, there’s a buffet, then a burble, and then a WHAM! I remember saying something akin to, “Son of a… whoaaa,” as the plane was knocked to about a 50 degree angle in less than a second. Then, no sooner had I shoved in full opposite aileron and was reaching for differential thrust, it was over. Out of the vortex we came, and landed safely after a routinely-executed go-around.

But what made the incident especially memorable was this: As we did our little dance off the end of the runway, the Delta 757 had turned 180 degrees and was motoring lazily toward the terminal along the parallel taxiway. In other words, he was looking directly at us. There’s almost no chance the 757’s pilots wouldn’t have watched our hapless turboprop fluttering in its wake. Whether they felt bad, or were laughing, is something I’ll never know.

Launch (Fall, 2000)

It’s 05:30 or so, somewhere above Mississippi enroute to Mexico City. Our copy of USA Today, the official publication of any and all layover hotels, tells us the Space Shuttle is set to launch. In fact, it’s set to launch right now. But Cape Canaveral is 500 miles away, clearly out of range to see the blast-off.

“Betcha we can see it,” says the captain. He’s lining up his digital camera against the window.

“Nah, no way,” we tell him. “We’re too far. Besides, it’s always delayed. We’ll be at the Marriott in Mexico before that thing goes.”

But maybe it’s for some odd combination of intuition and expertise that captains are paid the big bucks, because less than two minutes later, there, with a trail of flame like a giant Roman candle, is the Shuttle, 500 miles away. Up it goes, arcing eastward and disappearing seconds later into the morning, its tail hanging in the still dark sky like a fiery icicle. The captain snaps a photo, a copy of which he emails to me later.

Battle of the Dinosaurs (Summer, 1999)

It’s a hot morning at San Juan, and our old DC-8 freighter has just touched down. After rollout along runway 10, we make the left onto taxiway F to access the cargo ramp. Except, there appears to be a sizeable chunk of debris along the taxiway edge at the intersection. And it’s moving. Er, well, it’s crawling.

Turns out it’s a four-foot iguana (Iguanidae Ctenosaurus), and he’s looking for a spot to bask. He finds it, naturally, dead center along the yellow taxiway stripe, directly in our way. The animal plops down and is hellbent not to budge.

So we stop.

“Give him some noise,” says the captain, reaching for the thrust levers.
“Do iguanas have ears?” asks the first officer.
“I don’t know.”
“Well, we can’t just run him over.”

We move closer, hoping to startle the liazard off. It’s not working. He’s just under the nose now and we can see him clearly — the frills of his head, the spikes along his tail. A 15-pound prehistoric lizard standing down a 255,000 pound prehistoric airplane.

“I knew a girl once,” I say out loud, “who had a pet iguana. They’re vegetarians, you know. Strict herbivores.” I’m eating a piece of Tillamook cheese from my breakfast tray. “Her name was Lynn Farrell. She was very pretty. She also had a tattoo of an iguana down her back. I wonder where she is now.”

“But can they hear?”
“Probably, sure.”
Ground control has noticed us motionless and crackles in. “What’ s the problem?”
“Do you know if iguanas have ears?” the captain answers.

Two minutes later a yellow pickup comes racing over. Lack of further discussion from the tower gives us the impression this has happened before. The pickup honks, nudges forward, and finally the lizard goes dashing off into the bushes.

Later, on the drive to the hotel, our animated talk of iguanas leads the van driver to ask if we’re amateur zoologists.


This article is part of a collection that originally appeared on Salon.com. Patrick Smith, 38, is an erstwhile airline pilot, retired punk rocker and air travel columnist. His book, Ask the Pilot (Riverhead) was voted “Best Travel Book of 2004” by Amazon.com. Patrick has traveled to more than 55 countries and always asks for a window seat. He lives near Boston.