It was twelve years ago this week, according to my logbook, that I made my first-ever flight as an airline pilot. (Logbooks are good for one other thing aside from what I mentioned last time: rekindling this or that better-forgotten memory.) The company that hired me, now defunct, was Northeast Express Regional Airlines, and did business as the commuter affiliate of a certain major airline. We carried their passengers, code-share style, as a corporate surrogate along routes in the Northeast. Our planes, like theirs, were painted handsomely in red, but we were neither owned nor otherwise associated with them. That would be important later, when the paychecks started bouncing.
But for now I was finally an airline pilot, and on October 21, 1990, I departed on the prestigious Manchester, New Hampshire to Boston route — the 15-minute run frequented, as you’d expect, by Hollywood stars, dignitaries and sheiks. I’ll always cherish that day — having to drive to Sears at 8:30 in the morning, an hour before my sign-in time, because I’d already lost my tie. And then the clerk’s face when I told him I needed something “plain black, ” and “polyester, not silk.”
My first airplane was an old twin turboprop, the BE-99, a.k.a. Beech-99 or just “the 99.” It was a ridiculous anachronism posing as a viable mode of commercial transport, fooling nobody and forced into continued service by a cheap (and doomed) airline. But it was my first job, and hey, for 800 bucks a month 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, 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 remember flying into Logan that morning, at the controls of the silly 99 and looking over at the terminals from, finally, a pilot’s point of view. I thought of my days in grammar school when I’d come to this same airport and roam these same buildings, watching the planes and wishing I could fly one of them. On Valentine’s Day, 1991, I went for my captain’s checkout on the 99. I was 24 year-old.
Next up was the Fairchild Metroliner, a more sophisticated, 19-seat jetprop. I got my captain’s rating for this one in late ’92. Then came the De Havilland Dash-8. The Dash was a 37-passenger job and the biggest thing I’d ever laid my hands on. A new one cost about eight million dollars and it even had a flight attendant. I loved that plane and it remains my favorite. I went for my captain check on July 7, 1993. I was 26. Only 13 of us, out of more than a hundred, got to fly the Dash from the left seat. I was number 13, bottom of the bottom, but I would call each morning begging for overtime.
By the following summer I was out of work. I bounced around from job to job, at one point plying the featureless Midwest in a French-built ATR, and later based at JFK as captain on the Jetstream 41, a sexy, 30-passenger machine built in very un-sexy Scotland. My bloody-knuckle takeoff from Manchester in 1990 was forever my answer to the “What’s your proudest moment?” question when I interviewed for these positions. But there were also some moments I kept to myself:
There was the time we flew in from Halifax, Nova Scotia, when I swore at the immigration officer in Boston and she wouldn’t let me into the country. I was tired and cranky and our plane had been hit by lightning during the descent. The officer was rude and I said something I shouldn’t have. Next thing I knew I was in a holding cell — a kind of no-man’s room where, technically, your citizenship is not yet applicable — with a group of handcuffed Haitians. I got a call from my boss about that one. He wanted to know why I was late for my outbound flight to Newark, and I told him it was because I was no longer an American.
My most savored practical joke, however, was one I never got around to actually pulling off. A few of our Metroliners and Dash-8s wore names, stenciled in white beneath the cockpit windows. There was the “Spirit of Partnership,” for example, the Spirit of Acadia, and even the L’Esprit de Moncton, in honor of our new routes into the Canadian Maritimes. My plan was to sneak onto the tarmac and stencil some names onto planes that didn’t have them. I wanted to christen them after some infamous and colorful former employees — pilots who’d recently been terminated (and whose names are changed below).
The first was going to be the Spirit of Skip Fallon. Skip was a guy nobody could stand, and he’d been let go a few months earlier. Then there was the Clipper Mark Levereaux, another canned character. Mark was a really nice fellow with a body odor problem and an indescribably bizarre personality. He sure deserved a Metroliner. There was the Captain Charbennau, the KC O’Brien, and others. I had the stencils and paint ready.
At the last minute somebody talked me out of it. I’d gone over the line when I was ready to name a plane after one pilot who still worked there. This was Dick Harris, who I hardly knew and probably had never spoken to. He was an older and overly serious guy with a big flume of white hair. A friend of mine used to call him “Santa Claus,” which I always thought was the funniest thing in the world because somehow he did look like Santa Claus even though he didn’t have a beard.
One of my favorite airplane photos, from a book I have here, shows an Air India flight attendant standing on the stairs outside of one of the airline’s 747s. It’s the Emperor Ashoka, and the picture was taken in 1971, when 747s were still drawing crowds every time one landed. Air India’s paint scheme, which is unchanged from the days of this photograph, is one of my favorites. Each fuselage window — and there must be how many down each side of a 747, a hundred? — is carefully outlined with the shape of a Moghul arch. (Amazingly, an episode of “The Simpsons” once portrayed an Air India jet and they had correctly replicated the little Taj Mahalian designs around each oval portal.)
The book also has some pictures of the girls from Gulf Air too. Gulf Air — as in Persian Gulf — is the airline of Bahrain. On a rainy night several years ago I was at the Bangkok airport trying to catch a flight to Narita. It was four in the morning and the terminal was mobbed. Suddenly the crowd parted and I saw something I could hardly believe. It was the cabin crew — a dozen flight attendants — of the Gulf Air departure for Bahrain, making its way to the gate. Never in my life have I seen stewardesses like these. Each was stunning and each seemed at least six feet tall. They were not Arab women, but most likely Brits or Australians working in the Gulf. And they were walking single file, as if down a runway during a fashion show.
Adding to the effect was the standard Gulf Air flight attendant uniform, which featured a long beige coat and a chic redesign of a Muslim headdress — a purple hat with the “Golden Falcon” — the Gulf Air emblem — and a swirling purple veil dropping to the neck and shoulders. People dropped their luggage and stared. It was the most glamorous thing I’d ever seen — these gorgeous women in purple veils towering over the throng of anxious Thais.
No sooner was I home when I’d dashed a resume to Bahrain. A month later Gulf Air wrote back, telling me I need 1000 hours in a Boeing 767 to be considered for a position. My time as a Dash-8 captain flying back and forth to Baltimore wasn’t going to cut it. The Gulf Air stationary, I remember, was thick as a piece of Swiss cheese, and had an embossed Golden Falcon at the top.
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.