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Life as a Pilot

Q: As entertaining and informative as your column is, you’ve missed the central question on everyone’s minds. Back in the days when flight attendants were called stewardesses and pilots wrestled their airplanes around without GPS or computer-controlled approaches, movies and TV loved to imply these young and attractive crews were hopping from bed to bed like rabbits. With flight attendants looking more matronly and pilots attaining the same level of mystique (thanks, in part, to your efforts) as assistant managers at Wal-Mart, it’s difficult, if not painful, to imagine that there’s much hanky panky still going on. Is there?

If there’s any hanky panky going on, I was certainly being excluded even before I lost my job. I dunno, all in all it’s no different, I suppose, from any other work environment, though things are faster and looser, which is to say younger, at the smaller regional airlines than large ones. Pilots tend to be a straightlaced sort, which I’m sure contributes to our collective chastity and restraint, but I’ve heard the same stories from the 60s and 70s you have.

Which is too bad, maybe, depending how you look at it. Getting laid is a lot more fun than getting laid off. If I am assistant managing at Wal-Mart, no offense to all the tens of thousands of Salon subscribers who are Wal-Mart workers, may an errant 757 come crashing through my cheap corrugated rooftop and put me out of my misery.

Q: Mile High Club?

If you’re asking me about membership status, do you mean presently, or would I like to join?

Q: What are some of the dumbest things passengers have ever done on your flights?

I’ll skip the “air rage” stories since those get enough coverage already, but I once had a passenger hand me a barf bag full of urine on his way out the door. Correct that: he waved the bag at me and said, “Should I just leave this here?”

Q: And what about celebrities? Have you ever flown Marlon Brando?

Does anyone remember Sinbad, the standup comic and actor from the early 1990s?


Also, the following people at one time or another have ridden aboard planes I was piloting: Mike Dukakis, Al Gore, Ted Kennedy, Jerry Brown (what ever happened to Linda Rondstadt?) and Jesse Jackson. I am not making this up. Can anyone tell me what all of these passengers had in common, and, with that in mind, why at least one political party should never hire me to fly its candidates around. (Note: Dukakis, who deplaned in Baltimore, left a whole sheaf of important-looking papers on his seat. I thought about selling these to the Republicans but instead brought them inside to be reclaimed.)

Q: I was reading your article about Concorde from the Salon archives. Does Concorde have a numeric designation? If so, what is it? And why can’t they refer to it as, “The Concorde?”

No it doesn’t, and they most certainly can, though it would be unsavorily gauche, don’t you think? It ‘s something Dan Rather might have said when reporting the airplane’s unfortunate deviation into that Paris hotel a few summers ago. But never Peter Jennings or, needless to say, Christiane Amanpour, who is known to hang around Air France’s L’Espace lounge on her days off, just for the canapés. In normal conversation from this point on, I will try to drop “the” from all Boeing and Airbus models as well.

Q: Why do pilots wear such bad shoes? Why don’t they take better care of their footwear? Indeed, many pilots look scruffy. Why?

Most of us, remember, are the sons of cowboys and soybean farmers, and we worked hard in the fields, hammering on horseshoes and digging clods of wet soil from the teeth of combines before going off to the Air Force Academy. Style has never been our strong suit (though we were required, often at gunpoint, to polish our shoes nightly at the Academy). But I don’t think my Rockports are “bad shoes,” apart from the blue toilet fluid stains and where the glycol deicing fluid has eaten through the uppers.

Q: Are pilots healthy?

Most pilots, if not all of them, are on the controversial Atkins Diet, which seems to advocate eating only red meat, butter, and egg yolks, while forgoing carbohydrates (both complex and the other kind), all vegetation and its derivatives, and water. Pilots work out regularly in hotel gyms, which gives them something to do when laying over in those scary foreign cities.

Q: Are cockpits all backward on Airbus planes the way everything is all backwards on European cars?

No, but the cockpits on Airbus aircraft are located at the back of the airplane, not unlike the bridge of an oil tanker. The new super-ultra jumbo A380 will have two cockpits, one forward and one aft.

Q: Remember the old show “Hawaii Five-0?” I saw it the other night on cable and when they roll the opening credits they always show film of a jet engine intake and of underside of a jet fuselage through a fish-eye lens. My question is: Do you know the name of the hula girl all a dancin ‘n shakin?

No, but she well could be an Aloha Airlines flight attendant. I don’t think Aloha paid very well in those days, and the flight attendants (and a few of the pilots, I’m told) often would dance for tourists in the restaurants of the big hotels. (Aloha was famous for handing out ukuleles to all its passengers.)

Q: I saw a commercial for a charity called Adopt-a-Pilot. It went like this…you call a toll free number and pledge some goop every month to support a pilot and they send you his picture. Next came some photos of pilots and, “For just pennies a day you can provide Manuel in Colombia with a new pair of shoes.” “Your generous help supplied Ibrahim in Mali with a goat.” “Your kind sharing brought a satellite dish and hope to Franco in the Philippines.”

It’s true, but there’s an easier way to help this dole-sponging pilot. Simply send a donation via PayPal, and I’ll email you a pic for the fridge. As you know I could use some shoes.

This article is part of a collection that originally appeared on 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 Patrick has traveled to more than 55 countries and always asks for a window seat. He lives near Boston.