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Malaysia Airlines Update: The World Looks to James Bond

Posted by Patrick Smith March 17, 2014 12:54 PM

UPDATE: March 17, 2014.

HIJACKING, investigators now say. I'll have more to say later, but for now a couple of points and a few clarifications...

First, remember that the long, long history of air piracy did not begin and end with September 11th, 2001, so it's important not to view every hijacking through the crucible of the 9/11 template. People hijack planes for different reason. It may even have been a rogue crewmember.

If indeed this was a hijacking, did the plane land somewhere, as some are suggesting, possibly to be used later as an airborne weapon of some kind, perhaps loaded with a nuclear or biological weapon? I seriously doubt it. I suspect, instead, the plane crashed into the ocean, and will be found there eventually. Remote as some airports are, none are small or unwatched enough to accept a Boeing 777 without it being obvious. And I can't imagine a terrorist cabal incompetent enough to attempt to steal a commercial jetliner full of people, drawing the entire world's attention to their plans. There are hundreds if not thousands of business jets and cargo planes out there, traveling the world more or less anonymously, that would be equally suited to such a scheme.

And some clarity, please, on the topic of transponders. The media is throwing this term around without a full understanding of how the equipment works. For position reporting and traffic sequencing purposes, transponders only work in areas of typical ATC radar coverage. Most of the world, including the oceans, does not have ATC radar coverage. Transponders are relevant to this story only when the missing plane was close to land. Once over the ocean, it didn't matter anyway. Over oceans and non-radar areas, other means are used for position reports and tracking/communicating (satcomm, datalink, etc.), not transponders.

Many readers have asked why the capability exists to switch off a transponder, as apparently happened aboard Malaysia flight 370. In fact very few of a plane’s components are hot-wired to be, as you might say, “always on.” In the interest of safety — namely, fire and electrical system protection — it’s important to have the ability to isolate a piece of equipment, either by a standard switch or, if need be, through a circuit breaker. Also transponders will occasionally malfunction and transmit erroneous or incomplete data, at which point a crew will recycle the device — switching it off, then on — or swap to another unit. Typically at least two transponders are onboard, and you can’t run both simultaneously. Bear in mind too that switching the unit “off” might refer to only one of the various subfunctions, or “modes” — for example, mode C, mode S — responsible for different data.

Similarly, some have wondered why, to the best of anybody's knowledge, no passengers placed cell phone calls to loved ones, as occurred during the 9/11 attacks. Does the absence of call records suggest the passengers had been incapacitated somehow, or that the plane had met a very sudden end? No. Unless an aircraft is flying very low and within range of a cell tower, cellular calling from a plane does not work. Your phone will not pick up a signal. Some airplanes, however, are equipped with special technology that permits calling via satellite or using VHF frequencies to transmit cellular calls. I'm uncertain if Malaysia's 777s have this technology, but even if they do it could have been intentionally turned off, similar to how inflight Wi-Fi, a transponder, and other communications equipment can be switched off.

As for some of the wackier ideas I've been hearing, my favorite is the one that goes like this: Would it be possible for the 777 to have climbed clear out of the atmosphere, so high that "it disintegrated," went into orbit, or otherwise became impossible to track or locate? In normal circumstances I wouldn't burden the rest of you with an answer to such nonsense, except that no fewer than five readers already have asked some version of this question. The answer is no. It is totally impossible for that to happen. At a certain altitude, a plane's engines will no longer provide enough power and the wings will no longer provide enough lift. The plane will no longer be able to sustain flight. All commercial passenger jets have maximum certified cruising altitudes below 50,000 feet or so. And even this altitude isn't always reachable. The maximum altitude at a given time depends on the plane's weight, the air temperature and other factors.





Malaysia Airlines Update: How a Plane Can Disappear

Posted by Patrick Smith March 11, 2014 10:42 AM

UPDATE: March 14, 2014

RIGHT, SO, the blockbuster satellite shots of floating wreckage turned out to be something unrelated -- perhaps a shipping container full of Adidas sneakers or knockoff handbags -- bringing us back to where we were.

The latest wrinkle, meanwhile, are reports that the plane turned west and tracked along a series of navigational waypoints -- intersections of latitude and longitude.  It would be difficult or not impossible for this to happen accidentally.  So, if true, it suggests the airplane was very much under the control of somebody in the cockpit.  How far this tracking continued, and along which path, exactly, is very important.  Does this indicate a takeover of some kind?  Or, was the crew diverting to a nearby airport because of a fire or some other emergency?  Did the plane crash shortly thereafter, or were the pilots overcome by smoke or fumes, at which point plane continued on for a length of time? It'd be interesting to see what some of their divert options were at the point when the jet fell out of contact, and if any of those options are in line with the path supposedly taken.

We need some immediate clarity on this in order to have a better sense of which where to search and of which theories to rule out.  We're still getting conflicting information.  Frictions between the different investigative parties, combined with people's insatiable demand for instant answers, isn't helping.

Neither is the confusing vernacular of commercial aviation. The media is throwing around words like "transponder" and "radar," without really understanding what these things do and don't mean, leading people's theorizing astray.

To that point, several readers have asked why the capability exists to switch off a transponder. In fact very few of a plane’s components are hot-wired to be, as you might say, “always on.” In the interest of safety — namely, fire and electrical system protection — it’s important to have the ability to isolate a piece of equipment, either by a standard switch or, if need be, through a circuit breaker. Also transponders will occasionally malfunction and transmit erroneous or incomplete data, at which point a crew will recycle the device — switching it off, then on — or swap to another unit. Typically at least two transponders are onboard, and you can’t run both simultaneously. Bear in mind too that switching the unit “off” might refer to only one of the various subfunctions, or “modes” — for example, mode C, mode S — responsible for different data.

And transponders are only used for tracking in areas of air traffic control radar coverage. Much of the world -- most of it, actually, when you consider the size of the oceans -- is not covered by ATC radar. Tracking and sequencing in these areas is accomplished through other means. So all of this fixating on transponders isn't necessarily relevant. The transponder stopped working, but apparently so did the rest of the plane's communications equipment. Or did it? This isn't clear.

Power loss. People keep asking "how can a plane simply disappear?" It's an idea that doesn't seem to compute in an age of instant and total connectivity. But consider: if somebody yanks the power cord out of your computer, suddenly all the wonderful immediacy and connectivity of the internet is effectively vanished. Similarly, all of the fancy equipment in a 777's cockpit is only useful if it's actually running. Thus, together with an absence of primary radar over much of the ocean, the idea that a plane can disappear becomes a lot more conceivable.

And if everything did stop functioning, how? Was it intentional sabotage or some bizarre and total power loss? Nobody knows.

Another scenario I've been asked about multiple times: could a rapid loss of cabin pressure rendered the flight crew, and possibly everyone else on the plane as well, incapacitated, at which point the plane deviated from its course before eventually crashing. This is conceivable, yes (though maybe no more so than assorted other scenarios). Depressurizations by themselves are perfectly manageable and almost never fatal (see chapter two of my book for a story about the time it happened to me), and something that all airline crews train for, but only if the crew understands the problem and does what it's supposed to do. See Helios Airways.

And as I was saying in my last update, no matter who or what is to blame, we shouldn't let this latest tragedy overshadow the fact that air travel remains remarkably safe. Worldwide, the trend over the past several years has been one of steady improvement, to the point where last year was the safest in the entire history of commercial aviation. Hopefully their number continues to diminish, but a certain number of accidents will always be inevitable. In some ways, the weirdness of this story speaks to how well we have engineered away what once were the most common causes of crashes. Those that still occur tend to be more mysterious and strange than in decades past (have a look at the year 1985 some time, for an idea of how frequent large-scale air disasters once were).

Meanwhile, it's fascinating how this story has moved from being one about a presumed airplane crash to, really, a mystery story. It's the very missing-ness of the plane that the public finds so captivating. If and when the wreckage is discovered, I have to wonder if suddenly people will stop paying such rapt attention. If so, that's too bad, because the question at hand ought to be what happened on board the jet, not where is the jet.

I say "if and when" because I think people need to reconcile with the possibility that the plane might never be found. I know that sounds absurd to many people in this day and age, where fast and easy answers are taken for granted, but it might happen. I don't expect that to happen, but it could.


Earlier post: March 11, 2014

THE DISAPPEARANCE of Malaysia Airlines flight 370 is getting stranger by the minute.

Still no wreckage, and reports now say that military authorities tracked the missing plane for nearly 500 miles after contact was lost with air traffic control. I hate to say it, and to violate my own anti-speculation rule, but it's looking more and more like something very strange, and possibly nefarious, is behind the disappearance. A hijacking, perhaps, that ultimately ended in disaster somewhere in the South China Sea.

Investigators also say the plane's transponder signal -- a location and altitude signal that is tracked by air traffic controllers on the ground -- disappeared suddenly. This would indicate a sudden loss of power, as would happen during an inflight explosion or breakup, for instance. But if that were the case, why is the wreckage not where it should be, and what's to explain the 500-mile continuation? Was there a complete loss of electric power, rendering the transponder inoperative, after which the aircraft continued on for many miles? Or was the device switched off intentionally during a hijacking?

Unfortunately it could be weeks or even months before we have a solid idea of what happened. And tempting as might be, we should be careful not to speculate too broadly. Almost always the earliest theories turn out to be at best incomplete; at worst totally wrong. Seeing how little evidence we have at the moment, any theories are, for now, just guesses.

All we know for sure is that a plane went missing with no warning or communication from the crew. That the crash (assuming the plane did in fact go down) did not happen during takeoff or landing -- the phases of flight when most accidents occur -- somewhat limits the possibilities, but numerous ones remain. The culprit could be anything from sabotage to some kind of bizarre mechanical problem -- or, as is so common in airline catastrophes, some combination or compounding of human error and/or mechanical malfunction.

Apart from this latest news of the military tracking, let me briefly hit some of the points I've been seeing and hearing in the media…

Lack of a mayday call: No matter an aircraft's location, the crew is always in contact with both air traffic control and company ground staff. When flying in remote locations, however, this is often a more involved process than simply picking up a microphone and talking. Exactly how it's done depends on which equipment the plane is fitted with, and which ATC facility you're working with. Flying over open ocean, relaying even a simple message can be a multi-step process transmitted through FMS datalink or over high frequency radio. In an emergency, communicating with the ground is secondary to dealing with the problems at hand. As the adage goes: you aviate, navigate, and communicate -- in that order. And so, the fact that no messages or distress signals were sent by the crew is not surprising or an indicator of anything specific.

The stolen passports: Reportedly, two of flight 370's passengers were traveling on stolen passports. This has raised eyebrows and incited speculation about a bombing, a possible hijacking attempt or other sabotage. Is this something worth looking at? Absolutely. But so is everything else, from the weather to the cargo manifest to the aircraft's maintenance history. For what it's worth, I suspect there are thousands of people jetting around the world on forged or stolen documents, for a variety of shady reasons, but that doesn't make them terrorist bombers.

Pilot experience: A factor? Maybe, but probably not. The captain of the ill-fated flight had logged close to 20,000 flight hours, a substantial total by any standard. The first officer (copilot), on the other hand, had fewer than three thousand hours to his name. Pilots in North America -- those like me, at any rate, who come up through the civilian ranks --- generally accrue several thousand hours before landing a job with a major airline. We slog our way through the industry in a step-by-step process, building experience along the way. Thus it would be unheard of to find a Boeing 777 copilot with such a small number of hours. In other areas of the world, the process is often different. Pilots are frequently selected through so-called ab-initio programs, hand-picked by carriers at a young age and trained from the start to fly jetliners. We can debate the perils of this method, but I tend to doubt it's anything more than a side note. Plus, flight hours in and of themselves aren't necessarily a good measure of a pilot's skills or performance under pressure. And any pilot, regardless of his or her logbook totals, and regardless of the airline, needs to meet some pretty rigorous training standards before being signed off to fly a 777.

The Boeing 777: I see no reason for the news media to keep reminding us about last summer's Asiana crash in San Francisco, which also involved a 777. That both incidents involved the same aircraft model means little or nothing.

Air France redux? Similarly, there are no good reasons yet to be drawing parallels between Malaysia 370 and Air France flight 447 five years ago. Although both planes disappeared in mid-flight over the ocean, that's hardly a meaningful coincidence when you consider the many possible causes. And rare as airline catastrophes are, I'm sorry to say that the annals of civil aviation contain many mishaps that are similar in general profile, but vastly different in the details.

We will probably learn the full and sad story eventually. But the possibility exists that we won't. Much of what happened to Air France 447 still remains shrouded in mystery. Or consider the crash of a South African Airways 747 into the Indian Ocean back in 1987. Investigators believe that a cargo fire was responsible, but officially the disaster remains unsolved, the wreckage having fallen into thousands of feet of water, the bulk of it never recovered. We don't always get the answers we need.

No matter who or what is to blame, we shouldn't let this latest tragedy overshadow the fact that air travel remains remarkably safe. Worldwide, the trend over the past several years has been one of steady improvement, to the point where last year was the safest in the entire history of commercial aviation. A certain number of accidents, however -- and however unfortunate -- will always be inevitable. Hopefully that number continues to diminish.



Malaysia Airlines was formed in the early 1970s after its predecessor, Malaysia-Singapore Airlines (MSA), split to become Singapore Airlines and Malaysia Airlines. Both carriers are renowned for their outstanding passenger service, and both have excellent safety records. Cabin crews of both airlines wear the iconic, floral pattern “Sarong Kabaya” batik -- a adaptation of the traditional Malay kebaya blouse.

Malaysia Airlines' logo, carried on its tails from the beginning, is an indigenous kite known as the Wau. True story: In 1993 I was in the city of Kota Bahru, a conservative Islamic town in northern Malaysia close to the Thai border, when we saw a group of little kids flying Wau kites. At the time I didn't realize where the airline's logo had come from, but I recognized the pattern immediately. It was one of those airline/culture crossover moments that we aerophiles really savor.






TSA to Expand Precheck Program. A great and terrible idea.

Posted by Patrick Smith February 28, 2014 11:58 AM

February 28, 2014

THE TRANSPORTATION SECURITY ADMINISTRATION has announced it will open up its Precheck program to the public. Precheck-certified travelers enjoy expedited screening procedures, contingent on a background check. Qualified participants are allowed to leave their shoes on, for example (unless they cause the magnetometer to sound), and do not need to remove laptops or liquids from their carry-on bags. To this point, only those passengers pre-approved by airlines were eligible for Precheck enrollment. Now, any airline passenger may apply -- for an $85 fee, renewable every five years.

There are things to like about Precheck, and things to not like.

What's to like is that it helps move TSA away from a one-size-fits-all screening approach, in which every single person who flies is seen as an equally potential threat, toward a more "risk-based" strategy, as the experts call it, in which passengers are effectively profiled into categories, some of whom receive more scrutiny than others. The strategy we've grown accustomed to is simply not a workable one in a country with over two million people passing through airports each day. The risk-based concept, while itself imperfect, is probably the best alternative. Precheck-approved qualified flyers will be freed from the tedium of the screening line.

The thing is, most of that tedium needn't exist in the first place, and that's where the Precheck idea becomes frustrating. Rather than fix what's wrong with current protocols, TSA will now charge you a fee to circumvent them! What a peculiarly American concept, no? The fundamentals of Precheck ought to have been adopted several years ago, and their cost should be included in the existing TSA budget. Airline passengers already are paying enough to TSA in ticket taxes.

We also wonder if TSA's Precheck infrastructure is ready to handle a large-scale influx of passengers. Are we just trading one set of long lines and frustration for another?

TSA Madness


>> Speed up and streamline the screening process for everyone, not just those willing to pay extra. Confiscating hobby tools and toy guns does nothing to make us safer, while wasting extraordinary amounts of time and money. As I've argued in the past, the success of the September 11th attacks had nothing to do with weapons. The hijackers could have used any form of hand-made weapon. What the men exploited wasn't a weakness in security, but a weakness in our mindset, and our understanding of a hijacking, based on decades of precedent. The only weapon that really mattered was the simplest, lowest-tech weapon of all: the element of surprise. Let's move past our self-defeating fixation with the September 11th scheme and stop fussing over harmless pointy objects. The focus should be on explosives. Or, perhaps more importantly, on people who might use explosives, which brings us to the next recommendation...

>> Take a percentage of screeners now working at airport checkpoints and re-train them to work away from public view. When it comes to protecting passengers from criminals and terrorists, screeners do have a role to play, but mostly it is one of last resort. The more critical work belongs to law enforcement and TSA working together backstage, so to speak: inspecting luggage and cargo, reviewing passenger data, and foiling plotters before they reach the airport.

>> Deploy more TSA staff overseas -- in the Middle East, Africa, Asia and South America -- where they can assist local security in the protection of US-bound aircraft. It is much more probable that a bomb or other attack would originate from overseas, yet our focus has been focused domestically. Again, this seems to be part of our September 11th hangover. We've got high-tech equipment and body scanners at regional airports in Ohio, but not in many cities around the world from where an attack is far likelier to emanate. Does anybody remember the comedy of errors that allowed the so-called "Underwear Bomber" to make his way onto a Detroit-bound Northwest Airlines flight out of Amsterdam? Here was a Nigerian citizen who'd spent time in Yemen, traveling on a one-way ticket, and whose own father had tried to warn American authorities about him. And here we are confiscating plastic squirt-guns from four year-old kids at regional airports in Utah. The trick is getting foreign government to allow American security personnel to operate at their airports, but certainly some level of this is possible. Already in many countries US carriers hire third-party contractors to assist with passenger and luggage screening.







Turbulent Times

Posted by Patrick Smith February 21, 2014 02:45 PM



February 21, 2014

TURBULENCE WAS BIG NEWS this week after a pair of aircraft -- one belonging to United Airlines, the other to Cathay Pacific -- had run-ins with unusually rough conditions, resulting in several injuries and lots and lots of hysterical news coverage.

Turbulence is far and away the number one concern of nervous flyers, and incidents like these do nothing to make them more comfortable. If you're among those seeking reassurance, please refer to my earlier essay on the topic, a version of which also appears in chapter two of the new book. Many anxious passengers have found this discussion helpful...


In the meantime I'll go ahead and reiterate some bullet points:

>> First and foremost, turbulence is, for lack of a better term, normal. Every flight, every day, will encounter some degree of rough air, be it a few light burbles or a more pronounced and consistent chop that sometimes gets your coffee spilling and the plates rattling in the galley. From a pilot's perspective, garden-variety turbulence is seen as a comfort and convenience issue, not a safety issue per se. It's annoying, but it is not dangerous.

>> In rare circumstances, however, it's worse, to the point where a plane's occupants can be injured or, even more uncommonly, aircraft components can be damaged. How rare? Put it this way, the type of encounter that United and Cathay ran into is the sort of thing even the most frequent flyer will not experience in a lifetime. And of the small number of passengers injured each year, the vast majority of them are people who did not have their seat belts on when they should have.

>> Can turbulence occur unexpectedly -- or, as the news people have been embellishing it, "out of nowhere?" Yes. Pilots receive weather and turbulence forecasts prior to flight; once aloft we get periodic updates from our dispatchers and meteorologists on the ground. We have weather radar in the cockpit, as well as our eyes to see and avoid the worst weather. And perhaps most helpful of all, we receive real-time reports from nearby aircraft. With all of these tools at our disposal, we have a pretty good idea of the where, when, and how bad of the bumps. But every so often they happen without warning. Almost always it's a mild nuisance, but the lesson here is to always have your belt fastened, even when conditions are smooth.

>> Do pilots keep their belts fastened in the cockpit? Yes, always. Is this one of those things that, well, hey, we sometimes ignore and get lackadaisical over? No, and neither should you.

>> For what it's worth, thinking back over the entire history of modern commercial aviation, I cannot recall a single jetliner crash caused by turbulence, strictly speaking. Maybe there have been one or two, but airplanes are engineered to withstand an extreme amount of stress, and the amount of turbulence required to, for instance, tear off a wing, is far beyond anything you'll ever experience.

>> During turbulence, the pilots are not fighting the controls. Planes are designed with what we call positive stability, meaning that when nudged from their original point in space, by their nature they wish to return there. The best way of handling rough air is to effectively ride it out, hands-off. (Some autopilots have a turbulence mode that de-sensitizes the system, to avoid over-controlling.) It can be uncomfortable, but the jet is not going to flip upside down.

>> Be wary of analogies. You might hear somebody compare turbulence to "driving over a rough road," or to "a ship in rough seas." I don't like these comparisons because potholes routinely pop tires, break axles and ruin suspensions, while ships can be capsized or swamped. There are no accurate equivalents in the air.

>> Be wary of passenger accounts in news stories. Not to insult anyone's powers of observation, but people have a terrible habit of misinterpreting and exaggerating the sensations of flight, particularly if they're scared. Even in considerably bumpy air -- what a pilot might call "moderate turbulence," a plane is seldom displaced in altitude by more than 20 feet, and usually less. Passengers might feel the plane "plummeting" or "diving" -- words the media can't get enough of -- when in fact it is hardly moving.

>> Will climate change increase the number of severe turbulence encounters? Possibly, but in the meantime remember there are also more airplanes flying than ever before. The worldwide jetliner fleet has more than doubled in the past twenty years, and continues to grow. It stands to reason that as the number of flights goes up, the number of incidents will also go up, regardless of changes in the weather.

Hopefully that helps. Once again, CLICK HERE FOR THE FULL DISCUSSION.

Just the other day I was asked by a passenger whether Boston was more prone to turbulence than other areas. "Whenever I take off or land at Logan," he said, "the plane seems to be bumping and banging all over the place."

There's some truth to this in that gusty winds are themselves a form of turbulence, and Boston is a very windy city. So yes, takeoffs and landings at Logan might be, on average, a little more squirrelly than elsewhere. But that does not meant they are always bumpy, and it certainly doesn't mean they're unsafe.

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Why Flying and Snowstorms Don't Mix

Posted by Patrick Smith February 13, 2014 12:06 PM

Everything You Need to Know About Icing, Deicing, and the Travails of Winter Flying.


Photo by the author: a deicing cab looms out of the mist at Logan Airport.

AS ANOTHER WINTER STORM bears down, about the last place you'd want to be is headed out to the airport. Delays and cancellations pile up, causing a ripple effect clear across the country and beyond.

What is it, exactly, about winter weather that wreaks such havoc for air travel?

Low visibilities, strong crosswinds, slick runways, potential icing -- all of these things spell trouble for pilots, and cause air traffic backlogs. But, as a rule, they aren't phenomenon that airplanes or their crews can't handle. Generally, it's not the in-the-air aspects of a snowstorm that cause chaos, it's the on-the-ground aspects: Runways and taxiways need to be plowed and treated, while tarmac logistics go to hell as snow and ice accumulate. Luggage and cargo handling, fueling -- everything slows to a crawl as personnel and ground equipment get bogged down in the slush.

Planes, meanwhile, cannot take off with ice or snow adhering to the wings. Parked at the terminal, an aircraft collects precipitation the way your car does -- via snowfall, sleet, freezing rain or frost. (Thanks to supercooled fuel in the wings, frost can form insidiously even with temps above freezing.) The delicious-looking spray (apricot-strawberry) used to remove it is a heated combination of propylene glycol alcohol and water. It melts away existing snow or ice, and prevents the buildup of more. Different fluid mixtures, varying in temperature and viscosity, are applied for different conditions.

While it seems pretty casual to the passenger, the spraying procedure is actually a regimented, step-by-step process. Procedures vary depending on the type of fluid used, ambient temperature, plus the rate and type of precipitation. The airplane needs to be configured a certain way, and pilots stay in contact with the deicing coordinator. (The deicing guide in my manual is about 20 pages long, with a series of graphs and charts.) We keep track of something called "holdover time" to help determine if and when a second round of deicing is necessary.

With fluid costing upwards of $5 per gallon, airlines loathe snowstorms almost as much as strikes, wars, and recessions. When handling and storage costs are considered, relieving a single jet of unwanted winter white can cost tens of thousands of dollars.

It is money well spent, however, because ice on an airplane is potentially hazardous, especially when adhering to the wings. The monster isn't the weight of the frozen material, but the way it disrupts airflow over and around a wing's carefully sculpted contours, robbing a plane of lift.

Icing also can occur during flight. Under the right combination moisture and temperature, it can form along the leading edges of the wings and tail, along engine intakes and propeller blades, as well as on windscreens, probes, and various other surfaces. Left unchecked, heavy icing can damage engines, throw propeller assemblies off balance, and, just as it does on the ground, steal away precious lift. Planes are most susceptible during takeoff and landing, when speed is slowest and the lift margins already slim.

There have been several ice-related accidents over the years. In 1991, USAir jet crashed at La Guardia after attempting takeoff with inadequately deiced wings. There was also the infamous crash of Air Florida flight 90 in Washington, DC, in 1982, when in addition to buildup on the wings, frozen-over probes gave a faulty, less-than-actual thrust reading after the crew failed to run the engine anti-ice system. And in 1994, sixty-eight people died in what remains the deadliest-ever mishap involving a regional aircraft -- the crash of American Eagle flight 4184 The plane, an ATR-72 turboprop, had made several circuits of a holding pattern in freezing rain, when suddenly it was thrown into an uncontrollable roll and plummeted from the sky, disintegrating in a soybean field near the town of Roselawn, Indiana. A design flaw in the ATR's wing deicing system was later discovered, and corrected.

The good news is that the most recent of those accidents was a long time ago. Those were tough lessons to learn, but airliner crashes brought on by icing have become exceptionally rare. Most inflight ice encounters are brief and routine, posing little if any danger; preflight deicing is carefully monitored, and all modern commercial aircraft are equipped with sophisticated deicing equipment for the rare times when things become more serious. Propeller blades, probes and windscreens are kept clear electrically; engine intakes and wing leading edges are heated using air bled from the engines, or are deiced through a series of pneumatically inflated “boots” that break away any accumulation. These systems use redundant sources and are separated into independently operating zones to keep any one failure from affecting the entire plane.

Is it just me, though, or have winter storm delays become worse than they used to be? When I was a kid, a few inches of snow meant almost nothing. By comparison, nowadays, two inches of snow at Logan and the entire airport seems to go bonkers. What's happened, maybe, is that our snow removal techniques haven't kept up with the growth in air traffic. There are roughly twice as many planes flying as there were a quarter century ago, while our airport and air traffic control infrastructures have hardly changed. In the 1980s, closing a runway for 35 minutes so it could be cleared and treated had comparatively mild repercussions. Today literally hundreds of flights can be affected.

And crews don't enjoy the chaos any more than passengers do. Airline crews often live in cities far from their crew bases, and must fly in to catch their assignments. With a storm looming, that means commuting in many hours early -- sometimes a day or more ahead of schedule. Or, on the back end, we can find ourselves unable to get home again until things return to normal.

Once in a while, though, the timing works to our advantage...

For example, how do you turn one pilot's scheduled 24-hour layover in Brussels into a five-day European vacation? Easy, just send a snow hurricane roaring through the Northeast corridor.

I should call myself lucky, I guess. A couple of winters ago, while the rest of you were stranded on tarmacs, sleeping under benches and sucking on discarded Chick-fil-A wrappers, I was sipping on hot chocolate and hopping on the train up to Ghent for a view of the newly restored Van Eyck altarpiece at St. Bavo's Cathedral.

Not to rub it in or anything.


Patrick Smith is an airline pilot and the host of

Portions of this story ran originally on the website Salon, and are excerpted from the author's book, COCKPIT CONFIDENTIAL: EVERYTHING YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT AIR TRAVEL

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Pilots and Copilots. Who are These Mysterious People?

Posted by Patrick Smith February 11, 2014 06:37 PM




Dear Associated Press (and most other media outlets):

I wish you would pay closer attention to use of the phrase "the pilot" in your stories. This is one of those commonly repeated tics that always gets my goat, resulting in pedantic, vaguely neurotic rants like this one.

Most recently we have Monday's story about the hijacked -- if that's the right word -- Ethiopian Airlines 767. The article by reporter John Heilprin was headlined COPILOT HIJACKS ETHIOPIAN PLANE, and begins like this:

"Locking the pilot out of the cockpit, an Ethiopian Airlines copilot hijacked a plane bound for Italy on Monday and diverted it to Geneva, where he asked for asylum."

A week or so earlier we had the tale of the hapless and apparently quite inebriated Ukrainian fellow who attempted to hijack a Turkish jetliner to Sochi, Russia. The crew of the 737 fooled the man into thinking they were landing in Sochi, when it fact they'd diverted to Istanbul, where he was taken into custody.

I say "the crew," but the news stories kept making reference to "the pilot," which is where I have the problem.

Associated Press: "The pilot tricked him and landed in Istanbul instead." New York Times: "The pilot then alerted the authorities in Turkey." My next door neighbor: "That was one smart pilot."

Except, of course, there were two pilots. There were two pilots in the Turkish plane, and two pilots in the Ethiopian plane. There is always a minimum of two pilots in a jetliner cockpit -- a captain and first officer -- and both of these individuals are fully qualified to operate the aircraft.

The first officer is known colloquially as the copilot. But a copilot is not an apprentice; he or she shares flying duties with the captain more or less equally. The captain is officially in charge, and earns a larger paycheck to accompany that responsibility, but both are capable of flying the aircraft -- copilots perform just as many takeoffs and landings as captains do -- and both are part of the decision-making process.

With respect to reporter Heilprin's story about the Ethiopian plane, use of the term "pilot" to describe the captain suggests the first officer was, by definition, something other than -- and presumably less than -- an actual pilot, and this is simply false. The stories from Turkey don't mention a second pilot at all.

Journalists take note. I'm not sure if the AP has a style guide for these things, but normally this is nothing a simple "s" can't fix: "the pilots." Alternately you could say "the cockpit crew."

Or, if a differentiation is needed, I'd recommend use the terms "captain" and "first officer." Just beware that either pilot may be at the controls during a particular incident. In fact, while protocols are different carrier to carrier, it's not unusual during emergencies or other abnormal situations, for the captain to delegate hands-on flying duties to the copilot, so that the captain can concentrate on communications, troubleshooting, coordinating the checklists, etc.

Do I seem sensitive about this? That's because I'm a copilot.

A copilot becomes a captain not by virtue of skill or experience, incidentally, but rather when his or her seniority standing allows it. And not every copilot wants become a captain right away. Airline seniority bidding is a complicated thing, but suffice it to say a pilot can often have a more comfortable quality of life -- salary, aircraft assignment, schedule and choice of destinations -- as a senior copilot than as a junior captain. Thus it's not terribly uncommon for the copilot to be older and more experienced than the captain sitting next to him.

It varies country to country, airline to airline, but in the U.S., captains wear four stripes on their sleeves and epaulets; copilots wear three.

There used to a third station occupied by the second officer, also known as the flight engineer. I spent four years as a flight engineer on a cargo jet in the mid-1990s. Once upon a time planes also carried navigators. The last known navigator in these parts was the old Howard Borden character from the "Bob Newhart Show."

Long-haul flights, meanwhile, carry augmented crews that work in shifts.

And lastly, getting back to the hijacking in Turkey for a minute...

Clever as it might seem, that Istanbul-as-Sochi trick isn't new. Such a ruse dates at least to the 1970s, when hijackings were very common. More than one Eastern or Pan Am crew hoodwinked a skyjacker into thinking Miami was Havana.


Epaulets photo by the author. A free book goes to the first person who can identify the carrier those wings once belonged to. Send your guesses to


Patrick Smith is the host of He was voted one of the 25 Best Bloggers of 2013 by TIME magazine. His new book is COCKPIT CONFIDENTIAL: EVERYTHING YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT AIR TRAVEL


A Somerville Tree Saga: Redefining Private Property

Posted by Patrick Smith January 20, 2014 06:32 PM


Time out.

This time around, I don't want to talk about airlines, airports or airplanes.

I want to talk about trees.

That's right, trees. Specifically, I want to talk about the decision made by a Somerville neighbor of mine to fell an old, beautiful, and perfectly healthy tree because it was "in the way" of his backyard improvement project -- in the process adversely affecting the quality of life for me and several of my neighbors.

Is it crazy or un-American to suggest that, at a certain point, a tree is no longer one person's private property per se, and belongs to the community? And at that point, should the property owner be restricted as to what he or she may do with said tree?

I first started asking these questions seven or eight years ago, when the person who owns the house across the street from me decided to chop down the large healthy tree in his front yard.  I really liked that tree.  In addition to being attractive in and of itself, it did the whole neighborhood a service by concealing the front facade of the guy's house, which -- there's no polite way of putting this -- is one of the ugliest and tackiest house on the block.  It also hid the unsightly tangle of power lines and cables that are strung across the street.

He cut the entire thing down because, as it was explained to me by another neighbor, it was "attracting squirrels" and "dropping too many leaves."

Then, this past spring, the people who live next door decided to chop down one of their trees. I liked this tree because its canopy reached over into our driveway and yard, providing shade, attracting birds (we have a very active feeder) and drawing attention away from our rather unattractive garage.

They cut it down because it was "messy."

Again I was angry, but what saved me from all-out rage was the fact that directly behind this tree, in the next yard over, diagonal to mine and belonging to a man on Appleton Street, was the Big Tree.  

The Appleton Street tree must have been close to a hundred years-old, and had one of those great, wide canopies that was just beautiful to look at.  It gave definition to the entire neighborhood, and the birds and squirrels loved it. Removal of the smaller tree over the garage was perhaps unfortunate, but so long as the Big Tree was still there, things weren't too terribly changed.  

Until this past weekend, that is, when I woke to the sound of chainsaws. The guy on Appleton decided it was time for the Big Tree to go.  

In a matter of a few hours' work, the entire thing was gone.  

The tree was not sick; the homeowner destroyed it, I learned second-hand, because it was "in the way" of a work-shed he wants to build in his yard.

The whole aesthetic of the block now is changed -- for the worse. Suddenly when I look out the back of my house to where this fantastic tree used to be, there's just empty sky and the rear facades of the neighbors' houses.  The lighting, view, the feel... everything is different.  

And he had every right to do this, apparently, which surprises me. How, in what is supposed to be such a progressive-thinking city with such a strong sense of community, can there be no zoning rules or other restrictions when it comes to cutting down trees?  

I complained to Rebekah Gewirtz, the alderperson for the Somerville ward in which I live. Gewirtz explained that several years ago she was able to put through a tree preservation ordinance protecting shade trees -- but the rules cover only those on public property.

"It was difficult to pass at the time and there was push back from other aldermen," Gewirtz says. "At one point during the deliberations I suggested we also broaden the ordinance to cover healthy shade tress on private property. This idea at the time was dismissed out of hand by several of my colleagues who felt the city shouldn't tell private owners what to do with trees on their property."

So, ultimately this is a debate about private property. But what is private property?

I am all for the rights of property owners to do more or less as they please -- to a point. And that point is when an owner's decision directly and adversely impacts the quality of life of those around him. Quality of life is subjective, of course, but in this case criteria ought to include everything from the view out of peoples' windows, to the ecological health of the neighborhood, to the potential impact on property values. When that point is reached, there needs at least to be a discussion.

Last summer, my landlord rebuilt the small, two-story rear porch of our house. Doing so required him to secure a permit, and mandated strict adherence to all sorts of building code specs: railing height, electricity access, lighting, and so on. Just getting the post-holes dug to what the city deemed acceptable depth became a back-and-forth of requests and denials between my landlord and City Hall before finally he was allowed to proceed.

Remodeling a rear porch is a bureaucratic headache that takes several days to sort out. But a guy can, at his whim, alter the look and feel of a whole neighborhood, with no accountability at all? How do the property rights advocates who dismissed Gewirtz's proposal "out of hand" square with that (other than to invoke the expected clause that anything in the name of safety is fair game and tops all other concerns)?

And I sense the opposing arguments on the way. Private property is private property, end of story. But are you sure? if a homeowner chooses to build a giant, 75-foot tall fluorescent pink sculpture in his yard, is that okay, even if his four nearest neighbors' living rooms are each less than fifty feet away?

(And keep in mind the closeness of properties here in Somerville -- the most densely populated city in America. Maybe, if you're in the suburbs or further from the city, you can't quite relate to this debate, but for some of us urbanites, even a single tree makes a gigantic difference in the way a property looks and feels.)

I admit to having a soft spot for trees. I'm known to vacation in tropical rainforests and my Christmas tree -- the same one every year -- is a living, repurposed Norfolk pine that I saved from somebody's curbside trash pile. But this isn't about the irrational or emotional inclinations of a "tree-hugger," or about the pushing of some environmentalist agenda on others. It's about common sense, decency, and basic respect for both nature and community.

I think. Perhaps I'm wrong. In other words, a person has the right to do whatever he or she wishes, so long as it doesn't infringe on the rights of somebody else. And unfortunately, nobody has the legal right to a view.

Sadly, whatever the answer, you can't simply put back a century-old tree. The one behind Appleton Street is gone forever, and the neighborhood cannot undo that loss.


Follow-up note from the author:

Comments to this story seem to be harping on the fact that I'm a renter and not an owner; that neither property involved in this story belongs to me. I fail to see how or why that matters in the greater context of my argument. It feels to me like a loophole-ish way of invalidating my points. - PS


Chat Wednesday at 11 a.m. with Ask the Pilot blogger Patrick Smith

Posted by Angela Nelson, Staff January 8, 2014 06:40 AM

Freezing Temperatures are Wreaking Havoc at the Airport. What Exactly is Going on?

Posted by Patrick Smith January 7, 2014 07:02 PM

So, the recent cold snap has the airlines in a tizzy.

JetBlue, Boston's largest carrier, grounded hundreds of flights in and out of the busy Northeast corridor on Monday and Tuesday, at one point entirely shutting down its operations at JFK and Logan. Other airlines too have grounded flights, stranding thousands of passengers at airports in Boston, New York, Toronto, Chicago and elsewhere, as unusually cold temperatures, spawned by something meteorologists call a "polar vortex," roars across the country.

But the cold weather is only part of what's been happening. The cancellations and delays are the result of an unusual confluence of events -- a perfect storm if you will (much as I hate that expression), of four separate things:

1. Miserably cold temperatures.

2. Ice and snow.

3. The hectic holiday travel rush.

4. The implementation of new FAA regulations governing flight and duty time restrictions for pilots.

Let's take that last one first. A new body of rules, intended to combat fatigue, went into effect on January 1, limiting the number of hours flight crews can remain aloft or on duty. Sure, the airline industry had more than a year to prepare for this implementation, but bear in mind the vastness of a major carrier's operations, with thousands of pilots operating thousands of flights each day. Those are a lot of moving parts, and the revised rules are quite complicated, with changes to flight time restrictions, duty time restrictions, minimum layover times, and so on (always count on the FAA to over-engineer a solution). One airline's informational packet, handed out to crews to assist them in deciphering and working with the changes, is over fifty pages long. The learning curve will be steep. Despite the lead-up time, it was impossible to know for sure how the new regulations would affect things -- particularly when, on the very first weekend they took effect, stormy and freezing weather began pummeling some of the nation's busiest airports.

Ice and snow need to be dealt with regardless of the temperature. Aircraft need to be free of contamination, and runways and taxiways need to be clear. (For everything you never needed to know about icing and deicing, see chapter three of my book.) But while ice and snow were a problem over the weekend, the trouble over the past few days has been the cold. How is it that planes are being grounded simply from cold? After all, it's about 60 degrees below zero at 39,000 feet. Why would sub-freezing temperatures prevent a plane from flying?

Well they wouldn't. If anything, airplanes perform better in cold weather than in hot weather. Some planes do have limits that prohibit operation when ground temperatures fall below a certain point (the complications here involve starting the engines, cold-soaked oil and such), but that's not the issue here. This isn't about a plane's ability to fly. It's about the weather's impact on the support infrastructure. That is, airport personnel and the ground support equipment -- the various people, vehicles and machinery that go into supporting an airline's operation. You can't load and unload the luggage, fuel the tanks or cater the cabins if the baggage carts and belt-loaders aren't working, the trucks aren't starting, and employees are so cold they can hardly move.

Meanwhile, airlines are becoming more and more conservative when bad weather looms, preemptively readjusting their schedules before the brunt of any storm actually move in. This is highly unfortunate if you're one of the many people whose flight is delayed or canceled, and you find yourself sleeping under a bench in the terminal, but things would likely be a lot worse, for an even greater number of people, had the airline attempted to push through. And remember that planes don't simply fly back and forth between the same two cities; what happens in Boston or New York affects flights, and their passengers, further down the chain, in cities across the nation and the world. Drawing down the operation here helps protect those passengers elsewhere.

Like so much in commercial aviation, it's never as simple as it seems. A crisis, an accident -- almost always it's the result of multiple factors; a compounding of things gone wrong.



American Airlines to Keep New Livery. Was the Election Rigged?

Posted by Patrick Smith January 6, 2014 05:47 PM




LAST MARCH, American Airlines unveiled its first major identity change in forty-plus years. The news broke as the carrier prepared to emerge from bankruptcy and prepared for its merger with US Airways.

American had bucked more than three decades of design fads. It's distinctive silver skin, tricolor stripe and gothic "AA" logo dated back to the days of the its 707 "Astrojets." Heck, my first ever airplane ride, in 1974, was on an American 727 decked out in the very same paintjob that, until last year, was American's signature.

It was never anything beautiful, but what distinguished it was the logo -- the famous "AA," its red and blue letters bisected by the proud, cross-winged eagle. This was one of the last true icons of airline branding left in the world. Created by Massimo Vignelli in 1967, it was everything a logo should be: elegantly simple, dignified, and instantly recognizable.


The redesign features a U.S. flag motif tail, a faux-silver fuselage, and an entirely new logo that is so unspeakably ugly that it nearly brings tears to my eyes.

The logo -- the trademark, the company emblem, to be reproduced on everything from stationery to boarding passes -- is the heart of an airline's graphic identity, around which everything else revolves. It has been said that the true test of a logo is this: can it be remembered and sketched, freehand and with reasonable accuracy, by a young child? The Pan Am globe, the Lufthansa crane, the Delta tricorn, Air New Zealand's "Koru" and many others meet this criterion beautifully. As did the AA emblem. Maybe they need a tweaking or two over time, but the template of such logos -- the really good ones -- remains essentially timeless. American Airlines had one of the really good ones. And if you've got something like that, you dispense with it at your peril.

I was at Kennedy Airport recently and had the opportunity to view several American Airlines jets -- some in the old paintjob, others in the new one. I'm sorry, but there was nothing old or anachronistic looking about the AA emblem. It did not need to be "refreshed," or "modernized," as some have suggested. Particularly if you're replacing it with something so utterly vapid. What exactly is that new, Greyhound Bus-esque logo? It looks like a linoleum knife poking through a shower curtain. If it's not the worst corporate trademark the airline business has ever seen, I don't know what is. I can't imagine a kid with crayons trying to sketch it. Why would anybody want to? It evokes nothing, it says nothing, it means nothing. It gives American Airlines all the look and feel of a bank or a credit card company. I cannot believe how awful a mark this is, and how anybody signed off on it I'll never understand.

AA New Logo.jpg

Its uglier, even, than the hideous Horus head of the new EgyptAir. It's uglier, even, than the "rising splotch" that Japan Airlines came up with a few years back to replace its beautiful tsurumaru -- the circular, red and white crane/Rising Sun it had used since 1960 (and which, by the way, JAL has wisely resurrected).

I'm hardly the only person put off by the new branding. It was controversial from the start, and among those who hated it most were thousands of American's own employees. Finally, last month, CEO Doug Parker put things to a vote, allowing the carrier's employees to choose between the new look, or a quasi-retro design that incorporated both the old and new schemes.


By a margin of about 2,000 votes, of some 60,000 cast, workers chose to stay with the new look.

Parker says he is happy about the result. But if he got what he wanted, that's probably because the vote was effectively rigged. Parker won by making the airplane's tail the focus of the vote. This misses the point, because like it or hate it, the piano key tail isn't really the problem. It's the logo that's the problem. Neither of the choices dealt with the linoleum knife. In fact Parker's retro design would have kept both logos in use -- a ridiculous, half-baked appeasement that would have left the plane looking manic and jumbled. A company can't have two logos.

The smarter compromise would have been, and should have been, to keep the new tail, but dispense immediately with the linoleum knife and put the "AA" on the fuselage. Had this option been put to a vote, I suspect it would have won by a healthy margin.


To be clear, I'm not arguing that American didn't need a spruce-up. The striping and typeface were overdue for a revision, and livery changes are all but mandatory, it seems, when airlines exit bankruptcy. But I can live with the tail and with the faux-silver body paint. Doing away with the AA symbol, however, was a tragic and unspeakably bad call.

Each time one of American's newly painted planes taxis past me, I wince.


By the way, the AA wasn't the only iconic logo to bite the dust recently. Spain's Iberia Airlines just unveiled a new look as well, and has parted ways with its well-known "IB" symbol.

There has been an "IB" of one form or another atop the tails of Iberia's jets since at least the '60s. My favorite version, once seen on the carrier's DC-8's and earliest 747s, had the letters set inside a crosshatched globe, with the "IBERIA" name spelled out below. It was a handsome design, understated but unmistakable.

There's no denying Iberia needed a revision. It's latest colors and stripes were cluttered and overwrought. But their replacement is bland and generic, and the IB is gone entirely. Like American, they've turned to some banal abstraction instead.

And like too many other liveries of the last fifteen years, the new Iberia centers on a supposed "in motion" theme, featuring yet another, as it has been called, Generic Meaningless Swoosh Thing.

Somewhere is a vending machine. Airline executives drop in a million dollars worth of consulting coins, and out pops the latest, curvy-swervy variant of the GMST. These arcs and curves are meant to be "sophisticated." They suggest "movement" and energy and who the hell knows what else. But all they really do is make your airline indistinguishable from everybody else's. Consider the latest looks of Avianca, El Al, TACA, that of Indonesian carrier Garuda, just for starters. With very few exceptions (Thai Airways and Aeromexico), these designs are so dismally uninspired that it's hard to look at them without yawning.



Patrick Smith's new book is COCKPIT CONFIDENTIAL: Everything You Need to Know About Air Travel. Questions, Answers and Reflections

Book with Passport.jpg


An Ask the Pilot Christmas (and the worst holiday song of all time)

Posted by Patrick Smith December 26, 2013 06:29 PM

Memories of holidays aloft.
Plus, the worst Christmas song of all time.


I could and perhaps should note that December 21st marked the 25th anniversary of the Pan Am 103 bombing over Lockerbie, but let's not fixate on that. This is the busiest travel weekend of the year, and the last thing people want to be thinking about is disaster.

According to the International Air Transport Association (IATA), roughly 750 billion people are expected to fly between now and New Year's Eve, 96 percent of them connecting through Atlanta.

In fact I don’t know how many people are projected to fly. I haven't been listening. In any case, it's the same basic story every year: the trade groups put out their predictions, and much is made as to whether slightly more, or slightly fewer people will fly than the previous year. Does the total really matter to the typical traveler? All you need to know is that airports will be crowded and flights especially full. Any tips I might offer are simple common sense: leave early, and remember that TSA considers fruitcakes to be hazardous materials. (No joke: the density of certain baked goods causes them to appear suspicious on the x-ray scanners, slowing down the security line.)

Normally I work over the holidays. As a bottom-feeder on my airline's seniority list, it's an opportunity to score one of those higher-quality layovers that are normally out of reach. Other pilots want to be home with their kids or watching football, and so I've been able to spend Christmas in Egypt, the Fourth of July in Belgium, New Year's Eve in Barcelona and Thanksgiving in Cape Town.

That's how it works at an airline: every month you put in your preferences: where you'd like to fly, which days you'd like to be off, which insufferable captains you hope to avoid, and so on. There are separate bids at each base, for each aircraft type and for each seat – i.e. captain and first officer. The award process then begins with the most senior pilot in your category and works its way down. Each pilot's "line," as our months are called, is filled with trips until reaching a certain number of pay-hours. When it finally gets to the dregs, lower-rung pilots have their pick of the scraps.

Eventually the process reaches a point when there are no more published trips to give out. Those pilots left over -- the bottom ten or fifteen percent -- are assigned to what's called reserve. A reserve pilot has designated days off, and receives a flat minimum pay rate for the month, but his or her workdays, given out in multiple-day blocks, are a blank slate. The reserve pilot is on call, and needs to be within a stipulated number of hours from the airport -- anywhere from two to twelve, usually, and it can change day to day. When somebody gets sick, or is trapped in Chicago because of a snowstorm, the reserve pilot goes to work. The phone might ring at 2 a.m., and you're on way to Sweden or Brazil -- or to Omaha or Dallas.

Carriers outside the United States do it slightly differently. Seniority isn't quite the all-powerful currency that it is here, and schedules tend to be more equitable (or, um, more “socialist,” as I've heard it argued).

I’ve been on and off reserve over the past couple of years. It's an unpredictable way to live. Among the challenges is learning how to pack. What to put in the suitcase when you don't know if your next destination will be warm and tropical or freezing cold? (Answer: everything.)

Looking back, holiday flying has provided me a few of those sentimental oddities a pilot files away in his mental logbook:

One of my favorite memories dates all the way back to Thanksgiving, 1993. I was captain of a Dash-8 turboprop flying from Boston to New Brunswick, Canada, and my first officer was the always cheerful and gregarious Kathy Martin. (Kathy, who also appears in my "Right Seat" essay, was one of three pilots I've known who had been flight attendants at an earlier point in their careers.) There were no meal services on our Dash-8s, but Kathy brought a cooler from home, packed with food: huge turkey sandwiches, a whole blueberry pie and tubs of mashed potatoes. We assembled the plates and containers across the folded-down jumpseat. The pie we passed to the flight attendant, who handed out slices to passengers.

Quite a contrast to Thanksgiving Day in 1999, when I was working a cargo flight to Brussels. It was custom on Thanksgiving to stock the galley with a special holiday meal, and the three of us were hungry and much looking forward to it. The trouble was, the caterers forgot to bring the food. By the time we noticed, we were only minutes from departure and they had split for the day. I thought I was going to cry when I opened the door and saw only a can of Diet Sprite and a matchbook-size packet of Tillamook cheese.

The best we could do was get one of the guys upstairs to drive out to McDonald's. He came back with three big bags of burgers and fries, tossing them up to us just as they were pulling the stairs away. Who eats fast food on Thanksgiving? Pilots in a pinch.

On New Year's Eve, 2010, I was flying over the city of Bamako, Mali, in West Africa. Fireworks explode only a few hundred feet from the ground, but enough of them together provide a unique spectacle viewable from a jetliner. At the stroke of midnight, the city erupted in a storm of tiny explosions. The sky was lit by literally tens of thousands of small incendiaries -- white flashes everywhere, like the sea of flashbulbs you sometimes see at sporting events. From high above, this huge celebration made Bamako look like a war zone.

Not that I work every holiday. I've spent a number of them traveling on vacation.

And with that in mind, here's some advice:

Do not, ever, make the mistake that I once made and attempt to enjoy Christmas at a small hotel in Ghana called the Hans Cottage "Botel", located on a lagoon just outside the city of Cape Coast. They love their Christmas music at the Hans Botel, and the compound is rigged end-to-end with speakers that blare it around the clock.

Although you can count among those people able to tolerate Christmas music -- in moderation, in context, and so long as it isn't Sufjan Stevens -- there is one blood-curdling exception. That exception is the song, "Little Drummer Boy," which is without argument the most painful piece of music ever written (worse even than Grant Hart's "You're a Soldier" from the final Husker Du album). It was that way before Joan Jett or David Bowie got hold of it.

It's a traumatic enough song in any rendition. And at the Hans Cottage Botel they have chosen to make it the only -- only! -- song on their Christmastime tape loop. Over and over it plays, ceaselessly, day and night. I'm not sure who the artist is, but it's an especially treacly version with lots of high notes to set one's skull ringing.

"Ba-ruppa-pum-pum;ruppa-pum-pum..." as I hear it today and forever, that stammering chorus is like the thump-thump of chopper blades in the wounded mind of a Vietnam vet who Can't Forget What He Saw. There I am, pinned down at the Botel bar, jittery and covered in sweat, my nails clattering against a bottle of Star lager while the infernal Drummer Boy warbles into the buggy air.

"Barkeep!" I grab Kwame by the wrist. "For the love of god, man, can't somebody make it stop?"

Kwame just smiles. "So lovely, yes."


A 2011 version of this article ran originally ran on the website SALON


Cell Phones on Planes? Let's Hope Not.

Posted by Patrick Smith December 4, 2013 08:05 PM

So, the FCC has announced it will consider revising its position on the use of cellular phones on U.S. airline flights, potentially clearing the way for onboard calling.

The first thing everybody asks about is safety. Over the years, there has been anecdotal evidence of cellular phones interfering with cockpit equipment, but most of these reports were several years ago, involving older aircraft, and nothing could ever be proven. I don’t feel that things would be moving in this direction if the regulators didn’t feel it was safe.

Ultimately, however, this becomes a social, not a technological issue. In other words, how do passengers feel about being confined in a cabin with dozens of other people all chatting away simultaneously? The idea introduces yet another stress factor into the air travel experience—an experience that for many is stressful enough already.

It’s ironic, because to me, when I fly as a passenger, it’s often the airplane cabin that provides the quietest and most relaxing part of the journey. Airport terminals in the United States are such noisy places; the airplane itself can be a welcome relief. Sure, there's engine and wind noise, but the ambient sounds of flying aren't remotely as disturbing as the sounds of somebody sitting next to you in the throes of an overheated phone conversation. There's simply no comparison.

But what I think doesn’t matter. Like it or not, we are moving towards some form of onboard cell phone use. Once the approval goes through, it will be up to individual carriers as to when and how they’ll allow it. One idea would be sequestering those passengers who wish to use mobile phones into a certain section of aircraft—an idea akin to the old smoking/non-smoking sections that used to be common. The chatterers can stay in their own area and leave the rest of us alone. Or, perhaps you could have a designated zone of the plane that a passenger can move to in order to place a call—a sort of airborne phone booth.

Keep in mind that the proposal is just that—a proposal. For now, the phone ban remains in place, and passengers are obliged to follow the rules. Even if the ban is lifted, technological challenges remain. As it stands, cellular phones simply will not work at higher altitudes in an airplane cabin. One solution is the installation of a small cell-signal aggregator that acts as a sort of miniature cell tower right there on the plane. It then re-directs your call to the ground via radio or satellite. (It also automatically de-powers the transmission strength of your phone, further reducing the likelihood of interference with cockpit equipment.)

Thus, for onboard calling can become a reality will require an expensive, industry-wide investment in onboard technology.

Which, of course, brings us to the next conversation—about how that cost will be passed along to flyers. Will passengers be asked to pay yet another fee for a seat in the airplane’s “quiet zone?”

This debate will be contentious, but if you’ll allow me to play devil’s advocate for a minute, we can hardly blame carriers for seeking out additional revenue streams with fares as inexpensive as they are. Most people fail to realize that the average airfare in 2013 is about half of what it was three decades ago—and that’s after factoring in the various add-on fees that have become so popular. The average fare has fallen 18 percent since 2000 alone, despite huge increases in the cost of jet fuel.

On the other hand, the a la carte pricing model leaves people feeling increasingly nickel-and-dimed, and every new fee cranks up the public’s anti-airline resentment that much higher.

We’ll see how it all plays out.

If you're among those who think the idea is a terrible one, you might wish add your name to THIS PETITION.


In the meantime, how about a sales pitch...

Are you stumped on finding something cool and inexpensive for the traveler on your gift list? Well, how about a copy of COCKPIT CONFIDENTIAL: Everything Your Need to Know About Air Travel, the great new book from yours truly. Says me, it's the ideal stocking-stuffer for the frequent flyer, nervous passenger or global traveler.

For more information, reviews and praise, SEE HERE.

Copies, including e-book and audiobook versions, are available through Amazon, iTunes, and at bookstores everywhere. (Get over to Porter Square Books in Cambridge and insist they order more copies!)

Autographed copies can be purchased HERE.

Book with Passport.jpg

Yes, by the way, that's my actual passport in the photo (upper left) showing the visa from a short trip to Vietnam that I took a few years back, detailed with some hilarity (or so I was trying) HERE.

Should TSA Screeners Carry Guns?

Posted by Patrick Smith November 21, 2013 11:03 AM


IN THE WAKE of the shooting at Los Angeles International Airport earlier this month, among the questions being asked is this one: should TSA screeners be armed?

My answer is no, they should not be.  Readers of my articles and my book already know of my disappointment with many of TSA's policies and protocols.  Let me say up front that I am not using this incident as just another opportunity to criticize the agency and arbitrarily oppose a policy, and by no means do I wish to downplay the seriousness of the shooting.  But the question of arming of TSA workers has come up before. It ought to be opposed for good reasons: 

First, citizens need to realize that TSA screeners, despite what their blue shirts and silver badges might imply, are not law enforcement officers, and do not have police authority -- such as the power to arrest.  Deputizing and training even a limited number of these employees to carry and use deadly weapons is granting the agency a power it neither has neither earned nor requires to fulfill its mission.  It also would be very expensive.  That expense would be passed directly to the taxpayers, or perhaps to the airlines, who in turn would raise fares to cover that cost.  

Although what happened at LAX was tragic, the idea that armed screeners would result in a safer work environment for TSA employees, or a safer travel experience for passengers, is dubious.  What happened at LAX was a random tragedy at the hands of a lone and presumably deranged gunman -- the sort of attack that could easily have taken place at a shopping mall, movie theater, etc.  That the man is believed to held a grudge against TSA specifically is not a good enough reason to go handing out guns to screeners at large.  The response to every mass shooting in this country should never be simply to arm more people, be they government or employees or anyone else.  

Meanwhile if we are going to increase the TSA budget, there are better ways of spending that money.  

We should start by speeding up and streamlining the airport screening process -- a project that would entail taking screeners away from public view in the terminal and re-training them to work behind the scenes.  When it comes to protecting passengers from criminals and terrorists, concourse screeners do have a role to play, but mostly it is one of last resort.  The more critical work belongs to law enforcement and TSA working together backstage, so to speak: inspecting luggage and cargo, reviewing passenger data, and foiling plotters before they reach the airport.  Chances are, once a perpetrator has made it to the terminal, he or she has already figured out a way to fool whatever safeguards we have in place.  Meanwhile, holding up lines so that guards can confiscate harmless pointy objects and shampoo bottles wastes our time, our money, and does nothing to make anybody safer.

I'd also suggest deploying more TSA workers overseas  -- in the Middle East, Africa, Asia and South America -- where they could assist local security staff in the protection of US-bound aircraft.  It is much more likely that a bomb or other attack would originate from somewhere overseas, yet our focus is relentlessly domestic. We've got high-tech equipment and body scanners at regional airports in Ohio, while US carriers are often forced to hire third-party contractors to assist with passenger and luggage screening in areas of the world where the threat is statistically much higher.

It's true the 9/11 attacks were launched domestically, but the failure to foil the plot had nothing to do with concourse screening. The loophole the 19 hijackers exploited was not a loophole in airport security, but rather a loophole in our mindset -- that is, our understanding of what a hijacking was, and how it would be expected to unfold, based on decades of precedent. What weapons they brought along for the job mattered little; had boxcutters been contraband, they could easily have improvised other weapons once on the aircraft. The men were not relying not on hardware at all, but on the element of surprise.

To its credit, TSA seems to realize most of this already.  It took an awfully long time, but the agency is beginning to understand the limitations and challenges of its role on the front lines.  Its "PreCheck" program is a smart idea, and many TSA employees are already busy doing that important work back stage.  Let's keep that trend moving in the right direction.  Arming  screeners would be expensive, while accomplishing little or nothing in the name of safety.  And if TSA wants to earn and keep the respect of the American traveler, strapping on guns, in an increasingly militarized society already awash with arms, isn't the way to do it.  The way to do it is through more effective and efficient security.


(* Well, I like the concept behind it. What I don't like is that PreCheck travelers are required to pay a fee to qualify. Rather than charging Americans money to bypass the what's broken, how about fixing it instead?)


Patrick Smith is an airline pilot and the host of His new book is COCKPIT CONFIDENTIAL: Questions, Answers and Reflections.

Photo composite by the author.

Let Your Tablets Fly!

Posted by Patrick Smith November 4, 2013 02:31 PM


THE BIG NEWS IN AIR TRAVEL was last week's long-awaited -- some would say long overdue -- announcement from the FAA that it will ease the restrictions on the use of some electronic devices in flight.

There's been some confusion: the new rules pertain only to devices of tablet size and smaller -- like iPads, Kindles, MP3 players and small gaming devices. Laptop computers must remain stowed during taxi, takeoff and landing, and the use of cellular phones remains prohibited. Onboard Wi-Fi will continue to be available only above 10,000 feet, and all devices with cellular capability must be in "airplane mode" during flight.

All along there have been different rules for different devices for different reasons, and only a few of the rules are changing. The reason laptop use remains restricted is not just because of concerns over electronic interference. Your computer has to be stowed for the same reason your luggage has to be stowed: to keep it from becoming a dangerous projectile during an impact or sudden deceleration, and so that it does not impede an emergency evacuation. Time is critical during an evacuation, and the idea is to keep people from toppling over computers and tray tables as they rush for the exits.

It will be be up to individual airlines to ensure their aircraft are adequately gadget-proof. Carriers will be required to perform tests, and must submit plans as to how the new rules will be interpreted and enforced -- all subject to FAA approval. The carrier-by-carrier process means there might be small differences as to which gadgets are approved for which periods of flight.

The regulatory process seems to be working as it should, if perhaps a little too slowly: Initially there was a blanket ban on all electronic gadgets. This made sense at a time when not everything about these devices, and how their use might affect onboard equipment, was understood. Now regulators are beginning to look at specific devices, tailoring the rules as needed.

To me the latest changes are sensible and reasonable, though not everybody is sanguine. Christine Negroni, aviation journalist and author of "Deadly Departure," worries that the easing of restrictions might be a slippery slope toward reckless policy, and that the FAA is ignoring the safety concerns presented by members of a panel who studied the issue.

"The advisory committee issued a substantial list of examples of how gadgets can interfere with flight controls and systems," Negroni says. "They didn't make them up and they didn't rely on their personal experiences. They used scientific testing."

"Its a glass is half full approach. There is a great desire by the flying public to use these devices, and the FAA has ignored facts that suggest electronic devices pose a threat to concentrate on those that suggest everything will be okay. Don't get me wrong. I understand that people are already not complying, which is itself a good way to degrade safety. But the remedy proposed doesn't solve that either. It takes us further into the same territory. Who will put their device into airplane mode? How will the flight attendant check this? How responsive will passengers be to the pilots' instruction to stop using devices in low visibility approaches, for example?"

Looming behind all of this, meanwhile, is the issue of mobile phones. Are the latest changes just another step toward the lifting of all restrictions, including those pertaining to phones, or will the phones ban be permanent?

This is trickier. Anecdotal evidence suggests that phones can, every so often, interfere with a plane's electronics, and there have been at least two accidents -- one in Switzerland and one in New Zealand -- in which phones may have played a role. Granted those accidents were several years ago, and the aircraft were smaller, older models, but there's a lot about this we just don't know. Many people are led to believe the phones prohibition is totally unnecessary -- just another example of those mean old airlines making life miserable for their customers. But it's not that simple. Have I, as an airline pilot, ever experienced what I thought to be interference from a phone? No, but that doesn't mean it's impossible, and erring on the side of caution here is probably prudent.

As it stands, you couldn't use your phone during flight if you wanted to. The cellular networks aren't reachable once you're above a few thousand feet, and even at low altitudes calls would seldom stay connected for very long. Technology already exists that that could eliminate these glitches, and at some point the safety challenges too are likely to be surmounted. But is that really the way to go?

Ultimately, I suspect this will come down to being a social issue rather than a technological one. In other words, even if on-board calling were technologically reliable and a hundred percent safe, does that make it a good idea? Do you really want to be crammed into an airplane with two-hundred people all chatting away on their phones at the same time?

Air travel is already such a noisy experience. U.S. airports are intolerably loud. There are people shouting, kids screeching and carts beeping; public address announcement play constantly, sometimes two and three at a time, while TV news monitors blare mindlessly at every gate. It's not until stepping onto the airplane that travelers find some peace and quiet. I say we keep it that way. Perhaps, eventually, we could tweak the rules to allow some forms of inflight calling. Have a designated area in the back of the plane, for example, where passengers could, one or two at a time, place a call if needed. Or maybe a "chattering" section, akin to the old smoking section, where callers could sequester themselves and drive one another crazy.

No rush. Count me among those who hope the ban stays in place.




Lou Reed, The Simpsons, and the Arc of Creative Decline

Posted by Patrick Smith October 27, 2013 05:27 PM

Lou Reed, founding member of the Velvet Underground and one of rock's most influential musicians, died Sunday on Long Island at age 71. Reed had been ill for some time, and had undergone a liver transplant earlier this year.

This is the saddest news in music since the death of the great Joe Strummer in 2002.

Lou Reed's career spanned close to five decades. Debating what was or wasn't his most important work is of course a subjective and perhaps pointless exercise, but in my opinion Reed was responsible for three of the best rock songs of all time. Those would be "Sweet Jane," "Rock & Roll," and the seven-minute "Oh! Sweet Nuthin!"

Remarkably, all three of these songs appear on the same album, 1970's Loaded. The first two, in fact, are back-to-back as the record's second and third tracks. I dare anybody to come up with a stronger one-two punch. *

The greatness of those songs can be appreciated long-form, or parsed into seconds. Check out the drop, the gear-shift, at time 2:28 in the song "Rock & Roll."

Understandably, "Sweet Jane" would become one of the most covered songs ever (my favorite version being the playful Jazz Butcher's cover from the Gift of Music album in 1985).

Not to diminish the Velvets' earlier, more avant-garde efforts (still waiting for one of the obits to mention "Sister Ray"), but it's Loaded, whether because or in spite of its mainstream accessibility, that puts Lou Reed in the pantheon.


The Velvet Underground in Gerard Malanga's famous photograph: Sterling Morrison, Maureen Tucker, Lou Reed and John Cale.


* Some of the author's favorite one-two punches:

Velvet Underground: "Sweet Jane" and "Rock & Roll" (Loaded)
Husker Du: "Never Talking to You Again" and "Chartered Trips" (Zen Arcade)
The Clash: "Wrong 'Em Boyo" and "Death or Glory" (London Calling)
The Mountain Goats: "Jeff Davis County Blues" and "Distant Stations" (All Hail West Texas)

Song arrangement is an art unto itself -- or it used to be, anyway -- and this isn't necessarily about the merits of the individual songs. It's about the way they merge -- the flow, the transition, and the consistency (or change) of mood and feeling.


Anyway, as we know, celebrity deaths, like tropical storms (and plane crashes), seem to happen in threes -- or at least in twos. Marcia Wallace, voice of Edna Krabapple on Fox TV's "The Simpsons," died this weekend at age 70.

Wallace joins Phil Hartman as the second "Simpsons" star to die during the show's run. Hartman, the voice of actor/pitchman Troy McClure and the inept attorney Lionel Hutz, was murdered by his wife in 1998.

Maybe this is in bad taste, but perhaps the death of Ms. Wallace will persuade the execs at Fox to finally the pull the plug on America's favorite family?

At its peak, between 1992 and 1996, "The Simpsons" was untouchable. "A spectacular five-year run," said the writer Charles Bock in a recent issue of Harper's "in which the show was as consistently funny and refreshing and innovative as anything in the history of broadcast television."

Very true. And a very long time ago. In the years since, the show has gone from untouchable to unwatchable.

Creative decline is to some degree unavoidable and happens to everybody. How tragic it has been, though, for something once so brilliant to have become so crass and embarrassing. The show once excelled with its masterfully hewn characters, rapid-fire comic timing and a welcome lack of the sort of self-congratulatory comic vanity the networks normally give us. The scripts were wry and irreverent, but never obnoxious. "The Simpsons" was art.

And then something -- I don't know what, precisely -- began to go terribly wrong. There is no single moment -- a switch of writers or producers, for instance -- that commenced the demise, but within a season or two the scripts began falling apart. By 1998 the show was terrible, and has remained that way: tediously self-conscious, bloated with slapstick and annoying plots hitched cheaply to various events, celebrities, and products drawn from popular culture.

In its prime, only rarely would "The Simpsons" venture into pop culture or current events. Its plots and archetypes were fixed and timeless, which is much of what made the show so good for so long. Abandoning this approach is much of what ruined it.

Am I the only one who feels this way? In October, 1990, the openly gay actor Harvey Fierstein appeared in a fondly remembered episode playing Homer's personal assistant, Karl. Watching this episode today, you see how deftly the writing and directing was able to incorporate the theme of implicit homosexuality. Not once is the word "gay" uttered; there are no political overtones or kitschy ironic references to Karl's sexuality. By comparison, one needs only to endure the 1997 guest appearance of filmmaker John Waters to see how weak and witless the scripts would become. When Fierstein was asked to appear in a sequel to his 1990 appearance, he found the script so void of subtlety and overflowing with kitsch that he refused not only the initial offer, but a rewrite as well.

Whatever made the show sick, it so unraveled its DNA that today, watching re-runs, the eras are plainly distinct: a veteran fan can usually differentiate Simpsons "old" from Simpsons "new" within about the first ten seconds.

Sadly, the longer "The Simpsons" plays on, the weaker and more diluted it becomes in our cultural memory. Somebody pull the plug, please.

Okay, go ahead, start posting those insults in the comments boxes below. And be sure to include a snarky reminder that I'm a pilot, not a music or media critic, and that I should stick to aviation.

It's difficult to broach the subject of creative decline, prevalent as it is, without drawing the usual criticisms: You're stuck in the past, you're a Luddite, you're an old fart who hates change, etc.

I once wrote a column for Salon in which I tracked the fall of several well-known bands. All forms of art are prone to this sort of arc, but it's especially common in music (if maybe not inevitable: Loaded, that Velvet Underground album with three of the best-ever songs, was the band's last).

For example I described The Replacements' 1981 debut, Sorry Ma Forgot to Take Out The Trash, as "the greatest garage rock album of all time," while also submitting that the band's later-career material, for which it is much better known, is by comparison a huge disappointment. Man, that got the letters coming in.

But I believe that I'm right. There's a tendency, I think, for once-marginalized musicians to grow overconfident after achieving a certain measure of success. And when they do, their albums become overextended; self-conscious and self-indulgent. Tim, an album released in '85, was the last memorable effort from the Replacements. Next came the gutless Pleased to Meet Me, marking the unfortunate point where the 'Mats jumped the shark.

(If you need additional proof, Wikipedia reports that Green Day vocalist Billie Joe Armstrong said of seeing The Replacements perform live after the release of Pleased to Meet Me: "It changed my whole life.")

This was around the same time that Husker Du, that other indie sensation from the Twin Cities, also jumped the shark. They signed with Warner Brothers and promptly treated us to an album named Candy Apple Grey. There are two outstanding cuts on that record: the bookends "Crystal" and "All This I've Done for You," both written by Bob Mould. But they are poor compensation for the horror of Mould's "Too Far Down" or the piano-laced abomination that is Grant Hart's "No Promise Have I Made," one of the most pretentious rock songs in history. Every copy of Candy Apple ought to be tracked down, baled up, and scuttled at sea. This record was so annoying, they even had to spell "Grey" with the e like that.

(More proof? Armstrong and Green Day again, with a whole catalog of fantastic Husker songs to pick from, opted to cover "Don't Want to Know if You Are Lonely," a so-so cut from Candy Apple Grey.)

These sorts of collapses can happen surprisingly early in a band's career. Consider REM, whose first two full-length albums, Murmur and Reckoning, are masterworks. But the latter was released in 1984, almost thirty years and dozens of watery, throw-away albums ago.

I think REM lost it around the time Michael Stipe decided to sing in actual lyrics rather than in tongues. If you've got a copy of Murmur around, throw on the song "Shaking Through." It's beautiful. And it's also hilarious, because although Stipe sings in a slow and meticulous voice, with every syllable perfectly audible, you still can't understand a single word he's saying.

As a sign on a bin in a Boston record shop once put it: "REM: the only band that mutters!"


Note: Portions of the above text originally appeared in the magazine Salon.

A Red Sox rant, and the weird parallels between flying and baseball

Posted by Patrick Smith October 22, 2013 11:07 AM

Red Sox 747.jpg

Update: October 28th. Jonny Gomes. Yes, I know, the events of Game 4 on Sunday night have somewhat wrecked the credibility of my argument below. Gomes's heroics are hereby duly noted. But I do wish the Sox would stop relying on miracle home runs to bail out their otherwise anemic offense.


October 22, 2013

Am I a sports fan? No, not really. But every year between April and October, I live and die with the Red Sox.

It isn't about athletics, or even, necessarily, about baseball. If you grew up around here you'll understand: the Red Sox have transcended sports to become a fixture of psycho-cultural obsession. Like the weather, they are embedded in the New England psyche -- an eternal pattern of warm summer promise and, at least until recently, cold autumnal foreboding. We remember our baseball seasons the way we remember famous storms. The Blizzard of '78; Bucky Dent. To paraphrase Hall of Fame Red Sox catcher Carlton Fisk: People don't merely watch the Red Sox, they live their lives through them.

There's something awful about that, don't you think? It's certainly unhealthy. And although things changed forever in 2004, for many of us the scar tissue of defeat is layered like the rocky crags of the Maine coastline, or the 300-year old grime of a Boston street. The Boston Globe's Ellen Barry once put it this way: "Over the years, there has been no shortage of self-analysis in Red Sox Nation, whose fan base includes the highest concentration of mental health professionals in the country. On the contrary, the Nation has fingered its past injuries obsessively, like a character out of Dostoyevsky, trapped in a recurring parable of loss. They are, as a group, swamped by their own emotions, suspicious of happiness, and apt to catastrophize."

Count me in. For example, I spent most of that cataclysmic eighth inning of the final playoff game between the Red Sox and Yankees in 2003 curled on the kitchen floor in a semi-fetal position. (At first I'd tried buttressing myself against a wall, bent forward with my arms wrapped over my head, but the tension was too great. So I dropped to the ground and covered my ears, so I wouldn't hear the crack of the bat if the Yankees, against the odds, tied the game. Which naturally they did.)

Until 2004, Red Sox fans had been pathologically defeatist and well accustomed to pain. We feasted on perennial October failure, served cold and often the result of some preposterously unlikely chain of events. Like a plane crash.

But it's different now, of course, having finally won it all in '04 (and again three seasons later), and good for that. Water under the bridge, as they say.

Yet can I please offer up a rant about the 2013 edition of the Sox? Specifically, can I please put on record the sheer disappointment I feel over the manager's stubborn refusal to put my favorite player, Daniel Nava, in the lineup?

Daniel Nava's .395 on-base percentage for the year was third among all AL outfielders. His .303 batting average was second-highest on the team and eighth-highest in the league. He had a higher average and a higher slugging percentage than Dustin Pedroia.

So naturally he was benched for five of the six games against the Tigers, and it looks like he'll be sitting for the World Series as well. You don't want a guy like that in your lineup.

Instead we have Jonny "Sasquatch" Gomes in there. Who doesn't like Jonny Gomes? He's fun to watch, he gives it all he's got, and he's been effective at times. But come on... the guy hit .250 for the year and is under .200 for the postseason. Why has he become the full-time left fielder?

In the sports section of Monday's Globe, manager John Farrell said that Jonny Gomes helps gives the lineup "personality." Oh. I didn't realize that winning baseball games was a personality contest.

During the broadcast of game six against Detroit, commentator Joe Buck said that Gomes helps give the lineup "a different look."

I have no idea what in the world that's supposed to mean (other than in the literal sense), or how on earth it could justify letting Nava sit. A different look all right: the look of a guy striking out, stranding runners and not reaching base.

We need more guys like him. Imagine a whole lineup of Jonny Gomes. Not just one guy hitting under .200, striking out and not getting on base, but nine of them! That'd be a winning team for sure!

And the fans, they love him. With his ZZ Top beard, his full-sleeve tats and that crazy gleam in his eye, he's such a "gamer."

The Globe's ALCS review section on Monday had about a dozen photographs, and it seemed like half of them were photos of Jonny Gomes. In one of the captions he's described as, "Red Sox slugger Jonny Gomes." Slugger? Are you sure? In another one, he is biting the corner of the ALCS trophy. What a nut! He's so crazy! Not like that boring Daniel Nava, who only hits .303 and hardly has a beard.

Me, I'm nervous about this series against the Cardinals. And it's not just the Gomes Factor. He is one of several players who've been playing with invisible bats and whiffing like there's no tomorrow.

The Red Sox combined for 73 strikeouts in six games against the Tigers. That is the all-time MLB record for strikeouts in any postseason series. The previous record was 70, and that was over seven games! By the time the 2013 World Series concludes, it's pretty likely the Sox will have broken the total postseason strikeout record.

There are those who look at strikeouts another way. They drive up pitch counts, the thinking goes, and wear down the opposing pitcher. But not if you're whiffing on three straight pitches, as Sox players are prone to do -- to say nothing of the strikeout's failure to move runners along. I do not subscribe to the strikeouts are cool school. To me, it's an empty out.

Right, anyway, so what's all this got to do with commercial air travel, and a blog called "Ask the Pilot"?

Well, nothing, and as fans I reckon most airline pilots prefer the NFL gridiron over that pastoral green diamond any day. Still though, baseball is adopted as metaphor for just about everything, and there are, in this case, some colorful cultural parallels between baseball and aviation...

Ballplayers tend to look like pilots, for one, and their postgame interviews always seem to ring with the same cliches and regional drawls as those "thanks for flyin' with us" announcements.

Both pilots and players train hard and face a long, regimented system of step-by-step challenges. Either can see a career wiped out by a single miscue or accident -- a fastball in the face, a torn ligament, or a gear-up landing.

When a pilot earns his private license, he's made it to the bottom of the minor leagues. Building time in a four-seat Piper or Cessna, he's playing in the equivalent of A-Ball.

With some time under his belt, maybe he gets a job instructing or running weekend charters to Nantucket. He's broke, with a job or two on the side, but when asked his occupation he answers "pilot" without that annoying twinge of embarrassment. Double-A.

Next comes a job with a regional carrier -- a huge step up. Now there are flight attendants, real uniforms, and jets that wear the names and colors of the majors. Clearly this is Triple-A. Those American Eagles and Delta Connections are the Pawtucket Red Sox and Columbus Clippers. You're almost there, and for the first time you can just about eke out a living. A lucky few will take that final step; most will not. And if this is where it ends, well, heck, you came pretty close.

Finally at the majors, be it Leagues or airlines, the perks and cachet speak for themselves. There's no higher plateau. You've made it to "The Show." Of course, your first assignment is to the dregs of routes and schedules -- on call, reserve status, dragged from home by a phone call at 3 a.m. You are, you might say, a bench player. That 747 captain, he's the All Star outfielder with the Yankees, Red Sox, Dodgers or Braves. You're just glad to be here, rubbing elbows with these guys.

Hazards are all around. The economy tanks and the furlough notices go out, it's back to the minors for a few seasons.

And not everybody makes it to this level. There are only so many Americans, Uniteds and Deltas to go around. A pilot may instead find himself at the likes of AirTran, Spirit Airlines or Frontier. An exciting job, sure, but without that edge of prestige. He is, so to speak, playing in Japan.


With one important caveat: The failure of a ballplayer to progress through the ranks, from A ball to the majors, is usually a failure of talent. It doesn't work that way for pilots. It's the industry's relentless hiring cycles, attrition, and plain old luck, more than anything else, that determine a pilot's destiny, not how good he is.


Photo composite by the author.

By the way, when sports teams travel, it's usually in a chartered commercial aircraft. Players sit it economy class; coaches and managers sit in first. These are game-at-a-time charters. It's rare for teams to have a single, dedicated aircraft at their disposal for an entire season, and even more uncommon for a team to outright own an airplane.


Note: Portions of this post originally appeared in the magazine Salon in 2003.

Logan Goes (Even More) Global. And, here's your chance to ask the pilot... in person.

Posted by Patrick Smith October 19, 2013 06:19 PM

Logan Global.jpg

A bit of a follow-up to my previous post about all the exciting new airline service at Logan...

No sooner was I done gushing about the arrival of JAL, Copa and Turkish Airlines when Emirates will make BOS its latest U.S. city when it launches Boeing 777 nonstops to Dubai this spring.

Through DXB, passengers can connect onward to Emirates' massive network stretching throughout Asia, Africa, and Australia. Fast-growing Emirates was voted "World's Best Airline" in the latest Skytrax rankings.

Tokyo-Narita, Panama, Istanbul, and now Dubai. This ain't your grandfather's Logan.

Of course, the expansion of foreign-based carriers into U.S. markets -- particularly state-supported airlines like Emirates -- has become increasingly controversial. The how and why of this is a topic for another time. Controversy aside, whether you're headed to Turkey or Turkmenistan, Bali or Bangladesh, the residents of New England have a trove of new options for getting there, aboard some of the world's most elite airlines.



Are you a nervous passenger? A curious frequent flyer? A transient with nothing better to do?

Well if so, the Boston Public Library is where you'll want to be this Tuesday evening, October 22nd. I am scheduled to give a presentation of some kind.

I say "of some kind" because 1., I'm a lousy public speaker, and 2., I really have no idea what I'm going to say or do. Mostly, I suppose, it'll be a question-and-answer session. Anything and everything related to air travel is fair game: safety and security, airline fares and customer service, airports, pilot training, wild animal husbandry... you name it.

I'll also have some cool photos to show, and maybe do some fire juggling and who the heck knows what all else. Signed copies of my book will be for sale for $15 each.

Showtime is 6 p.m. My entourage usually arrives a few minutes early to sweep for explosives and clear away the screaming teenage girls. When I'm on the scene, it's like the Beatles at Idlewild, baby.

When a Pilot Dies in Flight

Posted by Patrick Smith October 5, 2013 06:23 AM

ONCE IN A WHILE IT HAPPENS. In 2009, the captain of a Continental Airlines 777 flying from Brussels to Newark passed away during flight. And on September 26th, the captain of a United Airlines flight bound for Seattle suffered a heart attack. In both cases, the first officer -- i.e. the copilot -- assumed command. The United captain died shortly after an emergency landing in Boise, Idaho.

And in both cases, much was made of the idea of a copilot having to take over and land on his own. Unfortunately, the press and media, along with most of the flying public, seem to have little grasp of what a copilot's job actually entails.

As I've written multiple times in my previous posts and articles, and as discussed in chapter four of my book, copilots are not apprentices. All commercial jets require a minimum of two pilots -- a captain and first officer. The latter is known colloquially as the copilot, but both individuals are full-fledged pilots, trained and qualified to operate the aircraft in all regimes of flight. The captain is in command, and takes home a fatter paycheck, but the hands-on flying duties are shared or more less equally. Copilots perform just as many takeoffs and landings as captains do, in both good and bad weather.

Granted it's extremely unusual, and perhaps a bit disorienting, for a copilot to find himself alone at the controls. There's a familiar choreography to a normal, two-pilot operation, and the absence of either pilot will throw off this choreography and substantially increase the workload for the other, remaining pilot. This is why, rare as such scenarios are, the remaining pilot is likely to ask for assistance from an off-duty colleague in the cabin, or even from a flight attendant. While not a necessity, it's a good idea to have a second person on hand to help with radio communications, the reading of checklists, or the manipulation of certain switches or controls (deploying the landing gear, setting flaps, etc.). However, while the workload might be higher and the routines out of synch, the tasks themselves, including the landing, are nothing the average copilot hasn't executed thousands of times in the course of a career.

Be wary of what you see and read. On the heels of the United incident, one prominent media outlet urged calm, reminding readers that copilots, like captains, are in fact "trained pilots." You don't say?

It was even worse after the Continental incident in 2009, "That's what copilots are for," said an editor at Flight International magazine. "To stand in for the pilot in case of emergency." Really? It's possible this comment was taken out of context, but I had never in my life read a more ignorant and misleading characterization of a copilot's duties and responsibilities.

If I seem unreasonably touchy, maybe that's because I'm a copilot myself.

At an airline, tenure is everything, and a copilot advances from copilot to captain -- we call it "upgrading" -- not by virtue of skill or talent, but by virtue of date-of-hire seniority. The seniority system dictates that all pilots be hired initially as copilots, regardless of how much captain time you may have accrued at a past employer. Pilots then submit standing bids for position (captain or first officer), aircraft type and base city. When a captain's slot opens up somewhere, it is filled by the most senior copilot who has bid for it. Thus that senior copilot now becomes a junior captain.

How long does it typically take to upgrade? It varies tremendously airline to airline, based on company expansion (or contraction), retirement attrition and the subsequent hiring cycles. Such cycles are almost impossible to predict over the long term: one airline is expanding while another is shrinking; five years down the road it's the other way around. An upgrade might take three years, five years, fifteen years… who the heck knows. I'm in my 12th year with my employer. It's a job I love dearly, but I'm not remotely close to holding a captain's position on any aircraft.

How long it takes also depends on whether or not a pilot wants to accept a captain's slot right away. A junior captain typically earns more money than a senior copilot, but salary is only one aspect of the job. Because overall quality of life -- the base you're assigned to, the plane you fly, your monthly schedule and so forth -- is often better as a top-of-the-list copilot than as a bottom-feeder captain, many copilots will bypass an upgrade until their overall seniority allows for better standing. A choice: would you prefer to be a senior copilot flying 747s to Hong Kong and Rio de Janeiro, with layovers in five-star hotels and 18 days off each month, or a low-rung captain flying 737s on multiple legs each day to places like Kansas City and Nashville, with ten-hour layovers at the airport Holiday Inn? You'll probably have a better income as the junior captain, but logistically this a much more challenging job -- tougher schedules, more time away from home -- and not everybody wants it.

I know several pilots who could hold captain positions, but choose not to because of the potential impact on their lifestyle and schedules. And thus it's not terribly unusual for a copilot to be older and more experienced than the captain sitting next to him.

Where you won't find a lot of bypassing, however, is at the regional carriers -- those myriad "express" and "connection" contractors that fly on behalf of the majors. Copilot wages tend to be ridiculously low at these companies, and upgrades are coveted. Plus, having captain's time on your resume is very valuable when it comes time to applying at a major. (And if you get hired, it's back to being a junior copilot again, albeit at substantially better pay than any regional has to offer.)

Copilots are the ones with three stripes on their cuffs and epaulets. Captains wear four. In the cockpit, the copilot sits in the right seat; the captain on the left.

Long-haul flights carry augmented crews that work in shifts. You might see a captain and two first officers, a captain and three first officers, or two captains and two first officers. It differs airline to airline, as well as with the length of flight. Throw in a line check or other training exercise, and there can be as many as five pilots, in on the flight deck, in any combination of rank.


Planes and Pillows

Posted by Patrick Smith September 19, 2013 08:38 PM


Let's talk for a minute about pillows. I’m vexed and perplexed by the widespread phenomenon of teenage girls carrying giant fluffy pillows onto airplanes.

I'm uncertain when exactly this trend got started, but you see it everywhere.

Granted it’s a helpful idea, now that many carriers no longer dispense even tiny, non-fluffy pillows on all but the longest flights. In a window seat, putting a pillow between your body and the sidewall creates a comfy sleeping surface.

The trouble is, people like me are out of the club. Grown-up men can’t walk through airports with giant fluffy pillows unless we’re willing to get laughed at. I've seen thousands of girls carrying pillows, but I'm not sure that I've ever seen a man or boy carrying one. We’re stuck with those stupid inflatable neck brace things. The other night I watched a flight boarding for Barcelona. Like most midsummer flights to Europe, it was loaded with kids between ages 17 and 25. No fewer than 25 girls had brought oversized pillows from home. Total count for the guys: zero.

This isn't right. To hell with dignity, it's time to rise up and break the pillow barrier. Who will be first?

I'm thinking we should organize a march -- a line of men strutting proudly through the concourse, giant pillows proudly in hand.

"We're men, we're strong, this is true,
Fluffy pillows aren't just for you!
Downy soft, pastel blues,
Come on girls, let us snooze!"

Later, in the parking lot, we can toss a few of those neck braces into a bonfire.

I smell a gold here mine for airport merchants. Why not a pillow shop right there in the terminal? Unlike most of the high-end crap sold at airports (watches, jewelry, massage chairs), here would be something genuinely useful. Instead of lugging those pillows from home, the girls could pick one up gate-side for a few bucks. You'd have a choice of foam or feather, and a selection of cotton pillowcases to pick from. To entice the guys, cases could be emblazoned with sports team and beer logos.


Passengers wouldn't need take-along pillows, maybe, if airlines tried a little harder to make their seats more comfortable. There's only so much you can do with an economy class chair, but as I've written in the past, some inexpensive tweaks would go a long way. The problem with economy isn't a lack of legroom or even a lack of space, per se. The problem is the often gruesome ergonomics of the space that exists. There's no lumbar support; arm-rests are at the wrong height, tray tables are the wrong size and shape, etc.

And headrests. Lots of planes feature headrests in economy nowadays. It's a nice idea, but almost always the things are flimsy and poorly designed. The wedges don't fit snugly enough around, and so your head simply rolls over them. They're useless, basically. Instead of investing slightly more for a product that works well, airlines spend slightly less for something that doesn't work at all. Not sure that I see the strategy there.

And here's some advice: if you’re going to have pillows on your aircraft, they should be good pillows. On most Asian or European airlines, economy class riders get a comfortable pillow wrapped in attractive fabric. It’s neither a significant nor expensive item, but it’s a nice one that you can actually sleep against. On an American carrier, assuming there are pillows at all, they tend to be flimsy wedges of foam about the size of a slice of bread, with coverings that tear apart like tissue.


Patrick Smith is an airline pilot and author. His new book is COCKPIT CONFIDENTIAL: Everything You Need to Know About Air Travel. Questions, Answers and Reflections

Curious Flyers Want to Know... What the Heck is that Noise!

Posted by Patrick Smith September 10, 2013 12:24 PM

Q: It’s common to hear a loud, repetitive whirring sound emanating from the floorboards of Airbus planes.  Sometimes it’s a high-pitched whine; other times it’s a stilted WOOF, WOOF, WOOF, like the noise a very agitated dog might make.

Almost every frequent flyer has encountered this sound at one time or another. Crews rarely make efforts to explain it, leaving passengers befuddled and sometimes worried. Because the noise is akin to a motor repeatedly trying—and failing—to start, there’s often the assumption that something is malfunctioning.

It happens on twin-engine Airbus models: the A320 series (includes the subvariants A319 and A321) and the larger A330. In the United States, the largest operators of these types are Delta, United, JetBlue, and US Airways.

What you hear is a device called the power transfer unit, or PTU, which is designed to ensure adequate hydraulic pressures during single-engine operations. To conserve fuel, it’s fairly routine for two-engine planes to taxi with an engine shut down. Each engine normally pressurizes its own hydraulic system, but with a motor not running, that leaves one system without a power source. That’s where the PTU comes in, helping left power the right, or right power the left. Since it is activated only when the pressure falls below a certain level, the PTU cycles on and off, on and off, on and off.

Due to pressure fluctuations, the noise will sometimes continue even after both engines are up and running. It also does a self-test when the starboard engine is started, so you’ll hear it then as well.

Some Boeing aircraft also employ a PTU, but the operation is slightly different and it doesn’t bark like a dog.

Another noise peculiar to Airbus models is a shrill, prolonged whine heard at the gate prior to departure and again after landing. This is an electric hydraulic pump used to open and close the cargo doors.

Q: Sometimes, while the plane is accelerating for takeoff, there's a repetitive, rhythmic thumping from below: bang-bang-bang-bang, all the way down the runway, like we're hitting a string of potholes. A friend tells me this is an indication of flat spots on the plane's tire, or a tire that isn't inflated properly.

Another good reason to ignore advice from your friends. What you're hearing is the plane's forward landing gear -- its nose tires -- hitting the recessed lights along the runway centerline. These centerline lights are inlaid flush with the pavement, but they're not that flush and almost always you can feel them.

One technique is for the pilot to track a few feet off-center. The takeoff roll is seldom perfectly straight, however -- especially during strong crosswinds -- and so the bumps might start and stop, start and stop.

Q: Why is engine power cut back shortly after taking off? Takeoff is the scariest part of flying to me, and suddenly, only seconds after leaving the ground, it feels like the plane is falling.

Planes routinely use more thrust than is necessary to take off, and the output of the engines is routinely drawn back to what we call "climb thrust" or "climb power" after reaching a thousand feet or so. This saves wear and tear on the engines, reduces noise on the ground, and keeps the jet from overspeeding (there are speed limits, yes, varying with altitude and/or the departure procedure being flown).

The sounds and sensations of this cutback are sometimes quite noticeable, but trust me the plane is not descending, or even decelerating. It's simply not climbing as sharply, and the rate of acceleration is reduced.


These questions, and dozens more, can be found in Patrick Smith's new book.

Book Cover Thumbnail


NOTE: Portions of this Q&A originally were published in the magazine SALON.


This ain't no podunk airport: Logan goes global!

Posted by Patrick Smith August 20, 2013 08:28 PM

It has been said that the real measure of a city's greatness has nothing to do with its cultural or civic institutions, its establishments of higher learning, or the prominence of any businesses or industry. No, what really counts is how many foreign cities you can fly to from its airport.

Who said such a thing? I did. Is it true? Of course not.

Not entirely, anyway. But air routes to far-flung places do lend a city a certain prestige. There's something exciting, even a touch glamorous, that comes with being able to reach some distant foreign capital directly from your home town.


Nonsense in The New York Times

Posted by Patrick Smith August 6, 2013 10:49 AM


Did the Gray Lady not learn its lesson after the Noah Gallagher Shannon debacle a few months ago?

Now comes a story in the Times's "Frequent Flier" column, in which reporter Joan Raymond recounts a tale from business traveler Greg Hill. Hill gives us the following....

We were supposed to be flying into Midway International and the pilot’s approach was long and slow. As we were coming in for the landing, not more than 1,000 feet off the ground, the pilot made a sharp turn to the right. The turn was so tight that he seemed to bank at a 90-degree angle. I had the window seat and was looking straight down at the ground. I could hear alarm bells going off in the cockpit. Just as I was convinced we were going to flip over on our back like a turtle, and any turtle can tell you that is not a good thing, the plane went into another 90-degree turn. But this time, it was to the left. I looked out the window again and I saw stars. It seemed the pilot confused Chicago O’Hare with Chicago Midway and was landing at the wrong airport. At the last minute either he or the control tower realized the problem and he tried to correct his mistake. When we finally did land at Midway, the pilot bolted off the plane. I have never seen anyone move that fast. I haven’t flown on that particular airline since.

I cannot say for certain why Greg Hill's airplane may have made a pair of sharp turns on its approach to Midway, or why its approach was "long and slow." There are several possibilities, none of which are terribly exciting: spacing vectors, for instance, or a last-minute runway change And as several emailers have pointed out, the circle-to-land approach to Midway's runway 22L typically includes a series of low-altitude turns. This is normal, if potentially unsettling to some passengers. (The "Expressway Visual" to runway 31 at La Guardia is a similarly action-packed, and perfectly routine arrival pattern.)

Whatever was going on, I am relatively certain that the crew mixing up O'Hare and Midway airports was not it. Hill's clever disclaimer here is the phrase, "it seemed," which, despite his having no idea what actually happened, grants him license to indict an airline crew for making a stupid mistake.

As for those "alarm bells," that could have been the autopilot disconnect alert, or a simple trim-in-motion alert, neither of which means anything unsafe or unusual.

And don't get me started on Hill's use of the term, "the pilot." How many times have we been through this? There would have been at least two fully qualified pilots in the cockpit, either of whom, captain or first officer, may have been at the controls. And the notion that one of these pilots went dashing off the plane in a fit of embarrassment is too silly to entertain. (If one of the pilots did exit quickly, more likely it was because he was trying to catch a commuter flight home.)

I can also assure you that the angle of bank was nowhere remotely close to 90 degrees. This gets into something I call PEF or Passenger Embellishment Factor, the tendency for people to grossly exaggerate the sensations of flight (there's more about PEF in Chapter 2 of my book). A commercial airliner will almost never bank at more than about 25 degrees. That doesn't sound like much, but a 25-degree turn appears awfully steep to the typical passenger, just the way a 20-degree climb or a five-degree nose-down descent (yes, five degrees is a fairly sharp descent angle) appears much steeper. In a 60-degree bank, never mind 90 degrees, the G-forces would be so powerful that a passenger would barely be able to lift his or her feet from the floor.

Call me uptight or overly sensitive, but it infuriates me that passengers are taken at their word when it comes to things like this. Mr. Hill clearly knows nothing about flying, yet the most prestigious newspaper in the world will go ahead and print an account in which, despite having no credible evidence, he accuses airline pilots of being lost and making reckless maneuvers. He couches it with the likes of "it seemed," and surely the paper will say that his subjective observations are just that, and fair game. But of course this story will be quoted and passed along as fact. And it's precisely this kind of thing that helps perpetuate the many myths and fallacies of commercial air travel, and further galvanizes people's distrust and contempt for airlines.

Over and over we see this in the media: when it comes to flying, anything goes, no matter how ignorant, untrue, or ill-informed.


Related story: A Flight of Fancy

NOTE: To those readers who've been accusing me of riding James Fallows' coat tails on this story, no fair. Fallows published his version a day and a half after mine. In fact I'm the one who told him about the Times article!


Composite artwork by Patrick Smith


A pilot's nightmare? Landing gear nothing, how about a missing crew meal?

Posted by Patrick Smith July 29, 2013 07:06 PM

Last week, a Southwest Airlines 737 suffered a collapse of its nose gear upon landing at La Guardia airport. Ten people were injured.

Investigators are now saying that the jet’s gear may have failed not because of a malfunction, but because the pilots managed to land nose-first, causing it to bend backwards, seriously damaging the gear assembly and avionics bay.

According to reports, the jet hit the runway at an angle of about 3 degrees nose-down. That might not sound like much, but even a steep descent is typically made at no more than 3 degrees or so. And any amount of nose-down pitch on touchdown is a problem. A correct landing attitude, while it varies with wind and other factors, is almost always a few degrees nose-up.

Why is it bad for a plane to land on its nose gear? Well, why is it bad for a bird to land on its face? And if, indeed, this is what happened at LGA, the question shifts to why and how the pilots found themselves in such an unusual predicament.


Independent Airport Restaurants: A Vanishing Breed

Posted by Patrick Smith July 16, 2013 08:36 PM

Marine Air Yankee Clipper.jpg

ONE OF MY FAVORITE airport restaurants is the Yankee Clipper, found just off the rotunda of the Marine Air Terminal at La Guardia Airport.

The Marine Air Terminal rotunda is one of the most special places in all of commercial aviation, and having a cool restaurant on hand is a great way to bring people in -- if not for the cuisine, to at least appreciate the historic building, with its flying fish relief, art deco detailing, and of course the famous "Flight" mural by James Brooks. The restaurant is owned and run by Rocco Manniello, who has decorated the alcove with a series of historic photos from the days of Pan Am's flying boats, which once docked just outside.

In MY BOOK I say this:

"The next time you’re at La Guardia, check out Rocco Manniello’s Yankee Clipper restaurant over at the Marine Air Terminal. Rocco’s is a cafeteria-style place on the left-hand side of the rotunda. It’s good greasy spoon food with absolutely no corporate affiliation. If Anthony Bourdain ever does a segment on airport food, Rocco’s should be his first stop."

Well, that was a nice idea. The trouble is, Rocco has really let the place go to hell. On my last three or four visits, I left depressed and disappointed. The restaurant was dirty and swarming with flies. The tables were greasy and the floor looked like it hadn't been swept in days. A pair of wall-mounted TVs were cranked to eleven, blaring some inane afternoon talk show at the handful of diners (almost exclusively airline employees) trying to enjoy their lunches.

The food? You can only go so wrong with a wrap, I suppose, but the offerings in the steam trays definitely looked like they'd been sitting there too long.

Come on Rocco, you're ruining my credibility. If Anthony Bourdain isn't annoyed with me enough already for ripping off the title to his bestselling book (that'd be Kitchen Confidential), he's surely lose all respect for me should he take my advice and give the Yankee Clipper a try.

It doesn't need to be this way. It would take only a token bit of effort to get the place in shape. Things like a mop and sponge aren't exactly major investments. You've got a great location, and who doesn't love those stylish, aluminum-backed chairs? (The chairs are done in the same art-deco style as the building's window and door frames. Could they possible be original?)

I hope the Yankee Clipper's days aren't numbered. For nostalgia's sake, sure, but also because it's one of the few independent restaurants still to be found at an American airport. In fact, it's one of the few independent anythings still to be found at an American airport. The more our terminals and shopping malls become indistinguishable from one another, the more valuable a place like Rocco's becomes.

Marine Air Terminal Mural.jpg

Commissioned in 1952, the James Brooks painting traces the history of aviation from mythical to (then) modern, Icarus to Pan Am Clipper. The style is a less-than-shy nod at Socialist realism, and at the height of ’50s McCarthyism, in a controversy not unlike that surrounding Diego Rivera’s famous mural at Rockefeller Center, it was declared propaganda and obliterated with gray paint. Not until 1977 was it restored.

The Marine Air Terminal is at the far southwest corner of La Guardia airport, directly adjacent to the Delta Shuttle.

So, what's your favorite indie airport eating spot?

Here at Logan, what have we got? There's Legal Seafood, of course, but I'm not sure if they qualifiy. Legal is a regional chain, but it's still a chain. Besides, while I could eat a gallon of their chowder in a single sitting, the sandwich wraps at the Legal Test Kitchen (LTK) annex are, in my opinion, terrible and overpriced. Nine dollars for a token slab of chicken hidden somewhere in a tasteless padding of lettuce? And this...

LTK Lobster.jpg


Related stories:



A Pilot's Take on the Crash in San Francisco

Posted by Patrick Smith July 9, 2013 08:39 PM

I've written an analysis of the Asiana crash in San Francisco. What went wrong, and why? Did pilot experience play a role? Were the challenges of SFO airport a factor? And what about the safety of Korean air carriers?

I can't post the whole thing here, but the full article is UP NOW IN SLATE MAGAZINE.


Follow-up, July 15

As I suspected might happen, the culture issue has now become part of the conversation, spurred by a series of email testimonials from U.S. pilots who taught and worked in Asia,vouching for the incompetence of Korean pilots. One of these, supposedly written by a former United Airlines captain, is particularly damning.

It irks me that so many of these accounts are neither signed nor dated. I'm by no means dismissing them entirely, but this stuff could be several years old. And if you don't have the courage to date and sign your name to such a thing, you shouldn't be sending it around. Even if some of the contentions are valid, the motives behind them become questionable.

It's possible that some of what these testimonials say is relevant, and Korean aviation may still have some deficiencies to work through, which leaves me surprised and disappointed. Still, there's a tone to the accounts that really bothers me. There's a consensus building that is very anti-Korea and anti-Asia (in an air safety context), and while there might be some important factors in play, the whole thing strikes me as witch hunt-y.

And for what it's worth, it remains true that Korea spent a lot of time and money overhauling its civil aviation system back in the 1990s. ICAO's 2008 assessment said Korean aviation was, overall, the safest in the world, ahead of more than a hundred other countries, including the United States.

So, I'm not sure who or what to believe.


Meanwhile, the Globe's Katie Jonston ran a story on July 8th that talked about the similarities between Boston's Logan Airport and San Francisco International.

I'm quoted briefly in the story, but there are a couple of points I'd like to emphasize...

BOS, like SFO, is a harborside airport, and I understand that many passengers feel anxious when landing over water. But this unease is something I've never fully understood. Whether approaching over land or sea, it makes absolutely no difference from a pilot's perspective. The mechanics of the landing are exactly the same: there is no difference in glide path. So where does this anxiety come from? Perspective might have something to do with it: passengers can only see to the side, while pilots, of course, have a forward view and a much clearer picture of the plane’s orientation.


About the author

Patrick Smith is an airline pilot, air travel columnist, author, and host of In his spare time, he has visited more than 80 countries and always asks for a window seat. He lives in Somerville. More »

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