The cockpit of a modern airliner: An efficient, smooth-running front office where professionals work hard and treat each other with respect (maybe rant a little bit, but only above 10,000 feet). Not! AVweb's CEO of the Cockpit tells of some wacky events that have happened in his office.
February 16, 2003
It is a sure sign of old age that you spend your time talking about the past. I almost never do unless asked. Today I found myself getting a hundred-dollar hamburger at an airport greasy spoon with a teenage student pilot son of a friend. He wanted me to tell him some "true stories" about airline flying and started me off on a long rant by asking about a term he heard from his airline pilot Dad. He wanted to know what a "hat base" is and wondered out loud if the Big Apple was one.
|CEO of the Cockpit
New York isn't a hat base. They have a few big airports there and our airline even has a pilot base at one of them, but the whole area is known to most pilots as not being a hat base.
A hat base is an airport where you can get your ass chewed by a management person if you venture out into the terminal without your pilot hat on or with your uniform jacket unbuttoned.
Not that any of us would dare leave the cockpit without our hats -- for some reason, that would be considered unprofessional. I've flown with people who would put on their coats and hats in flight when they went in the back to go to the bathroom. These are the same people you may have seen from time to time doing their aircraft walk-arounds in broad daylight carrying a flashlight in one hand, a checklist in the other and sporting their pilot hat.
Personally, I have nothing at all against wearing my hat. As a "captain's cover," it is festooned with a big airline badge and the filigree on the brim that only captains are allowed to wear. Your basic co-pilot and flight engineer have smooth bills. They also sport three stripes on their epaulettes and jackets where we captains regally wear four. Another way to tell captains from co-pilots and engineers is their age, their slightly stooped posture and the number of reading glasses worn around their neck.
It is a timeworn cliché but it has a ring of truth to it:
A Good Trip ...
A good trip to a young flight engineer means he got fed;
A good trip to a co-pilot means (pardon the crudity) he got laid; and
A good trip to most captains is a good poop and a good night's sleep.
My last trip was a good trip.
Captain Midnight's Hat
One of the most interesting (and, I've heard, true) hat stories in the airline world concerns a guy who I'll just call "Captain Midnight." Now, I don't know if he was the real "Captain Midnight" or just a pretender, but I've heard the story is true.
Midnight was known to have a fairly short temper and while being a good enough person and an outstanding stick, he still had some reality issues, if you know what I mean.
Anyway, one afternoon he climbs aboard his DC-8, enters the cockpit and sees that both his co-pilot and flight engineer are already there. Both of them are wearing their uniform coats and, more important, their pilot hats.
"New company policy," the co-pilot says to Midnight. "We're all supposed to wear our pilot hats at all times even when we are flying. We're also supposed to wear our pilot coats."
"Well, Hell!" Midnight intones, "I'm not going to wear my hat! This is the stupidest thing I've ever heard!"
The flight goes uneventfully. The co-pilot and engineer have already briefed the flight attendants to talk about the "new rule" when they come up with coffee and to chat. The flight attendants, in between puffs on their cigarettes (they used to come up to the cockpit mainly to get in a smoke) talk all about how much they love the new hat rule. By the time they get where they are going, Midnight is really steamed.
It all comes to a head when they drive up to the gate for parking. The guy signaling the airplane in to the gate looks a little puzzled and confused when he sees the co-pilot and engineer wearing their hats in the cockpit. He looks even more confused when he sees they are grinning like idiots and that their captain looks very angry about something. The ramp guy has this weird look and cocks his head a little as they approach to make sense of what he's seeing.
Back then, we taxied in to the gate with the cockpit door wide open and the passengers could hear and see what was going on in the cockpit.
Captain Midnight can't take it anymore. He flings open his cockpit window, sticks his head out and in a voice loud enough to wake the dead and certainly loud enough to awaken all his passengers, yells: "That's Right! I'm not wearing my G-- Damn hat!"
We've all had conversations with the mysterious tug driver. I pulled this trick more than once on co-pilots when I was an engineer. All you have to do is make sure the other guy is facing forward when you are sitting at the gate awaiting push-back. Then you select the intercom, grab your microphone and say:
Your co-pilot says:
"Yes, tug ..." (or something similar)
The whole key to this gag is, no matter what, all you say is, "Cockpit."
This leads to all sorts of excitement as your co-pilot realizes that the tug driver must be the stupidest person on the planet. He will yell into the mike to this "idiot tug guy" something along the lines of, "I can hear you, but you can't hear me!" Be sure to stop this trick about 10 or 20 seconds before the real tug driver plugs in.
When he or she does plug in, guess what their first transmission on the intercom will be? That's right: "Hey, cockpit."
Sit back and watch the fun as your co-pilot comes unglued and yells at the poor tug driver who has no idea why the co-pilot is so mental.
There is a variation of this story that I've actually been involved with. One engineer was very good at disguising his voice and he did a great rendition of a tug guy still plugged in to the outside intercom and unable to unplug as we taxied away and took off. He had his act so together that he could make his voice fade as we pushed the power up for takeoff.
"I can't keep up! Please stop!" etc. The best variation of that trick had the tug guy jumping into the wheel well and getting trapped there as the gear came up after takeoff. "I'm getting so cold!"
There is one set of tricks that I'm glad we don't do anymore. They were the ones where we'd mess up the airplane somehow and then all have a horselaugh as the victim tried to figure out what was wrong.
The classic example of this is the 727 fuel-gauge trick. Here's how you do it.
You wait until your flight engineer steps to the back to go to the bathroom or to get some coffee. After he leaves, one of you pushes the fuel quantity test button on the engineer panel. This button drives the fuel quantities down on all three gauges. Right about the time the indicated quantity approaches zero on all tanks the other guy pulls the circuit breaker for the fuel quantity, which freezes the low readings in place.
The engineer comes in all fat, dumb and happy, expecting to see somewhere near the 32,000 pounds of fuel you had when he went back. Now he glances at the gauges and sees about 2500 pounds remaining. This gag is even more fun if you pull it over water or a big mountain range.
The trouble with this and other gags like it is what if the victim takes it the wrong way and reacts to the trick in a way that makes things dangerous for everybody? It's happened that way more than once.
After playing a few tricks like that, I've stopped doing them. I only had two tricks as a flight engineer on the seven-two anyway. The first involved me slowly turning the aileron trim a little every so often when they had the autopilot engaged. You see, the aileron trim is locked out when the autopilot is engaged but when the autopilot is clicked off you get all the aileron trim you've put in, right NOW.
Watch the fun as the aircraft enters a hefty roll rate when they click off the autopilot! I told you it was a stupid trick. I only did it once and it scared the hell out of me.
The only other trick I've ever done was to a co-pilot who liked to slam his seat back on my legs without warning. He enjoyed it.
Normal decent cockpit manners said that if you were a seven-two co-pilot that you'd at least look back and say: "I'm coming back a little" before you ran your seat over the engineer's legs. This guy never said that and got a big kick out of putting this engineer in the hurt locker. He also demanded that I hand him the ends of his shoulder harnesses when he got ready to put them on. This is usually a courtesy thing that engineers do for co-pilots they like, so I refused, even though he made a big thing out of it every time.
His tricks against me included the usual fuel gauge gag, trying to get me to cuss on the PA (by passing a note that said, "Whatever you do, don't say the 'F' word!") and other things. He also smoked constantly and really made my eyes water.
My solution was one I'm not proud of today but it worked. Did you know that if you heat up the metal clip ends of a shoulder harness with a cigarette lighter just before your co-pilot grabs at them, you can get a really good howl out of him?
It was only a few short years ago that only weird pilots would take their flight bags to the hotel with them on a layover. We used to leave them in bag racks at Ops. As an engineer, I usually ran either the captain's or the co-pilot's bag down to Ops for them.
Today, everybody takes their flight bags with them wherever they go, mainly because of terrorist security concerns. Back in the day, the only pilots who took their bags on layovers were usually jerks and were probably victim of the "mad crapper."
It is a true story that if you were a really hard-to-get-along-with pilot, i.e., a jerk, somebody would "mess up" your flight kit. This would sort of "give you the message" to get along and lighten up a little -- a sort of prehistoric CRM, if you catch my drift.
No, I was never a victim or a perpetrator, but I have flown with both. One trick that really happened, although I'll never admit to it, has to do with carriage bolts and rasp files.
The flight bags were always stored in metal racks that looked like they were made of erector-set parts -- you know, metal frames, lots of holes.
Anyway, one time I was in the pilot lounge when a captain who had a reputation for being very unfriendly and unpleasant walked up to the bag rack and yanked his bag off of the third shelf. By doing this he pulled the whole rack down and it crashed to the floor. All the bags but his fell out when this happened.
Why didn't his flight bag fall off? Because somebody had taken all his Jepps out of his bag, drilled four holes in the corners and put carriage bolts though the holes into other holes in the metal bag rack. Then he or she filed off the threads so the nuts couldn't be removed and put all his stuff back in the bag.
I know it was juvenile and beneath the image many of you have of airline jocks, but it was probably the single funniest thing I've ever seen.