Picture it: An airliner dodging thunderheads, with the pilots jamming to rock music in their headphones. It's the opening sequence of a new TV sitcom about airline pilots. Think it can't happen -- that real pilots doing real flying isn't funny to the public? Neither does AVweb's CEO of the Cockpit.
September 28, 2003
Neighborhood parties usually aren't my thing. When it comes to drinking beer in the backyard while dozens of unaccompanied minors are screaming and running around my ankles, I'm not easy to get along with.
This neighborhood beer bash had an important difference that made it more fun for me: It wasn't in my back yard. This meant that the kid over there who was beating on the side of the garage with a hammer wasn't my concern. I could sit back and enjoy watching his parents chase him around the house.
I was partying in a "pilot ghetto" in a Chicago Suburb; a bedroom community called Lake Zurich that -- in recent decades -- had gone from a sleepy country village to a huge housing area filled with strip malls, fast food and four- to six-lane highways. Airline pilot families lived in this housing development, which was filled with expensive homes they always hoped to be able to afford "after the next contract came in."
Our family had lived here during the four years I flew out of the Chicago base. I never got the hang of being so close to co-workers, and seeing so many young airline dependents zooming around on their big wheels gave me the heebie-jeebies. I never got very good at car-pooling to the airport, picking up another guy's paycheck for him or explaining to a neighbor/pilot who got called out on reserve to cover my trip that I could be sick and still mow my front lawn or play tennis.
A Pilot's Party Pilot
The occasion we were trying so very hard to celebrate was the medical retirement of Jim, a very senior captain who lasted much longer in this job than any of us suspected he would. A proud smoker and non-exerciser, Jim could have been a poster boy for hard partying, poor diet, and worse personal habits. In other words, he was a cool guy who we all were going to miss greatly. Nobody laid over like Jim -- nobody could and survive.
The usual group of suspects was gathered in a knot by the play pool, slightly left of the pile of dog poop that we were all trying to ignore, and roughly six feet south of the beer keg. Jim was in the center of the group as usual, frosty plastic cup in one hand, Winston in the other.
Two other former neighbor/pilot friends of mine were in the huddle. Frank, who had moved to Las Vegas years ago and married a rich widow, was on Jim's left. On his right was John, probably the most capable pilot I ever knew. John flew the "ER" out of New York and had ridden his Harley to this shindig all the way from the Big Apple.
There was a fourth guy in the group who I didn't know. Nice shoes, pearly white teeth, and what looked like a $300 blue sports jacket slung lazily over his shoulders.
Apparently, Jim was just finishing up a joke as I motored up to the group. All I caught was, "... and then I get her back to her apartment and find out she is still living with her parents and is only 16!" Har-har-har (bang fist on table) ...
For a guy with hypertension, bad kidneys, smoky lungs and a prostate the size of an NBA game ball, Jim had a good attitude. He had always been an "up with people" kind of guy and probably saw his involuntary grounding as an opportunity to get more fishing in. Fishing was his other passion. When he wasn't flying trips and abusing his body, he was in his boat with his dog, "Frank Lorenzo," trolling for aquatic life.
"Hey pardner!" he said, motioning me closer into the group. "I'd like you to meet Greg. He's my brother in law from Los Angeles. Greg is a television producer for the Fox network. You may remember him from such TV shows as "That's Not My Finger!" and that new police reality show, "Donuts!"
Greg thrust out a well-manicured hand and gave me an unconvincing grip and a smile. "Nice to meet you guy," he enthused. "It's great to get to mid-America and mix with real people. I've never been around so many airline pilots before -- you guys sure know how to party!" he said as he tactfully nudged a dried dog dootie aside with his Bruno Mali's.
"We were just telling Greg here about all the great ideas we have for television shows about airline pilots," said John. "So far we've pitched a show about a trans-gendered international captain with a social anxiety disorder. We thought it could be a combination of "Monk" with "Ru-Paul" and we could call it "Queen of the Skies".
A grin and a shake of the head from Greg told me he had turned that one down. He had also rejected an idea from Frank called "Vegas Pilots, CSI," which Greg called "derivative."
"I'm not totally against a television show about airline pilots," said Greg. "It's just that -- let's face it -- you guys are pretty boring."
This comment from Greg set off a string of curses and a coughing fit from Jim. He seemed to gain control of his breathing after hawking up a cup or two of phlegm but then he had a relapse and had to go into the house for a minute. That left me to defend the profession and pitch a few winning ideas for Greg to take back to Tinsel Town.
I had to admit that it was weird that television viewers could accept a comedy show about doctors, and thought that shows with lawyers were a hoot, but with the possible exception of "Wings" there has never been a comedy show about airline pilots. By the way, "Wings" doesn't really count because it never once had a funny thing to say about flying.
The problem as I see it is that airline pilots will tell each other funny stories about the job but wouldn't dare tell the general public the same tales. Maybe it is because the flying public is so up-tight about their pilots. They want serious, clean-pee-in-the-cup, gray-haired eagles of the skies to drive their Boeings. They don't mind thinking of Hawkeye cutting on a chest and then cracking a joke but the same character retracting their flaps makes them queasy.
The Baby Episode
For example -- and keep in mind that I'm not saying that this really happened -- but back when I was a 727 engineer, I was flying a non-stop to San Diego and had my wife along in the back so she could have a little company-funded mini-vacation. My infant son was also along and the flight attendants brought him up to the cockpit for "a visit." I knew my wife wanted a nap so I had the little nipper sit on the engineer table and flip "B" pumps on and off for three hours. That would make a great episode for a TV show but would the general public think it was funny?
That story could be the "baby episode" for our series ...
"You know about the baby episode?" asked Greg.
Sure, I know that every situation comedy ever produced has to fulfill certain episodic requirements. You have to have a baby episode, a wedding episode a Wizard of Oz episode, a dream/flashback episode, and of course the Halloween episode where every one of the show's characters dresses up in expensive costumes.
Greg was impressed and seemed to glom on to the idea right away. "Well," he said, "we'd need to have some real flying stuff in the mix. We could start with a captain, a co-pilot and a navigator ..."
All three of us started to tell Greg that there wasn't a navigator, or for that matter many engineers left in modern airline cockpits, but there was no stopping the "Gregger" once he got started.
"Okay, let me run with this for a minute," he continued. "These three airline guys accidentally crash on a tropical island and as their Tri-Star hits the beach we see that the island is also the home of stranded flight attendants from a doomed Hooters flight. We could call it "Layover Island" and have weekly guest stars wash up."
I'm with you on this one, I said. The only food source on the island would be a huge shipment of airline peanuts and fifty cases of Mr. & Mrs. T drink mix. The girls, I mean the flight attendants would only have first class table cloths to wear as clothing and sometime during the run of the show there would be a nuclear holocaust on the rest of the earth and we pilots would be expected to mate with the flight attendants and re-populate the planet with a new crop of airline dependants.
Reality Air Shows
It was at this point that Jim came back from his recovery trip to the house. He had a fresh beer, a newly lit cigarette and a desire to bring this conversation back down to reality.
"No, no, no!" Jim said. "You've got to show what airline flying is really about. The missed approaches in blizzards, the excitement of having to pee in a cup to prove you're not a drug addict after a four-day trip, the food poisoning you get on layovers in India, the fun you can have during training flights sliding down the aisle of the airliner on your ass on a drink tray!"
"I'm not sure real reality has ever been tried on television," said Greg. "It would be hard to sell a show about real airline or even airplane flying to the network executives. They are more interested in sizzle than steak, if you know what I mean. You don't think any of the other sitcoms about doctors or lawyers have anything to do with real life, do you?"
TV Isn't Real?
This got an uncomfortable shuffling of the feet from all of us, including me. We all looked down at our beers and were afraid to admit that, yes, we did think that Hawkeye Pierce was acting like a real doctor in Korea and that Barney Miller was a real cop in New York.
"You mean that Mary Tyler Moore ... " started Jim ...
"That's right," said Greg. Mary Tyler Moore was no more a real television news producer than Mork was really from Ork. If you want to have a show about airline piloting that is real and true and makes logical sense you are going to have to come up with a better media than television or movies. Not one of our viewers would believe or be interested in the reality of your flying jobs because they don't watch TV to get educated; they watch it to escape their lives."
I had to admit that Greg had a point. In order to portray the lives of airline pilots on television -- even as funny as they really are -- you would have to make it so unreal that the public would accept it as genuine. This was a true paradox and one that I'm glad I didn't have to deal with like Greg did.
"By the way that is my new retirement job," said Jim. "I'm going back to Los Angeles with Greg here and will help him develop a great show about a retired airline captain that fishes a lot and solves crimes. He will have a flight attendant sidekick named "Bootsie" and with his dog, "Barnaby Jones" he will use his airline experience to make the world a safer place. Fox is going to call it: "Captain Crime" and it'll be aired on Thursdays, right after "The Simpsons."
I don't know if Jim was just drunker than usual or was telling the truth, but sometime soon on a long layover I'm eager to turn on my room's TV and find out.