CEO of the Cockpit #47: Pilots Have Never Changed

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Sure, we've heard it all before: What with ''cockpit resource management'' and deregulation, being an airline pilot today is nothing like it was 50 years ago. Wrong. AVweb's CEO of the Cockpit just watched two flying films from the 1950s and he saw himself and his friends in them.

Flying airliners has changed quite a bit during the past 50 years but the pilots have remained the same.

They always appear to be dependable, clean-cut and boringly similar on their surfaces, but they possess traits that the flying public doesn't detect.

These personality traits aren't just limited to airline pilots, although with the amount of time they fly they get a better chance of displaying them than an F-18 driver. All pilots, especially professional ones, have to have a certain "something" to survive in the sky for an entire career.

Because I am a long-term, multi-engine people hauler, I am best qualified to talk about airline pilots. Twenty-seven years of watching them perform within a few inches of me under every kind of circumstance has shown me their inner strengths as well as their foibles.

Why did my muddled mind suddenly start reminiscing about the guys and gals I've flown with? An enforced stay on my living room couch and two cable-conveyed movies. "Island in the Sky" and "The High and the Mighty" were on my tube the other night, and in between pain-pill doses I managed to both watch and Tivo them.

Today, both films are looked on as sort of a joke by the general public. A parody of "The High and the Mighty" called "Airplane!" has become more popular than the movie it goofed. "Island in the Sky" is less well-known but shows airline pilots for what they really were and are in a much clearer way. There isn't a single airline pilot that I've known who hasn't shown at least a dozen traits shown by the characters in this movie.

John Wayne starred in both pictures. He has had a reputation over the years of not being such a good actor but he nailed the attitude of a pilot in both flicks.

Some Men Are Islands

Lost in an arctic wilderness with dwindling food, fuel and hope, Wayne's crew has to wait it out while their friends spend days and nights on long-range search missions.

Two of the pilots looking for Wayne's crew have been copied at one time or other by every professional pilot I've ever known. One, a young co-pilot, spends most of the movie in the co-pilot seat napping. When awakened by whatever crisis has come up he always answers with, "Whatever is customary ..." We have been using that line ever since.

I can't remember how many times something like this has come up over my career:

Flight Engineer: Hey, Captain ... the auto pressurization just failed. Do you want me to work it in standby?

Me: Whatever is customary ...

Another character, a captain named Moon played by Andy Divine, is the kind of flier every potential captain wants to be. Totally relaxed -- almost comatose -- during every flight, his favorite line was, "Everybody relax now -- just take it easy!"

He was so laid-back in the movie that he actually had a little metal wand he would pull out of his jacket to move switches on the overhead so he wouldn't have to exert himself too much.

I never flew with a guy that had that kind of wand, but when I was an engineer I flew with more than one captain who had a radio-antenna pointer he would tap various switches with to get me to move them. Other guys would be so lazy that they could move the OBS on their nav displays with their foot without moving their magazine or newspaper.

I can't tell you how many times during my career I've heard his words from various captains, co-pilots and even myself -- "Now, lets not get excited" --when we heard an unusual noise, smelled smoke, hit severe turbulence or found ourselves sitting in a suddenly dark cockpit.

Taking a deep breath and a little time before doing something fast and stupid is the hallmark of a good airline pilot.

I have to admit that when it comes to coolness and calm I wasn't half as good at it as most of my crewmates. I can remember one time in particular when I was a DC-8 engineer and we had a homesick Cuban in the back saying he had a gun. My voice on the company radio when I was reporting the problem most likely didn't have the deep timbre I would expect of a cool pilot.

Leisure Suits

One captain I flew with out of Chicago was so senior and laid-back some of our conversations as we taxied out when I flew co-pilot for him actually went like this:

Him: Kevin, where are we going today?

Me: Boss, we go the inner, the wedge to the outer, then to two-seven right.

Him: No, I mean, where the Hell are we going today?

Me: Oh, Fort Lauderdale!

Him: OK, whatever is customary ...

You might think based on that conversation that I was flying with a total idiot and buffoon. Nothing could be more wrong. I never flew with a better "stick" than that captain. He literally made the 727 sing. He was an outstanding pilot, leader and friend. I guess after the first 500 times you fly from ORD to FLL it all blends in together.

Another great saying he gave me has never appeared in any movie but was great advice nonetheless. Once when I was flying co-pilot for him the ride was much rougher than normal and no matter how many altitudes and other strategies I tried I couldn't find a smooth ride to save my ass.

"Well," he said, "there is one true thing you can always say about turbulence ... It'll either get better, get worse, or stay about the same."

A Heart of Steel

One of the reasons people think that pilots tend to be self-centered egocentric jerks is because we are. Scratch a good professional pilot and you'll uncover a person that has more than a little faith in their abilities and skills.

Professionally, these skills are, from time to time, called upon to literally save the lives of hundreds of people.

Misjudge that quarterly report as a CPA and you are in big trouble. Misjudge that level five thunderstorm as a captain and you and your people are dead.

Pilots face a problem when it comes to dismissing the notion that they are jerks: When dealing with non-flying people, there is really no common frame of reference for them to use to communicate.

For example, one of the most commonly asked questions I've gotten over the years from non flying people is, "So, when was a time you were most scared in an airplane?" Another one I got recently was, "Have you ever crashed and killed anybody?"

The first question is merely foolish and common. The second one made me want to punch the guy. I've been lucky enough not to have ever hurt anyone with an airplane; but imagine a person wanting to be entertained by a story where someone got hurt or killed.

Both questions are stupid and out of touch with reality because of something very important about pilots that the general public doesn't know: Pilots aren't scared of dying. They are scared of messing up. It is OK to die in a crash if you've done everything right. If you screw it up and crash, killing your people, there is nothing worse.

Or in the words of another airline pilot I've idolized over the years: "It is better to die than to look bad."

Some Are Not So Mighty

The only movie I've ever seen that addressed pilot fear properly was "The High and the Mighty." Most co-pilots remember that one as the movie where the first officer, played by John Wayne, gets to slap the living bejeezus out of the captain, who is played by Robert Stack.

The "High and the Mighty" probably isn't the best film to show CRM techniques but it did clearly show the CRM concept of "narrow focus." The captain was so focused on ditching he refused to consider other alternatives or input from his crew.

In their engine-out emergency, Stack froze up and was more than a little uptight but regained his composure, thanks to a little slapping around by the Duke, just in time to save everyone. The story highlighted those nagging little fears that only a captain can have halfway over an ocean. Trust me, I've heard more noises over 30W in a 777 and had more doubts about sustained, single-engine flight over water there than I'd ever care to admit.

In the movie, the first time John Wayne hears and feels a weird vibration is the most telling part of the story. We've all been there a thousand times and it almost always turns out to be nothing. Almost ...

Both movies were based on books by the great Ernest K. Gann. He was an experienced pilot from the old days who went on to a great Hollywood career and a quiet retirement in the Pacific Northwest that ended with his death at the ripe old age of 81. My only personal brush with Gann was a short phone conversation we had years ago when he had the foresight and the grace to turn down a request from me for a magazine interview. His career was over, he said. He just wanted to be left alone.

That was the coolest thing I ever heard him say.


Want to read more from AVweb's CEO of the Cockpit? Check out the rest of his columns.