Cruising in the sun after a long ground delay, three bouts with de-icing and a half-mile-viz takeoff on a snowy runway can really help a pilot relax. The sun was shining in the big, 767 cockpit window on my left and was slowly roasting my arm. I still had my zone heat up high and the lamb's-wool seat cover had been recently replaced, making it comfortable and uncharacteristically warm.
We had some bumpiness during climbout, but at FL370 the air was as smooth as the botoxed face of a Newport socialite. I had turned the seat-belt sign off and could hear the activity level in the back pick up: slamming galley doors, the "chunk" of the forward lav door and, of course, the every-10-minute intercom call from the back asking about sports scores.
I am a grumpy person when it comes to constantly announcing scores of games on the PA. If you are a fan of that particular team, maybe you should have stayed on the ground and gone to the game. If you aren't, why would you want to have your thoughts (and in-flight entertainment) interrupted constantly by updates?
Thankfully, the airline world has come up with a great compromise: We just ask over the ACARS and the company sends us a summary of all the important sports scores. Then all we have to do is print it and shove it under the cockpit door. The flight attendants can decide if they want to announce any of them. The cabin crew has a much better idea as to the mood of the crowd and how to handle the information anyway.
If we want a score, we just ask our friendly center controller or they announce it, just like the Denver Center high controller was doing right now.
"Anybody interested in the score might want to know that New England is up by 10."
That comment garnered a few "Roj's" and a smattering of groans on the frequency. Then everybody got back to asking about the ride. Apparently the air over the Front Range was rather bumpy ... just like it has been since flying dinosaurs traversed the area, either millions of years ago or a few thousand, depending on your religious beliefs.
I grew tired of listening to the same old patter on the frequency and looked over at my co-pilot Kyle in search of a conversation. He was no help at the moment. He was snoozing under an unfolded USA Today he was using as a sun shield. Now, before you get all up in my grill about sleeping pilots, I should tell you that Kyle had told me he was going to "look for satellites" and I knew he was out of the loop getting some rest.
I have always thought that a sleeping pilot is a happy pilot. If you are in cruise without much going on and your significant other wants to catch a few Zs, it is OK as long as he or she tells you first. This is important because I dislike two sleeping pilots in one cockpit as much as I admire one. Back when I was a flight engineer, there was a short time on one flight when all three of us were asleep. Not very safe and more than a little embarrassing when Center had to call us three times to get a response.
Kyle pulled the newspaper down from his balding head, stretched and looked around, bleary-eyed. We had already gone 10 hours into our day and, with the weather, it looked like we were going to bump up against our 15-hour maximum duty day before it was all over. I had planned a short nap myself in a short while, but for now, both of us were awake and more or less alert.
"Anything interesting going on?" Kyle asked.
New England is up by 10. The right engine was on fire, but I didn't want to bother you with it so I let it fall off the airplane. Oh yeah ... while you were asleep, we went to war against Canada.
That is what I like about Kyle: our long conversations.
Once we got beyond the initial kidding and Kyle was bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, I started to scrunch down into my seat in anticipation of catching a few minutes of rapid-eye movement myself. I then heard him let out a "Harrumph."
As he was putting his newspaper back in his flight bag, Kyle noticed an article about NASA releasing data from their recent safety study. The headline said it all:
NASA Discounts Pilots Concerns About Fatigue, Near-Misses And Safety
"I don't know all the particulars of their study because they never called and asked me," Kyle began, "but how can they discount something we said after they asked us about it? It wasn't just airline pilots in this study; it was a lot of general aviation people, too."
"It wasn't just about pilot fatigue, either," he continued. "It was about how damn hard it is to get a word in edgewise on approach frequencies. It was about an unresponsive, stuck-in-the-1950s air traffic control system. Holy crap! We're still blocking each other on frequencies like it's the vacuum-tube age or something."
I was sleepy but could see that Kyle really wanted to talk about this, so I woke up and asked him a question:
Kyle, answer me this: Where does NASA get its funding from?
"The government, of course."
Right. And where do the politicians who run the government get their funding? Do they get it from tired airline pilots and controllers who are too weary to lift their heads?
"I see where you are going with this," said Kyle. "The politicians get their money from the people who run big companies, including airlines. Those guys are looking for more ways to send their manufacturing plants to China and to drop the healthcare coverage of the employees they haven't replaced by a lower-paid worker yet. They aren't concerned with hearing about how tired the pilots are or how dangerous they really think the air traffic control system has become. If pilot and controller fatigue really is a problem, they would have to hire more pilots and controllers, which would raise costs because they can't get them from China ... yet."
That's right, I said. I think you'll notice in part of the article that NASA talks about how safe things are right now anyway. Why rock the boat while Gilligan and the Skipper are doing such a great job of steering it two and a half hours into that three-hour cruise? When the system fails and people die, they can refer to "pilot error" and perhaps how those pesky controllers keep going on and on about getting a new labor union.
Towers like the one in Lexington are probably still understaffed, even though they had a recent terrible crash during a time when only one controller was on duty ... and pilots like you and me are still putting in 15-hour duty days after an eight-hour layover.
"People forget about the last crash until the next one," Kyle said. "I think I'm beginning to see the logic of the whole thing. It isn't useful information they were looking for in this survey. It was a total cover-your-ass exercise."
That's what I think is going on, I said. I'm often wrong and may be wrong about this one, but I think the whole thing was a way for the government to cover their butts for later when an airplane crashes and fatigue or ATC breakdowns might be the cause. They can then say, "See? We did a really great survey five years ago that proved that tired pilots and an antiquated ATC system wasn't a problem. It wasn't our fault! It was those damn error-making pilots."
I think you are close but are missing the whole point, I told Kyle, as I positioned myself for my nap by taping a chart on my window to block the sun. The NASA people are politicians just like, if not worse than, members of Congress. It is the same game; they are just wearing pocket protectors instead of member pins.
I was just about to nod off when my potential rest was interrupted by some pretty hard jolts in our ride, requiring me to straighten up and turn the seat-belt sign back on. Then we heard the "ding" of our ACARS with a re-route message for Kyle and me that added an extra leg on to our day and would guarantee that we'd have a 15-hour duty period.
I really love this job, but some days I could do with a little less of it.
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