CEO of the Cockpit #60: The Rebel Alliance


It was so unexpected that I couldn’t help myself. I shouted out in surprise. Why in the world are you putting a navigational-beacon frequency into the ADF? “Well … uh … I thought I’d use the ADF as a back-up source of navigation during this upcoming approach,” said Laurie, my aviation major domo for the week. Laurie, if we ever get to the point where we actually need an ADF to navigate this big jet, I’m going to egress out of this machine and take my chances on a no-chute, no-seat, punch-out. I think my odds of survival will be better with the jump. If God had wanted us to navigate using an ADF, he would never have invented the VOR, INS, AHARS (automatic heading and reference system) or the wonderful, magical, ADIRU (air data inertial reference unit) our precious little 777 is using today to find our way into Seattle. On the 777, even the computers don’t use the ADF for NDB approaches; they use nothing but ADIRU data backed-up with GPS. She started to look like she was about to lecture me all about the value, beauty and logic of raw data when I gave her the real reason I was steamed at her uncontrolled, premature, tuning: I was using the ADF to listen to a local AM rock oldies station and they were playing the entire soundtrack to “Tommy” by The Who. Do you have any idea how often they play that soundtrack uninterrupted? I’m asking you this because I don’t know. I have never heard the entire soundtrack uninterrupted and I guess now I never will. Forgive her, Jimi, she knows not what she says … “Just who the hell are the Who?” asked Laurie. This comment made me feel very old and I had to look down at the cockpit floor for a moment to gather my thoughts and say a quiet comment to Janis Joplin, Hendrix, and Momma Cass, who I hoped were enjoying fundamentalist Hell (which is another term for Rock & Roll Heaven). I was hoping they were preparing for my imminent, self-imposed arrival if I had to fly with “McDonnell Douglas Barbie” for one more trip.

The CEO Falls In Love

“Isn’t listening to music in flight against some FAR or something?” Yeah, probably. So? What’s your point? “Oh, you’re one of those guys,” Laurie breathed. “Are you one of those rebel pilots we were warned against in new-hire school?” I have no idea what you mean. I follow every single FAR no matter, how ill-conceived, and every single company flight ops manual procedure no matter how lame. I am always in total compliance with everything and I might add that because you asked this non-operational question below 10,000 feet AGL, you are now in conflict with the sterile cockpit rule and are yourself, even now, a Rebel. “Aw crap!” Laurie shouted. “Next thing you know I’ll be reading Cosmo in cruise and using non-standard pastel-colored markers and symbols on company-provided Oceanographic Track charts!” It looks to me like I was all wrong about “Barbie.” She is all right. I’m sorry I yelled at you when you changed my AM radio station, but my hearing went from, “It’s a boy, Mrs. Walker, it’s a boy,” to, “dit dah dit dit” really quickly and it hurt my ears. Laurie then amazed this hard-to-amaze old captain by spontaneously singing:

It’s a boy, Mrs. Walker, it’s a boy!
A son! A son! A son!
Hear the joyful celebrations in the street!
It’s a boy born on this first day of peace!
We’ve won! A son! We’ve won!
I’ve been flying airliners a very long time and had always expected my co-pilots to be able to quote movie lines back to me on most occasions, but this is the first time a co-pilot was able, or willing, to quote 40-year-old rock-opera lyrics back to me. Laurie, I said, if you have a bass boat, I think God wants us to get married and breed the perfect race of cool pilots. “Nope,” she said. “I’m married to Chet. You may remember him: You flew with him last week. Also, I have a policy of not dating out of my home century.” Ouch. “Anyway, you’re married too, right?” I wish you hadn’t brought that up, Laurie, I said, trying to look very sad. We’re separated. “I’m so sorry!” That’s right. She’s in Atlanta and I’m in the skies over Seattle. I got a Jepp binder to the head for that one. Laurie and I decided to “just be friends,” or, using her words when I kiddingly suggested another arrangement, “Gross! No way!” We made the approach, went to the Stouffer’s Inn in downtown Seattle and settled in for yet another domestic evening of drinks, bar food and idle chitchat. We were joined by Gus, our senior flight attendant. In other words, we had the traditional, old-airline-world mix of genders present; they were just in different, non-traditional roles. Co-pilot instead of flight attendant, and flight attendant instead of co-pilot.

The Suicide Rate In Seattle Explained

It was raining in Seattle that night like every night, so we decided to eschew the usual walk down the big hill to the wharfs and seafood restaurants and stayed in the Stouffer’s lounge for dinner. That afternoon’s subject of airline rebel causes came up again. “We’re pretty much wired-in with our behavior in the back,” said Gus. “With the company informants, the nosy customers and those security spy cameras, we have to toe the line. It’s been months since I’ve been able to read an entire magazine — even on an international flight — and you can just forget about smoking!” I know that things are tough all over, but even in the old days flight attendants couldn’t smoke in the back. They would always come up to the cockpit for a fix. That and a foot rub from this engineer. Having recently watched relatives die from the stuff I have trouble thinking that not smoking is a bad thing. “The command concept is the whole thing,” said Laurie. “What ever happened to the captain really being in charge of the airplane? It used to be whatever a captain said was law. Now what a captain says is more of a timid suggestion.” I don’t know, I said. I still think I have a lot of latitude, especially when it comes to safety issues and the company has always backed me up. I have yet to ask for more fuel for a leg and gotten more than the normal ration of crap from a Dispatcher. I’m not so sure the so-called good old days, when a captain could do whatever he wanted, were all that great. I seem to remember flying through a lot of thunderstorms and enduring a lot of marginally done approaches back in the good old days when I was an engineer and co-pilot.

The CEO A Snitch?

“When is it OK to rat out a pilot?” asked Gus. What do you mean? “Let’s say I walk into the cockpit and he seems drunk?” That’s a no-brainer. He is sick and needs to be removed immediately. “What if he is reading a non-company-issued magazine in cruise?” Also a no-brainer. Ask him if he wants coffee and leave it at that. My theory has always been if another pilot, or for that matter, flight attendant, was doing something that could kill me it was my duty to do anything I can do to stop him or her from doing it. Normally, just a comment like, “What the hell are you doing?” can make that happen. Sometimes a gesture or look will do. Sometimes you might have to have a visit with the ALPA professional standards guy and later perhaps a chief pilot to get a resolution. Your kids may not be riding with him next week but somebody’s kids will be. How would you feel if you didn’t try to change his behavior and he killed 300 people the next trip? Cool is cool, but letting an idiot continue to act like one is way un-cool. Most pilots want to think of themselves as on-the-edge rebels, but the truth is that we aren’t. If we were true rebels, we’d probably be dead and would certainly be fired from our airline pilot jobs. It is one thing to wear non-uniform zip-up boots to work; it is an entirely different dish of pasta to come to work drunk or armed or wearing your wife’s white go-go boots. We are all really conformists. We have to be to pass checkrides. The small individual rebellions you see on the line are a limited expression of our personalities but we don’t want our personalities to lead to unemployment, injury or death. “Where do you draw the line?” said Laurie. “This afternoon, I thought that listening to music during descent was a little unprofessional, but I didn’t call a chief pilot — yet,” she said with a smile. Was my listening to “Acid Queen” going to kill you? “No.” Well, there you go! I respect your concern for our airborne safety and promise next time to make sure you don’t know I’m listening to the radio. “That would be easier,” Laurie said, “If you didn’t do those big air guitar riffs.”

True Love Comes With Mashed Potatoes

Then my co-pilot did something that cemented our relationship and made me make a mental promise to look her up if both our lovely and loving spouses ever bit the big one and went to Rock & Roll Heaven before us; although I suspect my wife and Chet would be going to Easy Listening Soft Rock Heaven. Laurie sang again:
I’m the Gypsy, and I’m guaranteed
To mend his aching heart.
Give us a room, close the door.
Leave us for a while.
Your boy won’t be a boy no more;
Young, but not a child!
Gus took our musical interlude as a cue and quietly left as we started singing “Tommy’s Holiday Camp.” Maybe tomorrow I’ll see if Laurie knows “Paradise by the Dashboard Lights” by Meatloaf.
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