Author Archive

The Mad, Mad Summer of 2022

June 27, 2022

IF YOU’VE been to the airport lately, you’ve experienced the mayhem. Terminals are swamped, planes are overbooked, cancellations are rampant, delays are out of control.

I’ve been working quite a bit over the last few months, so I’ve been in the thick of it. “Travel is back,” I wrote in a post back in May. “I wasn’t sure we’d get here, so count me among those who are happy to see a little chaos again at the airport.” I meant what I said, but things have rapidly reached a breaking point. How bad is it, exactly? It’s tough to quantify in terms of statistics, but suffice it to say that in 30 years of commercial flying, I’ve never seen anything like this.

The gist of the problem is staffing. The media keeps talking about a pilot shortage, and certainly that’s a factor, but the crisis extends across the entire industry: at the airlines and their various contractors, at air traffic control, security, airport retail, and so on.


Yes, it mostly goes back to how things were handled at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, when thousands of employees were shed, and a failure to adequately re-staff as things swung back to normal. On the surface, the airlines and their partners look pretty stupid, but perhaps it’s not that simple. Remember the environment at the height of COVOD-19 downturn. The industry had never faced anything like it, and was desperate to stay alive. There was no way of predicting when, or to what extent, flyers would return. Travel restrictions and border closings changed week to week, and absolutely nothing was certain. Almost nobody predicted a return to 2019 numbers so soon. The expectation, so much as there was one, was of a gradual, incremental return over a period of years.

Air travel logistics are challenging enough in normal times, never mind when the entire world has flipped upside-down. When it came to aligning their fleets and staffing, they did what they calculated was the smartest thing to do. Some guessed better than others. And that’s what it was to a big degree: guesswork.

And so here we are. And it’s not just the United States. Security and check-in lines at some European airports are three or more hours long. I was flying out of Dublin the other day, and the lines for U.S. immigration preclearance snaked all the way to the second floor. Amsterdam-Schiphol has enacted flight restrictions, and a luggage system meltdown at London-Heathrow left passengers without their bags for several days.

As to that pilot shortage we keep hearing about, there are, in fact, two shortages, the effects of which are overlapping. One is short-term and pandemic-related, per above. The second is more systemic and longer term.

Carriers are now taking on hundreds of new-hire pilots every month. This, combined with the lingering effects of the pandemic reshuffling, finds training departments overwhelmed, with long backlogs for classroom time, simulator slots, line certification flights, etc. Pilot training is modular, and it does not happen quickly. New-hire training can take several weeks, as can moving from one aircraft type to another, or upgrading from first officer to captain. Many pilots are sitting at home, waiting their turn. Thus, it’s less a dearth of pilots than a training system overload.

Then we have the other, more systemic shortage. As I talked about in this older article, this is a significantly bigger problem at the regional carrier level than at the majors. All of the legacy airlines are currently hiring, and although they’re having no trouble filling their slots, those pilots have to come from somewhere. This is causing a ripple effect downward through the industry. The regional sector has all but reinvented itself in a plea for new-hires, offering salary and benefits packages heretofore unheard of for entry-level airline pilots.

For decades, the salaries and working conditions at regional carriers were laughably substandard. In many cases pilots were asked to foot their own training costs, only to earn poverty level wages in return. And as the regional sector expanded, taking over more and more mainline flying, a job at a regional often meant an entire career at a regional. This led to fewer and fewer pilots getting into the business, helping create the shortage we have today. These companies now have little choice but to significantly improve pay scales and benefits, both to entice new-hire pilots and to retain the ones they already have. You could say they had it coming; there never needed to be a shortage in the first place.


Overall passenger numbers are still off about 15 percent from 2019. The problem is, the 85 percent who are back are being crammed into an infrastructure that can’t handle them.

What nobody is talking about, meanwhile, is the issue of airspace and runway saturation. It was bad enough pre-pandemic. Now, several upstart carriers are pumping even more airplanes into a system at or beyond maximum capacity. It’s especially bad in the eastern half of the U.S. Things run fairly smoothly when the weather is good, but the minute a storm develops, blocking off air routes, the delays and cancellations start to cascade.

Even on clear-weather days, the taxiway queues at airports like Newark or La Guardia can be hours long. Airlines need to better rationalize their schedules and, in many markets, consolidate departures to help reduce congestion. To this end, the short-haul widebody jet is a concept whose time has maybe returned.

When will the madness end? Will it end? I keep my fingers crossed that we’re not being set up for a sort of new normal in which chaos is taken for granted. I worry, because as we’ve seen with airport security over the past two decades, the traveling public has a remarkable and discouraging ability to adapt to almost anything, no matter how absurd or inconvenient.

Let’s hope, instead, the crisis is temporary. I suspect things will improve as demand dies down after Labor Day. In the meantime, if you bring one thing to the airport this summer, have it be this: patience.

 

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BIG PLANES, SHORT ROUTES. WHAT A CONCEPT.
FACT AND FALLACY OF THE PILOT SHORTAGE

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Who’s More Experienced, the Copilot or the Captain?

June 1, 2022

YESTERDAY was my birthday. I’m old. And I can’t believe the “Ask the Pilot” franchise has been running now for twenty years.

My first job as an airline pilot was in 1990. My first plane was an antique 15-seater with no pressurization or autopilot. I’d just turned twenty-four, and was one of the youngest pilots at the company. I made a thousand bucks a month, flying four days a week, in and out of the awful New England weather.

Suffice it to say my salary has improved. Nowadays I earn more on the average flight, wheels up to wheels down, than I made in an entire month flying those Beech 99s. I don’t mean that as a brag. It’s not that I’m overpaid today so much as I was ridiculously underpaid in those days.

On the downside, I’m no longer, by any stretch, one of the youngest pilots at my airline. This is depressing for the reasons you’d expect, but also has its advantages. I’m now one of the most senior pilots in my category, and can more or less pick and choose my trips, my time off, and so forth. I fly where and when I want to, as much or as little as I like. My salary has never been better, and neither has my quality of life — or “QOL” as pilots call it. The price I pay is being an old bastard with most of his life behind him.

Everything at an airline comes down to seniority. The moment a pilot is hired, he or she is the most junior pilot in the company, and from there begins the long climb upward. How quickly you ascend depends on different things: the health of the industry, the growth (or contraction) of your airline, and so on. As older pilots retire and new ones are taken on, up the list you go.

And because each airline has its own seniority list, your number is of value only within that company. When a pilot is out of work, for whatever reason, he or she cannot slide over to another airline and pick up where they left off. There is no sideways transfer of benefits or salary, ever. If you move to a different company, you begin again at the bottom, at probationary pay and benefits, regardless of experience.

For this reason — at least at the major carrier level, and once you’ve accrued a reasonable amount of seniority — it’s almost unheard of for a pilot to move from one airline to another. It’s also why any sort of industry upheavals (COVID, wars, recessions) make pilots very nervous. If your company goes bust, you lose everything.


My airline has roughly 13,000 pilots and I sit somewhere in the 4,000s. But it’s not that simple: there are lists within that list, broken down by base city, aircraft assignment, and seat (captain or copilot). Some bases are, on the whole, more senior than others, depending where pilots prefer to live or commute to. The same goes for aircraft type. Being senior in one base, or in one plane, doesn’t mean being senior in another base, or in another plane.

In my base city (New York), in my aircraft type (767), and in my seat (copilot), I’m in the top ten percent of seniority. A desirable place to be. However, if I were to change to a different base, or bid to captain, or bid to first officer on a higher paying plane, my ranking could drop considerably. I might earn more money, but my QOL wouldn’t be as cushy. My schedule, my commute, the trips I fly — everything would be more difficult. It’s a tradeoff. For the time being, I’ll take the QOL.

The potential training commitment is another reason I’ve been hesitant. The last thing I feel like doing right now is sitting through a month of training to learn an entirely new plane. I enjoy the 767, including its mix of domestic and international flying. Europe, Africa, domestic coast-to-coast… it’s an enjoyable mix.

And this results in situations like the one I found myself in the other day, when I was working a flight to Mexico City. The captain was a decade younger than me, and far more junior overall. I’d been hired in 2001; he’d been hired in 2015. I was older, more senior, and considerably more experienced than he was. For whatever reasons, he prefers life as a (very) junior captain than he would as more senior copilot. Maybe it’s the money. Maybe it’s ego, or a sense of fulfillment that comes with being called “captain.” I didn’t ask.

Bear in mind that I’m talking mostly about the United States. In other parts of the world, the seniority system isn’t as rigid. Copilots are often hired with very low experience levels, and upgrades to captain aren’t always based on tenure.

But here at home, a copilot becomes a captain not merely by virtue of skill, but when his or her seniority standing allows it. And not every copilot wants to become a captain right away.

Beyond the salary and responsibility aspects, the two positions aren’t a whole lot different from each other. “Copilot” is a colloquial term for first officer, and contrary to what a lot of people think, a first officer is not an apprentice. He or she shares on-the-job duties more or less equally with the captain. The captain is in charge, and earns a larger paycheck, but both individuals fly the plane. Copilots perform just as many takeoffs and landings as captains do, in pretty much all weather conditions, and both are part of the decision-making process.

That’s good enough for me. We’ll see how things look in another year. For now, I’m happy and staying put.

 

Epaulets photo by the author.

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Here Comes the Summer

May 15, 2022

AIRLINES are understaffed, employees are overworked, passenger volumes are back to pre-pandemic levels, masks are off. And here come the three busiest travel months of the year. We’re already at the ragged edge of the envelope; just wait until those midsummer thunderstorms start barreling in. It’s going to be messy. If you bring one thing to the airport this summer, have it be this: patience.

I’m not the only one sounding the alarm. The major media, along with all the travel blogs, have been putting out their warnings as well. I like to believe that precisely because there’s so much hype, chances are things won’t turn out as bad as everyone says. So think of this post as a kind of reverse jinx. I’ll be traveling a lot in the next few months, and would prefer to keep my frazzle levels low.

Part of the mess is due to an ongoing pilot shortage, as I’m sure you’ve heard. In fact there are two pilot shortages, the effects of which are overlapping. One is short-term and mostly the result of poor planning. The second is more systemic and longer term.


When I say “poor planning,” I’m talking about the industry’s failure to adequately re-staff as things swung back to normal. However, while on the surface the airlines look pretty stupid, it’s not that simple: Consider the environment at the height of COVOD-19 downturn. The industry had never faced anything like this, and was desperate to stay alive. There was no way of predicting when, or to what extent, flyers would return. As the virus ebbed and surged, travel restrictions and border closings changed week to week; absolutely nothing was certain, and almost nobody predicted a return to 2019 numbers so soon. The expectation, so much as there was one, was of a gradual, incremental return.

Air travel logistics are challenging enough in normal times, never mind when the entire world has flipped upside-down. When it came to aligning their fleets and staffing, they did what they calculated was the smartest thing to do. Some guessed better than others — and that’s what it was to a big degree: guesswork.

Airlines are now taking on hundreds of new-hire pilots every month. This, combined with the lingering effects of the pandemic reshuffling, finds training departments overwhelmed, with long backlogs for classroom time, simulator slots, line certification flights, and so on. Many pilots are sitting at home, waiting their turn. Thus, it’s less a dearth of pilots than a training system overload.

Then we have the other, more systemic shortage. As I talked about in this older article, this is a significantly bigger problem at the regional carrier level than at the majors. All of the biggest airlines are currently hiring, and although they’re having no trouble filling their openings, those pilots have to come from somewhere, with high requisite levels of skill and experience. This is causing a ripple effect downward through the industry. The regional sector has all but reinvented itself in a plea for pilots, offering salary and benefits packages heretofore unheard of for entry-level airline pilots.

What nobody is talking about, meanwhile, is the issue of airspace and runway saturation. This is an even bigger factor than anything related to labor. Airlines continue adding planes into a system already at maximum capacity, especially in the eastern half of the U.S. It was bad enough pre-pandemic. Now, several upstart carriers are pumping even more airplanes into the sky.

Things run fairly smoothly when the weather is good, but the minute a storm develops, blocking off air routes, the delays and cancellations start to cascade. There’s no slack, no logistical breathing room. Even on clear-weather days, the taxiway queues at airports like Newark or La Guardia can be hours long.

It’s hard to say to what impact all of this will have on the summer of 2022. Pilots are just one of the moving parts.

Things might get messy, no doubt. But try to look at the bright side: People are out and about. Borders and attractions are (mostly) open. Travel is back. I wasn’t sure we’d get here, so count me among those who are happy to see a little chaos again at the airport.

 

“Here Comes the Summer” is a horrible song by the Undertones. Here’s a better one.

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Travel Photos: The Textures Series

May 5, 2022

I ALWAYS take the same picture. Or the same style of picture. There’s a theme, for lack of a better term, that I’m drawn to. Usually it’s a wall or a door or other flat surface, the weatherbeaten elements of which are similar: sun-cracked paint, peeling artwork, crumbling plaster or fissured stucco.

I call these my “texture” pictures, though it’s not that simple. It’s a combination of things: textures, patterns, geometry, colors — with a certain something that pulls it all together. In other words, there needs to be aesthetic merit to the shot. As to which make the cut and which don’t, there’s no formal criteria. In the words of Potter Stewart, I know it when I see it.

They’re travel photos by default, and I’ll go ahead and label the locations. But contextually they don’t say much. Most of them could be anywhere. Most focus on a single surface, but a few, as you’ll see, such as number 20, are more complicated.

Click any photo for a full-screen view.

ALL PHOTOS BY THE AUTHOR.

1. Blue window.   Accra, Ghana.

2. Remnants.   Kandy, Sri Lanka.

3. Shutters.   St. Louis, Senegal.

4. Green door.   Lisbon, Portugal.

5. Norwegian wood.   Oslo, Norway.

6. Brown.   Big Sur, California.

7. Splinter.   Porter Square, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

8. Checkerboard.   Kyoto, Japan.

9. Earth Tones.   Dubrovnik, Croatia.

10. Wall and Shutters.   Cairo, Egypt.

11. Brown.   Accra, Ghana.

12. Stones and Moss.   Boston Harbor.

13. Bud Light.   Massachusetts Avenue, Cambridge.

14. Vive al Paro.   Santa Marta, Colombia.

15. Post no Bills.   Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

16. Facades.   Porto, Portugal.

17. Deicing Fluid.   Boeing 757, New York City.

18. French Quarter 1.   New Orleans.   The wash of the colors make this photo appear blurry. It’s actually in normal focus.

19. French Quarter 2.   New Orleans.

20. Norwegian Blue.   Tromso, Norway.

21. Fertility Art.   Near Paro, Bhutan.

22. Cotraco.   Valetta, Malta.

23. Storefront, Ponta Delgada.   Sao Miguel island, Azores.

24. Alewife 1: Blisters.   Alewife T station, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

25. Alewife 2: Silver.   Alewife T station, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

26. Corrugated Wall.   Dakar, Senegal.

27. Boy and Doorway.   Near Monrovia, Liberia. This is the only picture of the set featuring a person.

28. Granary Door.   Noratus, Armenia.

29. Faucets and Feet.   Kowloon, Hong Kong.

30. Doorway and Thatch.   Ada, Ghana.

I don’t seek out these shots; if one appears, I take it. They more or less happen on their own.

If you’re wondering about enhancement, a few of the pictures have been cropped, and in some cases the shadows and color saturation have been tinkered with. But only slightly, to replicate what I saw with the naked eye. “No overdubs or funny stuff,” to quote the liner notes from Zen Arcade.

My favorite of the series is number 26, showing the paint-dappled wall of a small shop near the U.S. embassy in Dakar. It was taken in August, 2021, as I was walking to a restaurant with two of my colleagues. The canvas, if you will, is the side of an old shipping container. I remember passing this spot, then backtracking to get the picture, telling my friends I’d catch up with them in a minute.

My second favorite is number 14, the shot of the myriad posters in Santa Marta, Colombia. Believe it or not this picture was taken at night, with a streetlight providing the illumination.

I’m also fond of number 25, showing the silver-painted concrete inside the Alewife subway station in Cambridge, as well as number 30, last picture in the set, of the doorway in Ada, a waterfront village in Ghana, about two hours east of Accra.

More of my travel photos can be viewed HERE.

My Instagram stream is HERE.

 

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Rarefied Air

April 21, 2022

FLY ENOUGH, and every so often you’ll encounter this or that famous — or infamous — person.

Maybe it’s a pop star. Maybe a film star. Maybe a newscaster, an athlete, or a washed-up comedian nobody remembers (see below). Maybe it’s 1981 and you’re a ninth-grader, standing in baggage claim at the Los Angeles airport, and the actor known as “Mr. T” walks past you with his entourage.

As a pilot, I have the added thrill of not just seeing or perhaps sharing a row of seats with whomever it is, but being somewhat indispensable to whatever journey he or she is embarking on — be it a flight home from an awards show or a trip to rehab. They’re counting on me.

Or so it’s fun to think…


The thing about Mr. T is that he was short. Or shorter than he should have been, as I understood it. There’s always something about a celebrity that catches you off guard.

Spike Lee was on board once. This was a shuttle flight from Boston to La Guardia. Lee also is on the shorter side, but I knew that ahead of time.

Kevin McHale, the Hall of Fame basketball star from the Boston Celtics, is not short. One afternoon I was working a flight from Atlanta to San Francisco, and Kevin was sitting in first class. “You and me go way back,” I said to him. This was a reference to the days in the early 1980s when I followed every Celtics game, and McHale was the power forward of the team’s “big three” attack, along with Larry Bird and Robert Parish.

(As it happens, some years ago I was waiting to appear on a local television show, and I shared the green room with none other than Robert Parish. It was just the two of us, and we chatted for a few minutes. That was cool.)

About two months after the flight to San Francisco, I was standing at the gate in Boston waiting to board a plane to JFK, when I looked over and there, again, was Kevin McHale. “Hey!” I said. “I flew you out to San Francisco a couple of months ago!”

Kevin McHale didn’t seem impressed. I guess I don’t blame him.

Another time it was Dan Rather. “What’s the frequency, Kenneth?” I said to the captain. He didn’t get the joke. You probably don’t, either. It’s an old reference.

Dan Rather is old. I’m old. Everyone is old.

Kirk Douglas was certainly old. He lived to be 103. And although I never met or flew Kirk Douglas, I did carry his famous son, the actor Michael, on a run from JFK to LAX. I learned later that Michael had been en route to his father’s centennial birthday celebration.

I knew who Michael Douglas was right away, but in general my celebrity recognition skills are poor.

Kanye West was on my plane coming back from Zurich. I remember he walked aboard carrying a glass of cognac that he’d taken from the lounge. I was standing near the doorway, and as he passed I made some goofy remark about people bringing drinks onto planes. A flight attendant took me aside and told me the guy was Kanye West. I had only the vaguest idea who Kanye West was, and until that moment couldn’t have told you what he looked like.

Another night, there was a buzz among the cabin crew because “one of the Kardashians” was sitting in row two. I seemed to be the only person on the plane who didn’t know what a Kardashian was. I’d heard the name enough times, sure, but it didn’t mean much to me. I knew they were a celebrity family for some bizarre reason — though, to me, the name has always makes me think of an arms dealer or a Wall Street villain. When I looked over at row two, I saw a pleasantly dressed woman reading a magazine. This was a Kardashian?

Which one was it? I don’t remember.

At the gate in Los Angeles one morning, a couple come aboard and take their place in business class. They have a kid with them, a toddler. They’re conspicuous for a few different reasons. For one, their clothes and haircuts are — I don’t know how to describe it, exactly. Flamboyant, I guess is the word. The woman has plumes of hair going in all directions, like Sideshow Bob. The kid, who is maybe three, has a miniature version of the same hair, but in a more vertical, mohawk style. He’s wearing a brightly striped onesie outfit that appears to be made of silk. He’s kicking and fussing and screaming. Later I’m told that that the woman is the singer Alicia Keys, and the little troublemaker is her son.

Would you recognize the former news anchor Katie Couric? I didn’t, but she was on my plane a few years ago, and, long story short, ended up borrowing my iPhone charger. I gave Ms. Couric my card and told her to let me know if ever she needed help with a story about airplanes or airlines. One morning, not long afterwards, she called me at home, with questions about something that had been in the news. I forget what the topic was, and nothing ever came of it.

I flew the actor F. Murray Abraham out of Bucharest, Romania. This was a big one for me, because Abraham has the starring role in what, to me, is the funniest scene even filmed in the history of television. I’m talking about the Russian Tea Room scene with Louis C.K. during season three of the show “Louie.” You can view it here. The genius of this scene can’t be overstated. I wanted to tell the actor that, but I kept my mouth shut.

I did not keep my mouth shut the afternoon I flew Anthony Bourdain from Ireland to the U.S. This was in 2012, shortly before my book was published. The title of my book is, of course, a derivative ripoff of Bourdain’s famous book, “Kitchen Confidential.” I’d always felt uneasy about this, and here was my chance to let Mr. Bourdain know. “The publisher forced it on me,” I said to him, lying through my teeth.

He laughed.

And we haven’t even gotten to presidents…

I’ve met three presidents. None of them American presidents, but presidents nevertheless. The first of them was John Atta Mills, the semi-beloved leader of Ghana. Mills died in 2012, but during his tenure he rode aboard my airplane at least twice.

I also had the honor of meeting and flying the President of Guyana, Bharat Jagdeo. (Contrary to what my father and others seem to think, Ghana and Guyana are in fact different countries, on different continents, with different presidents to boot.)

Third on the list is Ellen Johnson Sirlief, Nobel Peace Prize laureate and former President of Liberia. I met her four times, including once at a reception at Roberts Field. On one of those occasions, I asked if she’d be kind enough to sign a copy of our flight plan. She obliged, writing her name in green ink at the bottom of the dot-matrix printout.

Things have worked out well for me, I think. Years ago, when I was puttering around over Plum Island, sweating to death in some noisy old Cessna, the idea that one day I’d be be carrying presidents in the back of my plane would have struck me as ludicrous.

Next we have the would-be presidents…

Doing this chronologically, we have to go all the way back a weekend afternoon in 1980. I’m at Boston’s Logan Airport, planespotting with a pair of my junior high pals, when who disembarks from a TWA jet only a few feet in front of us but Jerry Brown, then-governor (and, later, governor again!) of California. Brown was running for President that year along with Jimmy Carter, John Anderson and Ronald Reagan.

In addition to his political aspirations, Governor Brown, a.k.a. “Governor Moonbeam,” is known for his dabbling in Buddhism, his long liaison with Linda Ronstadt, and his appearance in one of the most famous punk rock songs — the Dead Kennedys’ “California Über Alles.”

Six years after that, on a Sunday morning in 1990, I’m standing at Teterboro Airport, a busy general aviation field in New Jersey, close to New York City. A private jet pulls up. The stairs come down, and out steps Jesse Jackson and several burly bodyguards. Jackson walks into the terminal, passing me by inches.

The following summer I’m back at Logan, using a payphone in Terminal E. Suddenly Ted Kennedy is standing at the phone next to me, placing a call. (Quaint, I know, in this age of wireless, but there’s the famous Senator, the brother of JFK, slipping dimes into the slot.) I’m talking to a friend, and I surreptitiously hold up the receiver. “Listen,” I say, “whose voice is this?”

“Sounds like Ted Kennedy,” she reckons. And it is.

Next it’s 1994. Logan again, and I’m in the captain’s seat of a Northwest Airlink 19-seater, preparing for departure to Baltimore. Up the front stairs comes Michael Dukakis, who in 1988 had lost the election in a landslide to George Bush the Elder. He stops briefly behind the cockpit and says hello.

After we land in Baltimore, Dukakis thanks us for the ride and remarks, “Not a lot of room in here.” Even at 5’8″ he’s right about that. The Metroliner’s skinny, tubular fuselage earned it the nickname “lawn dart.”

“Yeah,” I answer, “It’s not exactly Air Force One.”

Meanwhile, intentionally or otherwise, the Duke has left a sheaf of important-looking papers in his seat pocket — probably because he’s run to a phone to cuss out his secretary for booking him on that stupid little plane with the annoying pilot. I carry the papers inside to the counter. “Here,” I say to the agent. “These belong to Mike Dukakis.” She looks at me like I’m crazy.

In 2012 I shared a shuttle flight from New York to Boston with Chelsea Clinton. She and her husband were sitting just a few rows ahead of me. At one point I was taking something down from the overhead locker when she passed me in the aisle. I was in her way and had to move aside. “Sorry,” I said. “Excuse me.”

“Thanks,” said Chelsea Clinton.

All of those people were Democrats. Rounding things off ideologically, I once had the controversial Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork on my plane. That was in the summer of 1991. Bork was riding in my rattletrap 15-seater from Boston to Nantucket.

That same summer, again to Nantucket in the same shitty plane, I flew David Atkins, better known to the world as “Sinbad,” the thankfully-forgotten actor and comedian who once had his own talk show and HBO comedy special. He sat in the back row of the Beech-99, surrounded by an entourage of beautiful women.

Okay, “thankfully-forgotten” is a cruel thing to say, even if he did wind up emceeing the Miss Universe pageant. Sinbad couldn’t have been friendlier, and in the Compass Rose restaurant at the Nantucket airport he bought me and my copilot chicken sandwiches, asking us for advice on what kind of airplane he should buy. We told him to invest in a Cessna Citation — a twin-engine executive jet — though I can’t remember why. I was making about thirteen grand a year at the time, and would have said anything for a chicken sandwich.

The great New York Yankees catcher Thurman Munson was killed at the controls of a Cessna Citation in 1979, but I don’t think we mentioned this to Sinbad.

 

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Unmasked

April 19, 2022

IF YOU’RE headed to the airport today, you can leave your face covering at home.

Yesterday, a Federal judge struck down the Biden Administration’s extension of the TSA-enforced mask mandate for airports, airplanes, and public transit. By late afternoon, the White House basically threw in the towel, announcing that TSA would no longer enforce the rule. Already extended on two prior occasions, the mandate was set to expire in under three weeks. Apparently this wasn’t a fight worth taking on.

Within hours, the country’s airlines began informing passengers and employees that, effective immediately, masks are now optional.

The new policy will affect U.S. domestic flights and airports. Protocols on international flights will vary with the destination country.

Here’s hoping the pre-departure testing requirement for passengers returning to the United States is next to be eliminated.

Regardless of where I fall on the matter, what I fear is that the to-mask-or-not-to-mask question becomes a kind of binary political litmus: if you’re politically on the left, you’ll continue wearing a mask. If you’re a Trumper or politically to the right, you won’t. Ideological affiliations will thus be judged instantly, based on appearance.

This kind of non-thinking is bothersome and very unfair, but this is the nation we’re living in these days — and another of the reasons I’ve come to feel so politically homeless of late.

And that’s about all I wish to say. If readers feel like arguing the good and bad, have at it in the comments section.

It’ll be interesting to see this how this plays out. I imagine the percentage of people sticking with masks will, at first, remain quite high. I was at the Dublin airport a couple of weeks ago, where the policy has been optional for a while, and it was about 50/50. Will you wear a mask still? Why or why not? And talk us through the different scenarios. What if, for example, you prefer to be masked but find yourself seated in a row of unmasked flyers. Etc.

One thing that hopefully goes away forever are the mask selfies on Instagram posted by pilots and flight attendants. If, like me, you’re a fan of the various commercial aviation photostreams, you’ve seen them: picture after picture of airline workers cheerfully mugging in face masks. This seems wrong to me, and often smells sanctimonious.

And why do I get the feeling that most of these photos would never exist in the first place if not for the masks? Somehow the mask seems to be the entire point, which makes it all the more frustrating.

Yes, until now, everyone who flew needed to put a mask on. This was understood and accepted, as was any airline’s attempt to make the policy clear through advertising, promotional materials, on-board safety videos, and so forth. What’s driven me crazy, however, have been the constant attempts to cute-ify the wearing of masks. Because, in fact, there’s nothing cute about them. Masks are physical symptom of a society in pretty serious distress. This isn’t something to giggle at, normalize, or make light of.

 

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The Latest Books by Jonathan Franzen and Gary Shteyngart

April 15, 2022

TWO OF my favorite authors have new books out. Or newish, anyway. Both were published towards the end of last year. I finally got around to reading them.

Let me start by acknowledging my fondness, normally, for Gary Shteyngart, the Russian-born novelist whose early books included the satirical hits “Absurdistan” and “The Russian Debutante’s Handbook.” And the main reason I’m fond of Gary is because he’s funny. To be clear, his stories have never quite been comedies in and of themselves. They’re bigger and smarter than that. But in the way that Kurt Vonnegut once did, he knows how to lay out a sentence just so. It’s a laconic, almost conspiratorial kind of funny that you either love or hate or miss entirely: a grace note of humor on the surface, helping deliver a deeper and more poignant sentiment. The structure is funny; the meaning, maybe, is not. Thus I cackled my way through those aforementioned novels, and loved every minute of Gary’s memoir, “Little Failure,” which is possibly my favorite of his works.

Not this time. “Our Country Friends” is the story of a cluster of sharp-tongued urban creative types who gather in upstate New York to ride out the coronavirus pandemic. They banter, they fight, they drink, they sleep with each other and prepare rustic-gourmet meals. If that sounds uninteresting, or worse, that’s because it is. It’s also, whether through lack of effort, or, because the author, who usually isn’t so squeamish, considered it distasteful to encourage laughter amidst a health crisis, wholly unfunny, lacking any of that Shteyngartian deadpan I’ve come to love. Always in a Shteyngart book are those moments when I pause to savor a sentence or passage, suppressing (or not) the urge to laugh out loud. Not once in 320 pages did “Our Country Friends” trigger much as a giggle. On the contrary, I couldn’t wait for it to end.

The impression I’m left with is that Gary Shteyngart, whose alter-ego we see as the protagonist Sasha Senderovsky, really did escape to rural New York to ride out the pandemic, then for some misguided reason felt like he had to write a book about it. He was mistaken. Unless, that is, you’re idea of a rewarding book is a strained and humorless tale of a group of insufferable intellectuals who can’t decide if they love or hate each other — a weird “Uncle Vanya” of Oberlin grads disaster partying in the woods.

To enjoy a story, you need to enjoy the people in it. You do not, necessarily, need to empathize with or even respect them as humans, but as characters you need to like, or at least be entertained by them. Well, it’s hard to like anyone in this book. Not the neurotic Sasha or his equally neurotic wife. Not the soulful Indian professor and his secretly brilliant manuscript. Not the sexy, Southern firecracker essayist. And absolutely not the Senderovskys’ hyper-precocious, K-Pop obsessed young daughter, Natasha. I’ve met kids like this. They’re impressive, but always irritating. This one especially so. Are these the people Gary hangs around with when he’s not writing?

It’s possible, of course, that I’m tone-deaf to the whole enterprise. Perhaps we’re not supposed to like these people? If so, well done.

Then there’s the whole COVID backdrop. “There cannot be a more relevant novel for our moment,” says Andrew Sean Greer in a blurb. Did anyone besides me just roll their eyes? Kirkus Reviews takes it a step higher: “The Great American Pandemic Novel,” they call it. All right, but did we really, truly, need one of those? Worse, there’s a persistent whiff of editorializing that runs through the text — in case we require a little more consciousness-raising on matters of COVID, face masks, BLM, Trumpism and so forth. This style of sanctimony is unusual for Gary, and however lightly he plays it, it’s unnecessary and distracting.

I’m looking at the author’s jacket photo. There’s something, a gravity, to it that doesn’t feel right. It’s too pensive, too posed. Is Gary Shteyngart jumping the fiction shark, trying (too hard) to reinvent himself as a “serious” and less funny writer? Let’s hope not. Those things are not mutually exclusive. He knows that.

 

My feelings couldn’t be more different, on the other hand, for Jonathan Franzen’s “Crossroads.”

Set mostly in 1971, this magisterial, thunderously passionate novel is an exploration of the Hildebrandt family: Russ, a pastor in suburban Illinois, his wife Marion, and their four children. All of whom, in their own ways, find themselves consumed by guilt and secret shame, and become hellbent on the prospect of change.

And I do mean exploration: the Hildebrandts are rendered in such compelling detail that it’s hard to keep in mind this is fiction. You are drawn so intimately into this family, face to face with its foibles and fears and failures, that it may as well be your own. How a writer can get so deep into the heads of fictional characters, then make those characters so intensely interesting to a reader, is something I cannot fathom. Nobody does this better than Jonathan Franzen, and he’s never done it as well as he does here.

“Crossroads” covers some big territory: Christianity, moral redemption, the dynamics of friendship and family, and the cultural verves of the 1970s. There are a lot of moving parts, thematically. (The title takes its name from a Christian youth group the characters become enmeshed in.) Trying to grasp it all, never mind analyze it here, is beyond my pay grade, as they say; it exceeds my capabilities as a reader, a fan, and a hack blogger. I’ll leave that to the professional reviewers. There are some excellent takes out there, in the New Yorker and elsewhere. All I know for sure is that I loved this book and couldn’t put it down.

I even laughed out loud a few times: “The vanity of believing that his sheepskin coat made him look like anything but a fatuous, obsolete, repellent clown.” And just as Gary Shteyngart’s book does, “Crossroads” includes a wayward and precocious child, in this case the adolescent Perry Hildebrandt. But unlike the obnoxious little girl in “Our Country Friends,” Perry, for all his transgressions, is actually likable and endearing.

When I’d read the the jacket flap at the bookstore at Kennedy Airport, I had my doubts. It just didn’t sound that interesting. Even the cover art seemed kind of a downer. And at 580 pages, quite a bit of time was at stake, not to mention space in my carry-on luggage (I don’t do electronic copies). Not only that, but novelists, like rock bands, tend to hit their creative strides in early to mid-career, then taper off (that’s somewhere around album three if you’re the Clash or Husker Du). Franzen is still young, sure, but this is his sixth novel, to go with several essay collections. And no way, I thought, could he ever outdo “The Corrections.”

But I was wrong, and he has. I feel like I’ll remember this book forever.

________

 

Is there a tie-in to commercial aviation here? Not at all, though some of you might remember that both Shteyngart and Franzen drew my ire for their use of the term “roller board” a few years back. You can revisit those complaints here and here.

There’s also this:

 

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Switched Off

April 14, 2022

I’M SUPPOSED to watch the much talked-about documentary, “Downfall,” about Boeing and the 737 MAX fiasco, and report back to you with my thoughts. The show keeps popping up in my Netflix stream. But I end up watching “Better Call Saul” instead.

As a general rule I shy away from aviation-related shows. Inevitably they’re over-the-top, misleading, or incomplete. They leave me annoyed and wanting to write letters to the producers. So, no, I haven’t seen “Downfall” and I have no plans to.

That’s not to say all such programs are poorly made. Comments I’ve heard from other pilots suggest they did a good job with this one. Which is nice to know, but still I’m in no hurry to find out. Plus, they didn’t invite me on the show.

Had they interviewed me, I would have voiced my opinion that central to Boeing’s boondoggle with the MAX was its decision to not build the 797. Instead of coming out with an all-new mid-sized airframe to replace its aging 757 and 767 models, they opted to force-feed the industry monsterized versions of the 737. Plans for the 797 should have been unveiled on the day the 757 went out of production, eighteen years ago.

Boeing claimed there wasn’t a big-enough market for such a jet, which is nonsense. The order backlog for advanced versions of the Airbus A321 proves it. The A321 isn’t half the plane the 797 would have been, but it’s the only one that sort of, kind of, fills that capacity and range niche. Hopefully “Downfall” at least touched on this.

Instead of me reviewing the program, I’ll let you do it, in the comments section below. Let us know what was good, bad, depressing, pleasing or disappointing. Maybe, even, you’ll convince me to watch it.

 

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The China Eastern 737 Crash

March 22, 2022

FIRST THINGS FIRST, it’s important to employ my usual post-crash disclaimer: When planes go down, initial speculation is often misguided and wrong. Early clues that appear straightforward and revealing turn out to be complicated and unclear.

All we know for certain is that China Eastern flight 5735 was cruising at 29,000 feet when something went disastrously awry. The jetliner, with 132 people aboard, fell into a high-speed plunge. Radar reports show that it leveled off briefly at around 8,000 feet, began a brief climb, then fell into a second plunge from which it never recovered, disintegrating into hilly terrain near the city of Wuzhou. There were no survivors.

The severity of the plunges, which were tracked by air traffic control radar, together with harrowing security camera footage showing the stricken jet in a vertical dive, offer some of those clues that we need to be careful with. Whatever went wrong, it happened quickly and catastrophically. There was no distress call.

This tells us a lot, but also it tells us nothing. Any number of things is possible, from a bomb to a flight control system somehow gone haywire. One cause being thrown around is “structural failure.” Did some portion of the tail or a stabilizer separate from the aircraft? Perhaps. But if so, why? Design flaw, faulty repair, explosive decompression? There can be layers to these things.

That the descent was temporarily arrested is the most interesting part. It suggests the pilots were able to maintain or regain some semblance of control, at least briefly. This lessens the probability of certain scenarios — a bombing or major structural failure, for example, the results of which tend to be a more consistent sort of plummet. Yet nothing can be ruled out entirely. A friend of mine even came up with a pilot suicide hypothesis that, although extremely unlikely, is nonetheless plausible

The plane was a Boeing 737-800. The -800 is one of the “Next Generation” (NG) 737 variants. It first flew in 1997, and today is one of the most popular jetliners in the world.

The 737-800 is not equipped with the stall avoidance system that led to the 737 MAX crashes a few years ago, but the jet has had a few problems over the years:

In 2005, a group of former Boeing employees filed a lawsuit claiming that some Next Generation 737s had been manufactured with defective parts. These parts, it was contended, may have contributed to the fuselage breakups of a Turkish Airlines 737 outside Amsterdam in 2009, and the nonfatal runway overrun of an American Airlines 737 in Jamaica that same year. The ex-employees lost their case, as well as their appeal. Investigators, including the NTSB, found no link between faulty parts and structural failure.

In 2019, fatigue cracks were discovered in the wing-fuselage attachment sections of approximately five percent of the global 737NG fleet, leading to a series of mandated inspections and repairs. But this applies primarily to older -800s that have exceeded a particular number of flight hours and cycles (takeoffs and landings). The airplane that crashed in China was only seven years-old.

A rudder defect was blamed for at least two 737 disasters in the 1990s, plus a number of nonfatal incidents. These were earlier-generation variants, however, and the plane’s rudder servo system was redesigned.

You might also come across articles highlighting the high number of incidents and accidents involving 737s over the decades. Be wary of how these numbers are presented (usually as raw totals, without meaningful statistical context), keeping in mind that more 737s have been built than any other jet.

And so, there’s nothing at this point to suggest flight 5735 was brought down by a design flaw or potential negligence on the part of the manufacturer. And while I’ve never been much a fan of the 737, it’s not because I consider the plane unsafe. No matter, the wolves are out for Boeing, and have been since the MAX crashes. With the company’s reputation in tatters, this couldn’t have come at a worse time, regardless of who or what is to blame.

“Boeing Faces New Upheaval After Crash of Chinese Airliner,” read a headline in yesterday’s New York Times. “No fault has been found,” the article continues, “but the company, which has been trying to overcome a recent legacy of design and production troubles, is likely to get scrutinized.”

It certainly will be. But let’s maybe not go that route until the facts are in. We live in a time when everyone wants quick and concise answers, I know. But air crash investigations take months, sometimes years. Even then, we don’t always learn the whole story.


NOTES AND WHATNOT:

— China’s domestic airline market is roughly as large as that of the United States. Once much maligned, the country’s aviation safety record has improved considerably over the last two decades and is now considered among the safest. China’s last major accident was a decade ago.

— In the old days, China had only one airline: the Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC), which was second only to Aeroflot in size. And like Aeroflot, it was eventually broken up, splintering off dozens of smaller independent carriers. One of those was China Eastern. Based in Shanghai, China Eastern is today the country’s second-largest airline, just behind China Southern, with a fleet of some 600 aircraft and a route structure extending to Europe and North America.

— We can thank the security-industrial complex for these furtive glimpses of crashing planes we’d otherwise never see. Pentagon, etc. Now this one.

— Those puffs of smoke visible in the video look to me like engine compressor stalls. Jet engines will not function properly in a vertical dive, effectively hiccuping.

— One upon a time, a plane crash in a foreign country killing 132 people would have been a relatively minor news story. What happened is obviously tragic, but the amount of attention that crashes receive nowadays helps underscore how rare they’ve become.

 

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Q&A With the Pilot

AN OLD-TIMEY QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS SESSION.

Eons ago, in 2002, a column called Ask the Pilot, hosted by yours truly, started running in the online magazine Salon, in which I fielded reader-submitted questions about air travel. (United Airlines later stole my name and began running a stripped-down version of the same thing in its inflight magazine.) It’s a good idea, I think, to touch back now and then on the format that got this venerable enterprise started. It’s Ask the Pilot classic, if you will.

Expect more of these Q&As in the coming months, if for no other reason than I enjoy putting them together. They’re geeky, but they’re fun. And I’ll probably never run out of fodder. It’s the nature of the business, I suppose: commercial flying is vastly misunderstood, and one of those things that everybody has a question about. That’s good for business, but it’s frustrating as well, because much of what the public presumes about commercial flying is based on bad information. If there’s a Golden Rule to this gig, it’s this: never, ever, underestimate the traveling public’s disdain for the airlines and its willingness to believe almost every false rumor, exaggerated story and conspiracy theory. I receive many emails beginning with the words “Is it true that…” and inevitably it’s my duty to politely informing the reader that the answer is no.


Q: Is it true that jetliners have windshield wipers?

No.

I mean, yes. This might strike you as quaint, but most airliners are indeed equipped with wipers. They’re used on the ground, and during takeoff takeoffs and landings if precipitation is heavy. They are effective at keeping the windscreen clear, but tend to be very noisy. Often there’s a speed restrictions (around 200 knots, give or take), above which they should not be turned on. Some planes use a system that instead blows engine bleed air across the glass. Cockpit windows are also electrically heated to prevent ice and frost accretion. The individual panels use separate circuits and heating elements so that a failure will affect only one section. Heating also increases flexibility, providing extra protection against bird strikes.

The glass is unbelievably strong — bank-teller thick and bolstered by high-strength frames. Somewhere on YouTube is a video of maintenance workers attempting — and failing — to shatter a discarded cockpit windscreen with a sledgehammer.

If that all sounds expensive, it is. Swapping out a single cockpit pane can run tens of thousands of dollars.

Q: I was on a flight from Prague to Madrid, and about halfway through, the captain announced that we needed to make an emergency landing in Marseilles because of a crack in the cockpit windshield. A short while later we were told that because we’d descended to a suitable altitude, there was no longer a need for an emergency landing, and we could proceed to Madrid as planned. I would think that if there was a crack in the windshield you would want the plane on the ground as soon as possible.

Strong as they are, aircraft windscreens occasionally do crack. In all but the rarest cases, however, cracking will not cause a shattering or rupture of the window. How to deal with the crack depends on its size, the location, and how many layers of the glass are affected (there are multiple layers). The checklist might call for a speed reduction, and/or depressurizing in order to reduce stress on the glass. Or it might call for nothing at all. Depressurizing requires a descent to no higher than 10,000 feet. Once at the appropriate height and speed, and so long as fuel allows, it may be possible to continue flying without further trouble.

This is the kind of thing that the flight crew would coordinate with maintenance personnel. Ultimately it’s the captain’s decision, but dealing with malfunctions is often a team effort between the flight crew and staff on the ground, with whom we communicate via datalink or radio.

Q: We were sitting at the gate, preparing to board a flight to San Francisco. The plane was a 757. I was amazed when I looked out and suddenly saw one of the pilots with his arm hanging out the cockpit window!

Another peculiarity of cockpit windows is that some of them can be opened when the plane is on the ground. It’s normally the side windows — never those in the front — that have this capability, and only on some aircraft. The 757s and 767s that I fly are two of those aircraft. It gets hot in the cockpit with all of the lights on and electrical equipment humming, and I often crank a window open for fresh air.

The apparatus that does the latching and sliding is strictly mechanical, and also allows the window to be used as an emergency exit. It’s a long way down, so an escape rope is usually tucked into an adjacent sidewall or ceiling panel. (When commandos stormed a hijacked Air France flight in Algeria in 1995, first officer Jean-Paul Borderie fractured an elbow and thigh after leaping 16 feet to the ground from the cockpit of an Airbus A300.) The window fits into the frame much like a plug, and similar to how an aircraft’s doors cannot be opened during flight, neither can its windows, so long as the plane remains pressurized.

While all that glass makes for a splendid view and the chance for some fresh air, it also has a downside. Namely, noise. Going nose first into 600 miles-an-hour of onrushing air produces an exceptional racket. Ambient cockpit noise levels average about 75 decibels. Over the course of a multi-hour flight, that induces fatigue. Over the course of a career, it induces hearing loss. Engineers have tinkered with active noise reduction technology and better insulation, but the easiest way of dealing with the problem is either with a noise reducing headset or, more routinely, a pair of foam earplugs.

Airbus A380 with open cockpit window.   Photo by the author.

Airbus A380 with open cockpit window.    Photo by the author.

Q: It has always puzzled me why airliners deploy their landing gear so long before landing, yet tuck it away almost immediately after lifting off. Dropping the wheels so soon must cause a lot of extra drag and fuel burn.

Sometimes that drag is helpful. Dropping the gear can be a useful tool when air traffic control sets you up too high or needs you down in a hurry. This causes a racket, however, and isn’t the most graceful way of descending or decelerating.

Normally we deploy the landing gear at somewhere around 2,000 feet on final approach. Mainly it’s just to be certain that everything is steady and stable at a reasonably early point. Lowering the gear has a significant aerodynamic impact — mainly in the adding of wind resistance, i.e. drag — thus requiring power and pitch adjustments to maintain speed, altitude, or rate of descent. It’s best to have that out of the way early on to help establish what pilots call a “stabilized approach.” Deploying the gear close-in to the runway could cause a sudden shift in airspeed and attitude exactly when it’s critical not to have a sudden shift in airspeed and attitude.

On takeoff, however, this works to a plane’s advantage. Remember, the moments just after liftoff are the most critical moments of any flight. The plane is making the transition from ground to air, and margins are relatively thin. The more help it can get — such as eliminating the drag caused by dangling struts, tires and doors — the better. On approach, by contrast, flight is well established and the margins much fatter.

All planes have maximum speeds for deployment and retraction. Airstream stress is more of an issue for the doors than for the gear assembly itself. For this reason, some of the doors will open as the gear comes down, then close up again.


Q: Whenever I have a window seat, I watch for the deployment of the wing flaps, especially during takeoffs. There have been crashes because pilots “forgot” to extend the flaps. Can you explain the process involved with the flaps?

Flaps help a wing generate lift at low speeds. Commercial aircraft will take off with the flaps extended to some intermediate position. The specific position, calculated prior to departure, depends on weight and runway length. On planes that are so equipped, leading-edge slats will also be deployed. These droop down from the forward part of the wing, and provide the same function as flaps. Flaps and slats work in concert, and are extended or retracted using the same control lever. In other words, moving the lever to a certain position will adjust both surfaces.

(On the 767 that I fly, setting the flap lever to position 1 drops the slats to the so-called midrange position while the flaps remain up. Moving the lever further, to the 5 position, which is the one most commonly used for takeoff, the slats remain in the midrange setting but the flaps extend slightly. On landing, setting the flaps to positions 15 through 30 moves the slats all the way down, while the flaps extend even further.)

Flap position is verified, re-verified, and verified again prior to takeoff. At my carrier, our checklists include no fewer than three challenge-and-response calls before reaching the runway. On top of that, commercial planes are equipped with a warning sensor that sounds an alarm if the flaps are not deployed at the moment thrust is advanced for takeoff. When using the checklists, we verify not only the flap handle position, but the indicator gauge also, to make sure the flaps’ actual position agrees with the commanded position. If or some strange reason they don’t agree, and for some strange reason we missed this, a separate warning system is triggered.

So, how it is that planes have crashed on takeoff because flaps weren’t properly set? I can think of three cases when this did indeed happened. In all three it was due to a combination of unusual circumstances: The pilots were rushed and neglected to verify position, and, for reasons that investigators could not decipher, there was a simultaneous failure of the warning system. Nowadays, however, improved checklist discipline makes a repeat of this type of accident extraordinarily unlikely.

Flaps and slats are very important during landing as well, but there’s more wiggle room here. Should they fail to deploy, either partially or at all, we can adjust by using a faster approach speed. This, in turn, affects landing distance, braking, and so on, sometimes to the point where a plane will need to divert to a longer runway. “No-flap landings” are a common simulator exercise.

 

EMAIL YOUR QUESTIONS TO patricksmith@askthepilot.com

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Portions of this post appeared previously in the magazine Salon.

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