Holiday Creep? It’s Never Too Early For an Ask the Pilot Christmas.

Three Cool Books to Stick Up Your Stocking. Plus, Memories of Holidays Aloft, and the Worst Christmas Song of All Time.

November 30, 2015

THE CLOCK is yet to strike December, and already Christmas is everywhere. It’s at the airport, it’s at the hardware store, it’s at the mall and it’s on TV — the schmaltzy carols and the idealized yuletide imagery: snowy winterscapes, roaring fireplaces, pretty people in Santa hats. Holiday creep, this is called, when the force-feeding of Christmas begins a little earlier each year. And it’s not just an American phenomenon. I was walking around Amsterdam the other day and the city is end-to-end with twinkling lights, tinsel, and the fluffy beard of olde “Sinterklaas.”

Okay, I’ve been informed that the Dutch do their celebrating and gift-giving on December 5th, so Amsterdam is off the hook. But not my local Rite Aid pharmacy, though, or down at Ace Hardware in Porter Square, which like most of the establishments in my neighborhood are decked out like a Christmas movie set barely two days after Thanksgiving. And how about the relentless stream of Christmas-theme television commercials I had to endure yesterday evening, one after the other, with their jingle bells and reindeer, while watching the Patriots get throttled by the Broncos?

I don’t much like Christmas, if you must know. The phoniness and thunderous commercialism of it all. Plus, I never get any presents. Typically I work over the holiday. Last year it was Ghana. This year I’ll be in Paris. But while I can run, I can’t really hide. Nobody, not even a sourpuss likes me, escapes this grotesque juggernaut of make-believe goodwill and endless consumption. In some ways, maybe, this is for the better. Certainly an author and website curator, I ignore it at my peril, especially if I hope to make a few dollars shilling my book. And so welcome to the fifth annual installment of “An Ask the Pilot Christmas” — extra early this year!

First things first, here are my 2015 gift suggestions. Traditionally I do books:

At the top of the list, shamelessly and predictably enough, is Cockpit Confidential: Everything You Need to Know About Air Travel. Questions, Answers & Reflections, the on-again, (mostly) off-again New York Times bestseller authored by Yours Truly. This is the ideal stocking-stuffer for the frequent flyer, nervous passenger or world traveler on your list. It’s informative, thoughtful and funny; seven addictive chapters of FAQ, essays, rants and memoir, covering everything from the nuts-and-bolts of flying to airline customer service to the yin and yang of global travel. The perfect take-along for your next flight. He said, modestly. Click the photo and you’ll be taken to the book’s Amazon page. For ordering options in Canada, Europe, Australia and India, click HERE.

Book Cover With Bestseller Credit

My own masterpiece notwithstanding, my hands-down choice for Book of the Year goes to Mark Vanhoenacker’s Skyfaring: A Journey With a Pilot. Mark and I are kindred spirits. We’re both airline pilots from Massachusetts who felt we had something to say, and turned that something into a book. Mark’s flying career got going some years after mine did, but he’s leapfrogged me by several wingspans: today he flies 747s for one of the most prestigious carriers in the world. If that doesn’t make me jealous enough, in light of my life-long infatuation with the 747, he’s also written the book that I always wanted to write. Skyfaring delivers a rare and refreshing perspective in an age when commercial flying is taken almost entirely for granted. Through prose as passionate and erudite as it is informative, he describes not merely the mechanical workings of flight, but will rekindle, in those who care to listen, a lost appreciation for the marvel of global air travel. My own writing has been described similarly, and surely our inspiration — both for the job we do and for why and how we write about it — comes from the same place. But Mark’s is the richer book. Skyfaring isn’t merely informational. It’s a deeply personal and reflective work. It’s Mark Vanhoenacker’s story. And it’s a good one.


A plug, too, for Matthias C. Huhne’s exquisitely illustrated volume, Airline Visual Identity, 1945-1975. I could spend hours with this book — indeed I already have — poring over the old travel posters, timetable designs and aircraft liveries. It’s simply amazing, the level of attention and resources airlines once devoted to the finer points of their branding, from their insignias and typefaces to their promotional brochures and advertising copy, and how gorgeous so much of it was. Featured companies include Air France, BOAC, Pan Am, Swissair, Braniff and Aeroflot — all the heavy hitters you’d expect. (The American Airlines section in particular is a tear-jerker, detailing the history of Massimo Vignelli’s shamelessly forsaken “AA” logo.) The book is available in two hardcover versions, one affordable and the other not so much. If you can swing it, the collectors’ edition comes in an aircraft-style metal case.


Last year’s recommendations, if you missed them, are HERE. They include Keith Lovegrove’s reissued “Airline,” Tom McMillan’s book on United flight 93, and Barnaby Conrad’s outstanding Pan Am chronicle.


And now…


The Annual Posting of a Perennial Favorite

SO THE HOLIDAYS ARE HERE, and according to the International Air Transport Association (IATA), roughly 750 billion people are expected to fly between now and New Year’s Eve, 96 percent of them connecting through Atlanta.

In fact I don’t know how many people are projected to fly. I haven’t been listening. In any case, it’s the same basic story every year: the trade groups put out their predictions, and much is made as to whether slightly more, or slightly fewer, people will fly than the previous year. Does the total really matter to the typical traveler? All you need to know is that airports will be crowded and flights especially full. Any tips I might offer are simple common sense: leave early, and remember that TSA considers fruitcakes to be hazardous materials (no joke: the density of certain baked goods causes them to appear suspicious on the x-ray scanners).

Normally I work over the holidays. As a relative bottom-feeder on my airline’s seniority list, it’s an opportunity to score one of those higher-quality layovers that are normally out of reach. Other pilots want to be home with their kids or watching football, and so I’ve been able to spend Christmas in Egypt, the Fourth of July in Belgium, Thanksgiving in Cape Town.

That’s how it works at an airline: every month you put in your preferences: where you’d like to fly, which days you’d like to be off, which insufferable captains you hope to avoid, and so on. There are separate bids at each base, for each aircraft type and for each seat – i.e. captain and first officer. The award process then begins with the most senior pilot in your category and works its way down. Each pilot’s “line,” as our months are called, is filled with trips until reaching a certain number of pay-hours. When it finally gets to the dregs, lower-rung pilots have their pick of the scraps.

Eventually the process reaches a point when there are no more rostered trips to give out. Those pilots left over — the bottom ten or fifteen percent — are assigned to what’s called reserve. A reserve pilot has designated days off, and receives a flat minimum pay rate for the month, but his or her workdays, given out in multiple-day blocks, are a blank slate. The reserve pilot is on call, and needs to be within a stipulated number of hours from the airport — anywhere from two to twelve, usually, and it can change day to day. When somebody gets sick, or is trapped in Chicago because of a snowstorm, the reserve pilot goes to work. The phone might ring at 2 a.m., and you’re on way to Sweden or Brazil — or to Omaha or Dallas. It’s an unpredictable way to live. Among the challenges is learning how to pack. What to put in the suitcase when you don’t know if your next destination will be warm and tropical or freezing cold? (Answer: everything.)

Looking back, holiday flying has provided me a few of those sentimental oddities a pilot files away in his mental logbook:

One of my favorite memories dates all the way back to Thanksgiving, 1993. I was captain of a Dash-8 turboprop flying from Boston to New Brunswick, Canada, and my first officer was the always cheerful and gregarious Kathy Martin. (Kathy, who also appears in my “Right Seat” essay, was one of three pilots I’ve known who had been flight attendants at an earlier point in their careers.) There were no meal services on our Dash-8s, but Kathy brought a cooler from home, packed with food: huge turkey sandwiches, a whole blueberry pie and tubs of mashed potatoes. We assembled the plates and containers across the folded-down jumpseat. The pie we passed to the flight attendant, who handed out slices to passengers.

Quite a contrast to Thanksgiving Day in 1999, when I was working a cargo flight to Brussels. It was custom on Thanksgiving to stock the galley with a special holiday meal, and the three of us were hungry and much looking forward to it. The trouble was, the caterers forgot to bring the food. By the time we noticed, we were only minutes from departure and they had split for the day. I thought I was going to cry when I opened the door and saw only a can of Diet Sprite and a matchbook-size packet of Tillamook cheese.

The best we could do was get one of the guys upstairs to drive out to McDonald’s. He came back with three big bags of burgers and fries, tossing them up to us just as they were pulling the stairs away. Who eats fast food on Thanksgiving? Pilots in a pinch.

On New Year’s Eve, 2010, I was flying over the city of Bamako, Mali, in West Africa. Fireworks explode only a few hundred feet from the ground, but enough of them together provide a unique spectacle viewable from a jetliner. At the stroke of midnight, the city erupted in a storm of tiny explosions. The sky was lit by literally tens of thousands of small incendiaries — white flashes everywhere, like the sea of flashbulbs you sometimes see at sporting events. From high above, this huge celebration made Bamako look like a war zone.

Not that I work every holiday. I’ve spent a number of them traveling on vacation.

And with that in mind, here’s some advice:

Do not, ever, make the mistake that I once made and attempt to enjoy Christmas at a small hotel in Ghana called the Hans Cottage “Botel,” located on a lagoon just outside the city of Cape Coast. They love their Christmas music at the Hans Botel, and the compound is rigged end-to-end with speakers that blare it around the clock.

Although you can count among those people able to tolerate Christmas music — in moderation, in context, and so long as it isn’t Sufjan Stevens — there is one blood-curdling exception. That exception is the song, “The Little Drummer Boy,” which is without argument the most painful piece of music ever written. It was that way before Joan Jett or David Bowie got hold of it.

It’s a traumatic enough song in any rendition. And at the Hans Cottage Botel they have chosen to make it the only — only! — song on their Christmastime tape loop. Over and over it plays, ceaselessly, day and night. I’m not sure who the artist is, but it’s an especially treacly version with lots of high notes to set one’s skull ringing.

“Ba-ruppa-pum-pum;ruppa-pum-pum…” as I hear it today and forever, that stammering chorus is like the thump-thump of chopper blades in the wounded mind of a Vietnam vet who Can’t Forget What He Saw. There I am, pinned down at the Botel bar, jittery and covered in sweat, my nails clattering against a bottle of Star lager while the infernal Drummer Boy warbles into the buggy air.

“Barkeep!” I grab Kwame by the wrist. “For the love of god, man, can’t somebody make it stop?”

Kwame just smiles. “So lovely, yes.”


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9 Responses to “Holiday Creep? It’s Never Too Early For an Ask the Pilot Christmas.”
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  1. Jim Laffey says:

    Hey Pilot Patrick,
    Love your work and your book is endlessly entertaining. I have purchased many copies for friends who also love it. But listen, with my utmost respect, you’re not even remotely cool enough to ever mention David Bowie in any of your writings. His rendition of “The Little Drummer Boy” with Bing Crosby is the best ever and the backstory of how it came about is pretty wild. The genius of this man is so mind-boggling that most of his work won’t be fully appreciated for decades to come. (But flying a metal tube through the air is also pretty mind boggling.) Check out Bowie’s new “Blackstar” video if you really want a freak out. Merry Christmas… anyway!

  2. LJT says:

    Thank you for the smile…My colleagues were wondering what I was laughing about. (Little Drummer Boy bit)

  3. Rod says:

    It’s never too early to consume unto doom.

  4. Anonymous says:

    On Holiday Creep: It is much worse here in Brazil were there isn’t Thanks Giving to “block” the early decorations.

    What is much, much worse this year is BLACK FRIDAY when very few Brazilians have a clue as to the origin of the Friday ThanksGiving since it is not a holiday here.

    Then comes:
    Cyber Monday
    Boxing day
    etc. etc.

  5. Anonymous says:

    I have your book and have even read it and keep it in my Nook for reference.

    Have also read “Skyfaring” and second your recommendation.

    I have to get “Airline Visual Identity, 1945-1975”, probably the paper edition but it will be difficult to get Brazil so I guess I will have to settle for the digital version.

    My additional recommendation for airline history buffs: “Chinas Wings”
    This is a fascinating story about CIVIL aviation in China in parallel with the mercenary/military Flying Tiger exploits of the 1930’s up the Japanese invasion. The company was an unknown (to me) subsidiary.

  6. Tara says:

    Count me among those who cannot stand “The Little Drummer Boy”. I hate that poor excuse for a song with the fire of a thousand suns. You have my deepest condolences for the suffering you must have gone through.

  7. EJLM says:

    Had a good laugh with the Drummer Boy bit.

    Keep up the good work Captain, and Merry Christmas hahaha!

  8. Bill M. says:

    I couldn’t agree more with your review of ‘Skyfaring’. Parts of this book struck a very deep emotional chord, bringing back memories and feelings from my earliest days of flight.

    I don’t often read books more than once, but this is one that I am highlighting key sentences, and will be rereading many times over the coming years.

    • S M K says:

      Hear, hear. I’m reading it right now and am dreading the day it will end. It is beautifully written and is tailor-made for those of us (which around here, I’m guessing is most of us) who don’t simply view flight as a “Point A to Point B” endeavor.