Things I Bring

February 19, 2020

THE TIMELINE of an aviation career, for some of us, is punctuated with dark occurrences. Furloughs, rejection letters, bankruptcies. And now, sigh, I’ve lost my beloved calculator.

I bought the thing 23 years ago, if I remember right, at the old Osco store, now Rite Aid, on Highland Avenue near Davis Square. It was your basic flip-top model, dual solar and battery, with fat buttons and an oversized screen for better low-light viewing. I paid about four dollars for it.

When you own anything for 23 years, you grow fond of it. The same chemicals and synaptic energies that attach us to pets, or even people, I suspect, are the ones that, albeit on a lesser level, attach us to inanimate objects. These objects mark the passage of time. They carry with them the memories of past jobs, past relationships, former eras of our lives. I hope that isn’t being too oddly sentimental, or insulting the very nature of what it is to be human. Regardless, I miss my calculator.

Two weeks ago I was working a flight to Edinburgh, Scotland. I was the relief pilot on this leg, sitting in one of the cockpit jumpseats with the calculator on my knee. It was shortly after takeoff and I’d just finished running through the waypoint times and working out the breaks schedule. I was about to put it away when something distracted me. At that moment, instead of placing the calculator back into my zipper case, I placed it on top of my roll-aboard bag, which was stowed standing up, an arm’s reach away to my left — and promptly forgot about it.

That’s the last time I saw it. At some point it must have gotten jostled to the floor, where I presume it still is, kicked into a corner and set upon each flight by heavy luggage. Perhaps another pilot picked it up and tucked it into one of the cockpit cubby holes. (Sure we have a lost-and-found boxes in our crew bases, but who’s going to return a cheap plastic calculator?) Or maybe he threw it away. The truth is, most pilots don’t bring or use calculators, and it would’ve been a peculiar artifact to find.

You can see the calculator in the picture below, taken in 1998. No, that’s not a U-boat circa 1944; it’s the flight engineer’s station of a Douglas DC-8. This was my office for about four years, shuttling cargo to and from Europe and across the U.S. The calculator is on the ledge, lower left. Notice it has an orange stripe on its case. That’s a sticker I threw on. It was there for the same reason that I use a bright yellow bumper on my iPhone: to keep me from leaving it behind. So much for bright ideas, literally.

The calculator was a necessary instrument on the ancient Douglas. The weight, balance, and fuel calculations were all done by hand. It was simple arithmetic, but these were big, six-digit numbers. Not so much on the 767. It’s the dispatchers, loaders and planners who do all the serious number-crunching. They upload the results to us and we plug them in. About the only things we calculate manually are the waypoint crossing times and maybe the start/end times of our crew rest breaks. This is hardly anything technical; they’re just figures of convenience jotted down in the margins of the flight plan, requiring nothing more than adding or subtracting two-digit numbers.

But there are fewer things that I am worse at than adding or subtracting two-digit numbers. I am, in fact, so bad at even basic math that I can barely make change for a dollar. Solving a problem like “14 plus 28” is, to my mind, like contemplating quantum physics. And running the times, forget it: If you cross one waypoint at time 14:26, and the next one is 47 minutes later, what time will that be? Are you kidding? Where the hell is my calculator?

I guess I’ll start using my phone. On the bright side this means one fewer thing to carry around.

And what do pilots carry around?

Once upon a time — meaning not very long ago — we lugged with us heavy black briefcases stuffed with maps, charts, and manuals. Pretty much all of this technical arcana now lives electronically in an iPad or other tablet device. Of all the advances seen in commercial aviation over the past two decades, this is probably the one most welcome by pilots. Because not only did those books weigh a ton, but they required almost constant revising. Every two weeks a thick packet of pages would show up in your mailbox. The tiniest addendum to any approach or departure procedure, and bang, eighteen different pages needed to be swapped out. A particularly hefty set of revisions could take two hours or more to complete. Page in, page out, page in, page out. Side effects included dizziness, blindness, repetitive motion injuries and suicide. Now all we do is tap a button that says UPDATE. United Airlines says that its switch to iPads saves twenty million sheets of paper annually. I can believe it. It also has saved time, fuel, and visits to the chiropractor. (What happens if the first officer topples a Coke Zero all over his new iPad, or drops it on the floor? Not to panic: these are reference materials, not do-or-die sets of instructions. There are always at least two devices on board, and anything truly critical also remains in hard copy.)

We still carry flight bags, but they’ve gotten a lot smaller and contain mainly personal items and sundries. Some pilots use a soft-sided briefcase; others use gym-stye bags or even backpacks. My preference, at the moment, is an offensively overpriced Tumi briefcase that I bought about six years ago and quickly learned to hate, with undersized exterior pockets that are exactly too small for anything I try to fit in them.

Inside this Tumi is a repurposed toiletries bag. This is where I keep my flight essentials. The most substantial object in here is a headset. The headsets supplied in our cockpits are old David Clarks — those Space Age green things that NFL coaches used to wear on the sidelines. They’re heavy, bulky, antiquated. So, like many pilots, I bring my own. I’ve been thinking about splurging on a noises-canceling set, but for now I use a cheap, reliable Telex. I also have a 26 year-old Sony that I sometimes bring. This was a present that I bought for myself in 1993 when I checked out as a Dash-8 captain. You’ll also find pens, earplugs, a solar-powered flashlight, a calculator (RIP), sunscreen, masking tape, and a big packet of wet-naps used to wipe away the dust, crumbs, and grime from the radio panels and other cockpit surfaces, which are routinely, astonishingly filthy. And three or four clothes pins. The cockpit sun visors are flimsy things that don’t do much in the way of blocking the sun. To keep from going blind, I augment the visors by clothes-pinning up sheets of paper, a map, or maybe a folded garbage bag.

In the shirt pockets of my uniform you’ll always see three things: a ballpoint pen, a highlighter, and a red Sharpie.

The pen is used for all the things people use pens for. The highlighter I use mainly for marking up the flight plan. I’ll go through it page by page, striking the important parts in yellow: the flight time, the alternates, the dispatcher’s desk number, the airport elevations, deferred maintenance items, ETP coordinates, etc. Every pilot does this in his or her own style. Many don’t do it at all. I have a bad habit of coloring the flight plan even when it’s not my leg to fly, irritating the pilot whose turn it actually is.

The red Sharpie is my tool for what we’ll call high-emphasis tasks, the most critical of which is putting my initials on the cap of my water bottle, to keep anyone else from drinking from it. If there’s a redispatch point along our route, I’ll mark it on the flight plan with a red “RDP.” I also use it for my scratch-pad notes. When I’m in the first officer’s seat there’s a clipboard along the bottom ledge of the window, just to my right. I keep a folded piece of paper there on which I jot down various quick-reference figures: the flight number, en route time, block fuel, minimum takeoff fuel, transition levels, planned oceanic crossing altitudes and speeds, radio frequencies. The photo that follows shows what it looks like by the end of a typical flight. Most of the notes are at 45 degrees because that’s the way my arm angle is to the clipboard, with the red diagonal separating departure and en-route notes from arrival notes. Most pilots don’t bother writing anything down aside from the flight number and maybe the departure fuel. But I’m a touch OCD, and, I don’t know, I’m just more comfortable this way, and I don’t have fumble through the paperwork for these figures if I need them.

The example in the photo is pretty clean. It can get messier. For example when flying into Los Angeles. Landing at LAX, controllers will often shift you from the north complex to the south complex, or vice-versa, on short notice, causing a flurry of arrival, approach, and taxi revisions. To stay a step ahead, I’ll write down all of the communications frequencies for tower, ground control and apron, in sequence, for both north and south sides. This info is on our charts, obviously, but it’s easier to have it on the sheet, ready to go, and not have to hunt around on my tablet while ATC is yelling at us.

That’s aviation for you. Where the smallest and most mundane things — I mean physically, tangibly, the smallest accoutrements — are often the marks of experience. I’ve been flying commercially for the better part of thirty years now. I guess that’s a pretty long time. Maybe I’m jaded, maybe I’m spoiled. Maybe I forgot what got me here. But my advice to the aspiring young aviator is this: bring a Sharpie.

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