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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Damn The Spinner Bag!

November 19, 2018

NOW THAT SELFIE-STICK MANIA has petered out, it was only a matter of time, maybe, before some other travel trend filled the annoyance void.

I’m talking about the proliferation of four-wheeled roll-aboard bags. Not the traditional, two-wheeled bag, which the traveler tows behind. These have been around for years and we’ve gotten used to them. Sure, they’re hogs of the overhead bins, but it’s hard to argue the merits of the bags themselves: useful, unobtrusive, pedestrian-friendly. But now, over the past year or two, we’ve seen the massive spread of the four-wheeled version.

They are sometimes called “spinner” bags, as they can move easily in all directions, and the problem is the way that too many travelers use them, holding them well off to one side, sometimes at arm’s length. Every person walking like this now takes up the lateral space of two people. Airport corridors are crowded and sometimes very narrow. Add thousands of passengers into such congested spaces, each hauling their little outstretched sidecar, and you’ve created the worst kind of obstacle course.

Yes, the two-wheeled bag is towed somewhat offset, not directly behind you. But it basically follows in your shadow, and the footprint difference acts across the flow of traffic. The other day I was at terminal 4 at Kennedy Airport, which has very little pedestrian space as it is, and here came two people walking side by side, a cell phone in one hand and a spinner in the other, at full arm’s length. Add a bit of a safety margin on each end, and that was two people taking up, probably, thirteen feet of real estate in a corridor barely that wide — a human wall, basically.

The next time you’re at the airport, watch for a while. Notice what a high percentage of spinner users hold their bags way, way out there. When a person is walking like this, opposite-direction passengers are forced to maneuver around, sometimes by a wide distance. Tow-behind luggage doesn’t restrict flow this way.

I’m not sure why this had to happen. The basis behind the spinner’s design, and its subsequent popularity, I think, is that they’re easier to roll and maneuver. But if anything, they’re too easy. I received one from the Travelpro company last year as part of a promotion, and used it for a few weeks. Not only did I feel that I was in everyone’s way, but the bag was so nimble, and rolled so smoothly, that it was difficult to control, constantly veering and pulling. I felt like a little kid trying to walk an agitated pit bull.

And unlike the traditional roll-aboard, which rests upright on a plate when you’re not walking, the four-wheeled bag just keeps on rolling. If you’re on any kind of incline, or you give it the slightest nudge, you’d better be ready. I lost count of the times I reached for the handle only to find it wasn’t there — the bag having wandered ten feet away on its own.

And not for nothing, you’ve now got twice as many wheels and their associated hardware. And because they spin, they’re mounted on exposed struts rather than inset. That’s more moving parts; more things to break.

And a thirty-pound suitcase moving at four or five miles per hour generates a significant amount of momentum. I’m surprised more people aren’t flattened by these things, particularly considering how many travelers simply aren’t paying attention, yammering on their phones as they sweep down the concourse.

It’s amazing, isn’t it, the ways in which we — and our gadgets — conspire to annoy the hell out of each other?

Spinners are everywhere, and they aren’t going away. If you insist on using one, try to be considerate. Keep it close, elbow in, and make room for your fellow passengers.


Meanwhile, I wish that airline workers would stop referring to roll-aboard bags, regardless of how many wheels they have, as “roller boards.” I’ve been hearing this sloppy mispronunciation more and more. most often from flight attendants: “Ladies and gentlemen, please place your roller boards into the bins handle-first.”

My what? We picture a surf board with wheels. What you mean is ROLL-ABOARD.

Pilots, by the way, long resisted wheeled luggage on principle. The thinking was that rolling your belongings was, like, too effeminate for the macho pilot (take me for example). And so pilots would hand-haul their 40-odd pounds of clothes and flight gear through the airport, toning their tough-guy biceps and making many a chiropractor happy.

Not that you asked, but I typically go to work with two carry-ons:

The first is a roller board from Luggage Works (with two wheels, needless to say). At the moment I use the 22-inch LW with the metal frame. My gripe with LW bags is their very high empty weight. To make mine lighter I’ve retrofitted the stainless steel handle with an aluminum one. Over 95 percent of LW users are airline crewmembers, but anybody can order one. They’re attractive and durable. And expensive.

Many crewmembers use Travelpro bags instead (I’ve owned a couple over the years), but that brand is more popular with flight attendants than with pilots.

My smaller bag, hung from my roller board using a hook that I engineered myself, is an offensively overpriced Tumi briefcase that I bought about five years ago and quickly learned to hate, with its useless, miniature exterior pockets that I can barely squeeze my fingers into.

I have several patches and stickers on my roller board. My favorite is this one:

Joe Strummer

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The Things We Carry

THE SCOURGES of modern-day air travel. I can think of a few: TSA, delayed flights, garbage in your seat pocket. Screaming kids and misdirected luggage. “CNN Airport News.”

Or, how about the blizzard of cardboard placards that hotel chains insist on littering their rooms with? I spend a quarter of my life in hotel rooms, and I resent having to spend the first five minutes of every stay gathering up an armful of this diabolical detritus and heaving it into a corner where it belongs. Attention innkeepers: this is fundamentally bad business. One’s first moments in a hotel room should be relaxing. The room itself should impart a feeling of welcome; it shouldn’t put you to work.

And here’s another one: the ever-expanding collection of electronic cords, adapters, chargers and other gadgets I’m obliged to haul around with me. You know what I’m talking about. Anybody who travels regularly knows what I’m talking about — an assortment of technological tackle that seems always be getting larger and more cumbersome. It keeps us “connected.” It makes our lives easier and more productive.

That’s what they tell us, anyway.  We’re increasingly at the mercy of commercial products, both tangible and virtual, and taught to behave as if we truly need them.

Don’t get me wrong. Riding the subway out to Logan, I love being able to pop in my earbuds and catch a few cuts from the Wedding Present or the Jazz Butcher. And my MacBook Air is as essential for travel as a change of socks. But there is, or was, something to be said for that unplugged, disconnected age of not-so-long-ago. If nothing else, our carry-ons were lighter, with more room for clothes.

The photo below shows the assortment of electronic gadget and gizmos I take with me pretty much every time I hit the road, be it for work or pleasure. As recently as a decade ago I owned none of this. I didn’t even have a cell phone until 2006.

Clockwise-ish, from upper right:

— My camera. It’s a Nikon 1, now that I’ve retired my Panasonic DMC-LX3 — a decent point-and-shoot with a Leica lens and super-long battery life. The Nikon takes better photos but it’s heavier and the battery doesn’t last nearly as long, meaning I sometimes have to bring along a charger as well (not shown). The camera comes with me on all of my vacations and half or so of my work assignments.

— Power adapter for laptop.

— Ethernet cord. Useful in those (too many) hotels where Wi-Fi is weak and a wired connection runs more robustly. Hotel-supplied ethernet cords are often broken.

— USB-to-ethernet adapter (see above).

— iPhone 4. (Product unplug: Am I the only person who despises — and I mean really despises — the iPhone’s messaging keypad? Because the special function keys — caps, space bar, backspace and return — are so close to the normal character keys, I’m constantly capitalizing, spacing and backspacing when I don’t mean to. This happens in either the vertical or horizontal layout, and it’s especially annoying for those of us with fat fingers. It takes me five attempts to complete the simplest sentence.)

— USB charger for iPhone. Includes a USB-to-AC connector (optional, but a good thing to have).

— Earbuds. It’s a Klipsch set.

— 32GB flash drive. For my backup files and for transferring to and from my master computer at home.

— AC adapter set. Essential when traveling overseas.

— And in the middle of it all, my beloved MacBook Air.

All together, we’re looking at roughly five pounds of gadgetry that, for all intents and purposes, is mandatory carry-on. Sometimes it’s slightly less, other times slightly more. Not shown, for instance, is a spare battery or charger for the Nikon, or my Flip video camera. (Flip is what I used to record this footage in Egypt and Senegal.) )

Thus, the real must-have gadget is a decent case or container in which to consolidate all of this crap. For me, most of the more wiry components above fit nicely into an old business class amenities kit, which keeps them out of the way and avoids tangles. (How frustrating is it, meanwhile, that so many electronic devices require their own proprietary charging cord or adapter? Imagine if every lamp took a different kind of light bulb.)

As for the rest of my luggage… I’m something of a pro when it comes to short-notice, multi-climate packing. Here’s a tip: go with lightweight clothing. What a concept, I know, but I’m amazed by how many people travel with heavy cotton jeans — even to hot climates. I own a lot of fast-dry synthetics. They’re not stylish, but when have I ever been? On the other hand I can launder a pair of pants in the hotel bathtub and they’re dry before morning.


a version of this story orginally ran on the website Salon.


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