I used to work in radio. Every once in a while, there would be a screw-up on air. An interview subject’s name would be mispronounced. We’d get the date wrong on something. A mic would be left on the air for a disparaging remark about the staff Christmas party to be heard. Dumb stuff. But sometimes it was the equipment that would fail and there would be dead air plus a mad scramble.
The damage, however, was always negligible. No china was broken. No one’s dinner was burnt. There was no need for a tow truck. You’d cringe just the same, but we used to console one another with a particular phrase: “It’s not as if you’re flying a 747.”
This worked like a charm. Perspective would be restored and you could shake off the gaffe. It proved to be a handy little maxim. Unless, of course, you actually are flying a 747.
No, when pilots have a bad day at work, it’s not a small thing. The margins for error are microchip thin and the smallest of vagaries can result in a catastrophe. As much as flying is about getting you from A to B in the fastest way possible, to the pilot it’s mostly about risk management. Sully is never going to be offered as an inflight movie; the last thing an airline wants is passengers thinking about “the unlikely event,” let alone an unprecedented one.
But if you’re a pilot, making sure everyone arrives alive is part of your job description. And, if you’re a pilot, you have distinct opportunities to lose your job every year. We passengers should all be very glad of that.
We sat around a tray of crudités. We’d all just seen Clint Eastwood’s new film about the “Miracle on the Hudson,” with Tom Hanks inhabiting the role of Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger. Five of the eight people present had, at some point, made their living in the airline industry. Two of those present each had over 40 years of flying, most of those years as Air Canada pilots. Everyone had a lot to say about what they’d just seen.
The movie devotes most of its time to dealing with the deliberations that follow the four-minute flight. Apparently, Eastwood had to create villains from the investigators looking into the landing, so the story could be about more than just a crash. The reality, according to National Transportation Safety Board lead investigator, Robert Benzon, is that the flight crew was treated deferentially, as they had become instant international heroes. The ploy works, though. The audience is suffused with indignation following the wild ride into the river.
In the frenetic cockpit scenes, I saw only spinning dials. The pilots, however, discerned instrument readings and comprehended the dialogue between the Captain, the First Office and Air Traffic Control. I asked if they had found themselves reflexively flying the plane from their seats in the theatre.
No, they had not, but they were mentally doing the math and watching needles. Whereas I found the flight deck conversation to be preternaturally calm, almost to the point of flat affect, the pilots said they found all of that matched their experience and expectations. This included the moments when ATC thinks they’ve lost contact with Flight 1549.
They hadn’t. The pilots had simply stopped communicating with ATC based on a fundamental mantra of pilots: Aviate. Navigate. Communicate, meaning first things first. The pilot’s priority is to keep the plane in the air; to not fly into anything, and to talk to ground control once those two concerns are addressed. As one of the pilots said: no engines; no thrust, ATC wasn’t getting that, so they stopped talking to them.
“You just have to cover your ass; I have to save mine” was how he summed it up.
Works for me.
So, the person who turns left when you get on the plane, the one that in the airline ads always looks like a multi-vitamin model or a varsity basketball coach – they’re the most important piece of equipment on the plane. Twice a year they go into the equivalent of dry dock for a rigorous physical by a designated aviation medical examiner.
Transport Canada does something known as ramp checks. If your pilot’s license book doesn’t have a valid medical stamp, you’re grounded. Skills are routinely assessed, or as one of the pilots puts it, “Every six months, the airline will try and kill you.”
He’s talking about the mandatory simulator evaluations all pilots are required to pass twice yearly. They’re administered by approved Transport Canada examiners and even the seasoned pilots I spoke with say they’re harrowing: “You leave the cockpit soaked.”
The purpose of these simulations is to recreate actual aviation disasters. The simulators provide realistic experience with the boundaries of what the equipment will do. If the pilot fails the test, he’ll get another shot; it’s routine that a union representative attend that simulation. Beyond that, it’s back to school. Or worse. Both these pilots recounted a story about a colleague whose early onset Alzheimer’s was detected via the simulator process, thus concluding his career. Better there than at 35,000 ft.
As we wrap up the evening, one of the pilot’s wives tells me pilots share certain characteristics. They’re hyper-responsible, risk averse, technical, problem solvers. She said every time her husband comes home from a flight he says the same thing: I got everyone home today.
And isn’t that the type of guy we all want at the pointy end of the plane? I’m sure Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger’s passengers were grateful.
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