Not only to fly, but to bring the world's eyes...skyward.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

A Lifestyle Commuted

Not to be outdone by my friend Karlene Petitt (well, ok, not to be outdone without doing something about it), and at the urging of numerous followers (1and 0 are numbers), I'm delving back into the subject of aviation this week, but, as always, with my goal to debunk, demystify, and elucidate for the curious but uninitiated.

Since the cause of Colgan Air flight 3407's crash in Buffalo, NY (grievous pilot error) became news, a great deal of media coverage has been devoted to the subject of pilots and, to a lesser degree flight attendants, commuting to work, often long distances, by air. For nearly twelve years now, I've been one of them, for myriad reasons, all of which together just barely outweigh the downsides. For now, with the housing market down, the decision to continue or not is out of our hands.

So every week, or every several days, to be more accurate, I'm expected to appear at my crew base at least an hour before departure for my flight. Contrary to overwhelmingly popular belief, how I make myself appear is my problem, not my airline's. I have travel privileges, yes, but these afford me only the ability to place my name on a list of people wishing to occupy a seat my airline couldn't manage to sell by the time Agent Cranky has to close the flight ten minutes prior to departure time. Airline pilot i.d. also allows me (and every other pilot) to list to occupy a seat-like contraption in the cockpit, and, provided the rare FAA or company check pilot doesn't need it for their regulatory oversight, that jumpseat can go to the senior listed pilot - if the flight's Captain has no issues with it.

In other words, I have no say whatsoever in the matter of whether I get to work using Plan A, B, or C, or whether I have to make the phone call every commuter dreads, to my Chief Pilot, to inform him or her that my contingency planning has fallen short and a reserve pilot has to be called on short notice; my pay will be docked, and I have a lot of 'splaining to do. I would hope it's obvious by now that this isn't something that happens repeatedly. Failing to show up with any significant frequency can get one relieved of the obligation to show up at all. And no, nowhere on my Union card do the words "Get out of jail free" appear.

Responsibility demands that I leave myself plenty of options. Options demand time - time not at home. If I have to sign in before 7 p.m., I usually have to take the first stage out of Dodge. If I have more time, I'll occasionally roll the dice and let an airplane or two take off without me if they're not full that day, but that's a rare treat. Much more often than not, the alarm is set for a very dark hour, indeed, and it's up to me to see that my mandatory early-riserness doesn't lead to early-onset narcolepsy.

This week was as easy as they get. Loads were light, weather was great, and my sign-in time for my all-night red-eye flight was well after dinner, so I got to have breakfast with my family before gettin' my Odyssey on. Twenty people-minutes (that's five GTO-driver minutes) to the airport, fifteen to go through the same security process as any other passenger, and a few more to bite my nails wondering whether my flight's crew and airplane are airworthy, and I'm on my way to Chicago. An hour or so later, I bite remaining nails for the same reasons as before, this time to get to base. We push back late, waiting for connecting revenue passengers (such as never happens for non-revenue people, I heartily assure you!), and I know I won't get the usual opportunity to take a nap in the crew lounge before my trip. So I force my eyes closed with the landing gear doors, and I awake feeling like the fifteenth coming of Rocky Balboa just before we start down. I still sign in early, never having seen any component of Plan B.

Since our flight was scheduled to exceed eight hours, we were required to have a relief pilot aboard, affording me another two hour nap somewhere high over the Amazon. Prior to our takeoff, I'd been sound asleep for nine of the past twenty-one hours, and by the time we landed, I'd been holding the Sandman's hand for eleven of the past twenty-seven. I hadn't fought sleep for one second and only drank one cup of coffee, around 4 a.m., just to make sure my landing wouldn't wake anyone up.

I'm not going to try to convince anyone that it's always like this, that every last pilot out there is always so conscientious. I'll just point out that it's as easy for a "local" pilot to have a long day, or a short or particularly long night, before his thirty-minute drive to the airport as it is for a commuting pilot to do everything right and come to work ready for action, and vice versa.

Just like driving cars, firing guns, opening mail, and millions of other things we can do to hurt ourselves, there are smart ways and stupid ways to manage fitness for duty as a pilot, and commuting is absolutely not, by any definition, one less smart than living close to base.


  1. A very real glimpse of the 'oh so glamorous' life of a pilot:-)

  2. Wow. I had no idea. I've always been impressed with pilots because they seem so calm and collected, so unlike me.

    I remember when we were landing unexpectedly on a VERY short, VERY cloudy runway in Taipai, the pilot said, in as laconic a voice as possible, "Stronger than usual headwinds, folks, so we're gonna top off the tank and head onto Hong Kong.

    Me, I would have freaked. Outta gas? Over the Pacific?

    And now, to know what you pilots have to go through?? My hat's off to you!


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