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'Ask the Pilot' columnist debunks flying myths, misconceptions

Finding an airline pilot with strong opinions is no trick. But Patrick Smith shares his ideas regularly with a wide audience: readers of the Ask the Pilot column in Salon.com, the arts and culture magazine. A co-pilot with a major airline he doesn't identify, Smith has flown commercial aircraft since 1990 for small regional airlines, air cargo and international carriers. He debunks myth and misconceptions about flying (recent topics include "Is Your Pilot Drunk?'' and "Boredom and Fatigue at 35,000 Feet''). We chatted recently about pilots in the news, such as the Northwest Airlines crew that overshot the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport and pilots in the deadly Buffalo plane crash.

Let's start with the Northwest incident. Now it appears the pilots, rather than asleep or merely distracted, were tuned into the wrong air traffic control frequency and controllers didn't report the missing plane during a shift change. What's your take on that?

At first, my colleagues and I were mystified how such a thing could happen. As more and more details were revealed, it become clear the incident involved more than just two pilots zoning out. A series of small errors compounded to create an unusual situation. Were the passengers in any kind of imminent danger? No, not at all.

Why not?

This happened during cruise flight. There was never an issue with fuel and contact with controllers was reestablished fairly soon. Some people think that during flight both pilots are sitting there with their hands on the wheel staring out straight ahead. But really, most of it when you're in the en route portion of the flight is monitoring. It's not so much flying, per se.

Except during takeoffs and landings?

There are other times, too. It can all of a sudden get very, very busy. You never know when certain things are going to come up. I don't mean problems, necessarily. There might be some altitude or routing change you have to deal with. Then other times, there's a certain tedium. It's intermittent, but it's there.

The Buffalo plane crash of a Colgan Air flight last February scared a lot of people, especially those who fly small regional airlines. What should travelers be concerned about?

(It) brought out the issue of pilot fatigue … which is good. It is a problem. Not a crisis, but a problem. Particularly at the regional airline level, where schedules tend to be a lot more punishing.

You've flown short hops for small regional airlines and long trips for major airlines. Which are more demanding?

It's intuitive to associate long-haul flying with fatigue, but that's not the reality. Long-haul flying is very easy to manage. You have extra crew members, long layovers in nice hotels — all the things you don't have when you're a regional pilot flying six legs a day in and out of busy airports with a nine-hour stay at the Holiday Inn Express waiting for you at the end of the day.

What changes could the Federal Aviation Administration make?

The most productive thing to do at some point is redefine rest. Its definition of rest today includes time going to and from the airport, hunting around for food, checking in and out of hotels. Rest should be hotel-room-in to hotel-room-out. Do I think that will ever happen? No.

You write a lot about misconceptions about air travel, like how pilots manipulate how much fresh air goes into the cabin. Why is that?

Air travel has the perfect ingredients to nurture that kind of thinking. Millions of people are afraid to fly. And on top of that, flying is kind of steeped in secrecy. Let's face it, airlines aren't the most forthcoming entities out there. And people don't have much understanding of what pilots do and how airplanes fly. That created this environment which allows all these myths to propagate.

Steve Huettel can be reached at huettel@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3384.

'Ask the Pilot' columnist debunks flying myths, misconceptions 12/01/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, December 1, 2009 8:25pm]
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