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The Right Seat: Propellers, Polyester, and the Deeper Meaning of Flight

By Patrick Smith
June 3, 2008

Patrick Smith, columnist for Salon.com and author of the popular book "Ask the Pilot," returns with his third piece for Airliners.net, which takes us from the daily 'pleasures' of being a pilot to the thoughtful insights gained with years of service in this unique industry.


I reach for the starter toggle, left engine. It's a scalding morning and there's no external air supply, so we're desperate to get the props turning. Out on the Logan asphalt in July, the little Beech-99 becomes a sweatbox, and passengers won't be pleased if their crew keels over from heatstroke. "Let’s go," I say. There's a tattered checklist in my hand, soggy with perspiration. As usual, we're loaded to max weight, with fifteen passengers—all from tony Boston suburbs, decked out identically in mirrored aviator glasses, straw hats and Tevas—and a cargo hold bursting with wicker from Crate & Barrel. These midsummer flights to Nantucket are the worst, as we're routinely full and the island-bound passengers are always cranky and petulant. After several minutes of organizing carry-ons and dusting off whichever unfortunate soul managed to trip over the center cabin wing spar, it's time to wipe off the sweat and get started.

The toggle clicks into place and we immediately hear the grainy whine of the turbines. The propeller begins to spin, and a small white needle shows the proper fuel flow. But twenty seconds later there’s a problem. There's no combustion. Great. So I release the switch and everything stops. We wait the allotted time so the starter won’t overheat, repeat the checklist, and try again. Same result. The engine is turning, but it's not running. What's missing, I notice, is the click-click-click of the igniters. For some reason they aren't firing.

"Kathy," I say quietly, "Can you see if there’s a circuit breaker popped?" The first row of passengers are only inches behind us, without so much as a curtain separating cockpit from cabin. "Ignition, left side?" A diminutive blonde, Kathy is my first officer, and one of only a few people I'd meet over the years who, through no small effort, made the unusual vocational shift from flight attendant to pilot. She had worked the aisles at Delta before giving up the indignity of handing out peanuts, along with three-quarters of her salary, for the chance to take orders in a sweltering, thirty year-old contraption not much larger than her car.

The breakers are secure, Kathy reports, running her hand across the panel the way one surfs for an errant wallpaper seam. She motions toward the backup radio, her eyebrows forming a question mark. I nod, and she twists in the frequency. "Maintenance, this is aircraft 804, are you there?" We'll wait ten minutes for the mechanics now, while the inside temp hits 106°.

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"Aircraft 804" is Still in Great Shape Today
Photo © Trevor Nelson

A turboprop engine is, at heart, a jet engine. For better efficiency at lower altitudes and along shorter distances, the compressors and turbines are rigged to drive a propeller rather than generate thrust directly. Loosely put, a turboprop is a jet-powered propeller. Picture the engine's anatomy as an assembly of geared, rotating discs—compressors and turbines—like a series of back-to-back fans. Air is pulled in and directed through the compressors, where it is squeezed tightly, mixed with vaporized kerosene, and ignited. The combusted gases spin the turbines; the turbines spin the compressors and the propeller.

It's the combustion part that we’re missing.

After an embarrassing PA to our aggrieved customers, who by now are checking the ferry schedule, I notice the woman directly behind me has a giant wicker beach bag on her lap. Somehow we'd missed it.

"Miss, you'll need to stow that bag," I tell her. "It can't rest on your lap for takeoff."

"Takeoff?" she says and pauses, lowering her aviators and clearing her throat. "Maybe you oughta see if you can get the fucking plane started before you worry about my fucking luggage."

As she glares at me with insolently pursed lips, the woman's glasses reflect the pained face of a very hot and very disappointed young captain—one who, barely past his 24th birthday, often finds that the hardest thing about his job is resisting the urge to take it for granted. But I nonetheless manage a smile, a brittle smirk—not on behalf of Northwest Airlink, but on behalf of the twelve year-old kid I used to be, not all that long ago, whose dream of dreams was to someday wear the wings and epaulets of an airline pilot. If that means taking abuse along the way from an asshole passenger or two, so be it.

Ask any aviator where his love of flying comes from, and the answer almost always goes back to early childhood—to some ineffable, hard-wired affinity that seemingly came from nowhere. His earliest memories are rich with quaint recollections of Piper Cubs and dirt runways. Later comes the adolescent attraction to the speed and power of fighter jets. It's dreamy and metaphysical on one hand—the urge to fly—yet placidly physical on the other. Most pilots love equally the act of flight and the technological prowess of the machines that get them there.

My own answer contains some of that, particularly the "came from nowhere" part, but other things too. I would be wrong, probably, to call myself more cerebral than most pilots, but I have never been grounded, if you will, in the in the technical gee-whiz of the cockpit. Certainly the left-brain act of controlling and guiding an aircraft is something to be savored, but for me the idea of flight extends far beyond the cockpit, literally; what endears me to aviation (and what compels me to write about it), is the theater of air travel in whole. As a kid, it was the airlines themselves that compelled and fascinated me. Growing up, five minutes at an air show watching the Blue Angels and I'd be bored to distraction, yet I could spend hours cloistered in my bedroom, poring over the timetables and route maps of the world's carriers instead of doing homework.

We're all curious how the plane gets to its destination—how fast it goes, how high it goes, how many statistical bullet points can be made of its wires and plumbing. I'm also curious why it's going, and to where? What of that destination? If I harp on a single relentless tenet, it's appraisal of the airplane as intrinsic to the journey, not merely some inconvenient means to an end, but inseparable from the people and places it joins. What is the good of loving to fly, if not to fly somewhere? Quite frankly, I'd never have traipsed off to seventy-plus countries in my free time if I hadn't fallen in love with aviation, in this way, first.

Next time you're aloft, flip to the back of the inflight magazine and behold the route map. Then and now, I could spend hours studying those pages, immersed in a kind of pilot porno, besotted to speechless stupor by those three-panel foldouts and their exploding nests of arcs and lines. Not coincidentally, I learned geography as rapidly and vigorously as I learned aviation. To me, there are few important differences between the two, and if granted a bit of poetic extrapolation, any meditation on air travel becomes a meditation on culture. In the sixth grade I knew that Dhaka was the capital of Bangladesh, for no greater reason than an article I'd read about Biman Bangladesh Airways. Later in life I would visit India. Because I grew up with a thing for curry and a fascination for ancient Sanskrit? No, because I grew up with a fascination for Boeing's iconic widebody jetliner, the 747. The process was logical and, as it were, direct: The 747 became Air India. Air India became a line on a route map between New York and Delhi. Delhi became India. India became a place I wanted to see. Eventually, I saw it. And other places too, from Burma to Botswana.

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A classic Air India 747
Photo © Kjell Nilsson

For what it's worth, I have known several college-educated airline pilots who, despite a devotion to flying and an ability to roam the globe free of charge, have never been outside the United States. Once, back at work after returning from a holiday in South America, one of those pilots remarked disapprovingly, "I can’t believe you’re still doing that shit." As if wanderlust were a bad coke habit, or something normal folks give up after hitting a certain age (I don’t bring this up to sound elitist or bossy, though I imagine it sounds that way. If nothing else, it highlights the way vastly different longings are able to be realized in the same line of work.).

Ask me about my fondest flying memories, and half of them are from a tourist's perspective, not a pilot's. I'm liable to tell you about the time I disembarked from an Air France jet in Bamako, Mali. Though I could write for pages about the wonders of West Africa, the trip's most vivid moments took place at the airport—the arrival scene after touching down from Paris. Deplaning from the Airbus A330 at midnight, two-hundred of us descended the drive-up stairs into a murky, rust-colored mist. We were paraded solemnly around the perimeter of the aircraft, moving aft in a wide semicircle toward the arrivals lounge, passing beneath the soaring, blue and white tail as the plane's auxiliary turbines screamed into the night air. Through the glass doors we passed, digging out our visas and that yellow fever vaccination card, and into the cauldron of West Africa. It was all so, to use that word so politically incorrect, exotic. And the airplane was the centerpiece. I felt like an explorer whose sailing ship had landed on some strange, undiscovered continent.

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A rainy night in Bamako
Photo © Jean Christophe Montaut

Although I have only hazy memories of the day I lost my virginity or the day I first soloed a small airplane, sober as I was on both occasions, I am able to recollect my first day as an airline pilot in uncannily vivid detail. It was October 21, 1990—a date promptly immortalized in yellow Hi-Liter in my logbook. Despite the absurdly low salary I'd be earning, and the well-established, unforgivable incompetence of my employer, I could not have been happier. This cherished day involved a drive to Sears at 9:30 in the morning, an hour before my sign-in time, because I'd already lost my tie. And then the clerk's face when I told him, "plain black," and, "polyester, not silk."

In a thickening overcast just before noon, I departed on the prestigious Manchester, New Hampshire, to Boston route—the twenty-minute run frequented, as you'd expect, by Hollywood stars, sheikhs and dignitaries.

There was no flight attendant and I had to close the cabin door myself. Performing this maneuver on my inaugural morning, I turned the handle to secure the latches as trained, deftly and quickly in one smooth motion—then somehow dragged the first three knuckles of my right hand across the head of a loose screw, cutting myself. Taxiing out, my fingers were wrapped in a bloody napkin.

Our company was a young regional upstart called Northeast Express, and it was so cheap that at first we didn't have legitimate uniforms. We were given surplus from the old Bar Harbor Airlines. Ours was a carrier with a serious identity problem, relying on the leftovers of vanished predecessors. The owner, Mr. Caruso, had also been the owner at Bar Harbor, and I suspect he had a garage full of remainders. Bar Harbor had been something of a legendary commuter airline in a parochial, New England sort of way, before finally it was eaten by Lorenzo's Continental. I remember as a kid in the late 70s, sitting in the backyard in watching those Bar Harbor turboprops going by, one after another. There were so many of them, whirring up over the hills of Eastie and Revere like they’d been fired from a cannon.

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Frank Schaefer: "Eastern Express used to operate heaps of the little bugs."
Photo © Frank Schaefer

A dozen years later I was handed a vintage Bar Harbor suit—ugly gray wool, soiled and threadbare in the knees and elbows. Some poor Bar Harbor copilot had worn the thing to shreds, tearing the pockets on screwheads and getting the shoulders soaked with jet fuel. I’m fairly sure it had never been laundered.

The uniforms were doled out by a fellow named Harvey. Tall, gangly and bald, Harvey was a fast talking and distrustful sort who wore thick round glasses and chewed a long, unlit cigar. As he explained proper laundering techniques and recommended the use of vinegar to clean soot from our epaulets, his cigar rolled and bobbed like a counterweight, always seeming to perfectly balance the tilt of his head. "Keep your hats on," Harvey warned, his eyes bugging out. "Some of you guys look so young, you'll scare the passengers!" He smiled, and his teeth were the color of root beer.

The lining of my jacket was safety-pinned in place and looked as if a squirrel had chewed the lapels. Our hardware too—metal emblems for our hats and a set of wings—were tarnished hand-me-downs from Bar Harbor. Standing with my classmates in our new (old) outfits for a group picture, we looked like crewmembers you might see stepping from a Bulgarian cargo plane on the apron at Entebbe.

One day in the winter of ‘91, Harvey posted a tremendously exciting memo informing us of a uniform revamp. We'd swap our gray service station suits for brand new ones—handsome dark navy with gold stripes. We'd get new hardware too; the Bar Harbor eagle, which looked uncannily like the wings-akimbo bird once found on the caps of Göering or Himmler, was out. According to Harvey, our new threads were designed to keep the airline's image, not that it actually had one, "in accordance with Northwest specs." Ostensibly this made sense, since we were operating in their name and painting our planes in their livery, but the truth was Northwest Airlines couldn't have cared less if we wore banana-colored jumpsuits. It was just a way for Harvey to pull some navy blue wool over our eyes and sell some clothes.

My first airplane was the Beechcraft BE-99, a.k.a. the Beech-99, or just "the 99." Same as those old Bar Harbor planes I used to watch climbing over Revere in the fifth grade. This was either sentimentally touching or gruesomely depressing, depending how you looked at it. Some of the 99s were precisely the same ones, still with a -BH registration suffix painted near the tail. Unpressurized and slow, the plane was a ridiculous anachronism posing as a viable mode of transport, fooling nobody and kept in service by a stingy and doomed airline. But it was my first job, and hey, for twelve grand a year why turn down danger and embarrassment?

Passengers at Logan would show up planeside in a red bus about twice the size of the plane. Expecting a 757, they were dumped at the foot of a 15-passenger wagon built in 1968. I'd be stuffing paper towels into the cockpit window frames to keep out the rainwater while businessmen came up the stairs cursing their travel agents. They'd sit, seething, refusing to fasten their seatbelts and hollering up to cockpit.

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Expecting a 757?
Photo © Miguel Relayze

"Let's go! What are you guys doing?"

"I'm preparing the weight and balance manifest, sir."

"We're only going to goddamn Newark! What the hell do you need a manifest for? Jesus Christ."

And so on.

In addition to just enough money for groceries and car insurance, my job provided the vicarious thrill of a nominal affiliation with Northwest Airlines. We carried Northwest’s passengers, code-share style on routes out of Boston. Our 25 turboprops, like Northwest’s 747s and DC-10s, were painted handsomely in gray and red. Alas, the association ran no deeper—important later, when the paychecks started bouncing—but for now I would code-share my way to glory. When girls asked which airline I flew for, I would answer "Northwest" with a borderline degree of honesty.

My second plane was the Fairchild Metroliner, a more sophisticated, 19-seat jetprop. I got my captain's rating for this one in late '92. Then came the De Havilland Dash-8. The Dash was a 37-passenger job and the biggest thing I'd ever laid my hands on. A new one cost about eight million dollars and it even had a flight attendant. I loved that plane and it remains my favorite. I went for my captain check on July 7, 1993. I was 26. Only 13 of us, out of more than a hundred, got to fly the Dash from the left seat. I was number 13, bottom of the bottom, but I would call each morning begging for overtime

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The Massive Dash-8
Photo © Torsten Maiwald

My bloody-knuckle takeoff from Manchester in 1990 was forever my answer to the "What's your proudest moment?" question when I interviewed for these positions. But there were also some moments I usually keep to myself:

There was the time we flew in from Halifax, Nova Scotia, and I had words with the immigration officer in Boston. I was tired and cranky and our plane had been hit by lightning during the descent. The officer was rude and I said something I shouldn't have. Next thing I knew I was in a holding cell—a kind of no-man's room where, technically, you are not yet within the borders of the United States and where one's citizenship is not yet applicable—next to a group of handcuffed Haitians. I got a call from my boss about that one. He wanted to know why I was late for my outbound flight to Newark, and I told him it was because I was no longer an American.

My most savored practical joke, however, was one I never got around to actually pulling off. A few of our Metroliners and Dash-8s wore names, stenciled in white beneath the cockpit windows. There was the "Spirit of Partnership," for example; the "Spirit of Acadia;" and even the "L'Esprit de Moncton," in honor of our new routes into the Canadian Maritimes. My plan was to sneak onto the tarmac and stencil some names onto planes that didn't have them. I wanted to christen them after some infamous and colorful former employees—pilots who'd recently been terminated (and whose names are changed below).

The first was going to be the Spirit of Scott Fallon. Scott was a guy nobody could stand, and he'd been let go a few months earlier. Then there was the Clipper Mark Levereaux, another canned character. Mark was a really nice fellow with a body odor problem and an indescribably bizarre personality. He sure deserved a Metroliner. There was the Captain Charbennau, the KC O'Brien, and others. I had the stencils and paint ready.

At the last minute somebody talked me out of it. I'd gone over the line when I was ready to name a plane after one pilot who was still employed. This was Dick Harris, an older and overly serious guy with a big fountain of white hair. A friend of mine used to call him "Santa Claus," which I always thought was the funniest thing in the world because somehow he did look like Santa Claus even though he didn't have a beard.

Written by
Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith is an airline pilot, air travel columnist and author. Patrick has visited more than 70 countries and always asks for a window seat. His website is Ask the Pilot.com, and his weekly column on Salon.com can be found here.

5 User Comments:
Username: FlyingCrown [User Info]
Posted 2008-06-24 18:44:20 and read 32768 times.

Loved the piece, Pat, but then I love airplane and travel musings, having had a fe few published along the way in Flying and AOPA Pilot. I was also interested to read you also cut your teeth on the venerable BE 99, (ahh late nights, V1 cuts, engine-out training and rubber left [or right] legs).

I found your comments on the abusive passenger timely in these days of growing air rage. Actually, more airlines are supporting their crewmembers when disgruntled passengers sue them, and although you are in Canada, I imagine federal rules in the great white north have something equivalent to US FAR 91.11 and courts have upheld cases against passenger profanity as a violation of that rule, and about half a dozen more, including US V. Hicks.

It's easy to come up with a smart comeback when a passenger has something obnoxious to say, but we always think of it long after the offending individual has deplaned. Here is a standard response that will work in most situations where you are confronted by the rude and crude:

I'm sorry about the (delay, inconvenience, or,). You certainly have the right to be upset. We're doing everything we can to (remedy whatever) But profanity is a different matter, it is verbal abuse for which I can have you removed from the aircraft and arrested.

Username: Newdan [User Info]
Posted 2008-07-01 15:11:37 and read 32768 times.

awesome article! This is really cool like that

Username: Newdan [User Info]
Posted 2008-07-01 15:30:09 and read 32768 times.

great article guysss!

Username: Assmat [User Info]
Posted 2008-07-11 17:27:10 and read 32768 times.

Check out this site.


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Username: DC3cv3407ac727 [User Info]
Posted 2008-07-15 20:26:19 and read 32768 times.

great one, I was living my Ernie Gann, St.Ex fueled dreams in the left seat of a DC-3 freightdogging out of PTK, hard by Detroit ,during that same time frame,Well said !

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