Plane and Simple
A new pilot project
Captain Doug Morris flies the Boeing 787 Dreamliner, “for an airline with a maple leaf emblazoned on its fuselage.” His employer’s name is almost the only detail missing from this compilation of facts and anecdotes about air travel.
This Is Your Captain Speaking aspires to be comprehensive and amusing, so it’s more like Aviation for Dummies than like Kitchen Confidential, Anthony Bourdain’s classic tell‑all. But Morris’s approach is probably best, because you want to believe pilots are calm, cool, and collected. Otherwise, you might worry your jet has a chef-on-heroin figure in command (which isn’t to say mental health and stress-induced problems don’t exist on the flight deck, of course). Nor does Morris offer stories of near catastrophe, except when they happen in the flight simulator.
His book is methodical and starts with what happens on the ground, before anyone’s on the plane. The next leg offers details about the pre-flight checklist. By chapter 6, we’re starting to descend. Back on the ground, we hear about even more things to check off. The last chapter is about “weather stuff.” Morris, who has also worked as a meteorologist, is good at dramatizing why Mother Nature can be a pain for a plane.
Morris is precise — and the lists abound. But he explains why: “Because the flight deck is so regimented, many pilots unknowingly replicate this approach in many other aspects of life.” He recalls a flight instructor once asking a classroom full of pilots, “How many of you rearrange the dishes in the dishwasher to make it more efficient after your spouse loaded it?” Just about everyone raised their hand. (If I’m ever again concerned about a pilot’s skill, I plan on asking about their housekeeping protocols at home.)
A cargo hold of questions are answered. How are toilets serviced, for example? It turns out that “lavologist” is a sought-after job among ramp attendants. What do all the hinged surfaces on the wings do? They are sort of like drag-racing parachutes. How does a jet engine work? It has something to do with Newton’s Third Law, if you can remember that from physics class. Can it be too hot to fly? Yes. Can it be too cold? Not likely. What about too windy? Morris says that flying in “a 100 mile-per-hour wind blowing right down the runway . . . is doable, but getting to the runway would be the challenge.”
We might imagine that some pilots who travel the same route year after year have second families in exotic locales, but this captain doesn’t meander far from the plane with his volume. There are no sexy flight attendants or Hollywood-handsome flyboys on a tear. Besides, pilots apparently don’t fraternize much with the rest of the crew. Morris does include a brief discussion of the mile-high club, which is not “another incentive program used to accumulate airline travel points.” He’s been on flights where crew members have seen passengers “in the act or couples sheepishly leaving the lavatory together.” One attendant, ever on the watch for those attempting to join the club, spotted a man in business class frantically moving his hands under a blanket. “She couldn’t believe such blatant maneuvers in public.” But it turned out he was simply cleaning his glasses.
Morris assures us that it’s okay to see what looks like duct tape patching a plane’s exterior. And that very strong turbulence isn’t going to shake the aircraft to bits. Most comforting, though, is his explanation of the autoland system, which makes it possible to touch down when visibility is an issue. One mode gets the plane to fifty feet above the ground, and then the pilots take over. “The second fully automated level has no Decision Height, meaning pilots do not look outside and they wait for the bump.” Less reassuring is that a slippery wet runway can make for a smoother landing, which pilots tend to call a greaser. “Landings are like golf shots,” Morris writes. “Sometimes you wish you could redo it.” Frequent fliers might use the word “thumper” to describe a hard landing, but Morris prefers the term “snug” or “firm.” If your captain isn’t saying goodbye at the cockpit door when you’re deplaning, you can assume the arrival wasn’t up to par.
Squeamish flyers should avoid the section about thunderstorms. These “areas of weather” typically occur between 30,000 and 60,000 feet up in the atmosphere. Commercial jets tend to cruise between 39,000 and 43,000 feet, so pilots “can only fly over the smaller monsters.” It’s important to give the “deathtraps” a wide berth. “Flirting with the top of a thunderstorm is like walking gingerly on a thinly frozen lake,” Morris writes. Even after all these years, “they still make me quiver when I brush up near them.”
Morris describes his job as “moments of sheer terror coupled with hours of boredom,” which sounds like something passengers might also say about the journey from gate to gate. But for us, unlike the pilots and the cabin crew, ignorance is bliss when suspended 40,000 feet in the air in an aluminum tube. Or at least it was when we were unaware of everything that must be perfect to keep us up there.