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March 28, 2012

Do Pilots Think About Crashing?

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By: Patrick Smith
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(Photo by Manny Gonzalez)
(Photo by Manny Gonzalez)
From the van at 4 a.m. I catch sight of the Monster, its ink-dark silhouette looming in the Zaventem mist. “Monster” is my affectionate nickname for the Douglas DC-8. Or not so affectionately, really, as I assume the lumbering hulk of metal is destined, one way or the other, to kill me. Sure, it’s my first jet. And sure, it’s big. But it’s also ancient. The real airlines gave up flying these things nearly two decades ago, and the cockpit looks like something from a World War II Soviet submarine. In a lot of ways, I’m reminded of the first airplane I was ever paid to fly — the twin-engine Beech-99. The scale is off by a factor of 50, but the technophilic pilot inside me — it’s in there somewhere — finds the antique ship embarrassing. Hell, the DC-7, its immediate and piston-powered predecessor, had a rudder covered not with aluminum or high-tech composite but with fabric.

Most pilots can, even for an international run, get the DC-8 ready in less than an hour. I stretch it to a meditative 90 minutes. To me there is, or there should be, something Zen about preflight procedures.

It begins in the cockpit with a flip through the aircraft logbook, making sure the required sign-offs are there and taking particular note of items that have recently been deferred. This is followed by a top-to-bottom cockpit check — an intense choreography of system tests. Every radio, instrument, light bulb and electronic box is given the once-over.

Then I take a seat at the second officer’s panel — my office, as it were — highlighter in one hand and coffee cup in the other, running through the 20-page flight plan, marking up the important parts: flight time, route, weather, alternates, fuel planning.

The relaxed pace also allows ample time for what is truly my most challenging and important responsibility: cleaning, stocking and organizing the galley.

Next is the exterior check, or the “walkaround,” as we call it. I circle the plane clockwise, eyeing the various lights, sensors, doors and control surfaces. It’s a leisurely, almost peaceful stroll — except for the landing gear bays.

A look into the gear bay of a jetliner is, if nothing else, sobering. Were human beings meant to howl through the air at 600 miles per hour? To properly answer that question, one needs to glimpse firsthand the apocalyptic assembly of cables, struts, pumps, ducts and plumbing that lives under there. Ostensibly I’m checking the tires, inspecting the brakes and looking for any wayward hydraulics. But I’m also shaking my head, wondering who in the name of heaven ever conceived of such a hulking, terrifying contraption.

The landing gear itself is frightening to consider — those giant black tires and greasy struts thicker than an oak tree. Ask the typical flier what he or she fears most, and you’ll hear things most pilots rarely worry about: turbulence, lightning, wings snapping off. People don’t think much about landing gear, but after almost four years of crewing the Douglas I’ve developed a very short hierarchy of potential nightmares, and tire disasters are one of them. Failure of a main-gear tire at high runway speed, particularly on takeoff and when a plane is heavily loaded, can induce all sorts of trouble, from greatly reduced braking capabilities to an explosion or fire.

Late one night we were prepping for takeoff on this very same flight — Brussels to New York — at our highest allowable taxi tonnage when the ground controllers gave us a long, circuitous route to the runway. Rolling along the apron in the early morning darkness, we suddenly heard a bang and felt a shudder. A taxiway pothole, we concluded, and kept going, as otherwise the aircraft felt normal. Just as we turned onto the runway and were cleared for takeoff, we heard a second bang, followed rapidly by a third, and then a fourth. And with that, the airplane — all 355,000 pounds of it — seized and wouldn’t move.

The front office of a Douglas DC-8. (Photo by NASA Goddard Space Flight Center)

The first noise we’d heard was one of the DC-8′s eight main tires violently giving up the ghost (they are paired in two sets of four). At max weight and after several sharp turns along the taxiways, it was only a matter of time before the adjacent one met a similar fate. With two gone, stress on the remaining two sent them popping as well. We were lucky it happened when it did, and not at 150 knots, with the threshold lights fast approaching. The runway was closed for seven hours, until the crippled plane could be unloaded, defueled and towed away for repairs.

Returning to the cockpit, my duties include monitoring and supervising the intake of fuel. This morning we’ll be needing 121,000 pounds of the stuff. That is the number cooked up by the flight planners and dispatchers back at our headquarters in Cincinnati. We need enough to get from Belgium to New York City, based on weather and winds aloft; then enough to reach any required alternate airports (the determination of which is another complex process); then an additional 45 minutes’ worth on top of that; plus more for any anticipated delays or holds. Plus taxi fuel. The captain has the option to add more still. The fuel-burn schedule on the flight plan goes on for pages. At each way point or tick of longitude, actual remaining fuel will be cross-checked with the forecast totals.

That 121,000 pounds of kerosene equates to 18,000 gallons, to be divided among eight tanks integral to the wings and belly. En route, to maintain balance and proper engine feed, fuel will need periodic shifting. On the DC-8, the valves are opened and shut by a row of hand-operated vertical levers that run across the lower portion of the second officer’s workstation. Trimming up the tanks, I look like a madman trying to play a pipe organ.

From outside comes the diesel roar of a pallet lifter. The main-deck freight floor is empty for now, and a glance is like peering through a long, empty highway tunnel. I walk back there sometimes, imagining what that space must have looked like 20 or 30 years ago, when it carried passengers for Air Canada. In 1982 I flew to Jamaica with my family on an Air Canada DC-8. This identical one, possibly.

Nature and travel writer Barry Lopez once authored a wonderful essay, called “Flight,” in which, standing inside the fuselage of an empty 747 freighter, he compares the aircraft to “the quintessential symbol of another era — the Gothic cathedral of twelfth-century Europe.”

“Standing on the main deck, where ‘nave’ meets ‘transept,’ and looking up toward the pilots’ ‘chancel’ … The machine was magnificent, beautiful, complex as an insoluble murmur of quadratic equations.”

The iconic 747 is deserving of such a grandiose comparison. The pedestrian Douglas is not.

I open a Coke Lite. The other two pilots will be here shortly. But for now it’s just me and the Monster, and this pre-departure ritual has a way of enhancing our love/hate relationship. The DC-8 speaks to me. I will kill you, it says, if you don’t take proper care of me.

So, I take proper care.

In the foggy predawn darkness we lift off.

Eight-plus hours to New York is a long time. Somewhere south of Iceland I’ve got my shoes off. There are sections of newspaper piled on the aft jump seat, remnants of some quality time back in Brussels. Foil trays of half-eaten chicken sit on the floor, and a trash bag is bursting with discarded cups and cans of Coke Lite.

Transoceanic flying induces a unique feeling of loneliness. Out here, you are on your own; there is no radar coverage or conventional air traffic control. Flights are spaced apart by time and speed, sequenced along paths of latitude and longitude called “tracks.” Pilots report their positions to monitoring stations hundreds, even thousands of miles away, silently via satellite link — or, in the case of the old DC-8, over high-frequency radio. There’s something in the crackling, echoing transmission of an HF transmission that intensifies a sense of distance and isolation.

“Gander, Gander,” calls the captain. “DHL zero-one one, position. Five-eight north, three zero west at zero-five, zero-four. Flight level two eight zero. Estimate five-eight north, four-zero west at zero-five four six. Next: five-six north, five-zero west. Mach eight-six. Fuel seven two decimal six, over?”

Basically that’s our current location; ETA for the next reporting fix; speed, altitude and remaining fuel. A moment or two later comes the acknowledgment from a controller in far-off Newfoundland, his voice so faint he might as well be on the moon.

For the second officer, the en route phase is pretty relaxed. There’s not much to do, and thoughts will wander — perhaps in the wrong direction, resulting in a distinctly maudlin karmic brew. The devil finds work for idle minds.

In the cargo compartment behind us are 80,000 pounds of fresh-cut flowers from Belgium and the Netherlands headed to America. (“But what placed within it could compare with religious faith?” wondered Barry Lopez.) The scent of the flowers has made the cockpit smell like baby powder. I think about how, after planes crash at sea, mourners go out on a boat and toss flowers into the waves, and how if something happened and we found ourselves in a watery grave, we’d save everyone the trouble by spreading a veritable slick of tulips halfway to Labrador.

And consider another thing: When thousands of pounds of flowers are piled together, they tend to give off clouds of microscopic dust — tiny bits that fill the air like a fragrant cloud of powder. Meanwhile the fire-detection system of the DC-8 is designed to detect not flames or heat, but smoke particles, and they are very susceptible to false fire alarms from dust and powder.

This UPS DC-8 was lucky enough to get on the ground in Philadelphia before the aircraft was engulfed

Cargo fires are a serious threat. This UPS DC-8 was lucky enough to get on the ground in Philadelphia before the aircraft was engulfed on February 8, 2006.

Tires nothing — a pilot’s worst nightmare, other than his airline going bankrupt or the caterers forgetting the meals, is an on-board fire. My battered jet has two identical smoke detector systems for its 150-foot-long upper cargo deck. These are rotary dial things with yellow annunciator bulbs at the bottom. The bulbs say: CARGO SMOKE.

Of course, this is an airplane laid out when Eisenhower was president, so guess what? Thanks for the heads up, but there’s nothing to actually put the fire out with once it has been detected. There are bigger, brighter lights in this cockpit, but it’s those square, innocuous-looking yellow lights that I do not ever want to see come on, particularly when the closest spot of land, two hours away, is the glaciered coast of Greenland.

So I’m staring at the warning lights, waiting for them to tell me we’re on fire over the middle of the ocean. Or is it just the flowers?

Making matters worse, the captain starts playing with the GPS and all of a sudden shouts “Ha!” Bored and curious, he has just located the exact latitude and longitude of the Titanic, which is 40,000 feet below us (28,000 of air and 12,000 of saltwater), just a short ride south of our course.

“Jesus,” I say, “don’t be doing shit like that.”

I sit in front of my instrument panel — a wall of dials and switches, all arranged in a perfect working sequence, with a collective purpose nothing short of mechanical infallibility. Green lights, red lights, blue lights, circular windows with quivering white needles. In modern planes it’s all LED or liquid crystal, but these are the old-style analog gauges, which give the cockpit that U-boat look. Old, and dizzyingly complex for just that reason. I slide back my seat and consider it all, with the criticism and respect an artist might give to his or her canvas. In that moment I am a maestro of a most precariously ordered technology.

But if only you could see what lurks behind that console. The maintenance people sometimes rip the panels off, and trust me, there’s pandemonium back there: wildly knotted bundles of wires and cables, like a spaghetti factory has exploded. Most people have never seen the guts of an airplane — the hideous blocks of machinery conspiring to fool gravity. Unseen hydraulic pumps are grinding, stressed metal is moaning. When you look at the eyes of a pretty girl, that superficial beauty of a green-speckled iris in the sunlight, do you consider the bloody tangle of the optic nerve behind it? And in that brain of hers, that cottage-cheese glob of viscera, what is she thinking? Like a fire secretly smoldering behind me amid all those flowers. And when it’s finally too late: CARGO SMOKE.

No, not this time. A few hours later, we land at Kennedy.

And doesn’t it always end this way, which is to say, safely? That’s the thing about these spooky ruminations. It’s our imagination, not our technology, that is most prone to failure.

Though perhaps that’s a good thing as well. We’re all afraid of flying on some level, and is that not perfectly healthy? And the pilot’s job, in essence, is the management of contingency. Fires, explosions, physics gone bad, all the nasty scenarios the simulator instructors love — they’re all there, coiled behind the instrument panel, waiting to spring in a game of comfortable, though never perfect, odds. And the pilot’s role is to spring right back. Do pilots worry about crashing? Of course. As a matter of practicality, they have to. It’s in their best interest, and yours too.

This article was originally published on Salon.com. Patrick Smith is an airline pilot, air travel columnist and author behind the site www.AskThePilot.com. In his spare time he has visited more than 70 countries and always asks for a window seat. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.


  • http://www.facebook.com/wietsedegraaf Wietse De Graaf

    Very well written, thanks.