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  • Writer's pictureR.D. Kardon

What's Going On Up There?

Ever wonder what goes on in the cockpit during a flight? Well, I’ve got some news for you: not much.

The old cliché is that flying an airplane is hours of boredom surrounded by fifteen minutes of sheer terror. I think the terror they refer to is takeoff and landing. Neither is all that terrifying—at least to me.

Yes, yes, yes, pilots fly the plane. The sophisticated airliners of today are mostly computer controlled. It’s the pilot’s job to monitor the systems and, if the computer or systems fail—as they occasionally do—fly the airplane safely to a suitable landing spot. Hopefully on a runway.

But most of the time, we’re just sitting there. As a pilot, I spent hours in the cockpit sitting a few feet away from some person I’d probably never met before, and might not have anything in common with if I had.

My least favorite were the guys—and I use guys as a unisex term, because I’ve flown with some pretty dull women, too—who launch into their significant others the minute takeoff checklists are complete, who want to talk about politics—generally conservative—or who can’t stop complaining about fill-in-the-blank: their schedule, the dispatcher, the pilot contract...

Which reminds me of a joke:

Q: “What’s the difference between a pilot and a jet engine?”

A: “The jet engine stops whining when it gets to the gate!”

As Captain on the flight, I could simply change the subject, or tell the First Officer I wasn’t interested. The Captain sets the tone. If I was the First Officer, I had to plaster a look of rapt attention on my face, punctuate it with an occasional “uh huh,” and pray that air traffic control would call me so I’d have someone else to talk to. Or, perhaps I could think of a message to impart to the passengers over the PA. “Ladies and gentlemen, if you look out the right side of the aircraft, you’ll see me crawling on the wing desperately trying to escape my crew mate.”

If we didn’t have food, we’d talk about the food available at our next destination. Or the absence thereof. Or what restaurant we’d eat at during the overnight.

If we had food, we’d eat! Food was dual purpose equipment. It provided sustenance and generally got the pilot next to you to stop speaking. Temporarily.

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