Why I Couldn’t Be An Airline Pilot.


When I was a teenager, like all of my close friends I decided I was going to be an airline pilot. But somewhere along the way between our teenage years and the reality of adulthood, one by one my friends all let go of the dream and wandered off to do other things with their lives.

The standard refrain I hear from them–and most guys when they find out I’m an airline pilot–is this: “I was going to be a pilot, but . . .” The “but” ranges from physical deficiencies to fate to a million reasons–all beyond their control–why that never happened.

Which got me to thinking. There are a lot of good reasons why I couldn’t be an airline pilot either. Here they are:

1. I hate mechanical stuff. Always have. In fact, during those same teen years my Saturday mission was to sneak out of the house before my dad could grab me and put me to work as tool caddy for his day long under-the-hood misadventures. Dad decided my brothers and I needed to do the cliche stuff like work on cars in order to grow up “like normal guys.” In my opinion, that was a waste of a perfectly good Saturday afternoon.

“Get over here,” he’d growl, and you were busted. “This will only take forty minutes and you can go do whatever afterward.” Never forty, maybe four hours and forty minutes, then your day was shot. Dammit. So I’d be the reluctant tool lackey as Dad hunkered waist deep in the yawning engine compartment on the Chevy 396 with a four-barrel carb that with the air filter off, looked like a toilet flushing the way it guzzled gas (that was cool) even at idle.

He’d say “Gimme the 3/8 inch box wrench” and I’d hand him pliers, on purpose, thinking the next time he’d remember how pissed off that made him and perhaps he’d select a more competent tool monkey–like either of my brothers. Nope. So besides cursing whatever procedure that despite the tome-sized shop manual just wasn’t working, or never mind three trips to the auto parts store (another special hell) ranting about parts that didn’t fit, he’d have me to blast for being an idiot (What? A screw driver is not a socket wrench?) sous chef under the hood.

So now, flying a complex, state-of-the-art (some are only weeks old–they still have that “new jet” smell) aircraft, when something goes wrong under the hood, I call an expert and let them fix it.

But I fly with a lot of guys who like my dad have wiring diagrams, flow charts, Lamm schematics–they like to get under the hood, yacking with the mechanics. “Shows 28 volt three-phase; now if you lose one phase . . .” blah blah blah is all I’m hearing. Just let me know when it’s fixed. Unlike my dad, they don’t want me handing them wrenches and like his Chevy Caprice, I don’t want to know how it works or even why it works–just let me know when it’s working again. I can fly the hell out of it for sure but the rest is all just details eating up my afternoon. Fix it, I’ll fly it, end of story.

2. I’d prefer to be invisible in uniform. Seriously: I don’t want to play the “this is your captain speaking” Disney character. Darling Bride and I used to fly together as crew, and people would of course see us in our uniforms–her flight attendant polyester hell, my pilot suit–and they’d seem to be watching us like zoo animals to see what we’d do.

So I don’t relish any of the showtime beyond the sanctuary of the bolted shut cockpit door. Walking through the terminal, it’s like encountering a pack of stray dogs: don’t make eye contact; just go about your business in an unobtrusive, non-threatening way and they’ll leave you alone.

Somebody else is going to have to do the playacting for the public; I’m not good answering questions about the bathroom, yucking it up about flying, or hearing about how (this is standard) “we dropped a thousand feet straight down” on some other flight. Doing the pilot thing as a pilot in the air–that is my only concern. Don’t worry about a thing, it’s taken care of–just keep your seat belt fastened and like Lewis CK says, “You watch a movie, take a dump and you’re in LA.” Just don’t expect a show before or after.

3. I really don’t get along with pilots. That goes with the “invisible” thing above: don’t play the role, don’t relish the identity. No cheesy aviators sunglasses, no 1980s-vintage mustache, no vanity plate like “JetJock” or bumper sticker that says, “My other car is a Boeing-737” or god forbid, this:

This is actually a sticker on sale at the Crew Outfitters store at DFW Airport. Which means some douchebag pilot thought it was a “cute idea,” (what the hell is “giggity giggity?”) and enough are actually buying the sticker to make it worthwhile. Wonder why I want to be invisible?

And in the cockpit, I do not want to take turns parroting whatever talk radio host is the hero of the week, don’t need to analyze the stock market that none of us ever really has any real expertise in, and I definitely don’t want to hear about the merits of home schooling (why is it that some many pilots’ wives are browbeaten into this?) as THE way to raise the only decent kids in the world after “the balloon goes up.” Have a weapons cache ready? A shack in Montana? Just keep it to yourself. Want to talk about sports? Fine: how the heck did Sabathia hit the Yankees for $25 million a year when he looks like he ate everything on the Dairy Queen menu every day since the All-Star break?

Nice gut.

See, I can be sociable. But beyond sports talk, I’m completely avoiding discussion of The Big Three: politics, religion and god forbid, pilot contract talks. Other than conversation related to actually flying the jet, I’m a big fan of what Archie Bunker used to call “A little bit of shut up around here.”

So there you have it: like most guys, there are a lot of good reasons why I couldn’t be an airline pilot, or at least not one like you’d see on TV or in the movies with the cliches and stereotypes. But when the weather’s crap and your pink butt is in the back of the plane heading for the runway at 150 miles per hour, I will guarantee you a safe landing. I’ve got over thirty years of experience and practice doing exactly that.

But afterward, it’s best for all concerned if I just slip out the door unnoticed before anyone can corral me into spending my time off being somebody I’m clearly not. If only my dad had figured that out so many Saturdays ago.

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32 Responses to “Why I Couldn’t Be An Airline Pilot.”

  1. Great post. Yes, when I am traveling I would prefer a pilot that is only concerned about flying the plane as well. Have you seen the show Pan Am? I remember flying Pan Am as a kid. What do you think about the show? How about a post on how real or unreal the show is in comparison to actually flying for an airline company. Would love to hear what you think.

    • I’ve only seen part of one episode, but just from that it seemed really cliche and grounded more in the dialogue than in what would really drive the characters if they were really pilots and flight attendants. The Missuz who flew for us for 12 years saw it too and after one look at the F/As being fairly lame and unthinking, she announced that she’s not watching the show any more. I’m more a fan of “Modern Family” and “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” two character-driven shows that makes me laugh whether I want to or not.

      Thanks for a great idea though: I’ll watch one or two “Pan Ams” and write about the comparison between the show and today’s airline world.

  2. I appreciate your view and I see aviation the same way you do. Thank you for writing this. It’s refreshing to know that I’m not the only one that thinks there’s a lot of BS in USA aviation. It makes me tired and I wonder if I chose the right profession. Again. Thank you and love to see more.
    Alex

    • I hear you. I think the era of the great captains is over and all of them I ever knew have retired. Our Chief Pilot at AA is one of the last great ones, a pilot’s pilot, with guts and brains and heart. You don’t see much of that any more.

      But there are plenty of posers who wear the four strips but that’s about it. Last winter up in Canada I heard a debate going on the de-ice freq; the de-ice director was saying that since the ATIS wasn’t calling freezing precip, Type-IV wasn’t required. Heard some dickless wonder say, “I’ll need your initials on that.” Meaning he was under the delusion that it was a paperwork legality he thought he could pass off to someone else, rather than simply saying, “We’ll wait here till you finish applying Type-IV on the wings, tail, and flight control surfaces.” Period.

      Where have all the captains gone? That might make a good blog entry.

  3. I will “Leave a Reply,” but I want to think about it. A profound post and one worth of thought and later comment. Thank you, Chris.
    -Craig

  4. T. Wright Barnes Says:

    Cap’n Manno – I ended up a flight simulation engineer, and actually like things like Lamm Schematics (great documents, wish Boeing had adopted them after the merger) and what happens if you lose Phase A of the left 400Hz bus. I think most professional pilots are closer to your attitude – which actually makes things easier. Just tell me what the issue is and I will fix the sim, you don’t need to try and diagnose it yourself.

    Early in my career I made the mistake of answering a question by launching into a detailed and technical explanation of the sinusoidal extrapolation logic in the equations of motion code of an F-15 sim to an audience of fighter pilots. I have never seen eyes glaze over so quickly, before or since…

    • @T.Wright… You got it right; don’t explain it, just fix the SOB. In the Captain’s case, he does not need to know what broke or why it broke, but he DOES need to know how to deal with the loss of the whateveritis. I think Captain Chris has that nailed, even on his Electric Jet. He’s certainly honest about the profound lack of interest in the mechanical (or software) details, but he can still fly that magic machine by hand when necessary. -Craig

  5. ArdVark111 Says:

    I’ve flown with you before and have to say you’re not being completely honest: we laughed our asses off the whole trip, both in the air and on the ground. And we got the job done safely and professionally anyway.

    When are you coming to the 777? We could use a few captains who know how to lead a crew and make a flight a good experience for all.

    And I’m going to kick your ass when you do–will explain next time we cross paths at DFW.

    • Well, I didn’t say flying *couldn’t* be fun. If it ain’t, something’s wrong. And if I’m thinking of the right F-111 degenerate lowlife, I believe on several specifics you’re sworn to secrecy.

      Kick my ass? Better bring your lunch, you’re going to be here for a while.

      • ArdVark111 Says:

        Douchebag.

      • Shut up, asshat. And that’s the final word–it’s my blog and I’ll delete anything else you post.

        BTW, I pulled my 777 bid–with all the retirements I’d get it, and be the junior captain spending Christmas in Mumbai. I’ll stick with my 11 day cosmic jet months.

         Chris

        Sent from my iPhone, so please pardon the typos.

      • Now that’s the kind of pilots that I want ro ride behind. -C.

  6. Are F-111s still in the USAF Inventory? I think not. Maybe the Royal Australian Air Force.

    • Nope. The Aardvark left the skies long ago.

      You can take the pilot out of the aardvark, but you can’t take the aardvark out of the pilot.

       Chris

      Sent from my iPhone, so please pardon the typos.

      • You are correct Chris. The last Vark that was operational was in Australia and was retired in 2010.

      • That was a jet way ahead of it’s time–maybe too far ahead, with a mission that outpaced the technology of the day. In the airline world, we only started routine on-board systems based vertical navigation in the last decade, and that’s based on at least a dozen GPS satellite fixes plus IRUs, and even then the mins are high non-precision MDAs. None of the GPS stuff existed then and only crude INSs by comparison to present-generation IRUs, but they were doing nape of the earth TFR at Mach 1. First fatality in my pilot group was a guy on his first TFR out of Mountain Home.

  7. Spent a lot of Saturday afternoons holding the flash light, or finding the 3/8’s box wrench for my Dad while the other kids were playing an impromptu ball game in the street. I did build a couple of hot rods after that, but when it came to the jet and any problems it had, I was of few words, “it’s broken, let me know you’ve got it fixed,” because all I’m interested in is flying it. As to sports, while every other kid was getting interested, I was finding that 3/8’s box wrench, but hey at least your Dad bought a 396.

    • Yeah, the 396 was a great thing when we were old enough to drive and it became the old hand me down fir my older brother and me. Chevy designed it as “the Trailer Hauling Package” and it had amazing power–punch it, and after a second’s hesitation like a hard-light afterburner the car would leap ahead. The only problem was after a night out, there’d be dad with the look of doom first thing in the morning: “You use car–you buy gas.” You could watch the gas gauge go down on the freeway.

      I solved both problems–maintenance and mileage with my first car: a VW Super Beetle. You could do all required maintenance with a crescent wrench, although I eventually broke down and bought a set of metric sockets. Timing? Line up the marks. Oil change? At night, over a sewer grate (how ecologically insensitive!) one plug, drain the oil pan, push the car two yards, replace the plug, refill, drive away.

      I’m with you though: any aircraft maintenance problems? I stay the hell out of it–no meddling or trying to press anyone in any way ( that’s a negative factor that does happen, don’t you think?) . When it’s fixed we go, not until.

       Chris

      Sent from my iPhone, so please pardon the typos.

      • AA Retired Says:

        The cockpit door has a multitude of purpose, one is to deter the casual untrained observer and muffle any comments that person may make. I always thought the maintenance guys deserved a “virtual cockpit door.” I was always available to answer their questions, but I kept my advise to my self.

  8. Some years ago BA decided that their tailfin logo looked to hard and clinical so they went for a soft/cuddly/fluffy version. Little did they realise that most of their customers flew with them because of the hard clinical perception. After all, soft/fluffy/cuddly really doesn’t hack it when decisions affecting safety have to be made.
    Here’s a little quote that might amuse but which I think is very true.
    “The truly superior pilot uses his/her superior experience, ability and knowledge to avoid situations where they may be needed”.

  9. Teresa Bailey Says:

    Chris,

    A question not related to this story, but I saw a 2 stripe engineer in the airport just a few weeks ago. I didn’t recoqnize the uniform. What airline would still have those??

    Hope you and your family have a great Thanksgiving and Christmas.

    • Howdy Teresa!

      I can’t think of any airline that still has flight engineers and in fact I can’t really think of an airliner that has an engineer’s panel. What airport was it? Maybe some foreign flag carrier flies old 747, L1011 or DC10 aircraft. Could that be it?

       Chris

      Sent from my iPhone, so please pardon the typos.

  10. Teresa Bailey Says:

    I had to do a double take when I saw it. I was in terminal D in DFW a few weeks ago. Yes, I thought maybe it was a foreign carrier. He was probably in his 40’s or 50’s. Seemed kinda strange. I do know the Sheik of Dubai (sp?) flies a 747 into Lexington,KY for the yearling sales at Keeneland Race Track.

    • Could you be confusing the clerks from American Express promo stand in all the airports? They all wear faux airline uniforms with two gold stripes.

       Chris

      Sent from my iPhone, so please pardon the typos.

  11. blackwatertown Says:

    Good inspirational tale.

  12. Teresa Bailey Says:

    Hey, maybe that’s what I saw. I gotta get out more!

    Happy trails to you!

    • On the two-stripers, I can think of two ideas, thought I wonder about Lexington… 1) a while back I saw a foreign carrier that had its male cabin crew dressed with one or two strips, or 2) Perhaps freight dogs from a foreighn (or domestic) three-crew airplane. Who knows??? Happy Turkey Day to all. -Craig

  13. My instructor used to tell me you can get all the training you want, but you will be a bad pilot unless you have good common sense, morals, and logic. A bad pilot tries to impress his friends by landing his Cessna 172 25 knots too fast at the end of the runway. A good pilot makes a Go-around. I always hated mechanics, engineering, and math. He told me to at least understand the maps, graphs, angles, and how each part of the plane functions and how to manipulate it. Thanks for your article. It reminded me how not every pilot is gifted in the stereotypical talents of a pilot.

    • I don’t really think of that stuff as stereotypical “talents” and in fact, in my experience the technical stuff often becomes a liability: so many pilots focus on the technical crap at the expense of the practical. They know the books and the technical details but they often lean on that rather than stick-and-rudder air sense. I personally don’t care if a system is powered by 28 volt alternating current from the right emergency A/C bus. But I do care about how a pilot cross controls a 20 knot crosswind. Plus too many pilots waste time and energy perplexed by what’s happening versus what the tech data say should be happening. Just my opinion, based on 18,000+ flight hours.

      • That sure works for me! As is expressed in so many different ways, at the first hint of an error or malfunction, someone still has to fly the airplane. At FL300, there ain’t no shoulder on which to pull over and, there are no tow trucks! Great Post! -Craig

      • Right on. I don’t give a rat’s ass about power sources or plumbing diagrams: it either works or it doesn’t. I’ll deal with it either way.

         Chris

        Sent from my iPhone, so please pardon the typos.

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