Confessions of an Airline Pilot


How I have sinned, over and again, yet with neither guilt nor remorse just the same. And in the soulless black of a moonless night, at 500 knots across the ground tipping earthward from seven miles up, this without penance or remorse I must confess:

First, I distrust all flight planning. Every damn bit of it over a lifetime spent in the air has sooner or later come back to bite me in the ass, for one reason: it’s just a plan. And it’s not based on what is, or even what matters, but rather on what matters to certain people. Mainly, those paying the bills who are normally and not incidentally, not on board when the plan yields to actuality.

That’s the gospel of movement: when you live it out at .8 Mach with 165 souls in tow, flight looks a lot different than it does on a spreadsheet of fixed and variable costs.

Because absent a priority labelled “Your Pink Ass,” which never seems to show up on a spread sheet, I think bean counting is a wicked temptress meddling in flight planning.

So I go for the miracle of seat-of-the-pants judgment day, feeling in my bones when the departure and arrival or weather or traffic will eat away at my fuel reserve–and I get more juice even though it’s way outside the wisdom of the ages as sayeth the Book of Normal, I reroute my own flightpath though it may not be in the way of the righteous. Sorry, I’m just that way.

Don’t get me wrong–I’m as parsimonious with a pound of fuel or an air mile as any miserly bean counter shaving operating costs, only for the right reason: not to minimize operating costs, but rather to maximize real-time flight options when we get to wherever the hell we’re going. Forgive me.

Second, I question everything I was ever taught about flying. That’s because it, too, like flight planning, has always led me into temptation: this is what it’s supposed to do, or how it should act, or what it’s predicted to do–which leaves you wandering thirsty in the desert when it doesn’t. And never mind the fact that I’ve been flying jets long enough to see The Book rewritten from Procedure A (“Thou shallt use full reverse thrust”) to Procedure D (“Thou Shallt not ever use more than 1.3 EPR in reverse because it blanketh the rudder and thou shallt then inherit the dirt”), or read the prophecy “should clear the obstacle by 50′ even with one engine failed” or “can stop in the remaining distance” only to find that reality doesn’t conform to the wicked theory on a drawing board or in a treacherous policy, revelations visited upon a desk jockey somewhere miles below, at rest.

What I know best is what the jet has taught me, has shown me, has burned my ass and gotten my attention with in the air where demons fly like so many stars in the night sky. Forgive me, but I disbelieve just about everything you tell me anymore–and I think that’s healthy.

Third, I never forgive or forget. Whether I’ve been wronged in the middle of the night over the South China Sea or at the buttcrack of dawn over the north Atlantic, I refuse to let go of the offense, saving it, putting it away and nursing it like a grudge so whatever pestilence came forth shall not be revisited–at least not on me and the tonnage I’m pushing through the sky. It’s a morality play I’ve seen too often; the temptation, the fall, and the mounds of paper and chapters of gospel testifying to the sin, etched in charts and policies, revisions and retractions, all the devil’s work of this last bunch I ain’t forgiving or forgetting: the ground pilots.

Those are the heathen who wear the wings but evade the jets, preferring both feet on the ground and sanctified by the fatter paycheck of supervisory duty. No, they’re not by any means all that way–in fact, the Chief Pilot at my airline, and my crew base, for that matter, are both better pilots than I’ll ever be. But there are many others–and they know who they are–just like in the Air Force, who hide from flying. They are the ones who have held hands with the moneychangers, horse thieves, ambulance chasers, inspectors and regulators to produce “The Manual,” canon most carefully, devilishly crafted to at once say “do it,” and at the same time, “we told you not to.” Eagerly they’ll abet The Inquisition, then warm themselves by the fire.

And so truth be told, it is with clear guilt and a deliberately unrepentant heart that I do confess my sins, yet propose unrelenting flight into perdition nonetheless, claiming my own salvation in the trip to hell; and, every damn time, righteously back safely with my daily flock of hundreds of souls and the shiny, fifty million dollar jet.

And for all those who fly with those of us who actually do the flying, it would be wise to get down on your knees and pray for the right pagan like me in your time of need to see you safely to touchdown–because if not, there’s gonna be hell to pay; amen.

We talk live with Ed Rasimus, fighter pilot and co-author of “Fighter Pilot: The Memoirs of Legendary Ace Robin Olds.”

Don’t be crazy–subscribe, you don’t want to miss this.

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19 Responses to “Confessions of an Airline Pilot”

  1. Dances between bureaucrats and practitioners are always fascinating. Truth be told, people good at either are skilled in bending the rules and getting the work done, whether touching down safely or checking on pilots taking on the extra pounds of fuel, knowing when to cut them slack.

    The other night we were awaiting boarding heading from ORD to my home airport CMX on a CRJ seating 50 and were forewarned by the pilots that CMX visibility was borderline. This caused grumbling and the perennial spousal calls, followed by passenger announcements that visibility was 3 miles (ceiling?) and if the pilots failed to land it would be due to a lack of nerve. CMX is on a hill so visibility there is often very different than in town.

    I have had my share of landing attempts followed by returns to the hub. I like being safe and trust the pilots’ judgement. The backseat flying and grumbling of other passengers irritates me.

    So we got proximate to CMX on approach and indeed it was clear near town, but fogged in on the CMX hill. We did land, but I was surprised we did (and grateful) because the clouds were sitting nearly on top of CMX’s one story bldg. When flying into a tiny regional airport how much of the decision to land under particular visibility constraints the pilots’ decision versus air traffic control/FAA/the airport? Just curious, thanks, Kathy

    • Good question. Actually, the airport just reports the ceiling and visibility, then it’s up to the crew to determine if the aircraft, ground equipment and the crew are certified for the approach required. Either you are or you aren’t, it’s pretty simple.

      I’m certified Category-III: zero ceiling, forward visibility of 300 feet. If the winds, runway condition and aircraft are compliant–we go.

  2. Amen Bro, Glad to see you’re still humble and with a strong survival instinct. As always, a very good read but stop sucking up to the Chief Piglet.

  3. keithpeers Says:

    GREAT READING.

  4. Cedarglen Says:

    You are absolved, my son. Now, go forth and sin with the multitudes of your brothers and sisters and yes, ye shall be absolved again.
    Words I don’t like to hear when flying: “Is there a doctor or nurse aboard?” (It ruins my nap.) Words that I hope to never hear while flying: “Is there a priest aboard?”
    Excellent post Captain and excellent reading. -C.

  5. Love the variety of your posts, Chris. And this one’s right up my alley. 😉

    Good Lenten reading…ha ha. Say 100 Hail Mary’s and keep on doing what you’re doing.

    Thanks, Captain. 🙂

    • Didn’t think about the Lent connection. Jeez, now I’m really in for it if Sister Euthalia catches up with me. Hoping she’s about 90 by now–I might be able to outrun her!

  6. A great post Chris. Now gird up thy loins and hurl them into the air again.
    I’m reminded of what one of my long suffering instructors once said. ” Yea though I walk through the shadow of the valley of death, yet shall I fear no evil, for I am the most evil b*****d in this particular valley”.

    • I like that. I believe that was emblazoned outside the squadron of ace Robin Olds’ Flight Operations at Korat RTAFB in Thailand. His wing flew combat missions deep into North Vietnam against heavy opposition from SAMs, Migs and anti-aircraft fire. The sign read, “Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil for I am the meanest son of a bitch in the valley.”

      Tune in Wednesday for the JetHead Live podcast with Ed Rasimus, a veteran of 250 combat missions over North Vietnam, and co-author of Robin Olds’ memoir “Fighter Pilot.”

  7. Bruce Starkey Says:

    Chris,
    I have to say I love your columns. I read, and enjoy, each and everyone. I wish we had more pilots like you that trust “Common Sense” above all else. We have a few, like you, that have exemplary performance on time and fuel. Your skills, experience, and decision making should be applauded. Please keep up the great columns, and of course, the flying.
    Bruce Starkey
    Manager – Flight Planning
    Operations Engineering – American Airlines

  8. Yes. No. Yes. Drop me a line at rrsmith16@yahoo.com.

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