Airline Pilots: Quirks, Perks and Jerks.

There’s a unique social strata in the pointy end of the jet, one that most who reside there can neither recognize nor deny. First, lets look at quirks.

I have to go beyond just the technical quirks, but I’ll get to that. First, though, there are various peccadillos that are a combination of profession and personality. Foremost, and maybe quirkiest, is “Last Aircraft Syndrome.” That is, those who carry over some of the procedural considerations from the last fleet they were on, using either reasoning or procedures that really don’t apply. I’m not talking about the Obsessive-Compulsive resetting of systems, although it is annoying:  like the guys who on descent, reset the cabin pressure controller to a lower cruise altitude; turning the radar to standby after switching to a different mode. Not needed, but just a little obsessive.

But the really senseless make-work stuff some have to do: reset a step-down altitude on enroute descent even though the Flight Management System (FMS) is perfectly happy with the original path no matter where you initiate descent. That shows someone who either doesn’t understand FMS, or just has to obey Quirky Reset Syndrome (QRS; yes, I made that up) no matter how distracting and pointless it might be.

Which is, I guess, my main quirk: I hate to see unnecessary clutter in procedures: don’t add stuff that doesn’t really apply. Just to the most streamlined procedures possible. “Last aircraft syndrome” reaches beyond the 727-vintage pressurization considerations or the MD-80 fuel boost pump to the APU (Boeing says it’s fine without) to the really annoying ancestor worship passengers will notice right after takeoff, when the cabin heats up.

That’s because the venerable MD-80 had a primitive air-conditioning system that put out tons of cold air at high power setting like on take-off. So on climb out, F/Os would start adding warm air to the mix with the temp controls. By contrast, the 737-800 has a great system that adds warm air automatically–no need to mess with the manual controls. But former MD-80 F/Os can’t resist doing what they did for 15 or 20 years on the Juraissic Jet . Which brings up another of my quirks: I usually grab a coffee in the terminal about 10 minutes prior to pushback. It’s usually cooled to drinkable temp right after liftoff, and that’s my routine: on climbout, I fly with one hand, drink my coffee with the other. Which doesn’t leave me a free hand undo the F/O’s addition of heat to the cockpit mix. And hot coffee and a hot cockpit don’t mix. Soon enough, though, the flight attendants will be calling from the back to complain about the heat, if I don’t get to the controls myself first.

And now having said all that, I realize this: I sure do have a lot of quirks. Now let’s look to the dark side: the jerks.

I have to admit, we do have the “jerks” in our ranks. I don’t just mean the fashion failures still wearing their outdated layover clothes from the 1980s, or the bad 1970s porno mustaches, graying hair parted in the middle (bad combovers abound, too). Those of us who married flight attendants usually have enough in-house supervision to avoid those pitfalls. But the real jerks are the ones who have clearly rejected most of the better influences.

In that group there are the lotharios, both successful and pitifully hopeless. In the former group, there are the aging party boys, 40-ish and even 50-something, still hanging out in bars, playing the bad “what’s your sign” crap. They tend to troll for women 10-15 years or so younger, and one I know–who is very successful in that arena–dates one woman for only a few months, then sends her an extensive email explaining why they can no longer date, plus a half dozen tips on what she can improve on for her next boyfriend.

If you ever see this pathetic sticker on a pilot bag, he's "that guy."

If you ever see this pathetic sticker on a pilot bag: he’s “that guy.”

The latter group includes many with PPD (Pilot Personality Disorder) that sends potential dates running. I recall one puzzled F/O who couldn’t understand why a flight attendant put call blocker on him after their first date. After flying with him for a few days, I could.

The real jerks, however, make everyone on the crew cringe. The classic case is the mid-life guy, beautiful wife–often a flight attendant–and he has a flight attendant girlfriend as well. Then everyone on the crew has to pretend for his sake that we don’t know, that we don’t think he’s a damaged-goods jackass for two-timing the wife who we also like and fly with. And when she’s on the crew we have to pretend we don’t know as well, trying to make it easier for her, wishing better for her.

Those cases abound in any group of 8,000 pilots and 19,000 flight attendants.

Finally, the upside: the perks.

From my standpoint as captain, the main perk I see for me personally is that I get to fly with so many extremely high-time copilots who are completely experienced in the biz. That wasn’t always the case back when the airline was expanding in the last century and guys like me were filling the seats with just a fraction of the flight time we as a pilot group now have. That boosts the performance level in the cockpit and for the captain, who is accountable for everything that goes on in the flight, reduces the stress level.  Kind of feel sorry for the old heads who had to show me the ropes back in the 1980s. Fortunately, they’re now all retired or dead so they can’t complain about my F/O quirkiness in those days.

My best F/O memories . . .

And my payback for all of that, and atoning for my own F/O years is this one quirk of my own. On an end-of-the day flight, when the aircraft is staying overnight, when the crew is going home, I make sure I’m the last one off the jet. There are some items of switchology that can’t be done till all passengers have deplaned. As a courtesy, after our pilot checklist duties are complete, I send the F/O off with a “take-off, I’ll finish up after the pax deplane.” That frees the F/O to skeedaddle to the employee lot and get home as soon as possible.

It’s a bit of respect I can show to my crew after a long flight day, and maybe even a little gratitude for my good fortune to be in the left seat in the first place.

I guess we all have our quirks, and they’re not necessarily all that bad.


6 Responses to “Airline Pilots: Quirks, Perks and Jerks.”

  1. Loved this post, Chris. 🙂

    The quirks and jerks are part of most careers, I’m afraid. But after reading your blog for a while now, I think your perks are pretty darned good. You are blessed!

    Take care,
    Giulia 🙂

  2. Randy Sohn Says:

    Chris, what was it Len Morgan once said, “A new co-pilot needs to remember that, under the airline system, you bid to fly with a captain for the whole month. Some months are just gonna seem a lot longer than others!” (In my experience, I’d add that it works both ways)

    • capnaux Says:

      Your post really hits home, Chris! Of course the FO’s are forced to adapt to the Captain’s quirks more than vice versa! It’s amazing, isn’t it, that we have such a high tech job that still requires people skills…and pilot types are not known for their people skills, lol!

      I wrote a similar blog a while back about the same stuff:

  3. Cool post as always, Chris. PPD. Ha!

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