The No-Drama Airline Cockpit
Set aside the Hollywood depictions of airline pilots in the cockpit struggling with emergencies, as well as the over-hyped tales from the passenger cabin of chaos and panic that hijack social media after any inflight incident.
Here’s what goes on with my heart rate and blood pressure in the cockpit when malfunctions threaten my flight: nada.
I tried to muster some adrenaline the last time — not that long ago, actually — that a jet engine quit on climb-out from an airport.
Nada. Business as usual: there’s a procedure for that. Have landed many jets, many times, minus an engine, even on fire.
Take it a step further: even if the other engine quits, there’s a procedure for that, I’ve practiced it and have 150% confidence that I’ll land the jet safely even with no engines. Again, no heart rate challenge, just a list of things to be done correctly, smoothly, and in no hurry — rushing increases the possibility of an error.
And I have 150% confidence in my copilot colleagues (I’ve been a captain for 25 of my 31 years at a major airline) who are just as thoroughly trained, tested and prepared as I am no matter what happens in flight.
So I really don’t give a damn what befalls us — we’ll be just fine.
Whenever trouble starts, I think back on the advice of an old fighter pilot who wisely told me, “You just take a minute to breathe deep and say, ‘Can you believe this sonofabitch is still flying?’” before you take any action.
This advice goes way back with me. Before I was an airline pilot, I had my share of near disasters as an Air Force pilot: fire, explosion, typhoons, lightning strikes — the list goes on.
Before that, in college, I couldn’t afford flying lessons, but skydiving was a fraction of the cost after I bought my own parachute, slightly used, but still. That got me into the sky pretty cheap and pretty often.
Perhaps that was the key inoculation for for me. I’d ration out my jump budget on weekends: one jump in the morning, one in the afternoon, each day.
One Sunday morning, tumbling through about 1,500 feet, I yanked the ripcord and out came a tangled mess — a streamer, as it’s called.
I did what I could, snapping the risers like the reins to a horse, trying to shake open the snarl. No dice.
Looking down, plunging at terminal velocity, say, 100 mph, I began to be able to distinguish individual cows in the pasture below where I’d impact in seconds if I didn’t get my reserve chute opened.
Even in that wild plummet, I knew that there was a very good chance that my reserve would simply tangle with the streamer above, and that would be the end of my life.
And there it was: I could panic and die — or hold my shit together and maybe live.
I distinctly recall the paradoxical thought in that moment that I’d rather die than panic, and that set me free.
I carefully, deliberately pulled the reserve ripcord but held the bundle closed, then with both hands — still dropping like a rock — I gathered the silk and threw it downward as hard as I could, as I’d been taught, to give it the best chance to blossom and knock the streamer aside rather than twist up with it.
I walked away with just bruises from a hard landing. And I crawled back into that jump plane and tumbled out again and again.
It’s been that way ever since: whatever disaster unfolds, I have no time for useless reactions, only disciplined responses, reasoning, and smart action.
And I’m just an average airline pilot, a carbon copy of most others. Which is why the average airline cockpit, come what may, will have none of the urban legend-drama, just calm, quiet, deliberate action.
That’s the way I like it in flight: quiet, disciplined, low bullshit and high performance. Leave the drama to others outside the cockpit, on the ground, in Hollywood or romance novels.
Fires, failures, windshear, weather — whatever, if you’re in the back of the jet, now you know up front the crew is taking a deep breath and saying, “Can you believe this sonofabitch is still flying?”
Try it yourself — it works. Dull as it sounds, it’s really the wisest choice. ✈️ Chris Manno