No longer an Airline Captain and I've Lost My Mojo

GolfHotelWhiskey.comAutopilotFromtheMovieAirplane I’ve been an airline Captain since 2001. With a recent airline change I’m a First Officer again. The copilot. Just like Kareem Abdul-Jabar… and the guy who sat next to Sully. I’m one step up from Otto the autopilot in Airplane. I should have made business cards that said “Cool Jet Captain” while I could. (Mental note - change my voicemail greeting from Jet Captain to Seat Filler.)

I’ve switched seats and I’ve lost my mojo. I don’t know where to put my pen. My right hand moves to push the buttons even though they're on my left side now. And damned if I can’t make passenger announcements anymore.

For years I’ve been saying the same thing to the people in the back.

THE.SAME.THING

“Folks, this is your Captain speaking. Blah blah blah. Weather is blah blah blah. There is going to be a few bumps on our climb out blah blah blah.”

But now I start in with “This is your….”

And I’m lost. Flatline.

My inner voice screams “LINE!”

But it’s just me. No cue cards. No teleprompter. Just me… your copilot.

And I think I’m pretty dexterous on my toes. I had a six grade teacher tell me I need to think before I speak. She didn’t mean it as a compliment.

I can’t think before I speak. It just happens. And without the normal cadence of “This is your Captain speaking.” I’ve got nothing. Flatline.

Oh, and you know those pilots that walk around the airport with their sunglasses on? You laugh at them on the inside because they think they’re so cool? Maybe they’re also new and have lost their mojo too?

I was on a dusk flight soon after I switched seats and titles and the sky was getting duskier on final approach. I even made a comment to the actual Captain about how dark this new cockpit I’ve found myself in was at night.

He agreed though surely he knew what the solution was.

And then I said something about the taxiway lights being an unusual hue.

And then I stood in the doorway and said goodbye to the passengers face to face. Eye contact.

And then I went up and got a cup coffee at Starbucks.

And then back in the cockpit I said something about how my phone screen suddenly had a reddish tint. “Maybe it’s reverted to some strange astronomer night mode?” I said.

That’s when the Captain commented on my rose colored sunglasses.

“I don’t know what to tell you Elton.”

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National Adoption Month. Where Do Storks Come From?

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stork-and-baby

“Father?” Said the almost five year old. “Listen, there is something I’ve been thinking about. You and I have been watching a lot of classic television programing lately. Shows like Tom and Jerry and Dumbo and I’ve noticed that in them, often a Stork drops off a baby to Moms and Dads.”

“Yes?” I answer while thinking, “Here we go. It’s time to talk about his adoption story. Where’s Mom? It’s something her and I have had on our to-do list but just haven’t gotten to. Damn you MarioKart.”

“So in these shows,” He continues. “The families always receive their babies from flying Storks. They are dropped from the moonlit sky and the little ones float in under a full parachute safely to land on the doorstep of their eager families. I’ve seen a Stork drop little elephants, giraffe and humans. All sorts of things. But what I’m wondering is this. Who brings the Storks?”

“Uh, I’m not sure I follow?”

“Well. A Stork flying around with a baby llama is quite a sight. Clearly that’s not the Storks child. It doesn’t look like her. It doesn’t even have wings. The same with a baby alligator. The Stork is going to drop off the alligator to an alligator family. Why would a Stork be flying around with an alligator if not to drop it off at its real family? But why would she deliver a Stork to another Stork? Wouldn’t they be able to deliver their own baby? Is this why we never see them flying around with a baby Stork in the basket?”

“There is a lot to cover here?” I said. “Maybe we should wait for your Mom to get home. I think I’m going to go play some MarioKart.”

“I guess my question is this. Where do Storks come from?”

“Just so we are clear here, Son.” I ask him. “We are talking about Storks right? The bird.”

“Of course we are Father. What else would it be? I understand that when a Stork is flying around with a potbellied pig in her basket or cloth sack no one would guess that it is hers because the pig looks so different. Same with a baby zebra. But if the reason we never see Storks flying around with their own is because Storks deliver themselves… where do Storks come from?”

“Okay. First of all. Families are made of all types of animals. Moms and Dads adopt children from other species and they make beautiful families. Even when they look different and have different features. Sometimes a bird may have a donkey for a son and that is just fine. Or a monkey. Second. Storks do fly around with other Storks. Just not in the basket. Baby birds can fly too so they just fly alongside their parents.”

“Surely they can’t fly at birth. How do they get to their parents houses?”

“Magic.” I said.

“That’s not true.”

“A Genie in a bottle.” I answer.

“Like Aladdin?”

“Yes.”

“I don’t believe that answer either.”

“Amazon Prime. They come in those brown boxes.”

“Oh. That makes sense. Amazon drops off all the babies that way right? Then on moonlit nights, the Storks fly them to their families?” He asks.

“Yep. You got it. Until the drones take over. They will put all the Storks out of business.”

“Oh. One more thing?” He asks. “Am I adopted?”

“Yes. And we love you very much.”

“Thanks Dad. Can we order a sister from Amazon?”

What I Did Not Do During My Summer Vacation

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I was on vacation during the month of July. I ceased all work related activities.

I also didn't...

  • Read a USATODAY
  • Eat airport food
  • Shave
  • Tell a passenger their flight cancelled... just for the fun of it
  • Turn my back and walk away from the TSA while they attempted to explain the rules
  • Make small talk with a new hire pilot about what they flew before this
  • Set an clock alarm with a pencil so as to not touch the buttons with my fingers
  • What CNN Airport News Network
  • Wear a tie
  • Watch sailboats from the cockpit of jet wishing I was down there
  • Iron anything
  • Get excited about finding a People, US Magazine and OK! in the same seat back pocket
  • Ride in a hotel van telling horror stories about flying with my crew while one non-airline person cries silently to themselves in the back
  • Send my phone through an X-ray machine with the "Get me out of this bag!" ringtone set to fire in T minus 10 seconds
  • Drink an emergency shot of airplane coffee
  • Wear a five point harness (almost though. Considered racing a go-cart)
  • Use outlook for email
  • Touch a thrust lever
  • Do a checklist (making a list now. Close)

It was a blissful month away from the airport. I return to the cockpit tomorrow. I just hope they didn't move any of the buttons around.

How Hollywood Gets Airline Life Wrong

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catch-me-if-you-can-leonardo-dicaprio

In many ways… Hollywood’s depiction of airline life is completely wrong. In some ways it’s spot on and I claim those scenes as just another day at the office. My ownership to what scene I sell as truth depends on the audience I’m with. If I’m sitting with guys and it’s a pilot surrounded by beautiful ladies at a bar listening intently to him tell stories I’ll say, “Yep, they nailed it!”

If I’m with my mom who gets anxious about my flying and a scene is on where the pilot calmly cheats death by flying inverted through a storm because the elevator has lost effectiveness I’ll say, “Yep, they nailed it.”

Most of the time though flying movies make me laugh. I’m sure all industries are critical of the movie studios depiction of their profession but films with airplanes on the poster can be so comical about it. I can’t imagine a bunch of pipe fitters laughing at plumbing movies as much as pilots do about cockpit scenes. But imitation is the sincerest form of flattery so I guess we should all be flattered when they mock us with their outlandish stories.

Those Hats

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catchmeifyoucan04

As much as they’d like for you to believe it we don’t wear the hats all the time. I guess it’s an easy way to remind the movie goers that the person in the scene is a pilot. The swagger, the smooth way with the ladies and sunglasses aren’t enough. I love the shots of these clowns sitting at breakfast far from an airport wearing their hat or walking around out in public donning their “look at me” headgear. My airline requires us to wear the lid in the winter so that’s a given… but only in the airport! The other time I wear my hat is on bad hair days and at the end of my haircut cycle when I’m trying to squeeze a few more weeks out of the current length. To be honest… my barometer for when it’s time to get a haircut is when I can’t tuck it all up under there anymore.

Four Hands on the Wheel

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2wheels

Yes, there are two of us up front but we both don’t have our hands on the wheel at the same time… all the time. These scenes remind me of drivers ed when the instructor is guiding you through a three point turn. It doesn’t take four hands to steer the ship. Most of the time there are no hands on the wheel. Often most of the work is done with just one finger. If someone tells you they’re an airline pilot ask to see their fingers. If one has a callus on the tip they’re a pilot. That’s the autopilot finger.

Lighting and Rain and Turbulence Oh My

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twighlight zone

It’s dark out and the cabin is getting thrown around and the lightning is flashing at terrifying intervals. You can hear the thunder and the rain is hitting the windows in buckets as if the plane weren’t even moving at all. This doesn’t happen.  We avoid the storms. Storms mean bumps and bumps mean spilt coffee. Our coffee. Now, the lightning is possible. Water carries light farther than air does and often we are in the clouds near storms so those flashes do travel some distance. But, rarely are we in the middle of the storm. Unless we’re bored. Often those flashes you see are the strobes out there on the wings telling other planes to not hit us. Again, it’s dark and if we’re in thick water filled clouds those flashes can be pretty terrifying. You want to see terrifying? Come up front when the cockpit windows are filled up with St. Elmo’s Fire. Put that in a movie and I may set my popcorn down for a second.

An Anthropomorphic Autopilot

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airplane

They nailed it in just about every scene in Airplane. While we don’t have an inflatable autopilot our autopilot does have a name. His name is George. Best I’ve heard is that we call him George after an early tinkerer in automated flight named George Debeeson. At least once a trip one of us will refer to the autopilot as George. We never give him thanks or praise him on a job well done. Typically, we yell at him for doing something stupid. Which always is because we told him to do something stupid. “Oh come on George! What are you doing now?”

Beautiful Flight Attendants

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View-From-Top-Paltrow_l

Now, this one is true. They always nail it here. We have beautiful people in the cabin from all over the world. Unlike most professions where you’re all from the same area with same stories who probably know the same people… our job is full of people from all over. And they are beautiful and their stories make them more so. This is one of the great things about airline life. We all have this one thing in common. We don’t want to be cooped up behind a desk. We want to travel and experience new things. There are long days and rude passengers but in the end there is a beautiful optimism about the adventure that awaits tomorrow and it shows on the faces of the flight attendants. Now the cockpit crew. That’s for another story.

We’re a miserable lot.

Captain Dad - I Called Maintenance Control for a Toy Helicopter

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hesscloseup

My work life and home life collided yesterday when my son complained that his toy Hess helicopter wasn't working as it was supposed to.

“My helicopter won’t fly anymore!”

It never flew. The blades spun. It lit up. It made lots noises. But it never flew.

In his world it did though. And now it did not. The batteries were dead. Naturally, they died while we were in the car. Away from fresh batteries.

I suggested maybe we should take it to the helicopter doctor. In hindsight… this wasn’t the best approach. Although I liked the sound of helicopter doctor and it sounded pretty damned cute when he said it, it got pretty old when he refused to do anything but go to the helicopter doctor.

“I think maybe the doctor is not in today.” I said.

“I want to go to the helicopter doctor.”

“Actually, they are not accepting new patients at the moment. I called last week for mommy’s helicopter.”

“I want to go to the helicopter doctor now!”

“There is no such thing as a helicopter doctor! I made it up… just like I made up that story about the aquarium being closed. Are you kidding? You fell for that! Sharks not coming out during the rain? I just didn't want to go run through the rain when you’d probably be bored as soon as we go there!“

This is what I wanted to say.

I made this bed. I had to sleep in it. Or work on another lie.

I tried explaining that I felt pretty certain I could fix the helicopter by putting new batteries in it. But I lost him when I started complaining about how much I hate the toys that don’t have an auto off feature because the batteries run out and that the manufacturers were in bed with the battery company.

"Doesn't it bother you when the train is running incessantly under the couch clicking and clicking and clicking with nowhere to go?"

“Can we go to the helicopter doctor now. Please?”

I told him I’d call the doctor and see if they had any advice since I didn’t have money for the copay anyways.

“Okay. Call the helicopter doctor.”

In the cockpit both on the ground and in the air there are times when we call the airplane doctor for advice. This happens pretty often actually. Most things are fixed by rebooting the airplane. This can only be performed on the ground… for obvious reason.

For the problems that Ctrl - Alt - Del can’t fix the mechanics over the phone sometimes can run through a procedure with us.

“Jiggle this or smack that with an open palm. Not a fist… and open palm.”

When this doesn’t stop the smoke from billowing out of the engine they send out the big guns with tools to the rescue.

I was hoping to nip this one in the bud with a phone call.

Luckily my son is used to seeing me with a headset for phone calls. If he was expecting a two way speakerphone call the jig would be up.

“Hello, helicopter doctor? My son is having trouble with his helicopter.”

-Pause-

“What is the problem?” I yelled to the back seat.

“It doesn’t fly anymore.”

“Yeah, he says it doesn’t fly anymore.”

-Pause-

“What color is it?”

“Green, and white.”

“It’s green and white.”

“And red and black and grey and yellow and it doesn't make noises anymore.”

“It’s a lot of colors. He says to jiggle it a little and smack it with the palm of your hand.”

He started beating it. Violently. Hey, doctors orders.

“Okay, the doctor thinks that maybe it needs a new battery. He says that when we get home I should put a new battery in it and if that doesn’t work to call him back.”

"Okay, let’s put a new battery in it."

"He also says that you need to take a nap and eat your green beans.”

"The helicopter doctor is nice."

"Yes he is." I replied. Relieved.

Crisis created. Crisis averted.

And peace was restored.

The Things You Find in Hotel Beds

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dirty

Do not read this if you are in a hotel bed.

If you are in a hotel bed please tell me you removed the bedspread.

Please tell me you didn’t eat something with your bare hands after touching the remote control, alarm clock or light switch.

You aren’t walking around barefoot are you!

You’re using the coffee pot?!

I spend half the year in hotel beds. I’m not an escort. I get paid less.

Having spent half the year in hotel beds for a decade and a half I’ve witnessed some things. You could say, “I’ve been around the block.”

Again, not an escort.

Some things will change you forever. Some just add to the growing list of phobias and fears that grow exponentially with time. Like cuneiform bacteria in the hotel sink.

One of my worst hotel nights was the evening I watched a Dateline special on hotel cleanliness while laying in a hotel bed. As they shined the black light around the room illuminating bodily fluids on every exposed surface it wasn’t hard to imagine it was my room they were investigating.

There was the time I was so sick that against my better judgement I took a bath in the hotel tub. As the tub filled the funk and debris from the bottom rose and floated in the water like the flotsam from a shipwreck.

But the worst time. The one that I go to bed thinking about was the time I found something in the bed with me.

I was laying in the dark attempting to force myself to sleep in between cycles of the air conditioner that was in automode even though I clearly had it set to on. Trying to sleep I felt something at the foot of the bed under the covers with my bare toes. Half asleep, half awake I was rolling it around with my toes like I was making an origami swan assuming it was the tag to the sheets or maybe even the mattress. And then I realized it wasn’t connected to anything.

I was juggling it with my toes and it was free to move in any direction my piggies sent it.

Panicked, I ripped the cover off and hit the light on the bedside table. I was so hurried I didn’t even use the wet nap I typically use to touch switches.

I hesitated to look near my feet.

“Please don’t be. Please don’t be. Please don’t be.”

It was.

I had been noodling with my toes a bloody band aid. It was more like a bandage. A very large and very used bloody bandage.

I reminded myself it was probably washed with the linens and remained during the dressing of the bed that day but it didn’t make it any easier.

I tried to pretend that it wasn’t used on an open sore. It was possibly used by someone attempting to hide an ankle tattoo. That didn’t explain the blood stain.

All I could do was suck it up and add it to the list of things I’ll never do again.

Sleep barefoot in a hotel bed.

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bandaid

Eat, Sleep, Fly

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10539832165_58b906f29e_bSometimes people ask me what it's like to be a pilot. "Wow, that must be so cool! I bet you're really smart. You must have been good at math in school. Are all pilots as handsome as you?" I've never gotten that last one. I made that up.

When asked about how thrilling it must be I agree that it is both fun and exciting. I like to perpetuate the myth. That's what we do. Spin yarn. Tell tall tales. Back in the day it was called "hangar flying" or something like that.

But the truth is it's never as adventurous as it sounds.

Below is a sample day. Actually, this isn't just a sample. This is every day. EVERY DAY.

The job is standardized and consistent for safety. Every flight begins and ends with the gear going up and then back down again. In that order. Very important. Take note.

On today's sample day I'm on day two of a four day trip. I fly out early and if all goes as planned I will be done by 4:00 pm in Florida. Very important… if all goes as planned. There are lots of in’s and out’s.

We start in a midwest town known for their Vikings and a guy called Prince and are to end in a town down South with lots of wealthy retirees. When we arrive there the jetway will be filled with empty wheelchairs awaiting the flock of snow birds. It will look like the start line of a go-cart track.

My phone alarm goes off exactly 8 hours after I turned the lights out and precisely 45 minutes before I am to catch the hotel van to the airport. Roughly 60 seconds after my phone sounds the hotel alarm clock fires the built in buzzer. I never use the 'wake to radio' setting. I courteously leave it on the station I found it on for the housekeepers. The timing between the two alarms unfortunately is at an imperfect interval since hotel clocks are not set to an atomic standard. Often the two alarms ring seconds from each other. These are the good days. An instant crescendo of alarms. Especially when it’s 4:00 am. As it was this morning.

SONY DSCAnd don’t get me started on the Aloft hotel chain and their hipster analog clocks. Since the plastic clock face doesn't have built in magnifying glass bubbles like they have on Sea Monkey tanks you never know what time the alarm is set for. I set those alarms by scheduling a 5 minute buffer on either side of the designated alarm time. Undoubtedly, this window expires and the alarm sounds every time I am midshower.

After the orchestra of alarms I have 45 minutes to put my game face on. If you know me, you can imagine it doesn't take much to make this happen (pointing to my face and hair.) I've perfected this morning routine by more than a decade of living out of a suitcase... only the essentials are left unpacked before bed. I'm typically up and on my way with time to enjoy some bad hotel coffee. Sometimes I prep the coffee pot the night before by stuffing the single serving coffee bag into the E. coli tray and filling the brewer with water so all I had to do in the morning was hit go. Saves me 30 seconds and the brew takes on a special flavor if the water gets the chance to sit and saute all night in the bacteria reservoir.

Today's alarms rang at 4:00 am. The crew and I had a 4:45 am van to the airport. We are to be at the airplane 30 minutes before departure so today's flight left at 5:30 am. Yes. You read that correctly. At that time of day the hotel breakfast isn't available so it's gnarly coffee on an empty stomach until we land in a few hours.

Most hotels we stay at have a breakfast offering of some sort. I rank hotels based on their breakfast.

And their shower pressure.

And the speed of their internet.

Some hotels have no free breakfast. These are the expensive hotels. That's the trade off. You get a nice, allegedly clean room with fancy soaps meant either for the face or the body but you don't get a big fluffy burnt lobby waffle that's been cooked in a never cleaned, overused waffle iron - for free. Instead you have to pay for overpriced yogurt. (Pro-Tip. I walk to the nearest cheap hotel and blend in with the unwashed and eat for free. I know, it's cheap of me but it's also a cheap thrill. It makes me feel alive.)

Some hotels have a table of cold round bread items and a toaster. They may have iced down cups of yogurt. They may have packs of oatmeal and some warm water. I called a $25/night hotel a crashpad for a year that had a loaf of bread and a communal tub of butter and jar of jelly for the guests. Butter in the jelly and toast crumbs in both. I gave it a ‘charming’ on TripAdviser. These are the level B breakfast nooks.

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The level C hotels have a few mysterious hot items. Omelette shaped yellow patties that we freeloaders eat up like prisoners fresh out of the hole. To build excitement, these treats are served in a catering tray with a rollback top. I choose not to peak in when others are dishing out their gruel. I like to be surprised. Same reason I don't read the yogurt cups. I like to be wowed by the fruit on the bottom. There normally is a 'meat' to go along with the 'eggs'. My personal favorite is the chewy bacon. Imagine a hot, sweaty, bacon flavored fruit roll-up. Delish. To satisfy the sugar and starch food groups of the hotel breakfast pyramid, level C hotel breakfast bazaars offer a selection of knock-off cereal (Apple Loops, Cheery Holes, Crispy Rice) in individual rocketship shaped dispensers. The food chute is so caked with cereal lint that vigorous shaking is required to get the flakes, loops or crisps through the water wheel.

Level D is the same as level C but with fruit and named brand cereals.

Now we get to the level E. These are hard to come by. A restaurant with a full menu that serves breakfast to airline crews... for free. This hotel doesn't exist.

But today… no breakfast. Too early for that. Maybe there will be an old lady on the flight who will offer us some hard candy because we look weak. Maybe.

IMG_20140330_124812And then we fly.. blah blah blah. And deviate around life ending storms... blah blah blah. And deliver loved ones to their loved ones... blah blah blah. And maybe deliver a baby - or perform a wedding enroute.

And then we eat!

This is the hardest decision of the day. What to eat. When to eat. How much to eat.

You see friends. Each airport has it's own special offerings. This one may offer fried stuff drizzled with cheese and that one may have baked stuff drizzled with cheese. This one may offer lots of rib sticking carbs that surely will keep you full all day for a high price while that one may not. It may not seem like a tough call but this is the flight crew dilemma. If I don't eat now while the getting is good I may end up in a food desert later with no options but airline snacks and a hotel cookie for dinner.

So… we debate lunch. There is no checklist for this one. No right answer. This truly is the only time of day where were are allowed to think outside the box (literally). So we stew and hem and haw and fear making the wrong decision.

Little known fact… it’s in our manual that we are not to eat the same food from the same place within thirty minutes. Don’t want us both getting sick up there at the same time now do we?

Two empty plates in the cockpit with a fish skeleton on each and a lemon slice. Not good.

After lunch we fly… blah blah blah. And run checklists… blah blah blah. And maybe adeptly handle a life ending mechanical disaster with ease, calm and professionalism… blah blah blah.

And then we get the hotel! And eat!

And if there is a circus in town we do that and maybe go sight seeing and sample local cuisine.

Or more likely… none of that. I go to the hotel and watch bad TV and then set the alarm for forty five minutes before the van ride and turn the lights out 8 hours before that.

And if the hotel is a level A hotel with no free breakfast offerings, I scope out the area for hotels that may for the morning.

 

 

 

 

The Time I Told an Aviation Icon I Didn't Have a Business Card

Filed away years ago as, "Well, that sure was stupid."

Once, I met Southwest founder and former CEO, Herb Kelleher in the airport. We talked at length and I got the impression he liked me. He suggested as much. And then he asked for my card. To which I replied, "I don't have a card. I've never had a reason to carry one."

It started like this. I was working a flight from Washington D.C. to Dallas and we were delayed for weather. We had boarded and were at the gate and I made a few announcements that the weather was looking bad in Dallas and we would wait a bit longer and hope for the best but there wasn't much more we could do. I like to make these announcements using the flight attendant’s PA so I can be face to face with the passengers when I deliver the news. Especially if I'm having a good hair day. In this case, I had to make the announcement a few times until the final, "Well, it looks like we are not going anywhere" speech.

The flight was cancelled. Again, I like to stand at the door when the passengers leave so I can take the punches away from the flight attendants. Mr. Kelleher got off last and I thanked him for his patience.

My first officer had to tell me who that last passenger was. I wasn't aware.

"I wish I knew." I said to him. "There is so much I'd love to ask him."

But I ran into him a little while later coincidentally sitting in the gate area of my next outbound flight which was in the opposite direction of Dallas. I thanked him again for his patience and asked if he was still going to Texas. "Are you flying standby?" I joked.

We talked for about thirty minutes about the state of the airline industry and what the future had in store. With the recent consolidations, his predictions came true.

Herb is a tall man. So am I but when he stood he towered over me in his trench coat and hat. He stood several times during our talk. We would talk and the conversation would get animated and he would stand and I would stand and then shrink next to him. I asked him about my current employer and he poked me with his finger and said something with several expletives about how we should dare not mess with Southwest or something punctuated by several expletives would happen to us. To anyone watching they would have assumed I was about to get my expletive kicked by this older fella.

We talked about pilots and personalities and when we shook hands to part ways he said, "I really like you. I like your sense of humor." And then he asked for my business card.

To which I inexplicably replied. "I don't have a card. I've never had a reason to carry one."

Yes. I said, "I Don't Have A Card".

We shook hands and went our ways.

When I got back to the cockpit it hit me. "What a moron! What was I thinking!"

It's a well known legend that Mr. Kelleher wrote the first draft of the Southwest business plan on a cocktail napkin. I yelled back to the galley, "I need some cocktail napkins!"

"Did you spill something again!" Is what I heard.

"No! But I need some napkins!" I answered.

I quickly scribbled my contact information on the napkin. We were done boarding and due to push back soon and I told the gate agent I'd be just a second. In my head I'd leap from the plane over the gap into the jetway, run and give Mr. Kelleher by information. I'd say breathlessly, "My cocktail napkin, Sir."

But he was nowhere to be seen. He was gone.

That night I ordered a thousand business cards and carry one everywhere I go. I still have nine hundred and ninety nine.

I later used my "cocktail napkin" to clean up spilt coffee in the cockpit.

Is the First Officer Actually a Pilot?

Wright-BrothersSince the beginning, there have always been two pilots up on the flight deck. Had it not been for the Wright Brothers, maybe we'd only have one seat up there. It's a common misconception that the First Officer (commonly referred to as the copilot in the movies or 'gear monkey' in real life) isn't really a pilot. This is false. They are just as qualified as the Captain. The real question though is... are they essential?

This takes us back to the Wright Brothers.

Pilots are narcissists who need an audience. We need someone to laugh at our jokes and make us feel important. We need someone to entertain us when we get tired of monitoring the autopilot. We also need someone to humbly do the dirty work so we can keep our hands clean.

This need for validation is  what encouraged the Wright Brothers to take to the skies in the first place. That and sibling rivalry.  The day Orville beat Wilbur in a bike race is the day Wilbur said, "Oh yeah! I'm gonna put wings on a bike! Lets see who's laughing then, Bro!"

And the race to the air began. While the endeavor initially was a game of one-upmanship, soon the master/sidekick team was traveling the world demonstrating their magical flying machine. The modern First Officer was born. Orville out getting the Flyer ready, Wilbur winking to the ladies in the audience, drinking his coffee and passing out rectangular wings to the kids.

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Yes, of course the first aircraft only had one seat but as flight durations got longer than a single hill the sole Pilot in Command grew tired of hearing himself tell the same corny jokes out loud and demanded a second seat be installed for comic relief. It was only natural to bring along the guy that new almost as much about the airplane since he was out preflighting and making sure the Captains name was painted crisply and legibly under his window. Oh, and if the paint was chipped... There would be hell to pay.

So, a second seat was mounted but had no actual controls. It was there simply to hold a warm body. And to balance the airplane, of course. (As planes got longer, flight attendants were also added for this reason.)

In time, as aircraft reliability increased, naturally the First Officers abilities improved as the bar for excellence was lowered. A natural medium was found balancing the skills of the cockpit crew. A give and take relationship has developed where the copilot is there to ensure the Captains ego isn't damaged by laughing at his jokes and ensuring the flight is operated safely so no paperwork has to be filled out.

They are essential flight deck officers who may be replaced by Siri now that we can use our portable electronic devices through all phases of flight.

I'm just not sure an Iphone can run the checklist so I can concentrate on what I will say to Letterman or Anderson Cooper in the event of an unlikely water landing.

What You Should Not Ask Your Flight Crew

railroad-conductor We obviously spend lots of time around the humans. We are in the service industry after all. Day in and day out we spend our time carrying you, your loved ones, your bags and your 'service animals' from here to there with ease. We do this with a smile on our face. Not because we get paid exorbitant amounts of money to do so but because we love it. It's in our blood. Even though the means of travel have changed, the drivers and their staff have stayed the same.

"All aboard!" I shout from the cockpit window up to the terminal waving my Captain's hat through the morning fog while confirming the departure time on my gold pocket watch. Children watch with their noses to the window wondering what far off land I will be steering this magical flying machine to. My passengers are waving from their windows as we sail away. Except for the ones in steerage. They are angry.

But while times have changed, I wonder if the passengers have remained the same? Did they make small talk with the ship Captain before they set sail while he was busy doing what ever those guys did back then? If the train conductor was walking through the cars stretching his legs at the end of a long day on the rails was he bothered with small talk from the humans?

"So, what is your route?" They may ask him.

"To and fro." He'd say. "To and fro."

The "what is your route" question is the most common one you can ask. I'm sure there is a bit of intrigue to our lifestyle but this question lacks in all originality. I lie every time I'm asked this one. Unless the questioner is a nun. To them I always tell the god's honest truth. "It will be very bumpy and there is always a chance something could go very wrong."

But if you were to ask, "Of the places you go which is your favorite?" I'd give you a full answer. Unless I'm eating at the one table that is very far from anyone else.

"That's a great question. I'm so glad you asked. It's not what you would think really. We may spend the night in what sounds like a great destination but may be stuck in a nasty hotel with no entertainment options nearby. Conversely, we may stay somewhere you'd never expect would be fun but we have lots of time with plenty to do. But, to tell you the truth. Most of the time we stay in the hotelville next to the airport that looks like every other hotelville. A few American chain restaurants and a couple of big box stores. All I really care about anymore are lobby waffles... and good shower pressure."

Another good one.

"My neighbor has a sister who is a pilot. Do you know a lady named Mary? She has dark hair."

Often, if I even entertain this question, it turns out Mary neither works for the same airline or even is an airline pilot. For these questions I find it best to answer something else. "Yeah, I think gate 35 is down there. That flight cancelled though."

I walk away when someone starts a conversation with, "So, I just watched the movie Flight."

Don't get me started with the number of times I've heard, "But you wear glasses?"

Luckily, this one doesn't come up anymore, "Are you old enough to fly this plane?"

Don't make any jokes about booze.

Flight attendants take it personally when you suggest they look tired and you ask if they've had a long day.

And unless you are engineer who has worked on aircraft design, are a meteorologist or have been to space I'm not going to talk "shop" with you.

I like talking to people. I really do. This is why I choose to fly for a passenger airline instead of a cargo one. I enjoy interacting with all types of travelers in the airport. Even when times are tough. Especially when times are tough. It's the passengers that ask questions just for the sake of talking. The ones that don't really want to have a conversation they just don't want to be alone. Those are the ones I test my phone volume around so it sounds like its ringing.

If you have an honest question, ask away.

Just don't call me 'Skipper."