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.
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
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
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
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
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.