Flying the Crowded Skies


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The jetlock is very serious, especially because the airlines' affection for hub airports, through which they run hundreds of connecting flights, creates jumbo pressures that can easily reverberate in delays and cancellations half a continent away. Meanwhile, the system that sustains aviation is so intricate, pervasive and impressive in its own right that it is clearly difficult to expand willy-nilly. On the minor number of occasions on which I've flown with flighty friends, as opposed to flown commercial, I've contrived when I could to sit on the flight deck as pretend copilot, less for the view, though it's grand, and more to become familiar with the spider's web of talk and information that follows every airplane as it moves across the country.


It is really a quite amazingly precise and detailed business, involving a laconic tribe conversing in the number-rich language of the sky. On some commercial aircraft you can tune in on ground conversation between the pilots and the tower, which gives some flavor of the formality and explicitness that marks the system overall. At first it seems strangely disembodied?planes are given names linked to their manufacturers, and much of the interaction has to do with assigned altitudes, changes in direction and flight plans, acceptable speeds and rates of descent and climb, and notice of approaching aircraft in the vicinity. The language is a distinct argot, rather like 20s jive talk or constipated postmodern lit-chat. Its low-keyness is colorful in itself, and the communicative mode is highly technical, requiring deft skill to marshal the math and mapwork, let alone fly the airplane. Even flying on instruments or on automatic pilot demands a sense of supervisory expertise that cannot be acquired by liberated feelings and heroic tone rather than explicit accomplishment. That's why flying hours of experience is such a vital factor in the competence of piloting. And that's why it's understandable, if it is true, that shortly before John Kennedy took off reluctantly on his last flight he was overheard saying "I'm not Charles Lindbergh."


Throughout their negotiations, both pilots and controllers employ a determined courtesy that, while not quite senatorial in its tone, nevertheless maintains a low-key professionalism. It appears to belie and perhaps disguise the fact that what we are dealing with here are hundreds and hundreds of heavy tin cans swooping through thin oxygen as much as seven miles above the ground. While I've never been party to an emergency or real danger as it is mediated through the ground-control system, it is quite clear that when alerts are issued about nearby aircraft there is satisfied reassurance when the pilot can announce that the airplane is in sight and its route duly and safely noted. And the cool formal jargon and impersonal talk cannot disguise the fact that some controllers are more adept or agreeable than others, so that pilots try to fly their friendly skies rather than others.


There is also no way of avoiding a generic sense of the implicit menace of the movement of large objects at high speed. Once I was able to sit in the cockpit of a 727 as it landed during rush hour at Newark Airport. After the careful negotiation about landing lanes and stacked planes and permission to advance in the queue to land, as the huge vehicle hurtled toward the ground, the tension on the flight deck was palpable. At a certain point the plane-talk stopped and the pilots and the computers had to perform punctiliously to ease the machine onto 20 square yards of tire-marked concrete rushing up faster than a belligerently speeding Ferrari. And once I landed on a U.S. Navy aircraft carrier along with a dozen or so others who had to have helmets and firejackets on and were hunched into human balls as we banged onto the deck at about 120 mph, to be tailhooked to an incomprehensible heart-stopping stop in less than a second.


My fascination with flying in the cockpit began under utterly different conditions. For two summers I Worked My Way Through College as a dishwasher in Frobisher Bay near the Arctic Circle, which was the base camp for building the first radar line between Chappaqua and Russia. From Frobisher, planes like DC3s and a museum of other World War II planes would fly up to supply the sites farther north where the radar domes were to sit. The drivers of these craft were legendary bush pilots unable to walk, only swagger.


I was evidently a talented dishwasher, to say nothing of discernibly superior administrator, and eventually became head dishwasher and earned $325 a month, all-in, from $300, which more than paid my fees. Climbing our daily mountain involved washing up after 600 men three times a day seven days a week. I thought this was unfair labor practice, and since the region was a legal vacuum, I took things in hand and used the power of high office. By breaking a certain number of dishes, I could control the flow of the line of hungry, irritated diners, and then observe to our manager that we needed not only more dishes but more people to shine them up. When reinforcements arrived, I was able to give everyone a day off, including me. I had become chums with a number of the pilots in part because when they came in from late flights after hours my crew was still at work, so I could liberate food?a vital gift, since our mess hall was the only source of calories for 1000 miles. Then I asked to go with them on their supply flights on my day off. Either we'd land planes on runways cleared of ice, or on water with seaplanes when the ice melted.


But there was a period when the ice was too frail to support aircraft and the water not yet clear, so oilcans full of supplies were dropped onto the snow by a fellow tied to the plane with a rope, who pushed the cans out while the pilots replayed their bombing runs over Germany or Japan in the tricky, hilly, windy terra incognita of the Canadian arctic. It was fiercely exciting when a straining, pre-owned plane banked into a sharp turn, dove, dropped some cans, pulled up with harsh sharpness before it had to stop suddenly?for example against a mountain of ice?and then did it again and again. The most celebrated pilot was Whitey Dahl, who was a joy to fly with because of his virtuoso management of his aircraft, though I learned several years later he crashed during a snowstorm as his plane came in at right angles to the runway.


Those days in that place there was no polite pilot talk and computers adjusting the machine to the universe. Now tension is produced by the system itself designed to generate safety and reduce stress because it is overloaded. This is a kind of general metaphor for how modern flying and other sources of once-upon-a-time exuberance and adventure become routine matters of modern administration.


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