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Who knows the most about the mysteries of how a modern plane operates?  Yes (hopefully) - the pilot.

Here's an interesting book that is half factual and half anecdotal,  giving you an easy read and interesting insight into some of the things that go on inside the cockpit.

 
 
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Ask the Pilot

Everything You Need to Know About Air Travel

Patrick Smith is a professional airline pilot, and a convivial raconteur.

In his book, he tells us some of the interesting, unusual, and bizarre experiences he has encountered, and reveals some of the mysteries of commercial aviation that us non-pilots don't usually get to share.

 

 

In a more innocent age (or perhaps better to say, when we were younger), the pilot - or captain - of the plane seemed close to omniscient.  And, of course, we hope(d) he truly was - after all, we trust him with our lives.

Here's a chance to see behind the aviator dark glasses and get an insider's view of what happens in the cockpit and to the plane in general, and why/how such things occur.

An interesting mix of anecdote and fact make for an easy and interesting read.

Recommended.

About the Book

The paperback book measures 5 1/8th" x 7 1/2", and is 5/8th" in thickness.  It has 269 pages.

The book is printed onto lower grade white paper as is standard in regular paperback books.  Disappointingly, there are no illustrations, diagrams or photographs (not even of the author).

The book, with a list price of $14.00, is available from Amazon, where it is currently for sale for $10.50.  Autographed copies can be purchased direct from the author's website for $17 including shipping.

The book has seven chapters, each of which has articles on eight to ten different topics related to airplanes, pilots, and aviation in general.  There is no index.

About the Author

Patrick Smith, 39, has been a lifelong lover of aviation.  As a little boy he used to sneak onto planes at his local airport and pretend he was piloting them.  As a bigger boy, after a detour as a punk rocker, he got to actually live his dream and fly passenger planes, starting work first on regional carriers flying turbo-props in 1990.  He then progressed to having a period flying DC-8s for a freight company before returning to passenger planes and flying as co-pilot on 737s.

Currently his dream has been rudely interrupted.  Like many others, he was furloughed as part of the collapse of the dinosaurs in 2001, and has still not yet returned to work.

Clearly his eleven years of experience, flying a range of planes both domestically and internationally give him a lot of interesting stories and knowledge to share with us.

What the Book Contains

Shortly after getting furloughed, Patrick Smith started writing flight and travel columns for the website salon.com, and this book represents the distillation of several years of columns.  As such, it tends to be a series of independent free-standing essays on various topics, only loosely linked together, but this is not intended as criticism, merely as explanation.

In a way, the series of free-standing shorter pieces is good - it makes it a great book to browse through and read bits from, rather than being a book you have to concentrate on and read steadily through from start to finish.

The author starts by recounting his sense of wonder at and about airplanes and aviation.  He values the journey as much as the destination, and unlike some of us who have long since ceased to be captivated or enthralled by the prospect of another long flight, he still looks forward to each experience.  And perhaps his love of planes is reflected in his frequent comments on the appearance of planes themselves, and their paint jobs, as objects of beauty (or lack thereof, as he sometimes finds).

It is certainly true that the concept of flying is an amazing thing, but for those of us who travel in 'the back of the bus' rather than in the cockpit, there is, alas, precious little to endear such experiences to us.  It is good that Smith enjoys flying, but most of his audience no longer does.

The book is sort of divided in two parts.  The first part, 110 pages and three chapters, is in question and answer format and contains the more factual and technical elements.  The second part, 160 pages and four chapters, is more a series of essays on topics reasonably related to aviation.

The book is proudly not very technical.  But if I had a chance to 'ask the pilot' I wouldn't be asking him whether he thought an A330 was a more beautiful looking plane than the A340 (Smith vastly prefers the A340); instead I'd be asking him technical questions which only a pilot would know the answer to.

Some of the rhetorical questions the author asks himself are greeted with waffle rather than an answer.  For example, see if you can understand if the answer is 'yes' or 'no' to the question 'Can a 747 fly a loop'? on page 16.

Other answers are incomplete.  For example, a question asks what the advantages are of winglets - the upraised bits at the ends of the wings of many modern planes.  He correctly answers that winglets improve range/efficiency of the plane, and then gets distracted by commenting on how some look pretty and others look ugly.  But wouldn't you like to know how much extra efficiency winglets add?  Is it 1% or 10% or ?%.  He doesn't tell us.  The answer, by the way, is they give between a 3% and 7.5% boost (see for example this page and this page).

Some of the factual information he does impart could be greatly improved by adding diagrams.  He tells us about the different things that move on a wing (slats, flaps, ailerons, air brakes, and sometimes other things too) and it would be helpful to see some diagrams to better illustrate some of these things.

Or, when he talks about all the different gauges and controls in a cockpit, it would be great to see a picture of a cockpit layout with explanatory notes as to what the different components are and do.

However, while enthusiasts - such as myself - would doubtless love to see more detail, they'll also be pleased with what is provided.  For example, have you ever noticed the front blades in a jet engine slowly turning around while the plane is sitting at the gate?  Do you know why they are turning?  Perhaps you've guessed the jet engine is cooling down (or warming up), or still slowing down.  Wrong.  The low friction stages of the jet engine are being turned as a result of ground winds blowing through them (either from the front or from behind).

While his discussion about what happens if a jet loses power in all its engines is very much shorter than my own article, he makes the surprising observation that many times, pilots cut back the jet power to a zero-power idle setting when descending.  So chances are we've all experienced what it is like for a plane to fly with no power to its engines, without even realizing it.

He writes about turbulence, but the question I'd like to see answered is 'why do American pilots turn the seat belt sign on so obsessively during flights, whereas foreign pilots - even of highest quality/safety obsessed airlines such as Qantas - rarely bother to turn the seat belt sign on'?

The second part of the book has interesting essays on many different topics, and sometimes they present surprising information.  In particular, his discussions on pilot seniority may be eye-opening.  How is promotion handled in airlines?  Exclusively by hire date.  There is no element of merit or subjective discretion.  Pilots advance strictly based on their seniority, and all pilots are assumed to be equally competent.

We passengers might consider this to be an enormous assumption.

The reality is even more complex, as Smith explains.  As they become more senior, pilots can choose the assignments they wish.  Not all pilots want to be captains of the biggest planes, even if their pay does rise to spectacular levels.  Some prefer to be co-pilots (less hassle and responsibility) and some prefer smaller planes and shorter routes (more time at home).  So a 747 pilot might be more junior than a 737 co-pilot.

Errors and Opinions

One can of course forgive the author for having different opinions on some subjects (like for example the subject of pilot pay!).  His understandable bias in favor of human pilots also causes him to be less than positive about the future of pilotless (or at least, remotely piloted) planes, and to understate the value of autopilot systems on planes.  An autopilot, he says, still needs considerable skill to program.  Probably so.  But the auto-pilot programming skill is quite different from the hands-on unaided flying the plane skill that is currently the main raison d'etre of pilots today.

While I don't agree with all the writer's opinions, I do appreciate and enjoy a chance to read them.  It is interesting to see the world from a professional pilot's perspective - for sure, it isn't the only perspective out there, but it is an interesting and educational one.

Opinions to one side, there are also some surprising errors in the book.  These errors are not particularly major, but in a case where the author thanks seven different people for help with research, and being a book published by leading publisher Penguin, one would have expected the factual data to be 100% correct.

One error that should be corrected is the widely held belief, and stated in this book, that Qantas has never had a fatality.  This claim was repeated and made famous in the movie, Rainman.  Much as I admire and respect Qantas, I have to correct this.

As you'd expect from the world's second oldest airline, there were quite a few fatalities in the early days of flying planes in Australia's harsh and unforgiving outback.  More recently, there were a couple of occasions after WW2 where passengers lost their lives.  A truer claim is that Qantas has never had a fatality in a jet airplane, and the author tells me this correction unfortunately missed out being incorporated into the final published edition.

Another error worthy of correction is the claim that there are double beds on some Virgin Atlantic planes.  Although this has been a promise extended several times, over many years, by Virgin's owner, Sir Richard Branson, it has not yet transformed into reality.  Virgin is now saying there will be double beds on their A380s, but there are still several years until Virgin starts operating these new super-jumbos.

There are some trivial but puzzling errors, too.  For example, the book says one nautical mile is 6082 feet long.  A standard nautical mile is 1852 meters, which converts to 6076.1 feet, and an English/Imperial nautical mile is 6080 ft.  The author, like me, has no idea how the number 6082 appeared in the text.

The author writes at length about the Concorde.  Unfortunately his financial analysis of the plane's profitability - while in line with generally held belief - is wrong.

He is probably correct when he tells, with apparent horror, that it was costing a ton of jet fuel per passenger flown across the Atlantic, a fact he pointed to as proving how impossibly uneconomic the plane was to operate.  But that ton of jet fuel was costing perhaps $300, and the passenger was paying twenty times that ($6000 one way) for the ticket.

The real reason Concorde was withdrawn from service and its true massive profitability is discussed at length in my article.

The author and I also have to register different opinions about the cause of the mysterious crash of TW800 on 17 July 1996.  Smith concedes that 'even mainstream commentators registered intense skepticism that flight 800 could've blown up the way it did', but then proceeds to dismiss their concerns, and others in what he refers disparagingly to as 'a sideshow of at least four books and enough WWW puissance to power a 747 through the sound barrier', and says this is something mulled over by the intellectually eccentric.

Others of us - including many professional pilots - might consider the concerns about and inconsistencies in the official TW800 story to be credible and worthy of more consideration than an ad hominem attack on those airing them.  Attack the theories, but not the theorists, please.

Maybe we need a Volume 2?

There are inevitably many subjects Smith doesn't touch on at all.  It would be interesting to see a discussion on these, too (and he is continuing to write regular columns for Salon, so maybe there is indeed more to look forward to in the future), although it is harder to offer a second volume when you've subtitled the first volume 'Everything You Need to Know About Air Travel'.

For example, he asks himself the question 'which is better, Airbus or Boeing', but then shows himself to be one of the very (very!) few pilots I've ever encountered who doesn't have a strong opinion on the subject.  Most pilots hold strong views advocating one company or the other, but Smith says he 'despises the question' and ends up saying they're both equally good, although built differently (sounds like a line borrowed from the feminists).

It would be lovely to see a hard-hitting discussion on maintenance practices - not just an explanation of the type of maintenance planes undergo, but perhaps also some commentary about whether maintenance standards truly are as good as the airlines would have us believe, or if they may be slipping, as some people fear.  And how about outshopped maintenance - what (if any) are the safety implications of having maintenance done outside the airline that operates the planes?

A discussion about how much a plane weighs could have interestingly moved in to the subject of some of the pathetic airline excuses for inconveniencing us - like for example, telling us we can't take heavier carry-on's into the cabin due to upsetting the plane's weight distribution.  Is there any truth in that (answer - none whatsoever)?

On the other hand, while there are some meaty topics not discussed, Smith asks himself some questions I'd never dream of asking a pilot in a million years; particularly a hard-charging ex-USAF pilot.  In particular, I dare anyone to ask the pilot on their next flight this question

With allegories and images in mind, which works and forms of art do you think best evoke the spirit of aviation (whatever that is, exactly)?

Although most questions are answered in a page or less, this question gets three pages of rhapsodic answer.  You can see Patrick Smith's answer on pages 32 - 35 of the book.

The Pilot Answers

Patrick Smith kindly sent in some reply comments after reading through the review.  Read his comments about why he wrote the book, his original intentions, and other related issues, here.

Summary

This is an easy to read, wide-ranging and sometimes quirky book that is great for episodic reading - perhaps something to stick in your carry-on for your next few flights.  It tells you some interesting things, some humorous things, and adds to your general knowledge of aviation.

This review might seem, in places, critical; but it is not intended to be so.  The book is interesting and fun, and well worth buying and reading, just so long as you accept it as one pilot's personal view of the world.  And pilots, just like doctors, are neither omniscient nor infallible.

The book was designated 'Best Travel Book of 2004' by Amazon.

The book, with a list price of $14.00, is available from Amazon, where it is currently for sale for $10.50.  Autographed copies can be purchased direct from the author's website for $17 including shipping.  Excerpts and reviews can be seen on both sites.

Lastly, this review would not be complete without a mention of the author's 'exploding toilet' story.  What exactly was this, and is it a danger that may confront you on your next flight?  For the answers to these key questions, you will, I'm afraid, have to buy the book and read for yourself.
 

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Originally published 16 Dec 2005, last update 19 Dec 2013

You may freely reproduce or distribute this article for noncommercial purposes as long as you give credit to me as original writer.

 
 
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