Flying is a funny business. Most of us who fly on commercial airlines live in a comparatively safe world and yet when we step onboard a plane, we place our lives in the hands of complete strangers.
Being in the air is the most alien way to travel for life-forms which are firmly designed to be on the ground. I am not an especially neurotic flier, but whilst travelling through the air at 600mph, I have wondered what would happen if all the pilots were simultaneously afflicted by some fatal illness. My conclusion is always the same: I would plummet to an untimely, albeit dramatic end – preferably somewhere near TV cameras so that my final moments could be captured to show the children I hadn’t quite yet got round to having.
The possibility of a runaway train, cruise liner, coach or car does not bother me in the slightest – just switch everything off and whatever you are in will eventually stop and rescuers will turn up. 1 However, with my limited knowledge of flying aeroplanes, even _I _suspect that switching off everything in a plane at 35,000ft is not the best way to guarantee a long and happy life. That’s the thing with plane travel – it tends to be a very binary activity. Much like rock-climbing; things go well 99.9% of the time, but when they don’t, it’s fairly spectacular.
It is therefore something of a truism to say, that the pilots on your plane are the only people in the world at that time, keeping you alive – and I think it would be nice to know a little bit more about them. For a start, you often never see them at all, since with heightened security these days, they are locked in something akin to a bank vault and secondly, you know nothing about these people who hold your life, and hopefully some kind of steering mechanism, in their hands.
On a flight to Frankfurt with a well-known airline, we were waiting to take off when the captain came on the intercom. He was a jovial sounding fellow and welcomed us to the flight before continuing “….Our flight time to Zurich will be approximately 1hr 30 mins – it’s a lovely city by the way, I’m jolly pleased to be going there today since the shopping is excellent…[cue muffled noises of someone else speaking in the cockpit interspersed with “Are we really? You’re sure? Right, well then”]….I’m sorry ladies and gentlemen, what I really meant was Frankfurt, but that’s fine because I like it there too…”
Much as it made the passengers laugh, comedy is not high up on my list of priorities for the personal qualities of airline pilots – cool, calm, intelligent professionalism is somewhat further up the list. What I would have liked, is to look in the in-flight magazine and seen if it was indeed Boris Johnson flying the plane and to find out a bit more about the seemingly disoriented gentleman at the pointy end, who did in fact take us safely and comfortably to Frankfurt.
Concern by passengers about flying spans the range from mild anxiety to outright phobia. Firmly in the “mildly-nervous-sometimes” category, I am entirely prepared to accept that it is a problem of my own making. Flying is extremely safe, engineering standards are rigorous and pilots are very professional, but nevertheless, my mildly-nervous side can always do with reassurance when travelling six miles up, in a metal tube at ridiculous speeds.
What I would like to see on planes is a short curriculum vitae of the pilots in the fleet – not three sides of life history but a short, snappy piece with a photo (so I can rest assured he or she does not look like a teenage speed-freak) with a few bits of information. Pilots tend routinely to fly the same kind of plane, so I am thinking of just a few pages in the in-flight literature on the particular aircraft on which you are travelling.
When I fly, wound up by security checks, no room in economy for my non-standard legs and with reduced oxygen supplies to my mildly-nervous brain, this is what I imagine my pilot’s credentials to look like:
Name: Captain Lee “Maverick” Waynes
Marital Status: 3 times divorced with multiple children.
Education: none to speak of.
Flying experience: unclear – cannot write so does not keep a pilot’s log. Specialises in crash landings – of which he has so far made eleven.
Likes: drinking, female cabin attendants, free five star hotels and clubbing.
Dislikes: air traffic control, safety procedures and taking anti-depressants.
Hobbies: joy-riding, aerobatics in commercial jets and experimenting with magic mushrooms.
Once I am on the ground, I am fairly certain that he was in fact, more like this:
Name: Captain James Carruthers
Marital Status: married with 2.4 children.
Education: 19 O-levels, 12 A-levels, Msc Aeronautical Engineering (1st Class) Balliol College, Oxford. Phd Harvard.
Thesis: “Everything there is to know about flying and keeping passengers safe.”
Flying experience: holds licenses for 14 different commercial airliners, former Air Vice Marshall and war hero. Has logged 200,000 hours in the air with no crashes. Ever.
Likes: strict rules, flying safely, knowing what is going on at all times.
Dislikes: he dislikes nothing – this demi-god is too calm and considered to worry about trivial annoyances.
Hobbies: reviewing airline maintenance procedures, practising his already perfect take-offs and landings and filling in his application form for canonisation.
We put a lot of faith in pilots and whilst some people do not require proof of their saviour’s existence in order to reassure them, I think there are a fair number of people out there who do.
1 Note: the author is prepared to admit that switching off a cruise liner would take some time and would involve a number of iterations of switch-flicking.