I had finished a two-day trip a few weeks ago, and started my commute home. When I landed in Los Angeles, I heard the news about the Air France flight that had disappeared over the Atlantic. I walked across the airport to my departure terminal, thinking about what the pilots went through, trying to save their ship. I got onboard the jet taking me home, feeling melancholy. I wanted to sit alone, but most of the seats were taken.
When I find myself on a full flight and I have to sit between two people, I have found a way to make the travel easy on me. I try to find a row that has two young ladies in it, about the age of my oldest daughter, who is twenty. I do this because I know that they want to have nothing to do with me and will leave me alone for the entire flight. I can sit in my seat, put in my earplugs and don my noise reduction headset and sit back.
On this flight I saw a small pair of legs at the end of a row and no head above the seat. As I came up to the row, I saw two boys about six years old sitting next to each other. The window seat was vacant. “Excuse me gentleman, is that seat by the window taken?” I asked. They looked up at me, looked at each other and simultaneously said, “Whoaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa!” “Do you guys mind?” I said. They did not mind and I started to move around them to the window. The father of one of the boys said, “Sir, you don’t have to sit there, you can sit in my seat.” I looked at him and his pretty wife and said, “Sir I am a commercial airline pilot, I have more in common with these boys than any adult on this aircraft.” I heard laughter from other passengers and moved into my seat.
I was immediately asked if I was a pilot. When I told them that I was, one of the boys turned to his parents and yelled, “Mom, this man is a real pilot and he is sitting right by me!” The mother of the boy said, “Shouldn’t he be flying the airplane up front?” I told the boys that I was going to use my Iphone and control the airplane from my seat. These guys were smart ones, they did not buy it.
We pushed back and the engines were started. I told them how high we would be, how fast we would be going, and how cold it would be. As we started to take the runway for takeoff, I said, “This is the part where I start to get scared.” They looked at me and one of them said, “You mean to fly?” I looked at them and whined, “I want my mommy.” just as the plane started to accelerate. The boy at the aisle turned to his mother laughing and yelled, “Mom, he wants his mommy!”
I told the boy next to me that when I counted to three, the airplane would come off the ground and start flying. After thousands of takeoffs, you get pretty good at knowing that. I counted, 1, 2, 3, and the nose lifted up into the air. The boys eyes got very big and he said in a low voice, “Your really smart.”
I put my headset on and flipped the switch that takes the noise out of the air like a magician. One of the boys asked me what I was listening to. I told him it was church music and asked them both if they wanted to listen. They both refused and immediately started playing with their electronic games. I smiled as I leaned back, fell asleep and did not wake until the wheels touched down. It was a brief respite from the mind churning disaster of the Air France loss.
Over these 28 years of flying, I have experienced, second hand, the tragic loss of many, most of whom I did not know. As pilots, we can’t help but put ourselves on the flight deck and in the pilot’s seats, trying to recover these aircraft from impending disaster. There are the safety reports stating the facts, built from expert investigation, clearly showing the causes and contributing circumstances. Some of these reports make you wince in anguish, knowing the accident was preventable. The hardest ones to read are the accidents that clearly show the pilots were performing in perfect form and fearlessly doing everything and anything they could to save their ship, to the point of impact.
Modern airliners are designed with self-reporting system monitors. The electric, hydraulic, pneumatic, fuel, engine, environmental and other systems send out messages in-flight when certain predetermined parameters are met. An example would be when the internal part of an engine starts to vibrate beyond a preset limit. The engine may run just fine and I as a pilot would not know that the limit was exceeded, or that a message was sent. The message would be logged and analyzed by the engineers at the airline and perhaps the manufacturer as well.
The Air France pilots never transmitted a message that they were experiencing mechanical problems, or any problem for that matter. I read that they informed air traffic control that they were entering an area of severe weather, something that happens every day with airliners around the world. Something went wrong and went wrong quickly. The aircraft transmitted over 20 messages by itself, electronically informing the company that systems were failing. Then there was nothing, the flight simply disappeared.
Yeah, it really bothers me. All we can do as aviators is to learn what lessons we can and make our already safe air transportation system, safer yet.