One-on-One with Patrick Smith, aviator and author of “Ask the Pilot” air travel column

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  1. [​IMG] In this month’s One-on-One blog, ExpertFlyer explores air travelers’ burning questions and gets the answers directly from our recent “Hot Topic” series expert aviator, Patrick Smith. Patrick is author of’s ASK THE PILOT air travel column and host of the ASK THE PILOT resource site:
    Our interview Q&A with Patrick helps take the anxiety and frustration out of flying as he shoots from the hip, addressing frequently asked questions about Turbulence, Cockpit Automation, Myths about Air Travel, What Pilots Fear Most in the Air, and more.
    “…a jetliner can no more “fly itself” any more than an operating room can remove a tumor or perform an organ transplant “by itself.”
    – Patrick Smith, Aviator & “Ask the Pilot” Columnist,
    Can you explain exactly what’s happening when a plane flies through an area of turbulence and why it’s not as risky as it feels?
    Turbulence is far and away the number one concern of anxious passengers. Intuitively this makes sense. Everybody who steps on a plane is on some level uneasy, and there isn’t a more poignant reminder of flying’s innate precariousness than a good walloping at 37,000 feet. It’s easy to picture the airplane as a helpless dinghy in a stormy sea. Boats are occasionally swamped, capsized, or dashed into reefs by swells, so the same must hold true for airplanes. Everything about it seems dangerous…Read more about Turbulence.

    When it comes to a fear of flying, what keeps a pilot up at night – storms, birds, air traffic, technology issues?
    Usually the things of concern to pilots “aren’t” the things that the average passenger worries about – i.e. wings falling off and turbulence flipping the plane over. Bird strikes and potential runway incursions are two scenarios that jump into my own mind. What is a pilot’s worst nightmare? An in-flight cargo fire, probably.

    What was your most frightening experience as a pilot?
    The only harrowing moment of my career actually took place when I was still a private pilot, in a single-engine Piper (The story is detailed here: Hopefully, this gives you some idea as to how rare full-blown emergencies really are at the commercial airline level.

    Cockpit automation – Who or what is flying and landing the plane – man or machine?
    Less than one percent of landings are “automatic.” The vast majority are flown by hand, the old-fashioned way.
    Why? Because in most respects automatic landings are more complicated, and more work-intensive than those performed manually. The technology is there if you need it — for that foggy arrival in Buenos Aires with the visibility sitting at zero — but it’s anything but simple and anything but routine.
    This question segues into a larger discussion about the various myths and misconceptions of cockpit automation. An analogy I like to make is one between flying and medicine: modern technology helps a pilot fly a plane the way it helps a surgeon perform an operation. Sure, some procedures are more routine than others, but never are they easy, and none are “automatic” in the way that people are led to think. And thus, a jetliner can no more “fly itself” any more than an operating room can remove a tumor or perform an organ transplant “by itself.”
    And what do terms like “automatic” and “autopilot” mean, anyway? Read more about cockpit automation

    It’s been reported that some airlines have cancelled routes due to the lack of pilots to fly their planes. In general, is there a shortage of pilots in the industry? Why?
    We often hear of the looming “pilot shortage.” In fact, there will never be a shortage of pilots, per se. However, there is indeed may be a shortage of applicants who possess the level of qualifications traditionally sought after. And, at least in North America, this crisis, for lack of a better term, exists almost exclusively at the regional level. It’s a problem not for United, American, Delta, et al., but for their code-share partners and subsidiaries.
    If the applicant pool is not being adequately replenished, we need look no further than the $20,000 or less opening salary offered by most regional airlines. In decades past, flying for a regional was considered a temporary apprenticeship, a stepping-stone before moving on to a more rewarding career at a major. That progression, never a sure thing, is today even more of a gamble. A position at a regional is looked upon not so much a means to an end, but as career in and of itself. And not a very profitable one. Although a senior RJ captain can earn close to six-figures, the prospect of investing tens of thousands of dollars for the necessary licenses, only to languor for several years earning poverty level wages, has dissuaded many from a career in aviation…Read more about Pilot Shortages.
    New satellite-based air traffic control (ATC) systems – Will they help or hinder the issue of flight delays?
    Certainly, the “NextGen” advances are welcome and long overdue. They will improve the capabilities of our airspace system. They will not, however, cure the delays crisis.
    Delays are not an airspace issue so much as a “ground space” issue. You can streamline the en route airway structure all you want, but a runway can only accommodate so many takeoffs and landings per hour, period.
    Ultimately, this is about airline scheduling, and the industry’s berserk infatuation with regional jets. More people are flying than ever before, but they are doing so aboard smaller planes. At airports like LaGuardia and Washington-Reagan, over “half” of the traffic consists of RJs. That’s fifty percent of the traffic carrying maybe 25 or 30 percent of passengers – an inefficient use of space both aloft and on the tarmac. Read more about Satellite-based Air Traffic Control Systems (ATC).

    What’s the one thing about your job that you wish passengers understood?
    Cockpit automation myths – that is at the top of the list. Also, I wish people better understood the term “copilot.”
    The copilot – known formally as the first officer – is not an apprentice. Copilots perform just as many takeoffs and landings as captains do, and are fully qualified to operate the plane in all regimes of flight. And due to the vagaries of the seniority bidding system, it is not unheard of for the copilot to be older and more experienced than the captain sitting next to him.
    In normal operations, pilots take turns at the controls. If a crew is going from New York to Chicago to Seattle, the captain will fly the first leg and the first officer will fly the second. The pilot not flying is still plenty busy with a long list of chores: communicating, programming the FMS and navigational equipment, reading checklists and so forth.
    Regardless of who is driving, the captain has ultimate authority over the flight, and a larger salary to go with it (though not as large as it used to be).

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