What Goes On Behind The Cockpit Doors

What's The Deal?

November 01, 2009|By MICHELLE DEAL-ZIMMERMAN | MICHELLE DEAL-ZIMMERMAN,michelle.deal@baltsun.com

Remember how Capt. Sully's courageous emergency landing on the icy Hudson River in January kind of made everyone feel really good about airline pilots? Well, two Northwest Airlines aviators visiting the land of nod or in a laptop trance - doesn't matter which, really - have probably erased a lot of that good will.

They have reminded airline passengers that we really don't know what goes on behind those bolted doors to the cockpit. We only ever hear from the pilots at takeoff ("We're number 1 for go."), during turbulence ("We're going to turn on the seatbelt sign.") and just before landing ("It's a balmy 82 degrees in Orlando today.").

Sometimes while waiting in the terminal, I'll get a glimpse of the pilot as he boards or makes a check of the plane. I generally feel most comfortable when a pilot has gray hair - tells me, he (or she) has been doing it for a long time and is still employed so must be doing something right.

Yes, I know looks can be deceiving at best. But the point is, I have a picture in mind of the person who flies the plane - right now, it's a cross between Capt. Sully and Capt. Kirk - and that image has the pilot hard at work, reading coordinates, checking weather, chatting up the air traffic controllers and whispering to the clouds. It doesn't include reading a book, doing a crossword, taking a nap or preparing work schedules for the crew while the plane speeds along at 500 mph on auto pilot.

But the reality is computers do the bulk of the flying and navigating. The pilots monitor, analyze and make sure nothing goes awry. That's where the Northwest pilots violated their passengers' trust. They were so distracted that there's no way they could have been prepared for any kind of emergency.

The Federal Aviation Administration must have seen it that way because it revoked the licenses of the two pilots last week, calling their behavior "reckless." It's a tough break for a couple of experienced career professionals, but I hope it doesn't reflect too widely on their colleagues who deserve our respect and trust.

Capt. Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger began flying again last month after finishing up his book "Highest Duty: My Search for What Really Matters." Maybe he can send a couple of copies to the Northwest pilots. Since they're grounded, they could probably use the distraction.

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