Since my last post I have traveled a great deal, including four plane flights. As with all plane flights, an untrusting reptile brain prevents me from sleep, work, or even reading while aloft. I can only shrug helplessly at the well-meaning seat-back preflight loops’ exhortations to sit back and relax and get my any-major-credit-card ready for the snack cart, and feel envy at everyone for whom the very concept of a travel pillow isn’t a weird joke.

As I have written before, I’ve managed over recent years to temper active terror over every aspect of the flight to a more manageably heightened nervous state. Unfortunately, the arrival of turbulence, which seems to have tossed around a significant part of every flight I’ve ridden on over the last five years, can easily make my jitters spill over into a quiet but deeply unpleasant panic. It saddens me to learn that, thanks to global warming, clear-air turbulence will only become both more common and more severe for commercial air travelers for the remainder of human dominion over the earth. I have no choice: if I want to continue traveling — and I very much do — then I must find continue my more personal journey in dealing with my flying fears, perhaps applying a new focus to the increasing inevitability of bad turbulence.

Happily, this is a journey I can begin with Patrick Smith’s Cockpit Confidential. I found a lot to like in this somewhat uneven book, written by the Boston-based author of Salon’s (apparently retired) Ask the Pilot feature, but one particular takeaway would come to mind many times during these last four choppy flights. While colorfully answering a frequently-expressed concern over any dangers that rough air might pose to passenger jets, the author compares nervous passengers’ assumptions of the flight deck during bad chop — the pilots’ knuckles white on the controls, their brows beading sweat as they struggle grimly to keep the ship under control — when in reality the crew hardly even notices turbulence. In Smith’s telling, the cockpit will raise an alarm about it only if a good thump manages to slosh some coffee onto the first officer’s dress-whites, and even then it’s just a scramble to find a napkin.

I found Cockpit Confidential full of great stories and insights like this. Unlike Captain Stacey’s stuff, this book, adapting years of the weekly Salon column into a single volume, doesn’t aim itself specifically at nervous fliers. Rather, it considers its audience all air travelers who have shuffled down enough jetways to feel flummoxed at all the utterly unexplained details of air travel, feeling hungry for a peek behind the (now triply-reinforced) cockpit doors, or to eavesdrop on ATC chatter, or even to spy on an airline boardroom meeting. That said, the book does gratifyingly acknowledge my sweaty-palmed people’s existence among even frequent air travelers, occasionally pitching one of its boldfaced questions not from a passively curious passenger’s viewpoint, but that of an actively anxious one.

And, for the most part, the book does keep to a question-and-answer format. These are grouped into chapters, each of which begins, ends, or has in its middle a short essay on some pilot-relevant topic or memory from the author. The relationship between any of these seems quite arbitrary, though. The third chapter, for example, juxtaposes a FAQ about takeoff and landing with a lengthy rant about how airports, and American airports in particular, run so inefficiently, and starts digging into the nitty-gritty about the rise in recent decades of smaller and more frequent regional-jet flights over the classic reliance on larger planes and simpler schedules.

However, I loved reading every scrap of all that. I picked up the book wondering how much it would have to teach me, and to my delight I discovered how deep my air-travel ignorance ran. Educating myself in recent years about why planes work at all didn’t answer any of my back-of-the-mind questions about the hundred ways flight feels different today than my memories from my travel-laden 1980s childhood, post-9/11 security theatrics to one side. And I would have never even thought to wonder about how airlines pair up pilots and routes, or gather their employees into aircrews, or for how long these partnerships last. Smith’s cogent (and somewhat abashed) explanation of the fascinatingly antique pure-seniority system within every American airline had me rapt, and lead me to offer more sympathetic respect to the epauletted aircrew I see wheeling their luggage down the terminal to another day in their cramped, miles-high offices.

Also: this book finally gave me the most succinct explanation of why, on a map, long intercity routes look like curved lines instead of straight ones, with no hand-flap about “great circles”, even if that is the literal answer. (The grokkable answer is: this is just another way that Mercator projections suck. If you look at a globe, or even Google Earth, and trace an as-the-crow-flies connection between any of these two same cities, you’ll see that line pass over the very same points that the flat maps’ illusory parabolas do.)

While his humorously dismissive thoughts about clear-air turbulence came to mind most often during the height of my recent trips, a different example from Smith’s short sections scattered across Cockpit Confidential struck me the most as I read the book during the days leading up my to travel-packed November. Using language that reminded me of one of my favorite Robert Ebert blog posts (which, sadly, I cannot locate at this time), Smith veers as usual away from the topic at hand to offer a pean to travel itself, describing his efforts — not always easy, for a timetable-bound pilot! — to actually see and experience all the places around the world he flies to, exerting himself to explore beyond the global sky-tunneling habitrail with same-functioning airports and hotels at its nodes.

I will never love flight as much as people like Smith do, but I know that I want to keep my desire for travel kindled, always. If an increasingly turbulent atmosphere has added a permanent surtax to this, so be it. It’s important that I find ways through, and I will continue seeking tools to help me. This book helped.


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