Cockpit hot seat always awaits me

Martin van Beynen
Martin van Beynen

Soon, very soon, I will be embarking on an aeroplane for a long international flight. You will be hearing more about this trip in coming weeks.

I am not a scaredy-cat about flying, but I can probably name every air disaster since the Wright brothers took to the air to defy gravity in 1903 at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. This does nothing for blissful passenger flight.

I know the chances of dying in an aircraft accident are probably smaller than perishing in a road-vehicle accident not far from home, but nervousness invariably sets in as soon as I strap myself into my economy-class seat. It's possible I would feel better in a business- class seat, but I am never likely to find out.

At times like these I certainly don't need a story like the one about an international Air New Zealand flight on which the pilot became incapacitated while eating his inflight dinner. The plane had to turn back to Los Angeles, and the two other pilots on board took over.

This incident raises a number of questions. How come these so-called computer-flown generation of jets need three pilots? Do they know something we don't?

What say all the pilots were having their dinner while the plane was on automatic and all became ill and unable to fly?

This is one of my darkest nightmare scenarios because I just know that the air attendant who finds all the pilots sprawled out unconscious in the cockpit surrounded by vomit is going to approach me, as the only awake passenger, and ask me to fly the plane.

I know I am going to be tempted to say OK, even though I have no natural ability with computers, or for following instructions, or even for pushing the right buttons. In fact, give me any device and I will find a way to make it malfunction, or find a weak spot which its designers did not in a million years imagine as a possible flaw.

But the nightmare gets worse. Even if I do the right thing and tell the air attendant to find someone among the passengers who is good with video or computer games, I know I am not going to feel good about it. As the plane spirals out of control or stalls in a mistaken manoeuvre, I am going to kick myself and feel I should have assumed responsibility. By stepping aside, I had sealed the fate of the passengers.

You can tell from this little mind game that I tend to scrutinise pilots very closely. I'm glad they wear uniforms because that cuts down any expression of individuality, which might freak out customers like me.

I'm sure pilots would be more comfortable in their little cockpits wearing pyjamas or their old gardening clobber, and if they are comfortable they would probably be safer pilots. But perception for the nervous flyer is all. I don't want to see any jewellery, tattoos, caps at jaunty angles or fancy hairdos. I want pilots to look like judges or surgeons or dentists–in uniform. I need to see their shoes are as regularly maintained as their aeroplanes, the buttons on their natty uniforms gleaming and the uniform as perfect as it would be for a military parade.

Even more importantly, I want them looking fit and trim. Youth is not important, although old age is not especially desireable either. In fact, pilots, like the All Blacks, look younger and younger to me. Not so long ago I did an article about ever-younger pilots going straight to jets without ever having flown a fixed-wing aircraft. There was some move - I'm not sure if it ever eventuated - to train pilots by putting them straight into simulators and then into the co-pilot's seat on a jet aircraft with 300 people aboard. What would be reassuring for me, then, would be that when the captain is making his public announcement, he could also give a quick rundown on his flying experience.

I also want my pilots looking happy and at peace with the world, but not too relaxed or too happy. They need to be well rested and alert looking. A yawning pilot or hungover-looking aviator is enough to get me cancelling my flight.

In other words, I don't want a pilot who is anything like me, and I would hope air attendants dealing with an emergency would feel the same. The puzzle is, however, that why in my nightmare scenario does the air attendant always pick me to fly the plane?

I know I could be useful, just not in the cockpit. I'm happy to taste the meals to ensure they are not poisoned, or hand around the sweets, but please, air attendants, spare me the hot seat.

The Press