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THE VIEW FROM ATOP : An Airline Pilot's Round-the-World Survey of the Fascination and Follies of Planet Earth

March 16, 1986|BARRY SCHIFF | Schiff flies for a major airline out of LAX.

Beginning with Neil Armstrong in 1969, only 12 men have set foot on an extraterrestrial surface. At one time or another, each of these Apollo astronauts has been asked to describe his most memorable lunar experience. One would expect the answers to include comments about exploring another world. But almost unanimously, their most cherished moments were those spent looking back across the blackness of space to see this world.

From our cockpits, we airline pilots likewise have an unusual perspective of Planet Earth that is rarely appreciated by those in the cabin. Passengers don't have our forward view. Instead of gazing at the fleeting landscape, most pass the hours by masticating "plastic" chicken, watching callously edited movies and trying to keep from being crushed by a reclining seat. It is sad that the passengers' concept of flight is mainly determined by what happens in the cabin. If they could spend time on the flight deck, their perception of flight and the world over which we fly would change dramatically.

While I take these notes, we are on a trip around the world, Los Angeles to Los Angeles. This is the first leg of our 11-day flight. Our first destination is Guam, a dot on the map, a fleck of land floating in the Pacific vastness. Far below, the puffy clouds are like sheep grazing on a boundless blue meadow. But ahead, the cumulus grow tempestuously taller, confirming that our route coincides partially with the equatorial front, a caldron of thunderstorms brewed by mixing moist tropical trade winds.

Since a mature thunderstorm contains more destructive energy than a nuclear bomb, it must be avoided. It seems inconceivable that more than 50,000 thunderstorms occur daily over the earth--until you've flown the South Pacific. At times, almost all of them seem to challenge our right to the sky and necessitate the most serpentine flight path imaginable. This inevitably leads to a late arrival and an assortment of complaints from passengers. One of an airline pilot's pet peeves is that passengers judge his performance only by the timeliness of his arrival and the smoothness of his landing. Seldom considered is the skill he might have used to sidestep hazard along the way.

Not long ago, airliners were led across the oceans of the world by navigators who used their sextants to "shoot" the stars in the mystical manner of ancient mariners. Today we depend on a trio of inertial navigation systems that are similar to those used to guide intercontinental missiles. These electronic computers advise when a strong head wind has dramatically slowed our progress, adding to the deceptive effect of slow motion at high altitude. We are suspended in ethereal blackness where nothing seems to move except the fuel gauges.

A patch of turbulence, a change in outside temperature, an increase in groundspeed--these indicate that the jet stream, a meandering river of high-velocity winds, has tired of pushing against us and has veered north to perpetrate its folly elsewhere. And it really is cold outside, dangerously close to the fuel-freeze point of minus 100 degrees Fahrenheit. A lower, warmer altitude is requested from the air-traffic controller in Hawaii, and we discuss with renewed amazement the incongruity that the coldest temperatures in the atmosphere occur above the South Pacific.

Sunday evening suddenly becomes Monday evening. We have crossed the International Date Line, a line on the chart drawn to pacify man's obsession for order and definition. A passenger sends a note to the cockpit, announcing with mock disappointment that he's been cheated out of his birthday. We respond unsympathetically, advising that he should have caught an eastbound flight and celebrated his birthday twice.

Our shadow streaks south of wishbone-shaped Wake Island, a 4 1/2-mile-long atoll that first was put to use in 1935 as a base for Pan American Airways' China Clippers; they couldn't carry enough fuel to cross the Pacific nonstop. Below, the cumulus clouds continue to drift behind with metronomic regularity, casting shadows that resemble small islands on the water. The Pacific's immensity is monotonous. More clouds, more water, more sky. Occasionally when passengers sleep, a pilot breaks the boredom by broadcasting risque jokes on the emergency frequency. Occasionally someone sings or even plays the harmonica. Although this abuse of the emergency frequency is illegal, such diversions rarely last more than a few minutes. And then each pilot returns to his personal bout with the "Pacific blues," a fatiguing form of boredom.

Those in the cabin also do strange things to break the monotony of a long flight. Yemenis have been known to start a campfire in an aisle to cook a meal. Other passengers accustomed to train travel have attempted to climb into overhead baggage compartments for a nap. And then there are the inevitable honeymooners who can't seem to wait to consummate their marriage.

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