I’ve been flying this week, in the company of the most boring pilots you could imagine; I can tell by their commentary. And that’s exactly what I want in a pilot. I realised this a while back on a long flight with a pilot who fancied himself as a comedian. Before we took off, he ran a little routine with the cabin crew. “Ladies and gentlemen, I leave you with… the best crew this side of…” Boom boom. He was interesting, funny. We laughed. I started to feel uncomfortable. I don’t want pilots who are funny. I don’t want them to be interesting. I want them so focused they’re incapable of humour or personality of any kind. If my eyes happen upon them in the cockpit on the way in, I want to see only those marvellous short sleeves with the crisp creases and the captain hat. I don’t want a welcoming smile. They’re too busy checking dials and switches importantly to smile. I want their every move to say, “I am not interesting. I don’t do dangerous things. You are safe.”
In fact, I’d be happy if all pilots were like Chesley Sullenberger, the pilot who landed a plane on the Hudson River in New York in 2009. It was the nightmare scenario, a jet full of passengers that had lost its engines after takeoff from LaGuardia Airport when it hit a flock of Canada geese. They were gliding over Manhattan, falling out of the sky, and Sullenberger knew it. He couldn’t make it to an airport – he knew that too – and he made the decision to land in the river, the only runway available, except for the fact it was made of water. He had to bring the plane down just so, he said in an interview later, with his hand as the jet, too sharp and they’d plunge nose-first into the water, too hard and the jet would break apart. He managed the landing, he said, bringing the rear down just ahead of the nose; his palm floated down effortlessly as he spoke. The journalist interviewing him, a young woman, wanted more emotion. She leaned forward, said, her voice heavy with meaning, “Were you afraid?” He looked squarely at her. “You mean, after I’d decided to land in the river?” She nodded slowly. “No,” he said, deadpan, “I wasn’t.” She narrowed her eyes. “Did you pray?” He shook his head. “I thought the people behind me were doing plenty of that and it might be best if I concentrated on my job.” He didn’t smile. I want him as my pilot on every flight.
I have friends who are terrified of flying. One of my best friends won’t board unless she’s had two Valium and two glasses of champagne. But I’ve only been really nervous once. I was sitting next to an off-duty flight attendant. The cabin crew members were giving instructions for what to do if oxygen masks drop down. I’d always said to friends – rather cleverly, I thought – that if they ever have to drop the oxygen masks we’re all going to be dead anyway so what’s the point? Anyway, stupidly, arrogantly, I made my clever point to the off-duty flight attendant. “Oh no,” she said, “There’s situations we’d need oxygen and survive. Your window could pop, for instance.” She made it sound like a pop. “We’d lose you, maybe a couple of others, but then we’d simply use the oxygen until the pilot got us down low enough to breathe in air.” I don’t think she meant to frighten me but I didn’t move from my seat for the rest of the flight, kept my seatbelt buckled and watched the window for signs of stress.
Other than that, I’ve always loved flying. Nowadays it’s the one place – a few airlines notwithstanding – you can turn off all wireless and mobile communication devices and be left to yourself. It’s like magic, sitting in seats that are above the clouds, eating perfect food out of tiny containers, drinking coffee from Bakelite cups. And the flight attendants, true angels, most of them, don’t get to go to sleep while I do, and yet they do their jobs so well almost always. And the most important thing? Mostly the pilots don’t make jokes.
Based on the column published in The Courier-Mail Qweekend on 15 November 2013. I write mainly about writing, education, birth, health and the thrill of parenting. You can Get in touch, tick the box to receive emails, Like Writer Mary-Rose MacColl on Facebook or follow MaryRoseMacColl on Twitter. Have a great day!