Who doesn’t want to sit next to an off-duty pilot on a flight? Score! (Thinkstock)
As I settled into the extra-legroom seat I sprang for on the way back home from a recent trip to Central America, I looked to my left; I looked to my right — there were airline pilots on both sides of me (they always get the good seats). Fresh off their route and still in uniform, the men were headed back to their hub in the U.S.
I’m usually not one for in-flight conversation — I’d rather just catch up on work, movies, or sleep — but I couldn’t miss the opportunity to pick the brain of a pilot. After I told my seatmate that I was a travel editor, he seemed happy to talk shop, so to speak. So here’s what I learned sitting next to my friendly airline pilot.
1. Pilots get sick of each other, just like the rest of us. “Do you want to sit together?” I asked the pilot sitting in the window seat to my left, motioning to the other pilot, who was sitting in the window seat in the adjacent row to my right. “No,” said the pilot. “I just sat next to him for five hours in the cockpit.” It must be like sharing a cubicle.
2. Flying is so uncomfortable, even pilots have to use travel hacks. My pilot neighbor had a lumbar pillow with him, which he pulled out and stuck behind his lower back. “I learned this from reading a travel story,” he told me. (Apparently cockpit seats aren’t much better than cabin ones.) He also had a pile of antibacterial wipes on the seat between us. “Here, use one of these,” he said as he wiped down his armrests, the tray table, and the back of the seat in front of him. Plus, he had these sage words of advice: “Never touch the faucets in the bathroom on a plane.” Yes, sir. Good to know.
No square windows here. (Thinkstock)
3. Pilots know interesting facts about planes, like why the windows are rounded. “Back in the day [from the late 40s to the early 50s], the first commercial jet — it was called the Comet — was built with square windows,” explained my pilot pal. “It kept crashing and they couldn’t figure out why. It turned out it was because of the shape of the windows. The corners of the square windows would develop cracks. The rounded shape puts less stress on the windows.” Thank God they figured that one out.
4. Pilots truly love looking out the window, and it’s so cute. Both of my pilot neighbors sat in window seats, and they spent a lot of time excitedly looking out — they were like kids in a candy store, stretching and craning to see as much as they could of the distant landscapes, floating clouds, and the sunset. “The view from the cockpit is spectacular,” the pilot almost gleefully told me. They clearly love what they do. Adorable.
5. Pilots hate flying with screaming children as much as we do. Yes, if the kids are loud enough and toward the front of the plane, they can hear them in the cockpit. “The routes to Orlando are the worst,” said the pilot to my left.
6. Pilots follow the flight attendants’ instructions (but don’t tattle on others who don’t if it’s not hurting anyone). Believe me, I was watching. Both pilots kept their carry-ons in the overhead bins or completely under the seat in front (despite sitting next to empty middle seats), and they absolutely had their seat belts fastened while seated until after we landed and taxied to the gate. They even threw out all their garbage. I felt obligated to do all of the above in their presence, but not everyone did. When a young fraternity “bro” type guy snuck from his regular economy seat into the empty extra-legroom aisle seat near the pilot, they let him get away with it.
7. Sitting next to pilot makes you feel pretty secure. Normally when I sit in an exit row (to get the extra legroom, of course), I secretly worry that if I had to open the door and help people out, I’d somehow screw it up and everyone would die because of me. But with the pilots flanking me, I felt totally secure — we could do this! (If we had to.) Plus, not only could these pilots take over flying the plane in the event that both on-duty pilots were attacked by zombies, but when the flight hit an extended patch of turbulence, it didn’t bother me one bit. I looked over at my seatmate and his colleague, and both were as calm as cucumbers. Didn’t even blink. They know their turbulence, so if they weren’t concerned, that was good enough for me.
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