Cockpit Confidential: Everything You Need to Know About Air Travel: Questions, Answers, and Reflections

Cockpit Confidential: Everything You Need to Know About Air Travel: Questions, Answers, and Reflections

by Patrick Smith

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A New York Times bestseller

For millions of people, travel by air is a confounding, uncomfortable, and even fearful experience. Patrick Smith, airline pilot and author of the popular website, separates fact from fallacy and tells you everything you need to know:

•  How planes fly, and a revealing look at the men and women who fly them
•  Straight talk on turbulence, pilot training, and safety.
• The real story on delays, congestion, and the dysfunction of the modern airport
• The myths and misconceptions of cabin air and cockpit automation  
• Terrorism in perspective, and a provocative look at security
• Airfares, seating woes, and the pitfalls of airline customer service 
• The colors and cultures of the airlines we love to hate

COCKPIT CONFIDENTIAL covers not only the nuts and bolts of flying, but the grand theater of air travel, from airport architecture to inflight service to the excitement of travel abroad.  It's a thoughtful, funny, at times deeply personal look into the strange and misunderstood world of commercial flying.

"Patrick Smith is extraordinarily knowledgeable about modern aviation...the ideal seatmate, a companion, writer and explorer." —Boston Globe

"Anyone remotely afraid of flying should read this book, as should anyone who appreciates good writing and great information." —The New York Times, on ASK THE PILOT.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781492663973
Publisher: Sourcebooks
Publication date: 06/05/2018
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 336
Sales rank: 300,232
File size: 1 MB

About the Author

Patrick Smith is a New York Times bestselling author, airline pilot, air travel writer, and the host of He has visited more than seventy countries and always asks for a window seat. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.

Read an Excerpt


The Painter’s Brush

More than ever, air travel is a focus of curiosity, intrigue, anxiety, and anger. In the chapters that follow I will do my best to provide answers for the curious, reassurance for the anxious, and unexpected facts for the deceived.

It won’t be easy, and I begin with a simple premise: everything you think you know about flying is wrong. That’s an exaggeration, I hope, but not an outrageous starting point in light of what I’m up against. Commercial aviation is a breeding ground for bad information, and the extent to which different myths, fallacies, and conspiracy theories have become embedded in the prevailing wisdom is startling. Even the savviest frequent flyers are prone to misconstruing much of what actually goes on.

It isn’t surprising. Air travel is a complicated, inconvenient, and often scary affair for millions of people, and at the same time it’s cloaked in secrecy. Its mysteries are concealed behind a wall of specialized jargon, corporate reticence, and an irresponsible media. Airlines, it hardly needs saying, aren’t the most forthcoming of entities, while journalists and broadcasters like to keep it simple and sensational. It’s hard to know who to trust or what to believe.

I’ll give it my best shot. And in doing so, I will tell you how a plane stays in the air, yes. I’ll address your nuts-and-bolts concerns and tackle those insufferable myths. However, this is not a book about flying, per se. I will not burden readers with gee-whiz specifications about airplanes. I am not writing for gearheads or those with a predisposed interest in planes; my readers don’t want to see an aerospace engineer’s schematic of a jet engine, and a technical discussion about cockpit instruments or aircraft hydraulics is guaranteed to be tedious and uninteresting—especially to me. Sure, we’re all curious how fast a plane goes, how high it flies, how many statistical bullet points can be made of its wires and plumbing. But as both author and pilot, my infatuation with flight goes beyond the airplane itself, encompassing the fuller, richer drama of getting from here to there—the “theater” of air travel, as I like to call it.

For most of us who grow up to become airline pilots, flying isn’t just something we fell into after college. Ask any pilot where his love of aviation comes from, and the answer almost always goes back to early childhood—to some ineffable, hard-wired affinity. Mine certainly did. My earliest crayon drawings were of planes, and I took flying lessons before I could drive. Just the same, I have never met another pilot whose formative obsessions were quite like mine. I have limited fascination with the sky or with the seat-of-the-pants thrills of flight itself. As a youngster, the sight of a Piper Cub meant nothing to me. Five minutes at an air show watching the Blue Angels do barrel rolls, and I was bored to tears. What enthralled me instead were the workings of the airlines: the planes they flew and the places they went.

In the fifth grade I could recognize a Boeing 727-100 from a 727-200 by the shape of the intake of its center engine (oval, not round). I could spend hours cloistered in my bedroom or at the dining room table, poring over the route maps and timetables of Pan Am, Aeroflot, Lufthansa, and British Airways, memorizing the names of the foreign capitals they flew to. Next time you’re wedged in economy, flip to the route maps in the back of the inflight magazine. I could spend hours studying those three-panel foldouts and their crazy nests of city-pairs, immersed in a kind of junior pilot porno. I knew the logos and liveries of all the prominent airlines (and many of the nonprominent ones) and could replicate them freehand with a set of colored pencils.

Thus I learned geography as thoroughly as I learned aviation. For most pilots, the world beneath those lines of the route map remains a permanent abstraction, countries and cultures of little or no interest beyond the airport fence or the perimeter of the layover hotel. For others, as happened to me, there’s a point when those places become meaningful. One feels an excitement not merely from the act of moving through the air, but from the idea of going somewhere. You’re not just flying, you’re traveling. The full, beautiful integration of flight and travel, travel and flight. Are they not the same thing? To me they are. One can inspire the other, sure, but I never would have traipsed off to so many countries in my free time—from Cambodia to Botswana, Sri Lanka to Brunei—if I hadn’t fallen in love with aviation first.

If ever this connection struck me in a moment of clarity, it was a night several years ago during a vacation to Mali, in West Africa. Though I could write pages about the wonders and strangeness of West Africa, one of the trip’s most vivid moments took place at the airport in Bamako, moments after our plane touched down from Paris. Two hundred of us descended the drive-up stairs into a sinister midnight murk. The air was misty and smelled of woodsmoke. Yellow beams from military-style spotlights crisscrossed the tarmac. We were paraded solemnly around the exterior of the aircraft, moving aft in a wide semicircle toward the arrivals lounge. There was something ceremonial and ritualistic about it. I remember walking beneath the soaring, blue-and-white tail of Air France, the plane’s auxiliary turbine screaming into the darkness. It was all so exciting and, to use a politically incorrect word, exotic. And that incredible airplane is what brought us there. In a matter of hours, no less—a voyage that once would have taken weeks by ship and desert caravan.

The disconnect between air travel and culture seems to me wholly unnatural, yet we’ve seen a virtually clean break. Nobody gives a damn anymore how you get there—the means coldly separated from the ends. For most people, whether bound for Kansas or Kathmandu, the airplane is a necessary evil, incidental to the journey but no longer part of it. An old girlfriend of mine, an artist who would have no trouble appreciating the play of light in a seventeenth-century painting by Vermeer, found my opinions utterly perplexing. Like most people, she analogized airplanes merely as tools. The sky was the canvas, she believed; the jetliner as discardable as the painter’s brush. I disagree, for as a brush’s stroke represents the moment of artistic inspiration, what is travel without the journey?

We’ve come to view flying as yet another impressive but ultimately uninspiring technological realm. There I am, sitting in a Boeing 747, a plane that if tipped onto its nose would rise as tall as a 20-story office tower. I’m at 33,000 feet over the Pacific Ocean, traveling at 600 miles per hour, bound for the Far East. And what are the passengers doing? Complaining, sulking, tapping glumly into their laptops. A man next to me is upset over a dent in his can of ginger ale. This is the realization, perhaps, of a fully evolved technology. Progress, one way or the other, mandates that the extraordinary become the ordinary. But don’t we lose valuable perspective when we begin to equate the commonplace, more or less by definition, with the tedious? Aren’t we forfeiting something important when we sneer indifferently at the sight of an airplane—at the sheer impressiveness of being able to throw down a few hundred dollars and travel halfway around the world at nearly the speed of sound? It’s a tough sell, I know, in this age of long lines, grinding delays, overbooked planes, and inconsolable babies. To be clear, I am not extolling the virtues of tiny seats or the culinary subtlety of half-ounce bags of snack mix. The indignities and hassles of modern air travel require little elaboration and are duly noted. But believe it or not, there is still plenty about flying for the traveler to savor and appreciate.

I’m hesitant to say that we’ve developed a sense of entitlement, but it’s something like that. Our technological triumphs aside, consider also the industry’s remarkable safety record and the fact that fares have remained startlingly cheap, even with tremendous surges in the price of fuel. Sure, years ago, passengers could enjoy a five-course meal served by a tuxedoed flight attendant before retiring to a private sleeping berth. My first airplane ride was in 1974: I remember my father in a suit and tie and double helpings of fresh cheesecake on a ninety-minute domestic flight. The thing was, getting on a plane was expensive. This will be lost on many people today, young people especially, but once upon a time, college kids didn’t zip home for a few days over Christmas. You didn’t grab a last minute seat for $99 and pop over to Las Vegas—or to Mallorca or Phuket—for a long weekend. Flying was a luxury, and people indulged sporadically, if at all. In 1939, aboard Pan Am’s Dixie Clipper, it cost $750 to fly round-trip between New York and France. That’s equal to well over $11,000 in today’s money. In 1970, it cost the equivalent of $2,700 to fly from New York to Hawaii.

Things changed. Planes, for one, became more efficient. Aircraft like the 707 and the 747 made long-haul travel affordable to the masses. Then the effects of deregulation kicked in, changing forever the way airlines competed. Fares plummeted, and passengers poured in. Yes, flying became more aggravating and less comfortable. It also became affordable for almost everybody.

I have learned never to underestimate the contempt people hold for airlines and the degree to which they hate to fly. While some of this contempt is well deserved, much of it is unfair. Today a passenger can, in a backpack and flip-flops, traverse the oceans for the equivalent of a few pennies per mile, in near-perfect safety and with an 85 percent chance of arriving on time. Is that really such an awful way to travel? Meanwhile, if you’re that insatiably eager to revisit those luxurious indulgences of aviation’s golden years, well, you can do that too, by purchasing a first or business class ticket—for less than what it cost fifty years ago.

Table of Contents


Author's Notes and Acknowledgments

Introduction: The Painter's Brush

1. Plane Truth: Things about Wings and Why Knots

Airfoiled: how huge airplanes stay aloft • But isn't it more complicated? • On speed: what the hell is a knot? • A primer on parts • What are those upturned wingtips for? • What are those canoe-shaped pods under the wings? • Can a jetliner perform aerobatics? • How does a jet engine work? • What's a turboprop? • What is that hole under the tail? • Do planes run their engines at the gate? • How much does a jetliner cost? • Boeing v. Airbus: which is better and safer? • Which planes will get me there fastest? • Which have the longest range? • How much does a jetliner weigh? • When it's "too hot to fly" • Contrails • Air travel and the environment

The Airplane in Art, Music, and Film

2. Elements of Unease: Turbulence, Windshear, Weather, and Worry

High Art: History, Hype, and the World's Biggest Planes

What Plane Is That? An Airfleets Primer

Turbulence: everything you need to know • Wake turbulence • What's that trail of mist coming from the wing? • What is windshear? • Engine stalls • Can we glide to a landing? • Pressurization: facts and fallacies • Regional jets: are they safe? • How much fuel is on board? • Why and when do pilots jettison fuel? • Lightning: facts and fallacies • Oh my god, there's duct tape on my plane • Air traffic: how close is too close? • When metal meets feather • Icing and deicing • The truth about toilet water • Broken parts and maintenance protocols • Preflight inspections • Geriatric jets

Revere Reverie: A Hometown Memoir

3. What Goes Up...: Takeoffs, Landings, and the Mysterious Between

What's the Matter with Airports?

Preflight preparations • Why do planes take off into the wind? • Why do we bounce, bump, and jig during climb? • Engine failure on takeoff • The climbout cutback • How fast are we going at takeoff and touchdown? • Runway numbers • Challenging airports • Aborted landings: everything you need to know • Instrument approaches • Why do some pilots land more smoothly than others? • Reverse thrust • What's that sudden roar all about? • The nuts and bolts of weather delays • Four bad ideas to fix congestion • An ATC primer: how pilots communicate en route • Navigation basics: BLOWN, BAABY, and LAYED • Why do flights to Europe travel so far north? • FUK, DAM, HEL: those mysterious airport codes

4. Flying for a Living: The Awe and Odd of a Life Aloft

The Right Seat: Propellers, Polyester, and Other Memories

Captain, copilot, first officer? Who are these people? • Becoming an airline pilot • Training: everything you need to know • Pilot salaries, truth and fiction • The seniority system blues • Pilot shortage: the real story • A pilot's schedule, and the cross-country shuffle • This is your captain sleeping: the menace of fatigue • Regional pilots: are they safe? • Women and minorities • The truth about cockpit automation • How passengers can (or can't) gauge a pilot's skill • Captain Sully: heroics or hype? • Pilots and alcohol • Those fancy watches and mysterious black bags • Cockpit cuisine: first class fare and ramen noodles • Flying naked? • Globetrodden: pilot perks, and the yin and yang of travel

Accommodations: On the Road with Patrick Smith

5. En Route: Life in the Cabin

North Latitude: Fear and Loathing on the High Atlantic

Window shades, tray tables, and seat backs • The barking dog: strange noises on the Airbus • The facts and fallacies of cabin air • Do pilots tinker with the oxygen levels? • Overheated cabins and those hot, stuffy takeoffs • Opening an exit during flight • Why are the windows so small? • The glorious glory • Dogs and cats below • The story on cell phones and PEDs • Those damn dings • Listening in on cockpit chatter • Public address madness and the babble of the safety briefing • Class struggles: first, business, economy, and beyond • The trials and tribulations of boarding, and how to make it better • A round of applause

Looking Out: Memorable Views from Aloft

6. ...Must Come Down: Disasters, Mishaps, and Fatuous Flights of Fancy

Terminal Madness: What Is Airport Security?

The Ten Deadliest Air Disasters of All Time

Terrorism perspective: the golden age of air crimes • Fear and reason: encouragement for nervous flyers • What pilots dread • Emergencies, real and imagined • Where airlines fear to tread • The ten worst disasters of all time • Foreign airline safety • The myth of the Immaculate Qantas • Budget carrier safety • Flight and punishment • Exploding tires and other nightmares • Could a nonpilot land a jetliner? • Parachutes for passengers? • The truth about midair collisions • Runway congestion: cause for alarm? • The legacy of September 11 • The folly of a barricaded cockpit • Shoulder-fired missiles • "Soft walls" and other hooey • Conspiracy Nation

We Gaan: The Horror and Absurdity of History's Worst Plane Crash

7. The Airlines We Love to Hate

The Yin and Yang of Airline Identity

Service woes: taking on the world • Why are airlines such terrible communicators? • Which are the largest carriers? • The upside for consumers: routes and fares • Airfares à la carte: the pros and cons of unbundling • Tarmac delays and the "Passenger Bill of Rights" • The magic mojo of Southwest Airlines • Which are the oldest airlines? • Code-share confusion • Where do flight numbers come from? • Red-eye rationale: why do flights to Europe always go at night? • Size matters: big planes on short hauls • The longest hauls • The poetry of airliner names

How to Speak Airline: A Glossary for Travelers

About the Author

What People are Saying About This

Christine Negroni

"A brilliant writer, Patrick Smith provides a laugh-a-page tour of a misunderstood industry -- a journey into the world of aviation, stripped of the mumbo-jumbo and filled with humor and insight." --Christine Negroni, aviation correspondent and author of Flying Lessons

Stephen J. Dubner

"I wish I could fold up Patrick Smith and put him in my suitcase. He seems to know everything worth knowing about flying." --Stephen Dubner, coauthor of Freakonomics

Chris Bohjalian

"Patrick Smith manages to demystify the experience and remind us of the magic of aviation. Also he has a great sense of humor — which is critical when you are wedged into seat 14D on a regional jet." --Chris Bohjalian, author of The Night Strangers and The Double Bind.

David Pogue

"Cockpit Confidential is the document that belongs in the seat-back pocket in front of you." -- David Pogue, New York Times correspondent and PBS television host

Rudy Maxa

"Wonderful" -- Rudy Maxa

Berke Breathed

"What a pleasure it is reading Patrick Smith's surprisingly elegant explanations and commentary. The world needs somebody writing E.B. White simple and sensible about a topic everyone has a question about." --Berke Breathed

James Kaplan

"Patrick Smith is one of the best writers around, period, which certainly makes him by far the best writer ever to have earned a commercial pilot's license. A soaring accomplishment, indispensable for anyone who travels by air, which means everyone." -- James Kaplan

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Cockpit Confidential: Everything You Need to Know About Air Travel: Questions, Answers, and Reflections 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 18 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Don't buy this for the nook. The font is too tiny to read and you cannot increase the size of the font. I was told by the service representative that it was a publisher error and that they would have to correct the problem.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
i bought this book for my nook and sad to say this is the first book ever i have bought where i can not adjust the type size on my reader-the print is so small i cant read it at all.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I am a former frequent flyer who has always hated to fly. Patrick Smith does a great job explaining everything that I always wished I had known. I laughed out loud in parts. The question and answer format was effective and covered many topics I always wondered about. Great read. I gave the book to a new regional jet pilot for a Christmas gift...
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This is hands-down the smartest, and just all-around best book on commercial air travel ever published. It's not just remarkably informative, but elegantly written and hilariously entertaining. Whether you love or hate flying, it's an outstanding read.
Wide_RIght More than 1 year ago
I just read the free-sample  AND you CAN change the font size or type.  Whoever said you couldn’t is having an issue with their NOOK.  From what I read, this is a very interesting book on jet aircraft and air  travel in general.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book is great for knowledge and curiosity about flying with answers for every question about flying
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Both entertaining and informative! A great read for both frequent flyers and occasional air travelers, this book answers all those questions that come during a flight. And, even better, it helps give a little bit of a new perspective on flying--just how remarkable it is, despite all the inconveniences. The author's stories, writing style, and very opinionated thoughts on airline logos and paintjobs are also a lot of fun. All in all, an excellent book to take along on your next flight.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
$10 and i can barely read the small print
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I really enjoyed this one - very informative and a great way to reduce the anxiety that a lot of people feel before and during a flight.
B-loNY More than 1 year ago
Answers to everything you ever wanted to know about commercial airlines.
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