A review of Patrick Smith’s Cockpit Confidential: Everything You Need to Know About Air Travel: Questions, Answers, and Reflections

I have been doing a lot of flying lately.  In 2014 alone, I’ve flown across the Atlantic three times.  I also flew to Virginia to see my dad for the last time before he passed away last month and flew on a couple of European flights, too.  In the years prior to 2014, I took quite a few trips by plane.  It’s not so much that I enjoy flying; I really don’t.  It’s just that flying is faster than driving is and some of the places we’ve gone haven’t offered a better alternative.

When I saw Patrick Smith’s book, Cockpit Confidential,  I immediately decided to buy it.  I did this not knowing that Smith has had a popular column on Salon.com and Web site called Ask the Pilot.  For years, Smith, who has worked as a pilot since 1990, has been answering questions put to him by the masses.  He explains in his book that he has been passionate about airplanes since he was a young lad and made it his mission to get into the industry.  And so he has… but I think he’s also a very good writer.  I really enjoyed his book.

Filled with personal stories about his time as a pilot as well as informative articles on how airplanes and the airline industry works, Smith does a good job educating his readers.  The book also offers answers to questions people have sent in.  Not only are Smith’s answers interesting and informative, they are also very entertaining.

I got a kick out of reading about how even pilots get harassed by the TSA.  Smith writes a colorful anecdote about how one time, his knife– the same knife that was used on the very aircraft he was about to pilot– was confiscated by the TSA.  The reason?  It was serrated.  Smith explains that it was a stretch to call the knife serrated, but because the knife had little ridges on it, it was deemed unsafe.  This, even though the passengers in the first class and business cabins on his airplane would be using the same knife as they tucked into their in flight meals.

Smith also writes about how pilots and flight attendants have to be screened like you and I do…  but the folks who are hauling your suitcases, cleaning the planes, and stocking the galleys with food can come and go with a simple swipe of their ID cards.  Granted, Smith explains that they are always subject to being searched randomly, but they don’t have to deal with the same screening ordeals the rest of us do.  If you think about it, that’s a little unsettling.

Smith covers a huge range of topics, which is why his book runs for 320 pages.  But once you’re finishing reading it, you will be a lot better informed about all things pertaining to the airline industry.  He writes about how to become a pilot and how it’s not nearly as glamorous or well paying as it might seem; in 1990, when Smith got his first pilot job, he was getting a mere $850 a month.  He writes about the history of some of our best known airlines, many of which are no longer around.  Some of his commentary is hilariously snarky, too.  His comments about some of the ad slogans and cutesy names airlines give their planes are pretty funny.

If you’ve ever wondered how planes fly, Smith has you covered.  He offers a detailed explanation about how it’s possible to get a metal tube filled with thousands of pounds into the air.  He also explains how some “emergencies” aren’t really emergencies.  And he even dares to explain why Chesley Sullenberger’s landing on the Hudson River was not as impressive as it seemed.  Ever wanted to check out the cockpit?  You can, you know… not while the plane is flying, obviously, but before or after the flight.  You don’t have to be a kid, either.  Smith says a lot of pilots are kind of flattered when people express an interest in seeing their work space.  Just ask a flight attendant to find out if it’s okay.

I like non-fiction books, especially when they satisfy my curiosity about things I’ve always wondered about.  I have read a number of books by flight attendants, but Smith’s Cockpit Confidential is the first book I’ve read by a pilot.  He did a great job demystifying the airline industry for me.  I would definitely recommend Cockpit Confidential to anyone who has ever been curious about the airline industry.  I also think it’s good reading for anyone who has ever considered a career in aviation.


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