Ah, harmony! When you’re sitting in the cabin of a jetliner zipping through hostile atmosphere at 39-thousand feet, legally and effectively at the mercy of your flight crew, the last thing you want back in 42B is a reason to worry about your crew having relational problems.
You know, not playing well together.
Sometimes the stress of keeping several hundred people fed and watered begins to show on the flight attendants and the passengers begin to notice. But regardless of any spats among the flight attendants, you can always be secure in knowing that your pilots, who are snugly locked away up there in the cockpit, are NOT subject to such human reactions as, well, not getting along.
I bring this up because too many readers over the years have written (or come up to me at book signings and speeches) with wide-eyed concern that I’ve grossly overstated reality when, in one of my thrillers, the pilots weren’t exactly friends. The worry, of course, is always the same: “If pilots get upset with each other, then aren’t we in mortal danger in the back?”
All right, so let me give you a good lawyer-like answer, which is highly appropriate since I am, in fact, a lawyer. Here goes:
Yes and no!
“Yes”, if your pilots are having a fistfight on final approach, we got a problem, and damned if it isn’t a big one!
But “No,” because professional airline pilots the world over are trained to stop an argument in its tracks by saying the equivalent of: “This is not the place to have this discussion. Let’s save it until we’re on the ground.”
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This doesn’t mean we all love each other. All airline pilots at one time or another have had to refrain from pounding the @$#% out of someone who desperately needed it (the formal definition of stress), in order to remain dignified and professional and safe. All of us know that the cockpit is no place for the severe diversion of attention caused by anger and conflict.
And I think you see that knowledge reflected in my characters. Take the case of Captain James Holland in my thriller Pandora’s Clock. Feeling beaten down by the system, his airline, and pretty much everyone else, he finds himself essentially attacked by an arrogant management check pilot who possesses only a fraction of Holland’s experience. But when everything (including a suspected world-killing virus) hits the fan, Captain Holland has to regain command and leadership, and his first task is dealing professionally with Mr. Robb, the inexperienced check pilot in the right seat. In fact, it wasn’t the virus or the international convulsion of worry that was my focal point, it was the tension and deep conflict between Holland and Robb that formed the arc of the story. It was also the professional way they both ended up handling the conflicts that, even though messy, represent how we really are in airline cockpits.
In my newest work, LOCKOUT, the pilot conflicts are equally representative of reality, both in the fact that there ARE dislikes and conflicts based on external factors (such as bubbling anger between different pilot groups in contentious mergers), as well as personal dislikes and professional clashes. In LOCKOUT, Captain Jerry Tollefson squares off with senior Captain Bill Bream even before they’re off the ground, but the deeper professional conflict is between Jerry and his Copilot/First Officer, Dan Horneman. The differences in Horneman’s and Tollefson’s backgrounds (one is ex navy, the other civilian-trained and wealthy), coupled with the history of a near-catastrophic first meeting years before, make for a frosty cockpit. But Horneman and Tollefson not only get over it, they… well, this is a no-spoiler zone.
The bottom line is this: While a tiny handful of serious cockpit clashes over the decades have endangered flights, the number is infinitesimal. The amazing thing is how professional and metered and careful the cadre of airline pilots worldwide really are, and how willing they are to suppress conflict until once again safely on the ground. That’s what should keep you feeling secure in the back. After all, we pilots have a vested interest in arriving alive as well.
Now if we could only get a Congress that worked that way!