Wednesday, March 16, 2011

The Third Guy

Long-haul flights across continents and oceans require at least three pilots due to the extended duration of each flight. The captain sits in the left seat and is the pilot-in-command. He makes all the decisions and most of the money. The first officer is the copilot and he sits in the right seat. The “international officer,” a made-up term for a made-up position, is the third guy and he sits in the jump seat behind the captain and first officer. His job is to spell the primary pilots, in turn, so they can each take a two-hour nap back in First Class.
I’m that third guy.
The airlines are one of the last bastions of a unionized workforce in America, and every pilot’s position is determined by strict seniority. The captain didn’t become the captain through dint of hard work, specialized flying skills, or an accident-free flight record. He became captain because he’d been on the property long enough to bid, and hold, a captain’s position when it became available at his pilot base. Someday, when his younger copilot has been around long enough, he’ll become a captain, too. Merit has nothing to do with it; you don’t “earn” a set of captain’s wings, you accrue longevity and the job comes to you in due course. You become the first guy.
So the captain has been around longer than the copilot, and the copilot has probably been around longer than the “international officer.” And while this is not a merit-based system, it does tend to guarantee that the guy in charge has more experience, and is therefore theoretically the fittest for command. The captain makes all the decisions, and bears the final responsibility for the safe outcome of any flight, no matter what. When things don’t go according to plan, it is the captain’s job to maintain control of the aircraft, analyze the situation, and take appropriate action to safely land the plane. He delegates tasks to his copilots and relies on the flight attendants to maintain order and calm in the back, but in his experienced hands, and upon his well-paid judgement, rest the lives of all his crew and his passengers.
The second guy, the first officer or copilot, sits in the right seat behind a set of flight controls and instruments that is identical in every way to the captain’s. If the captain flies the outbound leg, the first officer handles the radios and reads the checklists. On the reverse leg, they’ll switch roles: the captain will make the radio calls while the copilot flies the airplane. So what does the third guy do?
The third guy dons a bright yellow safety vest and takes his flashlight and keys outside to perform an inspection known as the “walk-around” prior to every flight. This puts him in the weather, fair or foul, and it might get him dirty, since an airplane on the outside is a greasy, grimy, noisy, hot, hazardous thing. The third guy deals with the “ramp rats,” including crew chiefs, fuelers, loaders, maintainers, and the man with the worst job in aviation—the guy who dumps the lavatories. They hand him slips of paper confirming that this much potable water was pumped and that many thousand pounds of fuel were loaded and some of the cargo is radioactive (watch bezels?) and some of the cargo is living (show roosters, honeybees, terriers, tropical fish) and didn't get loaded with the radioactive stuff. Any detail that might cause the captain or the copilot to break a sweat or discomfit themselves in any way, belongs to the third guy, the “international officer.” Me.


The view from my seat. That's the captain on the left.
The copilot is on the right. I'm the third guy.
International Officer is a lot of syllables considering what the third guy actually does, and aviators at some airlines have shortened it to “IO.” At my airline, this position is also called the “First Officer B,” or FB, which is how it appears on the monthly bid sheets. FB has in turn given way to colorful monikers like First Break (because the FB always gets the first and least desirable rest break) or, more commonly, Food Boy (because the FB eats a lot of First Class meals).
I am the Food Boy.
The humble third seat.
When Boeing built the
767, they planned for
a flight engineer to
occupy this seat.
Shortly after takeoff the on-board printer issues an updated flight plan with every point along our route of flight, and next to each point is an estimated arrival time and fuel prediction. We check this at each way point to verify that the flight is on schedule and burning the expected amount of fuel en route. To this flight plan I add notations that tell each pilot when his rest break begins and ends. West-bound flights to Hawaii normally generate breaks lasting about two hours and thirty minutes apiece, plus 30 minutes or so at the end of the flight to allow everyone to get back in the cockpit and ready for the descent, approach and landing.
For a variety of reasons the middle break provides the most rejuvenating sleep, so whoever is flying the airplane (captain or copilot) usually takes this rest period. The third break is almost as restful, so the pilot-not-flying takes this one. The first break, twenty minutes after takeoff, during which passengers are chatting noisily and the flight attendants are rattling dishes in the galley and banging through the aisles with serving carts and the captain is making his dignified announcement over the speakers and the sun is beaming into the cabin—an environment, in other words, in which restful sleep is virtually impossible—this is the break given to the FB. First break. My break.
Like a child getting ready for bed, I have a routine for my rest break that makes me drowsy no matter how difficult I find it to actually fall or stay asleep. I unfold the big grey First Class blanket in my lap and raise a small divider between me and the neighbor. I pull an extra pair of socks on and put plugs in my ears. I slip an eye shade around my head and recline the electric seat to the “Zzzzz” position, rest my head on the pillow, pull the shade over my eyes, and tuck my arms under the blanket. At night, I’m usually sound asleep within 5 minutes. During the daytime, I may lay there for an entire 150-minute break and never fall asleep. Either way, the sounds and sensations in a crowded passenger cabin often conspire to chase sleep away.
Three background sounds will always cut through the earplugs and keep me awake: 1) infants wailing in any section of the airplane, 2) chatting women with a certain timbre to their conversational voice, and 3) the repeated shuffling, cutting, and stacking of a deck of Hoyle playing cards on a passenger’s tray table. This third distraction happens more often than you’d think. Otherwise, the background babble of a busy cabin during the meal service actually lulls me to sleep. I wake up when the passenger behind me slams his tray table into the stowed position; it jars the entire seat. Likewise, when the flight attendants slam any of the multitude of doors, cabinets, sliding tables, latches, chillers, ovens, or coffee pots in the First Class galley, which my seat adjoins, it startles me out of the deepest sleep. Bright ambient light is filtered by my eye shades, and I can handle it; flashing, jarring images from a movie (or from the moving map, which the FA’s leave on all night if you don’t remind them) on the bulkhead-mounted video screen above my seat penetrate the mask and prevent me from sleeping.
More than once, the passenger next to me has knocked a full glass of wine or beer onto me while I slept. The odor of baked salmon over buttery risotto, fresh from the oven and delivered to a hungry seatmate, makes it hard to sleep. Sometimes the thing that keeps me awake is my own fault: I’ve had too much water or soda to drink and I have to get up in the middle of my break and go to the bathroom.
And then there’s the seat itself. The company installed these new First Class “lay-flat” seats to a lot of fanfare several years ago. Whoever approved them evidently sat in a prototype for about 90 seconds before giving the go-ahead. There is no position in which these seats can be said to be comfortable for more than a few minutes, much less for the duration of an 8- to 11-hour flight. The “Zzzzz” mode, which is the advertised “lay-flat” position, is about as flat as your dentist’s chair. In this position the jointed mattress tilts down towards your feet, creating the feeling that you are sliding off the seat onto the floor. Your legs are forced into an narrow opening in the wall or under the seat in front of you, and the armrests squeeze you from both sides. An MRI tunnel feels spacious by comparison. If your neighbor moves, you move. If your neighbor snores—forget about it.
My break ends halfway across the Pacific Ocean. Dinner is over, the movie has ended, and the scene around me is one of battle fatigue, not peaceful slumber. As I survey the darkened cabin full of snoring, contorted bodies twisted up in blankets in their “lay-flat” seats, for which they paid thousands of dollars apiece, I suspect these people will wake up kinked and irritable. I feel a little out of sorts, too, as I make my way back to the cockpit. “How’d you sleep?” the captain asks cheerfully. “Not bad, not bad...,” which in pilot-speak means not at all. It’s his turn for a rest, and I take my place in his seat. The copilot in his own seat is lost in thought, nursing a cup of black coffee. We converse a little, listen to voices on the radio, pilots in other airplanes, somewhere over the dark Pacific.
I rub my eyes and stare past the instruments in the dim glow of the dome light, into the inky black sky with its millions of stars. Twenty-two hundred miles to go. A long, sleepless night lies ahead. I lost the battle to fall asleep; now begins the battle to stay awake. I am the third guy.

4 comments:

  1. Manny AntimisiarisMarch 17, 2011 at 8:33 AM

    I too will join the ranks of those flying all night across and back from the Pacific. My ordeal will take place in a plane built in 1976, before seats with a ZZZZZ position, but, we will have use of a lay flat bunk. Of course, our initial flight on SOFIA will have no FB on board, so, a recline in the two front seats for a "combat nap" will have to suffice. If you ever hear NASA 747 on the radio, give a holler.

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  2. Now I know where Foodboy came from on your email.

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  3. Funny and interesting article. I always imagined the cockpit had some sleeping area?

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  4. Love the picture of a horse with the surf board by the way!

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