Being an airline passenger is like jetting back to childhood. You’re told only what someone thinks you should know.
Unlike in a car or bus, you’re not allowed to see out front. You hear about sky marshals, but do not know if there are any. And, sure, you’ve read that the cockpit door is “fortified”_ but if you tap on it to see for yourself, look out.
The list of airplane mysteries is getting longer. As travelers like me thought twice about flying after 9/11, we were met, not with detailed information, but with orders. Pack this but not that. Take off your shoes. Keep your I.D. in hand.
Truth is, I’ve always been wary about trusting heavy metal objects to lurch airborne and then land on a dime _ objects stuffed to the gills with passengers, pets in kennels, bottled drinks, not to mention truckloads of explosive fuel.
I wondered if, despite airtight security, it might be possible to see how flight “works.” I wanted a look at what it’s like up front, and at how today’s cockpit crews function _ a glimpse of what they won’t show passengers, since, well, we really don’t need to know.
After getting shot down by nearly everyone, I got lucky. Denver-based Frontier Airlines agreed to let me train with one of its pilots on a cockpit-and-flight simulator that the pilots use. If I passed, I’d get to tag along with employees picking up a fresh-off-the-assembly-line Airbus 318 at the plant in Germany, and ride in the cockpit as they flew it home.
It’s an early-spring day near Denver International Airport. Tim Cavender, head of flight training for the airline, leads me to a hangar full of space capsules propped up on fat hydraulic legs. These are “black-box simulators,” I’m told. All of the details inside _ every knob, every switch _ are actual parts used in the cockpit of an Airbus A320 jet.
I get a choice: I can pick the airport, any airport, to be programmed in for simulated takeoff. And I can pick the weather I will fly in, and the time of day. New York’s LaGuardia at dusk is what I want, and here’s the terminal, in high-definition color, right in front of me.
What is that? It’s a simulated ground crew waving cones. Time to pull back from the gate.
In seconds I’m taxiing, trying to get used to the “stick” we pilots steer with. It is super-sensitive, and I have to work it using only my left hand. We’re wobbling, lurching; I run one wheel of the plane into a directional sign. Now I’m taxiing the A320 through an unauthorized grassy median ringed by lights. A warning siren howls.
Just as the simulated control tower clears me for takeoff, flakes of snow appear. Seems the weather in here can go downhill fast. We see a fork of TV lightning, and stereo thunder blasts vibrate my seat.
The flakes have mushroomed into a blizzard and I look to Tim for guidance. He points to the engine levers, so, reluctantly, I push them back. I’m supposed to control the plane with pedals that work the rudder, but the Airbus is acting drunk.
We reach “decision” speed (at which there’s not enough runway left to stop), and this is the second that Tim tells me that our number-two engine is out.
“What should I do?” I shout.
“Take off,” he says blandly.
Despite the wobbling, the sense of dragging, the Airbus lifts off the tarmac smoothly _ as if both engines were fine. Somehow we’re up here, sailing into simulated New York City sky.
Now, I’m ready _ ready for the real thing.
I pack my bags and go to Germany, home of one of the two big plants where Airbuses are built. The morning of our delivery flight home is drizzly and cold. Along with the Frontier Airlines crew, I get up in the dark and ride a bus to the Finkenwerder airfield, where we’ll meet our plane.
Frontier jets have pictures of forest animals on their tails: I’m looking and looking, and suddenly out of the mist pops a giant spotted owl. It’s our brand-new 114-passenger A-318. The airline will use it on its Denver-Dallas routes. But first we’ve got to fly it over the Atlantic, then, after a fuel stop in Maine, deliver it to headquarters, in Colorado.
The new plane has a new-car smell. There’s a clear-plastic runner over the carpeting, and a package containing a yellow rubber raft takes up most of Row 12. No seat assignments _ we can sit wherever we want.
Our cockpit crew is led by Capt. Andy Vita, but a less senior officer, Larry Lutz, will do much of the flying. First Officer Pat Nolta combs the cabin to make sure that our bags are stowed.
“Anyone want to ride in the cockpit?” he asks.
My hand shoots sky high.
In seconds, I’m on a jumpseat, strapped in right behind Lutz, who will pilot the 318 on takeoff.
Like a Gemini space capsule there are rows of blinking switches and buttons spread out on the ceiling and in the gap between Lutz and Vita. This is a 318, instead of the longer-range A320, but I feel at home. The simulator I trained on was a perfect copy _ it got everything right.
Even the cockpit seats have sensitive controls to buzz them up and down. A total of five belts pin back my shoulders, pull at my waist, and chafe between my legs. A toddler in a car seat has more space to squirm.
Time for the safety briefing. Part of the talk gives tips in case Lutz and Vita “become stiff and motionless.”
I’m shown a rope. What for? “In case of window escape,” says Nolta.
“You’ll need it to rappel down the side of the plane.”
Over here is the handy cockpit ax: I can use it to smash out in an emergency. And way down here is an escape hatch I can kick out at the bottom of the fortified cockpit door.
Just how fortified is it? I press on it and punch it, and though it feels resilient, I can’t be sure.
Nolta reads my mind.
“It’s Kevlar,” he says, “the stuff that bullet-proof vests are made of.”
He points to the door’s three deadbolt locks and lets me shoot them into place. It’s not someone breaking in that troubles me; it’s me breaking out. I inspect the ax.
In a matter of minutes we’re on the runway and Lutz and Vita are at work.
Lutz snaps on engine anti-icing, just in case. There’s still a wintry drizzle, with floating blobs of fog.
I don’t say anything, but here we are, seconds from takeoff, and both pilots have left their tray tables down.
The cockpit window shows us only fog and the tarmac’s center line scrolling faster and faster. Jet thrust up here feels different from how it feels to passengers: The ride is bouncier and there’s a sense of swaying, a slip to the side as we build up speed.
The whine of the 318 becomes a scream, and just like that our nose is up. There’s no sense of delay, as in the back. We’re the cone of the missile, the tip of the rocket.
We’re riding on the backs of bloated clouds that buck us and drop us until it feels as if we’re going to lose the fight.
Lutz is pushing us up and parts of the sky don’t want this, but we’re working to grab hold.
Something ahead looks dark. I’m about to ask what it is when we’re hit with the blast.
It is a detonation of blue.
I’ve never seen the sky before, I think. I’ve only imagined it. “Welcome,” says Vita. “We are here.”
(Peter Mandel writes books for children, including “Planes at the Airport,” Scholastic, 2005.)