It’s bad enough when airline passengers get into a scuffle. But the pilots? That’s what happened in 2009, when two Air India pilots came to blows with their fellow crew members en route from Delhi. According to the Times of India, the argument started before takeoff and escalated as the flight continued, even spilling into the cabin—in full view of the passengers.
The flight landed safely, and the pilots were soon named in newspapers around the world. Why do we love hearing stories about pilots acting badly?
“The traveling public likes to think of its pilots as somewhat superhuman,” says Patrick Smith, “which has never been fair to pilots as people.” A flyboy himself, Smith has written Salon’s “Ask the Pilot” column since 2002. He also hosts the highly informative website of the same name. “Like any professionals, we are liable to make mistakes. Fortunately the vast majority of these mistakes, however inevitable, are minor.”
Also fortunately, these blunders are exceedingly rare. But when they do happen, it’s only natural that they attract attention. And when they don’t result in actual injury, we can safely snicker.
Just ask Pinnacle Airlines pilot Jeffrey Paul Bradford, who was literally caught with his pants down during a layover in Harrisburg, PA. In May 2008, Bradford and a stewardess enjoyed dinner and drinks at a local diner, then decided on a romp in the nearby woods. It didn’t end well. Wearing nothing but flip-flops and his wristwatch, Bradford was picked up for disorderly conduct, among other things.
But there’s no dumber pilot than the one who reports for work intoxicated. In November 2009, United Airlines pilot Erwin Washington was seen “acting strangely” while preparing to take Flight 949 from Heathrow to Chicago. After crew members alerted the tower, cops prevented the takeoff. Washington failed a breath test and was subsequently fined and given a 10-month suspended sentence.
Still, similar incidents are few and far between, and of course we also have hero pilots, like Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, who successfully landed US Airways Flight 1549 in the Hudson River after his engines failed.
The bottom line? “We’re living through the safest ever stretch in aviation history,” says Smith. Consider the numbers. According to the Federal Aviation Administration, American airspace hosted more than 22 million commercial flights in 2009—that’s 60,000 each day—with more than 135,000 pilots at the stick. So while there may be pilots behaving badly, they’re in the minority.