Saturday, October 31, 2009

Life Imitating Art?

A couple of years ago, I wrote a novella called Check Ride , about two gay airline pilots who become lovers. In my (fictional) story, airmen Mario Freeman and Gill Savage discover their mutual attraction towards each other while flying their big 727 jet. I made it as realistic as I could, drawing on my days working at and around JFK Airport years ago. The book made the bestseller list, got excellent reviews, and even gained currency among LGBT airline professionals. I had a lot of fun writing it, and I was happy that it was even popular with the airline crowd. I thought it was a sweet little gay-lit story about two pilots who fall in love. I gave it little thought beyond my usual need to promote the book, until a week and a half ago. That's when the crew of Northwest Flight 188 from San Diego to Minneapolis, somehow overshot their destination by 150 miles. As frantic air traffic controllers and the company's dispatchers tried to contact the wayward plane, not a peep was heard from Captain Timothy Cheney and First Officer Richard Cole.

Since the first reports of this incident made the news, I have been bombarded with e-mails, phone calls, and text messages about the story. Then the two pilots changed their explanation for the error, first saying they "Lost track of time" while arguing over company policy, but later revised their statement to allude to using their laptops to surf the Web in the cockpit. That's when people started making some kind of connection (coincidental, I'm sure) between Check Ride and what was really going on aboard that plane. I was asked over and over again whether I thought this might be a case of two closeted fliers joining the Mile High Club. A person joins the "Mile High Club" when they have sex aboard an airplane flying above 5,280 feet. Did these two wayward pilots try to become members of this exclusive club?

Looking over Internet coverage of this incident, it seems the idea that the pilots were having sex on the flight deck has occurred to more than a few people. In the past wek or so, too many people have suggested the pilots read my book and decided to re-enact its plot on a real plane! This includes several airline personnel (who shall remain nameless) who are familiar with both my book and the Flight 188 incident. On closer examination, the circumstantial evidence is pretty damning for the pilots. Several elements in their story set off bells in my head like a cockpit stall warning alarm.

Usually, when airline pilots are called to account for errors or incidents that happen while flying, their first instinct is to shut their mouths until a rep from the Air Line Pilots' Association (ALPA) arrives to give them advice and counsel. Pilots under investigation do not ordinarily admit to the press their gross deviations from airline and FAA rules. Yet, in this case, both pilots almost immediately started bleating to the media, the FAA and the Minneapolis Airport Police that they were arguing, or surfing the Web, both forbidden activities for aircrew during flight. There is no way that making these statements would bode well for these men, either personally or professionally. I can only imagine their ALPA union rep and the airline's legal department must have been flipping out at these pilots' loose talk.

Given the obvious severe consequences of such admissions, I can only surmise both pilots were covering an even "worse" truth about what happened in that jetliner. The plane they were flying, by the way, was a thoroughly modern Airbus A320, which is equipped with satellite GPS links, computerized "flight management systems", and "glass cockpit" software. The plane literally "knows" where it is with relation to the flight plan, and its position over the ground. Because the actual flight plan is entered into the plane's computer, the cockpit should have been blasted by shrill alarms as soon as the plane overshot the airport. In addition to this, the air-traffic controllers were screaming for Flight 188 over the radio for over an hour. If, indeed the pilots were having sex, it must have been amazing, incredible, through-the-cockpit-roof action, because they would have had to totally ignore the hooting alarms, radio chatter, and warning tones from every navigation system on the aircraft.

Yet, there it is. Like many who told me this was the most plausible explanation for the whole thing, I am drawn to conclude that the pilots are willing to face the severe discipline of the FAA and Northwest Airlines to protect an even more explosive secret. The FAA, in issuing its "emergency revocation" of the pilots' licenses, used the passage "NW 188 was without communication with any air traffic control facility and with its company dispatcher for a period of 91 minutes while you were on a frolic of your own", (emphasis mine) in a scathing nastygram sent to the airmen. In using a loaded term like "frolic" to describe the pilots' actions, is the FAA hinting at sex? As we learn more about this incident, it seems certain that the truth, however colorful, will eventually come out. In the meantime, my response to media queries about any possible connection between Northwest Flight 188 and Check Ride is "any inspiration these pilots may have had to recreate scenes or activities from my book [if this is, in fact, what transpired], are solely products of the pilots own imaginations." I thank God the plane landed safely, and this episode will just go down as perhaps an especially vivid example of life imitating art. Now excuse me, while I catch an Airtrain out to JFK to see if any copies of Check Ride are floating around the pilots' briefing room...

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