Friday, November 27, 2009

My Tribe

A legendary writer of aviation literature, and a passionate purveyor of truth, once wrote: 

"Airline pilots are separated into tribes in spite of their common occupation....United pilots are considered colorless and sticklers for regulation. American pilots are thought to be a mixed lot, prone to independent complaint and rebellion. TWA pilots, highly regarded individually, are pitied for the chameleon management of their company. Pan Am pilots, admired and envied for their long-range flying, are thought to be shy and backward in foul-weather work. The tribes are each healthy and strong in their way, but their characteristics, conditioned by their aerial territories, are as different as the Sioux, the Navajos, and the Cherokees. All this is recognized as debatable. Yet the legends had to start somehow." 

The writer, whose identity I'll leave you to guess, regarded the airline pilot "tribes" as noble ones, worthy of esteem and honor, but prone to fickleness and eccentricity. I suppose you could say the same about other persuasions. When I joined my tribe I was stunned by the wide spectrum of behavior and personal conduct of the group, as compared to my military experience. But to be fair, most of them were in the middle of the spectrum—respectable, hard-working, caring people. I was proud to be in their midst. I'm not so sure now.

We're not wearing our hats any more. I'll grant you, it seems trivial at first thought. But we have shed the one physical item that sets us apart and above. Cynics will say, “We don't need hats. Hats don't have anything to do with flying.” True, but the headgear means much to the projection of professionalism among those who trust their lives to us.

Here's what happened. Our union, in preparation to entering a long and contentious period of contract negotiations with a stubborn management, decided that we would show our solidarity by collectively shedding our hats, and then re-donning them at the union's direction. They created a nifty little graphic on the website to tell us what we were supposed to be doing.

The problem with this “solidarity” scheme was that management laughed at it and made a clever counter-move. They put out a new regulation saying the wearing of hats was now optional. That torqued-off a lot of pilots who thought shedding the hats was an act of teaching management a severe lesson about how unified we were. They turned their wrath on their brethren who thought that hat-wearing was a projection of their professionalism, and in particular, a demonstration of the highly exalted concept of “captain's authority.”

Soon, those who wore their hats became the targets of ridicule and slander, sometimes right in front of the passengers. Tensions grew. The pilot group split over the very thing that was supposed to unite them. Then, an incident occurred that made newspapers and broadcasts across the nation. A hatless first officer shouted vulgarities at a hatted captain in a gate room crowded with passengers. His heated tirade included the threat to use a baseball bat on the captain.

The captain became irate and shivered with indignation. The captain's first officer (not the guy who initiated the clash) wisely concluded that the flight could not be safely completed with his emotionally upset captain. He called the operations manager and explained his concerns. The flight was canceled. The incident hit the news.

All bad enough, but it got worse. The guy verbally assaulted a second hatted captain the same day, threatening to use a lead pipe on him. This threat landed the offender before a board-of-inquiry. The captain who was threatened—a friend of mine named Tim—testified on behalf of the company. Who do you think the union backed? Yup.

It's appropriate that the union represented the reprobate pilot, but rather than question Tim about what he said and heard, the lawyer tried to cast Tim as a company man who wanted to use the incident to work his way up into a management position. Thankfully, the miscreant lost and was fired. But Tim, long time a union supporter and consummate professional instructor pilot who wanted nothing more than to train the world's best pilots, felt betrayed by his own kind. He had dreamed of being a part of this tribe of pilots since he was a kid. Now he's dejected.

The hat switch is still off, and the union leadership—in the midst of critical contract negotiations with the company—is bickering and backbiting among itself, appearing more like a soap opera than a professional association. The company is laughing harder than ever at our ineptitude. It didn't used to be this way. Our union leadership were once adults.

The other day I saw Tim wearing his hat in the concourse. He looked confident and professional. He grinned when he saw me wearing mine. We walked side-by-side down the concourse passing legions of unhatted pilots. None of them made a remark. The passengers saw us. They paid no heed to the others.

The writer of those sagacious words at the beginning of this post would reel with disgust if he knew what was going on in his tribes. But then again, maybe he wouldn't. I think he understood our ilk.

If the union strikes, I'll strike. I'm no scab. But in the meantime, I'll just do my job and be professional, taking care of my passengers. This man would tip his hat at that.
Who is he?


Capt. Schmoe said...

At first I was thinking Bert Stiles, however I should have known it is another on of my favorite pilot - authors Ernest Gann

Bob said...

"Now it is important for Hughen to remember that Eastern Airlines pilots are singularly determined and clever. They are not given to
timidity, and if the (Eastern) pilot now beneath us has refused to continue his approach, then the conditions must be very unpleasant

Hughen, newly concerned with our fuel reserve, takes less than a minute to join all the factors together and reach a decision. “We are proceeding to our alternate...”.

Alan Cockrell said...

Yo, Bob. Okay man, you are a Gann fan extraordinaire. Welcome to the club. I read your profile. Get off your duff and read "Atlas Shrugged." That'll put you in another exclusive club.

Flying Kites Mom said...

Having only recently devoured Fate Is The Hunter my immediate thought was Earnest Gann. Books are expensive to obtain where I live but I've put his other works on my wish list! Thanks as always for your most interesting posts. Bon voyage. Leslie S-P

Brent said...

Hope you always wear your hat. How can anyone say the way a Captain conducts himself and appears in public has nothing to do with flying? Doesn't experience and airmanship go beyond the flight deck.

Just ordered "Atlas Shrugged".

Anonymous said...

I'm staying anonymous as a "hat wearer" and a junior f/o who was taken to task on a recent 3 day by the captain for wearing my hat, but I look forward to the day when I'm flying with more Captains (with a capital "C") like you.

Daniel said...

Unions that behave in this manner sicken me, and sadly when it comes down to it, most of them do.

A real shame - they really could be a force for good, but alas I'm too young to remember when they were.

Alan Cockrell said...

I appreciate all you guy's and gal's comments. The union does some great things, specifically safety initiatives that benefit everybody, but union politics sickens me as much as corporate greed does. We've got them both in abundance at my company.

jskyking said...

When I come to work, I just want to be recognized when I come down the jetway as the pilot, people kindly move aside and sometimes even strike up friendly banter. In addition, when I am standing outside the terminal wearing my hat,awaiting the crewbus, people dont get me confused for a skycap. Lastly after an evac and I am at the bottom of the slide, good money says that people will look to the person with the cap on for leadership.
There is one thing that distinguishes us pilots from Flight attendants, sky caps, and cabin cleaners.....the hat.
So, to the non-hat wearing pilot, flip the switch whatever way you want, if you think that switch position is aligned with strike position and unity, you may not be as wise and mature as your age reflects.

Anonymous said...

Hmm, so a good union pilot can go against his union's solidarity request and still feel proud about it? It's no suprise that airline pilots are in such a bad way with contract negotiations. Our longshoreman's union may not wear fancy hats, but we stick together to the death, AND we get what we ask for as a cohesive force when it comes to contract negotiations. Best of luck with your next one...
I enjoy your blog, keep up the good work.

Rand Peck said...

We went through this "hat" dilemma at my airline as well, but fortunately never reached this level of acrimony. There were simply two groups; those who did and those who didn't. The company jumped in and disarmed the dissenters by simply removing the requirement to wear a cover. I was ambivalent and didn't care one way or another and thought that those who thought that they were radicals by not wearing a hat, must lead very nice lives if this was all that they had to complain about. Historically, I understand our hats, proudly worn by our WWII era leaders who came before and built our profession and our image. Personally, I think that the uniform looks incomplete without the cap and lacks professional bearing. But that's my opinion and I don't expect others to necessarily subscribe. But, what I find most interesting are the attitudes. I've yet to see one who wears his cap lecture or deride one who doesn't. On the other hand, I've frequently observed non-cap wearers deride and ridicule one who does. If one chooses not to wear a cap, fine, I understand, but why is it so important for that person to impose his values upon others? In my opinion the non-wearers have simply played into managements hands. If were busy squabbling among ourselves about such trivial matters, management knows that we're not focused on pay, retirement, scope and other items of importance.

To another matter; If you've been moved by Atlas Shrugged, The Fountainhead and We The Living, and Ayn Rand's philosophy of personal responsibility and the individual, try Victor Hugo or Alexandre Dumas, who both shaped her thinking.