Thursday, January 16, 2014

Pigs with Four Stripes

Forgive me if I've taken a cynical turn with this post, but it's my blog and I feel like being cynical today.

It began with my stroll. I often have a lot of time to kill around this gargantuan airport and so I took a long walk down in the old underground train tunnel which spans the length of all the concourses. Silent little trams creep through it with only one or two riders on them. They go at a veritable snail's pace, jerking around the jinks and curves like a carnival ride, all of which has earned them the moniker, “The Disney Train.” When it was built it was the stuff of awe-inspiring state-of-the art airport improvement. But that was back before the TSA and screening, and before everybody got in such a damned hurry. Now a newer, faster, elevated tram serves all the terminals and doesn't require you to leave the “secure” area. But for me the old tram tunnel is a good place to take a stretch in relative solitude.

I like to walk the length of the tunnel and surface in the western-most terminal where a little Tex-Mex lunch counter serves savory burritos. As I waited in line I watched a captain ahead of me talking with the staccato rapidity of a machine gun into a device protruding from his ear, loud enough for me to hear from 20 feet away. Judging from the few words I picked out I was not in the least interested in his business, which was apparently, business. I think the guy had a side enterprise of some sort and was issuing orders to his underlings. He stood in front of the serving line ducking, weaving and gesticulating. I figured he was trying to get better views through a glass shield of the various trays of side dishes from which to choose.

Meanwhile an attractive, stately young woman stood behind him waiting her turn, and the contrast between the two struck me in a sorrowful way. She was a good half-foot taller than the chubby little captain. Not to disparage height-challenged people, it was the way he dressed and conducted himself that irritated me. He was a corpulent humpty dumpty wearing a uniform cut several sizes too large. His hat, far too big, rested on his ears, and he wore it comically tipped back far on his head, like Col. Hogan in Hogan’s Heroes.

In bygone times the young woman might have taken convivial notice of a trim pilot standing near her, clothed not only in a neatly cut uniform but in a quiet, confident demeanor as well. But to her, Captain Humpty was nothing more than an annoying obstacle standing between her and her lunch. He most certainly commanded no sway of esteem with her, yet she may have soon been placing her life in his portly hands. I’m sure if that notion occurred to her she resisted it with a shudder and purged it from her mind.

The server, barely able to understand a few words of English, was as confused as I was. Was Humpty talking to her or the person in his little ear piece? Poor woman. She finally got his plate prepared to his satisfaction and he wobbled away to a table, his lips still clapping like a reed in a clarinet, words jetting that might as well have been gibberish for all I could tell and cared.

I collected my burrito and surveyed the dining area for a table as far away from Captain Humpty as possible, unsuspecting that my disgust with him was about to be trumped by an even more repugnant sight.

Just as I sat down another pilot came into view at the table in front of me. He made Humpty look like fitness trainer. This man, in perhaps his early thirties, weighed at least 325 pounds. He wore neither hat nor coat. His rumpled shirt bore the four stripes of a captain and his wings told me that he flew for the regionals. This man's belly—I'm not exaggerating—spilled out over his belt and clung half way to his crotch, like icing melting off of a tilting wedding cake. The grotesque bulge dangled as if threatening to break off and slam to the floor.
He eagerly tore into his lunch, bantering between gulps with his mostly silent first officer, who had pushed his chair far back from the table in what I figured was symbolic act of distancing himself. This man was bound for the cockpit of a 50 seat regional jet. How he would squeeze into it, I cannot imagine. The nose up trim required of that plane must be near the limit.

I forced down my burrito only by averting my eyes from that ticking myocardial infarction. I didn’t feel as though I belonged here anymore. I belong in the past. I am among the last of the old guard.

 What would these men think of the two imposters I saw?

Captain Hamilton "Ham" Lee
United Airlines


Mike "Pops" Murphy said...

Excellently written, as usual! The title is an instant classic. I can relate to the "last of the old guard".

Is that pic of Ham the one that used to be in your company cafeteria? You found it?!

Alan Cockrell said...

Yes. That is the picture that hung in the cafeteria at the training center for years. I would never sit with my back to it on check ride day.

Dave W said...

"The nose up trim required of that plane must be near the limit." Absolutely hilarious! Loved it

Anonymous said...

Yep, its coming. First , the Feds tried to impose a back-door thru the sleep apnea portal for birdmen with 17+" necks.......No science to back that up, plus it wasnt convered by obamacare.........Round 2, Physical Readiness Tests. Run 1.5, 80 pushups in 2 min, 100 situps in two min. You fail =No fly..... Ooh Rah!
Wait....what am I thinking. I complete embrace the idea of a crappy diet, no PT, and a trip to every buffet trough in Birmingham. Never mind the buritto, get two with xtra guac. I've just discovered a way to expedite the path to the left seat. On to the uniform- like my little league coach once said, you play like you dress......nuff said. It's embarrasing. J-Bird out.

Anonymous said...

You're a class act, Captain. I couldn't agree more about keeping up a good appearance. I take pride in looking sharp and professional in uniform. It's not just the regionals who have the monopoly on sloppy pilots. We have our fair share too.

I'm ex-military, so I never minded the hat and coat if that's what the company wants me to wear. I never get how some people will do anything they can to avoid the uniform...I think they knew we wear uniforms when they applied for the job.

I like the countdown clock idea, but I'm only 46 and I think it would just depress me to see how much longer I have.

Anonymous said...

I've been thinking about this for a couple of days. I agree that the pigs with stripes often display a public image contrary to what the company would prefer. (Watching them eat is not a pleasant experience!) That said, during their working hours I am far more interested in their brains and airmanship than in their physical appearance. If the pigs fly safely, every time, I'd even overlook some modest nose picking.

Alan Cockrell said...

Cedar Glen: We'll said.

K1MGY said...

Perhaps this will be an encouraging contrast:

On a E190 flight with Jet Blue earlier this week we sat adjacent to a deadheading Captain. He was trim, well appointed, and conducted his affairs professionally, clearly reducing himself to ordinary passenger in his dealings with the cabin crew. He could have been a cocky blowhard. Turns out his training came by way of the military, and the requisite stripes earned through life, and so his attitude of gratitude and service was everywhere in his bearing.

My son, sitting next to me, marvels at the technology of flight as do I, and therefore he received my usual pre-flight on where to go and what to do in an EVAC, plus the narration "the crew is now setting the flaps in take-off position".

Hearing this nearby, the deadheading Captain, out of the blue, handed me his EFB in order that we could see our position on the taxiway. These electronic charts are not yet certified for use up front, but crews have been trained and issued these for reference.

His generosity was overdone when we were allowed to view the flight progress: "A pilot always likes to share his toys with others".

Well, not every pilot.

Departing, he looked my boy in the eyes, "The airlines are looking for pilots. If you'd like to have this career, aim for it! Your dad will help you".

The deal may have been cinched. Departing for school this morning my 11 year old said, "Seat belts secure and crosschecked".

It is unfortunate that a walk through the concourse is no better than a walk through the shopping mall. What's important is how you carry yourself and I am of the impression having read your blog for years that you may be counted among the ranks of our seat-mate.

The meaning of your career may be realized in but a word and a moment in time. Savour it while you can.


Final Approach said...


As always, I enjoyed your post and it brought back a few memories for me. My dad flew for an airline you may be familiar with..... ;>)

On thing that always stuck out to me as my dad got ready for work was my mom ironing his shirts and laying out his uniform on the bed. There was a lot of care taken to make sure my dad looked the part :>) A couple of things that stuck out to me and are still very vivid was my dad was proud to wear the uniform and my mom was always working hard in the background helping him look his best. I will send a couple of pics via email......

Looking forward to your next post.


Rodney Anderton
Pocatello, Idaho

Anonymous said...


Sir, wonderful post and I don't think there's any cynicism if what is posted are accurate observations. Which yours are. I travel at least once a month and while I enjoy people watching at airports as much as the next person, I am pleased when a flight crew (CA/FO/FAs) look the part just as I am dismayed when they don't. And I admire your patience and tolerance for such beings in not opening your mouth...I may not be so good the next time I see a slob with 4 strips slogging down nachos chased by a cup of gravy. We don't need a Mr Universe or Ms World driving the bus but for goodness' sake I think there should be SOME sort of height/weight standard. Maybe the next amendment to crew rest rules will mandate some PT...let's see how that goes!?

Alan Cockrell said...

To Rodney in Pocatello: Loved the pic of your dad in a DC-3.
To Anonymous: Amen to all.

Anonymous said...

Captain Cockrell,

I've been a long time reader of your blog and have often thought I would enjoy swinging the gear for you during a 3-day trip. But, after reading your latest blog post I think I would probably find a 3-day with you to be a very long three days.

If you think that watching a fat pilot walking through the terminal or eating is gross I would consider you a bigot. You are characterizing an individual who weighs more than "normal" (whatever that is) — with disgust and intolerance. How would you feel about me if I made disparaging about black pilots or women pilots. We both know the reputation your airline garnered due to past equal opportunity hiring.

I've flown with skinny military and civilian pilots who smoked, drank and ate fatty foods. Likewise, I have also flown with fat pilots who ate pretty healthy during their the trip, didn't drink and would regularly go for a stroll during their long "Airport Appreciation Breaks." As fellow airline aviators they have passed the same interview processes we have passed and they continue to pass recurrent training and check rides.

Here's the point I want to make... You cannot look at someone and make a judgment about his or her health, personal habits or aeronautical prowess.

And really: Even if you do know why someone is thin or fat, what business is it of yours? None. If a fat pilot disgusts you, know this: Your intolerance says way more about you than about those who repel you. When you are judging someone by their weight and not their moral compass, intelligence, empathy, creativity, talent or sense of humor, what kind of person are you? If you see two pilots waiting for the hotel van — one fat and one thin — and the fat pilot disgusts you, what happens when you find out that the fat one is a loving father of three and the thin one was a former Air Force Reserve pilot who is now sitting in prison for collecting and disseminating child pornography?

Again: You cannot judge someone based on appearance. That said, you can certainly read someone's words and tell if they are ignorant, biased and hateful.

Enjoy your retirement, you've earned it!

Bradley Smith said...

You absolutely can judge someone from their appearance. Just because you are heavy you don't have to be a slob. Your business is highly competitive and appearances of company personnel are a reflection on the company as well as themselves personally. I wouldn't feel comfortable flying with a morbidly obese pilot. That weight affects their heart.
I remain a non anonymous reader,