Being an airline passenger is like jetting back to childhood. You're only told 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 any are there. And, sure, you've read that the cockpit door is "fortified." But if you tap on one to see for yourself, look out.
The list of day-to-day airplane mysteries is getting longer. As travelers 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 to land on a dime. Objects that are stuffed to the gills with passengers, pets in kennels, bottled drinks -- not to mention truckloads of explosive fuel.
I wondered if, despite air-tight 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 get lucky. Denver-based Frontier Airlines agrees to let me train with one of their pilots on a cockpit-and-flight simulator that the pilots themselves use. If I pass, I'll get to tag along with employees who are picking up a fresh-off-the-assembly-line Airbus 318 at the plant in Germany and ride in the cockpit while they are flying it home.
It is an early spring day near Denver International Airport. Tim Cavender, head of flight training for the airline, leads me to a hanger full of space capsules propped up on fat hydraulic legs. These are "black box simulators," I am 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. 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 is 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 am 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 are wobbling, lurching: I run one wheel of the plane into a directional sign. Now I am taxiing the A320 through an unauthorized grassy median that is ringed by lights. A warning siren howls.
Just as the simulated control tower clears me for takeoff, there are flakes of snow. Seems like the weather in here can go downhill fast. We see a fork of TV lightning and stereo thunder blasts that 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 am supposed to control the plane with foot pedals that work the rudder, but the Airbus is acting drunk. We reach 'decision' speed (where there is not enough runway left to stop) and this is the second that Cavender tells me that our number two engine is out.
"What should I do?" I shout. "Take off," says Cavender blandly. Despite the wobbling, the sense of dragging, the Airbus is lifting off the tarmac as if the day were cloudless. As if both engines were fine. Somehow we are up there, sailing into simulated New York City sky.
Now I am ready. Ready for the real thing. I pack my bags for 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 crew, I get up in the dark and ride a bus to Finkenwerder Airfield where we will meet our plane.
Frontier jets have pictures of forest animals on their tails: I am looking and looking and suddenly out of the mist pops a giant spotted owl. It is our brand-new 114-passenger A318. The airline will use it on its Denver to Dallas routes. But first we've got to fly it over the Atlantic, and after a stop for fuel 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 Captain 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 our bags are stowed. "Anyone want to ride in the cockpit?" he asks. My hand shoots sky high.
In seconds, I am on a jump-seat, 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 in 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 in-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 am 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 axe: 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 axe.
In a matter of minutes we are out on the runway and Lutz and Vita are at work. "Engines." "Check." "Flight instruments." "Check." "Flaps." "Check." Lutz snaps on engine anti-icing just in case: there's still a wintry drizzle and floating blobs of fog. I do not say anything, but here we are, seconds from takeoff, and both of the 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 than for passengers: the ride is bouncier and there is 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 delay like in the back, no sense of tardiness to fly. We are the cone of the missile, the tip of the rocket.
We are riding on the backs of bloated clouds that buck us and drop us until it feels like we are going to lose the fight. Larry is pushing us up and parts of the sky don't want this but we are working to grab hold. Something ahead looks dark and I am about to ask what it is when we are hit with the blast.
It is a detonation of blue.
I've never seen the sky before, I think. I've only imagined.
"Welcome," says Vita. "We are here."