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For Pilots, Most Landings Are 'Routine' Procedure

Jul 7, 2013
Originally published on July 9, 2013 11:37 am

Two Chinese teenagers were killed and dozens of other passengers were injured when an Asiana Airlines Boeing 777's tail snapped off and the plane struck the ground just short of the runway on Saturday. Dramatic landings like this are ones commercial pilots hope to never encounter as they guide the hundreds of planes safely to the ground each day.

Pilot Patrick Smith, the author of Cockpit Confidential, tells Rebecca Sheir, host of weekends on All Things Considered, that landings aren't nearly as exciting as they are for passengers or those watching from the ground.

"It's not something we take for granted, but at the same time it's something we are trained for and that we do all the time," Smith says. "It does become routine to a point. The idea that every landing is this huge dramatic event wouldn't be healthy from a pilot's perspective."

Smith has landed at San Francisco airport, the scene of Saturday's crash, several times. He says it's a more work-intensive environment than at some other airports, but it's something pilots deal with all the time. He says that like in any profession, some tasks demand more than others.

The Boeing 777 had begun its trip in Shanghai, China, adding more passengers in South Korea before flying to the U.S. Smith says though that it is shorter, domestic routes that are more exhausting for pilots.

"The reason there is because you're flying more legs, every day ... in and out of some of the busiest airports," he says. "It's more stressful [and] more fatiguing."

The investigation into the exact cause of Saturday's crash is ongoing.

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As we just heard from NPR's Laura Sydell, government agencies have reported that two of the systems that assist pilots with landing were down at San Francisco International Airport.

Joining us now is a pilot who has flown into that airport many times. Patrick Smith has been a pilot for more than two decades and has flown similar aircrafts, Boeing 757s and 767s. He's author of the book "Cockpit Confidential." Patrick Smith, welcome to the program.

PATRICK SMITH: Thanks for having me.

SHEIR: In general, when you're flying one of these massive jets, one of these passenger airliners, what is it like just landing? What is going through your head as you are getting that plane ready to get back on the ground?

SMITH: I think from a passenger's point of view, watching one of these huge machines come into land, there's a certain excitement to it. I mean, all of that weight, all of that machinery, you know, being guided onto a runway. But for pilots, you know, it's not something we take for granted, but at the same time it's something that we're trained to do and that we do all the time. It does become routine to a point. The idea that every landing would be this huge dramatic event, I think, wouldn't be healthy from a pilot's perspective.

SHEIR: Can you talk more about your personal experiences flying into San Francisco International?

SMITH: I've landed in San Francisco many times. It's a more work intensive environment than at some other airports, but it's something we deal with all the time. The same as it is in any line of work, in any profession, where some tasks demand more of you than others.

SHEIR: So, Patrick Smith, you fly long-haul routes across the world all the time. And I'm curious, on long international flights, I understand autopilot may be engaged for much of the time. So tell us how that works. What's going on in the cockpit when autopilot is on?

SMITH: The airplane is not flying itself. The crew is flying the plane through the automation. So you still need to tell the automation what to do, when to do, how to do it. So there's lots of button-pushing and dialing. You know, the idea that an airplane can fly itself from one city to another is a bit like saying an operating room - a high tech-equipped operating room can perform an operation by itself. That simply doesn't happen. And people, I think, would be amazed at just how busy a cockpit can become to the point where both pilots are task saturated, even with the automation on.

SHEIR: Now, Patrick, when you're in a cockpit for extended periods of time, as you often are, how much does fatigue come into play?

SMITH: You know, I've flown short-haul commuter routes, regional routes, mainline domestic U.S. routes and long-haul international. And to me, the most fatiguing flying is the shorter haul domestic stuff. And the reason there is because you're flying more legs every day, up and down, in and out of some of the busiest airports. It's more stressful, more fatiguing.

Where on long-haul routes, flights carry augmented crews. A flight of 12 hours or more will usually have two sets of pilots that work in shifts. So one set is resting and the other set is flying. And then you switch positions. It's just a more, I think, civilized and easier-paced environment.

SHEIR: So it's like a bunch of small sprints as opposed to one long marathon.

SMITH: That's a good way to put it, yeah.

SHEIR: Airline pilot Patrick Smith is author of the book "Cockpit Confidential." He also writes the Air Travel blog at Patrick, thank you so much for joining us today.

SMITH: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.