The sun was not yet up when Cameron Forsythe and Patrick McKee left their hotel in Charleston, S.C., rode a mini-van to the airport and stepped into the cockpit of United Airlines Jet No. 9611.
Eleven hours and six landings later, Forsythe and McKee were headed into Dulles Airport in a driving rain storm, at rush hour, the end of a typical day. There were no glitches, like the ones that plagued Delta pilots last summer. No troubles of the kind that led to the crash of a Northwest jet in Detroit in August.
"Gear, down. Speed brakes, set. Flaps, set," the pilots called out as they prepare to land. The air traffic controller directing their flight was so busy that he neglected to call out approach instructions to the three planes directly in front of theirs. But even that is typical these days.
"Typical" to the pilots working one of United's milk runs means longer hours, with as many as seven takeoffs and landings in a single day. It also means a constant struggle to keep up with the schedule, almost continuous conversation with controllers and attention to smallest details to keep from succumbing to the tedium of routine.
The spotlight is on pilots now. The Federal Aviation Administration put it there. The Detroit crash put it there. Delta's gaffes this year put it there, and McKee and Forsythe, along with the country's 50,000 commercial airline pilots, are acutely aware of this fact. In the first two weeks after Detroit, Forsythe says, passengers would lean through into the cockpit and say things like, "Remember the checklist" and "Don't forget the flaps."
Forsythe concedes that by the fifth landing, he is starting to get a little tired, and McKee says that occasionally he finds himself doing the checklist two or three times towards the end of the day because he loses track of where he is.
"I used to really enjoy this job," says Forsythe, who has flown for 30 years, the last five as a captain on Boeing 737 jets. "You can never relax anymore, not even in controlled airspace above 18,000 feet, not when you're suddenly asked to turn right."
The skies are more congested now. Fewer air traffic controllers, with less experience, oversee more airplanes. Pilots are working longer, with fewer extras: airline-operated weather departments are gone, repair stations are consolidated and their number reduced. Airline mergers have meant that crews have to switch to cockpits with different instrument configurations.
United pilots fly about 83 hours a month, not counting time spent in airports, waiting out delays, and duty time on the ground. Forsythe and McKee fly two- and three-day assignments, flying up and down through the busiest air traffic zones in the country on short, 40-minute flights.
Before each takeoff, they check the weather, calculate the fuel, talk to the mechanics and run through 29 items on two preflight checklists.
Then they queue up at the end of the runway.
Quite often, they get behind small planes, which, with their increasing numbers, have come to represent a greater irritant to commercial pilots. This time, it's a Beechcraft.
"That little plane is owned by doctors and lawyers," Forsythe says. "They fly just often enough to be a little dangerous."
The air traffic control system, conceived 50 years ago, was designed to assist planes flying under instrument flight rules, like jet No. 9611, not visual flight rules like the small Beechcraft. Sometimes controllers give traffic advisories, warning of planes in the area. But they don't always have time.
As McKee and Forsythe climb and descend through the lower altitudes, where most of the light plane traffic flies, the calls come in on the radio: "Traffic at nine o'clock, altitude unknown." "Traffic at one o'clock, altitude unknown."
The jet with the No. 9611 painted on its fuselage hopscotches from Charleston to Washington to Connecticut and back into the South. The weather worsens on each leg. Clouds and fog move in, obscuring the ground until the last moment before landing. At 250 knots, rain pelts the jet's nose with such force it sounds like a fire hose, and rivulets of water stream across the windshield. Because of the speed, the windshield wipers, noisy like an old engine, aren't turned on until the plane slows to land.
The route to Hartford, Conn., takes Forsythe and McKee across "Sector 19," a high-altitude, narrow zone between Washington and New York that is one of the busiest sections of airspace in the country. The pilots are flying Flight 1400 on this leg and are passed from controller to controller at eight stations along the way.
The radio is never silent: "United 1400, contact New York center on 133.7. United 1400, descend and maintain 250. United 1400, contact Boston. United, maintain 15,000."
"You are under air traffic control from almost liftoff to touchdown," Forsythe says. "Turn here, turn there, slow down, speed up. The controller experience level seems to be the limiting factor in this whole thing. Some days, you wonder if anyone is trained at all."
The pilots say Sector 19, while crowded, seems adequately staffed by senior controllers. The real problems are in places like Indianapolis, Chicago or Los Angeles. McKee says he's flown into Chicago's O'Hare International Airport at times when controllers are calling directions to so many airplanes at once that they don't have time to unkey their microphones to listen to the pilots' response and be certain they heard the instructions right.
"I've heard crews querying them about altitude and speed changes because the controller is too busy controlling traffic," McKee says.
The number of near-collisions reported by pilots has increased by almost 50 percent in the last year, according to government statistics. Much of the increase is attributed to increased publicity about such incidents, which has led to a rise in the number of reports, and many of these near-collisions are not close at all. Still, last spring, in a recommendation to reduce traffic in crowded airspace, the National Transportation Safety Board noted that once a week there is a near-collision involving at least one commercial jetliner which is so close that the collision is avoided only by chance.
When McKee and Forsythe arrive at Raleigh-Durham, N.C., for the first time that day, it is their fourth landing, the runway is slick and wet and they are 17 minutes behind schedule.
"This is when we begin to run into time," Forsythe says. He cuts the scheduled 20-minute stop to eight; he and McKee race through the items on the checklist and head out again.
If there is any glamor left to flying, it rests with pilots who fly to distant and exotic places like Bangkok or Hong Kong. There is no romance in flying to Wilmington, N.C., twice a day.
Gone, too, is pilot mystique. Stripped away with it was that impression that all airline pilots somehow possessed that perfect blend of confidence, bravado and skill known as the Right Stuff. They were people you could trust when you stepped into the back of an airplane.
"Quite often, I'm referred to as the driver," Forsythe says. "They'll come on board; 'Oh, you're the driver,' they'll say. Usually, it's the guy with the Glad Bag luggage who flies the $69 fare. He has a choice between Trailways or United Airlines and he picks us because he doesn't have to pay for a motel on the way."
Now pilots talk about fighting tedium and boredom. Accident statistics show that pilot and crew error contributes to 64 percent of crashes, and 33 percent of those accidents are caused by a crew that failed to properly follow procedures.
After the Detroit crash, FAA Administrator T. Allan McArtor warned pilots in a much-publicized meeting in Kansas City against losing that "razor-sharp edge" and said he's more worried about the fourth landing of the day, the "routine, no-sweat landing."
To the pilots, there is almost something incomprehensible about the possibility that a senior captain on Northwest Airlines, and his copilot, would begin rolling down the runway without, apparently, setting the jet's flaps, the movable panels on the trailing edge of the wings necessary to gain lift.
Yet, at a time when the FAA has taken more than six years to rebuild the controller work force after the 1981 strike, and has fallen behind in acquiring new, updated equipment for control centers and airports, the pilots found it irritating to be publicly admonished by the FAA chief.
"The Kansas City meeting was all wrong," Forsythe says. "You can't grandstand safety."
The pilots say they would like stricter requirements on pilot qualifications before a commercial transport license is granted. They also are pushing for standardized equipment in airplane cockpits, considered to be all the more important with the number of airline mergers. Most important, the pilots say, is pilot training that teaches crews to work better together.
Several airlines, including United, Continental, Eastern, Northwest and Pan Am are now training their pilots in "cockpit resource management," an intensive session Forsythe likens to group therapy in order to learn how to better communicate. Not all airlines have these programs and the FAA is pondering whether to make it a requirement of pilot training.
Would it have made a difference to Delta, which this summer faced a string of embarrassing and potentially dangerous incidents, including a near-collision between a Delta L1011 and a Continental Boeing 747 when the Delta captain and crew strayed off course over the North Atlantic.
"There are no simple answers to this thing," Forsythe says. "You have to remember, flying is not completely safe. Nothing is. You have to depend on the skills of the people in the system. You cannot zero the odds."