Lately, many of my friends are airline pilots. And airline pilots, as everyone knows, are drunks.
These friends aren’t the bad kind of drunk pilot-the sort who fly commercial jets while sauced, knocking down trees with the landing gear while trying to set the plane down on the Tarmac-but the good kind who only drink heavily outside the cockpit. These pilots lead fabulous, enviable lives, traveling everywhere, having great times-such as Viagra parties on chartered Caribbean yachts-and easily consuming a gallon of bourbon a week. They also restored my faith in flying.
For example, I recently took a trip with one of my pilot pals for a short vacation in Puerto Rico. Traveling with pilots has all sorts of advantages. For one, if you happen to look out the window and see part of the wing shear off and plunge to earth, they can assure you that it wasn’t a vital component. They also know all the other pilots, so they can tell you about how the guy flying the plane likes to be blindfolded and whipped, or how the copilot once orally engaged the engine throttle because she imagined she was having an affair with the airplane. Best of all, on this trip my pilot friend fixed things so I could sit with him in first class, where they bring you as much booze as you care to drink. An early morning bloody mary is particularly tasty at 32,000 feet.
On our return from sunny San Juan, we were at a gate next to a Super-80 jet. I fondly call those planes the firecracker jets because they’re so damn loud and take off straight up into the air like toy rockets.
“That’s a sporty plane, isn’t it?” I asked, pointing at the firecracker, its two engines mounted on the rear of the body like giant rat testicles.
“It’s an underpowered, cheap piece of shit,” replied the pilot. “See those fins bolted on under the cockpit? They had to add those because the plane wasn’t stable in the air.”
You might at first think this is the sort of information that nervous flyers don’t want to have. But I was okay with it, mostly because I’d been drinking steadily for the past four hours. More than that, it was comforting to know this guy would fly a Super-80 with no fear at all, even though he didn’t particularly like the plane. And if I ever have to fly on one of those underpowered, cheap pieces of shit again, then I have that much more motivation to drink more before, during and after the flight.
For several years I couldn’t fly at all. I had lost the will to fly, you could say, I’d became so terrified of the whole enterprise that I found it preferable to spend forty hours in a row sober , driving a thousand miles just to be someplace sunny. I had frequent nightmares about flying, of even just being in an airport, and had become so paranoid and deranged I actually thought sitting in coach on Amtrak might be fun .
Flying went sour for me shortly after a rather messy drinking binge at Castle Melnik in the Czech Republic. The red wine came from casks stored in some mildewy dungeon and came in two flavors: extra-dry, which was completely undrinkable, and dry, which was merely bad. I was drinking both, of course, because each glass cost about a quarter in U.S. currency. A friend and I were trying to reenact an episode of Absolutely Fabulous, and which we accomplished with a substantial amount of success. We even managed to make it back to Prague, though I have absolutely no recollection of how.
At the time I was taking medication to combat anxiety and various other imaginary ailments and I wasn’t supposed to be drinking. When I returned to Prague, delirious and temporarily blind in one eye, I stopped by a supermarket to fetch yet another bottle of wine to wash down my pills. My friend went out to explore the local underground and wound up contracting a shiny, bumpy rash, and I took my medicine and spent the rest of the night lying on my hotel bed experiencing the rapture.
Several days later, after taking a train to Vienna, and well into what turned out to be a hangover of epic proportions, I had to fly back to the U.S. I had ever-so-cleverly scheduled a business trip immediately after my vacation, so my flight path went from Vienna to Munich to Newark and then down to New Orleans. The flights were bouncy, we got delayed on the Tarmac in Newark because of a bomb scare, and New Orleans was engulfed in a tropical storm with fantastically menacing clouds. It was somewhere during the flight to New Orleans -on a firecracker jet, mind you – when we hit some oddly bucking, rolling turbulence (perhaps one of those glued-on stabilizers had sheared off), and all my internal organs stopped working simultaneously. It was at that precise moment I decided I would never fly again.
There are lessons to be learned from that experience. First, wine is expensive in Vienna, so never go there as the last stop on a tour. Second, when taking medication that shouldn’t be mixed with alcohol, don’t drink an entire bottle of wine as a nightcap when you need to catch a train early the next morning. Instead, save the wine for the train ride. And most importantly, flying hung-over into a storm on a fire-cracker jet a terrible, life-altering experience.
I bravely tried flying again a couple of times after I had lost the will to fly. It invariably involved me clutching my arm rests for dear life and complaining the whole way about how we were all about to die, horribly, which only put me in imminent danger of being killed by the annoyed passengers around me. Each time I vowed to never fly again. After 9/11, it became more socially acceptable to disavow flying, and I became certain I would never travel higher than an elevator would carry me. Never mind that I’d become a sober and listless sod, spending my time at home exploring different prescription sedatives and styles of crankiness.
Then, years into my dull state of self-indulgent misery, I started meeting airline pilots. Their brave example not only reaffirmed my love of drinking, but I also became privy as to what really goes on in the cockpit.
One of the pilots, a copilot on smaller business jets, can send email from the cockpit (no one tells him to turn off his phone and pager). He emailed me once while he was up there, jetting over the Virgin Islands, sitting back and reading Wine Spectator. I emailed him back, asking what the other pilot was doing, and was told he was reading over his shoulder. Naive as I was, I had to ask: So then, who’s flying the plane? Naturally, that would be George, the autopilot. He explained to me that the planes mostly fly themselves. As another pilot aptly put it, when he flies the big planes over to England he feels like he’s trapped in a broom closet with the lights out and nothing to do for eight hours. No wonder he needs a gallon of bourbon waiting for him when he gets home. You would too.
Of course, just because the pilot’s job is boring doesn’t mean it isn’t important. After all, sometimes George breaks, goes insane, or simply informs the human pilots, “I’m sorry, Dave, I’m afraid I can’t do that right now.” There was in fact an Airbus that refused to land until the pilots pulled out the circuit breakers to the autopilot one-by-one to regain control of the plane. I can just imagine poor George singing, “Daisy, Daisy,” as his brains got shut off. He probably just needed a drink.
I also learned if the cabin door starts hissing and squealing from a leak at 40,000 feet, and might at any moment launch itself into the great blue yonder and take all the breathable air with it, George doesn’t know what to do. The pilots have to think fast and decide if they want to descend to a safer altitude or make a bet as to which of them can get the oxygen mask on in the four seconds before they pass out in the vacuum. And, of course, there’s always the threat of a psychotic, mass-murdering passenger who wants to permanently borrow the plane to make a political statement.
It is this combination of their jobs being at once intensely boring and critically demanding that earns pilots their much-deserved respect. So if you meet one, buy him a drink, or better yet, a bottle of good gin. He needs it more than you do.
Over time the pilots I got to know told me all sorts of astounding stories and, no less importantly, introduced me to new and astoundingly strong martinis. Eventually I started thinking I could fly again. They fly for a living, I reasoned, they know the risks more than anyone and still manager to have a hell of a lot of fun doing it. Some of them can fly for thirty years or more without a single thing ever going wrong with one of their planes. They convinced me that by avoiding flying I was missing out on much that life had to offer.
So I booked a trip to Chicago. The day before my flight I ate some bad broccoli and spent the entire night vomiting. It was the best possible thing that could have happened to me – how could I sit around worrying about getting back on an airplane when your head is stuck in a toilet trying to keep your stomach from becoming an external organ. By the time I got on the plane my digestion had settled down and, with the knowledge the pilots had gave me and few in-flight Bloody Marys, it was an extraordinarily stress-free flight. Naturally I rewarded myself with an evening of margaritas (which, incidentally, were much easier on my stomach than the broccoli, and I’m sure there’s another lesson in there).
Now I fly every opportunity I get. I sit back, relax, and, if I’ve found someone to sneak me into first class, keep the champagne flowing. Watching a golden sunset from far above the clouds is the very best place to discover that drunkenness is next to godliness. And I will be forever grateful to the drunken pilots who taught me how to take flying less seriously, and enjoy it as it should be enjoyed, as an excellent opportunity to get drunk.