Do you ever wonder what it’s like to do something else for the day? Whether it’s choosing a different career path or stepping out of your comfort zone, this series dives into the crazy-interesting lives of those we’ve always admired. From pilots and chefs to charities making a difference, go ahead and read a page in their life. 

Our first A Page in Your Life feature is Patrick Smith. This airline pilot, air travel columnist, and author of Ask the Pilot has appeared on over 200 radio and television shows dishing out his air travel expertise. Want to know what it’s like to be an airline pilot? We sat down with Patrick to talk about his job, his favorite cities and airports, and his advice for those getting ready to take flight.

Patrick Smith of Ask the Pilot

Could you give a brief introduction for our readers about you, your interests, and your hobbies?

I live in Somerville, Massachusetts, just outside Boston. I’ve been an airline pilot since 1990, when I was hired as a copilot on a 15-seat turboprop, earning about $850 a month. Nowadays, I fly the Boeing 757 and 767 on routes both domestically and overseas. I enjoy global travel (eighty countries and counting), ’80s underground music, and urban beekeeping.

And writing.  For ten years, I was the author of Salon.com’s popular “Ask the Pilot” column. Salon discontinued the feature in 2012, and I moved it to my homepage, www.askthepilot.com. My book, Cockpit Confidential: Everything You Need to Know About Air Travel, was published this summer. It’s a collection of frequently asked questions, essays, and memoir.

I’ve always had a latent compulsion for writing — at least as a hobby — dating back to the early 1980s when I self-published a punk rock fanzine, then later a homespun poetry zine. The first piece of writing I ever got paid for was a music review for the Utne Reader, about twenty years ago, but it wasn’t until I was laid off in the wake of the terror attacks of 2001 that I began to take it more seriously. All of a sudden, air travel was on everybody’s mind, and here I had these two great interests, flying and writing.

Was there something that inspired you to become a pilot?

For almost all airline pilots, their infatuation with aviation goes back to childhood.  This is certainly true in my case, but I’m probably different from most of my colleagues in that the thrill of flight, strictly speaking, was only part of it. As a kid, the sight of a Piper Cub meant nothing to me. Five minutes at an air show watching the Blue Angels do barrel rolls and I was bored to tears. What excited me then — and still — is what I like to call the “grand theater of air travel”:  the airlines and the places they fly to.

In grade school, I’d pour over the route maps and timetables of the world’s great carriers — Pan Am, Aeroflot, British Airways — memorizing the names of the foreign capitals they flew to, then drawing up my own imaginary airlines and tracing out their routes. Airplanes turned me on to geography, travel, and culture. By studying the airlines as a kid, I was inspired later in life to visit places like Botswana and India and Mali. It was a direct connection. For most people, whether they’re headed for Kansas or Kathmandu, the airplane is a necessary evil, incidental to the journey but no longer a meaningful part of it. We’ve so coldly separated the means from the ends, and part of my mission as writer-pilot is putting them back together. That’s a tough sell, I know, but how can you not find something exciting about the idea of stepping onto a 747 and, only hours later, stepping off again half a world away?

What is a typical day like as a commercial airline pilot?

There’s really no such thing. We don’t think of our assignments as workdays. We call them “trips,” and they last anywhere from one to ten or more days. And so much of this depends which airline you work for and which aircraft type you fly. One pilot’s month might consist of four or more three-day domestic trips with short layovers at airport motels; another pilot might be enjoying 72-hour layovers in Hong Kong or Budapest.

Where is your favorite city to fly to? Which is your favorite airport (in terms of amenities)?

Picking a city is tough: Cairo, Cape Town, Istanbul, and Budapest top my list of favorite layover spots, each for different reasons. Generally I prefer more offbeat destinations. I spend a lot of time in Accra, Ghana, and have come to really dig the place. Ghana has great food, great sightseeing excursions, and the nicest people on earth.

I have some layover videos posted on YouTube, including a great one from Cairo. Check out the *sounds* at the beginning of this footage, which I managed to capture totally by accident. It’ll give you the chills.

A two-part video from Senegal is here and here.

When it comes to airports, nowhere in the world beats Korea’s Incheon Airport for amenities and flyer-friendliness. For sheer impressiveness, I’d go with Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport. The central terminal at Suvarnabhumi is one of the most aesthetically spectacular buildings I’ve ever seen. Compare either of these, if you dare, to most major terminals in America. There’s an essay in chapter three of the new book where I talk about the depressing state of U.S. airports.

What has been the most rewarding part of being a pilot?

Getting to do exactly what I always wanted to do. Parts of my job, like any job, are stressful, tedious, and generally a pain in the neck, but I try never to take it for granted. There’s a story in the book where I talk about flying into Boston for the first time as an airline pilot and looking down at Revere Beach, where as a little kid I spent so much time as a little kid looking up at the incoming planes. That was a moment for sure.

What advice would you give to someone who is considering becoming a pilot?

Know what you’re getting into. Understand the good and bad of the airline seniority system, and understand that the path to a high-paying job with a major airline is, for most pilots, long and unforgiving.

The industry has changed so much over the past 25 years or so. The regional airline sector — those smaller “Express” and “Connection” jets that operate as subcontractors for the major carriers — now accounts for over half of all flying.  It used to be that pilots worked at these companies only briefly, as a stepping-stone before getting hired by one of the majors.  Because this sector has become so large, while major airline expansion and hiring has slowed, pilots are figuring out that a job with a regional airline might well mean an entire career with a regional airline. Salaries at these carriers can be as low as $20,000 a year; this, after a pilot has spent six figures for his primary training and then worked several years at low-paying jobs to accrue the necessary flight time.

We are a reading glasses store, after all, so we have to ask: What is your favorite pair from Readers.com?

Well, there’s no accounting for taste, right? But I have a pair very similar to the ones you call The Brookside. I’m good testimony to the myth that airline pilots are required to have perfect eyesight.  For the Air Force this might be true, but for airlines today, so long as it’s correctable to 20/20, we’re fit to fly.


For a deeper look behind the scenes at the airline industry, read Patrick’s book: Cockpit ConfidentialA special thanks to Patrick for taking the time to talk to Readers.com! Be sure to check back next month for round two of A Page in Your Life.

Photos courtesy of Askthepilot.com