The forest below was thick and rolling, with leafy hilltops set ablaze by the setting sun and brooding valleys already lost to deepening shadows. A few lights twinkled to life through the canopy, but there was little other evidence of the hamlets and roads that my atlas showed sprinkled through these foothills of eastern Kentucky. I decided that the inky reservoir on my left must be Lake Cumberland. That put the famed Cumberland Gap ahead and to our right.
“Daniel Boone blazed the Wilderness Road through there,” I remarked aloud, mostly to myself.
Rob looked up from the limp salad he was halfheartedly nibbling on and gazed down at the purple hills to which I pointed. From six miles up, they seemed insignificant, hardly even worthy of being called mountains. Barely 200 years ago, however, they formed such an insurmountable barrier that it fell to the hardiest of mountain men to find a way across. Rob surveyed the wrinkled landscape in pensive silence, and then went back to picking at his crew meal. I looked back down at my atlas.
The Embraer 175 is a wonderfully modern, pilot-friendly airplane with a clean, simple cockpit. Flight information is neatly presented on five large, crisp LCD displays. Flawless navigation is simple with twin flight management systems that feature GPS and INS inputs. Aircraft systems are mostly automated — with lots of dusty switches to be left in the auto position — and computer-monitored, with any malfunctions immediately displayed on the engine instrument and crew alerting system and synoptic displays. The autopilot and autothrottles keep the airplane right on course, flying more smoothly than I am able.
The one thing the Embraer does not do well is keep its pilots awake and engaged, least of all in cruise flight. There’s simply precious little to be done. Navigational cross checks, ETA and fuel calculations, maintenance notations, weather updates — all the housekeeping duties of years past are automated and available at the push of a button. So you have to find ways to pass the time, especially on long flights like our three-hour cruise from Dallas to New York. Noncompany reading material has long been banished from the flight deck, as have personal electronics in the wake of the Northwest 188 debacle. I suppose one could read the flight operations manual — but did I mention that the object is to stay awake?
I personally enjoy following our progress on a road atlas with VORs and airways overlaid. It satisfies a childhood obsession with maps that has lingered and evolved into adulthood geography geekdom. I like comparing how features appear on the page to how they look from the air, and then imagining the view from the ground. Occasionally we cross a place I’ve actually been to, and then I can make the comparison in reverse. It keeps my mind active, and I figure that if all the electronic magic somehow ever quits, it doesn’t hurt to know where we are.
A more typical, less nerdy way to pass the time is to talk to the guy or gal next to you. Career background, family life, hobbies, schedule bidding, airline rumors, crew gossip, layover tips and “war stories” of flights past all make for rich veins of cockpit conversation. After all, being airline pilots, there is the requisite amount of griping about management and the industry. By the end of a four-day trip, you get to know people very well. And then the next week you’re with a completely different crew, and the repartee begins anew.
We are a small airline, though, with 440 pilots across two Midwestern bases, so you’ll eventually fly with the same pilot multiple times. This is not common at major airlines, which have thousands of pilots in each base, or even at many of the larger regional airlines. This is at least the third trip that Rob and I have flown together, maybe the fourth. When we met at the gate in Minneapolis, we greeted each other like old friends, which I guess we are of a sort. Our first leg to Dallas was filled with catch-up banter. I asked Rob about his wife and kids and horse and the ancient Honda motorbike he’s been tinkering with for years; he asked me about my trip to Italy earlier this summer and whether I’d flown my Cub lately. I noted that Rob had bypassed a captain upgrade; he explained that as a 40-year-old with a growing family, commuting to a junior reserve position simply isn’t an option. Funny how such domestic concerns barely entered into our calculations earlier in our careers. Of course, Rob hadn’t planned on being furloughed from two airlines in six months’ time, either.