Thursday, November 02, 2006
I first encountered the work of Somerville writer Patrick Smith through a small press publication he put out. I came across it in a Laundromat on Oxford St. in Cambridge, Mass. during my “rent control” days. Patrick Smith is an erstwhile airline pilot, and author of a popular weekly column on http://www.salon.com “Ask The Pilot.” An adaptation of his columns was recently published by Riverhead Books, “Ask the Pilot.”
Doug Holder: Patrick can you talk about the small press ‘zine you put out in the early 90’s?
Patrick Smith: It was called “Stargreen.” It was a name I made up. It sounded good. It was an indulgent literary ‘zine for lack of a better term. Most of the contributors were “me.” I had an occasional poem and travel essay. It had an airplane story now and then. Some of the same stories I used in that zine back in the early 90’s, the skeleton of them, were used in the book: “Ask The Pilot.” They actually come up in some of articles in Salon.com.
DH: Pagan Kennedy, another Somerville writer, started of by self-publishing her own ’zine. Is this a good way to break into writing—get your feet wet— can it lead to other things?
PS: It’s good practice. For some people it is a compulsion, and it is a release. I always have had a latent interest in writing. It wasn’t anything I necessarily thought that I could use vocationally. So my ‘zine was a way of getting my stuff out there; even though very few people actually saw it. I don’t know if it is a way to get a start. More importantly, being good at what you do, is the main thing. Having a niche you can exploit is important. Writing about air travel was nothing that anybody was doing—at least in the way I was doing it. Being lucky; and knowing a few well-placed people, is good to have too.
DH: What was the first writing gig you were ever paid for?
PS: The first thing I ever was paid for was a music review. It was a review of a long-forgotten jazz band “The Jazz Butcher.” It was for the “Utne Reader.” A friend of mine was an associate editor and he got me the assignment. Once you have one article under your belt…it is easier to get the second and so on.
DH: Do you have any formal education as a writer?
PS: Does going to high school count? I went through flight training school. No formal training in writing.
DH: Are most pilots trained in the military?
PS: About half of overall pilots are from the service. On the major airline level it’s about 70 to 30. This is not true at the smaller, regional carriers.
DH: What is the first question people usually ask the pilot? What is the first question they should ask?
PS: The majority of questions pertain to safety. Most questions I am asked are not about flying. Mostly I am asked about the airlines and their safety records. The airline travel is what excites me. The book is not bogged down with stuff about physics, wing flaps, etc...It’s about the industry. A meditation about air travel to me is a meditation about culture. It is not so much on the plane, but where the plane is going. If I hadn’t hooked up with the airlines I would never have gone to the more than 60 countries that I visited. People today don’t see the airplane as romantic like I do. I try to encourage people to see the airplane as more than just a means to an end. It is not just a way to travel, but part of travel itself.
DH: When I fly I feel that I am in the air held up by tons of metal…a very unnatural act.
PS: Fear of flying is a tricky thing. It comes in two forms. There is a tangible aspect to it like “What if this happens?,” A questions like that is something someone like me can answer. There is the other visceral fear that people have that they can’t even put into words. That is something a psychiatrist should deal with and not a pilot.
People always ask me how a plane gets in the air and stays there. If you supply anything with enough lift and power you can make it fly. A 747 weighs almost a million pounds. It flies pretty effortlessly because it has so much power, and because it is so big it creates a lot of lift.
DH: How safe is it to fly?
PS: Recently they found that flying in 2006 was six times safer than it was 25 years ago. This is with twice as many planes now carrying twice as many passengers. We have better technology, better training—those are the two main things. As a percentage—fewer and fewer flights are crashing. Everyday, around the world, about 5 million people fly a commercial plane. There hasn’t been a catastrophic accident since 2001. These numbers speak for themselves.
DH: When is the most dangerous part of the flight?
PS: If you have to be neurotic and worry—it is the takeoff. That’s when you make the big transition from ground to flight.
DH: How have airlines received your book?
PS: Airlines are strange and paranoid animals. There is a mentality around airlines that goes “When something happens, we’d rather not say anything at all.” This creates a climate of mistrust.
When they do talk they have a habit of talking down to people. It makes the operation seem unprofessional. They don’t talk about safety, or use safety as a marketing tool. Why stir the pot?
DH: Any new projects in the works?
Nothing radically different. There is a second book in the works about air flight, but from a very personal view. It will consist of anecdotes about trips I took around the world, cockpit tales, etc….
DH: The movie “Flight 93,” about the ill-fated flight during the 9/11 fiasco—how accurate was it?
PS: It was very accurate. There was an actual pilot, an actual stewardess in the movie. Technical aspects were true to life. It didn’t portray the passengers as heroes. They were portrayed as a group of people in a horrible situation, and how they did the best they could with it.