excerpt Secrets from the Cockpit
Secrets from the Cockpit by Robert Schapiro. Picture: Jonathan Ball Publishers

In Secrets from the Cockpit, Robert Schapiro offers a rare insider’s view on life as an international pilot. Schapiro, who was a pilot for the South African Airlines in the 1980s before flying internationally, describes near misses and emergency landings… but also explains how pilots kept rowdy travellers in check. Enjoy this excerpt from the disarmingly frank memoir:

Before the attacks of 9/11 changed aviation security, we usually flew with the cockpit door wide open. Some captains went further and issued general invitations over the passenger announcement (PA) system for passengers to visit the flight deck.

It was good public relations and helped make nights pass a little quicker for us. Children were always particularly good visitors, but adults could be obnoxious know-it-alls – especially when they arrived drunk.

They entered the cockpit reeking of booze, breathed all over us and left an alcohol trail in their wake.


Sometimes the cabin staff would call us to complain that a noisy, drunken party had started in the cabin, particularly when there was a sports team or their supporters on board.

Luckily, we had a solution for that.

The engineer would slowly raise the cabin altitude on the pressurisation system, reducing the oxygen supply to the already oxygen-deficient drinkers to induce them to calm down and go to sleep. In addition, he would lower the cabin temperature to make them less active.

It rarely failed. Within an hour, everyone in the cabin would be asleep. The occasional cost was having to give supplementary oxygen to a couple of elderly folk, but the cabin staff never complained about that.

As pilots, we tended not to deal directly with passengers; we typically only got involved when the cabin crew needed our help.

Weirdly, some passengers actually thought they had some say in what we were doing.

One Tuesday afternoon in my 727 days, we’d taken off from Cape Town and were heading to Johannesburg via Bloemfontein. Once we were in the cruise, the captain picked up the PA and briefed the passengers on our altitude, landing time in Bloemfontein and the usual useless facts about our flight.

The cabin chief walked into the open cockpit and reported that some passengers were saying the flight was supposed to be going to Kimberley, not Bloemfontein.

The flight log distinctly showed Bloemfontein as our destination, but mistakes are always possible. We were already out of radio range of our Cape Town office, so the captain told the cabin crew chief to take a vote among the passengers to see how many thought we were going to Kimberley and how many to Bloemfontein. The vote was tallied and the winner was Kimberley by a nose.

We informed ATC of our new destination.

We landed in Kimberley, taxied to our usual parking spot and shut down. The ground engineer came on board and greeted us: ‘Nice to see you, but why are you here? We don’t have a flight from Cape Town on a Tuesday.’ The next stop we made was in Bloemfontein. It made our day a little longer, but everyone seemed happier.

On more routine flights – when we knew where we were going – we found other ways to amuse ourselves. One of our favourite diversions was nose-wheel roulette, a betting game that was easy to play with five crew members (two in the cockpit, three in the cabin) and five flight legs a day.

Every co-pilot carried a piece of chalk or soap in his pocket. On the day’s first walk-around for an exterior inspection of the plane, he would use the chalk or soap to divide one of the nose-wheel tyres into five equal-size numbered sections. A cabin crew member would later inspect his handiwork – this was serious business.

The bet was normally one rand per sector and each crew member would choose a number for the day, one through five. On shutdown at each destination, the number at the bottom of the wheel touching the tarmac was the winner.

One problem with this game was that if it was wet, the numbers would often wash off. Another problem was that some pilots found a way to cheat.

They started their nefarious tricks after we taxied in and came to a stop, when a ground engineer would establish contact with the cockpit by plugging his headset into a nose-wheel socket. Before shutting the engines down, the cheating pilot would ask the ground engineer which number was touching the tarmac. He would then roll the aircraft slowly forward to his own number.

Cabin crew eventually got wise to this trick because they could see the jet was slightly forward of the stop line whenever that particular pilot won. But what ended it for good was when a frequent passenger asked to join the nose-wheel roulette game. That was game over.

Overall, though, I have to confess that we didn’t always think much about passenger comfort when we were flying.

Most captains followed most of the rules most of the time, but some were cowboy pilots who followed no rules whatsoever. The only SOPs they observed were the jet’s maximum limits on things like speed, altitude or performance, which they pushed every time they flew. Luckily, the 727 was a very tough aircraft and as long as there were no serious incidents and they flew normally on check rides, no one really tried to stop them or, indeed, seemed to care.

Unfortunately for those seated in the back, cowboy flyers saw passenger comfort not as a consideration but as an impediment. Passengers most likely to bear the brunt of this were those on the Kimberley–Bloemfontein and Port Elizabeth–East London sectors. Both were short legs and there was ongoing competition to see who could fly them in the shortest time.

You only stood a chance of a record time if you were taking off and landing in the same direction as the flight track. Even a 90-degree turn after takeoff or for landing simply took too long. Most takeoffs are at a reduced thrust setting to save fuel and engine wear, but to make a serious attempt at the record you had to use full thrust for takeoff, irrespective of weight.

The clock started on brake release. You got airborne, held the 727 in a very slow climb and raised the landing gear. As the speed quickly increased, flaps were raised in a continuous movement. It was sometimes possible to be clean (flaps up) before you passed the end of the runway.

The slow climb was maintained until the speed was on the clackers (maximum speed warning horn). You then climbed on the clackers. It goes without saying that cruise was on the clackers. Top of climb (TOC) and top of descent (TOD) often came within moments of each other. The descent was on the clackers until 12 miles on a straight-in approach with a speed about 365 knots indicated airspeed (IAS).

Then you closed the thrust levers and pulled the maximum speed brake. This was where the 727’s speed brake excelled. The fierce deceleration pushed us hard against the shoulder straps. As the speed decayed, flaps were run in a continuous stream, landing gear was dropped and the speed brake was stowed.

When perfectly executed, you’d stabilise with thrust at 500 feet and land shortly thereafter. The clock stopped when you turned off the runway. We didn’t factor in the time it took the shaken passengers to get out of their seats.

Airline management later introduced the Aircraft Information Monitoring System (AIMS), an integrated software platform that controlled the aircraft’s avionics and monitored pilots’ flying techniques. This meant that, apart from starting and stopping the clock, none of the above was possible anymore.

Nor was this a South African aberration. I once took a Delta Airlines 727 on a shuttle to New York after visiting my brother in Boston. Right after takeoff, I began to recognise signs of cowboy flying: high-speed flight, late descent, speed-brake usage and hard braking to make a quick turn off the runway – so hard that I felt the rare occurrence of the nose-wheel brakes kicking in. At the gate, the captain confirmed he was in a rush by being the first person off the plane. I felt right at home.

Needless to say, our passenger interactions weren’t all fun. In one especially sad incident, I was on a 747 flight to Madrid when an upset cabin crew chief came into the cockpit during the night to tell us that a woman in her eighties had died in economy class. The cabin crew had put out a call for any doctors on board and carried the passenger to first class, where there was more space to try and revive her. When it was clear that nothing could be done, the crew placed her in one of the translucent body bags we always had on board and moved her away from the shocked passengers.

Later, a cabin steward decided to move her distressed travel companions to the empty upper-deck seats (once used as a lounge).

We informed SAA on company radio and asked them to make arrangements for our arrival in Spain. An aircraft arriving in a foreign country with a dead body is automatically impounded until a judge confirms there has been no foul play. This can cause a long delay unless local authorities are already aware of the situation and have the appropriate officials waiting for the aircraft. We were assured that a Spanish doctor would meet our flight.

As the soft light of morning began to filter into the cockpit, I stepped back to the upper-deck cabin to see how the dead woman’s companions were doing. I got a shock. They were dozing in the last row of seats, and as it grew lighter in the cabin, I could clearly see a pair of feet in a translucent body bag sticking into the aisle behind them.

The chief had brought the woman’s body upstairs and placed it behind the seats to hide it – the same seats where the steward later placed her grieving companions.

I feared a disaster if they woke up and looked around, so I quietly draped a blanket over the jutting feet, then told the air hostess to wake them and tell them they needed to return to their original seats for landing.

After waiting 20 minutes on the Madrid apron, the doctor arrived to check the dead passenger. He was led to the upper deck and the bagged body was brought out from behind the seats. The doctor took a quick look and asked who had determined that the person was dead.

The chief held up his hand. ‘And how long has she been sealed in this body bag?’ he asked.

‘About six hours,’ replied the chief.

‘Okay, she’s dead now for sure,’ he pronounced and cleared the passengers to disembark.

The last part of the story was even sadder. The woman had been due to remain on the plane for the next leg of the flight, to Frankfurt, but as she was deceased she was no longer considered a passenger. Instead, she was classed as freight for the next leg. We were told that her passenger ticket to Frankfurt was voided and her family would have to pay, by the kilogram, for her body and a coffin to travel in a cargo hold. I don’t know exactly how it worked, but a part of me wished we could have kept her hidden behind the seats and only ‘discovered’ her on the last leg.

  • This is an edited extract

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