I was in the right seat, flying home from Costa Rica the other day. We were at cruise in the mid 30’s. There was a giant lake in Nicaragua with an island in the middle. The island had two brilliant green volcanic cones. There was a line of giant white windmills spinning on the south shore of the lake, generating electricity. It was a surreal view. Most of the time at cruise is over a sea of bland white clouds or a beige desert. But, once in a while, the view is spectacular.
A PICTURE OF THE YOSEMITE VALLEY
My first response in these situations is to take a picture. I have two kids. One is fourteen and the other eleven. One of my goals raising these children was to make sure they knew the world was a wide and wonderful place. I want them to know there is more to the world than our little town on the west end of Lake Superior. Flight and landscapes are important to me and I write about that here.
A PICTURE OF THE CANADIAN ROCKIES NEAR MT. LOGAN
I would never take a picture of those super cool volcanoes, though. And I definitely wouldn’t show it to my kids. I would never take a picture of those volcanoes with my cell phone because it’s against the rules. And I’m a professional. I would never do something like that.
A PICTURE OF AN AMAZING SUNSET OVER FLORIDA
A few years back, some airline guys were on their laptops in the cockpit. These guys were absorbed in something, maybe bidding, when they flew 150 miles past their destination. The FAA gets wind of that, of course. Having flight attendants correct your navigation draws attention. The FAA decided to crank up a new rule. This rule, outlined here, specifies that you can’t use a personal electronic device with wireless capability while in a duty position in the cockpit. There’s not a lot of wiggle room. I’ll get to my loophole later.
A PICTURE OF A THERMAL STORAGE SOLAR POWER PLANT
I returned to work at my airline after a thirteen-year break in the spring of 2014. (For my amazing sob story, buy my memoir! Coming soon to an e-book retailer near you!) This was immediately after the new rule was passed. Placards showed up in the cockpit stating that personal electronic devices weren’t allowed. They added a line to the briefing that we do before each flight that made sure our phones were put to sleep. I dutifully put my phone in airplane mode. I interpreted the rule to mean that, like passengers, I needed to make sure the phone wasn’t transmitting or receiving during critical phases of flight. I also thought it meant I could use the other, non-communicating functions of my tiny computer. I never took a picture with my phone when I was below ten thousand feet. There’s a requirement to have a sterile cockpit in that regime where the only activities that take place are directly related to the safe operation of the aircraft. I’m cool with that. It’s a smart rule. Prevents distraction. Keeps people from bleeding.
A PICTURE OF DULUTH
But above ten thousand feet with the autopilot engaged, when there’s something interesting to see, I freely admit to taking pictures with my phone. I now know it was against the rule. A new rule, but that’s no excuse. I didn’t fully understand the rules. I already shared these photos on social media, so that crime is out there for you to find on the intertoobz. I enjoy seeing amazing cloud formations. Thermal storage solar energy plants. Yosemite valley. The ridiculous beauty of the glacier filled valleys and mountains on the way to Alaska. I even flew over my own town of Duluth. And then right directly over my own cabin north of town. How cool is that? It’s cool to me, at least. I’m almost fifty and I still get a charge out of flying an aluminum tube filled with gasoline around the sky. It’s fun. It’s unique. It’s special to rip around the clouds in a machine. It’s my American birthright to fly what the Wright Brothers invented.
Then some dude came along in December after I got reacquainted with my job. He wrote an article about pilots and their Instagram accounts. Some of the pictures that he highlights are gorgeous and interesting. But the twist is that the guy, correctly, points out many of the pictures are clearly taken in an environment where the cockpit should be sterile. Some of the pictures were illegal. The journo got some notoriety on TV talk shows. And he ignited a backlash of very angry pilots. I was initially one of them. I joined the chorus. I hate that guy. What a douche. He wrote a follow-on article about the social media firestorm and threats to his person.
But then, I dug a little deeper. I read his December article very carefully. The FAA points out that personal electronic devices can’t be used for anything not related to flying. Not even above ten. I found the specific line in the Federal Aviation Regulations that was added in February of 2014. (121.542(d)) It’s pretty explicit and restrictive. I can’t use my mobile phone to take pictures, even with the wireless capability off. Even above ten. Photos with cellphone prohibited. I had to admit to myself that I broke the rules. I was upset that I didn’t understand the rule. This was more upsetting than to me than the elimination of picture taking. I thought I was following the letter of the law and wasn’t. I like to be fully aware of my fence posts and wasn’t.
But then, I thought harder about the letter of the law. My cellphone is in my flight bag in airplane mode. Let’s say I think of an errand like “buy snowblower.” Following the letter of the law, I can’t pick up my phone, go to the Reminders app, and type myself a note for later. Not related to flying the aircraft. When I remember, with an adrenaline rush, that my wife’s birthday is in less than a week, I can’t go to the calendar on my phone and put in an appointment to go to the store and “buy snowblower” for a present. Not flying related. Maybe the captain I’m flying with says, “I’m giving away one million dollars to everyone I meet this week. Call me later and I’ll take down your Swiss bank account number.” I won’t be able to open up the contacts function on my phone and type in his phone number. Not related to the safe conduct of the flight.
Not being able to do these simple things while at cruise, on autopilot, in straight and level, 1g flight is absurd. But that’s what the rule says.
Photos made me happy. Taking away my photos made me mad. Making an unnecessarily broad ruling made me madder. When I was younger, I would be filled with undifferentiated rage. I would spew flame in all directions. As I get older, I try not to get mad as much. But when something is stupid, I can’t help myself. Nowadays, I try to focus my rage like a laser on who deserves it. Less stressful on the old ticker. Lately I ask myself this, “Who are you really angry with?” Often, I discover I’m not angry with the right people. Or even angry at all. So let’s try it, shall we?
First of all, am I mad at the two pilots who flew past Minneapolis? While negligent, it’s more of a mistake than a crime. 150 miles sounds bad. But when you say it’s 20 minutes of flight time, it arrives in the realm of possibility. I sure hope I’d never forget to look at my instruments for that long. But I guess it’s possible. So, those guys made a dumb mistake and it made it into the press. We should be held accountable for mistakes. Any professional is cool with that. Sucks to be them, but I’m not really mad at them.
Second, am I mad at the journalist who highlighted the illegal Instagram pictures? Not really. My impression of his television appearance was that, sure, he was kind of a douche. Not sure he’s really a journo or some dude living in his mom’s basement or that this story was particularly newsworthy. But highlighting people who appear to be doing something illegal, and potentially dangerous, is certainly allowed. So, I’m not pissed at him anymore.
Third, am I mad at the pilots who were taking and posting the Instagram pictures that were clearly taken from a duty position in what should be a sterile cockpit? Um…yeah. It would be unprofessional for me to call them stupid idiots who piss where they eat. I would never say to my aviation people, “Thanks a lot, douchebags, for actively screwing everybody over.” To be clear, I would never ask, “Do you routinely violate sterile cockpit rules and put people’s lives at risk and then immediately brag about it on the Internet, or is it more of a hobby, you ass clown?” I would never say those things even though, in this case, I am truly upset with this group of people. But this whole flap came along nearly a year after the new rule was implemented.
Fourth, am I mad at the government who is here to help? I read some text about what was said at the proposed rulemaking meetings. As near as I can tell, the MSP flyover and a pilot texting on the ground were what led to the new Feb 2014 rule. Someone at that meeting advocated that the sterile cockpit rule was sufficient to prevent future problems. That’s also my opinion: “Personal wireless communications devices don’t kill people, people kill people.” Judgment and airmanship would lead you to the “sterile cockpit” behavior, even if there weren’t a rule. The sterile cockpit rule makes sense. But then the government subsequently decides that you can never touch your electronic device above ten thousand feet at all. Ever. So I have to write the phone number down on a piece of paper with a pencil and then type it into my phone later at the hotel. Thanks, Uncle Sam. You’re truly here to help. Like my Chinese mother-in-law says, “More help? More work.” Here’s the root cause: The government’s overreaction to a couple of incidents (that weren’t even accidents) has unintended consequences.
So one guy craps, long before the Instagram debacle, and everybody wears diapers. (Technically, I guess three people crapped.) It’s a reaction I’m familiar with. I worked for Uncle Sam for almost 30 years. And like most modern rules, they are not designed to help me do my job. Many aviation rules are written in blood. That’s how the first rules were written. But it’s been a hundred years and we’re running out of things to make rules about. The rulebook only gets thicker, never thinner. This new rule is flouted in the open and the FAA hasn’t enforced it. So, in my opinion, this new paragraph was designed to help the lawyers assign blame. It isn’t designed to make my life easier as a pilot. To make me safer. If it were, it’d be enforced. It’s designed to sue people when something goes wrong.
Add this irony to the mix. Just a foot from my face, I have a bright shiny new iPad suction-cupped to the window. My company issues it to me. It’s a great tool. It makes my life easier. It has wireless capability. I can update the flight manuals electronically that I need to fly with while sleeping in my hotel. I am constantly manipulating this device while I fly in order to look at my approach plates and charts. Even below ten thousand feet. I need the information to safely land out of an instrument approach. This is all legal.
And (gasp) this iPad has a camera. But I’m not allowed to use the camera because of this line: my use of the iPad must be “directly related to operation of the aircraft, or for emergency, safety-related, or employment-related communications, in accordance with air carrier procedures approved by the Administrator.” My interpretation is no photos with my company iPad either. And no electronic recording of that phone number that will make me rich. And no reminder to buy that snowblower for my wife’s birthday.
So, I’m trusted with a 75-ton machine that flies through the sky, even when one engine fails immediately after takeoff at night during a snowstorm, but I’m not enough of a pilot to make a note to myself on my phone at thirty five thousand feet. I clearly need direction for what to do in that regime.
My own airline pilot union (ALPA) has an annual issue of the monthly magazine that was dedicated to photography. It was referred to as the Swimsuit Edition. Cute. This year’s edition just came out in December. They repeatedly defended the pictures as having been taken above ten thousand feet. But now that doesn’t matter anymore, if you want to take photos using a personal wireless communication device. I guess next year’s swimsuit issue will be pictures of luggage carts and de-icing trucks taken safely from the concrete ramp. Flying sure is sexy, huh?
But wait a minute. Bob Collins of Minnesota Public Radio, who does nice work with the NewsCut blog, is also a pilot. He wrote a nice piece on this controversy. According to an Minnesota based airline pilot that he quotes, I could use a camera that doesn’t have wireless capability to shoot photos. It’s not a personal wireless communication device. I could download the pictures when I got home. I could show the world to my kids again. I could revel in the joy of powered flight! (Above ten thousand feet of course.)
But wait. Didn’t I just get an email from the Master Executive Council? My own airline’s branch of the national union? Yup. Here’s part of it:
Please refrain from taking inflight photos with your cell phones and other cameras. And please refrain from posting them on social media. Although the FAA has stated that it is currently unaware of any pilot being disciplined for doing so, that does not mean that they will not in the future.
My dreams were immediately crushed by this response. This request from my union is a subset of the “one poop, many diapers” rule. I came up with a name for this subset after decades of public service. I refer to this as an “autof***.” It is when you automatically screw yourself, inside your organization, even when no outside agency has demanded anything. This is an “autof*** because of the “and other cameras” phrase. This bit would remove my ability to take along my caveman point-and-shoot camera with no wireless capability and use it when safe to do so. I’ve been playing lawyer all morning and reading the actual rules and definitions. The way I read them, this request from my MEC is more restrictive than even the FAA rule. Thus, I give their request my special label.
So, I have a choice to make. I like to travel really light. Even the extra weight of my little point-and-shoot camera needs to be carefully considered. Do I bring it and use it? I believe that I’m allowed to. But my own company union has asked me not to use “other cameras” and not to post pictures on social media. They’re wrong about the “other cameras,” but this is the team I’ve voluntarily joined. I should comply.
I personally think that flight is joyful. You could leverage that joy to improve our customers’ experience. You could leverage that joy for the enjoyment of my fellow employees. Aviation is special, whether it’s a business or not. We invented it in this country. Photos could safely be part of aviation. So could making an electronic grocery list.
Over a hundred people behind me have Wi-Fi and laptops and cameras operating at full-tilt while we’re at cruise altitude. Meanwhile, the captain and I are supposed to stare at the airspeed and altitude indicators for six straight hours across the continent while on autopilot. No electronic game of chess. No Kindle with an engaging book. No thinking through what I should do next week and writing it down in my phone. And don’t even think about looking out the window and preserving an amazing view. I’ll make sure to hold a cup under my lip to hold the drool while I watch the aircraft parameters. I would think that people might want me to be more stimulated so I could remain alert. But I guess I’ll just have to get used to the soul-crushing boredom. At least I can still enjoy the photos that are shared from the International Space Station on Twitter. That is until NASA decides to do something to stop that foolishness. (“Don’t those astronauts have something better to do? Get back to work. Shiftless, good-for-nothings…”)
Until I decide what to do about my own precious photos, I should bring along some colored pencils. While in the right seat of the cockpit, I could draw a picture of those Nicaraguan volcanoes for my kids. My stomach might get rumbly while I’m sitting there drawing. That’s okay. I can keep right on sketching while I squeeze that steaming pile right out into my diaper.