Unfriendly Skies, Captain "X" and Reynolds Dodson

Doubleday, 1989, 236 pages, C$24.95 hc, ISBN 0-385-24824-5

There are some books adequate to read on a long airplane flight, and then there’s Unfriendly Skies.

This book is an informal exposé of the then-current (1989) state of the civil aviation industry in North America. Written by an anonymous airplane captain with journalist Reynolds Dodson, it is at times frightening, hilarious, hair-raising and fascinating.

Captain “X” began his flying career in the military, and then came aboard “a major airline”, where he climbed the steps toward full captainship of an airliner. His experiences span more than twenty years, and he’s got a lot of stories to tell. Somewhere between anecdotal autobiography and diatribe against deregulation, Unfriendly Skies is an immensely readable, thoughtful, witty work.

Captain “X” -through the services of Dodson- tells his stories with a tough, no-nonsense voice. The style is often gripping, and switches with ease between horror and humor. While the aim of the book is to expose the dangers of deregulation, Unfriendly Skies goes beyond that to become the memoirs of a pilot: Readers of Airport will like this one.

This isn’t the shocking “revelations of a deregulated airline pilot” we’re promised on the cover. While the inside jacket copy will try to sell this book as a denunciation of current policies, you will most probably come away from this book as more appreciative of airline pilots than anything else. The fault, Captain “X” says, resides more with the politicians who passed the deregulation legislations than with anyone else.

The material covered by Unfriendly Skies is diverse: Training, Death, Passenger oddities, Hijackers, Airports, Microbursts… Truly a round-up of the pilot’s experiences, this is one of the best books on the subject.

And it is brutally honest. Several airplane accidents are discussed and dissected. Perhaps the most frightening revelation of all are the microbursts, atmospheric phenomenons that can make an airplane fall several hundred meters without warning. What can be done about it? Nothing.

Similarly, Captain “X” tells about the life of the average pilot. How divorces are common, how they always catch colds from the incessant traveling, how their family life is a mixture of absence and presence. It’s not an easy job, and this book shows why.

To take only one chapter as an example:

For a French Canadian, it’s a shock to learn that Montreal is one of the worst city in North America (“Excedrin Capitals”) when it comes to passengers: Captain “X” tells of an instance where a drunk French Canadian woman punched a captain who was trying to tell her not to smoke in the non-smoker section. (And they say that cigarettes don’t make you more aggressive…) Believe it or not, that’s one of the more pleasant stories. From the TV star which poured a cup of coffee on a stewardess to the drugged New Yorker who fondled a sixteen year old and bit another passenger’s nose, we’re quick to realize that the most dangerous components in an airplane might not be in the cockpit…

Unfriendly Skies fulfils most of the qualities of a good general nonfiction book: It’s got style, readability, content and facts. Unfortunately, the book lacks an index and falters when it tries to preach, but redeems itself by an optimistic view of future commercial air travel and a good organization of the material. Recommended… but not as airplane reading.

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