Anyone who has ever passed through an airport anywhere in the world has witnessed the swagger of the pilots and the sashay of the stewardesses.
There is a certain rituality to this exercise that you cannot fail to notice anywhere you go. The stewardesses always sashay in threes, lipsticked and coiffured, dragging colourful holdalls behind. The whole airport is their catwalk, the passengers their audience, and they know it.
The pilots swagger in twos. I don’t know if this is because most flights only need two to push off, or because all second officers are jerks who the captain and first officer do not want to associate with, but the pilots always swagger in twos. Like the stewardesses, they know they are being cast admiring glances and they try to put on a good show.
But where the stewardesses have been told to look sassy, the pilots have been instructed to look cool but mean. Like Tom in Top Gun with a hint of Clint. This is not an easy proposition as you will agree, but never can it be said that the pilots don’t try. Oh, how they try.
They wear dark shades even at midnight. They chew gum furiously. They flare their nostrils to convey annoyance at security gates. They swagger.
In my distant youth when flights were rare and stewardesses exotic creatures from another planet, I had watched their sashay with craned neck and mounting excitement from the sidelines of many-an-airport. But lately, I have taken to watching the swagger of the pilots more.
A few weeks ago I saw the familiar episode unfolding as I waited to board a budget flight from Pune. After a great deal of swaggering around an exceptionally ill-designed terminal, the pilots came to stand next to me. Both wore shades and waited impatiently to be noticed by the ground crew. One was pushing middle-age and doing his best to hold his tummy in. The other was a youngster. He looked a bit like Podrick Payne from the Game of Thrones and was giving his jaws a good workout on what had to be an exceptionally tasty piece of gum. I kept a close eye on both to record any incident of nostril-flaring.
One of the ground staff noticed the pilots and came running to let them through. It so happens that the Pune airport is on an Indian Air Force station, with fighter planes taking off or landing pretty much 24/7. As the pilots swaggered on to the tarmac for the short walk to the plane, a Sukhoi jet thundered overhead, grey and ominous and huge and sleek and beautiful and ugly all at once. I wondered if the IAF pilots, too, had swaggered to their cockpits. Were they chewing gum? After the tens of thousands of hours of training, sitting at the controls of a machine of mass destruction, did they have to work on looking mean as well?
I remembered exposés about the flimsy nature of civil flight training in India and how commercial operators had allowed kids with astonishingly little flying time and falsified records to pilot domestic flights. A few years earlier an investigation had also caught 57 on-duty pilots over the alcohol limit, but — and here’s the interesting thing — 45 of them got to keep their jobs. In another major story more recently, one of the key sources revealed that he received his commercial license after 35 minutes in the co-pilot’s seat. Looking at the disappearing backs of the swaggering pilots, I wondered how many hours they had clocked, especially young Pod. I had a mild panic attack thinking it might be 35 minutes and thought of running after them to check, but immediately felt unequal to the task. Pilots were the brahmins of aviation and I, a passenger, a lowly shudra — how could I possibly hope to get an answer from them?
By the time they let us through, I was in a state. In my own world, I told myself trying to calm down, I too was a pilot. Did I not take off with a bunch of young minds at the beginning of every term for a long-haul flight through the skies of knowledge? Did I not touch down three months later, softly, smoothly, with the correct technique and my landing gear largely intact? I was a pilot indeed. A captain, no less.
Pleased with my own reasoning, I slid a piece of gum into my mouth and put on my sunglasses. Then I swaggered on to the tarmac and joined the long queue to board the flight.