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15 Behind-the-Scenes Secrets of Airline Pilots

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Often described as having the best “view from the office” in the world, airline pilots are tasked with shuttling hundreds of passengers to and from domestic and international destinations. The responsibility is considerable, and so are the requirements: Commercial airlines typically demand thousands of hours of flight time and dues-paying in cargo and regional jobs before they’ll even grant an interview. And even then, the odds of making it to the prized “left chair”—the captain’s seat—are a long shot.

To find out what makes these top-class aviators tick, we asked three pilots for major commercial carriers about life in the skies. (Owing to their media-averse industry, none wanted to identify their employer; one prefers to be known only by his first name.) 

1. THEY CAN FLY FOR FREE—THEY JUST DON’T WANT TO.

Pilots don’t really get better employee perks than anyone else who works for the airline. While they can fly for free, they have to wait for a standby (available) seat to be open on a flight, and most pilots planning a vacation or structured itinerary don’t want to be at the mercy of that variable. “It’s too unpredictable,” says Patrick Smith, a first officer (co-pilot) and author of Cockpit Confidential. “If a baggage handler has more seniority than me, he’ll be ahead on the standby list.”

2. THERE’S NO READING IN THE COCKPIT.

Eric Auxier, a captain with more than two decades of experience for a major carrier, says that most name-brand airlines prohibit taking anything into the cockpit that could serve as a distraction: no magazines, no paperbacks, no music, and no knitting. “We talk amongst ourselves," he says. "That’s all we’re legally allowed to do.”

3. THERE’S NO NAPPING, EITHER. TECHNICALLY.

”But I can’t say it never happens,” says Tim, a pilot at a major airline. “At present, the regulations do not officially allow it, but sleep studies have proven that short catnaps, especially when flying in the wee hours, are actually beneficial to wakefulness. Unfortunately, the FAA hasn't put anything in writing that allows this.” To avoid exhausted pilots, the FAA has instead issued a guide, FAR-117, that mandates minimum rest periods (like a full eight hours of sleep) and maximum working times for pilots—usually no more than 30 hours per week, according to Auxier.

4. THEY’LL LET YOU LOOK AROUND IN THE COCKPIT.

Before the plane doors are shut, Smith says many pilots are happy to offer nervous fliers and kids a peek inside the cockpit. “People are more than welcome to come up and say hello before pushing off,” he says. “90 percent of pilots love it when people do that.”

5. THERE'S A SPARE SEAT IN THE COCKPIT.

The cockpit has what’s known as a “jump seat,” a retractable third chair that allows for FAA inspectors or trainees to tag along on flights. “If it’s not in use, it can be used by a qualified pilot,” Auxier says. Another professional perk? Sort of: In most cases—especially on long flights—a pilot would rather sit in coach. The chair is pretty uncomfortable.

6. THEY WISH YOU WOULDN’T ASK THEM TO “PULL OVER.”

Though pilots don’t usually have direct interaction with passengers, Smith prefers travelers who don’t perceive them as bus drivers. “Asking if we can land so they can get off, it doesn’t work that way,” he says. “One woman who left her medication in her checked luggage wanted someone to ‘go downstairs’ to get it.” Unfortunately for her:

7. THERE IS NO ACTION-MOVIE CARGO COMPARTMENT UNDERNEATH THE PLANE.

Wesley Snipes and Harrison Ford have misled the movie-going public into believing there’s an entire layer under a plane full of luggage, pets, and enough room to have a boxing match. It’s just not true. “You might have alcoves accessible under the cabin or cockpit,” Smith says, “but they’re the size of a closet."

8. THEY CAN HAVE ONE HELL OF A COMMUTE.

In theory, a pilot can live anywhere in the country, since they’re able to catch rides on flights that connect them to their “base” airport. But commuting takes up more unpaid days per month, requires them to take early flights to fill available seats, and generally makes a hard job that much harder. “If the airplane fills up with paying passengers, the pass riding employees will simply be left behind,” Tim says. “Sometimes it's necessary to leave home the day before to ensure that you are in base in time for your trip. Commuting can really suck.” (Tim no longer does it: He moved closer to his base and now drives to work.) 

9. PEEING CAN BE PAINFUL.

According to Smith, kidney stones are a common occupational hazard. Pilots don’t always hydrate properly, and post-9/11 Federal Aviation Association (FAA) rules about entering the cabin can make a trip to the bathroom a chore. It all adds up to stress on the urinary tract. “The protocols for leaving the cockpit are very strict,” he says. “It’s inconvenient to get up when the cabin crew is serving refreshments, too, so we tend to hold it in.”

10. THEY SHAKE THEIR HEADS AT THE “PASSENGER EMBELLISHMENT FACTOR.”

The “PEF” is pilot slang for travelers who tend to exaggerate the sensations of air travel. “Even in rough turbulence, the plane is never changing altitude more than 10 or 20 feet either way,” Smith says. “There’s this idea it’s plummeting hundreds of feet. Not true. Same with take-offs and descents. The nose is, at most, 20 degrees up or 5 degrees down. If I put you in a 30-degree nose-down descent, you’d know how steep that really is.”

11. CO-PILOTS AREN’T SIDEKICKS.

Despite what movies and television would have you believe, a co-pilot is not some kind of subordinate apprentice who looks to the captain for all the answers. “Co-pilots are fully qualified pilots,” Auxier says. “They could just as easily be the pilot. That is solely a factor of seniority.” Smith bristles when media outlets refer to a singular pilot in stories: “We normally take turns. If one of us flies to London, the other flies back to New York. There are two pilots.”

12. AUTOPILOT ISN’T CODE FOR “NO PILOT NEEDED.”

Another pilot pet peeve: the idea they climb into a cabin and watch a computer do their job for them. “A plane no more flies itself than a high-tech operating room performs an organ transplant by itself,” Smith says. “There are routing changes, communications issues, navigational issues, monitoring fuel burn. There is always some task going on. We might not have our hands on the wheel as often as we did years ago, but we’re still flying it.”

13. THE UNIFORM GETS THEM A LOT OF RESPECT. (IN FOREIGN COUNTRIES.)

“Pilots in uniform seem to receive more respect when flying overseas than in the U.S.,” Smith says. “Culturally, I don’t know what it is. In some countries, maybe it’s that air travel is not taken for granted as much. In West Africa, little kids come running over to you. All the crew members are addressed as captain. They’ll salute you.”

14. BEING ON FOOD STAMPS IS NOT A MYTH.

Major media has gotten a lot of play out of profiling pilots who are paid so little that they sometimes apply for food stamps in order to make ends meet. While this is more common in regional circles, Tim says it’s not far-fetched, either. “People always seem to assume that if you fly for an airline in any capacity that you're loaded,” he says. Regional pilots can make as little as $21,000 a year, according to Bloomberg, while the cost of flight training can exceed six figures.

15. THEY REALLY LOVE LANDINGS.

Owing to many flight techniques being computer-assisted, pilots tend to appreciate landings, which are still almost fully operated by the human hands in the cockpit. “It’s something that requires all of our skills,” Auxier says. “It’s where a lot of the job satisfaction comes from. It’s a volatile industry with no guarantees. You need to just enjoy the journey.”

All images courtesy of iStock.

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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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10 Facts About the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier
May 29, 2017
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Library of Congress

On Veterans Day, 1921, President Warren G. Harding presided over an interment ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery for an unknown soldier who died during World War I. Since then, three more soldiers have been added to the Tomb of the Unknowns (also known as the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier) memorial—and one has been disinterred. Below, a few things you might not know about the historic site and the rituals that surround it.

1. THERE WERE FOUR UNKNOWN SOLDIER CANDIDATES FOR THE WWI CRYPT. 

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

To ensure a truly random selection, four unknown soldiers were exhumed from four different WWI American cemeteries in France. U.S. Army Sgt. Edward F. Younger, who was wounded in combat and received the Distinguished Service Medal, was chosen to select a soldier for burial at the Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington. After the four identical caskets were lined up for his inspection, Younger chose the third casket from the left by placing a spray of white roses on it. The chosen soldier was transported to the U.S. on the USS Olympia, while the other three were reburied at Meuse Argonne American Cemetery in France.

2. SIMILARLY, TWO UNKNOWN SOLDIERS WERE SELECTED AS POTENTIAL REPRESENTATIVES OF WWII.

One had served in the European Theater and the other served in the Pacific Theater. The Navy’s only active-duty Medal of Honor recipient, Hospitalman 1st Class William R. Charette, chose one of the identical caskets to go on to Arlington. The other was given a burial at sea.

3. THERE WERE FOUR POTENTIAL KOREAN WAR REPRESENTATIVES.

WikimediaCommons // Public Domain

The soldiers were disinterred from the National Cemetery of the Pacific in Hawaii. This time, Army Master Sgt. Ned Lyle was the one to choose the casket. Along with the unknown soldier from WWII, the unknown Korean War soldier lay in the Capitol Rotunda from May 28 to May 30, 1958.

4. THE VIETNAM WAR UNKNOWN WAS SELECTED ON MAY 17, 1984.

Medal of Honor recipient U.S. Marine Corps Sgt. Maj. Allan Jay Kellogg, Jr., selected the Vietnam War representative during a ceremony at Pearl Harbor.

5. BUT THE VIETNAM VETERAN WASN'T UNKNOWN FOR LONG.

Wikipedia // Public Domain

Thanks to advances in mitochondrial DNA testing, scientists were eventually able to identify the remains of the Vietnam War soldier. On May 14, 1998, the remains were exhumed and tested, revealing the “unknown” soldier to be Air Force 1st Lt. Michael Joseph Blassie (pictured). Blassie was shot down near An Loc, Vietnam, in 1972. After his identification, Blassie’s family had him moved to Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery in St. Louis. Instead of adding another unknown soldier to the Vietnam War crypt, the crypt cover has been replaced with one bearing the inscription, “Honoring and Keeping Faith with America’s Missing Servicemen, 1958-1975.”

6. THE MARBLE SCULPTORS ARE RESPONSIBLE FOR MANY OTHER U.S. MONUMENTS. 

The Tomb was designed by architect Lorimer Rich and sculptor Thomas Hudson Jones, but the actual carving was done by the Piccirilli Brothers. Even if you don’t know them, you know their work: The brothers carved the 19-foot statue of Abraham Lincoln for the Lincoln Memorial, the lions outside of the New York Public Library, the Maine Monument in Central Park, the DuPont Circle Fountain in D.C., and much more.

7. THE TOMB HAS BEEN GUARDED 24/7 SINCE 1937. 

Tomb Guards come from the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment "The Old Guard". Serving the U.S. since 1784, the Old Guard is the oldest active infantry unit in the military. They keep watch over the memorial every minute of every day, including when the cemetery is closed and in inclement weather.

8. BECOMING A TOMB GUARD IS INCREDIBLY DIFFICULT.

Members of the Old Guard must apply for the position. If chosen, the applicant goes through an intense training period, in which they must pass tests on weapons, ceremonial steps, cadence, military bearing, uniform preparation, and orders. Although military members are known for their neat uniforms, it’s said that the Tomb Guards have the highest standards of them all. A knowledge test quizzes applicants on their memorization—including punctuation—of 35 pages on the history of the Tomb. Once they’re selected, Guards “walk the mat” in front of the Tomb for anywhere from 30 minutes to two hours, depending on the time of year and time of day. They work in 24-hour shifts, however, and when they aren’t walking the mat, they’re in the living quarters beneath it. This gives the sentinels time to complete training and prepare their uniforms, which can take up to eight hours.

9. THE HONOR IS ALSO INCREDIBLY RARE.

The Tomb Guard badge is the least awarded badge in the Army, and the second least awarded badge in the overall military. (The first is the astronaut badge.) Tomb Guards are held to the highest standards of behavior, and can have their badge taken away for any action on or off duty that could bring disrespect to the Tomb. And that’s for the entire lifetime of the Tomb Guard, even well after his or her guarding duty is over. For the record, it seems that Tomb Guards are rarely female—only three women have held the post.

10. THE STEPS THE GUARDS PERFORM HAVE SPECIFIC MEANING.

Everything the guards do is a series of 21, which alludes to the 21-gun salute. According to TombGuard.org:

The Sentinel does not execute an about face, rather they stop on the 21st step, then turn and face the Tomb for 21 seconds. They then turn to face back down the mat, change the weapon to the outside shoulder, mentally count off 21 seconds, then step off for another 21 step walk down the mat. They face the Tomb at each end of the 21 step walk for 21 seconds. The Sentinel then repeats this over and over until the Guard Change ceremony begins.

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