Travel: The great equalizer

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Part of the fun of being an airline pilot are the various destinations we get to travel to, and what we can find there. Where those destinations are depend on what type of airline you fly for. Pilots at regional airlines in the U.S. may enjoy exotic destinations like I did early in my flying career – places like Flint, Michigan; Champaign, Illinois; or Williamsport, Pennsylvania. As humdrum as those may sound, they did offer something a little different, and with the possible exception of Newark, New Jersey (sorry NJ friends), I found something interesting about all of them.

As I moved to a larger airline, the destinations grew in size and diversity. Being based at home in Seattle for several years meant my destinations were limited to two cities in Hawaii – Honolulu and Kahului Maui. As the airline grew my choices did too, and soon I was a Captain based in Honolulu, still commuting from Seattle. My destinations expanded to include cities in Australia, New Zealand, Japan, the Philippines, Tahiti, and Korea. It wasn’t just the cities themselves that were different, but the flying was too. The air traffic controllers spoke with accents that could cause us to ask for a repeat of instructions, and the actual rules we flew under could be different too in terms of speeds, altitudes, etc. Each destinations had its own quirks that we worked hard on knowing before we went for the first time. But unless we were one of the very first flights to a new city for our airline, there was usually at least one of the pilots onboard who had been there before, and could act as a guide for the rest of us.

Once in a new city, I always made a point to get out and see what it held, and I was never disappointed at what I found. Sometimes it was a famous landmark like the Sydney Opera House. Other times it might be a small family-run restaurant with exotic foods and friendly people who didn’t speak English, but were happy to have us visit anyway. But what I always found was that the people in these cities were like everyone we knew back home: Young giggling girls walking home from school, businessmen rushing about with cell phones glued to their ears, and hawkers selling their trinkets to tourists on street corners. The languages may differ, but the people remained the same.

I knew all my previous travel experience would probably be thrown out the window however when I made my first trip to Beijing, China. That was a route my airline had recently started, and despite the fact that I was relatively junior in my position, and had been spending most of my time teaching ground school and simulator instead of flying, there it was on my schedule – a trip to Beijing.

Having taught a number of pilots about procedures for flying in China, I knew them at least superficially. But having to do it in real life would be quite a test, because flying in China is unlike anything we’ve done before. Instead of flying a certain number of feet above the ground, China uses meters. We had to develop a system for our pilots to be able to make the transition and fly the altitudes they requested, even when the numbers between feet & meters didn’t match up exactly. Language was another barrier, as it had been reported that the Chinese controllers had almost impenetrably thick accents. Also, more than 90% of the airspace in China is ‘owned’ by the military, and if you wanted to take a shortcut or divert around a building thunderstorm, your request was usually denied.

Then there are the residual images and impressions of the Chinese people left by decades of mistrust between our nations. When I was a very young kid in the late ‘60s I remember asking my mother who America’s biggest enemy was. Her answer was ‘Red China’. It took me half an hour with an atlas followed by additional questioning of her to realize what she meant by that. To a youngster back then, China just meant interesting food and really strange looking buildings. China has obviously changed in the nearly 50 years since then, but In the back of my mind were those images. What would the people be like? What would I find if I went out for a look at the city?

So it was with more than the usual first-trip trepidation that I set out from Honolulu for Beijing. Our schedule was pretty brutal. We were blocked at 12 ½ hours enroute, leaving at 11:45pm and arriving at a little after 6am local time. The entire 12+ hours of the flight would be at night. The good part was having four pilots on the trip so we could all get a nice rest enroute. I got to fly that leg in, so after flying for five hours then going to sleep in the bunk for another five hours, I awoke to find us about to cross over Korea. Soon it was time to switch to Chinese controllers and change our altitude to an assigned number of meters. Along the way I had the other pilots in the cockpit assisting with charts or interpretations of the controller’s instructions. We descended into the thick fog covering Beijing that late fall morning, and almost before we realized it, we were on the ground. With all the preparation beforehand, the actual flight turned out to be much easier than expected.

We were only scheduled to be on the ground for a little over 18 hours, with a planned departure time of 1:15am early the next day. But because of all the rest we’d received enroute, I didn’t want to waste my short time in Beijing. After a quick breakfast, the other captain and I took a taxi into town to see Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City. This was his first trip into China too, and he wanted to see the famous locations as well. The fog added an eerie atmosphere to the views as we walked into the square, and I wondered what type of people we’d find. Mindless military robots? Hordes of people chanting for ‘Mao’? Third world citizens who didn’t know an iPad from a block of wood?

No.

What I found were young giggling girls on school tours, businessmen rushing about with cell phones glued to their ears, hawkers in the square selling trinkets to the tourists, and thousands of Chinese families looking as normal as any other group of families I’ve seen in the U.S. It only took a moment to recognize this, and a big smile came across my face. It isn’t the people of the world that cause the misconception and mistrust between nations, but it is the nations themselves, an insular attitude by many people around the globe, and maybe the small number of individuals who may stand to gain from that mistrust. Travel is the great equalizer and a way to open a window on how others live. And in truth, the differences between cultures are much smaller than generally accepted. Sure, the language we listened to that day was different from mine, as were the smells from the food carts and the color of the money we used to pay our admission to the Forbidden City. Those differences add a spice to the experience of visiting a different country but they are much too trivial to worry about, as are essentially all the differences between cultures. Underneath the surface, we’re all equal.

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