Published in January 2016 issue

A few months ago, my schedule had me flying in and out of Istanbul. I’d never been there before, so I was both intrigued and a bit concerned with what I might find there.

By Clayton Taylor

Sure, I´d flown over Turkey a bunch of times, but you can only tell so much from 39,000 feet. You may recall that the city was once known as Constantinople. It sits on a narrow strip of land at the edge of what might be considered the farthest eastern reaches of Europe. To the north is the Black Sea and to the south the Sea of Marmara, which opens onto the Mediterranean. To the east lies Asia, to the south is the Middle East and to the west sits Europe. Having been part of the original Silk Road, it truly is a meeting place of cultures. The architecture attests to this.

One of the Copilots was receiving his initial operating experience on the airplane, so there were four Pilots scheduled for our flights. On the first round trip, the Captain and the other Copilot had been there before, but, on the second, I was the expert. I knew this was coming, so I paid very  close attention the first time because I knew there would be questions.

Arriving and departing from Istanbul was pretty straightforward and presented no surprises. The only thing I noted was that the air traffic controllers used the term ‘open descent’. In other words, they would say, “Open descent to ten thousand.” The only reason that struck home with us was because that is an Airbus term. Open descent means that the thrust will go to idle and the airplane will descend uninterrupted until it reaches the assigned altitude. Boeing’s term for open descent, by the way, is FLCH, pronounced ‘flich’, for ‘flight level change’.

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In the United States, as well as pretty much everywhere else, the controllers simply say, “Descend to”. Of course, they sometimes say, “Descend via,” which means to fly whatever altitude is depicted on the arrival path for that segment. I think that the physical space on the airport is somewhat constrained, considering the high level of traffic that seems to come and go at a fairly constant rate. My posterior felt the pavement on the taxiways and I decided it was a bit rough, no doubt due to the near constant use. I also noted that the controllers seem to make sure that every Turkish airliner in the area gets what it wants prior to everyone else. If that means that we have to wait 20 minutes to depart, while all the Turkish airplanes on a 20-mile final land, then so be it. Now, to be fair, every single country I have flown into does exactly the same thing. Even the controllers in the good old USA seem to have a penchant for making everyone follow Southwest Airlines. Could it be my imagination? I doubt it.

We went into town to explore, and the first thing I should tell you is that, no, I was unable to find Turkey on the menu at the handful of restaurants I visited, so I settled for the chicken. So much for that lifelong dream!

We visited the Grand Bazaar. I was told to barter with the vendors, but was dismayed when they refused to lower their prices for me. So I didn’t buy very much. Not that I couldn’t afford what they were selling, I simply held my cash based on principle. After all, in China, the vendors won’t respect you unless you bargain hard. Now I sort of regret my decision because there were some cool things on sale. One guy was selling magic carpets. They were indeed nice throw rugs but, even if they did magically fly, and even though I’m an experienced Pilot, I’d be frightened to death while riding around on one.

After touring the Blue Mosque, a beautiful building that sits on the remains of the Byzantine Empire, we walked over to the Hagia Sophia. This stunning bit of architecture was built in the sixth century as a cathedral, but later converted to a mosque. Today, I believe it is just a museum, but one surrounded by some very exquisite landscaping. We tried to enter the museum, but missed closing time by just a few minutes. We then did some more touring on foot before making our way to a rooftop restaurant for a glass of wine and dinner. The weather and views were spectacular.

The crowd at our table slowly grew as other crew members showed up. At one point, it sounded like all the women were talking at once and I had difficulty keeping up. When my ears finally gave up trying to sift through all the noise, I closed off the talking heads and sat there thinking about how unique this day had been for me.

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When I flew for the commuters, now called the regional airlines, I assumed I’d work there until I retired. I had a good job, made OK money and liked what I was doing. I eventually moved on to a major airline and never once regretted the move, but I left several friends behind. Some of the Pilots I’d flown with preferred the commuter, and either feared, or simply did not like the idea of making changes in their life. Others didn’t have all of their college credits, while a few simply never got the opportunity. I know some outstanding Pilots who, because of whatever their particular circumstances were, never got to move up. I think most are happy with their situation, but some are not.

Truth is, although it was neat to be sipping wine on the rooftop of a building in Istanbul, being in your time zone, never more than a few hours from home, and almost never having to fear where or what you eat or drink has its advantages. The regional guys do the same job, but they generally work a lot harder for lower pay and sometimes less respect. I suppose, on the inside, the respect thing drove me forward in those days.

I saw the same thing when I was an Air Traffic Controller. Some guys were content to stay where they were, while others were driven toward bigger and busier contexts. When I talk to friends who are active or retired Controllers and who are also Pilots, most are glad they never pursued flying as a career. These men (I don’t have any female Controller friends) worked shifts and holidays for their entire career, but simply couldn’t face the extended time away from home that comes with being a commercial Pilot. And, actually, when you stop and really figure it out, we Pilots are away from home almost six months a year. Not all at once, but…

The next day, on our departure from Istanbul, I couldn’t help but notice all the ships in the harbor: there must have been a hundred. It looked very much like the port in Singapore, I thought. There were sandy beaches all around, but none looked inviting. But then again, when you’ve walked on the pink sand of Bermuda, well, nothing else comes close. The flight time for our leg back was a little over 11 hours and covered eight time zones. I later figured that, from the time I received my wakeup call at the hotel until I walked in the front door at home, I would have been awake for almost 24 hours. That would include a few hours on the regional jet to get home. Oh, and my commute would also add another time zone.

Much later that day, sitting in the right seat of the car as my wife drove us to our home, I wondered about the commuter Pilots and Air Traffic Controllers that I always believed I’d left behind. As the mile signs whizzed past, I began to wonder whether it had been actually them who had left me behind. I’ve had a great ride but, like everything in this world, it came at a price.

Istanbul was great and I’m glad I went, but I’m not sure I’ll be going back. There are other places on the planet I’d like to see, but the list grows ever smaller. I see a time, now only slightly larger than a speck on my windscreen but growing ever larger, when I will prefer to never be more than a few miles from where I live. I used to laugh about the kids with whom I graduated from high school. Some of them have lived in that small Pennsylvania town for their entire lives and a few have never even left the state. I always wanted to tell them there is so much more, so much to see and experience, but I somehow knew they would likely not understand.

I recently received an email from an attorney who is also an Airways fan. He’s written a few times over the years, and most recently commented about how he liked the new layout and how he wished he too could have been a Pilot. He seemed unhappy with the path he had chosen. It made me laugh because I’d love to be a lawyer; I’ve actually thought about it. After all, knowledge is power. Seeing the world has forced me to understand that I can never truly go back to the innocence of my home town. But, at the same time, I can also see a point when I might be sitting at the little diner on Main Street, talking to a man I’ve known my entire life about absolutely nothing. I won’t be thinking about the gyoza in Japan, the bargains in China, the wine of Paris, the brats in Munich, or the fish tacos at that little hole-in-the-wall in San Diego. Nor about the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul. Nope, all that stuff will be filed away someplace. I wouldn’t trade it all for a million bucks because, even though it’s impossible to go back, I can return with an entirely new perspective.

Some people are not driven to see the world, I get that; but those of you who are probably should see it. And, if you go to Rome, Enrique, our editor, has a few places in mind. But, if you’re content where you are, that’s fine, too. I mean, after all, happiness is like a summer rental—but contentment is much longer lasting and probably all that most of us can hope for.