Professional flying, pilots with the ''right stuff'' like to say, is hours of sheer boredom interspersed with moments of pure terror. I've been thinking about this recently, talking to some civilian and military pilots, recalling my own experience as a naval aviator and Vietnam combat pilot, and trying to figure out what's behind the Korean airliner tragedy.
There may have been some dark and twisted intelligence plot behind it all. But I believe the episode has more to do with these radically different aspects of flying: the deceptive routine and comfort of a warm and humming cockpit six miles up, as well as the chilling personal demands of flying under the maximum stress that one can never be fully prepared for.
And I think the examination of this balance of boredom and terror by pilots and ground controllers now going on in the Soviet Union as well as the West will do more to prevent another Flight 007 than all the political snorting and saber rattling we're hearing from Washington and Moscow these days.
The Korean Air Lines crew had flown that route from Anchorage many times before, relying (perhaps too casually) on sophisticated navigation equipment that is supposed to be triply redundant. But as was reported this week, that same equipment has failed at least 21 times in recent years, sending United States commercial aircraft as much as 250 miles off course.
When a failure like this is discovered, the tendency among pilots is to focus on the problem, heads down in the cockpit, perhaps oblivious to a lurking interceptor that may be trying to get your attention and force you to land. Or if one discovers that the casual disregard for an assigned route (perhaps to save expensive jet fuel) has brought a prickly response, there's the hope that hunkering down will make it go away.
And every experienced pilot knows of just plain stupid things - hilarious, perhaps, but also potentially disastrous - happening in the cockpit. An airline pilot called to tell me of a pilot and co-pilot inadvertently locking themselves out of the cockpit as the plane flew along by itself. As their passengers looked on, the crew broke down the door to get back in.