THE VIEW FROM ATOP : An Airline Pilot's Round-the-World Survey of the Fascination and Follies of Planet Earth

Schiff flies for a major airline out of LAX.

Beginning with Neil Armstrong in 1969, only 12 men have set foot on an extraterrestrial surface. At one time or another, each of these Apollo astronauts has been asked to describe his most memorable lunar experience. One would expect the answers to include comments about exploring another world. But almost unanimously, their most cherished moments were those spent looking back across the blackness of space to see this world.

From our cockpits, we airline pilots likewise have an unusual perspective of Planet Earth that is rarely appreciated by those in the cabin. Passengers don't have our forward view. Instead of gazing at the fleeting landscape, most pass the hours by masticating "plastic" chicken, watching callously edited movies and trying to keep from being crushed by a reclining seat. It is sad that the passengers' concept of flight is mainly determined by what happens in the cabin. If they could spend time on the flight deck, their perception of flight and the world over which we fly would change dramatically.

While I take these notes, we are on a trip around the world, Los Angeles to Los Angeles. This is the first leg of our 11-day flight. Our first destination is Guam, a dot on the map, a fleck of land floating in the Pacific vastness. Far below, the puffy clouds are like sheep grazing on a boundless blue meadow. But ahead, the cumulus grow tempestuously taller, confirming that our route coincides partially with the equatorial front, a caldron of thunderstorms brewed by mixing moist tropical trade winds.

Since a mature thunderstorm contains more destructive energy than a nuclear bomb, it must be avoided. It seems inconceivable that more than 50,000 thunderstorms occur daily over the earth--until you've flown the South Pacific. At times, almost all of them seem to challenge our right to the sky and necessitate the most serpentine flight path imaginable. This inevitably leads to a late arrival and an assortment of complaints from passengers. One of an airline pilot's pet peeves is that passengers judge his performance only by the timeliness of his arrival and the smoothness of his landing. Seldom considered is the skill he might have used to sidestep hazard along the way.

Not long ago, airliners were led across the oceans of the world by navigators who used their sextants to "shoot" the stars in the mystical manner of ancient mariners. Today we depend on a trio of inertial navigation systems that are similar to those used to guide intercontinental missiles. These electronic computers advise when a strong head wind has dramatically slowed our progress, adding to the deceptive effect of slow motion at high altitude. We are suspended in ethereal blackness where nothing seems to move except the fuel gauges.

A patch of turbulence, a change in outside temperature, an increase in groundspeed--these indicate that the jet stream, a meandering river of high-velocity winds, has tired of pushing against us and has veered north to perpetrate its folly elsewhere. And it really is cold outside, dangerously close to the fuel-freeze point of minus 100 degrees Fahrenheit. A lower, warmer altitude is requested from the air-traffic controller in Hawaii, and we discuss with renewed amazement the incongruity that the coldest temperatures in the atmosphere occur above the South Pacific.

Sunday evening suddenly becomes Monday evening. We have crossed the International Date Line, a line on the chart drawn to pacify man's obsession for order and definition. A passenger sends a note to the cockpit, announcing with mock disappointment that he's been cheated out of his birthday. We respond unsympathetically, advising that he should have caught an eastbound flight and celebrated his birthday twice.

Our shadow streaks south of wishbone-shaped Wake Island, a 4 1/2-mile-long atoll that first was put to use in 1935 as a base for Pan American Airways' China Clippers; they couldn't carry enough fuel to cross the Pacific nonstop. Below, the cumulus clouds continue to drift behind with metronomic regularity, casting shadows that resemble small islands on the water. The Pacific's immensity is monotonous. More clouds, more water, more sky. Occasionally when passengers sleep, a pilot breaks the boredom by broadcasting risque jokes on the emergency frequency. Occasionally someone sings or even plays the harmonica. Although this abuse of the emergency frequency is illegal, such diversions rarely last more than a few minutes. And then each pilot returns to his personal bout with the "Pacific blues," a fatiguing form of boredom.

Those in the cabin also do strange things to break the monotony of a long flight. Yemenis have been known to start a campfire in an aisle to cook a meal. Other passengers accustomed to train travel have attempted to climb into overhead baggage compartments for a nap. And then there are the inevitable honeymooners who can't seem to wait to consummate their marriage.

After a 25-hour layover on Guam, we prepare for the next leg of our global odyssey. The dispatcher adds another chart to the maze of preflight paper work spread before us. It contains the speed, course and last known position of every large surface vessel steaming in the vicinity of our route to Hong Kong. Apparently he is concerned about the possibility of a jetliner having to ditch in the Pacific (even though this has never happened).

Our flight to Hong Kong is via "Typhoon Alley," a nickname given to this region when Pacific hurricanes are on the rampage. It can be a severe weather area, but neither it--nor any other part of the world--can be as vicious as "Tornado Alley" in the mid-western United States.

Flying to Hong Kong, I review the published approach instructions for Taipei, an en-route stop. The Taiwanese aviation authorities are sticklers for detail. While on the ground, you are afraid to sneeze without permission . . . in writing . . . in triplicate.

While we are taxiing for takeoff at Taipei, a red light warns us to stop so that a military guard can verify that the aircraft registration number painted on our tail coincides with the one on the flight plan. If the two don't match, we will be escorted back to the terminal building. The guard's machine gun--along with several anti-aircraft batteries surrounding the airport--convinces us that this is one red light we can't afford to run. The guard salutes respectfully, shines a green light and we trundle to the runway.

We are soaring through placid valleys of white cotton candy, banking gently on occasion. Our wings are like outstretched arms that slice through soft cumulus castles. To a pilot, this exhilarating sense of speed and freedom is what flying is all about.

Still, a glance at the chart abruptly returns us to the stark reality of the world below. The aircraft has passed over Makung on Penghu, a small island in the Formosa Strait, and is paralleling a buffer zone intended to immunize the Chinese mainland against trespass by aircraft of the Free World. One notation on the chart informs us to be on the alert for erroneous signals from unlisted radio aids within Red China that could be hazardous to navigation. Another states matter-of-factly that "any aircraft infringing upon the territorial rights of China may be fired upon without notice." We are reminded of the Korean airliner shot down by a Soviet fighter and slide somewhat farther away from the mainland.

Sometime later, with clearance from Hong Kong approach control, we lower the nose and prepare for the world's most unusual landing approach. At first blush, the approach instructions seem confusingly similar to the diagram of an acrobatic routine. Upon reaching the Cheung Chau radio beacon, we descend through globs of nimbostratus clouds while flying a series of graceful figure eights, using the radio beacon as a pivot point. Inbound to the airport we slip out of the soggy overcast and peer through heavy rain. We must now fly 15 miles at only 750 feet above the sea. Forward visibility is only a mile, but 12 miles ahead, the Stonecutters radio beacon urges us to continue. We pass abeam the tip of Hong Kong Island and enter Victoria Harbor, our screaming turbines seemingly unnoticed by those aboard the hundreds of junks below that plod and heel through wind-swept waters.

Crossing Kowloon Beach, we begin a gentle right turn, our eyes straining to see the aiming point, a large orange-and-white checkerboard on the side of a 300-foot-high hill near the approach end of Kai-Tak's runway 13. Tall buildings below stretch for the sky, probing for our belly. The illuminated checkerboard appears like a target at 12 o'clock. We bank the aircraft to avoid the hill and simultaneously descend toward man-made canyons and through torrents of turbulence. Wings level at 200 feet, we are at last lined up with the 8 , 000-foot-long concrete ribbon projecting into the harbor from Kowloon's east shore.

On the ground, I take care of an essential chore: the purchase of a "survival kit." No, not for an en-route emergency. This survival kit contains canned groceries to obviate my having to eat anything cooked or grown in Bombay, our next layover point. Some of the food in Bombay can incapacitate a delicate Western stomach for days. The water makes Mexico's seem like vintage champagne. Anyone who insists on drinking tap water in India should first hold a glassful up to the light to see if anything inside returns the stare.

Now we are high above the South China Sea; the flight engineer asks me to listen to the high-frequency receiver on a channel normally used for air-traffic control. But instead of traffic controllers, we hear Radio Peking's modern-day version of Tokyo Rose spewing her daily dose of political air pollution.

The 115-mile flight across Vietnam takes only 13 minutes and begins over the coastal town of Qui Nhon, south of Da Nang, north of Ho Chi Minh City. Broad, vacant beaches of white sand characterize the irregularly shaped coast and are most inviting. From our perch, Vietnam seems a paradise. But looking carefully, we still can see bomb craters, pockmarks on the face of the earth, on the face of man.

We sweep across the muddy, swollen Mekong River and then the rice-rich fields of Cambodia and Thailand as we prepare for an en-route stop. But while approaching one of Bangkok's two parallel runways, I marvel at what lies between them: a golf course!

A few hours later we are over the narrow, southern extremity of Burma, glimpsing pagodas so large they are visible from seven miles above the earth. Ahead lies the 1 , 000-mile-wide Bay of Bengal and, on the other side, India.

We estimate landing in Bombay at 8 p.m. Greenwich Mean Time (GMT), which is 1:30 a.m. local time. Since Bombay is 5 1/2 hours ahead of Greenwich, we conclude that Indian leaders couldn't decide whether their country should be GMT plus five or six hours, so they compromised. But what form of logic was used by the Guyanese, who decided that their country should be three hours and 45 minutes behind Greenwich? (Local time in Saudi Arabia, by the way, is based on Arabic or solar time, which varies each day according to the sunset.)

Forgive this preoccupation with the hour, but when crossing numerous time zones, it becomes a vital issue. Airline pilots live in constant psychological-physiological turmoil, trying to synchronize their body clocks with the sun.

Our radar indicates that we are passing south of the mouths of the Irrawaddy River, and two hours later we soar over Vishakhapatnam, a fishing village on India's east coast. Fortunately, we are not required to pronounce these strange names. Instead, we use the international phonetic alphabet and report passing "Victor Zulu."

The lights of small towns passing below are like jewels, but those who know this land are not deceived. Despite the Taj Mahal and other wonders, many feel that if the earth needed an enema, this would be the place to stick the tube.

We are cleared for an approach to Bombay's Santa Cruz Airport. The landing lights spike the blackness, and we pray that tonight there are no holy cows on the runway.

Later the crew bus rattles through unlit streets. People are asleep in gutters, on sidewalks and in doorways. An airline crew normally is a jovial group, but during this ride, we are in silent depression. This is the halfway mark of our globe-girdling journey.

The unrelenting monsoon rains have begun their seasonal assault, dampening my spirits and adding fuel to my burning desire to leave. As we do so, on the following day, it is raining so heavily that it might be easier to swim from the terminal to the aircraft than to walk; any three raindrops would nearly fill a coffee cup. It is so hot and humid that unfolding the wilted charts in the cockpit requires the care used to unravel cooked spaghetti.

The runway lights have not survived the deluge and have been replaced by flare pots. As the aircraft gathers speed, the flickering candlelights become indistinguishable blurs. Visibility through the wall of rain is almost nil, and we curse the windshield wipers, which are more noisy than effective. Soon the wings flex and we are airborne.

The flight to Tel Aviv will take six hours, 25 minutes, an hour-and-a-half longer than would be necessary if the Middle East nations could coexist peacefully. Since our destination is Israel, we must fly 850 miles out of the way to avoid Israel's unfriendly neighbors. In this part of the world, flight planning is determined more by the political climate than by winds and weather.

The flight engineer is balancing the fuel tanks and calculating the amount of fuel remaining while monitoring a special communications frequency, listening for news of any reported disturbances in the Middle East. On another receiver, we overhear an Air France pilot relaying a clearance in English from Tehran air-traffic control to a Soviet flight en route from Moscow to Karachi, punctuating the camaraderie that exists between pilots of all nations.

The landing at Tel Aviv is routine, but to some Jewish passengers the view is like seeing their newborn child for the first time. Israel, the promised land.

Later, our engines etch four contrails above the jagged coast of Greece. Flying in the Mediterranean area can put Yankee patience to the supreme test. In Rome, for example, one American pilot, at the end of a long line of aircraft progressing slowly toward the runway, finally lost his patience. On the microphone he exhorted the tower controller with, "Can't you move this parade just a little faster?" There was a pause before the Italian controller announced calmly, "To all aircraft on the ground. Roma Tower going off the air." Traffic movement on the airport came to an abrupt halt, and further efforts to contact the tower were fruitless. Half-an-hour later, the controller keyed his mike and announced with marvelous one-upmanship, "All right, fellas. Now tell me, who's the boss?"

At London's Heathrow Airport--busiest and often the foggiest in Europe--we take off on the last leg of our global journey. Los Angeles is at the far end of a 6,000-mile-long great circle route across the roof of the world, an aerial Northwest Passage.

The throttles are advanced. The aircraft accelerates slowly.

In the cabin, a veteran flight attendant sits in her jump seat facing the passengers. Sensing concern on their faces, she announces on the microphone: "Ladies and gentlemen, you can help by lifting your feet." Obediently, hundreds of feet rise and the aircraft pushes the ground away at nearly 200 m.p.h.

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