If you strolled through a 1950s airport, you would have seen a flight crew of four stride by in step, sporting aviator sunglasses and dressed to the nines. They’d be headed into the office. Up top, where the sky’s blue, the coffee’s hot, and the view can’t be beat. The cockpit they knew had more gauges and switches than the top floor of Frankenstein’s castle, and each crew member was master of his own part of it. They had wild layovers in faraway places that most people only dreamed of ever going. At work and at play, they were a team.
Airline pilots today will tell you that much of the romance has been deleted from that scene—not to mention half the flight crew. The first to get pink-slipped was the navigator, who used to climb up to the sextant port on top of the airplane to consult the stars and figure out the airplane’s position, give or take 5 miles. Next to go was the flight engineer, affectionately known as “the plumber”: the one who looked after the airplane’s systems during flight. When GPS, sensors, and fast processors arrived, these two crew members were told that the functions they once performed could now be handled at lower cost and with greater precision by automation.
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