Book Review: Cockpit Confidential

Disclosure to readers: This book was provided to me as a complimentary copy by the author’s publicist.

Disclosure to the author’s publicist: I would have paid for this book in a heartbeat.

I am not a pilot but I fly a couple hundred thousand miles a year so I concede some curiosity about what happens on the hidden side of the flight deck. And I know there are many readers who would love an opportunity to fly in the jump seat for the experience, learning, and conversation. Think of this book as your chance to fly sitting next to a pilot who will answer all your questions, one at a time.

Veteran pilot Patrick Smith wrote Cockpit Confidential based on his Ask the Pilot column for Salon magazine. To personify his background and qualifications, Smith notes that his flying fascination – like nearly every pilot – began in his developing years. However, unlike many of his peers, his passion came more from the aircraft itself than the flying experience. Smith certainly enjoys flying – he began in his mid-teens – but it is clear from his writing that he has even more wanderlust for the destinations, the “theater of travel” as he calls it. In his words: “You’re not just flying. You’re traveling.”

The paperback format is 300 pages of mostly questions and answers, presented in seven chapters. Some of the Q&A may be basic to certain readers but Smith is thinking ahead to his general audience of infrequent, uninformed, scared passengers who question everything. But we are BoardingArea readers so our perspective is a bit different. Through stories and anecdotes, we follow the author’s professional career from his first position flying for a regional carrier to flying cargo to settling in on the right side for commercial aircraft.

I love how Smith talks about turbulence the same way others might talk about flatulence – just a minor irritation that bothers some people but really not a big deal. He gives a few examples how things like turbulence and windshear are annoying but really don’t affect the safety of the aircraft even though he understands how some passengers might be frightened to death.

Throughout the book, we learn much about the author’s personal opinions. For example, Smith has quite a few ideas about ways to improve airports, especially U.S. airports which earn demerits for things like constant PA chatter about flights and tv screens at the gates that he says are too loud. He also tells us something most of us already know – international airports are far superior to their American counterparts. His favorite: Incheon (ICN) in Seoul, South Korea. In his perfect world, there would more airport amenities like open design, free wi-fi, free showers, and areas to simply relax. Hey, everyone would like that.

He is also not embarrassed to make suggestions to airline management but he devotes the most op-ed pages to thoughts about TSA. It was actually comforting to hear that TSA stopped him at security because of a knife similar to what is used in-flight. Ah, I thought, finally a pilot who joined the harassment club. His TSA rant is long but fair and reasoned, though he did fail to mention PreCheck which has changed the passenger security experience for many travelers.

Before picking up the book, I imagined Patrick Smith was the captain of a legacy carrier, at least late 50’s if not 60’s, maybe writing this as his swan song just before retiring. Not even close. Smith is a relatively young pilot, mid-40’s. Like all pilots who speak publicly and give their personal opinions, Smith doesn’t disclose his airline. But of course, we are frequent fliers and can’t let this escape. Hmm, he is based in New York, loves every aircraft that begins with B, flies a lot of international, his favorite aircraft is the 747, and he flies to…

Okay, enough. If you want more hints, buy the book. And yes, many of you will likely figure out his airline but even if the clues come up short for you, the fun is in the attempt at least as much as the answer.

If you are truly afraid to fly, this book might not be for you. While the author does his very best to put readers at ease about flying concerns – indeed, over-discussing air tragedies in my opinion – some people will no doubt never be able to get over the fear hump. For everyone else, this book is a great resource that answers most if not all of your flying questions.

For serious av geeks, you will probably feel like someone is talking dirty to you when Smith shares words like thrust, airfoils, and ailerons. Nearly every question I had about the aviation part of flying was answered in this book. On the personal side as a fellow non-fiction book author, I appreciate the extreme amount of time that went into the book manuscript preparation. Time well spent, author Smith. A great, fun read for everyone who flies.

You can order Cockpit Confidential directly from his website or other sites like Amazon and Barnes & Noble. Both paperback and eBook versions are available.

If this book inspires you to bring out your inner pilot like it did with me, here are five free flight sim games that you might want to look at.


  1. “His favorite: Incheon (ICH) in Seoul, South Korea.”

    The code for Incheon is ICN.

  2. Thank you, Carol, for the kind review of my book.

    One thing I’d like potential readers to understand, however, is that this isn’t merely a book about airplanes, or about flying per se. The topics include everything from airport architecture to terrorism to the colors and cultures of the world’s airlines.

    If you ask me, the best part of the entire book is probably the essay in chapter 7, “The Yin & Yang of Airline Identity,” in which the largest airlines’ liveries and logos are critiqued and graded.

    The nuts-and-bolts flying questions are concentrated mainly in chapters 1-3. There’s plenty of coverage of the most common fear-of-flying concerns (turbulence, aborted landings, etc), but my primary audience isn’t the fearful flyer so much as the FREQUENT FLYER. Or, as the publisher and I put it:

    “A wry, thoughtful, and at times provocative look into the confounding world of commercial air travel, this is the ideal take-along for frequent flyers, nervous passengers, world travelers, and anybody yearning for an enlightened, behind-the-scenes look at the strange and misunderstood business of commercial aviation.”

    “Cockpit Confidential” is a re-write of my first book, “Ask the Pilot” (2004). It’s everything “Ask the Pilot” should have been, but was not. Virtually all of the content has been updated, expanded and revised in some way. Approximately 65 percent of the material is all-new, including new essays, sidebars, a glossary, and substantially expanded questions-and-answers sections.

    And I really appreciate your comment on the manuscript preparation. This wasn’t something I slapped together in a few weeks. The essays in particular underwent a seemingly endless process of revising, editing and corner-smoothing before I finally signed off on them. I’m happy that somebody noticed.

    Patrick Smith

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