Entertaining memoir of a career in aviation provides almost too much information

Review: Vivien Horler

Secrets from the Cockpit, by Robert Schapiro (Jonathan Ball Publishers)

I am not a nervous air passenger. I have every faith that the pilots know what they’re doing, and ditto for air traffic control and the maintenance staff.

Now I’m not so sure. In a flying career spanning over 30 years, with the SAAF, SAA and eventually Japan’s Nippon Cargo Airlines, Rob Schapiro discovered all sorts of things could go wrong.

One of the most terrifying was over Alaska when his heavy cargo 747 and a formation four US F-15 fighters found themselves on a collision course in heavy cloud.

To make things worse, the captain on the flight, an ex-British RAF type who always believed he knew better than anyone else, refused to obey frantic instructions to descend and actually tried to climb.

At that moment, writes Schapiro, they suddenly emerged from the clouds and found they were number five in a four-ship formation of F-15 fighters. “Our 747 was so close to jet number four that I could see heat stains around its tailpipe and read the yellow jet-blast warning plaque.”

As a small boy Schapiro was taken to a Cape Town airshow; once he had had his first look in a cockpit he knew he wanted to fly. At Herzlia school his classmates were aiming to be doctors, lawyers and accountants, and people ridiculed him for wanting to become a pilot in the apartheid-era SA Air Force.

Not only was he Jewish – not a good fit with the SA military – but he was poor at maths and a self-confessed loskop. And in 1975 when his military service call-up papers came, he was sent off to the army’s School of Engineers in Kroonstad.

But he made it into the air force, ignoring the constant taunts of “Fokken Jood” – which continued throughout his four-and-a-half years in the military – and learned to fly, getting his wings at just 17, when he was officially too young to drive a car. At 20 he was made a Dakota commander, seeing service during the Border war in northern South West Africa (now Namibia) and Angola.

After that he switched to being a pilot for SAA and then, when sanctions forced SAA to cut many routes, was seconded to Nippon Cargo Airlines. There he flew between Japan and New York over the North Pole, frequently with stops in Anchorage in Alaska.

In the process he amassed a wealth of terrifying and hilarious tales which, after he retired in 2010, he wrote down. Some of his anecdotes are great stories, others you don’t, as regular passenger in the days before Covid, really want to know. But it makes for a thoroughly readable and entertaining book.

Forget the legendary “mile-high” club of sex in aircraft bathrooms, he writes. Most onboard sex takes place right on the passenger seats. When giggling air hostesses asked the pilots what to do, they would generally be advised to chuck a couple of blankets over the pair and let them get on with it.

The pilots also knew what to do when a bunch of passengers – often sports teams – got raucous. The engineer would slowly raise the cabin altitude on the pressurisation system, reducing the oxygen supply. And then he would lower the cabin temperature.

“It rarely failed. Within an hour, everyone in the cabin would be asleep. The occasional cost was having to give supplementary oxygen to a couple of elderly folk…”

But this book is about more than pilot shenanigans and seat sex:­ there’s a goodly bit of aviation too. I enjoyed it immensely.



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