1660: Captain Speaking

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Captain Speaking
Oh dang, you have to pay? Hey, has anyone else paid already? If so, can I borrow your phone for a sec?
Title text: Oh dang, you have to pay? Hey, has anyone else paid already? If so, can I borrow your phone for a sec?

[edit] Explanation

At periodic intervals on a commercial flight, the captain of the plane will address the passengers with information about the flight. Typically this will begin with "This is your captain speaking..." and go on to describe the progress of the flight, expected arrival time and other information about the flight such as if or when refreshments will be brought to passengers.

This comic takes this cliché and inverts it. Instead of the captain providing information, the captain tells the passengers that he has apparently forgotten everything about the flight, even down to what kind of plane he is supposed to be flying – although he does think it is a Boeing. He at least discovers the flight number and then plans to use the consumer app Flightaware that is made for tracking flights. He thus hopes to be able to find out what the destination of “his” plane is. But Flightaware requires Wi-Fi access, so he goes on to ask the passengers if anyone know how to access the Wi-Fi. This app was earlier referenced in 1363: xkcd Phone.

This even gets worse in the title text where he realizes that you have to pay for using the on-board Wi-Fi, which means he is trying to access the same Wi-Fi that the passengers have access to instead of using the on-board Wi-Fi that must be in the cockpit (to which he is supposed to have free access). Instead of just paying he then asks the passengers if someone has already paid, because then he would like to borrow their smartphone so he can check the Flightaware app to find out where they are going.

Options for explaining this scenario are:

  1. The "captain" is not a genuine pilot, but has somehow found himself in the position of being in charge of an airplane (this could be a reference to this earlier comic: 726: Seat Selection).
  2. The captain has genuinely fallen asleep and has forgotten what plane he is on...but he has thus also forgotten how to navigate, determine his flight plan, or communicate with air traffic control. In the USA (where xkcd cartoons are normally set), there is normally at least a first officer and a flight attendant on the plane to support the captain.
  3. The captain has been drugged and shanghaied onto the plane. He is now expected to fly and land it for his "employer", but he has chosen to disclaim this fact to his passengers in the least reassuring manner possible.
  4. After taking-off, the captain enters a dissociative fugue state losing his personal identity.
  5. This may be in the future, where auto-pilot is so smart and do so much of the previous job of the pilot that future pilots might forget how to fly altogether.
  6. The captain knows exactly where he is and where they are going, and is playing a Black Hat-style prank on his passengers.

Seeing as how planes cannot take off on auto-pilot (nor can they taxi, but some can actually land), and require a skilled, awake human at the controls, it is unlikely that this captain was responsible for take-off; which must mean this auto-pilot is much more advanced than current models, likely a future model, or that his first officer took off and then went away or asleep. In the event a pilot falls asleep, on medium sized planes, ground- or proximity-, radar would set off an alarm waking the captain if they are on a collision course.

Whilst it is normal for the captain to sleep part of a long flight, this can only occur if there are multiple pilots on the plane. Most flights are on auto-pilot for hours at a time, and the pilots serve primarily for takeoff, landing, and emergencies. He is completely clueless, having to use a consumer app and asking the passengers to get flight details, instead of radioing for help as he probably should. He would easily be able to get the information of where they are going by just asking any of the passengers though.

The fact that the captain is not sure of the flight number is not hard to imagine. Commercial pilots fly multiple flights per day and the numbers all run together after a while. Every radio communication starts with the flight number, but if the captain has been out of commission for some time, the flight number could easily be forgotten. However, he would probably know the aircraft type, as commercial pilots are type-rated for a specific aircraft type and with rare exceptions (e.g. Boeing 757/767) the type is specific to an airframe type. This makes it more likely that he is not professionally qualified, although he could just be rated for so many types of aircraft that it takes him a moment to determine which one is at hand (though such a veteran pilot would be unlikely to have slept through takeoff or forget how to look up flight information from the cockpit).

Three weeks later another plane related joke was released with 1669: Planespotting where it is also an open question if the plane in the comic is actually a Boeing...

[edit] Transcript

[The text is written above a large commercial passenger airplane seen from below as it turns left. The text emanates from the cockpit.]
Captain: This is your captain speaking.
Captain: Gonna be honest-I just woke up and have no idea where I am. Looks like a Boeing of some kind?
Captain: Oh, hey, it says the flight number here.
Captain: Okay, I'm gonna check FlightAware to figure out where we're going.
Captain: Anyone know how to get on the wifi?

[edit] Trivia

  • Real World Parallels:
    • This comic coincided with a newspaper story of British man, Alex Caviel, who after a night out had a vivid dream of being on a plane only to wake up to find himself on a plane landing in Barcelona.
    • The comic was also published shortly after the Flydubai scandal, in which many pilots and former pilots accused the airline of overworking its pilots and causing massive fatigue and stress, shortly after the crash of the flight FZ981. These claims were later waged against the FlyDubai airline. The comic could portray a scenario in which one of the fatigued pilots wake up mid-flight, still suffering from lack of sleep.
    • The comic was released a year and a day after the suicide by pilot crash of Germanwings Flight 9525 on 2015-03-24. This is probably a coincidence as there is no real relation to a pilot that forgets where he is, and then one that deliberately decides to crash a passenger plane killing 150 people, himself included. But for this particular flight the first officer, who crashed the plane, was left alone in the cockpit by the captain, and this was what enabled him to commit the deed. This event thus lead many companies to adopt a rule that there should always be at least two people in the cockpit at all times. But this was not always the case before, and this could explain the situation of the captain in this comic being alone in the cockpit when he "wakes" up.

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Actually captain falling asleep wouldn't be unlikely or problem because there may still be two OTHER people in cabin. But yes, first method to find out where they are going would be to ask those other people in cabin. Next, you should be able to get something from the instruments in cabin - I suspect that modern planes DO have some sort of navigation map there. Failing that, asking tower for flight plan would be not only preferable to trying FlightAware, but you could likely do it without raising TOO much suspicious, pretending you just need some detail. And, yes: captain (or pilot in general) is only needed for pre-flight checks, take-off, landing - and if something unexpected happens, including some extremely bad weather. -- Hkmaly (talk) 14:53, 25 March 2016 (UTC)

Yeah it was badly phrased, pilots do fall asleep from time to time. Some long flights may even have two flight crews, so the pilots can get some shut-eye. It varies, but there is never only one person alone in the cabin as you say, if the co-pilot has to go to the toilet a flight attendant takes his place. As for positioning, older planes have instruments for that too, but they are far less sophisticated, might even require a map and a pencil :-) --Todor (talk) 15:59, 25 March 2016 (UTC)

Not entirely true; I've been on many short commercial flights (20-30 minutes) with one crew. The seat next to the pilot is often a passenger seat - when I sat there, the pilot gave me biscuits... Cosmogoblin (talk) 19:04, 25 March 2016 (UTC)

Just noting, the discussion shows up on main again. 16:00, 25 March 2016 (UTC)

On the main comic page, or on the wiki's main page? It doesn't show up on the wiki's main page for me (and never did). 14:59, 26 March 2016 (UTC)
Yes and it is supposed to show up at the bottom of every explanation to guide people to the discussion pages even though they are not used to using those on the regular Wikipedia. So it was probably as it should be already when the note was made on the release day. --Kynde (talk) 13:05, 28 March 2016 (UTC)

On one of the few flights I got to sit in first class, the flight attendant started to welcome us passengers. She said "Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to..." then stopped. I was sitting in 1B so she said to me, "can I see your ticket?" I gave it to her and she completed the announcement. After she finished, I said quietly "forgot our flight number and where we're going, right?" She kind of sheepishly nodded. :-) I don't blame her though. She doesn't care about the flight number or where we're headed, and with all the flights they have to make, I'd probably forget once in a while too. Gbisaga (talk) 19:16, 25 March 2016 (UTC)

Maybe we ought to split scenario 2 into two parts? One with the futuristic auto-pilot handling everything, and a second explanation where the co-pilot took off? It occurred to me if the sleeping captain would not wake from the extreme acceleration, the radio-chatter during pre-flight and other cabin noises, he would be sleeping very heavily indeed. This might also help explain why he awakes in such a confused state. --Todor (talk) 14:55, 26 March 2016 (UTC)

The whole Alex Caviel story reminds me of Irony of Fate. Well, of how it starts out, anyway. 14:59, 26 March 2016 (UTC)

FlyDubai crash and more
This comic may be in reference to the FlyDubai crash that happened on March 19th, 2016. The flight crew was supposedly severely fatigued. The aircraft that crashed also happened to be a Boeing aircraft similar to the one pictured. FlyDubai is a low cost carrier and they have been stretching their pilots as far as they can, and they apparently found the breaking point. In the US I know we have very strict duty periods for our pilots see FAR §121.473 (see below "Part 121 link"). So I wouldn't worry about flying in the US.
As for each line of text after:
The flight number is probably written down somewhere in the pilots flight notes, so i wouldn't be too hard for them to figure that out. After all they could end up doing multiple flights a day, it could be easy to forget the flight number normally. In Glass cockpits i would imagine the flight number is in the system.
The line about FlightAware, is in reference to the Website/App that shows all aircraft IFR flight plans (unless they pay to hide it). Thus a commercial airliner would show up on the site. It is odd that they would even need FlightAware, because in any aircraft that is new enough to have WiFi there would be a glass cockpit. Glass cockpits are set up before each flight to have the whole route programmed into the system. Which would be generally the same information as on FlightAware, since FlightAware gets the same flight plan that the pilots file with Air traffic Control. The only reason it's not exactly the same is because the pilots could put whatever they want into the flight computer, and may be planning to ask ATC to cut some corners later-on in the flight (which is normal).
Also on a side note: every Commercial Airline flight must be able to fly IFR (also in FAR Part 121 somewhere), which means the aircraft probably has GPS and at a minimum Radio Navigation systems (RNAV). This means that the pilots should always be able to find out where they are, but not where they are going. Also the pilot could just ask ATC or the Dispatcher who is assigned that flight#.
In regards to capability of Autopilots, each aircraft can have a different level of auto pilot from one that can only hold a heading to one that can fly pretty much every minute of the flight. Auto pilots on some of the larger newer planes have an auto land feature usable on CATIII(a,b,c) approaches. However Auto pilots cant talk to ATC or avoid inclement weather (to my knowledge).
Part 121 link: http://www.ecfr.gov/cgi-bin/text-idx?SID=5da31e85f0917eb260f691f628d67096&mc=true&node=pt14.3.121&rgn=div5#se14.3.121_1473
AJ (Airline Employee/Private pilot (not an expert)) 3/25/16 2005Z (talk) (please sign your comments with ~~~~)
Yes the 777 is able to land on autopilot. Father was a 777 pilot and landed in foggy conditions with autopilot when he himself could not see the runway until the wheels touched. sidenote, I believe there is auto throttle for takeoff. (talk) (please sign your comments with ~~~~)
Yeah as AJ mentioned but was somewhat vague about is that even the old 737's have the auto-land system (might have been retro-fitted to conform with newer regulations?), however not every airport support this system, meaning you can't land there on auto-pilot. Also since the auto-pilot, no matter how good, can't handle unforeseen incidents, you still very much need a human pilot. The comic suggests the auto-pilot handles just about everything including events not directly related to flight, which is not the case as of today. --Todor (talk) 14:15, 26 March 2016 (UTC)
Huge comments like the above are why I added a "add topic" button to the discussion template. Mikemk (talk) 07:01, 26 March 2016 (UTC)
I have made such a topic for this, and also moved the comment on 777 down beloe instead on in the mid of this huge comment. I also moved the comment below again down from being posted at the top after Mikemk's comment here above. Hope it will make it possible to read the comments as they are in order of posting.--Kynde (talk) 13:37, 26 March 2016 (UTC)

Maybe the captain is in a fugue state?

Would explain the pilot's confused state, but someone would still have to take-off the plane anyway. It can't do so by itself. --Todor (talk) 23:26, 26 March 2016 (UTC)

Fugue states frequently end suddenly, apropos of nothing, and leave the victim unaware of what has happened for the past while, sometimes years. Maybe he wasn't a pilot before?
4U9525 - Does Munroe have bad timing or bad taste?

Is it just coincidence that this comic was published one year and one day after co-pilot Andreas Lubitz deliberately crashed 4U9525 killing 150 people? https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Germanwings_Flight_9525

I think Randall Munroe is usually to aware of such things to excuse this as just a mishap. This seems to be a tasteless joke on the lines of: "Lol, maybe the pilot was just hung over. Rofl" 15:53, 26 March 2016 (UTC)
I think you're reaching more than a bit there. The idea of someone being in charge of a plane who doesn't know how to fly it is a common enough theme in pop culture that such a reference does not necessarily have anything to do with that sad event.
I do not think Randall published this on account of the anniversary of that event, but I do think it is relevant so it could be put up in the examples under the trivia. Because as opposed to what has been claimed, then for that particular plane the pilot - who did intentionally crash the plane - was left alone in the cockpit and was thus able to lock out the other pilot. The security that should enable them to keep out terrorist then helped him keep out the crew until he had finished his deed. But obviously the pilot in this comic has not evil intentions, but one might fear he will not be able to land the plane, but not crash it on purpose. --Kynde (talk) 12:41, 28 March 2016 (UTC)

I'm pretty sure you have to punch the flight number in the plane's onboard computer prior to takeoff. Might be wrong though 19:36, 27 March 2016 (UTC)

A Boeing 787 can easily fly an entire flight (except takeoff) on autopilot. I think this comic is making fun of the job of modern airline pilot, assuming they just take a nap right after takeoff, with no concern about the progress of the flight until they land. This comic seems to have one of these pilots who has stuck to the tradition of updating the passengers on flight status, even though he really has no idea what that status is. Hubbard (talk) 01:53, 31 March 2016 (UTC)


Thumbs up for the possible causes, good read. Sadly the pilot falling asleep is a regular problem on flights...

Two comments.... my brief stint in aircraft software lead me to understand (at least for the aircraft I was working on) that you could drug a pilot, load him aboard an aircraft, and as long as the route was properly loaded into the flight systems you could wake the pilot mid flight and the plane would let him know in moments where the plane was, what its destination was, and have at hand all the radio frequencies, charts, etc needed for safely landing at the destination - that's probably not how it is for all aircraft. Second, this reminded me somewhat of Varig Flight 254 where the pilots took a wrong turn and found themselves over a jungle and short on fuel 17:54, 9 April 2016 (UTC)

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