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Sky Writing

Claim:   Writing "Fast. Neat. Average." on a piece of paper or napkin and passing it to a flight attendant will get you invited up to visit an airliner's cockpit.

OUTDATED

Example:

A friend told me how to get a free visit to the cockpit during a flight. He says I should write "fast, neat, average" on a piece of paper and ask an attendant to give it to the pilot. Is he putting me on?
 

Origins:   On 6 February 2003, a passenger on a Chicago-bound American Trans Air plane departing from Ronald Reagan National Airport in Washington, D.C., handed a note reading "Fast. Neat. Average." to a flight attendant and asked her to deliver it to the pilot. The pilot, puzzled by the note
and suspicious of the passenger's motive in sending it to him, contacted airport police and headed the aircraft back to the gate. The note-writer was taken off the plane and detained for questioning, while the flight departed (over an hour late) without him.

The passenger was attempting to engage in what might be called "fraternal identification" — the exchange of coded messages or signs not generally known to outsiders (such as a password or a secret handshake) to indicate membership in a particular group or organization. Unfortunately for the hapless note-writer, neither he nor the pilot belonged to the group whose "secret sign" he was invoking, creating a misunderstanding that led to a delayed flight and police custody for an innocent youth who wanted nothing more sinister than to visit the cockpit of an airliner. All of which demonstrates how dangerous folklore can be in the hands of inexperienced practitioners:
Airline spokeswoman Angela Thomas said the man asked that the note be given to the pilot. But the pilot had no idea what it meant.

Airport police took the man into custody, but after several hours of questioning and background checks he was released, an airport spokeswoman said. The man was not identified. The flight left one hour 15 minutes late, and arrived in Chicago without further incident.

According to Thomas, the man initially claimed to be an Air Force Academy cadet, and said the message on his note would have been understood by an Air Force pilot. The ATA pilot did not have military experience.

Air Force Academy spokesman Lt. Greg Hignite said airline officials told him the man later said he was a neighbor of a cadet who attends the academy in Colorado Springs, Colo.
The group the passenger was referencing with his coded message was the fraternity of Air Force Academy graduates. Many commercial airline pilots have Air Force backgrounds, and the phrase "Fast. Neat. Average." is one which a fellow Air Force Academy alumnus is expected to recognize:
Form O-96 is used by cadets at their table in Mitchell Hall to report on the quality of food and service. The real intent is to use the Form O-96 as a training aide to teach fourth classman how to fill out an Air Force form (black pen, within the space given); how to make corrections on a form (single line through and initials); how to properly make comments, including negative ones, on an official form; and how to follow procedures in a short period of time under pressure. USAFA folklore explains the normal blocks to check if the meal and service were fine: fast (service), neat (server's appearance), average (portion size).
In this ritual, a pilot's receipt of a note bearing the phrase "Fast. Neat. Average." is understood to be a request from another Academy graduate or cadet to visit the cockpit; the pilot signals acceptance of the request by returning the message "Friendly. Good. Good." (the other three blocks normally checked on the form referenced above). The ubiquity of these code words at the Academy was noted by President George H.W. Bush, himself a naval aviator during World War II, in his remarks at the Air Force Academy commencement ceremony in 1991:
The men and women you will soon be leading are the best educated and most motivated anywhere, anytime, ever. You know the standards. You know, I was tempted to ask General Scowcroft how he thought I was performing during the war, but I was afraid he'd say, "Fast, neat, average, friendly, good, good." [laughter]
Unfortunately for the passenger on the 6 February flight, the pilot of his flight had never attended the Academy or heard the Pilot phrase "Fast. Neat. Average." As Air Force spokesman Capt. Peter Kerr noted of the passenger who sent the message, "This is probably someone who understood some of the lore but didn't think it through the whole way. Obviously, the world has changed since 2001."

That last sentence is the key to the "not any more" rating for this item. Although it is certainly true that this exchange of symbols has been successfully used in the past by passengers hoping to garner cockpit visits from co-operative pilots, in the post-September 11 world anything unusual connected with commercial airline flights, no matter how innocuously intended, is bound to bring scrutiny and investigation. With the heightened security regulations now in place for commercial flights (especially those concerning the presence of non-flight crew members in the cockpit), the invocation of this bit of lore now carries the risk that an expectant passenger will be escorted off a plane by airport police rather than be escorted up to the cockpit by a flight attendant.

Last updated:   30 May 2010

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Sources:

    Shaver, Katherine.   "Puzzling Note to Pilot Delays Flight at National."
    The Washington Post.   7 February 2003   (p. A2).

    Playboy.   "The Playboy Advisor."
June 2003   (p. 48).

    USA Today.   "Strange Note Forces Washington, D.C. Plane Back to Gate."
Associated Press.   6 February 2003.