Un-Pilotish: Just Say No.


STAR TW

Top of descent with a hundred knots of tailwind. You’ve been asking for a descent for the last forty miles with no success, and you know why: outbounds are climbing below you and worse, they’re staying low nose to nose because of what’s been a tailwind for you since the west coast–but which would be a headwind for them westbound.

So it’s the double-whammy: high, and hot; closing on the altitude crossing restrictions are cramping the descent algorithm–there’s not enough “forward” left to to execute a civilized “down.”

410med

“Cross Fever at 11,000 and 250 knots,” comes the ATC instructions, and I immediately think of a captain I used to fly with in the 1980s who would have, without hesitation, answered, “We can do it–but we’ll have to leave the airplane behind.” Instead, I just say, “Unable.”

I know, I know: we probably could make the crossing restriction, but why play the odds? And if you’ve flown long enough, you know the odds are about 90% that this ain’t the end of the story: the Dreaded Hypotenuse. That is:

STAR TW direct

You’re going to get cleared direct to another point, shaving off the miles of “forward” you were counting on to execute the “down” at a civilized rate–with the same crossing restriction. Last month up in New York Center I heard a commuter pilot on frequency asking for relief on a crossing restriction he had innocently enough accepted fifty miles back: “Can we get relief on that crossing restriction?”

Without missing a beat, NY Center replied, “Absolutely not.” Now who wishes they were a heretic–or wants to leave the airplane behind?

unable 3

And there’s the problem: “unable” is, well, un-pilotish. Which is actually not a bad thing to strive for. Here’s what I’m thinking: for some reason, the “cultural” aspect of being a pilot has insidiously taken on a life of its own: we can do anything, best any challenge, defy gravity, wear ridiculously big watches

–which is a latent “Flavor Flav” urge driving many pilots, which I’ve never understood–and sometimes we forget in the “never say no”  to a challenge mindset that one person we should more often say no to is ourselves. Still with me? Let’s have a new captain flashback.

MFE 31

Fog creeping up the Rio Grande Valley like a ghost; moonless night dark as space. Tons of gas, literally, and paper calculations that equal one good approach to minimums, then divert to San Antonio. Tidy plan. Works well on paper.

Unable? My ass: can do!

OAT 1

After the first missed approach (wow, the ceiling really is below the minimum descent altitude) the new captain consults the F-100′s “Progress–Fuel Predict” readout, which shows enough endurance for a second approach–then a divert to San Antonio.

Today’s captain voice-in-the-head, some 20 years more experienced, says, “Tell yourself no, stupid!” Divert now. For the record–then and now–I’ve never had a big pilot watch, or aviator sunglasses, or a creepy mustache, or any of the other silliness that seems to be part of the pilot stereotype. But I did have that “never back down from a challenge” mentality that I guess lands you in the cockpit in the first place.

fuel mc

“We’re requesting one more ILS, with clearance on request to San Antonio on the missed approach,” the intrepid First Officer relayed to the Approach Controller. Fine, thought the new captain; we can do this.

Second approach, same result: pea soup. On the second missed approach, Departure control sends us to Enroute: “State your request.”

We’d like to go direct San Antonio at 14,000′. San Antonio is now 1/8th mile visibility in fog.  You planning to hold?

Actually, planning to just say no–first to myself, then anyone else offering an uncertain gamble, challenge or no, in flight from now on. How unpilotish–and yet, common-sensical.

We raced the sinking temperature-dewpoint spread blanketing the state south to north with fog and landed in Austin with less fuel than I’d ever seen on the gages before–although my base Chief Pilot, over a couple of beers, told me he’d actually landed with less. He’s a “say no” guy now, too.

And that’s the whole deal: say “no” early–and often. Let Air Traffic Control manage their own airspace congestion without expecting an airshow on your part. Talk yourself out of any bad bets before anyone can even suggest you play the odds.

And above all–avoid the pilot stereotype.  It really doesn’t fly well, despite the mythology.

ramp d

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14 Responses to “Un-Pilotish: Just Say No.”

  1. Randall Sohn Says:

    chris, reminded me of the very (did’ju catch that VERY) early days of the jets where they wern’ t really used to the turbine deals(lufthansa 707), north of chicago, “dis is captain schmidt – and I amm cooming down – right how!”

  2. peggywillenberg Says:

    “We raced the sinking temperature-dewpoint spread blanketing the state south to north with fog”—whoa! Nicely illustrated! Hope you made it in before T = Td. :-)

  3. Whew! Glad it worked out – well written with suspense and sense.

  4. I am located 5 mi. north of KAUS…I can recall 2 days specifically in the past 2 weeks or so of those conditions across the area south of here…took son to KAUS past Mon, darn near Cat III conditions…great write up, as usual….

  5. Jerry Sterner Says:

    Excellent post Captain Manno, enjoyed it. It appears to me that over the years you have become the type of Captain I like to fly with.

  6. What’s a cross fever?

  7. Chris, that’s why I liked flying with you and Ivan Bunda. We all had a strong survival instinct. Glad to hear you shaved the mustache and ditched the “Big Watch”. Nice article.

  8. Good one Chris. I never knew about the big watches. Somehow I have one already…

  9. The pilot stereotype should leave room to expect reasonable clearances. Interesting scenarios.

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