Archive for the aircraft maintenance Category

Airline Insider: Bob Crandall on the Airline Industry.

Posted in air travel, aircraft maintenance, airline industry, airline pilot, airline pilot blog, passenger with tags , on March 30, 2013 by Chris Manno

Robert Crandall is the former CEO of AMR and President of  American Airlines. He is largely credited with post-deregulation airline innovations such as frequent flyer programs and the hub and spoke system which to this day remain the blueprint for the modern airline industry.

Mr. Crandall gives very straightforward answers to my questions regarding airline deregulation, government and state department failures, foreign investment in US airlines, airline alliances, off-shore aircraft maintenance and more. Listen to this thirty minute interview by clicking on the link below.

Or, to download, click here.

This interview and all JetHead Live episodes are available on the “Jethead Live: Archives” tab in the right column, as well as on iTunes (click on the logo below).


After the storm: fly home–but not so fast.

Posted in air travel, aircraft maintenance, airline delays, airliner, airlines, airport, flight, flight crew, jet, jet flight, night, pilot, weather, wind shear with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 26, 2011 by Chris Manno

After the divert to Wichita Falls, time to gas and go: Flight Dispatch says DFW is accepting arrivals. That’s all we needed to hear–we’re refueled and refiled with Air Traffic Control. As soon as we’re released by tower, we’re in the black night and headed south to DFW at 280 knots.

Would be flying faster, but 280 is the best turbulence penetration speed and though the ride’s not overly bumpy, the latticework of cloud to cloud lightning straight ahead promises roughness. We’re making a beeline for one of the four arrival corner posts for DFW at 10,000 feet.

Things will happen fast on a 70 mile flight, and the First Officer is flying: he’s sharp, and that allows you as captain to oversee all of the preparation, the checklists, the navigation and most importantly, the radar. Approaching midnight, we’re now 12 hours into our pilot duty day, but regardless, there is still the same roster of tasks to be accomplished–and they don’t care how tired you are, they must be accomplished correctly.

Getting a good look at the current radar sweep and things look ugly. The cells have broken up and are scattered like mercury all over the place. The DFW airport arrival information is automated: weather, winds, runway–all printed out from the on-board data link printer. The DFW info says landing south–so you set up frequencies, courses and descent altitudes in both sides of the Flight Management System, as well as both pilot panels. While he flies, you brief the approach.

Have to swing wide around storms–request a descent to get below scud blow-off you can’t see on radar, but which you detect because it’s blocking the pattern of ground lights you know should be Denton. As soon as we begin descent, the master caution light glares in front of your face, along with a pressurization clue. A quick glance at the pressurization control panel above the F/Os head shows we’re holding cabin pressure fine, it’s just that we never reached the programmed cruise altitude and the computer is confused.

“Off schedule descent,” you say, punching off the warning light. Reset the cruise altitude to 5,000, which is lower than where you are, to let the computer recalculate and catch up.

“Radar vectors to 35 Center,” says the air traffic controller. Dammit–we set everything up for a south landing per the DFW info.

“ATIS says DFW landing south,” you say, making sure there’s absolutely none of the annoyance you feel in your voice.

Pause, wherein you can imagine the controller saying to someone the ATIS is wrong. “I’ll check on that, but plan north.

Redo the courses, rebrief for the F/O, reinsert the proper approach in the FMS and extend the centerline for intercept. Complete the checklist down to configuration, validate the Heads Up Display Data. Staring at the lights of The Ballpark in Arlington miles south, doing the math on descent rates versus final turn altitude based on a left turn thereabouts. Looking good.

A loud snap as the autothrottles kick off. “I’ve got them back on,” you say, reaching up to reinstate the system. F/O nods, concentrating on flying.

Now ask yourself why they tripped off. No failures annunciated–they wouldn’t have reinstated with an internal failure. And it’s not that choppy. Has to have been a power interruption. Glance up–sure enough, there it is.

The left generator bus source is gone. Is it the generator or the bus that’s failed? Regardless, we’re flying with only one electrical source–the right generator. Not good.

First instinct is to start the Auxiliary Power Unit (APU), a small jet engine in the tail that can provide electrical power and pressurization air–but wait.

If the fault is in the left electrical bus, adding the APU generator could either cause a fire, or take down the APU generator. Be patient.

Although you know the right generator has assumed the power load–so the bus must be okay–why take chances?

“We’ve lost the left generator,” you say, reaching for the Quick Response Handbook. “I’ll take care of it. “F/O nods.

The procedure confirms what you deduced. Within a couple minutes, you have the APU running and power restored. Follow the QRH procedure exactly; better to have two electrical sources–if you’re down to one, if it fails, it’s going to get dark and ugly: flying with limited instruments and systems on 30 minutes of battery back up. In the weather, at night. We can do it–but would rather not.

Left base turn from an angling downwind. Mike’s doing a good job–he sees the bad angle and is slowing and calls for dirtying up with flaps and gear. The runway’s coming into view on my side. Good altitude and speed; the intercept of glideslope and course will be fine.

Tower calls the winds “130 at 18.”

Dammit. The limit is 15. With the 50 degree offset, we’re close. Legal, but you don’t like flirting with limits. Even on a long runway.

“Continue,” you say to Mike’s inquiring look–he’s done the math too. But you’re just about decided to abandon the approach. But no need to rush anything. Rushing is never good.

“I’ll rebug you to 40″ you say, changing configuration as required by the tailwind, “and brakes 3.” He nods.

At a thousand feet, it’s clear that the tailwind is unstable and variable–you can tell from our ground speed versus the airspeed.

No good. “Let ‘s take it around,” you say. He nods, adds power–the descent stops.

“Here comes flaps 15,” you recite the litany for him,”positive rate, gear coming up. Missed approach altitude set.”

“American 245 is on the go,” you tell the tower.

“Fly runway heading, maintain two thousand,” says the tower.

Fine; nearly there–reset the throttles from N1 to speed, reset both FMC from climb to capture. Reset both course windows and MDA–because we’re going to land south. Reprogram the FMS for the 17s.

“I’m going to teardrop you out to the east, then bring you around for a final to the south,” says the controller. “Can you do that?”

Eyeballing the radar: nastiness to the northeast, but there’s some room.

“Give us five miles,” you answer. No need to rush–make this correct, hit every step. F/O nods. “Then turn us back in.”

Slowing, getting dirty. Left sweeping turn.

“Do you see the runway?” asks tower. You do–you give a thumbs up to Mike. He nods.

“Affirmative,” you answer.

“Cleared visual approach, cleared to land, 17 Right.”

Confirm the Right runway freqs, MDA and courses set. “I’ll bug you back up to 30,” you say, changing configuration again: don’t need a whole lot of drag without the tailwind and with a possible wind shear. Mike nods.

Glideslope is rough. You’re on a hair trigger to go around again–there’s plenty of fuel to hold or go north to Oklahoma City or south to Austin. Be alert, be patient.

Increasing wind; good sign–but it has to stay within controllable limits. Mike’s doing a fine job wrestling the jet onto glidepath. The Boeing is a steady machine–an MD80 would be a bucking bronco in this.

Below 500 feet–you’re call: it’s stable enough, we’re good. If Mike wants to go-around, we sure will, but we’re good.

Over the threshhold, Mike puts it down; speedbrakes deploy, he yanks in full reverse, the jet slows.

“Nice job,” you say, taking over as we slow to 80 knots.

After landing checklists, taxi in. Careful, do the job right all the way to the chocks. Engine shutdown.

Passengers deplaning, our shutdown checklists complete. You’re writing up the left generator in the maintenance logbook, a mechanic is already on the jetbridge waiting.

“You can take off, Mike,” you say, “I’ll finish up here.” Meaning you’ll do the final “after all passengers have deplaned” checklist items to power down the aircraft. That’s a courtesy you do–you’re the captain, you leave last. He did a great job tonight–respect that.

We fist bump, he leaves.

You finish up: packs off, recirc fans off, cockpit power off. Grab your bags. Slip out of the gate area past the 160 passengers who have no idea what transpired between Wichita Falls and their safe landing a few minutes ago. Nor should they–that’s what they pay you for.

Fresh air feels good, outside waiting for the employee bus to the parking lot. Nearly 1am, got to get home and get some rest–flying again tomorrow.

One Pilot’s Perspective: 737 vs. MD80

Posted in air travel, aircraft maintenance, airliner, airlines, flight, flight crew, jet, pilot with tags , , , , , on December 11, 2010 by Chris Manno

Well I have to confess, I’ve been a little “out of touch.”

Since the early 90′s, I’ve been flying the MD80, assuming as I did that as airliners went, the jet was comparable to other commercial airliners.

What a wake-up call.

In the past twenty years, technology has marched on in all manufacturing and the airline biz is no exception. Sure, there have been several add-on systems that have helped the MD80 struggle along in today’s airline environment. But that’s pretty much the macro and micro view of the problem with the MD80: rather than redesign, MacDonnell-Douglas just added a few things to an already aging airframe.

By contrast, Boeing has kept pace with new capabilities by redesigning and refining what’s worked well. When they enlarged the 737 to the present -800 model I fly, they added more wing and more power with the newest CFM-56 engines with 27,000 pounds of thrust each. Douglas stretched the DC-9 by adding fuselage plugs before and after the same old wing.  And the engines are the same Pratt & Whitney JT8Ds they hung on the first ones in 1981.

It’s the difference between “add on” and “redesign” and the results of these two philosophies couldn’t be more apparent to the hands-on pilot. So let’s start with that perspective, taking a look at each from a pilot’s standpoint.

Here’s the captain’s seat of the MD80 where my butt has been for at least 12,000 flight hours. At first glance, it doesn’t look like much but I learned to make it home: everything you need is within reasonable reach and locations and function make decent sense. There’s elbow room, plus room to stow stuff at your fingertips. That’s important.

But the downside? Outside visibility is poor. The windows are small, and where the side window meets the forward windshield there’s a huge blind spot I always worried about. That plus the fact that the forward windows were in three panes and even more visibility is blocked.

And it’s not just outside visibility that’s a problem in the MD80 cockpit. Almost worse and certainly annoying is the fact that the yoke actually blocks the pilots’ view of the navigation display. That’s an unbelieveably clumsy design and shows typical disregard for the basics of human factors engineering.

Much better viz both inside and outside the 737. The seat is as comfortable and eureka! There’s a headrest–not so on the MD80. All of the 737 displays are readily reachable and easy to handle. The drawback? Not as much stowage or elbow room. Maybe the Boeing theory is that there’s ample display of anything you’d need a chart for, so you don’t need the side table to set up books and approach charts. It’s taking some creative adaptation on my part to get things in the “nest” where they’re useful, but that’s a fair trade for all of the improvements in displays and visibility in the Boeing.

Okay, that’s a quick look inside the cockpit. But the bigger question is, how do they compare flying-wise? And not sitting in the back which is, despite the frequent flyer nose-in-the-air attitude about it, “riding,” not flying.

Well, the first thing about the MD80 you notice is that at most gross weights, it accelerates and climbs fast. It’s pretty much standard on an average day that once you get off the ground and are sure you won’t strike the tail on the runway, you’re going to climb at 20 degrees nose high.

But the 737 is even more powerful and you can feel it, particularly at the higher thrust ratings which we sometimes uses on short runways. It too accelerates well and climbs without a fuss–from 600 feet at DFW to 38,000 feet in less than twenty minutes, a pretty good rate for an airliner.

That’s because of the wing: Boeing added three feet to each wing, plus the winglet as well. Never flew the plane before it had winglets, but that seems to give it a tightness in turbulence that’s probably not real popular in back. But the wing loading as a result of the broad spar structure gives it a solid feel which reminds me of the DC10: you set the pitch and bank and it wants to hold it.

The MD80 must be wrestled down final because it shows a real vulnerability to induced roll moment. That is, a gust on one wing seems to more adversely lift that wing both higher and more extremely than you experience with the 737. Again, the wingloading on the Boeing is less, so the effects are less extreme. And at the top of the cruise envelope, you can rely on the 737 wing and engines: when you have to turn on the engine and airfoil anti-ice, there’s power and lift to spare. The MD80? Good luck.

Add to that the limitations of the MD80 ailerons: they’re not hydraulically boosted. Rather, they “fly” into position by means of a tab that is displaced by the control wheel. This induces an input lag (the tab has to be moved, then gain airload) which  induces a slow response, plus I feel like the MD80 spoilers when they’re activated at slow speeds induce more unpleasant drag and sink than the 737′s again, probably, due to the high wing loading on the MD80.

The effect is even worse, too, on the MD80 because the rudder is nearly useless for anything other than slewing the nose around to extract the crosswind crab on short final. A Boeing rudder is actually as effective or even more effective (no spoiler float) than ailerons for making small (3-5 degrees) heading changes on final. The MD80, being a long tube, resists rudder input which only seems to induce an uncomfortable twisting moment. Bad combination with cumbersome ailerons an sluggish roll response.

I’m enjoying the tight, hydraulically boosted roll response on the 737. granted, after take-off and on departure, roll rates aren’t really important because there’s not much maneuvering required at anything other than standard rate. In that case, both jets have the response required and plenty of power.

But on approach, especially a visual approach, there’s no comparison: the 737 has fast response from a stable wing: it wants to stay where you put it, versus the MD80 that is squirrely all the way down final and on the runway until below about 90 knots. Used to think the MD80 had the techno edge over other airliners because of the autobrakes: when 727s were wrestling large crosswinds to land on a longer runway, we could stop just fine on a shorter, into-the-wind runway. But now, the 737 has a smoother system with 4 landing settings that is superior to the MD80′s older first generation system.

Flight guidance? I was always happy with the MD80 command bar display system. To me, especially after so many hours, the command bars (the “hojo” wings) to me seem more easily assumable than the 737 crossbars which are a throwback to the old 727 or DC10 era.

MD80 flight director.

Nonetheless, the 737 primary flight display is much larger and consolidates more data: airspeed, angle of attack–which the MD80 doesn’t even have–airspeed, vertical velocity, radio altimeter, barometric altimeter and flight mode annunciation as well as active frequency and identifiers. Make crosschecking easy and efficient.

Of course, the crosscheck is almost moot from the left seat which has the Head Up Display, or “HUD,” which synthesizes all of the information on my primary flight display–plus a few extras–and projects it all onto the glass in front of me. Essentially, I look through the information as we fly. It’s an amazing asset for poor weather and low visibility departures and approaches.

Night before last, going into a squally, low viz and gusty crosswind approach in Seattle, it was invaluable. Yes, it did take self-discipline to not look down and crosscheck the primary flight display, to instead trust the symbol generator and projector to not let me down in mid approach. But it was flawless: the generated runway target was a perfect overlay of the actual runway when we broke out of the soup at about 300 feet.

Well, there’s no comparison, ultimately, for me. The 737-800 is the product of years of refinement in both engineering and application. I guess once Rip VanWinkle wakes, there’s just no return to the slumberland of yore.

For me, this is a great way to fly; in fact, the only way from now on!

From Sea Level to 737 Captain: First Break.

Posted in air travel, aircraft maintenance, airline cartoon, airline delays, airliner, airlines, flight, flight crew, flight training, pilot with tags , , , , , on October 17, 2010 by Chris Manno

Note: this is part of a series relating what it’s like to transition to a new jet. If you want to start from the beginning, click here.




That’s the first week of classroom, Computer Based Training (CBT) and simulators. Two days off now.

Katrina, our ground school instructor, recommends we take at least one day of the two and do no airplane stuff. Bill the First Officer (sounds like an official title) is off to Wyoming to visit his girlfriend. Best to take Katrina’s advice and not do any aircraft-related stuff tomorrow.

Looking back, though, on the week:

The CBT stuff is helpful, even if you want to nod off on some of the programs (“this door opens to the left”). The good news is, you can do it at home thanks to the handy CD-Rom with all of the lessons on it.

It’s better to be out of the refrigerator that is The Flight Academy (can’t imagine the utility bill to keep it at 70 degrees). The only problem with that, though, is there are other screens in the house with somewhat more compelling images,

but since Tech seems to have no defense this year, 737 systems are actually more rewarding to view. Then after absorbing the material and taking the practice tests on the CD, back at The Schoolhouse (that’s what pilots have always called The Flight Academy) it’s time for the computer generated practice exam incorporating everything from class and the CBT.

First time on the comprehensive exam, 79%. Today–after being up at the buttcrack of dawn for a simulator session–scored 89%. So the academics are sinking in, and the test points out the weak (emergency equipment location) and strong subjects (engines), which is as it should be: did those programs last month, will brush up.

Some of this is a weird relief: just to be able to ram dump all of the byzantine MD-80 limitation numbers–climb EGT, acceleration, cruise, momentary, starting, after start, on and on.

This jet is just way smart: the solid state engine controls meter fuel flow so it NEVER hits a limitation and what’s more, and even more efficient, the limits are non-linear anyway. It’s not necessary for you to memorize a buttload of abstract numbers–rather, the smart boxes recompute all of the parameters based on the conditions at that time and place.

And it’s talking to our maintenance base constantly through non-stop telemetry. Katrina says you’re likely to get a call from them in flight asking for more data because an engine is reporting a vibration trend. That’s why an on-the-wing failure of these CFM-56 engines is rare.

And like something you’ve recited over and over too many times, the MD-80 numbers have lost their meaning anyway. Recall last month in the MD-80 currency check:

Evaluator: “Okay, Captain, what components are on the right hydraulic system?”

You: “Seriously?” We’re really going to do this?

Evaluator: “Yes.”

You: [in your head: for God's sake, who cares anyway, if something fails we get out the book] “Everything that’s not on the right system?”

The annual systems knowledge oral recitation.

Evaluator: [eyebrows raised]

You: [in your head: 14,000 hours in the jet and we still have to play twenty questions] “Left nosewheel steering, inboard spoilers, elevator boost.”

Wake up! It’s today, that jet is an ancient memory. New stuff to learn, to remember, to find:

While you were bunkered in the MD-80 for twenty plus years, the airline jet manufacturers moved waaaaay ahead. That’s where the 737-800 stands out as cosmic:


A HUD is worth a thousand crosschecks.


You’re now captain cyborg, with your vision tunneled through a dynamic stream of data. Almost too much.

I’m thinking the ultimate technique would be to absorb as much performance and navigation information peripherally while still being primarily focused on the actual view through the data. That will take some practice, but that’s why we’re here at oh-dark-thirty in the simulator, right?

So here’s your day at the flight academy: review with instructor the systems you studied the day before, working through the CBT on your own. Then two hours in the simulator, trying to work through the various checklists for each phase of flight.

That’s awkward now, which is to be expected. It’s vital, as you well know, to actually and thoroughly focus on the checklist item itself. Now there’s a huge expenditure of energy and focus just to find stuff. The systems are laid out logically, which might be what’s confusing after so many years of the Maddog. Because it seems like the Douglas designers simply crammed indicators and alerts for EVERYTHING into that cockpit every which way and slammed the door.

Not much smarts involved: the MD-80 simply displays everything at once and lets you sort it out. The 737-800 brain inhibits info you don’t need, then organizes what you do need and offers it to you in a manageable format in a logical collection.

Weird, huh?

Meanwhile, more butt-in-seat time will bring together the location and function of the systems. The cumulative knowledge testing reflects that the big deal systems are sinking in (engines, fire detection/protection, electrical systems, APU) which means they all probably will in time.

And the big buggaboo, navigation systems–the most advanced stuff–seems to be no problem. It never has been a problem although it really should be, so count your blessing–somehow it just makes sense.

Two days off, then hit it even harder. Hope to have an update for you in a few days with higher test scores and maybe even the first inkling of feeling comfortable with the systems and procedures.

Meanwhile, like Bill, take some time to enjoy your girlfriend (below), too. She’s been patient, but don’t push your luck.

Starstruck, Star Trek, Shatner.

Posted in air travel, aircraft maintenance, airline delays, airliner, airport, airport security, flight, flight attendant, flight crew, flight delays, jet, passenger, travel, Uncategorized with tags , on September 26, 2010 by Chris Manno

If you fly into Burbank, chances are good that you’ll have someone from Hollywood on board. And not just a person who drives by the sign on the way to or from the airport, but a real Hollywood media type.

Enter Captain Kirk.

Let me explain. It was one of those evenings when the inbound jet was late, putting us behind schedule from the start. The aircraft had a couple of minor maintenance items that needed to be taken care of during the ground time as we pre-flighted, causing a further delay.

The mechanical items were minor: just some routine servicing.  But as is often the case, the paperwork involved took almost more time than the maintenance action itself. But neither item is anything to rush.

It’s always more fun to fly with an old friend and on this evening flight, the number four flight attendant, Debbie was someone I’d flown with many times. She’s been on a cabin crew with My Darling Bride before and knew her as well.

“Hey,” Debbie said, poking her head into the cockpit between greeting passengers, “we have William Shatner on board tonight.”

Whoa! Captain James T. Kirk? Well Captain Chris L. Manno sure would like to get his autograph for Darling Bride who is a huge Star-Trek fan. You wouldn’t expect that from a svelte, erudite, stylish stewardess type, but there it is.

“Debbie!” I motioned her into the cockpit. “You’ve GOT to get his autograph for Catherine! You know what a fan of William Shatner she is.” Me too, of course–especially the Denny Crane years–but how cool would it be to bring the autograph home to the Missuz?

“You know I can’t do that!” Debbie said, her voice lowered. “I’m NOT going to disturb William Shatner so you can make some points with your wife.”

Meanwhile, the delay mounted: still waiting for the final maintenance sign off. A few minutes later, Debbie was back.

“Mr. Shatner would like to talk to the captain.”

I shrugged. “You know what to do.” I handed her our flight plan and a pen.

“Oh for God’s sake.” She snatched both from my hand and disappeared.

A moment later, the flight plan reappeared, signed.

She folded her arms and raised an eyebrow. I unstrapped. “On my way.”

And there he was, in the first row of First Class, near the window on the starboard side. Face to face with Captain James T. Kirk. In civvies, of course.

And here’s what he said: click here for the audio.

Okay, that’s my lame rendition of what he said but you probably get my drift, right?

Anyway, I explained to him that it was only a matter of finishing up the paperwork, which should only be pretty quick. And whether he knew it or not, this was the last flight to Burbank. There was an LAX flight leaving later, but he’d still have to beam up to Burbank for his bags. I didn’t say that aloud though.

He thanked me for the information and told me to give his best to Catherine. What a class act he was.

And now I understand how things worked on the Starship Enterprise. You know how the embarkation to “boldly go” to a new and strange planet occurred on the old Star Trek show–the usual crewmembers readied themselves for beaming down in the transporter room.

There’d be Kirk, Spock, the Doc and then some no-name extra guy getting lined up for Scotty beam to beam them down. And you the viewer just knew the extra guy wasn’t coming back.

That’s so Bones could deliver some harsh news:

And Kirk could wax philosophical about the danger of exploration and high flight:

And that, I suppose, is as good a reason as any to be the captain of a Starship. Or a jetliner.

Heck, I’d follow him to the alien planet’s surface just to get to hang out with him a little longer. But after we landed on the not so strange world of Burbank (well, maybe it is a little odd), we left Mr. Shatner with his limo driver to wait for his bags.

And we boldly went to the usual layover hotel for a good twelve hour rest so as to be ready to fly again the next day.

Why? Because as Captain Kirk put it, “I have to, mister.”

Ryanair: An Empty Head, Two Heads, and a Pay Head.

Posted in air travel, aircraft maintenance, airliner, airlines, airport, baggage fees, flight, flight attendant, flight crew, jet, passenger, passenger bill of rights, pilot, travel with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 19, 2010 by Chris Manno

Single-pilot airliners make financial sense, according to Ryanair CEO Michael O’Leary, and that point I can’t argue.

Ryanair CEO Michael O'Lerary

But what I can and do argue is that any airline run by a CEO who makes operational decisions based primarily on cash value–and O’Leary is the airline guy who introduced the concept of the pay toilet to the airline world–is an airline I’d never fly on, much less let my family travel on.

It would be like consigning yourself to an operating room whose surgical procedures were based on cash value to the hospital. Under anesthesia, hope for the best and by the way, did you pre-pay the resuscitation and de-fibrillation fees?

More important though is how fundamentally ignorant O’Leary is regarding the very product he sells. Let’s start at the beginning.

There have been many high-tech single pilot aircraft flying successfully for years. But the difference is, there was only one life at stake and a guaranteed escape plan if the airplane became un-flyable:

That escape option doesn’t exist on an passenger jet. But that’s not the only reason why two pilots are necessary for safe airline flight.

The basic philosophy of the airline operation is that layers of redundancy safeguard the thousands of passengers who take flight each day. It’s not simply a case that two or three pilots can divide the workload, which is true.

What’s more important is that it takes more than one pilot to divide the task of safe flight into the components that require simultaneous undivided attention in the critical phases of flight during which the aircraft and everyone on board are most vulnerable.

And that’s just in normal operation. The division becomes even more critical during an abnormal or emergency situation. Here are two prime examples.

We routinely take off from airports with tiny runways designed for the smaller propeller aircraft of the fifties and sixties. Jets, particularly when they’re heavy, require miles of runway to accelerate to take-off speed. Even more critical than that is the additional runway required to achieve flying speed if an engine fails.

Which adds another constraint: stopping in case there’s not enough runway to continue to take-off speed after an engine failure. That, on a short runway like in LaGuardia, Washington National, Burbank, Chicago-Midway and San Diego to name but a few, makes an instantaneous decision to abort a life and death question: do you have enough speed and runway to continue into the air? Do you have enough runway and not too much speed to stop?

Add to the stopping situation the wild card: is whatever failure for which you’re aborting going to affect your ability to stop? That is, with an electrical, hydraulic, landing gear or a few other potential failures–you can’t and won’t stop on the runway.

How does one person sort all of the variables of speed, runway length remaining, malfunctions and stopping capability and make the correct split second decision to stop or go?

The answer is, one pilot doesn’t.

Despite O’Leary’s theory that one pilot does most of the flying–and maybe it’s true–two pilots are needed for the big decisions like the above and many other split second decisions that have to be made in the critical landing  phase, here’s the secret: divide.

The take-off situation I just described is what we call a balanced field. That is, there’s exactly enough runway to allow for an engine failure, then a continued take-off on one engine or a safe stop on the runway. This is not just a short runway contingency either–the miles long runways at both Denver and Mexico City are often barely long enough in the summer heat due to their mile-high altitude.

Either way, the safe stop depends upon all of the stopping systems–spoilers, brakes, hydraulics, electrics–all working. You have a split second to decide. And in all of the above locations, there is no overrun. You’re going off the airport at high speed, loaded with fuel.

When I take-off from a balanced field, I divide the focus and tasking this way: the first officer will make the take-off. He is the “go” guy, meaning if I don’t take over and abort, we’re flying. He has but one task, no matter what, one engine or two, malfunctions or not: fly.

I, on the other hand, am the “stop” guy. I’m only looking for the Big Four as we call them: engine failure, engine fire, windshear, structural failure. I’m looking for those and only those–not both malfunctions and take-off performance. Because my righthand man is zeroed in on that.

We both then have individual, singular focus on the critical items in two opposing but now separate dynamic realms. It’s simple. It’s smooth, it’s reliable.

And it’s not possible with a single pilot.

Same theory of separation is vital on low visibility, bad weather landings, only this time the roles are reversed: I’m flying and looking outside for critical landing references, the First Officer’s entire focus is inside on the instruments, looking for any anomaly that would require a discontinued approach.

The O’Leary method, apparently, is to simply roll it all into one and save a few bucks per plane on pilot salaries. Never mind split second decisions, separation of critical duties and focus and ultimately, your safety.

Which might result in a few bucks of savings on your Ryanair ticket. But be prepared to give it back to them in flight eventually anyway.

That is, if you can muster the courage to fly on an airline whose CEO sees everything in terms of dollars and cents–but has little common sense himself.

Stupid Layover Tricks: Sharks In Death Valley.

Posted in air travel, aircraft maintenance, airline delays, airliner, airlines, airport, flight attendant, flight crew, hotels, jet, layover, life, travel with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on September 3, 2010 by Chris Manno

You know how things make sense when you’re doing them but in hindsight, you have to ask yourself, what was I thinking? Well this is one of those times. Being on the road, flying about 200 days a year, it’s really not surprising that it happened on a layover.

Had a Tuscon layover a couple summers ago. My big plan was to get in a good run early, before it got too scorching hot, then some pool time.

And here’s the thing about layovers: that was my plan, I was looking forward to it, it’s what I told myself ahead of time when I was feeling that “I-don’t-want-to-be-away-from-home” pang before a flight sequence: it’ll be fine, a good run, decent Mexican food for dinner.

Great plan. But a problematic jet engine screwed it up: we departed a couple hours late, which meant a late arrival in Tuscon. Add to that the excessively long time it took to get the hotel van to pick us up and by the time I was ready to run . . .

. . . I was pretty well screwed: the temp was over 100 and climbing as the afternoon wore on. The hell with the temp, I decided–and it really was becoming hellish–I’m not going to be denied my run. The whole layover depended on it! I could start out and if it got too hot, just stop and walk back.

So I set off from the hotel running. Found some back roads with shade and honestly, even at 109 degrees, with the shade, without any humidity and at a slower, more cautious pace, the run was more comfortable than back home in the upper 90-degree range with boiling humidity and scorching sunshine. So on I went, carefully, for twenty minutes through a mostly residential area of town.

After twenty minutes, I took a walking break for a minute to take my heart rate: no real problem. And I felt fine.

So I reversed course, hugging the shade as much as possible, heading for the hotel. Then I got that gnawing feeling–and it wasn’t just the heat–that I wasn’t alone. The whole time it had seemed as if I was running through a ghost town: not a creature, a person or pet in sight. But still, I knew I was being watched. I turned around . . .

Creeping along behind me, maybe fifty yards back, a police cruiser. When I stopped, he did too. I started running again, he started creeping along behind me. Finally, I turned around and walked back to the police car. One cop, and he didn’t get out of the car. The window slid down silently.

“What’s up?” I asked.

He tipped his shades down. “Couple people have called 911,” he answered nonchalantly, “figure you must be crazy.”

He let that sink in. Guess there’d been no signs of life outside, but inside the natives had decided only a mental patient would be out running in the afternoon.

“Well I’m almost done,” I said, pointing at the hotel in the distance. “I’m feeling fine.”

“I can’t stop you,” he said. “But it doesn’t seem like a good idea to me.”

I went back to running at a measured pace, but the cop had been a buzzkill: what if he’s right? If the hidden, 911-dialing residents were right? “We gotta ‘nother dumb tourist down,” he’d say on the radio, staying in the car with the furiously blowing air conditioning, “wet cleanup on aisle six.”

Me, road pizza. That’s how it happens–one minute you’re running, the next your heart explodes in the 109 degree heat. Now came the mind games, like when I’d swim laps between bouys in the Pacific: now and again you’d catch a glimpse of someone on shore, pointing. You just knew they were pointing at you, yelling, “Shark!” Which you couldn’t hear . . . but which you’d certainly feel any minute. Yes, I know Death Valley is not in Arizona; but was the shark thing all over again.

Made it to the hotel and started a walking cooldown. The cop car did a u-turn and vanished into a side street. Disappointed? No CPR, unless it was too hot for that. No roadkill.

Regardless, the thrill was gone, probably for both of us. I grabbed the cool beverage I’d had icing down as I ran . . .

. . . then entertained second thoughts about the run. Okay, maybe you can’t always force things in extreme temperature. Maybe the run could have waited till Boston (hate the traffic!) the next day.

Like so many things you look back on in life–and layovers–you have to wonder: what the heck was I thinking?

Air Travel Triage: Save Your Flight–And Your Sanity.

Posted in air travel, aircraft maintenance, airline delays, airline ticket prices, airliner, airlines, airport, elderly traveller, flight, flight attendant, flight delays, jet, passenger, pilot, travel, travel tips, weather with tags , , , , , , , , , on July 18, 2010 by Chris Manno

Just did a “pleasure” (for a guy who flies 170 days a year, that’s a stretch) trip to a major west coast city. Returning home, I was all set to board my flight when the earlier flight–still at its gate–was declared “out of service for maintenance.”

Oh no: passenger stampede.

That’s right, now everyone wanted to get on my flight–the next available–probably to protect their downline connection or to keep a tight schedule at their destination. Being standby myself, or even as a confirmed passenger, this is a major problem. So, now what?

Here’s where you can and must do travel triage if only to save your sanity, never mind your trip. Think.

You must plan ahead, and use your head:

Be aware of what’s going on. Sounds simple, but you’d be amazed at how many airline passengers, when faced with a major snafu such as a cancelled flight or weather divert, simply draw a blank: what next?

Here’s where awareness is crucial: I saw another aircraft being towed to the gate of the maintenance-cancelled flight. Then I heard the agents at that gate make a brief announcement, “We have located a new aircraft for this flight.”

Still, the stampede was on to the gate of the next flight.

Again, be aware of what’s going on: the next flight’s aircraft was at the gate, but you could clearly see that there were still bags coming out of the cargo hold. They were still unloading cargo from the inbound flight.

By contrast, the replacement aircraft being towed to the previous gate was completely empty, having been parked on the ramp or in a hangar. Which aircraft would be ready to depart sooner?

If you have a downline connection, that fact is key and you need to know this, you will know this, if you’re thinking and observing.

Still, if you must get on the next flight, you must change your boarding pass. Want to stand in the slowly creeping line to rebook? Or worse, as happens with some airports, be sent back outside of security to the ticket counter to rebook?

What’s the alternative?

Do you have the airline rebooking number? Not the airline’s toll-free number, the rebooking number. There’s a difference and you’ll need to find that number before you travel. It’s likely on the airline’s website, but if you can’t find it–call their regular toll-free number. Of course, this will be a frustrating exercise in phone tree navigation at exactly the wrong time if you’re trying to rebook, wasting precious minutes as others grab the few available standby seats ahead of you. So do it ahead of time and pre-program the number into your cell phone.

Then forget about the line–just call, and when you do, here’s another piece of crucial information: what are the departure times and flight numbers of follow-on flights? Tell them what you want–and decide on that before they answer.

A monitor gives you the best realtime information–and there are a dozen on-line services that will display the schedule on you phone or PDA for free.

Don’t hunt for a monitor, which will not likely be near whatever line you need to stand in for a new boarding pass–either write down the list of flights for the day ahead of time (so last century, really), or pre-program a flight monitor into your handheld device (welcome to the new millenium!).

Then you can call the rebooking number and specify exactly what you need without playing twenty questions with the reservations agent.

That way, you can accomplish whatever data changes must be made in order to receive a new boarding pass if you must change flights without waiting in line. Okay, you might do this while waiting in line just to be sure you’re not overlooked, but when you do reach that harried and overworked agent handling the long snaky line of irate passengers, all he or she has to do is print your new boarding pass and hand it to you. “Next in line please . . .”

No matter what, be aware of what’s going on. I quietly moved over to the gate of the maintenance-delayed flight, requested a seat on it and was given a boarding pass. Several other passengers did the same and discovered that thanks to the stampede on the initial announcement that “this aircraft is out of service,” this replacement plane would now be way less than full, with more room for the rest of us to spread out.

By contrast, at the next flight, the only seats to be had were middle seats and every seat on the plane would be full. Plus, whether those refugees from our flight knew it or not, their luggage would NOT be on their flight–it would still be on the original. Meaning their checked baggage would be arriving when we did–not when they did. Care to wait for your bags? Or, do you trust that they’ll be waiting for you at baggage claim when you get there?

Of course, unlike in this case, there may not be a replacement aircraft available. Which makes it all the more crucial that you have the re-booking number and flight schedule info: there are few standby seats on any flight these days. What you accomplish on the phone will grab you a seat even before those in line ahead of you could get one from the agent.

When we pushed back, I glanced at the refugee flight next door: still loading cargo. In essence, the passengers who fled to the new gate really would have been better off sticking with the original plan, plus they wouldn’t have been sitting in a crammed-full jet waiting to push back. And if they were really astute, they’d be dismayed to watch us push back ahead of them, with their checked bags on board, to arrive ahead of them.

So much for connections, and for expediting their travel. All because they weren’t aware and didn’t pre-plan their trip with all of the assets available at their fingertips:

1. Observe and listen at the gate and out the window of the terminal.

2. Have access to current schedules and flight numbers on a PDA or even a hard copy list.

3. Have the re-booking phone number available and use it to avoid lines and to speed whatever reservations changes you might need as quickly as possible.

That’s travel triage, but also, that’s common sense, something that sadly, seems to be in short supply at the airport. If you have the information you need and the assets to employ that information, you will be literally miles ahead of the crowd.

Air Travel and the “Kick the Dog” Syndrome.

Posted in air travel, aircraft maintenance, airline cartoon, airline ticket prices, airliner, airlines, airport, cartoon, flight, flight attendant, flight crew, flight delays, jet, lavatory, passenger, pilot, travel, travel tips with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 10, 2010 by Chris Manno

The forward cabin door closed with a kerthunk and its warning light winked out on the overhead panel.

My first officer said, “You know, this is still a pretty good job once the door’s closed.” I nodded and keyed the interphone mike to called the ramp crew chief in the tug below. “Brakes are released, stand by for push clearance.”

He was right, of course: once we close and seal that door we’re on our own, free of “supervision” and the hassles that come with it. Now all decisions rest on the flight deck; each can be handled sensibly, quietly, without abstract criticism and senseless third-party interference.

But when is this not a “pretty good job?” Well, usually any time we’re not on our own–which is when the cabin door is open. Because besides the usual hurdles required to pass through an airport–gates, passengers, baggage, maintenance, cargo, restricted items, law enforcement travelers, fuel, engine service, catering–there’s one major side effect of the financial and managerial failures endemic to the Post-9/11 airline industry:

The “Kick the Dog” syndrome. And unfortunately, everyone gets to be the dog sometime at the airport.

The Urban Dictionary defines “Kick the Dog Syndrome” as “[t]he act of mistreating a peer or someone inferior to you out of frustration because a superior (whom you can’t argue with) has treated you poorly.”

Everyone in the airline and airport biz has been beaten thoroughly and regularly from the top down. Everyone’s reaching the boiling point from drastic pay cuts, stripped retirements, increased work, longer hours and less rewards than ever.

The airport is a combat zone populated with disgruntled airline employees, besieged concession workers and overwrought passengers. As a result, the trickle-down effect of the industry’s harsh austerity causes an inevitable reversal of polarity: surely as a methane gas bubble raced from the ocean floor five miles to the ocean’s surface and blew the hell out of the B.P. oil rig in the Gulf, air travel is right at the flashpoint of anger.

Tremors that indicate something ready to blow, someone on the verge of “kicking the dog?” Here are the classic examples that tell me for someone, I’m the dog:

1. Long day, many legs, bad weather–but it’s finally over. The whole crew’s dead tired, trudging to the hotel pick-up spot.

No hotel van.

We’re on time; same schedule as always. No van. Flight attendants look at me sidelong . . . do something, captain. Too many captains simply don’t, but I’m not one of them. I dial the hotel on my cell phone.

“Hi, the flight crew from 1157 at the airport waiting for pick-up . . .”

Pause. Then whoever answers the phone at the hotel says, “The van should be there.”

Now I’m ready to kick the dog. I know the van should be here–but if it was, would I be calling? Do I really need to know it “should” be here? Are we all just stupid: the van’s really here, we’re just calling the hotel for the hell of it?

Not gonna kick the dog, not gonna kick the dog. “I know that,” you dumbass I say only in my head. “Can you tell me how much longer it’s going to be? We have a short layover and if necessary, we’ll take cabs.”

Pause. “Well, we won’t pay for cabs.”

Note to self: Prozac. Valium. Yoga. Nine Milimeter. Whatever it takes.

2. Quick turn in Las Vegas. Gotta grab some food and get back on board to pre-flight. Hmmm, Burger King is near our gates; I even have exact change. I wait in line.

Finally, my turn. “I’d like a veggie burger with no pickles.”

The guy in the paper hat smirks. “The veggie burger doesn’t have pickles on it.”

So why do you have to say anything, other than “Okay,” then take my money? Don’t kick the dog, don’t kick the dog.

“Well, then put one on it then take it off because I don’t want one.”

Okay, I kind of “nudged” the dog. He deserved it.

3. Checking the destination weather back at the home drome. Chance of thunderstorms both en route at in the terminal area just popped up. Plus, I know from experience that we won’t get our cruise altitude right away due to outbound traffic from another major hub. Better call for more fuel.

A quick cell phone discussion with the airline dispatcher–he agrees and sends the updated release fuel to the station. Then a courtesy call on the radio to the station staff: “We’re going to add another thousand pounds of fuel.” From the station: “Stand by.”

I can feel it coming . . .

Finally, on the station frequency: “The fueler says you don’t need more fuel.”

Sigh. Did I ask the fueler if I need more fuel? Am I confused and can’t read the fuel gages myself and so was checking with him, especially knowing he doesn’t feel like driving back out to add more? No doubt, he’s checked the weather en route and we’ll just go with his judgment on this.

Don’t kick the dog . . . don’t kick the dog . . . “Uh, we’ll need another thousand pounds; he’ll be getting the fuel slip from dispatch any minute. When we get it, we’ll go.”

Just in case the Operations people forgot that we might have requested more fuel, not that I’m unclear on the amount on board. Give them the benefit of the doubt.

Operations: “Well, no one else has asked for more fuel today.”

Who the hell cares what anyone else has done? Who’s responsible for my flight–and who’ll answer for anything that goes wrong in the next thousand miles? Well honestly, I’d tell the FAA inquiry, they said no one else has asked for more fuel so I didn’t.

Before I could kick the dog, my First Officer jumped on the Ops frequency: “Ask the fueler if he’d like to add the thousand here, or drive about five hundred miles down the road and refuel us when we divert.”

Good answer! A kind of “nudge” to the dog.

I could go on, but I won’t. Suffice it to say that once we’re underway, things go more smoothly. But meanwhile, if you’re walking through the terminal, reconsider whether you really need to ask the flightcrew people you pass where the bathroom is (especially when they’re on their cellphones, grabbing a minute between flights to communicate with home), or whether you must ask them the “20-questions” starter, “am I in the right place?”

Just don’t ask or better yet, think before you do. This simple advice might make life smoother for your dog when you get home.

Altitude and the Neverlasting “Now.”

Posted in air travel, aircraft maintenance, airline delays, airliner, airlines, airport, elderly traveller, flight, flight attendant, flight crew, flight delays, jet, life, parenthood, passenger, travel with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on April 8, 2010 by Chris Manno

The sneaky seduction of altitude is this: the higher you fly, the faster you can go but the more difficult it is to perceive the speed.

At cruise altitude, the arch of the earth or the depths of the ocean are mere backdrop for passage. From a contemplative perch made of the lightest material possible in a thin-skinned cocoon inches from sub-freezing, anemically thin air, the perspective and distance makes the otherworldly, near-Mach speed seem like a lazy float in a cloud swing.

The monumental seems miniscule because the miles-high magic of perspective paints the infinite details with a brush broadened by altitude rendering the monolithic perceptible in a glance–an impossibility from the ground.

Once the Earth falls away, the crags and mottled rocks and bare washes recede into a more perfect rugged beauty most apparent in the wide angle vantage point of altitude, a newborn epic revelation.

And the lazy cloud swing breezes through effortless miles over a rolling tapestry of preternatural vistas from here to there, a “now” with a spectacular view,

a footless, rootless, colossal impossible God’s-eye-view of the fastest way to there, wherever that is today.

That’s difficult to imagine from the surface, particularly when the struggle to get into the air seems as insurmountable as the miles to go. Even once under way but still shackled with the twin albatrosses of gravity and crowding, “now” masquerades as forever.

Waiting–Keats’ “foster child of silence and slow time”– renders the present a shuffling laggard, and speed a distant mirage like tomorrow or yesterday. “There” and “then,” the double-play of anticipation, never seem more impossibly far away and “now” a more wearisome isolation from where we’re headed and who we’re going to see.

And yet that’s the closest we ever really are to each other, wandering life, vagabonds bound by the commonality of where we aren’t yet, but are headed for–which is always some particular there. The tedious details of the strangled moment are forgettable snapshots as they present themselves, but in truth they’re truly the imprint of the best, most fleeting treasures of our lives:

This is how we were then. Look how small the kids were! And how young we were. Like the magical clarity borne of altitude, the distance of time paints a whole new picture. And the pictures side by side reveal the awful truth: time is a thief.

Let’s face it: compared to the breathtaking perspective of the sky view, the grounded here and now seems like a sideshow–even when it really is the other way around. Maybe it’s the tedium of now, the obligations, the faults and close up detail of “now” that falls away when you leave the Earth relegates the “here and now” to the status of ugly stepchild to “there” and “then” of destination.

Like the ruddy details of a landscape vanishing into the miles-high montage below a jet flight, the ticking seconds hide in the tearing off of calendar pages. But like the imperfections of wilderness, they are nonetheless the essence of our lives, the reality that makes life what it is rather than the illusion of how it appears from a distance of time or place.

That masks the real culprit–relentless time–and lets him go about his silent ruination of everything precious now under the guise of everything yet to come.

You pay me to hide that from you, and I do my best.

Though time and distance seems non-existent in the speed and altitude of flight, that’s because I’m handling those culprits, sweating them for us all. Time is fuel. Speed is distance. And neither is flexible or endless, because time is not our friend.

We have an appointment with gravity and energy that is ticking our way, hiding behind broadest view of time and distance and the breathless, breathtaking journey between them.

There’s a big plan for our little journey,

and in bringing it to a successful close, it’s easy to forget that what’s for me a workday process is for all of us a passage nonetheless. I try to keep in mind that the seduction of altitude is but ample cover for the thief of time tiptoeing silently by in the seconds barely evident in the calendar’s march. At least I won’t let him steal away unnoticed.

The sneaky seduction of altitude and its supernatural view is also its greatest secret, if you pause long enough to take it apart like an old watch:

The outer face tells an elegant story, but means nothing without the myriad interlocking details that make it tick. A sleek jet at shotgun speed is a beautiful sight rocketing overhead.

But nonetheless, it’s our mundane day-to-day litany of close-up imperfection and routine but precious interlocking lives that is the miracle. A fleeting miracle, despite the stunning trickery of high altitude sightseeing that hides the all-important ticking details in favor of something down the road beyond the reality of now.

And it’s not a fair trade-off, because as Bella Abzug promised, maybe we weren’t at the Last Supper, but we’re certainly going to be at the next one.

On the way, I plan to drag my feet as long as possible in each fleeting but precious mile-high and down-to-earth heartbeat of the neverlasting now.




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