Archive for the airline delays Category

Winter Flight Delays and YOU.

Posted in air travel, airline, airline delays, airline pilot, airline pilot blog with tags , , , , , , , , , on February 9, 2014 by Chris Manno

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The news media covers the weather-induced flight delays relentlessly from the outside viewpoint, posing as a passenger would, facing headline-grabbing (isn’t that their stock in trade?) shipwreck-castaway-snowmageddon-apocalyptic disaster. They play it as if everything should operate normally, snow or no.

Fine–enjoy the hype, especially from the outside of the aviation profession, from the perspective of urban legend, unreasonable expectations (sure, airlines should operate like clockwork regardless of polar temperatures and contaminated surfaces) and shrieking sensationalism.

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But here’s the inside look at the very real challenges, risks, and safety constraints the news media doesn’t want you to consider.

First, you personally, as an airline pilot and captain, hate the news of a winter storm.  Because of the flight delays? Cancellations? No–it’s simpler than that: just getting to the airport is a challenge on iced-over roads, never mind getting home twelve hours later–barring cancellations–when the roads are even worse.

Put that out of your mind, and leave an hour earlier for the ice-afflicted slide to the airport, adding to what you already know will be a twelve hour day. Park the car facing south, at least, hoping the north wind will coat only the back window with an inch of ice to scrape off after midnight when or if you manage to transit 3,000 air miles and return. Fat chance–on the ice, and the return.

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Finally in Flight Ops, where Defcon 3 reigns: they’re almost out of standby flight attendants to assign to flights in place of delayed or diverted inbound cabin crews. Now they’re breaking up enroute or just arriving crews and reassigning them to outbound departures.

Which means, as the day goes on, more cut-and-paste flights and assignments for more crew members. That recital your kid’s in tonight? Birthday, anniversary, or just plain day off? Fugghedaboudit–you’re going elsewhere, with an indeterminate return time or even day.

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Your jet is coming in from South America where it’s summer, so no problem, right?

Wrong: it will still be delayed, metered in with all arriving flow times, and summer aside, the jet will need to be de-iced anyway: the on-board fuel has been cold-soaked at altitude to about minus 30 degrees, and when that cold-soaked wing hits the moisture laden winter overcast and precip, there will be plenty of ice, especially on taxi in and after parking. Add another 45 minutes, at least, to your flight day.

And you know that de-ice is anything but simple. First, all jet intakes and cowls must be clean and uncontaminated BEFORE you even get to the de-icing pad prior to take off. Who certifies that?

Uh, YOU: get outside and stick your head into both engine inlets to be sure they’re clean. If not, add another 45 minutes to get the engines de-iced so you can taxi to get the aircraft de-iced. And get back downstairs afterward to be sure the procedure was done properly before you try to start one of those $5 million dollar engines.

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The rate of precip is specified in the official weather report, but official weather reports are hourly, and we live (and answer for) the effects in real-time: YOU determine the precip rate and type (snow, freezing rain, ice pellets) and decide which de-ice procedure and fluid will be required.

Then, assuming you have made your way from the gate to the de-icing pad, YOU determine the “holdover time,” or effectiveness time for the de-icing, which again depends on the conditions (temp, precip, rate of precip) so YOU can determine how long you can wait for take off and still have an uncontaminated airfoil.

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Now, consider the surface, both taxiways and runways. All takeoff performance is based on a dry or wet runway, but iciness throws in a curve ball. You have to account for the drag of slush on acceleration, plus the loss of brake effectiveness on any icy runway.

Once again, the field weather report contains the “official report,” but “official reports” don’t fly airplanes, and they are hourly, not instantaneous. You know the limits (slush, snow and ice maximums) as well as your jet’s tolerance and required corrections to your performance data.

Do the calculations for all possibilities: based on the official report, based on what you see, based on conditions worsening. Know all three and be prepared to execute accordingly.

Know that cold-soaked engines behave differently, oil and hydraulic fluids need time and circulation to achieve design viscosity. Be alert for binding flight controls, before and even after de-icing, where melted ice can trickle into dry bay areas and refreeze quickly.

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Taxi gingerly, knowing that iced taxiways are inconsistently slick and your eighty ton tricycle will not stop if one side has traction but the other wheels five yards away do not. Probe the turns with the nosewheel first before you commit the main gear in a turn.

Run up both engines periodically to 70% to verify proper operation, carefully, so as not to blow away a smaller jet behind you, and with consideration for the traction as you do.

Trust but verify: as you taxi, see what’s actually happening on the runway. Is it uniformly clear? Is it draining? Are other jets kicking up rooster tails from their nosewheel on takeoff roll, indicating pooling? Are there contaminated areas? How does the last third look, given that in an abort you’ll need full braking there? How does the first third look, since you’re primary and critical acceleration will be there?

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Taxi out with flaps retracted so as not to get slush or ice sprayed up under the wing and onto the flaps–they may jam on retraction because of the close tolerances, and will take extra de-ice time if they’re contaminated.

When you FINALLY taxi out, get ready for de-ice: engines shut down, bleed air from the APU off; ground crew on headset tells you the de-ice fluid mix (or asks you what type you need), then certifies afterward that the jet is clean and you start your holdover clock based on what you have determined is the max time (usually minutes) to wait for takeoff (that’s why de-icing is normally done at the runway rather than the gate).

Now restart engines, reconfigure with flaps and slats, check flight controls, final weights, final speeds, final corrections based on NOW (your three pre-calculated options) and your go/no-go decision.

Power control is key to airspeed.

Take the runway, hold the brakes, power to 80% and scrutinize all the instruments: go.

Climb out is a relief, at least partially: you still have to turn around at the coast, then fly back into the snowed-in airport after enduring even more inbound metering delays.

But the worst, ultimately, is yet to come: the drive home, if and when you return, once you thaw out your car. That, however, is 3,000 miles from now. Worry about that then, get home as best you can–with this weather, they’re going to need you to fly tomorrow, too.

Actual photo from my 2.5 hour, 30 mile drive home from DFW after a recent winter storm.

Actual photo from my 2.5 hour, 30 mile drive home from DFW after a recent winter storm.

A “simple” aircraft change? You tell me.

Posted in air travel, airline delays, airline pilot blog, airliner, airlines, airport, flight crew, jet, passenger, pilot, travel with tags , , , , , , , on December 1, 2013 by Chris Manno

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Walking down the jet bridge to the plane, flight plan in hand after outwitting two balky printers, and I overhear a man telling a woman, “It was something to do with the plane coming in.”

Maybe a touch of skepticism, or maybe I’m over-thinking because I’m a little defensive since I’m the one who flew it in. Late.

“This flight’s late because of something with a plane in Dallas?” she asks.

And also, I’ve already taken a load of crap from the Number 4 flight attendant, urging me to take whatever shortcuts I can to speed up this turn-around so she won’t miss her 2-day New Orleans trip, which she really wants to do.

I want to un-hear that: I don’t take any shortcuts, ever, and it’s difficult for me too–I have a life, and a body clock that doesn’t care for flying after midnight. But that’s the captain double-down: tired, late–you don’t rush, you take extra care to not mess something up.

“The jet we were supposed to fly out of DFW took a few birds in an engine on their approach,” I interrupt, breaking my own cardinal rule of maintaining invisibility, “So we had to swap planes.”

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“Oh,” she says, still not sounding convinced. I can’t really blame her for that, because it does seem like a pretty simple thing, a swap, right?

You tell me.

Flashback: I meet the inbound crew as they deplane. This is where captains exchange a look that usually tells the story. Normally, at that moment, the captain handing over the aircraft says something preemptive like, “Good jet.”

This time, silence. Then the “other” look. “We hit a bunch of birds on the approach.”

Crap.

“Where?” I ask.

“Mostly the nose.” Mostly. I know what that means. I have to ask.

“Any adverse engine indications?”

He shrugs. “Not that we noticed.” Good–maybe it’s just a guts clean-off and a thorough exterior inspection.

But I know better. “Well,” I say, making a lame attempt at levity, “that’s what they get for indiscriminate flocking.”

He laughs weakly, giving me a “you’re screwed” look as he walks off. Guess I’ll save the “canary-al disease” joke for another bird strike.

I drag my flight gear down the jet bridge and park it near the door to the ramp. Down the stairs to the ramp, then over to the nose gear.

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Yup–bloody skid marks, guts on the strut. But not a real problem. Two maintenance techs are already on the ramp, flashlights in hand, meaning they’d just done a close-up inspection of an engine. One is shaking his head. Crap.

He jerks his thumb toward the right engine. “It took a few,” he says.

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I check for myself: shiny spots on the huge N1 fan blades, meaning they’d been “shined” by a semi-soft impact at 30,000 RPM and 160 mph. Some down-ish debris in the first and second stages, and the final clue, the exhaust area smells like burned kerosene and rotisserie chicken. Actually, the latter makes me a little hungry.

“Well,” I ask, “what do you think?”

One tech shakes his head. “They’re probably going to have us bore-scope the engine. But even if we don’t, it’ll take at least an hour or more to get inside to make sure there’s no debris blocking the oil cooler.”

Or any of the other gazillion probes and moving parts. The engine can eat birds no problem, but it’s the fine tolerances for moving parts and intakes that demands close inspection: even dust-fine volcanic ash can trash a jet engine.

My internal clock calculator runs: it’ll take a few minutes for the techs to report their findings to Maintenance Control in Tulsa. Give them fifteen more minutes to come up with a plan: clean? Clean and bore scope? If the former, expect a 1:30 delay; the latter means taking the aircraft out of service.

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I could be fine with the first option if the two mechanics are (any of them who haven’t been laid off are super-experienced) but if I were Tulsa I’d insist on the second–and I’m sure they will.

So I’ll shortstop this by calling Flight Dispatch.

“We haven’t been notified of an engine problem yet,” he says, sitting in the War Room two miles south of the airport. “But I’ll  go talk to the equipment desk to give them a heads-up.”

They’re the folks–also in the war room–who reassign jets to meet needs such as this. The ramp crew is milling around with questioning looks: do we load bags and cargo, only to have to unload and reload them on another? That takes time.

The techs shrug. “We have to call Tulsa.” They head for the jet bridge phone.

“Just hold off,” I tell the Crew Chief, rolling the dice. If I’m right, this will speed the process of switching planes. If I’m wrong, we’ll be late and it’ll be my fault. But I’m betting that once Tulsa works their decision tree and passes it along to the Equipment Desk, we’ll be getting assigned to a new “tail number.”

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Back up to the gate podium where my crew is milling around, trying not to act like they’re dreading their 10 hour workday going to twelve or more. I am too.

“I’m betting on a change of aircraft,” I tell them. “I’ll let you know.”

“Can you call catering?” our Number One asks. “I don’t want to have to do a First Class meal service with the leftovers from some other catering.”

“Sure,” I answer. We can take whatever extra fuel there is on board, though I make a note to subtract the max landing weight and fuel burn first, but she wants to do a decent service.

I type the code for our flight into the computer and instead of departure time, it says “DCN 13:40.” Good–that means Tulsa has put a maintenance hold on the flight, saying they’ll have a “decision” by 13:40. We’re supposed to push at 14:05, so we know this one’s going “off-schedule,” but at least the Equipment Desk can line up a spare.

We’re at pushback time. I call Dispatch back. “Any word yet?”

“No,” he says, “but call me back in ten minutes and maybe they’ll have something for us. But I do know they’ve burned all the 737 spares today.” Meaning there have already been several maintenance swaps today. Some days are like that, and it has more to do with the birds’ bad planning than the airline’s.

Some of the more than 40 jets damaged by hail in the storm, awaiting inspection and repair.

That elicits a line of people asking if they can be put on another flight. I say nothing, but would warn them that they’ll end up standby on a later flight–better stick with this one. Glad I’m not an agent, because people are demanding to know what we don’t know ourselves: decisions are unfolding, not some hidden secret.

My cell phone rings: Flight Dispatch. “Looks like the Equipment Desk is stealing the 6 o’clock’s bird. It flew in from LaGuardia.” That means a later flight will be delayed outbound. But likely, that’ll be a flight terminating at its destination, not bringing back 150 people (for a total of 300 waiting on this one, counting both legs) as we are. “It’s two gates down.”

It’s not official yet, and I don’t want to start a stampede. But I can get down there and determine what we need on board, plus get the F/O busy preflighting the aircraft. “Looks like gate A-17,” I tell the Number One quietly. I remember the call to Catering, but they can’t start swapping until the word filters down.

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The pilot’s signature date in the new aircraft’s logbook is yesterday–Dispatch says it flew in from LGA. Did the captain forget to sign it? Or has it not flown yet today? If the latter, that means a longer origination preflight rather than just a quick through-flight checklist.

“Just do the full origination,” I tell the F/O, who’s already grouchy, but too bad. Better safe than sorry. “I’ll do the outside,” I tell him, throwing him a bone. I actually like the outside–I like the jet, it’s beautiful: high wing, graceful 7′ winglets. The smell of jet fuel–and I’m still thinking wistfully of rotisserie chicken.

Two gates down, I see the catering truck pull up to our old jet. Good–that means that if the catering company has gotten the word, the assignment is official so now I can get a new flight plan (they are aircraft specific) and flight release from the computer on board and the paperwork from the gate printer. Time to wrap up the exterior admiration and get the release done upstairs.

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As I fold up the new flight plan, up stairs in the terminal, a young woman, a passenger, approaches me haltingly.

“Can I ask you a question?”

“You just did,” I answer, then kick myself: a nervous flyer, stupid. You’re such a smart ass.

She brushes it aside. “Is it dangerous when birds go into an engine?”

“No,” I answer honestly. “Not unless they’re really huge. The inbound crew didn’t even notice any engine effects.” I consider telling her about the homey baked chicken smell wafting from the tailpipe, but I shut up.

 

I fold my stack of flight paperwork and head for the cockpit as boarding starts. The door warning panel shows both cargo doors open, which means they’re at least loading stuff–I can hear the tumult of bags and cargo from the forward hold–and the aft catering door is open, so at least that swap is underway, too.

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We finish our preflight, verify the route and refile an ATC clearance twice before the ATC computer accepts us, having timed out the original clearance.

The F/O is grumpy again because I overruled the high Mach number he wanted to use at cruise. But that makes little sense: we’re pushing back an hour and twenty late; the higher Mach number might shave 5 minutes off, but for a thousand pounds of fuel? Really? I’m all about arrival fuel, which means time and options.

“You ready for me to close up?” the agent asks, poking his head into the cockpit.

“Not yet.” I have one eye on the fuel totalizer–they’re still pumping fuel aboard, and that requires at least one escape path for passengers in case of fire. And it’s pumping slowly.

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Finally, the total reads 19,400 pounds. “Go ahead, pull the bridge,” I say.

With the jet bridge gone, the ground crew begins our pushback. Going to be late into the west coast, even later back here. After midnight, driving home.

Worry about that later–there are over two thousand miles and an equal number of details to be managed to exacting standards between now and then.

Back to the present.

“Why does a simple airplane change take so long?” the woman on the jetbridge repeats.

I’m back to my cloak of invisibility, heading for the cockpit. You explain it to her, I tell her travel companion, in my head. I still have one more set of everything to accomplish before we all get to drive home.

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Summer Weather, Flight Delays and YOU.

Posted in air travel, airline, airline delays, airline pilot blog, airport, fear of flying, flight crew, flight delays, passenger, travel, travel tips, weather with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on May 29, 2013 by Chris Manno

fll sunsetYou can see the weather plain as day. But it’s miles away, right? How could that cause flight delays? Or worse, on a day that’s clear at the airport–yet your flight shows a one hour or longer departure day. Why?

Think big–or at least think far: miles translate into minutes in the air, and unlike your car on the freeway, we’re not creeping along under the storm–we have to get through it. At altitude, sure, we can go around weather or sometimes, even over a storm. But there’s the problem on take-off and landing: we are too low to do either.

First, let’s look at departure:

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Sure, the weather is nearly twenty miles away. But in flight time, we’re talking about maybe three minutes. Then what?

Normally, there are at least six eastbound routes available, but as you can see, due to the weather that extends from the north to the south, even twenty miles away, there are only two routes available to go east: straight north, or straight south. And guess what? They’re the same ones that will have to be used for the inbound aircraft–and they’re already in the air, many for over three hours inbound from the east coast, or up to nine hours from Europe. Guess who rightfully has priority on the clear routes?

Here’s more bad news for your outbound schedule:

lowgn4All of the departures–like the one pictured in above, and depicted on the navigation display with the radar image above–have very specific instructions for headings, altitudes and even speeds. But with the weather blanketing the area, no jet can comply with these very orderly instructions, so instead, air traffic controllers have to issue all headings and altitudes individually to each aircraft, checking to be sure that weather doesn’t interfere.

So the Air Traffic Control system must space jets by ten, sometimes ever twenty miles in trail to allow for the individual handling required, which means that instead of the usual interval of thirty seconds to a minute between launches, now takeoff will have to be 2-3 minutes in between.  You’re number ten for take-off? Count on at least 30 minutes, maybe more–especially if the weather arrives over the field while you wait.

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So, rather than have a traffic jam at the end of the runway waiting to take off, ATC issues all aircraft an “EDCT” (Expect Departure Clearance Time), or “edict,” as the acronym is typically mangled by crews, or even “wheels up time” in more common usage. This can usually mean an Air Traffic Control imposed delay on your pushback from the gate of forty-five minutes to an hour or more.

That presents another problem: while a delayed flight is held on the gate, the next aircraft scheduled for that gate will be delayed as well, either in the deplaning of passengers or the boarding of its next segment. At a major hub for any airline, there aren’t enough extra gates to make up for flights that must be held on their departure gates. If you arrive at the terminal and notice about double the normal amount of passengers milling about–that’s why: their outbound jet is waiting while a delayed flight sits on the gate, waiting for its EDCT time to roll around.

That’s what happens on the ground–here’s what happens in flight–which actually contributes to the confusion and delays on the ground.

wx radar arrivalSee the racetrack pattern near “CAPTI?” That’s where we’re going to be holding, hoping the weather clears within our allotted holding fuel, which is about 45 minutes. The airport is under the blob of storms at the convergence of all the lines.

The jet we’re flying is being ardently awaited at DFW by 160 passengers who plan to fly on it to LAX after we deplane our Dulles passengers at DFW. But, we’re now on our way–diverting–to New Orleans because DFW is still closed and won’t open for at least an hour.

Add to that the fact that my copilot and I started our flight day at 12:35pm. We leave New Orleans at 11pm, but have to fly all the way to Abilene before we can turn back to the east around the scythe of thunderstorms bisecting Texas. What’s normally a one hour and ten minute flight turns into two and a half hours, pushing my first officer to a 14 hour flight duty day, landing at 2:15am.

Not sure what happened to all the LAX-bound folks, whether they got a crew to fly the leg or not, or what happened to the connecting passengers on our flight arriving after 2am.

All I know is that this promises to once again be another season of crowded skies, summer storms, bone-achingly long flight days and above all, a challenge to everyone’s fortitude and patience. Now that you know the “what and why” of the weather story–maybe you could explain it to the guy seated next to you, wondering why everything is so messed up because of a little old storm?

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How Big is the Sky?

Posted in airline, airline delays, airline industry, airline pilot, airline pilot blog, airline pilot podcast, airline podcast, airport with tags , , , , , , , , , on April 13, 2013 by Chris Manno

cockpit panoThe cockpit is a solemn place in the pregnant pause between preflight and pushback. Always, like a deserted island where everything’s already been said: checklists done, preflight complete, systems verified, amen. Plenty more details and decision points ahead, but nothing to worry about now, because the litany of procedures, numbers, actions, maneuvers and control inputs are etched in your mind like an inscription in granite. Thinking about the details is unneeded; knowing what’s to come and when is like running a hand over the inscription without reading the words–and that’s enough for now.

“You have a visitor,” the number one flight attendant breaks the reverie, ushering a school-aged boy into the cockpit. He looked to be maybe seven . . . eight? Dutifully wide-eyed behind thick glasses, a woman–must be his mom–hovering behind.

“C’mon in,” you say. “Are you the new copilot?” You jerk a thumb toward the F/O. “Because he’s pretty useless. You can do a better job–you ready?” Covertly, F/O gives you the finger. You smile.

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The young man shakes his head in silence. “Go ahead,” mom prompts. “Ask him.” Then she adds, “He’s usually a chatterbox; loves airplanes. I think he’s a little overwhelmed.”

Good thing I’ve been such a smartass–that doesn’t help. “Sure, ask away,” you say. Stuff about airspeed? Controls? How we operate systems? He fixes you with a flat stare like he was looking right through you and into your heart.

“How big is the sky?”

Now there’s a question I’ve never been asked. And I’m not even sure how to answer.

“Yeah, Captain,” a smirking F/O echoes, “You’ve spent about thirty years in the sky. Just how big is it?”

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Hard to say. Seen it when it wasn’t big enough, plunging straight down with a tangled parachute, cows below coming into focus faster than I ever wanted. Had to get a reserve chute out before finding where the sky ended and the earth began and even then, hit like a ton of bricks as if both earth and sky wanted to teach me a lesson about leaving one for the other.

38Other times, the boundaries hardly mattered; gravity, the speed of sound–just mileposts on the way to somewhere higher, farther, faster and more furious than anything else in the thinnest parts of the sky. Those times felt like you were bigger than the sky itself, bulletproof and immortal.

But then you’ve seen it, too, when it was too large, swallowing up a past or a future, a passage never to be undone.

Because when it is, the sky is mute but bears the passage anyway, indifferent: coming back? Gone forever, though you thought not.

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There’s a road through the sky for that too. Too big, too far, but crossing the blue was a choice to be borne nonetheless. And if the sky were time, you’ve seen it too short, knowing some folks are making a one way passage . . .

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. . . while others are only now setting out on their first. We’re all in the same sky, big or small as it is. You can ask the question, but the answer depends.

“I mean,” a small voice breaks into the suspended moment of thought and silence. “I mean in case we fall.” Big eyes, in all seriousness, all seven or eight years looking ahead and asking.

You just can’t worry about that. In fact, it wouldn’t matter anyway–we all go where we must, take the sky as it comes, cross it where we can, while we can. With those close to us or alone, however we must. Shepherded by mom today, shepherding his own tomorrow.

At the speed of sound on his own, without wings if he wants (bad idea, trust me), to new worlds and old, forward as we all go through the blue till it dims to black.

Smile. “We won’t,” you tell him. “You won’t, and we won’t. So let’s go fly.”

He thinks about it for a moment, his eyes searching, but not on me; elsewhere, maybe finding a place for the idea, judging for himself the size of the sky ahead of him. Mom gives me a look: what, knowing? Ponderous? Then a smile, steering him by the shoulders back to the cabin.

Couple more minutes and it’ll be time: seal it up, push it back, light the fires and taxi, then take off.  How big is the sky?

Well, let’s go find out.

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Airline Pilot Confidential: The Teddy Bear Incident.

Posted in air travel, airline delays, airline pilot, airline pilot blog, airlines, airport, airport security, flight crew, flight delays, passenger, unaccompanied minors with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on March 23, 2013 by Chris Manno

flashIt’s the middle day of three back-to-back turns–pace yourself.

In fact, it’s the second leg of the middle turn, Dulles International, 7pm–time to get out of town: the elephant walk of international widebody jets commences shortly.  If we can push back even five minutes early, we can beat the line–and the wake turbulence delay.

prflt docsUse the captain’s invisibility cloak: the ability to do most pre-flight planning on the smart phone. Check the weather, the route, the fuel load. Add more fuel. Sign the release with a touch of the screen, then send a hard copy to a gate printer, all from the cockpit. Wait for it to finish printing then slip into the terminal discretely, invisibly, to pick up the paperwork, avoiding the gate chaos directly. Don’t make eye contact, don’t invite hassles, complaints, requests, anything that delays the door slam and brake release to get ahead of the fat boys headed for the runway. Still have to fly to DFW, drive home–then back out to do the turn again tomorrow. Minutes from pushback, be invisible now.

But wait. Out of the corner of your eye, you see it: a teenage girl, on her phone, tense; next to her, what could only be her younger sister in tears. No parents, no adults, just the agent telling them both, “You either board now, or you’ll have to fly tomorrow.” That sends the little one into big sobs.

timer 3Less than fifteen minutes till push. Can you maybe say you didn’t see any of this? But you did.

“What do you need?” you ask the older, maybe sixteen-year-old sister.

She puts the cell phone down for a second, plaintive. “She left her backpack at security.”

Sigh. The agent is looking at you pointedly, his eyes saying we need to board now and shut the aircraft door. But from the tears in the young girl’s eyes, you pretty much guess what’s in the backpack. I consider taking the youngster back through security–but then think better of it.

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We’d have to run to the center of the terminal, down two escalators, onto the train to the main terminal, up two more escalators, then find the security checkpoint that might still have the backpack–then retrace our steps, before departure time in fifteen minutes. Not going to happen.

I catch the older sister’s eye. “You have some ID?” She nods. “Let’s go.” I head off at a fast walk toward the mid terminal; “Wait here!” she tells her little sister, and the agent slumps the message damn you captain. Big sister’s on my heels, asking, “Can we do this?” Just shrug; “They’re not leaving without me.”

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We tumble down the two-story escalator two steps at a time, shoving past others like obnoxious travelers. I envision people watching, trying to figure out why an airline captain in uniform is running away from a teenager in hot pursuit. I also remember the miles I ran that morning before flight.

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Even though the automated voice is warning that the doors are closing–do not delay this train–I do anyway, holding the door as she jumps aboard. “It’s got all her school books,” she says, out of breath. Right: I have a big picture of a fifth grader hauling a load of schoolbooks on spring break.

“No worries,” I say, “It could happen to anyone.” She nods. “Special guys in there?” I ask casually. She smiles sheepishly.

I don’t care: that’s a very real tragedy for a youngster, losing all the stuffed guys that mean the world to them. Not on my watch.

We spill out of the train on the far end, then WAIT: this will take us to baggage claim and out of the secure area–we need the TSA checkpoint! We dash back through the closing exit doors, then push through the boarding passengers and out the other side.

Two sets of identical escalators–both going down. Means we have to rush up the steps–but which ones? “Which security checkpoint did you use?” I ask. She looks confused; they are identical, not sure how one could really know anyway. “Let’s try this one,” I say, rushing the steps.

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We reach the TSA supervisor’s stand. He shakes his head. “No pink backpack here–try the other side.”

Figures. We run the length of the concourse and arrive at the opposite checkpoint. “You’re lucky,” a cheerful TSA agent in a pressed blue shirt says, “we were getting ready to send it to lost and found.”

Identification checked, signatures. She sees me eying her sister’s backpack. “Uh, we need to start putting a nametag on this, don’t we?”

I nod. Lesson learned. It’s confusing, especially kids traveling alone. “I was on the phone with my Mom,” she says, “hoping we could get someone to drive out here and pick up the backpack.”

“No worries,” I say, in my mind’s eye picturing the waves of 747s and A-340s pushing back, lining up for takeoff.  “Anyone can lose stuff at the airport, especially at security.”

We retrace our steps as fast as we can, me feeling the morning miles, my friend feeling and looking relieved. At the gate, she hands the backpack to little sister who still looks mortified.

They rush down the jetbridge to board. I walk, telling the agent “Just charge me with the delay.” He gives me a glare that says I was going to anyway, which I answer with a smile that says I don’t care.

IMG_2870

The elephants already started the parade and we squeezed into the conga line. Sure, I’d have some explaining to do a thousand miles or so west. But no one missed their connection in DFW, no one was unduly delayed; and most importantly, no one’s little world collapsed with the loss of everyone they loved. That, to me, matters a lot.

Because we don’t just fly jets–we fly people. That, and the occasional special bear.

All in a Pilot’s Day: Thunderstorm Zen and the Captain’s Firewall.

Posted in air travel, airline, airline delays, airline pilot blog, airliner, airliner take off, flight crew, passenger bill of rights, pilot with tags , , , , , , , , , , on September 29, 2012 by Chris Manno

Head pounding. Look down at your right calf: a liter bottle of water, mostly full.

Stupid.

Just flew 3 hours from DFW to DCA–should have paid attention to hydration. Now, sitting near the end of runway 1 at Reagan national, it’s too late: the damage is done.

Been sitting here for over two hours now. In a thunderstorm. Which has hit the tower with a lightning bolt that fried their primary radios–so now they’re using a weak backup radio that sounds like the controller is using a tin can on a wire.

More delay while the radio situation gets fixed, plus the hand-offs from tower to departure ain’t working. Wait.

Call the tower: “Tower, American 445.” Wait.

“American 445, go.” Sounds like her head is in a bucket.

“We’re wondering about a take-off time, as we’re bumping up against some Passenger Bill of Rights time constraints.”

Like three hours–an hour from now–then we need to go back to the gate and probably, cancel the flight. Passengers have a right to not go anywhere, rather than sit on a plane waiting to go somewhere.

“We don’t have any information,” comes the tinny reply. Thanks for your help.

Ignored several phone calls from the cabin crew already, saying passengers are antsy, wondering what the latest is. When I ignore the interphone chime, the F/O has to field the questions to which there are no answers anyway. I prefer to isolate myself to focus on weather, fuel, timing, the departure procedure to the north (the FAA will violate you for even a tiny stray from the radial) and a clear path on radar. Which I can’t see because our nose–and our radar dish–is facing south. I make a PA every thirty minutes or so, telling passengers what I know: westbound departures are on hold due to weather on the departure routing. The lady in the tower sounds like her head is in a bucket. I don’t tell them that, but still.

Already tried to negotiate a departure to the south or even east in order to air file a route west–craftily uploaded an extra 3,000 pounds of fuel before pushback, after seeing the storm front marching on Washington as we landed.

No dice.

More calls from the back: passengers want to use their cell phones; they’re getting up . . .

Tell them no–if they use phones, the cabin crew has to make another aisle pass to ensure they’re off for take-off (FAA regulation) and if we’re cleared, we need to take the runway, check the weather–then go.

Sure, they have connections and people waiting. But that can wait till we get there. What I want to attend to is a new and higher power setting that creates less time on the runway; an optimum flap setting that gives a better climb gradient, and a wind correction to stay on the safe side of the departure radial.

That’s where the “firewall” comes in: if I let connections, cell phones, Passenger Bill of Rights or even my own next flight tomorrow (not going to be legal if we keep delaying) mix with the important considerations like fuel, weather, radar, performance and power settings, something’s getting messed up.

It’s not that I don’t care–I really do. But if I don’t attend to the latter set of considerations, the former won’t matter, will they? Drink some water, rehydrate. Relax. Run through your list of priorities for right now. Pay attention to right here, right now. Be ready to do “now” right; worry about later, well, later.  That’s the thunderstorm zen, the captain’s firewall.

It happens fast: “445, start ‘em up–you’re next to go.”

Fine. I reconfirm with the F/O the heading plan (310 is good–but 305 is better. If we have to correct back right to the radial, fine–but we do not stray east . . . a full radar picture before we roll, static.”

Raining cats and dogs, hard to see, swing out onto the runway and grab every inch. Stand on the brakes, full radar sweep–decide.

“You good?” I ask the F/O as a formality–because I’m looking at him and I can tell from his face whether he is or isn’t from his look no matter what he says. And if he isn’t okay or doesn’t look okay, if maybe his firewall or zen are under seige, I’ll know and we won’t go until everything adds up.

We roll; relief when we’re past abort speed; mental chant “engines only, engines only” reminding myself of which of the hundreds of warnings I’ll abort for on that rain-slicked postage stamp of a runway; throttles speedbrakes THEN reverse, amen. The jet rockets into the whipping rain undaunted; love the big fans at a high power setting. We climb, buck, dodge, weave and finally . . . cruise at 40,000 feet above all the turmoil as the lights of the nation wink out.

Landing after midnight, home finally at 1:30am. Crew Schedule calls: “Sleep fast, we’ve slipped the departure of your Seattle turn just long enough to keep you legal. You’re still on it.”

Eight hours in the cockpit today; another eight tomorrow. Plus a few hours to sleep in between.

Erase today–it’s over, safely and smartly done. Rest, and save a little zen for tomorrow. No doubt, you’re going to need it.

Airport Smackdown: Jethead vs. LaGarbage

Posted in air travel, airline delays, airliner, airlines, airport, flight, flight crew, flight delays, jet, jet flight, passenger, travel with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on July 20, 2011 by Chris Manno

What better to beat the blistering heat of a Jethroplex summer than a float in your own ce-ment pond? You bid the later-in-the-day flights and you’re senior enough to hold them. That means the morning run–helps you sit still for the 6 or 7 hours you’ll be in the air–and an early afternoon swim. Then, reality check waiting on the iPhone:

You knew that. LaGarbage today, tomorrow too–then LAX the next day. That’s your work week. Get ready.

That’s the current radar picture in the New York metro area. The stuff just north of Tom’s River will be a problem if it doesn’t move out to sea. You can tell there’s a front line between Jersey and NYC somewhere–just look at the temperature difference. Cold air slipping under warm air produces big boomers, and it doesn’t take much of that to disrupt the inbound flow to Kennedy, Newark and of course, LaGuardia. Shrug. Deal with it when you get there–but prepare for it before you take-off: more fuel.

Of course, that’s a double-edged sword too: LaGuardia is a short runway with virtually no overrun on either end–just Flushing Bay. No, it’s not as extremely short as Burbank, John Wayne-Orange County or The Dreaded 33 in Washington (5,000′). But it’s short enough–especially if it’s wet–to make landing weight important. DFW: 13,000 feet of concrete, overruns and clear zones beyond. LaGarbage? A friction overlay on the end of 22 and 13, (wanna test that out?) murky water everywhere else.

Preserve your options: arrive with enough fuel for holding and a go-around. The 737 is a good stopping jet–as is the MD80–and the 737 is very stable on approach. No big worries about airspeed control or pitch.

Confer with Flight Dispatch: they have you flight planned in the mid-thirty thousands because of previously reported chop. Fine, but we’ll check ahead en route and decide if we can’t cruise higher and save more fuel. Plus, our route will arc north, then east, picking up more tailwind as we go. Should put us over upstate New York fat on fuel.

Board 160 passengers. Preflight. Taxi out. Climb.

Life settles down to cruise: fuel flow, ETAs, routing. As expected, the ride is reported smooth in the low 40s by aircraft there now, so we climb and save more fuel, plus put ourselves above most of the weather trying to build itself into the stratosphere from the sun’s climbing radiance.

Radar watch is beginning to turn up signs of the frontal clash converging on the northeast. Super radar–good picture out beyond 300 miles, has it’s own GPS so it knows where all topographical features are and screens them out of the radar image. Good to be sure that what we’re seeing is nothing but weather.

Lunch? Dinner? Whatever–it’s the last food you’ll see today. Everything at LaGarbage will either be closed or out beyond security, which you don’t have time for: they’ll be clamoring to board 160 passengers outbound as soon as you get there. Speaking of which, within an hour of landing, we can get the current weather at LaGuardia and print it out:

Fine. Planning on 22; landing south and into the wind, no real storm threats or complications. Set up nav aids, discuss the approach with the F/O. Verify the runway in the Flight Management System (FMS) and the Heads Up Display (HUD). Validate all of the altitude and airspeed restrictions on the arrival.

The FMS begins its backward countdown of miles to go and upward count of vertical velocity required to satisfy the arrival restrictions. Cool?

Not so fast. Just checking onto a new frequency and you hear holding instructions being given to some unlucky aircraft. Now, that either means someone south of you (Atlanta? Philly?) or someone north (Boston?) has an inbound backup. Or–it’s New York Center airspace that’s enjoying a traffic jam at altitude. You bring up the holding page on the FMS display. Here it comes.

“American 738, hold west as published at MIGET. Expect further clearance at  0115.” Figures. Well, okay–holding endurance? Like you haven’t thought of that already. At altitude, we’re at an incredibly low fuel burn.

We can loiter for the better part of an hour. One thing about EFCs (Expect Further Clearance) you can count on is–you can’t count on them. So plan accordingly. On your side is your altitude, fuel flow and fuel reserve. The jets cruising lower enter holding there and burn more fuel as a result. Set up the entry and the hold:

EFCs are a best guess by Air Traffic Control, but they can be very pessimistic. Even if you can’t hold as long as they predict, you can hold till your endurance runs out and you need to bingo (divert to your alternate). Some pilots I know like to “Go Ugly Early:” if you think there’s a good chance you’ll have to divert, beat the rush for fuel and a turnaround at the divert station.

I’d rather stay high and slow and see what shapes up. We all still divert when you reach Bingo fuel, it’s just a difference in strategy.

New York Center is offering “Rockdale,” a navigation point north of  LaGarbage and in Boston Center’s airspace. Get released from holding immediately and approach from the north is the deal they’re offering, and some jets are taking it. I don’t think so; we have a good, high altitude perch here with a low fuel burn. Rockdale requires a lower cruise, inevitably, with higher burn–and no guarantees when you get there. Sure, maybe Boston Center has less aircraft but you still have to eventually get sequenced into new York Center’s flow.

It’s like switching lines at the grocery store: pick the short line and someone will need a price check or will have a zillion coupons to verify. Meanwhile, some jets below are starting to Go Ugly early–Philly’s going to be a mess. And the winds are shifting at LaGarbage–they’re switching landing runways:

Refiguring the approach is not a big deal. But it’s a bad sign: runway changes take time and lead to a huge backup on the ground at LaGuardia. Plus shifting winds mean unpredictable weather due to frontal passage. Alright, plan “B” is the runway 4 approach. Reprogram the FMSs, the courses and the nav radios.

Holding is eating up fuel, which is actually easing the stopping distance–but check it anyway. And use the chart for a wet runway while you’re at it. Figure on the worst case and the most Autobrakes, say 3 or maybe even max.

More jets at the bottom of the stack are heading for Philly; we’re still sound fuel-wise. Patience.

Finally! Released from holding, cleared downline. Do the numbers: what fuel will you arrive with but more importantly, assuming a go-around at LGA, what will you land with at JFK (that’s the plan) after? Numbers show actually about a 1-2 thousand pound surplus. Perfect.

Now we’re committed–not going to climb back into the enroute sector (too much fuel burn). And now the glass shows what the radar has been painting.

The ugly blotches here are actually the towering cumulus we’re sinking into here:

Already have the crew strapped in, all passengers down. Actually, the bad weather is a relief in a way: everything slows down as radar separation is increased. Plus, the approach is a straight-in, precision approach rather than the hairpin visual approach that is officially called the “Expressway Visual:”

Lots more fun from a pilot standpoint, but definitely more hectic. Finally, the wide swing to finally. Configure. In the slot: altitude, airspeed, configuration, glide slope, localizer.

Minimums: see the runway, land carefully; immediate reverse.

Now, the elephant walk to the gate. Park.

No time for relaxing–it all starts again in 50 minutes, outbound with another 160 passengers impatiently waiting to board. The inbound holding and the LaGarbage ground congestion has already set us behind schedule, and passengers have connections to make at DFW.

That’s the workday–only another 1300 air miles to go. Let’s get to work.

Summer air travelers, beware: he’s out there!

Posted in air travel, airline delays, airliner, airlines, airport, flight, flight attendant, flight crew, flight delays, jet, jet flight, passenger, travel, travel tips with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on July 8, 2011 by Chris Manno

Summer air travelers, beware: he’s out there.

I mean that guy. The one who will make your travel a little less pleasant, probably unknowingly, but still.

For example, cruising at 40,000 feet northwest bound, the cabin interphone chimes. The First Officer and I exchange glances that ask hot, cold, or stupid? It’s too soon for crew meals—that’s where we’re stupid for eating them, but it’s something to do—and only minutes ago someone called to say it’s too hot in back.

Traditionally, within minutes, one of the other four Flight Attendants who don’t seem to be able to talk to each other will call and say it’s too cold.

But I answer the phone and this time, it’s stupid: “We just found a passport in seatback 30-A.” No, it’s not the flight attendant that’s stupid—it’s the passenger who on some previous flight for some odd reason decided to stash his passport in the seatback pocket.

Before our flight, the jet had come in from JFK. Maybe an international arrival, and now someone is enroute somewhere without a passport.

That’s where you come in: you’re in line at Mexican Customs in Los Cabos, and you’re sweating like a fat lady in a vinyl chair, waiting, waiting, waiting—because the guy ahead of you in line talking to the taciturn Customs agent is suddenly aware that he doesn’t have a passport. Your vacation is on hold just a little longer because like me in the super market, you got in the wrong line (“Price check on lane seven!”) while passengers to your right and left are breezing through and claiming their luggage (and maybe yours), heading for the beach.

Sure, it’s going to be worse for him—without a passport he’s not getting back into the United States without a major hassle and, you hope as payback for your delay, a strip search. But the lingering question is, why would anyone put anything of value in a seatback pocket on a plane?

But you’d be amazed at what you’d find back there after a flight. Well, what someone else would find back there: I’d sooner stick my hands into a trash can in a crack den than risk the snot rags and barf bags or kids’ diapers or half eaten ham sandwich that will be stuffed in there.

 

Still, people for some odd reason nonetheless sit down, empty their pockets, stash wallet, iPod, keys, camera, travel documents, passport—you name it, into the seatback pocket as if it were their glove compartment on their family car (okay, there may be a ham sandwich in mine, I admit).

Never mind the hassles going forward to recover a lost item, a headache made all the more difficult because the jet will crisscross several thousand of miles before the discovery of a missing item is made (call the lost and found in Seattle, Chicago and New York). The important thing is that the Stupid One is delaying your vacation.

And unbeknownst to you—he may already have delayed you. Remember sitting at the gate well past departure time? I can’t tell you how many times five or ten minutes from pushback to a resort destination in Mexico or the Caribbean when the agent steps into the cockpit and says “we have a problem.”

Let me guess: someone confirmed on the flight is in a bar somewhere starting on the umbrella drinks and about to miss their flight to the actual resort. Why? Because they can’t read a ticket? Don’t know their own itinerary? Can’t do the math on a time zone change? Are intellectually low functioning and were finished off by the TGI Friday’s Bloody Marys in the airport bar?

Doesn’t really matter. The point is, if they’re not on board we get to sit at the gate while the ground crew sorts through the cargo compartments crammed with the luggage of 160 passengers to pull their bags off. That takes a while. You get to wait, I get to wait, both of our days becomes a little longer.

Yes, it’s the lowest common denominator that dictates when we leave and when you arrive in paradise.

But there is justice in the situation, as I witnessed once at a departure gate as I waited for my inbound jet. Airport police officers had pulled a couple off to the side as passengers boarded a jet for Cancun.

Apparently the man and woman had been to the airport bar, and the man had clearly had a few too many. Federal law prohibits the boarding of any passenger who even appears to be intoxicated, and the airline agents had done the right thing: when in doubt, call law enforcement to sort out the situation in accordance with the law.

Sorry ma’am,” I heard an officer say as the man was being detained, “he’s going to be placed under arrest for public intoxication.”

I couldn’t hear the exact back and forth between the steamed woman and the officers, but in the end, it seemed the officers weren’t the cause of her anger: she grabbed her boarding pass, shot a pointed glance back at her handcuffed partner—then boarded the flight.

Just as well: he’d probably realize in the Customs line in Mexico that his passport was missing anyway.

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.

Summer Storms, Airline Flight, and YOU as Captain.

Posted in air travel, airline cartoon, airline delays, airliner, airlines, airport, flight, flight attendant, flight crew, flight delays, jet, jet flight, passenger, pilot, weather with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 22, 2011 by Chris Manno

Well that’s going to be trouble, your air sense tells you as you wing westbound.

Because you have to turn around and come back once you reach LAX–and this stuff, you can feel it: it’s growing. In a few hours, it will stand between you and “homeplate”–DFW for you–and it will be your job to thread the needle between, above and around the towering wall of what will be full-blown thunderheads by the time you return.

But the weather-guessers say the storms will stay south and west of the Jethroplex, right?

Yeah, my ass. Sorry–been fooled before. Now, we deal with gut feel and radar. Forecasts? Farther out than a couple hours–pretty well useless. Keep flying.

LAX, first stop: got to have a cup of the strong Brioce Bakery coffee. Kind of crave it flying to LAX. Westbound passengers happily herding off; First Officer about his business on the ramp, catering, cleaners. You?

Stout cup of Brioce and radar, your best friend. Which helps you set up your next best friend: jet fuel.

But here’s where your air sense–and 17,000 flight hours–comes in: the storms forming up and marching west to east aren’t really a front passage. Rather, they’re a boundary collision that the cold front is barely strong enough to move. Those storms will stagnate wherever they form–my best guess–so there’s not going to be a quick close-then-open, 40-50 minutes of holding.

Hedge your bets: approach from the northwest in fact, route north over Albuquerque and see if you can beat the frontal passage, or be positioned to slip in immediately after. Plus, from behind the squall, all of your divert options will have a clear path. So in this case, northern route, an hour of holding fuel, see how it plays out.

The first round of bad news comes up on the data link printer in Arizona: “0300 DFW tempo 1ovc tstm lgtctcctg 34012g25 29.77 prsfr.”

Duh: “airport expecting one hundred overcast around 10pm in thunderstorms lightning cloud to cloud, cloud to ground; winds from the north gusting to 25, surface pressure falling rapidly.”

Trouble in front of the front. Cross the Rio Grunge eastbound, nice tailwind rocketing the aluminum tube across the ground at 500+ miles per hour.

My F/O is smart, sharp, quick. A good asset in forming a plan, then a backup, then another. I like options. I choose my words carefully: “Hey, you want any coffee? I’m buying?”

I like the way Angela makes coffee, the old-fashioned DC-10 technique: a splash of club soda on the bottom of the pot before brewing–eases the acidity, gives a smooth flavor. Hell, no rush here–I hate redoing stuff. The radar picture won’t be too well defined until about 300 miles out, even better at 160. Have a cup of Boeing brew and relax.

Okay, now we’ve got something to work with. Did I mention how much I love the 737-800 radar? It has its own GPS system, always plotting where it is–and it knows the terrain everywhere it finds itself and miracle: it screens out ground clutter–and does its own tilt for each range. What you see is what’s there–how cool and smart is that?

This picture is looking southeast. The blob over HIKAY is the nasty storm cell headed for the airport. As I figured, we’ll either beat it, or the airport will close–and it did as we approached 100 miles out. We expected that.

The good news is that we’re assigned a holding pattern over Wichita Falls. Sheppard has a couple of long runways and jet fuel available. Once we’re established in holding at 33,000 feet–a good altitude for fuel economy–I call the Sheppard tower on another radio: how late are you open tonight? How late is the fueler open?

Eleven o’clock for the tower, all night for the fueler. It’s just after 10pm. We’ve got fuel for 40, maybe 50 minutes of holding, then we need about 4,000 pounds to fly north to Oklahoma City.

But we’re right on top of Wichita falls/Sheppard. I can see it–perfect weather. No additional fuel for the divert–we just spiral down.F/O concurs. We start setting up navaids, approaches.

Our holding racetrack--right over an excellent divert spot.

DFW approach updates the airport re-opening projection: midnight.

The mass exodus begins from various holding stacks because no one has that much loiter fuel. Most on the north side are heading for Oklahoma City.  “Put Wichita Falls on request,” I tell the F/O, as we continue all divert prep and logistics with our dispatcher in Fort Worth.

We exit the holding stack northbound with a descent clearance, all of the divert notifications and nav system reprogramming done, approach briefed–we’re way ahead. The winking lights of two jets above us in the pattern suggest what I’d be thinking if I were them: “Smart bastards–first into Sheppard, first for fuel, first out.”

Yup.

Sheppard Approach: “Plan runway 33 center.”

Me: “Unable.” The center runway is 150 feet wide; our wingspan is around 130. The left runway is 300 feet wide–but the Air Force is using it for night traffic patterns in my ex-girlfriend:

Tough darts, wingnuts: when it was me in the Air Force flying the White Rocket, I’d have said tell the civilians to get lost–we’re busy here. Now, with 160 passengers and a crew of 7 on board, I think differently.

I’m doing the math, checking the descent rate and speed and distance–it’s all coming together nicely, “in the slot” as we say. Over the threshhold, follow the HUD cues projected before me on the glass; little narrow-gauge skid marks from smaller jets slide under the nose, then touchdown.

Clear the runway, set the brakes for a minute–whip out my cell phone and call the fueler, “Landmark Aviation.”

“How much fuel do you need,” asks a friendly voice. We have 5,800 pounds on board, I’d wag 3,000-4,000 to get to DFW, 3,000-4,000 more for delays. Plus some more thousands for peace of mind and the unexpected, two factors that usually don’t work well together.

“We need 12,000.”

“No problem, taxi on down.”

Tight maneuvering on narrow taxiways and a small transient ramp, but slowly, carefully, watching the wingtips–we park. I see the lights of two other airliners approaching from the south. Hah! The fuel truck is already here.

First Officer is outside, doing the exterior inspection. I’m on the phone with dispatch for a clearance plan, on the radio with tower for a proposed launch window, then with DFW approach for an expected route, then the phone again for current DFW weather.

My fuel guess is pretty good: dispatch wants us to have 15,000 pounds of fuel–we have 17,500. I love jet fuel.

Me signing for six tons of jet fuel.

Behind us, a Super-80 waits, an Airbus waiting behind him. I chat with the MD-80 captain in the quaint Wichita Falls terminal–he needs to have flight plan faxed to him; we printed ours on our on-board data link printer. I considered for a moment suggesting the dispatch send his to our jet, but I’m not even sure that’s possible. And we’re ready to blast off.

Supposedly, the terminal folks are on their way back and they’ll fire up the FAX machine for him and his 140 passengers. Too bad you ain’t on the Boeing, I thought but didn’t say.

Carefully, point by point, we check our route, then our performance data. Never mind that it’s nearly midnight, 11 hours into our workday–every single detail will be checked. I will see and he will crosscheck every number put into the performance system.

We start engines, a ground man pulls the chocks and salutes: clear to go.

I have a better idea. We sit with brakes parked and accomplish all pre-takeoff checklists so that I don’t have divided attention taxiing out over the mini-sized taxiways.

Tower clears us for take-off. One last check of numbers–the runway, the rotate speed, the weight, the power setting, all check out. Stand up the throttles, all exterior lights on, punch the take-off power button on the throttles and she leaps forward with a growl.

Off the nose, black sky, more storms; cloud to cloud and cloud to ground lightning weaving a brilliant latticework to the south, where we’re going. Dead ahead, more spot decisions, plans, backups, numbers, radar and ultimately, maybe a cup of coffee to go for the drive home once we navigate the weather gauntlet.

But nothing’s set in stone; we’ll just see what’s what when we get to DFW. The coffee and DFW will just have to wait, but I’m patient, and careful. All in good time–despite all pressures to the contrary, all passenger and crew urgency, fatigue; I tune it all out. Every step carefully, thoughtfully–that’s what summer flying is all about.

Quite a light show in the DFW terminal area, and the hurdles spring up one by one, then in droves. Weird, but I kind of like the challenge. But that’s another story.

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