Archive for the airline pilot Category

Fried Sky with a Side of Regret.

Posted in air travel, airline, airline industry, airline pilot, airline pilot blog, airliner, flight, flight attendant, flight crew, jet with tags , , , , , , , , , , on March 29, 2014 by Chris Manno

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Night falls slowly, painfully on the flight deck westbound. Chasing the sun but losing, sunset grudgingly unfolds in slo-mo, Pat Summerall running color commentary: “Oh my, that’s not how it’s supposed to happen.” A burning lip flecked with cobalt, shafts of charcoal stolen from the blue promising a stormy beating for a landscape miles away, yet you know, feel, what you can’t see. Darkness comes in withering shades and declining latitudes, searing the horizon, azure overtaking the florid arc as if the smoldering, sighing sun just didn’t give a damn anymore.

Entropy flies in the cargo belly: chickens–baby chicks breathing through air holes in cardboard cartons, never imagining themselves winging 500 knots across the ground–and radioactive material (aft compartment), tagged bags and other stuff, plus a tissue sample on dry ice rushing to doctors on the sunset coast, deciding if someone in the eastern darkness can live or die, or so the cargo folks told me.

Not really more sanguine upstairs in the pressure hull defying the -60 degree stratopause inches away, with a meager partial pressure of oxygen that would instantly start the blood bubbling and the gas escaping crushed lungs in a fog. Never mind, eyes on the prize, 250 degrees true, beyond the jagged threshold of the Rockies and Sierras. Less than an hour to go.

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While I’m ten stories forward of the aft jumpseat confessional, I’m aware of what’s unfolding nonetheless. One just left her husband, the other just got left. Forward galley, well he’s an old friend, a gay guy with a good head on his shoulders and compassion enough to care how hard relationships, same sex or otherwise, can be when the wreckage piles up.

And we both have Old Testament faith in flightcrew clannishness: we’ll get through whatever together, day, night, a few thousand miles or continent, even an ocean away; the jumpseat and crew van and the gawd awful bidsheet that binds us hot forges a flightcrew stronger than we could ever be alone. So we never really are–and the two pros will smile and work that coach cart, they’ll do the giving that they always do, with stronger hearts regardless of the weight they’re bearing.

Me, up front, I’m just the timekeeper, shoveling coal to stoke the boiler fire and constantly questioning the course I’ve set: can we get the chickens and tissue and broken hearts and shattered dreams to the far coast with fuel burn I counted on? Does the X-Ray vision of the radar and the wind plot say that the wedding gown carefully, almost religiously stowed in the forward closet will make it timelessly to the reunion with the soul-sister maid of honor waiting to pick up the bride in the City by the Bay?

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Flex. Breathe, flex again; crank the rudder pedals back, unfold the six foot scrunch another inch, strapped in just the same. Breathe. Force the HEFOE litany carved in stone an age ago: “hydraulics, electric, fuel, engines, oxygen,” amen. Simple, my part as captain is: keep us flying forward, rightfully, safely. Be the faceless guy in the locomotive cab of the wailing freight train, dragging an ice trail across the night sky, contrails silhouetted in moonlight like silver rails against a shadowy landscape thundering below: dusk left and right, darkness behind–we sail on ahead nonetheless.

Crossing the last waypoint before arrival and descent, claim that inward smile: job done, promises kept; plans worked, fuel plenty, brides, chicks and heartbreak alike–delivered. From here it’s only about negotiating the descent, the approach, landing and taxi in. Cake. And folks will either be happy or not, but you did what you promised them. Chicks will either recognize a new coast or they won’t, someone in New Jersey will get good news (I hope) or bad, and somebody’s big day will lead to a lifetime of heartache or not. And the heartbreak cabin crew will be replaced by another eastbound, instantly bound by the Gilligan’s Island of flight crews: castaways, for better or worse, on a thin air island eight miles above and a world away.

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Yet in the end, it’s not regret, really, that darkens your sky, but in a way it is: can’t be sure how any of what we landed just now turns out afterward, though I’m not sure I’m supposed to know. Back off; take a deep breath and set out once again on the ironclad litany for the eastbound flight, the homeward leg. Regret can wait; another worthy ark of eastbound hope and dreams and everything in between sails on at brake release and pushback in an hour. Claim a breath, a moment of peace, then get your head back in the game: details, captain, and promises you must keep for the hundred some souls on board.

Keep ‘em, every one, defy the sunrise alone. Careful, truthful, the sky is the footpath home.

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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.

Jet Flight: Elephants, Leggoland and the Paper Swan.

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

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The final moments before flight are an indeterminate gap of time and space left for you to carve out intervals of facts and process; cold, smooth and regular as the steps of a cathedral.

It’s a lazy roll around the corner and onto the runway, engines breathing smoothly the dragon’s breath of gale-force jet exhaust. Ghostly green alphabet soup of the Heads Up Display projected on the glass floats before your eyes, as if inside your head and maybe it is, dutifully reporting headings as the nose swings left.

Layers deeper in consciousness ticks the chopped litany that paces the solemn climb up the cathedral steps: a quick review of the new rejected take-off procedure (speed brakes before reverse!), weights (double checked) winds (no hazards, anticipate roll), target thrust setting, a final scan for birds, amen. Time, like fuel to the twin jet engines, flows in a slow meter like a dirge now, but soon to give way to a thousand degree war cry.

He sat hunched slightly forward in the wheelchair as if stating in body language that he really didn’t belong there, and maybe he didn’t. He flips one hand idly, grins, and says, “Hardly the place for an old airline pilot, isn’t it?”

Keeping to yourself is one thing, but you can’t not talk with him, he’s very old and he deserves your attention.

And what place, you have to wonder: the airport? The wheel chair?

“There,” he says, pointing to the destination displayed behind the agents. The Rust Belt; no place for anyone, much less a guy seemingly in his late eighties, especially in winter.

You laugh. “No kidding. Why not Florida? Palm Springs? Phoenix?”

His face twists into a frown. “No,” he says. “No elephant dying grounds. You have to go back to where you came from, at least one more time.”

A wheelchair aide shambled up, shirttail hanging out, and grabbed the man’s ticket without asking, poring over it.

He seemed not to notice. “It goes so fast,” he said, looking straight ahead, as if talking to no one, every one. “So damn fast.” The aide pushed the wheelchair away, oblivious.

 

You briefed a static takeoff for a reason: short runway. Stand on the brakes, hard, because the high takeoff thrust setting will want to scrub the fat tires squatting under eighty tons of plastic and metal and fuel and people clean off the runway.

“Cleared for takeoff.” Now a clockwise circle, starting at nine: start the elapsed time counter, up and straight ahead (no bird flocks ahead and above), to the overhead panel for all four landing lights switches and twin wing illumination light switches, to the nose landing light switch, drop your eyes one last time to confirm the thrust setting.

Verify the first navigational fix and altitude. Shove the throttles forward, confirm the prediction on the N1 gage and when the actual thrust touches 40%, toggle the thrust lever and let the autothrottles pour on the coals.

“Looking for 98.7,” you say methodically, orchestrating the hand-eye-mind convergence of takeoff thrust dutifully set by the autothrottles, engines thundering and shaking the airframe and you release the brakes just as it peaks; the jet leaps forward, you get that reassuring seat mash feeling as you sail through eighty knots, the first checkpoint, then a hundred thirty  in just a handful of heartbeats.

You have the countdown of runway distance remaining in the ghost script on the glass and in your mind, the airspeed too; the third dimension is the runway end rushing at you ever-faster as you accelerate; geometry in your head playing out the triangulation of stopping versus shrinking distance remaining versus minimum flying airspeed.

Calmly, scanning for the big five that will require a lightning abort action, filtering only for those, living the three dimensional compression of distance remaining, speed gaining, and the commitment to flight the instant one outweighs the other.

Pull back, carefully, rise, climb; pull more, match the pitch to the green ghostly hieroglyphics claiming your peripheral awareness; she rockets upward at max power. Nothing but blue sky.

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One leg of a turnaround done, one to go. Walking up the jet bridge, trying to be invisible among the passengers deplaning, headed wherever it was that had them aboard the jet. Some connecting on, some gone as far as they will. You just need a new flight plan, maybe a cup of coffee. Then back into the cockpit, head for home.

Your mind’s elsewhere anyway, negotiating the algorithm of fuel and altitude time and speed and …

A blur, knee high, rushes past and then turns to face you.

“Fast,” the tyke says, tufted red hair a coppery flame atop a stumpy little candle. “Goes so fast!” He makes a zooming motion with his hands.

Keeping to yourself is one thing, but you can’t not talk with him, he’s very young and he deserves your attention.

A woman with a rusty bob and an armload of carry-on bags catches up to the boy, breathless. “Sorry,” she says, “he likes it when it goes really fast on takeoff.”

“You should go to Leggoland,” carrot top says. “We’re going to Leggoland.”

“No,” you say, “No Leggoland for me. I have to go back to where we came from, one more time.”

Mom flashes a harried smile, grabs his little hand and leads him tromping up the jet bridge. “Goes so fast,” he says. The one hand free of mom zooms. “So fast.”

Maybe. Might depend on if you’re looking forward or backward, whether you’re going home, or “there,” even if “there” is home one more time. Elephant dying grounds or Leggoland, It goes so fast, so damn fast.

Hold that thought. The enduring solemnity of nighttime cruise at altitude will be the perfect place to fold those truths like an origami swan, end to end in half and again, then hold it before squinted eyes.

For now, though, the flight in between matters more.

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The Annual Pilot Beating

Posted in air travel, airline, airline pilot, airline pilot blog with tags , , , , , , , on December 19, 2013 by Chris Manno

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Awful House, 4:30 am.

Try to decide which is worse–the two roaches scurrying around the condiments, or the lame-brained guy in the paper hat, prattling on about his guts while you try to eat.

“You ever get that real sharp gut pain,” he asks, “where all of a sudden you really have to go to the bathroom super bad?”

Must be cancer, I want to say but don’t. You should get it checked out.

What I really don’t want to do is chat here at the buttcrack of dawn while I’m trying to cram one last run-through of the memory items I’ll be expected to recite for the oral exam prior to the simulator exam: “Passenger switches–on.”

What the hell is a “passenger switch?” Actually, that should read “fasten belts switch,” because that’s what you need in a rapid depressurization. Boeing obviously misprinted the step, but since Boeing published the procedure, if you don’t recite it their wrong way–it’s wrong.

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And there are pages and pages of numbers, stats, limits, operating procedures and legalities, all fair game for the oral exam. Experience proves that the best defense is a good offense:

Question: what’s the crosswind limit for a Category 3 approach?
Answer: 15, but that may be further reduced by the runway condition to 10 if the RCR is less than good, which brings the requirement for an Autobrakes setting of 3 or MAX.

Answer more questions before he can ask them.

And pay with cash here: the guy at the register is either an ex-con or a heroin addict; the neck tattoos and shaved head could go with either.

The 05:30 “Stump the Dummy” (me) session goes as planned: two hours that are part instruction, passing along new or revised procedures, as well as asking questions–and me over-answering as a defense. That worked, because now we’re on to the simulator check. Today we have one of the new, most advanced “boxes,” with all-electric motors (no hydraulic carnival ride) and the most advanced digital visual with Google Earth displays.

And for me, a windfall: there was no line first officer scheduled for my sim–so I get a “seat filler.” That means an instructor, and today it’s Bev. She knows the aircraft systems and procedures inside and out–because she teaches them every day.

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This first part, planned for around two hours, is termed by the FAA a “jeopardy event.” That is, if you don’t handle everything correctly, you lose your flight qualification. No pressure–just your ability to make a living at stake.

We start with a low-visibility take-off: fog and a visibility of 500 meters. Brief all the usual stuff, plus the extras: Localizer frequency tuned and identified, specified usable within the threshold, HUD set NP with correct runway length, runway heading set. Of course, a question before takeoff:

Evaluator: what’s the limit for the take-off alternate?

Me: 330 miles or the lowest minimum at the departure field for a single-engine return, which is 300 feet, and the present viz is 500.

Over answer–good defense.

Once “aloft,” we return to set up for a Category 3 landing, which is through weather to the lowest limit of my qualification, which is 50′ and a visibility 300 feet.

“Take the airplane,” I tell Bev, “I have to make the new FAA-ordered PA about electronic devices.”

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“Good job,” says the evaluator. Maybe he thought I’d forget–the change only came out this week–but I didn’t. We hit all of the marks to set up the approach, then fly it carefully to a landing under an indefinite ceiling and 1/8 mile of visibility.

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Then, through the magic of flight simulators, the computer slingshots us back out on final to fly the approach again, this time to a low-altitude missed approach. That’s a two-part test: you have to prove that you can do the maneuver, no easy task at 50′ and marginal visibility, and you have to prove that you can discern when to go-around and when to land.

Hand-flying the approach, near the ground, at 50 feet: nada. I punch the go-around power toggle on the throttles and we pitch up aggressively, away from the runway.

“Flaps 15 . . . positive rate (means we’re climbing) gear up.”

We’re climbing like a scalded cat, I’m watching the speed increase so I can safely call for configuration changes and NOT overspeed the flaps as we rocket skyward.

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All is well through flaps fifteen, flaps five, flaps two; Bev, ever the excellent First Officer, warns me: Houston, we have a problem.

A glance above my head to the flaps display panel shows a trailing edge flap segment stuck extended. The jet wants to roll, I won’t let it.

In Cat 3 conditions, especially below 100 agl, a go-around can mean ground touchdown regardless, so naturally it’s done with full TOGA power and pitch.

That compresses the procedure, and split flaps disrupts the cleanup, yet the power (and thus over speed and altitude bust potential) remains high. Throw in the fact that by design, all 737-800 go-arounds are hand flown, and the missed approach was deliberately chosen because it has a 2-step level off, first at 3,000, then a turn and a climb to 4,000.

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Will you remember the 3,000′ hold down, especially at max power, with cleanup disrupted?

Again, you slow down and prioritize: I’m thinking level off and speed control. We’re forced out of our normal litany for cleanup, but we’ll claim the time and space we need–not rushing–to accomplish everything. I tell Bev “Declare an emergency, tell tower we’re going straight ahead at 4,000.” Why fight the 3,000′ level off? She concurs.

Then we have to set up an RNAV LOC which must be flown with LNAV VNAV, but you have to recognize that VNAV doesn’t sense a flaps 2 landing and will put you below the 168 KIAS Vref for flaps 2.

Also, with  a runway visual range less than 4,000 feet, the runway is technically wet (better not miss that) and landing distance with a 168 KIAS Vref will be critical.

Which leads to the ATC controller trying to induce us to take a pattern turn to crosswind, I refuse because we have too many checklists to do. That leads to the instructions to hold present position, left turns, which I could also refuse, but I do know that’s a test too: can you set up holding on the fly? And will you remember that “present position hold” sets up right hand turns, which must be changed or you end up in the wrong airspace.

In holding, Bev and I work through all abnormal flaps and emergency landing checklists; I go to school on the adverse roll moment the autopilot is obviously fighting to be ready for the hand flown final, recall from experience that a flaps 2 landing will be at high speed and power must go to idle uncomfortably early or you will float and the wet landing distance will eat you alive.

And don’t forget to modify the standard LNAV-VNAV procedure with “speed intervene;” some might try flying it with autothrottles off, but that’s flirting with the Asiana screwup in San Francisco, with the added challenge of marginal weather with an abnormal configuration. Think that might be distracting?

Throttles idle over the fence, decent touchdown, reverse and ABS. Bev counts down the airspeed as we roll out. Final question: “Would you taxi clear?”

Me: “No. The runway’s already closed for the emergency.” And it will need to be checked by the airport managers before reopening anyway.

Check Airman: “Well done, jeopardy part is complete. Take ten minutes, I’ll set up for the second half.”

Done. The next two hours will be advanced training: stalls, engine failures, tailwinds into short fields, engine failures with high flap settings on short runways, double engine failures; all just good training. The Check Airman is one of the best and I lucked out getting him for an evaluator and Bev as a seat filler.

And when the advanced training is complete, back to the real world and the real jet. Good for another nine months or ten thousand miles–whichever comes last. I think a cup of coffee is in order, maybe something to eat–I will find both, my better judgment dictates, anywhere but the Awful House.

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Count the beads, fly the prayers.

Posted in airline industry, airline pilot, airline pilot blog, flight crew with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on September 10, 2013 by Chris Manno

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Call me Ishmael, the words tiptoe through your mind, as R-I-A . . . A-N-I-H-C slides by in the plate glass mirror of the terminal ahead. Sit silently, moving eyes only as the Boeing monster ahead actually lumbers by behind your own forty foot tail fin. Eyes on the door warning lights overhead: all out, like Holmes and Ali, hit the canvas till the smelling salts 1,500 miles hence. You can’t see the ground crew, but the disembodied voice below respects the red beacons top and bottom flashing warning: these engines will come to life and suck you off your feet if you get within 25 feet once we light the fires.

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Rolling backwards, slowly, that’s pushback; feet on the rudder pedals pulled up close, shoulder straps cinched up too, c-clamp headset and lap belt holding a grip on you as if parts might fly off otherwise. Cockpit cozy—everything tight, like maybe if you’re spliced into the jet like a hybrid sapling, you’ll be just one more limb with only a slight scar to distinguish where you end and the jet begins. With both engines running, she’s awake and coursing with her own power; hydraulics, electrics, pneumatics, like a track star stretching through the flight control check; 3,200 psi of hydraulic power limbering flush metal control surfaces, flexed, ready for the blocks.

Pythagoras rules the necessary headwork at San Francisco International: wind howls from the west, runways an “X marks the spot,” one into the wind, one broadside. Toss in the crossing restriction due north to top the Oakland departures and the up-vector of the algorithm dominates: spend less time on the runway, lazy upwind spoiler floating into the slipstream to counter west gale flirting with the left wing, nosewheel scrubbing like chalk on a blackboard. More power, max power. Less time convincing the wings to stay level and the nose to not slew into the wind as the rudder bites the air.

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Quiet in church, dammit: no yack, not only because there’s a voice recorder you’ll have to listen to if anything goes wrong and there’s anything left of you. But more than that, show a little reverence for the litany, the monk’s beads you count but more importantly, account for the prayers they represent at about seventy tons at a hundred and fifty miles an hour. A sinless ascension is key, so recite the litany but live the prayers: you know what the jet can do, was designed to do—that’s the formality of the testament, chapter and verse, engineering, modeling, physics and formula.

Ah, but the reality of life in The Garden is nonetheless imperfect. Sunday’s counting of the beads—you have to!—gives way to Monday’s nose pointed down the runway. Would it kill anyone’s budget to put a windsock at the runway take-off power point? Never mind; just the tail bucking tells you all you really need to know. Climb the stairs one at a time, pause at the landing: planned weight, closeout weight, FMS weight; so it is written. Speeds set for max power, no assumed temp; dry runway, PFC overlay, verified, amen.

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The Airbus rolling down the slab ahead fishtails as its rudder cuts against the crosswind, upwind spoiler pops like a shirt untucked; she springs off the ground and the aileron joins the spoiler and the nose swings left; going up, Mr. Tyler? We’ll do our grand jete somewhere prior to the intersection that a jumbo is rolling through right now. Hang on—she’s gonna buck.

The last note of the antiphonal challenge and response gives way to silence with the brakes held fast, heads bowed: rejected takeoff, engines only after 70; throttles smoothly to idle, spoilers, max, then and only then, full reverse, let the ABS work. Shoulder harnesses stay on as a sign of our abiding faith that if any disaster occurs after liftoff, our salvation lay in the Bay—literally—and believers plan to survive without a piece of the glareshield embedded in their skull.

Cleared for takeoff, a confirmatory glance at the FMS power setting, say it out loud, stand up the throttles, toggle the TOGA button and they shoot forward. Max power is definitely way forward, arm-wise, and a good, seat-mashing acceleration. No rookie here, running around with a shirt tail hanging out, no spoiler float due to a cloddish “I think this is what I might need at 80 knots” instead of flying it like it’s supposed to be flown, wing controls only when and as much as you need.

Power control is key to airspeed.

It’s a tussle, not quite a wrasslin’ match, thanks to boosted ailerons, but still—she ain’t happy as a high-speed tricycle and neither are you, but patience, fly; more patience. She leaps off the runway when you let her, you’re surprised at how much aileron tug on the leash is required to keep her head out of the roll she wants to do. But who’s flying whom? Do what you need to do.

Fog spills through the San Francisco Bay and tumbles between the city and Tiburon across the channel like a ghostly wrap in the fading sunlight. Steal a glance, savor it, then pay attention to the crossing restriction, the cleanup of flaps and slats and setting climb power and rate. Church is over for now, beads stowed as the earth falls away.

Nose to the blue, darkening to the east where the day expires like a prayer unsaid.

There will be beads to count, words to be read, a service in reverse as the miles spill down through the hour glass. We fly till then.

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A certain darkness on the flight deck.

Posted in air travel, airline, airline pilot, airline pilot blog, airliner with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 30, 2013 by Chris Manno

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Nothing wears a pilot out like watching the other guy fight the jet. And nothing degrades flight performance like the inevitable outcome–the jet wins, as it should.

This pointless tail chase arises out of two competing malignancies. First, there seems to be an inborn reluctance to consign more and more vertical and lateral (read: climbs, descents, and navigation) maneuvering to flight management systems. Part of that, I believe, comes not only from a reluctance to acquiesce to the reality that in most cases, the automation can do a better job than the humans, but in a real sense, from a backlash against the encroaching automation subsuming what used to be mostly art.

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Hogwash, in both cases. Because not only has such resistance to the encroachment of technology been going on since the Wright Flyer gave way to the Curtis Jenny, (when we first started getting CRT flight directors rather than the old mechanical gages, the crusty old guys swore they “didn’t work worth a damn” and distorted their vision), there’s also the incontrovertible fact that technology has made the airline industry the safest it’s ever been.

Ground Proximity Warning, Windshear Detection, terrain and weather escape–all possible because of the integrated software and hardware now part of the wraparound design technology inherent in the new jets.

lufthansa 747

The second, darker factor in the resistance playing out on flight decks worldwide is more insidious, but no less troublesome. That is, an undercurrent of frustration and dissatisfaction, most that has little or nothing to do with the technology that becomes the focus of the bad ideas. Specifically, there’s a generation of professional pilots who have seen their retirement wiped out, pay slashed, career stagnated, base (and thus domicile) closed, job moved or in thousands of cases, eliminated; families torn apart, a suicide rate grown to 4 times the national average, and promotions eliminated, reversed or in so many cases, downgraded.

When those factors are the undercurrent of the profession, they don’t simply vanish when the gear retracts.

AIPTEK

The end result, the “kick the dog” outlet–knowingly or not, often becomes an opposition to standard operating procedures. Not necessarily blatant, but distinct: “These autothrottles don’t work worth a damn!” (Yes they do–and more smoothly and efficiently than you) or “This descent profile is bullsh!t” (No it’s not–and it would have saved the thousand pounds of fuel you wasted descending and flying level fifteen miles early).

This seems consistently evident in the case of pilots busted back from captain due to job cuts, or pilots forced from larger to smaller aircraft for the same reason: they hate–and fault find endlessly–in their “diminished” circumstances.

Which leaves a crew flying a complex jet with a few “I know better” techniques born of resistance to the new, nostalgia for the old, and a self-righteous need to pay back some of the huge bloodletting in an increasingly anemic career field.

Any step outside the normal operational profile throws a two-headed onus on the other guy. First, there’s the WTF paralysis as you try to figure out what the “new” technique is. Second, there’s the very complicated and moving target that is return to the normal profile–either from the computer’s design or more rudimentary airmanship. Are we getting there? How, when or even, if?

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All the while, there hangs in the air the unasked, unanswered but certainly prescient question: when push comes to shove, will professionalism necessarily trump resentment?

So far, the industry-wide results speak for themselves–yet hardly create any assurance that they will continue to do so. I’m fortunate to fly in a Flight Department where Standard Operating Procedures rule the operation, period. And they always will, in my cockpit.

But with constant downward pressure on pilot pay, airline profitability, flight manning, and ultimately, the profession under siege, the unasked question may eventually provide its own answer, and my guess is, it ain’t gonna be pretty.

The Epistle oF light.

Posted in air travel, airline, airline pilot, airline pilot blog, jet flight, night with tags , , , , , , , , , , on July 30, 2013 by Chris Manno

orion

The Orion Nebula contains a very young open cluster, known as the Trapezium due to the asterism of its primary four stars. Two of these can be resolved into their component binary systems on nights with good seeing, giving a total of six stars.

The basic framework for the moving target that is flight comprises an architecture of anchors and change: weights dictate speeds which prescribe duration and altitude. The wooden stake in the ground, sure as the tenuous GPS alignment reluctantly tolerating the gusty wind bucking the 40 foot tall rudder assembly, will be ancient history as soon as we move. But to know where we’re going, we have to know where we started from.

The stars of the Trapezium, along with many other stars, are still in their early years. The Trapezium may be a component of the much larger Orion Nebula Cluster, an association of about 2,000 stars within a diameter of 20 light years. Two million years ago this cluster may have been the home of the runaway stars AE Aurigae, 53 Arietis, and Mu Columbae, which are currently moving away from the nebula at velocities greater than 100 km/s.

737 night

And drawn as moths to the flame, pairs and singles, Noah’s children march aboard, halfway to somewhere, their presence now a light reflected forward, as meaningless in the here-and-now as the two-by-two was in the pouring rain, boarding the ark: it’s all about the retelling later.

A nebula is an interstellar cloud in outer space that is made up of dust, hydrogen and helium gas, and plasma. It is formed when portions of the interstellar medium collapse and clump together due to the gravitational attraction of the particles that comprise them. The gravitational forces between particles is directly proportional to the their masses, remember?

“Now” is a moving target, mortgaged by “then,” which in the preflight cockpit is more about “there:” the air nautical miles divided by pounds of fuel burned per each. The symphony of electrons conjures an opus of transformation: if everyone plays his part, there will be a smooth harmony of fire, speed and distance, underscored by dollars transferred and spent, buoying steel and fuel, blood and bone, suspended across the night sky like the fiery tail of a comet from here to there.

When a star burns through the last of its fuel, it may find itself collapsing. For smaller stars, up to about three times the sun’s mass, the new core will be a neutron star or a white dwarf. But when a larger star collapses, it continues to fall in on itself to create a stellar black hole.

It’s always the “after” from which meaning is made. For the ark, that’s arrival. For the pilots, that’s enroute, the record inscribed across the night sky, 500 degree exhaust gas boiling away at -55 C ice crystaline air, backlit by the moonlight as a spider web across the star-flung dome. Keep the fires burning.

Black holes formed by the collapse of individual stars are (relatively) small, but incredibly dense. Such an object packs three times or more the mass of the sun into a city-sized range. This leads to a crazy amount of gravitational force pulling on objects around it. Black holes consume the dust and gas from the galaxy around them, growing in size.

And for those left behind, like those yet ahead, the unseen passage is one of either anticipation or regret, of bidding welcome or goodbye, of time spent or lost. You can’t not feel the diminishing weight of both, lighter the farther and higher you go. No hands hold you, just wings and lift, time and tide, fire and ice in balance. Passage.

Orion’s light is either a promise given or a wish fulfilled, depending on where you see it and when. At light speed, the trapezoid assigned to the mythology, the murky nebulae burning within, left home in the time of Alexander the Great, overtaking you at 41,000 feet a couple millennium later. Either way it’s a lie–a now from then, seen light years away; then as if now.

al great

Just like your flight: you’ve crammed a million footsteps into the counting of minutes rather than lifetimes, footless, seven miles high, an ark sailing on a rolling tide of time and place, borne of fire, trust, hope, and light.

For those in the back, the metal ark is but conveyance. For you, more an arc inscribed across the night, more than passage but less than permanence. Like the silent, obedient constellation, the gas blue light won’t matter until it’s examined in retrospect. You live in the passage, grant the flight its own universal time and space, its million shards of where and when and ultimately, why. But it’s never about “there,” for you. Only leaving there, and flight across darkness: night, the shadow of life, then home, the nexus oF light.

cockpit night

How do YOU land at San Francisco International Airport?

Posted in air travel, airline, airline pilot, airline pilot blog, airliner, airport, flight crew, jet flight with tags , , , , on July 9, 2013 by Chris Manno

sfo 2

Here’s how you land at San Francisco International. First, the view over your left shoulder as you cruise “downwind” for your arrival into San Francisco International. You’ve arrived from the Pacific side of the airport, so you can plan (they’ve probably advised you already) on landing on runway 28L, which is the runway you’re paralleling on downwind. Yes, there are 2 runways that you are paralleling, but the logical one for you is the one on the left. Here’s what the airport diagram looks like, with an arrow pointing to 28 Left:

sfo 10-9a

Let’s talk about all of the runways at San Francisco International (SFO), because their are simultaneous operations on all four runways, so your landing runway is not operating independently or simply–nor are you as a pilot landing at SFO. Those two runways intersecting your landing runway will be launching aircraft out of SFO even as you are landing: yes, they’re crossing your runway–and you theirs–simultaneously. That means the SFO tower controllers are managing a complex ballet of speeds, timing and clearances. They’re doing a precise, excellent job, but a lot will depend on you: you must fly the assigned airspeed exactly in order for all of the moving parts in this synchronic mix of flying metal to mesh smoothly.

sfo 1a

But wait, there’s more: runways 28 left and Right are too close together. Built built on a man-made pier, the pair are crammed closely together, closer than the standard, required spacing for parallel runways. Why does that matter? Well, because on final, aircraft approaching the runways at the same time will fly closer than the normal lateral separation required by the FAA standard:

28 parallel

Not taken with a telephoto lens. Rather, that’s a jet landing on 28L, taken from the cabin of one landing on 28R.  Lateral separation is minimal–by virtue of a waiver of the standard separation that the FAA granted to SFO–so there are more restrictions on you, the pilot. First, you must not overtake the other aircraft. That’s because the trailing aircraft is charged with maintaining visual separation, because the leading aircraft can’t really see the trailing aircraft. If you overtake him, there will be a period where neither can maintain separation visually. So airspeed control must be exact, usually assigned by tower–to ensure separation from another part of the moving mechanism: aircraft are taking off on the intersecting runways, shooting the gap between your landing aircraft (and the parallel partner above) and the ones who landed before you.

Here’s the instrument approach for your landing runway–and there’s a complication today with that, too.

28L ILS

Today, the radio glidepath, or “Glideslope” (GS) is NOTAMed (NOTice to AirMen) out–meaning you will not have that descent guidance available on your display, so, you’ll be expected then to manually crosscheck the “step down” altitudes (7000, 6000, 5000, 4000, 3100, 1800, and 213) against the distance marked on this chart. All while flying the specified speed assigned by tower, which you must integrate with the maximum speeds allowed by the flap configuration required for the approach and landing.

bug eye cockpit

Sounding too complicated to manage? Well, it’s not. In fact, it’s routine: very often, you’ll encounter intersecting runway operations (Chicago O’Hare comes to mind, and those controllers do a fantastic job of choreographing that ballet); many airports have reduced, FAA-waived runway separation (hello, Minneapolis), and at any given time, airports around the nation report various instrument landing system components temporarily out of service .

The glideslope being out wasn’t a surprise, either: you were advised by NOTAM (see above) before you even took off on this leg of the condition of the equipment and on your approach briefing (probably done within the last hour) you reviewed the requirements, procedures and complication with the other pilot(s) in the cockpit prior to starting the approach.  And if you’re savvy,  just in case, you briefed the approach to the parallel runway as well. That’s because at any point, due to traffic load or other factors, SFO tower can swap you to the other runway–just like that but again, that’s routine in the airline biz. Expect it, pre-brief it, deal with it.

fms crz

Which means reprogramming the correct approach points in the Flight Management System (FMS) on the fly (pun intended) and verify each point, then set up the correct intercept to a forward waypoint in the FMS. All the while, don’t forget our friend out there–it’s your responsibility to stay clear–

28 parallel

Fly the speed assigned to the waypoint assigned, maintain the altitude minimums according to the above chart by comparison with your distance from the field and . . . configure for landing, while observing the flap speed limitations of your jet.

Here’s where you get to do your own balancing act within the swirling gearbox of approaches, landings, takeoffs and climbouts: if tower assigns you to fly a speed of 200 to “DUYET,” (see approach diagram above), that means you are limited to flaps 15 (have to be below 190 for more). But DUYET is at 1,800 feet and your airline has a “stabilized approach” policy below 1,000 feet: must be in final landing configuration and stabilized airspeed (neither increasing or decreasing) with a stable power setting (neither spooling up or down) from 1,000 feet to touchdown.

Power control is key to airspeed.

Power control is key to airspeed.

From 1,800 at DUYET to 1,000 feet, at a standard descent rate of around 800-900 feet per minute, you’ll have about 60 seconds, maybe less depending on tailwinds, to decelerate about 50 knots, then re-stablize the speed and power, and extend the flaps from 15 to 25 to 30 or 40 for landing. If not, mandatory go-around–meaning, initiate a climb following the “Missed Approach” instructions on the chart above. That’s also included in your approach briefing, remember which one–left or right–that you’re doing because remember, there are aircraft launching as well, mixing into the airspace. Then either repeat the approach (also very routine) or divert.

Stabilized? Good–now the only thing YOU must do is monitor descent rate, speed and alignment. That’s why a stabilized approach is vital: being set in descent rate and airspeed and power setting frees you to simply fly to a safe landing. After an approach that you now know is anything but simple. Happy landings.

737 landing crop

Motion Lotion: What’s the Commotion?

Posted in air travel, airline, airline pilot, airline pilot blog, airliner, flight crew, flight delays, jet, jet flight, passenger, pilot, travel with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 27, 2013 by Chris Manno

“The only time you can have too much fuel is when you’re on fire.” –Anonymous Pilot

Those are words to live by, in the flying business–but jet fuel is expensive. In fact, it’s just about the largest expense in the operation of the airline, which is why it makes sense to use fuel as sparingly but sensibly as possible. But as a passenger, what’s it to you?

Well, for starters, this:

tstm day

Do we go around it? Above it? Through? You won’t like the last option, but fuel is the double-edged sword in this fight: more means we’re heavier, which limits our climb. Plus, going around the weather will burn more fuel, limiting our options at our destination:

fms crz

We’re at 36,000 feet now, which is just about the optimum altitude. “Optimum” is a moving target: as you burn off fuel enroute, the jet gets lighter and the wing can handle a higher altitude, which means the engines can operate at a lower thrust setting, thus saving fuel. We’re within 200 feet of the max if we climb to 38,000 feet to top the weather. We can wait till the “max” readout shows “380,” or really, from experience, we know that in the time it takes to request and receive the clearance, plus what we’ll burn in the climb, we’ll be at the correct weight. But, there’s always a catch.

410

The airspeed tape on the left shows us a very narrow operating range at the top end of our altitude capability. That is, your range of acceptable airspeed is from about 212 to about 245. The “chain” above that shows the area of high speed buffet, meaning parts of the aircraft, above that speed, will begin to go supersonic. More importantly, though, in my mind, is Mach tuck: swept-wing jets tend toward a pitch down near the high speed limit, and guess what a pitch down does: your high speed becomes even higher. In a jet, particularly a passenger jet, if you don’t recover aggressively and immediately, you will not be able to stop what will become a dive.

On the bottom of the tape is the yellow line we call “the hook,” which is the slow speed stall. If you go below that speed, your airfoil will stall, and you will fall.

PFD coffin corner

So, at 38,000 feet, we have very little margin between the high and low speed buffet, requiring extreme vigilance on our part: turbulence, mountain wave action, or a drastic updraft of any kind can push us beyond either speed limit. Which is also part of the balancing act the captain must perform:

pfd coffin corner 2

I insert a slower Mach number in order to cruise more toward the middle of the range between the high and low speed limits. That, too, though, will affect our arrival time, won’t it? But that’s a balance I feel can be maintained, knowing that we’ve picked up some direct routing already. I’d rather sacrifice some time (and really, fuel) to gain a better pad between any adverse effects (mountain wave, thunderstorm up drafts, windshear, clear air turbulence) that could push us into either boundary.

And, I’ve already checked: the winds at the higher altitude are more favorable. To be even more accurate, I’ve requested a data-linked update to our flight management system, updating the projected winds the computer is using to calculate the times, distances and fuel burn it displays because what we data-linked into the system on preflight hours ago may not still be accurate:

fms crz wind update

The photo makes it hard to see, but the new, uplinked wind speeds are highlighted, all I need to do is push the “EXC” (execute) button and the entire nav calculation will be updated in a matter of seconds.

Climbing early has taken us out of more headwind earlier, so I believe the ETA will be largely unaffected. This hunch is borne out as we progress in our flight:

flt prog 1

We cross Pocatello, Idaho (PIH) six minutes ahead of schedule and up 700 pounds on fuel. If, however, the higher altitude winds were less favorable, we’d end up with the same result by going around the weather (more miles at regular cruise Mach)  as by climbing above the weather (less miles at a slower speed). The latter option is better, fuel-wise, as you can see from the fuel log above. But we’ll do whatever is safest and most optimum first, and worry about timing  later. Plus, if we don’t have what I consider a comfortable high speed-low speed margin at the higher altitude–we’re not climbing, we’ll just have to fly the additional miles (and minutes) around the storm.

It’s not just air miles between us and Seattle–it’s a constant balancing act of time, fuel, altitude and route. It all goes on steadily, quietly but relentlessly in the cockpit, but we all share the payoff in the end.

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Passengers Removed for Non-Compliance: A Pilot’s View.

Posted in 9/11, air travel, airline industry, airline pilot, airline pilot blog, passenger, passenger compliance with tags , , , , , , , , , on June 10, 2013 by Chris Manno

Kicked off: 100 Jewish students were asked to leave an AirTran flight headed for Atlanta from New York last Monday

You probably read the headline, which made the news more because of the students’ baseless allegation that they we’re removed from their flight because they were Jewish. (Read the story: click here)

But let’s go beyond that smokescreen and look at the real issue from a pilot’s viewpoint–because it was a pilot’s responsibility to have them removed for non-compliance with crewmember instructions.

There are two issues here: electronic interference from handheld devices in flight, and equally important, compliance with federal regulations and flight crew instructions. First, let’s look at electronic devices and their possible effect on a flight.

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Let’s go to the heart of the matter: landings. Why? Because this is the phase of flight during which the instrument guidance is arguably to most vital: you’re dealing with limited or practically speaking, no visibility as you attempt to land (versus taking off, when you’re climbing away from the terrain) and are therefore very dependent on your instruments for crucial guidance about pitch, roll descent rate and altitude.

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Pilots are dependent upon the information gleaned from an array of very sensitive electronic signals generated both on the ground and on board, which provide critical safety and navigation parameters for an approach. Would a handheld device somewhere in the cabin affect these signals or worse, put out signals of it’s own that would interfere with aircraft systems?

Engineers say “maybe,” which is secret engineer (god love ‘em, they’ve built us some fantastic air machines) code for “we can’t rule that out.” Do you as a passenger want that “ruled out” as your flight approaches the concrete on instruments at 160 mph?

photo-13

A typical counter argument we often hear is this: “Sure, fly-by-wire (meaning, no direct cables to controls but rather, electronic servos) aircraft like the Airbus could be susceptible, but your average passenger jet actually does have cable controls, which are not subject to electronic interference.”

But the problem is, even those aircraft with direct control linkage, when operating on autopilot, are then controlled by servos that are susceptible to electronic interference. A stray signal can–and has–created a spurious autopilot input and when aircraft (fly-by-wire or control cable) are within feet of the ground, that interference can be disastrous.

Big picture answer, from the pilot perspective: we work hard to eliminate all variables in the safe approach to poor ceiling and visibility landings. We HAVE to ensure the validity of the data that substitutes for our own visual cues in order to land in marginal flight conditions, or we simply can’t–or won’t–land.

Which brings us to issue number two: compliance with federal regulations and flight crew instructions. And let’s get back to the youth group in question. Complaince is a binary–you either do, or don’t. There’s no room for “we think it’s okay to have our cellphones on in flight–so we won’t comply.”

They clearly don’t understand the binary nature of compliance or more importantly, the equally black and white nature of my options as a pilot, given the circumstances: I have to ensure the flight is operated in full compliance with all federal regulations (“cell phones and personal electronic devices off for taxi-out and take-off”), just as I have to–as noted above–be confident in the integrity of the instrumentation upon which I base our ability to safely fly.

peephole

To make matters worse, albeit simpler, in today’s air travel environment, the issue of compliance is even more cut-and-dried than ever. Used to be, if we had an non-compliance issue, I could personally go back and explain the situation and gain the compliance we need to satisfy the ironclad regulatory and safety requirements mentioned above. Those days ended on September 11th, 2001. Now, pilots will by regulation (if not common sense) stay on the flight deck and simply enforce whatever the cabin crew requires to ensure compliance, period. Rule one in that dilemma is don’t take off with a problem you don’t want to handle again in the air or on landing.

There again is the simple binary: comply, or don’t fly.

Student group boarding the AirTran flight in Atlanta.

I don’t wish the kids involved in this incident anything other than better experiences in the future, although given the regulatory and safety explanations above, I can’t find it anything other than disappointing that some of them would try to make this an ethnic or racial incident.

In fact, summer time is all about student travel, often in large groups, and most are very well-behaved. I’m glad to be taking them on the first or last leg of their adventure. But maybe the primary lesson that needs to come before–and during–the educational experience is one regarding mandatory compliance with legitimate instructions: comply, or don’t fly.

And now they know why.

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