Archive for the airline Category

Air Travel Illustrated: The Holiday Flights.

Posted in air travel, airline, airline cartoon, airline cartoon book, airline delays, airline industry, airline passenger, airline pilot, airline pilot blog, airliner, airlines, airport, airport security, cartoon, fear of flying, flight attendant, flight crew, flight delays, jet, passenger, pilot, travel with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 26, 2014 by Chris Manno

Some times words won’t do, or maybe illustrations can do better. Regardless, if you’re flying somewhere for the holiday, this is your life enroute. If you’re home already, here’s what you’re missing.

First, my best advice either way:

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With that in mind, make sensible reservations based upon experience, rather than an idealized hope:

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Flights are packed, so plan your inflight strategy:

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Getting a last minute seat can be nearly impossible due to holiday load factors, unless you’re willing to compromise:

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Keep in mind that you’ll have to handle your own baggage:

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Prepare mentally for the challenges of airport security:

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Please board only when your sedative is called:

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Ignore the pompous guys impressing each other in First Class:

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Or maybe share your admiration for them as you pass by:

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Realize that children are on-board, so you’ll need to deal with them:

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And parents, remember it’s your responsibility to discipline your kids on board:

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Pay attention to the flight attendants when they speak to you:

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And they may be talking to you even indirectly:

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So pay attention:

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And when I turn on the seatbelt sign, it does mean you:

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Realize that weather can complicate our flight:

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So be prepared.

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Anticipate the post-holiday letdown:

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Enjoy your leftovers properly:

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And congratulate yourself for traveling and thereby avoiding a worse fate. Bon voyage!

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Flight Crew: Some Things You Just Don’t Get Over.

Posted in air travel, airline, airline industry, airline pilot, flight attendant, flight crew, pilot with tags , , , , , , , on November 14, 2014 by Chris Manno

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Sidelong cross-cockpit glance: yep, it’s a flat top, ex-USMC style, and the bushy but gone gray Magnum PI mustache suggests a time warp. Better times? Easier times? He laughs a lot for a guy on the razor’s edge of disaster. I say nothing.

Ahead cumulus knots itself into towering stacks, each with a cirrus blow-off pointing like a banner to where the fleet’s headed. Same place we are, or so the anvils point. I’m thinking an upwind end run around the billowing, full-sail armada. He’s talking about our Chicago layover tonight.

His wife, a flight attendant, met us at our connecting gate as she passed through the airport. Something in her eyes matched the foreboding that weighed heavy as the tide on my mind. Pleading? Hurt? Wary? I couldn’t tell–yet I know what I know: My Darling Bride, also a flight attendant, flew with her yesterday. And I knew his wife–flew with her many times–before they were married. Then she was bright in the sense of Christmas lights, tiny scattered points of happiness gleaming everywhere. Not any more.

“Takes two to tango,” his words tumble in a snippet from what is more of a forced chatter, or so it seems. I guess if you’re talking you never have to listen. But in the tango of time and fuel, in the dance altitude and storm clearance, may I cut in?

 

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“I’d say left,” my mouth says. It’s his flight leg, but my jet. He’s flying the plane, but I signed for the damages. Upwind is longer, but smoother, safer. The shorter way is too uncertain, could put someone through the ceiling.

“We can top it,” he suggests, sweeping a hand out flat, as if showing a planar space between our altitude and the boiling cumulus rising ahead. Ah, there’s a thought. Climb another two thousand feet to max habitable altitude for the weight–which puts you into the coffin corner where the difference between high-speed buffet and low speed stall is a handful of capricious knots. If there’s any turbulence, those knots stop the tango and freestyle. Good luck.

His wife had mechanically recited to mine the all-too-familiar litany. “We just bought our ‘captain’s house’ … he wants me to quit flying … he can hold captain in Chicago … get a crash pad there …” In the jumpseat confessional, all is forgiven, but there will be penance nonetheless. Ahead, lightning licked the bruised-blue cloud bases, promising a fresh evening hell for Kansas and eventually, Illinois.

“Let’s take it over the top, direct,” he says with finality. “Stay on time.” Unsaid, but mentioned earlier: “she gets in an hour ahead of us.” Gentleman that he is, he doesn’t want her waiting. She flies for a different airline, but even after working her way over to our terminal, she’ll still have time to kill.

The thing about fiery cumulus and boiling sky is this: you really don’t know how it’s going to turn out. Never mind about the paper algorithm of options and assets, timing, clearance and margins, in real life, you just never know.

I key the hand mike. “Center, we need twenty left for weather.”

He slumped a little. Peeved? The perfect plan set back a few minutes? Can’t tell. Doesn’t matter. We swung wide upwind.

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I glance at the cloud tops, anvils aglow with the molten sunset. Some storms seem to fade, to lose their fire when the heat of the sun goes away. But this towering mess seemed the type that would thunder ahead regardless.

“Some things,” I say, “Some things you just can’t get over.”

Deaf ears. He was already hundreds of miles ahead, prattling on about Geno’s and where they’d watch the mind-numbing circularity of NASCAR (“She gets it–and me!”) inside The Loop.

Shouldn’t be in too much of a hurry, too far down the road, I thought to myself. Some things you just never get over, and really, you probably shouldn’t try.

 More? Read on. cvr w white borderThese 25 short essays in the best tradition of JetHead put YOU in the cockpit and at the controls of the jet.

Some you’ve read here, many have yet to appear and the last essay, unpublished and several years in the writing,  I consider to be my best writing effort yet.

Own a piece of JetHead, from Amazon Books and also on Kindle.

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Your Pilot Isn’t Thinking About Your Connection–and That’s Good.

Posted in air travel, airline, airline cartoon, airline delays, airline industry, airline passenger, airline pilot, airline pilot blog with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 7, 2014 by Chris Manno

 

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There’s a blessed silence in the cockpit right before pushback, immediately after the number one flight attendant reports “cabin ready,” and slams the cockpit door securely shut. Before that, the usual boarding chaos filters through the open cockpit door, the clatter of catering the forward galley, ramp workers stepping in to deliver some cargo paperwork, maybe some aircraft maintenance techs wrapping up required service or repairs.

But the noise and activity isn’t all that ends with the door slam. We call it “sterile cockpit,” an industry-wide concept rooted in the best Crew Resource Management (CRM) practices that dictates all non-flight essential conversation ceases in order to focus solely on the prescribed, often complex procedures required to fly the jet.

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In other words, leave all distractions behind and keep your head in the game. And I take that concept a step further–I clear my mind of everything except procedures (there are a multitude) and situational awareness: he’s moving, we’ll wait … wingtip clearance here … wind shift, at least for now … we’re heavier than planned.

Not just sterile cockpit verbally, but mentally as well. When you’re moving eighty tons of metal and a hundred sixty warm bodies, there’s no room for distraction. My airline (like most, I assume) has done a good job of minimizing outside considerations through the basic premises from which the pilot-in-command operates.

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For me that means I’ve “pre-worried” about the extraneous considerations–both yours and mine–and for the good of all, I’ve put them aside, compartmentalized them, and now look beyond them. When I say yours, I mean your down line connection, your time schedule, your reason for flying whether business or pleasure. Mine often overlap yours–my days off, my family plans, my important events, even my own physical stress of time zone shifts, late hours that could creep later, and my pay considerations.

Doesn’t mean these concerns are invalid, unimportant or dismissed–they’re just not on my mind as I balance crucial flight variables as they unfold. They’re fully addressed in the basic premises of our airline operation, stipulated in a hierarchy a passenger might not like, but which makes the most sense for a safe flight operation:

First, safety, second, passenger comfort and third, schedule. Yes, your connection, even your arrival time, is in third place. Just remember, I have similar personal concerns and I’m putting them completely aside as well. Here’s why.

A recent Flight Safety Institute report highlighted one of the factors that contributes to the comparatively high accident rate per flight hour experienced by air ambulance operators. One factor mentioned was the very real life or death pressure perceived by the pilots: if we don’t land on this spot, at this time, regardless of circumstances, a life may be lost.

That’s a very vivid and understandable urgency that would be difficult to put out of a pilot’s awareness. Nonetheless, the air ambulance operators with the lowest accident rates are the ones who’ve put CRM at the forefront, refocusing on flight safety limitations as a governing principle and setting aside all else.

 

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Now, your kid’s birthday, your business or other event, yes, they’re important–so are mine. But they aren’t life or death, are they? But as flight distractions, whether it’s an air ambulance or an air carrier, they could easily become exactly that.

From the moment we push back, the clock in my captain’s mind runs on weight, not minutes: how many pounds of fuel do I have, which translates into the ability to remain aloft. So, when you (or maybe a commuting crewmember, to be fair, asks “can we fly faster to make up time,” the real question in my mind is “can we afford to gamble by shortening our available fuel duration, and to what purpose and at what cost?” Less holding time available at our destination, maybe requiring a more stressful approach? No way.

scat vomitThe answer to “purpose” would be to shave off 5 to 10 minutes–hardly worth it–at the price of degrading our ability to arrival delays because of an increased fuel burn for speed. The question “can we top this weather rather than circumnavigating the area to save time” brings the opposite answer: maybe, but the more prudent option is to avoid–so we’ll spend the extra time (sorry about your connection–and mine) to do that.

And if you think we as pilots don’t have crucial connections, think again: besides losing pay in a misconnect, there’s more. For many crewmembers, even a ten minute late arrival can mean the difference between getting home or spending a night in a hotel at their own expense and losing a day with family. Sure, I eliminate that worry by not commuting, but crew base positions are determined by seniority–junior pilots and flight attendants can report to work and receive the official notice, “as of next month, you are based a thousand miles from home.”

That all needs to wait outside the cockpit door. Inside, we must focus on the vital flight considerations that trump all distractions.

Again, arrival time–and connections–hang in the balance, but that’s a distant third place behind safety. So yes, I’m not thinking about your connection–and you should be glad. Because that’s exactly what you’ve paid me for, and you deserve no less than the safest, most professional flight, no matter how long that takes.

 Fly the jet firsthand: cvr w white borderThese 25 short essays in the best tradition of JetHead put YOU in the cockpit and at the controls of the jet.

Some you’ve read here, many have yet to appear and the last essay, unpublished and several years in the writing,  I consider to be my best writing effort yet.

Own a piece of JetHead, from Amazon Books and also on Kindle.

amazon order button

Airliners, Ebola, Myths and Facts

Posted in air travel, airline, airline cartoon, airline industry, airline passenger, airline pilot blog, flight crew, jet, passenger with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on October 2, 2014 by Chris Manno

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Airliners, Ebola, Myths and Facts

The most recent communicable disease being linked with air travel as a possible factor in its spread is Ebola, which joins a long line of other contagions, such as SARS, H1N1, Hepatitis and even the basic flu, in the screaming air travel headlines.

There are two ways in which air travel could actually be a factor in the spread of such infections. First is the simple reality of transporting those infected to an uninfected area, and second is the propagation of infectious elements among people near the disease carrier.

This last consideration is medical and comes with contingencies well beyond my level of expertise. But what is absolutely common knowledge is that countermeasures in any public place–which an airliner is–are rudimentary. Your airline seat–like your theater seat, your seat at a dinner table, a taxi cab, a bus, a classroom, or any public area–is not sanitized before your use, no matter who sat there before you. That’s the public health standard in the modern world.

Yet the media rushes to the airport to show file footage of an airliner, then grab man on the street interviews with deplaned passengers, asking if they’re concerned about being exposed to [fill in contagion du jour] from other passengers who have visited [fill in global contagion hotspot] from possible proximity to an infected person.

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It’s a short leap from there to certain urban myths about air travel. First, and most persistent yet absurd, is “passengers are in a sealed tube, breathing the same air.”

The reality of an airliner is yes, the hull is pressurized, but no, it is not sealed. In fact, the fundamental link between pressurization and air conditioning on a passenger airliner at all altitudes is a constant outflow from the jet in flight, into the atmosphere. The controlled outflow is key to moving volumes of air through the cabin in a deliberately designed pattern for many vital functions beyond passenger comfort.

In a Boeing 737-800, that carefully crafted flow pattern drives air from two air conditioning systems through the cabin and cockpit, down through the forward electronic equipment bay below the cockpit where it picks up residual heat from electronic systems to keep that vital equipment at optimum operating temp, then the airflow proceeds back around the cargo compartment, keeping that compartment from getting too cold, then overboard through an automatically modulated outflow valve.

Key to that process is flow. The plane is not sealed, so constant airflow is mandatory–and here’s where another urban myth surfaces: airlines are limiting airflow to save money.

The fact is, airlines are increasing airflow to save money: in our Boeing, we have two large, powerful recirculating fans driving airflow which in basic Venturi logic, draws air from the air conditioning systems and eases the workload ultimately on the engines from which the bleed air is tapped and thereby increasing fuel mileage.

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The urban myth about decreased aircraft airflow to save money probably originated in the early seventies when the OPEC oil embargo drastically spiked fuel prices. Airline engine technology was simpler and less efficient before today’s high-bypass fan engines were developed. But even then, less bleed air really never improved airline fuel burn and regardless, an jetliner was never a sealed tube and always required metered outflow balanced with input to maintain pressurization.

“Raising the altitude in the cabin to save money” is the third urban myth with no basis in fact. First, in the Boeing, pilots have control of the rate of change only–the cabin altitude is set at a constant differential between inside and outside the hull based on maintaining the strength of the fuselage. Hollywood may have inspired the myth that pilot can “raise the cabin altitude,” but the only thing we can actually do is climb or descend and when we do, the pressurization systems maintain a constant differential and a constant airflow in order to maintain structural integrity of the fuselage.

So back to my original point: yes, airliners are the hardware of mobility that now mixes populations experiencing regional outbreaks with others a world way, but only in the modern sense of scale: all continents are now linked by air travel in hours rather than days or months of travel. But travel itself is the fundamental reality of the twenty-first century, period.

And that mode of travel, “air travel,” is neither conducive to propagation any more than any other public place, nor is any airline adding any infectious risk to “save money.” The most glaring stupidity in that persistent myth is the vital contingency the the flight crew must blindly increase their own health risks to do anything of the kind.

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In the passenger airline flight crew world, we often refer to an airliner as “the flying Petri dish,” because people with every communicable disease board, fly, sneeze, hack and cough just as they do in any public place. But that’s no different than the environment endured by the first grade teacher, the restaurant waiter, or pediatric nurse.

And the airline seats are about as “sanitized” as the movie seat you sat in, the tray table as “clean” as the restaurant tabletop the busboy just wiped with a wet rag dipped in tepid, hours-old water from a well-used bucket.

In other words, as far as infectious disease exposure risk, an airliner is just like any other public area–we just move faster and more frequently from place to place. It’s not a sealed tube, no one is reducing airflow or raising the cabin altitude to save money.

So use common sense about flying, recognize the airliner cabin as a public place and behave accordingly (thanks for mopping the lav floor with your socks, BTW), and breathe easy when you do, knowing the truth about these unfounded flying myths.

More insider info? Step into the cockpit:

cvr w white border

These 25 short essays in the best tradition of JetHead put YOU in the cockpit and at the controls of the jet.

Some you’ve read here, many have yet to appear and the last essay, unpublished and several years in the writing,  I consider to be my best writing effort yet.

Priced at the printing production cost, this collection is not for profit–it’s for YOU to keep.

Own a piece of JetHead, from Amazon Books and also on Kindle.

amazon order button

The Big Girl and What You Don’t Know

Posted in air travel, airline, airline pilot blog, airliner, airlines, pilot with tags , , , , , , , , on September 19, 2014 by Chris Manno

She stands tall in the chocks, that DC-10, all shiny polished aluminum gleaming at the leading edges like an Atlas rocket. A grand old bird, a design maybe Mac-Doug rushed into production to compete with what some called the better tri-jet from Lockheed. Not that I gave a damn, first as flight engineer, or Tengineer, as we were called, then as DC-10 copilot.

Because she had what a pilot needed–lots of lift on a fat gull-wing that produced a nice ground effect cushion to make you look good on landing if you treated her right, and tons of smash in those growly hi-bypass fans slung under the wing and mounted in the towering tail. For all her bulk and heft, she’d go like a halfback after the snap.

And in the cockpit, windows so wide next to the pilots’ seats that you’d swear you were going to fall out and drop two stories to the Tarmac on your first pushback. That took some getting used to.

That morning I was flying with Big John, a guy as nervous as you might expect a senior captain to be just months from retirement, not wanting to screw up. He had an enormous belly, hence the nickname, which I’d slap with the control yoke when I pulled it back during the taxi-out flight control check.

You’re supposed to watch the small, square flight control position indicator in the center of the instrument near the Thrust Rating Computer as you put the ailerons and elevator through their paces. But it was more fun, out of the corner of my eye, to watch Big John’s rubbery lips twist into a frown by the second or third time I’d heave back on the yoke till it popped him on the gut.

“Watcha tryin’ to do, boy–loop it?” he’d ask with a wet, wheezy sigh. The flight engineer and I would share a laugh about that over beers later. Conspiratorial, we were, young pilots laughing at the fat old captain.

The big jet rolled like a tank on the ground but once in the air, she climbed steady and strong, shoved smartly by those three big, snarling engines. Once she leveled off and planed out like a speedboat does, her nose dropped and she was a thoroughbred on a quarter mile track, effortlessly sailing along at .84 Mach, mane flying, not even breaking a sweat. And there was the quiet beauty of a morning flight, with everything below bathed in a rising arc light of sunshine as if revealing the new day by degrees of latitude and the majestic solar march along the ecliptic.

In cruise there was nothing to do but put your feet up on the traction-taped bar below the sparsely stocked instrument panel–it was so wide it just seemed empty–and ease that electric seat back a comfortable inch or two more. Then the good flight engineer would produce a small bottle of unreasonably Scoville-blazing hot sauce and make us Virgin Mary’s with the tomato juice in the collection of drinks and snacks and a pot of hot coffee and water the flight attendants had tossed into the cockpit on climbout to keep us pacified.

The Ten design engineers took cabin pressurization a step further than most jets, not only modulating outflow to maintain a habitable pressure despite the membrane-thin atmosphere where we cruised–but also varying the input tapped off of the big engines humming out on the fat wings. So she puffed and wheezed like Big John struggling his girth into the crew van, as the three air cycle machines opened and closed high stage bleeds.

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You might not notice so much in the cabin, but having spent a thousand hours myself manning the DC-10 flight engineer’s panel, even up front I was in tune with her calliope-ish huffing, familiar as a the breathing of spouse of so many years in the middle of the night.
“Not really happy ’bout these winds,” Big John said, shaking his head. “Big damn crosswind.” Which really mattered at LaGarbage, with its fairly short runways.

But the engineer and I couldn’t care; Virgin Mary’s and tonight in Manhattan mattered more: with half the flight attendant crew–the others would find something better to do–we’d walk from the Mildew Plaza to the Westside Temple for crappy Chinese but free wine. All you could drink, though the wine tasted like piss. But it was free and we were airline pilots: free piss is free piss. Big John could pour down a bucket by himself.

“Seems marginal,” Big John muttered, holding the current wind printout. That was the good engineer’s cue to check it out on his tabletop wind chart. We all knew the limits.

“It’s right at it,” the engineer offered. At it ain’t over it, we both decided, but of course Big John had signed for the jet, the damages, plus the FAA and NTSB beating should so much as a ding appear on the silver girl’s skin.

The engineer shrugged a second officer shrug: I told the captain the winds. I did too: I agreed. Glad it’s not my decision.
“Tough call,” Big John said, searching my eyes, I figured, for some hint as to what I’d do if I were him.

And that’s the moment blazed into my mind to this day as I carry his weight. Not his gut, but his pilot-in-command weight, in the twenty-some years I’ve been wearing four stripes. Ain’t no simple, pat answers, just air sense, and the ability to bring others into the decision in a meaningful way.

“We’ll fly the approach as long as we have the fuel increment to divert to JFK on the missed approach with at least fifteen thousand pounds on the deck there. In a standard Korry arrival that leaves about fifteen extra minutes after the full approach so we bingo out at twenty-five regardless. Just request clearance on the missed.”

Then, the golden question. He turned to both of us. “Now, what am I not thinking?”

Not, what do you think of my plan, which is a useless question if you want to know what others think (Your plan? Okay, but I have other ideas) or what you might not know. What am I not thinking?

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“That sounds like a good plan,” I said. It was–and there wasn’t anything in my head that I could share or hold back, especially since he asked. Simple? Might seem so–everywhere but the left seat where the buck stops, where the authority and responsibility irrevocably resides. Big John didn’t need an answer from me–he’d been a captain since I was in grade school. What he needed was what every captain needs: information, ideas, data, and a linked-in crew trained to speak up and comfortable doing so.

Because it’s not what you know–Big John knew plenty–it’s what you don’t know that’ll bust your ass. It’s crucial to ask and by doing so, demonstrate that asking, that searching for what we don’t know to perfect what we do is the way we’re going to think and fly this jet. And speak up about it, dammit, because we’re a team.

We stepped her down through the complex arrival that is the New York Center latticework of airways and approach corridors. I aimed at the two big Maspeth tanks, we were cleared the Expressway visual that’s a box pattern of low-altitude, tight maneuvering (can’t interfere with the JFK pattern) close in and eventually, treetop level. Big John called the left turns for me like a third base coach, having the better view of the SS LaGarbage over his shoulder.

She rolled out squared up, power on against the barn doors of max landing flaps hanging off the trailing edges of the wings. Just a touch of right rudder and she lined up true against the crosswind which less than the limit, or so it felt. The Ten was a stable giant, unlike the squirrely MD-80 I’d also flown as copilot, requiring constant tugging at the leash to get her to heel. When the big gear trucks rolled onto the runway, the ponderous weight settling, it was like she wanted to stop, a great feeling the DC-10 conveyed through your feet on the brakes and the mass weighing her down.

That flight is etched in my memory not only for what Captain Big John showed me, but because of the discovery waiting for me among the half dozen useless messages in my crew inbox after the trip. Sandwiched in the middle was a notice of pending crew status: my captain upgrade class, scheduled for the next month. Just like that, my eyes became Big John’s, needing to know, wanting to make the best decision and from that day forward, accountable.

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No more riding along, offering, but now the “tough decision” no longer belonged to someone else.

“You’re not yourself tonight,” my engineer friend said later at Smitty’s, the last resort Irish bar only a few body-slams across Eight Avenue from the front doors of the Mildew. We’d watched Big John polish off a trough of Kung Pao Chicken at the Westside Temple, washed down with a tankard of free piss. After a Westside night, the last snort at Smitty’s helped wash the bad taste out of your mouth.

“Yeah,” I said after a moment. “Probably never will be again.” At least I hoped not. I wanted to be worthy of that fourth stripe.
He looked at me like he didn’t get it, but that’s okay. He would, eventually, when his day came. Until then, in his shoes, it’d be just one more thing he didn’t know.

Now you can own a piece of JetHead:

cvr w white border

These 25 short essays in the best tradition of JetHead put YOU in the cockpit and at the controls of the jet.

Some you’ve read here, many have yet to appear and the last essay, unpublished and several years in the writing,  I consider to be my best writing effort yet.

Priced at the printing production cost, this collection is not for profit–it’s for YOU to keep.

Own a piece of JetHead, from Amazon Books and also on Kindle.

amazon order button

Airline Seat Reclining and the Death of Civility.

Posted in air travel, airline, airline passenger, airline pilot blog, airline seat recline with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 2, 2014 by Chris Manno

It’s not about seat reclining. Really, the controversy isn’t the cause–rather, it’s an effect.

Considering the abysmal totality of the airline experience these days, with long lines, limited customer service staffing, “unbundled” product (read: a spectrum of additional fees), security hassles, historically unprecedented high load factors, diminished on-board amenities, airport delays, weather effects, and air traffic control induced flight delays, reclining seats are just the tip of the iceberg.

It’s not really about reclining a seat–it’s about control, maybe one shred of personal authority over an already downsized and minimized bit of enroute space rented at a substantial price.

Because you can’t do a thing about security hassles, or overcrowded airports and air traffic control, about fuel surcharges and overbooking, or add-on pricing. When you get right down to it, in the huge, intransigent, inscrutable and unanswerable juggernaut that is air travel, the only person who has no choice but to listen to you is the passenger within arm’s reach of your seat, upright or reclined.

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But the sad irony of the seat recline squabble is this: the very victims of all of the above factors are turning on each other. And “each other” is simply one victim victimizing another.

The Knee Defender is the catalyst, but not the root cause. Rather, it’s the final straw in a backbreaking load of unpleasantry that has become air travel. We put up with even worse travel hassles in other modes of transport without a protest: filthy cabs, rude drivers, subways packed, buses too, and often unclean and from a crime standpoint, dangerous crowds of travelers.

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But that’s because we don’t spend a week’s wages on the trip, nor do we travel for hours on end with unreliable arrival times and in some cases, changed destinations.

The Knee Defender actually did us all a favor. Rather than having the current “We’re madder than hell and we’re not going to take it any more!” moment erupt over wanting a full can of soda or a seat armrest (or, anyone notice the lavs never get sanitized?), endangering a blameless crewmember (remember, we have zero say in any of the above), the seat recline issue blew up into a national debate about limits.

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That is, the limit of one passenger’s authority over another (the answer: zero, and you’ll deplane in cuffs if you push it) but more importantly, how much shrinkage in the “airline product” can the traveling public withstand?

That, for any airline exec actually looking at this all-important breaking point in both civility and tolerance from the consumer standpoint, is wholly separate from the spreadsheet analysis of revenue and profit margin.

Plain and simple, it ain’t just about the seats and knees, despite the headlines. It’s hearts and minds and human tolerance for complete lack of any power over the last frontier–personal space. We’ve lost all the other fights about price, service, seating, crowding and “security.”

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The airline that finds a way to fill the seats while reversing the trend of shrinking space and diminished personal authority will be the miracle worker that restores both personal dignity and travel value to the skies–and the marketplace.

Until then, industry regulators, law enforcement, crews and passengers can expect more tumult in the already unpleasant skies.

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Airliners & Missile Defense: A Pilot’s View.

Posted in air travel, airline, airline passenger, airline pilot, airline pilot blog, airliner missile defense with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 24, 2014 by Chris Manno

US Army “Spyder” missile launch.

 

After an apparent missile strike brought down Malaysia Air flight 17 over the Ukraine with senseless, tragic loss of life, public focus has included possible defensive systems for airliners. From my perspective as an airline captain, I believe the discussion is good, but in my opinion, fruitless.

First, my disclaimer up front: I’ve never flown any aircraft with defensive systems, and I haven’t flown a military aircraft since my last flight as an Air Force pilot in 1985. Even then, our strategy was simple: avoidance of threat areas.

So what I know about aircraft missile defensive systems is from three sources: discussion with engineers who design such defensive systems at Raytheon and Lockheed-Martin, former military pilots who did evade missiles in flight, and industry publications such as Jane’s Aircraft and Weapons and Aviation Week & Space Technology.

That background, plus my 29 years (and counting) of uninterrupted flying as an airline pilot lead me to the following questions, for which I find no good answers:

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1. Who? As in, who would operate such defensive systems, not only in cruise flight, but as importantly, in the low altitude structure on approach and departure when both the crew workload and vulnerability to even shoulder-launched missiles is highest? A passive system might (heavy on the “might”) do an adequate job detecting an impending missile threat (launched, launch-ready, or targeted) but then who–especially on a two-man crew, will analyze the threat and devise the defensive tactics to defeat the weapon or tracking system?

Some analysts point to the industry-standard TCAS (Traffic Conflict Avoidance System) as an example of an already operational avoidance system, but that overlooks one major flaw: TCAS is designed to detect potential flight path intersections of two flying bodies, then to compute and issue avoidance instructions to each. Besides the fact that one party in the impending collision–the missile–will not respond to avoidance instructions, the fact is, for the other aircraft, the instructions would be insufficient to avoid a missile. That’s because TCAS conforms to the design limitations of the airliner, stopping short of any maneuvering loads that would damage or destroy the aircraft.

So, who on board the airliner will be operating any defensive systems that would monitor threats, analyze incoming missiles or antiaircraft fire and devise evasive tactics? In a word, it can’t/shouldn’t/won’t be the two whose full attention better be on the approach or departure.

 

2. What? As in, what defensive systems? There are some systems designed for large aircraft that mask the infrared signature of the engines to foil heat seeking missiles. But, as in the case of MH17, the missiles weren’t heat seekers anyway. They were radar guided, against which heat-masking is largely ineffective. The simplest countermeasure against radar guided missiles might be chaff, which is essentially shredded foil that is ejected when a missile launch is imminent or in progress to disrupt targeting radar returns, but step two after dispensing chaff is to aggressively vacate the airspace the missiles were targeting. That brings us back to the limits encoded in TCAS: design limitations to prevent damage or structural failure preclude anything other than lumbering maneuvers in the air, hardly sufficient to avoid a missile traveling near the speed of sound.

3. Where? As in, in flight (see above) or on the ground? Regarding the latter, consider the recent destruction of 9 passenger jets on the airfield by terrorists in Karachi, Pakistan. Even if there were aircraft-based defensive systems, the fully-fueled, barely maneuverable or even parked jets are sitting ducks for explosive destruction–with hundreds of innocent lives at stake.

Which brings us the recent FAA ban on flight into Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv. In my opinion as just one individual airline pilot, that FAA restriction was a mistake, for a couple of good reasons. First, I believe it was an over-reaction by the FAA that contravened the airlines’ own internal safety and security analysis and strategy. Worse, the one-size-fits-all restriction was hasty and clumsy, creating economic and political liabilities for our most staunch ally in an already volatile region.

 

I don’t advocate unthinking flights into a dangerous area, I just believe that the individual airlines are fully capable (and unceasingly, painfully aware of liability) when it comes to determining whether or not to continue airline service.

I’m fully informed on the risk of what is typically an unguided rocket (vs. missile, with a guidance system that could be defeated) being lobbed by dumb luck onto the airport. But the risk assessment should be left to the individual airlines to evaluate and resolve with sensible policy.

Passengers, of course, can decide for themselves whether to fly or not–but crewmembers are assigned to flights. I believe they should be given a choice whether or not to fly into a hostile area, but that’s a completely different decision level way below the FAA blanket ban and its attendant political and economic liability to the host nation.

4. Why? This is a “big picture” issue: why even discuss defensive systems for airliners, beyond the “warm fuzzy” (recall the short-lived “office parachutes” that appeared briefly after 9-11) even if unfounded, when we realize–as with my last Air Force squadron–that avoidance is the only way to make a large aircraft safe when any offensive weapons are in use.

Again, while the FAA is prudent to issue air route restrictions (route were modified/restricted–not prohibited) over war zones like the Ukraine, blanket bans such as the Tel Aviv landing prohibition are senseless and politically, reckless.

Let airlines, passengers and (this should be ensured) crew decide what risk makes individual sense. And leave the missile defense to the pros, which in the case of Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport, certainly the Israelis are the best in the world. It would be my personal choice to fly there myself for that reason, and I’d rather both pilots were focused on civilian flight duties when we do.

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