Archive for the flight crew Category

Malaysian 370: More Loss Ahead.

Posted in air travel, airline pilot blog, airliner, flight crew, Malaysian Air 370, Malaysian Airlines flight 370, MH 370 with tags , , , , , , , , , , on April 14, 2014 by Chris Manno

At least as important as finding the wreckage of Malaysian Flight 370 is uncovering the facts that caused the disaster. But based on the real-time performance of the Malaysian Aviation Ministry as it has unfolded since the jet disappeared, there’s little hope that the facts aren’t just a deeply buried and even less likely to be recovered than the missing jet, because of three cold, hard facts: politics, incompetence, and liability.

First, the political factors that mortgage the Malaysian investigation of this tragedy. Most of these center around the Malaysian Acting Minister of Aviation–a post left vacant since May of 2013–who is also the appointed Minister of Defense,  Hishammuddin bin Tun Hussein.

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Hussein’s official resume  lists neither aviation nor military experience or expertise, and his primary qualification to hold both titles appears to be largely that he is the son of Malaysia’s third prime minister, Tun Hussein Onn, and the nephew of Malaysia’s second prime minister, Tun Abdul Razak. He is seen as a likely successor to his cousin, Prime Minister Najib Razak.

Hussein has built a political career as the icon of nationalism predicated on race, and the symbolism of the native garb so prominently displayed during the initial phases of the MH 370 investigation are his trademark:

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The above photo was taken at a speech he gave at the 2005 United Malays National Organization, as Hussein waved the traditional Malay “keris” in a fiery call for Malay racial solidarity (his cousin, the present Prime Minister, is seen applauding in the background), earning him the derisive nicknames Hishammudin Tauke Keris (“The Keris Merchant”) or simply as Hishammudin Keris (“Hishammundin Keys”) in the Malaysian press. Hussein defended his usage of the keris, saying it was meant “to motivate the Malays” and that it “is here to stay,” denying that it was a symbol of Malay supremacy.

The early opportunity to politically brand the authoritative spotlight in official press conferences with the racial purity signature quickly gave way to more sensible and less political garb in subsequent press briefings, but both the intent and the liability were clearly set forth on day one of the investigation: politics will be at the forefront of the MH370 investigation.

Hussein has the dual political liability stemming from his two ministry titles, Defense and Aviation. First, given the fact that Malaysian military radar detected MH370′s rogue turn that penetrated Malaysian sovereign airspace without clearance–indicating a possible 9/11 threat to the nation–why weren’t Malaysian Air Defense Forces sent to intercept and investigate?

 

Had Hussein’s Defense Ministry handled this routine (in the west) airspace alert and scrambled interceptors, they would at least know where MH 370 was headed, and perhaps how and why. With Hussein directly in the political hierarchy topped by his cousin the Prime Minister, the military intercept fiasco has been downplayed by Hussein and his Ministry of Defense.

But even more liability accrues to Hussein in his responsibility as Minister of Aviation. The regulatory function of a national aviation agency must encompass inspections, compliance, licensing, and accident investigations.

 

In modern aviation regulatory practice, the accident investigative arm–the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) in the United States–operates independently from the regulatory, licensing and operations inspections agency, the FAA. This is fundamental to fair and objective accident investigation: the NTSB must not be subservient to the agency that is liable for the failures leading to an accident.

Not only does Hussein’s Malaysian Aviation Ministry not have such a vital separation between key branches, but in fact, most of the Malaysian aviation oversight structure remains unstaffed and vacant, as the Malaysian Ministry of Aviation’s own organizational chart clearly shows:

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Unfortunately for the entire world demanding unbiased and thorough investigation of the MH370 disappearance, this is where objectivity collides with liability–both political and financial–as well as incompetence: in a nation whose national airline operates state-of-the-art jetliners worldwide, the Safety and Compliance leadership positions are largely vacant? What does that say, in retrospect, about the competence of not only the regulatory function of the Malaysian Aviation Ministry, but also the air carriers certified–including the national flag carrier–regulated and inspected and certified by the Ministry of Aviation?

Further, what does the direct linkage to both the sitting Prime Minister and his heir apparent create in terms of political incentive to meter and constrain the flow of investigative facts while that nation’s credibility declines as the investigation is filled with, as Reuters described, “misinformation or conflicting reports” from the agency charged with both certifying competence and investigating  failures?

With no firewall between the agency liable for the regulatory failures and the investigative body responsible for discovering and reporting such faults, with the national leadership embedded through family relations in both the governance and the liability in both the MH370 disappearance and the ongoing investigation, what chance is there that the unvarnished truth will ever be discovered or divulged?

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Because even if the Digital Flight Data Recorder and the Cockpit Voice recorder are ever recovered–and that’s a hope that grows dimmer by the hour–the final authority over the data transcription will not be the aircraft manufacturer, nor the data units’ manufacturer, nor the NTSB.

In fact, the investigative findings and all supporting data belong to the Malaysian government–until and unless they elect to turn over the data and investigation to a third party. Given the political and personal stakes involved, the chances of a fair, factual and unbiased investigation seem as lost to the world as the jet itself.

Malaysia Plane

Flying the Fuel Mule to Seattle

Posted in air travel, airline pilot blog, airliner, airlines, airport, flight crew, jet, passenger, pilot, travel with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on April 9, 2014 by Chris Manno

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Pace yourself: a Seattle turn is 1,600 miles northwest, then 1,600 southeast. Seduced by the 12 day work month, you’re about to find out how 90 flight hours can be logged in so few days. And, for W2 purposes, you’ll pick up another day of voluntary flying, to top out near 100 hours–in only 13 days. Looks good on paper, fly it.

First, consider the illusion: 8.2 hours of flying turns into an 11 hour work day–if all goes as planned. Here’s how it unfolds: report at 11:40 for preflight duties, pushback at 12:40. If, that is, the inbound arrives at the gate on time. Arrival weather can slow that down considerably, and so can maintenance requirements on the $55-million dollar air machine. That could happen before it leaves wherever it started its flight day–Miami, in our case–which will put it on our gate late. Regardless, your day starts on schedule no matter when you eventually pushback.

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Until you get your hands on the jet, consider the route, the weather, and the winds. That last element is crucial, because wind variance from planned can easily add 10-15% to your fuel burn. DFW to Nashville? Barely 2 hours, so plus or minus 10% is nominal. But over 4.5 hours? You can’t ignore the extra fuel burn, which could easily be 1,000 pounds or more. on longer flights, you have to be mulishly stubborn about fuel. Here’s how.

The winds used by the flight planning computer program are fairly accurate, but not perfect. They are a blend of historical data, predictive calculations, and some real time pilot reports. But consider their “Best if Used By” label: they were fresh 3 or 4 hours ago when reported, but with the sun that many hours higher since, you know wind patterns and intensity will change.

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Which brings up another wild card: the front range of the Rockies. You have to cross that ridge northwest bound, probably just west of Pike’s Peak. The old rule of thumb says you’re vulnerable to mountain wave turbulence half again as high as the mountain range, so if you figure between 15,000 and 20,000 on top of a generous average for the range, you’d figure to be a smooth cruise in the upper 30-thousands, right? Seldom works that way and in fact, often the ride is worse higher and better lower. That’s due to many variable factors: the jetstream pattern, heating and temperature bands in layers, and the orographic effect of the uneven range peaks themselves. Plus, the higher sun angle throws adiabatic heating into the mix, adding convection to the orographic disruption. End results: riding a dump truck down a dirt road.

Add those concerns to your awareness of the slimmer margin between high and low speed buffet at the higher altitudes, particularly early in cruise when fuel quantity and thus aircraft weight is the highest. Sometimes, lower than optimum cruise altitude is a wiser choice if there’s a possibility of significant turbulence. Again, there will be a higher fuel burn for that segment of cruise.

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So there’s another possible fuel penalty, and it’s not as simple as the increased incremental fuel burn at a lower altitude for the front range transit time, although that is substantial. You also have to add the fuel burn for another climb back to optimum cruise altitude for the remainder of the flight.

Plus, if anywhere in the 1,600 mile route we discovery that a lower altitude is a better ride compared to a turbulent optimum cruise altitude, we’re going to descend and accept a higher fuel burn. Again, short flight like Nashville? No worries–just stay low. But not for 2-3 hours as in the Seattle flight.

So, in your head, you’re computing a comfortable arrival fuel, plus an extra 15% for wind and turbulence options. And “comfortable” depends on current and forecast Seattle weather. Yes, “current” weather in Seattle is important for a couple reasons. First, if their weather is causing flight delays there now, there’s a good chance for the imposition of arrival metering–unless it clears in the 5 hours before your planned landing time. That could mean an outbound (YOU) ground stop, or even enroute metering, vectoring or slowdown–all of which cost fuel.

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The ground stop eventuality saves jet fuel, but burns YOUR energy, adding an hour or more to what’s typically an 11-12 hour workday for a Seattle turn. That type of delay on top of any maintenance or inbound delay can make your day an endurance contest: just getting to Seattle in 5-ish hours is only half of the game–you still have to juggle all of those factors and the same mileage southbound.

There are a few windfalls that will likely come your way, too. Frequently, the cargo load will drop off, sometimes the passenger count too, but that’s very unlikely for Seattle. But the cargo weight dropping a thousand pounds or more will allow an early climb to a higher cruise altitude with a lower fuel flow and more favorable winds.

Today we’re actually flying longer route on a more northerly course, passing east of Denver, and I can see why: there the jetstream becomes more of a crosswind than the headwind we’d get on a more westerly route. The typical westerly route is shorter mileage on a map, but not in the sky where the flow of the air mass acts like a treadmill: it’s already moving against us, whereas on the more easterly course, it’s not. No treadmill effect, or at least significantly lower.

So, here’s the numbers game for today: SEATAC’s landing south (grumble: longer arrival and  approach) with variable winds (could switch to north, you hope) and neither poor weather nor delays. Ceiling 700 to 1,000 and, with the trend data, improving. Good. 6.0 arrival fuel will be fine, and it will likely balloon to 7 if all goes well but comprises a good pad if not. Worst case, we visit McChord AFB twenty-some miles south.

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Weather at DFW makes for outbound delays, not due to the heavy rain so much as the convective (read: spring thunderstorms) cells dotting the radar, disrupting the standard departure routing and forcing all jets into a 10 mile in-trail spacing to allow radar vectoring after takeoff. More grumbling: sure don’t want our southbound leg to be delayed or god forbid, ground-stopped in Seattle. But the steadily moving frontal line snarling DFW will be well clear by the time we return around 10 pm. We’ll worry about that later.

Somewhere over Wyoming at take-off plus two hours, you share a wry observation with the First Officer: “We’re not even halfway yet.” She laughs: “And even that’s only halfway to halfway.”

Hello, Idaho.

Hello, Idaho.

True enough. Because every single step of analysis, planning, preflight and execution repeats itself sure as Bill Murray’s Groundhog’s Day as soon as you set the brakes in Seattle.

Pace yourself: it’s going to be a long day. If you’re lucky, you’ll get home 12-13 hours after you left for the airport this morning, allowing you to get a good rest in order to do it all over again tomorrow.

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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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LGA: Landing on LaGarbage.

Posted in air travel, airline pilot blog, airliner, airlines, flight crew, pilot, travel with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 22, 2014 by Chris Manno

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Normally the jet handles smoothly with 3,200 PSI of hydraulic muscle powering the flight controls–but not flying down final at LaGuardia on a day when a gale blusters over the water as you slow and dirty up the jet. Sometimes, too, it seems like the eight foot tall winglets aggravate the tendency to weathervane in high crosswinds, and though the engineers might disagree, realtime air sense says otherwise.

Well, you’ve known about this wind for the last 1,200 miles; no surprise there. But foreknowledge doesn’t give you any more rudder throw or a definitive bank to set in gusty winds. Now the question is, will the rudder be sufficient, or the commensurate wing-low maneuver be too excessive to keep the engine pod on the low wing from scraping? Got to keep the nose tracking straight down the runway–can’t land in a crab, especially on a short, wet runway.

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On downwind, you can see RJs–regional jets–touching down smartly, but again, I wonder about their flying real estate: our wing has more acreage, thus not as clean, and I don’t care what the engineers might say (I think I know), our winglets hold the wing stiffer and the lessened flexibility translates more lateral motion to the jet. End result: rougher ride.

All of that comes with the territory: you know the limits and the options, so pre-planning is key to not looking stupid, or in less conspicuous terms, to arriving safely. And that is, arriving in the vicinity of LaGuardia: we’ve already discussed among ourselves, one approach, then clearance on request to JFK.

But why not plan enough fuel for two or more approaches? Isn’t there a good chance that if you fly down to minimums, then go-around, that on the next approach you’ll know exactly how to counter the winds?

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I’ve had that conversation with more than one new captain, when I was a Check Airman, taking the newly four-striped pilot through the initial flights of what one hopes will be a long, safe career as pilot in command. The “newly four-striped” distinction is the key–meaning, hasn’t scared the snot out of himself yet. Let me help.

I learned the hard way; uh, I mean, I heard of others getting caught in this line of reasoning. It’s borne of the can-do attitude, the feeling that you can handle anything and everything thrown at you and your jet, and you’d damn well better be able to. But the key is, you don’t want to have to.

I “discovered” a long time ago and have never challenged the fact that there’s nothing I’m going to see on that second approach that’s any different or better than on the first. And as important; no, MORE important, is this: no matter how much extra fuel you take on, it will require more.

Which puts you in the very ugly “all or nothing” mindset when you finally do get vectored back onto final approach, because inevitably you will have eaten up your mental fuel endurance padding (not your legal reserve, which isn’t even an issue–you NEVER stray into that) which means if you DON’T get it on the ground on this one, you’re really must-land at your alternate.

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With that alternate being JFK, you’re going to look real stupid for declaring an emergency for fuel (swallow your pride–you’re out of options) in order to bust into their landing pattern ahead of the big rigs arriving from overseas. At least if you declare an emergency, you can demand the headwind runway–you’re already looking stupid, might as well take full advantage.

And sure, they’re all pretty at closing time, but in a jet, as captain, you’d better go ugly early and get out of town–or one of these long flight days, you’ll wish you had.

While on final, I’m cursing the powers that be for landing us with a direct cross while take-offs are being done on the crossing runway and thus, with a direct headwind, and I make a note to find out who and why this illogic (at least from a pilot standpoint) decides who gets the crosswind.

Because as a pilot, I’d prefer to face the crosswind on take-off in a state of increasing energy and control responsiveness rather than the reverse: slowing, losing energy and control effectiveness on landing. Plus, on take-off, once the wheels are off the deck, who cares: weathervane into the wind, that’s fine.

So a day later I grumbled about this to the most experienced pilot in the free world, a 747 instructor pilot and one of the few aviators entrusted with an open ATP–meaning the FAA has said he’s certified to fly any and every aircraft in the world.

Long JFK runway.

We both agreed that LaGuardia must use the same runways that are in use at JFK because they are so geographically close–you can’t have jets at LaGarbage on a south final with JFK launching north departures.

But then Randy offered the key, which I hadn’t thought of: JFK is launching heavies loaded down with fuel for 3,000 to 6,000 mile flights. And the long runway is key–so, LaGarbage conforms, and now I’m wrestling a crosswind on final.

Usually, below 200 feet is adequate to put in the cross-controls to be sure they’re sufficient and really, if you put them in much higher, the winds near the surface will be different anyway. But with LaGarbage having a “go ugly early” type day, and me seeing the runway only out of the far corner of the wind screen (smartass to the end, I ask my F/O, “Does it seem like we’re flying sideways to you?”), I start feeding in the rudder and dropping the upwind wing at 500 feet.

The wing shudders at the cross controls–winglets, I’m telling you, they don’t like it–and the upwind spoilers create an additional burble. My apologies to those passengers aft of the center of gravity, especially those near the tail, who’ve just asked themselves does it seem like we’re flying sideways? Can’t be helped–I ain’t the ace of the base, just an average, journeyman pilot who doesn’t do wondrous, spectacular things with the jet. I need time to get these controls set where they need to be.

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And truly, I feel no pressure at all, because Plan B is set: if this doesn’t feel right below 100′ (we’re flirting with the max demonstrated crosswind for the aircraft), we’re simply getting out of town to enter either JFK’s or Newark’s pattern with a fuel pad that makes the process simple and routine.

It’s not going to be pretty, because the runway is short and we have ironclad touchdown distance limits. Fine, but it will be on speed, no crab, and where it needs to be. Passengers will say the touchdown felt as if everyone in Manhattan simultaneously jumped off a chair, but no matter; safe, stable and however un-pretty that may be, let’s all just give thanks that Boeing makes one tough, reliable and durable jet.

Because besides flying back to DFW in less than an hour, we get to do this turnaround tomorrow and the next day, too.

At least tomorrow into LaGarbage it will be me watching and my very capable F/O wrestling the jet. Then he can ask, does it seem like we’re flying sideways? Yes, it does–and now you know why.

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Malaysia Flight 370: What Didn’t Happen.

Posted in airline, airline industry, airline pilot blog, cruise ship, fear of flying, flight crew, jet, Malaysian Air 370, security with tags , , on March 15, 2014 by Chris Manno


Speculation on what happened to Malaysia 370 now runs rampant across the world media, just as it always does after any airline disaster. But as usual, most of what the “informed sources” hypothesize is unfounded or at least, not based on fact. That’s because whether the “experts” popping up on broadcast media want to admit it or not, there are few facts; and for all the wrong reasons in this case, there are fewer than ever.

That in itself is significant and, in my judgment from the perspective of one who makes a living piloting Boeing jets, a major factor largely ignored in the media. Specifically, what didn’t happen to that Boeing 777 holds the key to what did.

First, let’s start with the most obvious clue, which basically is the common denominator in one major risk factor that affected everyone who boarded Malaysia flight 370: the two travelers with stolen passports. No, I’m not even suggesting that they were players in a terrorist plot, although that is possible. Rather, the common denominator risk factor is this: clearly, third world security once again and not surprisingly, failed.

The Interpol database listing those stolen passports would have been cross checked in the United States, Canada, Great Britain, and every country in Europe. Was the database available to Malaysia? To the airport in Kuala Lumpur? Of course it was–but the database was never crosschecked against the flight manifest. That’s the starting point of what didn’t happen, and that trail only gets worse.

Is there a good reason why the Interpol list wasn’t checked? Actually, the more important question, the answer to which bears heavily on the common denominator in play, is this: does any good reason for not checking even exist? Technological deficit? Budget constraint? Manpower? Mismanagement? Incompetence? Is there a “good” reason for this failure, which would imply there is a level of acceptance appropriate for the failure to secure the screening process?

If what the rest of the modern world considers essential–airline and airport security–is simply not maintained in Malaysia, what else is not done there?

“We don’t really know.” Seriously?

That brings me to the jet itself. I’ve had a printer message pop up at 40,000 feet that read, “Please check the vibration level on the right engine–it’s reading high down here.” Down here, in this case, is my airline’s technical operations center that is receiving, monitoring and screening the extensive data stream flowing from my Boeing 737-800, including detailed telemetry from the two CFM-56 high-bypass jet engines.

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Malaysia Air says there was no data stream from flight 370, while Rolls Royce, the manufacturer of the engines on that 777 who monitors that data stream says there was. Which raises the larger question of why the two disagree? Why would the airline–and the authorities governing airlines in Malaysia–not have the data, or say that they didn’t? Again, is there even a good reason? Lost data? Technical shortcoming? Incompetence? Insufficient budget or manpower resources?

Which brings worse to worst: untruth. In an incident I witnessed from the left seat, the key piece of cause data that nearly led to hull loss with 150 fatalities (including me) was the radar plot and audio tape of the Mexico City Approach Control’s vectoring. Which, of course, went “missing” in the subsequent investigation.

Which lowers us to the worst of the worst factors at play in Malaysia and Mexico and other third world countries where, as Asiana Airlines proved last summer, a “competent and qualified” cockpit crew could fly a perfectly good 777 into a sea wall. That is, culture.

Asiana crew flies into seawall on landing..

Certainly, the Ethiopia Airlines copilot who recently commandeered his own 767 and nearly ran it out of fuel over Central Europe was, according to Ethiopia Air and their aeronautics regulators, “highly qualified” like the Asiana crew.

“Hijacked”–by the copilot.

In a country like Malaysia where no heads roll when passports are not checked against databases of security risks, stolen documents, and worldwide watch lists, when key flight data may or may not be recorded, monitored or maintained (all that data, by the way, is key to modern jet safety and maintenance), when convention and tradition–essentially culture–mandates that power relationships (and likely, money) transcend the first world strictures of duty, common sense and personal responsibility–what does anyone think could–and did, and will–happen?

The only reason this list of failures–which barely scratches the surfaces of things that didn’t happen, causing the disaster that did–is a surprise to the flying public is because of a twofold consumer bias: price, and marketing. A 777 in the paint job of Malaysia Air looks as impressive as a 777 in United Airlines paint, and they both have a $250 million dollar price tag. But that’s where the similarity ends–technical capability, maintenance standards, government regulatory oversight, budget, manpower and culture run the gamut–and there is a bottom end upon which the airline passenger who goes by appearances gambles everything.

Consider the billion dollar cruise industry, where it’s common to register a half-billion dollar ocean liner in the country with the least competent (read: least costly/interfering) regulatory capability, like Liberia, the Bahamas, or Panama. And when a mega-ship’s engines fail in cruise, or the steering quits, or a fire disables the electrical system, or the incompetent captain runs the ship aground showing off, we get a thousand personal anecdotes, cell phone pics, YouTube videos and talk show interviews from those who survived the incompetence, decrying what didn’t happen that should have prevented what atrocity actually did.

“Experienced,” certified Costa cruise ship captain Francesco Schettino runs ship aground–then abandons the ship and 2,000 passengers.

How does that regulatory, cultural and operating failure play out at 35,000 feet and 500mph? Ask the passengers of Malaysia 370 about the end result–if you can find them. Because in their case, all of the above things that should have protected them did not.

The bigger mystery in the Malaysia 370 disappearance isn’t what happened, or even what failed to happen which caused the loss of 200+ lives. Rather, it’s that people are actually surprised that it did.

. . . a week later: still nothing.

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A “simple” aircraft change? You tell me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You tell me.

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

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

Crap.

“Where?” I ask.

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

“Any adverse engine indications?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Well,” I ask, “what do you think?”

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

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

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

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

So I’ll shortstop this by calling Flight Dispatch.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Can I ask you a question?”

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Back to the present.

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

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

sunset crz

The Flight of the Pilgrims

Posted in air travel, airline pilot blog, airliner, airlines, airport, flight crew, jet, passenger, pilot, travel with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 23, 2013 by Chris Manno

The construction paper Indian headband was festooned with crayon-decorated paper feathers, hand-colored in orange and brown. The boy under it had the whirlwind dishevelment of preschoolers, with boundless energy and activity pulling clothing awry, and he stood staring wide-eyed at the airport equivalent of a Disney character–the airline pilot.

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His beleaguered mom, holding a baby on one hip while attempting to fold up a stroller, says, “He’s the one who will fly the airplane for us!”

“Police man!” The boy chirps. You laugh at that. The pilgrims–literally, in the pint-sized dynamo wearing crayon feathers–are flying: it’s the holiday season.

“I can help with either the baby or the stroller,” I say, realizing that I’m not even halfway qualified to operate the Byzantine affair of joints and latches that fold-up strollers have become. But I’ve also spent a whole flight day with baby puke or worse drying on my uniform, so I’m more willing to take on the stroller.

We'll remind you of the proper procedure after you've successfully accomplished it.

The average business traveler, typically posing as studiously bored and self-assured, couldn’t hold a candle to pilgrim mom, juggling kids, strollers, car seats and bags.

And that’s because unlike the straphanger biz flyer, the pilgrims are not simply going from point to point, conceding their presence to the process of travel–flight, in our case–grudgingly, and with neither wonder nor trepidation.

But in the kid’s eyes, wide and clear, there was the wonder of Thanksgiving, turkeys, family; who even knows what flight actually is, but it’s bound to be magic!

“Can I give you this?” I say, digging into my suitcase. I’ve been dragging this bulky thing around for weeks, figuring when the families start their holiday migration, I could give it to someone who could use it.

“It’s a car seat cover,” I say. “you don’t want her” I point to the little one still on her hip, smiling almost slyly, “car seat getting grimy in the cargo hold.”

DFW C-2

And the cover has taken up most of the spare space in my bag. Darling Bride was going to throw it out, because our “baby” is now a teenager. I said no–not just to the throwing out, but also to my membership in the parent club concerned with such things. Cute baby, too. She deserves a clean car seat.

“Are you serious?” mom asks, looking over the bag almost perfectly sized for the car seat among her pile of hand carried bags.

Well, yeah I am serious. I actually need to get down the jet bridge myself, and get on with preflight, fuel loads, landing weight, takeoff thrust (we’ll use MAX and don’t forget the wet runway correction), weather enroute, systems downgrades and setting the jet up for flight.

But first, I can share a pilgrim moment myself.

“Well only if you want,” I say. “We always used this, and it even makes it easy to carry and retrieve from baggage claim.” I miss those days, our years of travel with our little one, a sweet girl like the one in her arms. Now she’s a teenager, 5′ 8″ and of course still wonderful as ever, but dads still get wistful sometimes about good old times.

“Sure,” she says. “Thanks!” I stash her car seat in the bag, zipping it deftly, though not as smoothly as her stroller disassembly but still. I attach the bag tag the agent hands me.

“You’re good to go,” I say, glad that my bag’s finally unstuffed. “Tell the pilgrims at your Thanksgiving dinner I said hello,” I tell the pre-schooler in the construction paper head dress. He still just stares, and I only wish I knew what he was thinking.

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But best to get on board before the spell wears off, before he dashes off in perpetual motion, in flight, imaginary or real.

I’ll take care of the real part, I decide, walking down the empty jet bridge to the cockpit. We’ll take him, his family, the elderly folks in wheel chairs cued up at the gate for pre-boarding, the college students with their books and backpacks, military men and women; everyone–we’ll do more than just fly.

It’s a holiday pilgrimage to family and home, tradition, reunion, togetherness. More than just a flight, we’ll make a passage together.

Okay, as soon as they all deplane safely into the arms of family and friends, I’ll turn right around and retrace the flight path with more pilgrims, connecting them with the places and things that matter to them.

Crowded terminals, packed flights, cranky kids, beleaguered moms, family, holiday and finally home. That’s the flight of the pilgrims, an annual rite that often ain’t pretty, but always has it’s windfalls. Like my little headdress friend, and our mutual admiration for the costumes we each wore.

From now until sometime after New Years, air travel becomes more than just flight. Since I fly year round, I was going to be here anyway, but somehow there’s just more to it right now. Maybe it just seems more meaningful at either end, and maybe it really is. Could be sharing space with believers in pilgrims, or the mirrored reflections of such things in our own lives playing out anew in those making their way across the country this season.

Something to think about at level off. For now, time to get ready for flight.

DFW ramp dusk

Jet Fuelishness

Posted in air travel, airline pilot blog, airliner, airlines, airport, flight crew, jet, passenger, pilot, travel with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 15, 2013 by Chris Manno

I’ve always agreed with the pilot maxim, “The only time you can have too much fuel is when you’re on fire.” But, as with all things in life, there’s a catch: first, you have to be able to lift the weight into the air, and second, you have to be able to bring the tonnage to a stop on landing.

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Two simple requirements, or so it would seem–yet nothing could be further from the truth. Let’s look at the second requirement: stopping distance.

All month I’ve been flying into John Wayne-Orange County Airport in Santa Ana. That’s by choice–I like the  typically favorable weather, plus the lack of ground traffic that makes for a quick in and out. Plus, the food options from Gerry’s Wood Fired Dogs to Ruby’s awesome turkey burgers rival the Udon, Cat Cora and Tyler Florence options at San Francisco International. But I digress.

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Today I’m flying the 737-800 from DFW to Santa Ana (SNA) and approximately 2 hours from takeoff, I’ll call Flight Dispatch and ask, “What fuel load are you planning today?” And he will say, “I don’t know.”

That’s because the flight planning system won’t issue a fuel load until one hour prior. I realize that–but as crew, we show up one hour prior and by then, the fuel is already being pumped into the jet. I want to shortstop a problem unique to SNA. That is, fuel is really expensive at some California airports, including taxes, airport assessments and surcharges. So it does make sense to “ferry” some fuel into those airports.

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That is, if I need an arrival fuel of say, typically, 5,200 pounds in order to have divert or go-around options at the destination, we fuel up to that total, then add “ferry fuel,” or an additional upload so as to require less refueling, buying less with the added fees, taxes and cost for the return flight.

Problem is, SNA has a fairly short runway (5,700 feet, versus 13,000 at DFW) making stopping distance is critical.

So, while extra fuel saves money on refueling (yes, you have to figure that it does exact a higher fuel burn inbound because of the additional weight), we still have to have a sufficient stopping margin.

737 landing crop

In all cases, the maximum landing weight of the jet based on the structural limit is 144,000 pounds which, on a dry runway, requires 5,300 feet out of the 5,700 feet available to stop. I discount headwinds, which are favorable, and simply disallow tailwind corrections: at 144,000 pounds, I require zero–I’m not even trifling with a 400 foot margin touching down at 150 knots.

So my effort in calling Dispatch is to intervene in the numbers game: do NOT plan max “savings” ferry fuel until you know what the zero fuel weight (passengers, cargo, empty jet–everything BUT fuel) is.

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Then subtract the zero fuel weight from 144,000 (max landing weight), deduct the planned enroute fuel burn and see what is left over–THAT , minus 2,000 pounds as a safety buffer (mine personally), and you’ll have a reasonable ferry fuel load.

The problem is, by the time I get to the jet, the “planned” fuel load–which doesn’t include the above calculation, because the zero fuel weight isn’t firm yet–is already aboard. If I do the math and find that we’ll be arriving weighing over the max landing weight, I have two choices: defuel (bad choice) before pushback or fly lower (dumb choice) to reduce the landing weight.

Both are bad options: if we defuel, that fuel must be discarded–trashed–because quality assurance standards wisely say you cannot take fuel from one aircraft’s tanks and meet the purity standards for another aircraft. So that’s money in the trash, plus a guaranteed delay to accomplish the defuel.

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The “fly lower” option works, but look what we’ve done: to “save” on return fuel, we’ve wasted thousands by flying at 24,000 feet versus 38,000 or 40,000 feet, just to squeak in under the maximum landing weight. And it’s bumpier and noisier down there among the cumulus clouds.

I always choose the second option, although I don’t always like landing at the maximum structural limit of the airframe on the shortest runway in the system. But, at least we can save the absolute maximum fuel for the return, rather than simply defueling into the trash.

On a longer runway, say LAX, stopping distance wouldn’t be a consideration, but the 144,000 pound limit is simply universal: doesn’t matter where you land, 144,000 pounds is max allowable. I need to intervene in the mathematics before the fuel goes on the jet outbound.

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The second, problem: the return. Dispatch may shave the arrival fuel to 5.0, which is sufficient, but there’s a catch. He’s planned us at a low altitude (29,000) because of chop reported in Arizona at the higher altitudes. If he’s right, at that lower altitude (FL290) I know from 38 years as a pilot that there will be both flight deviations for spacing or weather, or a choppy ride anyway.

So here’s what I personally do: I add another thousand for additional time and distance flexibility in case the turbulence forecast is correct–but I also plan to climb immediately to 39,000 feet to see for myself if the ride is choppy. That’s because I’ve just flown through that airspace inbound and know firsthand what the winds and the rides are, whereas the Dispatch and even the ATC reports are hours old. Plus, and again, this is based on over 22 years as an airline captain, I know we’re taking off at dusk and the entire thermodynamics of the air mass will change dramatically.

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So based on intuition, I’ll do the climb to 39,000 and “take the hit:” the early climb will be heavier and burn more fuel versus a later step climb, but my gut feel says we’ll regain that amount and more by cruising the longer time at the higher altitude. Notice I didn’t say 41,000, because I’m claiming a little pad because of the narrower range between high and low speed buffet at the max altitude. Plus, this time of year, surfing the jet stream at the higher altitudes will get you 510 knots or more across the ground. That’s the pay dirt of efficient flying.

Also, if I’m wrong, I did add the fuel pad up front. But I bet I’m not. The alternative is to fly lower (noisier, crowded, more weather) and experiment with the step climb–which burns fuel, too, and if you have to come back down because the ride’s bad, you’ll wish you hadn’t. But in the worst case, we’ll still land at DFW with a comfortable fuel pad.

And if I’m right, we’ll save a couple thousand pounds eastbound at the higher altitude and land fat on fuel. Fuel is time, to me, so nothing could be more important than more fuel.

Unless as I noted above, you’re on fire, or more realistically, as I’ve just explained, you’re trying to achieve the best outcome as efficiently as possible. Anything less is just plane fuelishness.

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Common Sense Descents

Posted in air travel, airline pilot blog, airliner, airlines, flight crew, jet, passenger, pilot, travel with tags , , , , , , on October 18, 2013 by Chris Manno

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Getting 75 tons from cruising 8 miles up at 500 miles per hour down to walking speed at sea level is dependent upon one ever-changing three-point triangle.

That is, the dynamic relationship between altitude, distance and speed.  This relationship is as closely interrelated as a balloon animal: squeeze any one part, and the other two expand.

Descent planning, including mandatory crossing restrictions stipulating specifics in all three parameters would be simple if the triangle of altitude, distance and speed remained fixed. But it seldom does.

Here’s the simple, unrestricted problem: descend from 41,000 feet to sea level. Simple problem, simple math: a comfortable descent rate could be achieved in an idle power, clean (no drag, like spoilers) glide at 290 knots airspeed using the 3:1 rule 3 times the altitude in thousands to lose, or 3 x 41 = 123 miles.

Descent 1

But, here’s the first modification required: the max speed below 10,000 feet is 250. So, you have to allow more miles to decelerate from 280 to 250, plus more miles from 10,000 feet to touchdown because the descent will need to be shallower to keep the speed to 250 knots or less.

Yes, you could add drag in order to maintain the descent rate at the lower speed. But we’re planning the descent efficiently, fuel-wise, and also for passenger comfort: steeper descent angles and rumbly drag devices aren’t as comfortable as a clean descent. Plus, you’ll want to hold drag devices in reserve for when Air Traffic Control (ATC) tosses an unexpected restriction your way.

So anyway, now we have a straight line distance of 133 miles (I added 10 to slow down, remember?) for a clean descent. 290 nautical miles per hour is roughly 4.8 miles per minute. Couple that with a clean, idle descent rate of about 2,500 feet per minute.

The next problem is, however, the straight line. Most of the STARs (Star Terminal ARrivals) multiple lateral segments between a series of points, seldom in a straight line. What happens if you’re issued a revised clearance that shortens the route? That could easily shave off 20% or more of the flight distance, which also shortens the number of miles over which you can attain the descent. So, there’s the balloon animal: shorten the distance and you must increase the descent rate in order to cross the assigned point at the assigned altitude.

UKW STAR

What to do? First and easiest is to increase the speed, which will allow a higher rate of descent. That’s half the reason why I don’t plan descents at speeds over 300 knots–there’s no capacity to add speed if needed to increase the descent rate and accommodate the descent crossing restriction in light of the reduced miles available.

UKW STAR b

The other half is the ride: in the back end of the 737-800, particularly near the tail, all aircraft motion in turbulence, due to the stretched fuselage, are felt more intensely. If you encounter any choppiness at that speed, folks in the back could be tossed about pretty dramatically. Why risk that? Plus, if you plan a descent at 320 or 330–as the on board flight management computers often suggest–and then have to slow because of turbulence, you’re definitely not making your crossing restriction. Now you’ll have to call ATC and ask for relief–that screws up their traffic flow and means an off-course heading and as a result, a delay for you.

So how do you accommodate the shortened distance in real time? First, as soon as you execute the shortened distance in the Flight Management System (FMS), the system will recognize that the 3:1 calculation–the balloon animal of time, distance and altitude–is all out of proportion. The FMS just throws up its hands and switches from “Descent Path” mode to “VNAV Speed,” meaning it’ll hold the speed steady, you figure out how to get back to the descent path.

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So I switch the FMS to “level change” mode, meaning I want it to go after the altitude at the max rate with the speed set–then I set a higher speed. That achieves the best rate until, due to the higher descent rate, you re-intersect the normal path. And there’s where you must be on top of the ratios (speed, rate of descent, distance) in order to refuse a descent clearance you know you can’t rationally make.

That seldom happens with a shortcut route clearance, but often will happen if you’re restricted to your cruise altitude past a rational “top of descent” point. Therefore, you have to constantly be aware of the max descent available (with drag and higher speed), sensible (given the chop reports), tailwinds, which rob you of descent mileage, and be ready to refuse an altitude assignment that doesn’t fit those criteria. That only comes from keeping all of the ratios in not only accurately in your head, but also in the jet’s real time performance.

When any parameter changes, as they often do, you have to know how or if you can rationally accept or, even more difficult sometimes, refuse a clearance. I used to fly with a guy who specialized in “creative” refusals: when asked if we could cross a particular waypoint at a certain altitude that was mathematically (and balloon animal-y) unreasonable,  he answer, “We can, but we’ll have to leave the airplane behind.”

Better, I think, to manage the ratios, know what’s practical, plan ahead, and say “no” where required. Anything less, to quote Captain Randy Sohn, a revered name in the pilot world, “Would be considered bad form.” When it comes to balloon animals and jet descents, that just won’t do.

737 a wide

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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