Archive for the flight Category

Air Travel: 3 Simple Ways to Make Your Summer Flights Easy

Posted in airline, airline cartoon, airline industry, airline passenger, airline pilot, airline pilot blog, airliner, airlines, airport, flight, flight attendant, flight crew, jet flight with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 9, 2014 by Chris Manno

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Summer time air travel can be stressful, but there are practical and simple things you can do to make your trip easier. Here are my top 3 simple ways to make your summer air travel as efficient and low stress as possible.

1. Information: install the smart phone apps for the travel services that apply to your trip (airline, hotel, rental car) and take a few minutes before your trip to set them up with “push” notifications so you will automatically be notified of gate changes, delays and even rebooking. If you’re notified of a delay by the airline, having a hotel, rental car or resort app installed will put you in touch with those important services quickly and easily. Your pharmacy’s smart phone prescription app can speed you through the refill process in a distant city, or transfer prescriptions in many cases.

 

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Many airline apps let you rebook instantly, avoiding long waits in a customer service line, and can outline your options quickly without you having to navigate a website. Best of all, you can beat the rush when re-booking is necessary. On some airlines–American Airlines is one–you can use the airline’s app and website in flight through the on-board WIFI for free.

On taxi in, when you’re cleared to use your cell phone, you will be notified–if you authorized “push” notifications–of your next gate accurately if you’re connecting, or your baggage claim if your travel is complete. The gate agents pull that info 10-15 minutes before your gate arrival, and we print it out in flight 30-40 minutes prior to landing. But your “push” notifications will be more timely and accurate than the other two sources.

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You can delete any travel apps you don’t need later, but while you’re on the move, there’s no quicker or more accurate way to get the answers you need to your immediate travel needs. Install the apps, know how they work, and use them to stay ahead of the crowd–especially in case of cancellations, delays or gate changes.

2. Survival gear. First, count on none of your basic needs being met: food, water, shelter. Provide all three yourself. First, food: if you can’t buy something in the terminal to take along–and often you can’t–better have whatever compact, long shelf life calories source you can pack: power bars, granola bars–whatever you prefer that will stave off hunger.

Ditto for water: you “can” get water on board, but the question is when, and sometimes, how–are you in the back and they’re starting the beverage service from the front? Or vice versa? Or is it too turbulent to safely move about the cabin for passengers or crew? Just have a liter of bottled water handy per person, then don’t worry about it.

Finally, “shelter:” dress for the trip, not the destination. That resort-wear will not keep you warm in a chilly cabin, particularly on long flights. And here’s a crew secret: your flight attendants are active, working, and blanketed in layers of polyester. Who do you think calls us to ask for changes in the cabin temp? If they’re melting under the uniform layers, you’re going to wish you weren’t in shorts and a tank top, because we’re more likely to hear “cool it down” than “warm it up” from our working crew in back.

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3. Consolidate: all vitals and valuables in one hand-carried, locked bag. Medication, documents and here’s the big one–valuables, like your watch, wallet and any jewelry MUST go into this one locked bag BEFORE security. Why would you ever–and I see this all the time–put your wallet, watch, cell phone and other valuables into an open container on an unmonitored conveyer belt? Why not consolidate them all and then after you’ve successfully passed through security screening, retrieve your items from your locked bag?

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And locked is the key: if you’re pulled aside for additional screening, do you want all of your valuables laying out in the open, outside your reach and often, out of your sight? Even if that one locked bag requires extra screening, the lock ensures it will only be searched in your presence.

The final part of “consolidate” applies to your personal belongings: do NOT disperse your items all over your seat area. It’s a sure way to leave an item on a plane, a fact that is borne out by the number of passports, wallets, personal entertainment devices, tablets, keys and phones that turn up on overnight cleaning of aircraft. If you leave valuables, much less valuable documents like a passport, in the seat back pocket or anywhere else, you’ll likely never see them again. And speaking of “seeing” them, the normal climbs, descents, banking and on landing, braking will cause whatever loose items you may leave or drop on the floor to end up rows away. Even if you check your immediate area before deplaning, some items might have vanished. So don’t scatter your belongings about! Return items to your hand carried bag immediately after use or when not in use.

Face it–air travel is stressful as it is, but a lot of stress can be alleviated by these three steps. Information is king when you’re departing, trying to connect, or are changing plans on the fly due to delays or cancellations. Get the apps, set them up, and use them. Stay hydrated, fed, and warm to ease the physical stress. And finally, move smart: consolidate your valuables and do not let your personal items become strewn about your seating or waiting areas on board or in the terminal. Inflight forces will help them slide away, or if you leave them inadvertently, chances are slim that you’ll ever recover those items.

Follow these simple steps–and have a good flight and a great vacation.

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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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Flight Crew Talk: The Beatings Will Continue.

Posted in airline cartoon, airline pilot blog, flight, flight attendant, flight crew, jet flight, travel with tags , , , , , , , , , on May 15, 2013 by Chris Manno

What we have here . . . is a failure to communicate.

You wouldn’t think it would be so hard for crewmembers to communicate in flight–we have the technology; interphone, PA system, headsets and handsets–even our oxygen masks on the flight deck are wired for sound.

Nonetheless, once the cockpit door is closed, communication dies a slow, miserable death and as captain–it’s YOU taking the Cool Hand Luke beating from the Road Boss.

You don’t like it, I don’t like it–but that’s the way he wants it . . . so he gets it.

Let’s start with what’s usually the first salvo, fired right as we climb through ten thousand feet. That’s the magic end of “sterile cockpit,” which is the time period when flight attendants know non-essential communications with the pilots is prohibited because it’s a phase of flight requiring our concentration in the cockpit, and distractions are not welcome. I have answered the crew interphone when we’ve received a call below 10,000 feet with the admonishment, “We’d better be on fire if you’re calling me now.”

But above ten thousand, here it comes: “Can you turn down the air?”

Sigh. What does that even mean? More cold air? More hot air? Higher temperature? Turn down? So begins twenty questions: “What is it you want?” Sadly, though, the whole thing is our own fault or, honestly, usually the F/O’s fault.

ac tempThat’s because F/Os just CANNOT LEAVE THE TEMP CONTROLS ALONE. This is especially true of those with lingering brain damage from the MD-80, which essentially had a caveman vintage air conditioning system that DID require a lot of tweaking. On take-off, at full power, it could make snow in the back if you didn’t nudge the temp control valve off of the full-cold stop.

Not so with the Boeing–but F/Os HAVE to mess with it anyway–even though if the temp was comfortable on the ground, the Boeing will maintain that in flight.Nope–F/Os have to mess with it, have to do something, even though automatically, it’s fine left alone.

And that brings on the second failure to communicate. Inevitably, the F/O has to argue, usually tossing out, “Well, the duct temp says 75 degrees.”

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Unfortunately, the crew interphone system is a party line, and the flight attendants are listening. Sigh. They don’t give a damn about the duct temp–neither do I–they just know if they’re comfortable.  But that’s the pilot pigheadedness: we already know everything.

To reiterate, as I bump all three compartment temps down, just leave it alone, and give them whatever the hell they want. What do you care? You’re not back there.

Plus, use your head: this is a senior turnaround flight, with senior flight attendants swathed in layers of polyester, hauling carts and traipsing up and down the aisle. You think they want heat? You think I do? Sitting in the gazebo, direct sunlight–I constantly reach over and call for more cool air. You’re cold? Too bad–next flight, bring a sweater.

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Now, let’s visit the cruise portion of our non-communication. The primary voice passengers hear is the PA, which announces information pertinent to our flight, like arrival time and weather. That’s key information for travelers and crew alike. But, there’s a catch: flight attendants can’t hear the PA.

For flight attendants, the PA is like a dog whistle: we can all hear it, average dogs that we are, but flight attendants are oblivious. You could have just said over the PA “we’ll be landing in one hour” and within minutes, the interphone chime will go off and the question will be, “When are we landing?” And not just once, because not only do flight attendants not hear the PA, they don’t talk to each other either. So you’ll get the same call two, maybe three times.

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And never mind that you’ve given them a hard copy of the flight time before takeoff, and that they’ve typed that information into the touch screen at their station controlling the passenger information and entertainment system . . .

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. . . and that touchscreen, if they look at it, will tell them how much longer we have left in the flight. But, that would mean they’d have to look at their watch, then do the math. Especially when we’re landing in a different time zone–it’s easier to just call up front and ask me. Right?

Well, maybe not me. My answer is usually relative: “About ten minutes early.” Which means: look at your watch. This is your flight–know your own schedule.

Or, look at the gee-whiz panel at your station, counting down the minutes. Or, do the unthinkable: ask one of your colleagues in the back? Nah. Whether it’s the temperature or the time, rather than ask each other, just call up front. All of you–not one call, but four, because you can’t hear the dog whistle or talk to each other. Even had a fifth flight attendant, just riding the aft jumpseat home 130 feet behind me, ask me to “cool off the back.” Seriously?

Okay, it’s a given: we work together, fly together, even all talk–sometimes at once–to each other. We just don’t communicate very well. So, my new policy is this: any time the crew interphone chimes, I look to the F/O and say, “It’s for you.” He’s the one screwing up the temp anyway.

And at least I’m happy, and that’s a start.

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Tales From The Flight Deck

Posted in airline, airline industry, flight, flight attendant, flight crew with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 23, 2013 by Chris Manno

dc10 frontBack in the day, you’d slide that DC-10 electric seat forward in the copilot’s position and hunker down for the long haul: 9 hours from DFW to Paris on a good day with favorable winds. But more than flight time or miles or fuel flow and track routing, pacing was the order of the day: you’re going to be sitting here all night–don’t be in any rush to do anything.

That was over twenty years ago–closer to twenty-five. And the captains in those days had at least that many years with the airline in order to have advanced seniority-wise into the widebody left seat ranks, rarified air in any airline. So we’re talking what–a half century into the past, into the flight memories and aviation lore to be shared in the cold, dark, midnight sky over Greenland and the Atlantic?

Always liked flying with Bob C., now deceased, but who in those long hours at altitude would relate memories of flying wing for Iven  Kincheloe over the Yalu River during the Korean War. Barely hanging onto his wing, trying not to get killed . . . he was a madman . . .

connieBut tonight’s story hour would come from a different source. Dick B. had flown Super Connies for TWA before quiting to take a job with my airline when I was still in pre-school. “A better deal,” he’d always say, “although flying plumber on the Connie was a heck of an education.”

Plumber. Or, in more correct parlance, flight engineer. Back in the fifties, he’d say, the airline biz was a whole ‘nother animal. Of course, we all still say that: when were you hired? Ninety-one? Well, all through the eighties this airline was a blast . . .

Still, even with a grain of salt or two, the Kinchloe or Connie stories were a welcome relief from the doldrums of midnight cruise across the pond.

Tonight Dick was holding forth about the early Connie days, back when the Cold War was heating up; the days when a lot of guys like Bob were just out of the Air Force after the post-Korean War draw down. Guys like Dick had never served, so he’s been able to spend his early years on the engineer’s panel instead of hanging onto Iven Kinchloe’s wing for dear life.

Those were the days of Kruschev bellowing about the demise of democracy, and Sputnik, and the nuclear standoff. In the midst of it all, both countries at least made a show of diplomacy. That’s where Dick came in.

Besides the well-known “red phone” from the Kremlin to the White House, other lesser gestures intended to defuse the Cold War took place as well.

aeroflotAeroflot would be allowed one flight a day into “Idlewilde Field”–later renamed Kennedy International–in New York City, and one U.S. carrier would be granted a landing slot in Moscow. A small but meaningful attempt at detente. The U.S. flag carrier granted this Moscow route was, of course, TWA; and the aircraft making the maiden flight was the Super Constellation. On board was one very young, excited flight engineer named Dick.

It was common knowledge that the Aeroflot aircraft would be packed to the gills with spying equipment like cameras and other electronic data gathering devices. Maybe that’s why Kennedy was chosen as the landing base by the U.S. State Department: nothing to overfly, no way to take spy photos out there in the Long Island hinterlands.

But in the spy vs. spy paranoia of the Cold War, the Connie crew just knew they’d be spied on once they landed in Russia. So, Dick told us, when the crew reached their layover hotel in Moscow, they made a pact: they’d all search their rooms for the listening devices and spying equipment they knew had to be there. Dick tore apart his room and found nothing–but in short order, his phone rang: the lead flight attendant had found a mysterious metal canister under her bed.  Aha. Be right down with my tools.

The good flight engineer grabbed his tool bag and hustled to the flight attendant’s room, already packed with the captain and the rest of the crew, with the bed shoved aside, mysterious, gleaming canister in the center of the floor.

Carefully, using a crescent wrench adjusted for the odd caliber of the nuts on the bolts ringing the canisters, the engineer removed each bolt carefully. Suspense built with the last bolt . . . deep breath, lift the canister . . .

Nothing.

But within minutes, there was an angry voice at the door, fists pounding, and footsteps rushing down the hall and towards the room. The crew prepared for the worst.

kgbInstead, it was the maitre d, enraged, plus the hotel manager. As it turned out, the flight attendant’s room was above the main dining room. Instead of disabling a sinister spy device, the crew had unwittingly removed the anchor plate for the chandelier in the dining room.

Oops. maybe Kruschev was right–maybe Americans were the real crazies, despite the world famous pictures of him pounding the podium with his own shoe at a televised news conference. And my question, though I didn’t ask, is whether the red phone on Eisenhower’s desk rang shortly afterward, with a demand for payment for one smashed chandelier and maybe a buffet line.

But those days, and those pilots, are now long gone. Now, in the left seat, it’s pilots like me remembering them, but also our own early days with the airline and the adventures that span thousands of air miles.

And when it gets dark, and quiet, and dull on the flight deck at 41,000 feet a thousand miles from anywhere, it’s time.

Did I ever tell you about that time in London when the police picked up the entire crew walking down the middle of the street at 3am?

And so it goes . . .

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Winter Flying: Faith and Defiance.

Posted in airline, airline pilot blog, flight, flight crew, flight delays, jet, passenger, pilot, travel, weather with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 13, 2013 by Chris Manno

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I can’t decide if winter flying is is one long act of defiance, or shorter acts of combined faith. On a cold January day with an icy, raggedy ceiling and needle-like freezing rain rasping against the fuselage on taxi-out, on board it’s a steady 75 degrees. People aboard reflect the destination, not our departure point–and act of faith on their part requiring an act of defiance on mine.

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It’s actually a worthy challenge, bringing all of the details to a successful conclusion: flight planning, routing, de-icing, preflight, taxi-out and pre-take-off de-icing. There’s a puzzle to assemble, jagged pieces of holdover times for de-icing fluid, precip rates and types–you know what’s reported, but you deal with what’s actually happening–and it’s up to you to account for the difference. Take-off performance degrades; weight limits based on the restrictions of leaving, but with due diligence to the weather conditions 1,200 miles south.

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Boeing has given us a marvelous machine that will wake up encased in ice, but in a matter of minutes will operate from the ice box to the tropics. Not magic–just a lot of grunt work by a lot of people.

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It’s a lot slower, but more than the temperature is involved: there are more requirements, plus people and machines work slower in the cold. As they should be expected to do, but which often results in frustration for those whose involvement is limited to riding the jet rather than trying to fly it safely. Sorry.

But eventually, we get to this:

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Again, that’s going to be slow, too, by necessity. But be patient: the destination must be worth the trip, right? But inevitably, the factors a passenger plans to escape by air don’t make that escape easy.

Half the battle is getting into the air–where the other half is usually just as challenging. Again, the same crud that you want to escape packs a punch from the surface to the stratosphere. We’ll deal with that, too, at 300 knots, or maybe 280 if it’s bumpy. Already told the cabin crew to remain seated till I call them, when I’m sure we’re in safe, stable air. More griping from passengers, I know, but they’re not responsible for not putting a crewmember through a ceiling panel.

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This is how it might look if anyone checked ahead (I did) so it wasn’t surprising face to face, really. Which looks more like this, and nobody’s getting to paradise till they work their way through this frontal line.

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Eventually, we win: the further south we go, the more miles we put behind us, the weather–and the escape–become reality. You begin to get a glimpse of paradise with your 320 mile digital vision. The 20-20 eyeballs show the passage from land to water, a sure sign of warmer days for 160 souls on board, patient or not.

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Soon it’s all blue, with ghostly outlines below that carve the indigo into brown and green, lush islands poking above the mild, warm seas.

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Nassau, the Bahamas, straight ahead. Power back, begin the slow, gentle glide from seven miles high to sea level. More islands slide silently below the nose. Never tire of seeing the parade of blues, browns, greens; paradise.

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Where’s the snow now? The icy grip of winter? Escape–by the lucky hundred and sixty aboard, each with their own getaway plan, winter runaways we eagerly aid and abet: someone has to break free, to teach winter a lesson.

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A world away, if only but the blink of an eye in a lifetime, it’s nonetheless an eyeful. I’m happy for those who’ll stay, at least for a while.

IMG_1390Welcome to Nassau. For me, it’s a few moments of sunshine and sea air on the ramp while ground crews unload cargo, reload, refuel and get us turned around and ready for launch back to the north. Too soon, in a way, but not soon enough in another: this isn’t my escape–it’s my job.  From which, for the vagabond pilot, home is the escape. Will be back here, back and forth, all winter.

IMG_1388He’s headed home, too, a longer way back, but with a couple hundred aboard not facing the cold quite yet. But likely missing the scenery shrinking below as we climb and arc away to the north.

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So long to paradise, hello radar scan; fuel burn, overwater navigation, peaceful cruise until you face the enemy line you already slipped through once today. Still there, waiting. The sun gives up, slips into the muck and so do you, both promising another trip around the globe another day.

IMG_1391There’s the final act of defiance, or maybe faith: through the choppy, sleet-streaked darkness, at 200 knots, toward the runway you better know is below the 200 foot ceiling.

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Then it’s all about home, after appeasing the winter gods (“We brought at least as many back from paradise–you can ruin the rest of their season, plus make them wistful for the tropics the rest of the year!”) yet again. A healthy respect goes both ways; careful defiance, faithful flight. Starts again tomorrow.

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Un-Pilotish: Just Say No.

Posted in airline, airline cartoon, airline pilot blog, airliner, flight, flight crew, jet with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 4, 2013 by Chris Manno

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Top of descent with a hundred knots of tailwind. You’ve been asking for a descent for the last forty miles with no success, and you know why: outbounds are climbing below you and worse, they’re staying low nose to nose because of what’s been a tailwind for you since the west coast–but which would be a headwind for them westbound.

So it’s the double-whammy: high, and hot; closing on the altitude crossing restrictions are cramping the descent algorithm–there’s not enough “forward” left to to execute a civilized “down.”

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“Cross Fever at 11,000 and 250 knots,” comes the ATC instructions, and I immediately think of a captain I used to fly with in the 1980s who would have, without hesitation, answered, “We can do it–but we’ll have to leave the airplane behind.” Instead, I just say, “Unable.”

I know, I know: we probably could make the crossing restriction, but why play the odds? And if you’ve flown long enough, you know the odds are about 90% that this ain’t the end of the story: the Dreaded Hypotenuse. That is:

STAR TW direct

You’re going to get cleared direct to another point, shaving off the miles of “forward” you were counting on to execute the “down” at a civilized rate–with the same crossing restriction. Last month up in New York Center I heard a commuter pilot on frequency asking for relief on a crossing restriction he had innocently enough accepted fifty miles back: “Can we get relief on that crossing restriction?”

Without missing a beat, NY Center replied, “Absolutely not.” Now who wishes they were a heretic–or wants to leave the airplane behind?

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And there’s the problem: “unable” is, well, un-pilotish. Which is actually not a bad thing to strive for. Here’s what I’m thinking: for some reason, the “cultural” aspect of being a pilot has insidiously taken on a life of its own: we can do anything, best any challenge, defy gravity, wear ridiculously big watches

–which is a latent “Flavor Flav” urge driving many pilots, which I’ve never understood–and sometimes we forget in the “never say no”  to a challenge mindset that one person we should more often say no to is ourselves. Still with me? Let’s have a new captain flashback.

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Fog creeping up the Rio Grande Valley like a ghost; moonless night dark as space. Tons of gas, literally, and paper calculations that equal one good approach to minimums, then divert to San Antonio. Tidy plan. Works well on paper.

Unable? My ass: can do!

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After the first missed approach (wow, the ceiling really is below the minimum descent altitude) the new captain consults the F-100’s “Progress–Fuel Predict” readout, which shows enough endurance for a second approach–then a divert to San Antonio.

Today’s captain voice-in-the-head, some 20 years more experienced, says, “Tell yourself no, stupid!” Divert now. For the record–then and now–I’ve never had a big pilot watch, or aviator sunglasses, or a creepy mustache, or any of the other silliness that seems to be part of the pilot stereotype. But I did have that “never back down from a challenge” mentality that I guess lands you in the cockpit in the first place.

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“We’re requesting one more ILS, with clearance on request to San Antonio on the missed approach,” the intrepid First Officer relayed to the Approach Controller. Fine, thought the new captain; we can do this.

Second approach, same result: pea soup. On the second missed approach, Departure control sends us to Enroute: “State your request.”

We’d like to go direct San Antonio at 14,000′. San Antonio is now 1/8th mile visibility in fog.  You planning to hold?

Actually, planning to just say no–first to myself, then anyone else offering an uncertain gamble, challenge or no, in flight from now on. How unpilotish–and yet, common-sensical.

We raced the sinking temperature-dewpoint spread blanketing the state south to north with fog and landed in Austin with less fuel than I’d ever seen on the gages before–although my base Chief Pilot, over a couple of beers, told me he’d actually landed with less. He’s a “say no” guy now, too.

And that’s the whole deal: say “no” early–and often. Let Air Traffic Control manage their own airspace congestion without expecting an airshow on your part. Talk yourself out of any bad bets before anyone can even suggest you play the odds.

And above all–avoid the pilot stereotype.  It really doesn’t fly well, despite the mythology.

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Flying into Hurrcane Sandy’s Wake

Posted in air travel, airline, airline pilot blog, flight, flight attendant, flight crew, jet, jet flight, passenger, pilot, weather with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 2, 2012 by Chris Manno

You get the call from Crew Schedule. You don’t have to take the flight–but you do: it’s time to bring jets back into the New York metro area, ravaged as it is by Hurricane Sandy.

Means a different kind of thinking for you: more fuel (you’ll take any excuse for more fuel, won’t you?) for more loiter time and options depending on the weather, because you know the navigation aids and ground-based approach equipment has been damaged or may be without power.

There are twenty deadheading crewmembers on the flight roster, needing to get home, plus a half dozen others trying to commute to the three crew bases there (LGA, EWR, JFK) not to mention tons (literally) of backlogged cargo waiting to head east. All of that raises the jet’s zero fuel weight, but fuel is primary. You get hit up by commuting crewmembers–“Can you agree to land with less fuel?” No, I shouldn’t, I can’t, I won’t. You’re the captain, so you’re the asshole; you’re the asshole, so you’re the captain: all you want to see when the gear goes down on final approach is plenty of fuel to go somewhere else if need be. What a dick.

The First Officer today is one of the guys I really like flying with: serious, quiet, pragmatic; ex-Navy fighter jock, good guy. He’s one hundred percent behind the “Fuel is God” philosophy. Makes it easier.

We blast across the southern United States, bang a left at Atlanta, head for Tidewater Virginia then up the coast. Sandy’s loafing her way north and west, leaving the curved cirrus as her calling card up the eastern seaboard.

We grab the high ground, the 40,000 foot level to keep the fuel burn low and the tailwind high. As soon as we turn north over Norfolk, we begin to pick up Sandy’s claw marks along the coastline: even from seven miles up, starting around northern the Maryland coast, the shore looks as if a giant hand had raked the sand from right to left, east to west, as Sandy’s hurricane-force roar washed the sea and sand inland.

Lower now, abeam Atlantic City, New Jersey, we’re peeking through cloud breaks in Sandy’s sloppy remnants, and the view is ugly: the shoreline is swept clean of anything man made, and you know from a hundred flight through here that the shoreline was much more “humanized” until Sandy clawed it clean.

Sinking through ten thousand feet, the disaster takes on a detailed face: boats piled in front of houses; the normal geometry of streets and blocks skewed by wreckage, things that don’t belong; jumbles of homes, cars, boats; you name it.

Sand driven blocks inland. Cars strewn akimbo. Roofs ripped off. No lights; no warning lights–and no navigation signals, due to no electricity. You see the couple of blocks burned to the ground by uncontrollable gas fires.

Humanity, flashing by at 160 miles per hour. I don’t have time to look–but I can’t help seeing the destruction below. These photos are courtesy of a deadheading flight attendant, taken sideways from the “A” seat just forward of the left wing.

No worries up front in the 21st-century jet: our navigation and approach guidance is all based on satellites, processed on board and projected right in front of my fat face:

We lumber to our gate, with a mixture of relief and satisfaction: we’ll get the normal jet service up and running once again, get people moving, unstranded, reunited, home.

And we’ll ferry another 160+ souls westbound, away from the storm and the shipwreck that is the northeast coast. There are crowds inside “Fort Kennedy” who are waiting like refugees to move west, to go home. We’ll do the fuel numbers, the flight performance calculations, the take-off numbers down to a rat’s ass to make it work–and work right. If; no–when that makes me the asshole again, so be it: we will be safe, we will fly smart.

We’ll get that bird’s eye, god’s eye view of the coast one more time, at dusk, and try not to worry–but how can you not?–that in the gathering darkness, there are few if any lights below. We put that behind us at .8 Mach, but the human face doesn’t go away no matter how high you climb or how fast you go.

Can’t help but feel for those left behind. And those you know, stalwarts of Jethead like Miss Giulia and her husband Mike, the voice of Jethead Live: the remnants of the super-hurricane are headed their way; Peggy Willenberger, stormchaser who has made such extreme weather her stock in trade; Cedar Glen–didn’t he mention Ohio once, now taking a pounding?

And the millions left behind, salvaging what they can, rebuilding. We’re a quiet ark sailing westward, away from the storm, to a different and better now for the lucky ones making their escape.

Keep the fires burning; navigate, light the way west. Do it right–that’s your job, your part in this journey. Follow the night sky home.

Beads, Lists, Gravity and Fate.

Posted in air travel, airline, airline pilot blog, flight with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 8, 2012 by Chris Manno

Trust me: determination trumps faith where gravity is involved. You discover that the moment you let go and gravity takes over: it took determination to take the plunge, and faith ain’t half enough to stop it. In fact, faith wouldn’t have gotten anyone with a pilot brain out the door in the first place. Yet everyone’s flying through the air regardless.

I never quite understood the “tandem skydiving” thing. Is it really enough to hitch yourself to someone else while they do something daring, then claim the thrill as your own accomplishment? Does this act  invert the balance of faith and determination when it comes to gravity? Without your own hand on the ripcord, and with only dollars paid serving as a meager voucher of determination, there’s but a thin sinew of faith in someone else’s hand between you and the certainty of gravity. I’ll never get that–which is why all my jumps have been solo.

The bottom line with gravity and flight never hits home as solidly as when you’re solo, with or without an airplane, if you give flight the healthy respect demanded to walk away from it in one piece. Maybe that’s why it’s actually easier to fly solo–I believe it’s easier to jump solo too, since I’m not about to cash in a stranger’s fate for my own–because that eliminates the middleman: you do it, you rely on your own determination, and faith takes a back seat. No one to share the blame or provide the fame.

Maybe that’s where modern life becomes more about counting the beads than saying the prayers, because after all, which is quicker and easier? And never mind that I think that’s more like a swipe of the icing than a bite of the cake, anything beyond the polar bear club or a good rollercoaster crosses the line between trendy-funny-bucket-list-nonsense to just plain reckless.

Knowing that in the worst case, when faith is betrayed and determination forsworn a thousand feet below in a cash register receipt–you bought the ticket, now you take the ride–I can only imagine what final thoughts must attend the original choice to inherit the earth so dramatically.

Maybe that’s a roundabout way to say that I neither trust fate nor bank my determination to fly with anyone else’s hands. Maybe that’s why I’m still in touch with thin veneer separating “cool” with “safe,” and I never overlook the ripcord moment nor depend on anyone else to pull it for me. It’s always my hands.

And you can count one one thing from mine, or from any professional airlines pilots’ hands: it ain’t our hobby–or your bucket list–that’s happening from the moment of brake release to parking at your destination. We don’t do it on weekends or days off because it’s a sport or recreation, we do it year round in all weather, day and night under the strictest supervision, and see it for not only what it really is, but also what it should never be. Ain’t no counting the beads in this service.

With all that said, why the hell was I into skydiving in the first place? There’s a twofold answer: I was putting myself through college and flying lessons were too expensive–but skydiving was a fraction of the cost. Got me into the sky with a minimum of hassle or expense, though the part about getting down in one piece kind of got overlooked. Beads, not prayers: much cheaper in the short term, bad investment in the long run.

And now 17,000 flight hours later, despite faith in my pilot abilities, when I’m done flying big jets–I’m determined to be done flying. I’ve squared off with fate too many times in the air to close my eyes and count the beads, especially taking anyone with me.  Don’t get me wrong, I encourage anyone who wants to do so to get some good flight instruction and proper aircraft and go see for themselves. That’s fair–and a lot of fun, plus a lot of the pros I fly with now came up that way.

But for those still daydreaming the “bucket list” silliness, I suggest pursuing that with both feet on the ground. Flying with or without an airplane ought to be more than just a box checked by someone else’s hand. Because just like everything else, store-bought imitations just never satisfy like homemade, do they?

Night Skies and Other Lies.

Posted in air travel, airline pilot blog, flight with tags , , , on June 16, 2012 by Chris Manno

Rumbly turbulence, airspeed flinches; the yaw damper reins her head; the nose and tail agree and the jet settles back on course. That bumpiness is the late afternoon frontal sheer losing it’s heat, it’s edge, power; just the teethmarks of the day imprinted on the night.  The sun sinking low leaves behind a down payment on tomorrow in the towering hell marching eastward not caring that the rest of the day has paraded off to the west. We’ll slip by.

Night flight is a watch or a vision, all about what you can’t see in the daytime, what you’d have to look up to see and even then, daytime’s relentless now shines it all down. But it’s mostly a lie anyway.

A millenium ago sailors miles below peered up at the night sky and plotted their course based on the the diamond waypoints they mistakenly believed never moved. And though blinded by a thousand miles of deep blue everywhere they looked in the daytime, nighttime gave them the vision above to plot a course ahead and the faith to steer it all day.

Above the earth our sea is as black above as below, and the irony of time is that now the night sky braces a constellation of man-made satellites not visible from the crow’s nest I sit in, but talking to the jet nonetheless.

A metal swarm below the diamond canopy mimics the geo-synchronicity of the constellations, which is also a lie: everything moves, is moving and though it looks to my eye like we’re suspended above the gossamer web of ground lights only creeping inch by inch below, in reality we flash across the ground like wild dogs with our heads out the window, letting our ears blow through time and space. The satellite tapestry orchestrating the course is no more stationary than the wide-flung constellations, but we transcend the lie by more sleight of hand.

When the earth falls away, we discount the minuteness of our own worldly time and motion compared to the magnitude of the universe and the measure of its flux. We gaze beyond our own micro-minutes in the sky, so fleeting by comparison to the eternity above; we favor the sweep of the second hand collecting years a minute at a time. In the darkest of night we substitute for the lack of vision with a structure of white lies that has bent truth and charted a course, until morning at least and then more.

Cosmic gears move and the fly-wheel spins in darkness or light; the time passes like distance in flight. Nobody cares that what’s fixed really isn’t, nor what’s in motion is really fixed, we claim a bug’s life, a gnat’s age and stretch it across a calendar so small that the universe couldn’t notice it any more that you mark the nine-day life and death of a fruit fly.

Time and distance flat-lines, the truth is all motion and sky. Distance and place and the relativity of each, the minuteness of everything compared to monolith of eternity–that’s the smirk of the universe, but so what?

When it comes to the cosmos, here’s what I see:

And I’m buying: what we lack in duration, we’ll make up in intensity; where we don’t endure, we’ll at least enjoy; where we can’t prevail, we’ll contend like a welterweight against the fatass heavyweight Time. In the absence of grace, we’ll substitute brute force:

Time and space and irrelevant place: vision is overrated anyway. Feel like flying? I do, both feel like it, and do it. “Here to there” is insignificant, because neither waypoint matters as much as the flight in between, or moreover, the fact that you’re flying at all.

And when you think of it that way, it’s kind of like giving the finger to the universe and eternity all at once. Ice Age or a gnat’s days;  light years or more beers; it’s all relative, a matter of comparison but not kind–and none of it lasts anyway.

So we’ll burn it, stoke it to an ice-blue flame, fast as she’ll go, high as we can for as long as it lasts–then into the night. Newborn of no one, headed “there” from nowhere, one more shooting star, another streak of light. A mortal patchwork of lies, sailing the infinite night.

Questions to ask BEFORE you get on a light twin-engine aircraft.

Posted in airline pilot blog, flight, pilot with tags , , , , , , on May 16, 2012 by Chris Manno

When I lived in Hawaii, occasionally I’d lease and fly a Grumman Cougar (above), a light twin-engined propeller aircraft. The cold, hard fact with that aircraft was that if we took off with two passengers and their bags and lost an engine we were going down, period.

This I knew as a pilot–so I never flew the Cougar with any baggage, ever. But I think that many passengers might assume all is well either way–but it certainly is not.

This haunting memory always recurs every time I read of a light twin engine aircraft crashing on take-off, and sadly, that’s an all-too-common occurrence.

Cessna 401 crash after an engine failed on take-off, killing pop singer Aaliyah.

Some simple but vital questions could save your life if you’re thinking of chartering or accepting a ride on a light twin engine aircraft. But first, why do you have to ask?

The answer is simple: when you step onto my 175,000 pound twin engine jet–I have these answers specifically worked out for every flight, because the answers are crucial to all of us. You may assume that whoever is flying your light twin aircraft has answered them with specific numbers, but if you don’t ask, you’re casting your own safety to the wind. If your pilot has the answers–and provides them specifically (I’ll get to that later), step on board and have a good flight.

If your pilot says “Huh?” or even “It’ll be okay” or anything other than “here are the specific answers,” walk away immediately. Here are the Big Five:

1. What is the single engine climb gradient on this take-off, based on our projected weight and the current weather (temperature, pressure altitude and winds) conditions? Yes, I can answer that for every take-off with an exact number in two vital parameters: single engine (meaning assuming one engine quits on take-off) climb feet per nautical mile available and required.

“Required” means based on the terrain ahead, what is the minimum single engine climb gradient required for our aircraft to clear all obstacles by a minimum of 35 feet? “Available” means given our weight in fuel, passengers and bags, what is our aircraft capable of achieving on only one engine? Yes, there is a specific number to be derived from performance charts–and your pilot better have computed both. So your pilot should have a ready answer, don’t you think?

Four people were killed this week and one remains hospitalized after this Cessna twin crashed in a field in Kansas after leaving Tulsa. The cause is under investigation.

2. How much flight time does your pilot have in twin engine aircraft? Seriously, “total flight time” is not the important point here for a couple of crucial reasons. First, twin engine aircraft behave completely different from single engine planes because of the asymmetric yaw an engine failure produces. If one engine fails, the other continues to produces power and in many cases, must be pushed to an even higher power setting. Immediate rudder correction for adverse yaw–which doesn’t exist on single-engine aircraft–is a delicate operation: too much and the drag induced by the rudder kills lift; too little and the aircraft can depart controlled flight. Put in the wrong rudder, and you’ll be inverted in seconds.

If you’re paying someone to fly you somewhere, he’d better have at least 500 hours in that specific twin-engine plane–or you’d better walk away. In the above crash, the father of one of the survivors said the pilot had “flown the aircraft several times” and was “well-versed in it.” I stand by my 500 hour rule, at least when my life’s at stake. And “flight time” alone ain’t enough: proficiency, meaning hours flown within the past six months, is just as important. A few here and there? Not much recently? bad news.

Cessna -400 series interior.

3. What is our planned climb performance today? Meaning, given our gross weight in fuel, passengers and bags, at the current temperature and pressure altitude, what climb rate can we expect on a single engine? Again, this is a specific number derived from performance charts after all of the above variables are computed–and if your pilot doesn’t have the specific answer–walk away.

4. What is the engine history on this aircraft? Seriously? Yes, dead seriously: before I accept any aircraft for the day, I scan the engine history of repairs, malfunctions, oil consumption, vibration and temperature limits going back at least six months. Ditto your light twin: the pilot should be able to answer that question in detail–if the pilot checked.

5. How many pilot hours does your pilot have in this model and type of multi-engine aircraft? And when was the pilot’s last proficiency check? For example, I consider myself to be a low-time 737 pilot, having just over 1,500 hours in the aircraft–even though I have over 17,000 hours in multi-engine jets. In those 1,500 Boeing-737 pilot hours, I’ve had two complete refresher courses with FAA evaluations, plus three inflight evaluations–and I welcome that: I want to know my procedures and skills are at their peak. And I fly at least 80 hours a month, maintaining proficiency. When was your pilot’s last flight? Again, how many flight hours in the past six months?

Recurrent training and evaluation every nine months.

Not withstanding “well-versed” and having “flown it several times” as quoted above, your pilot needs to have hundreds of hours in the model and type to be flown, and preferably hundreds of hours in multi-engine aircraft. Remember the engine-out scenario on take-off I sketched out above, where the wrong rudder input can flip you inverted on take-off if an engine failure? Ditto on landing, with another set of problems, in the event of a single-engine go-around with a lighter aircraft.

Know the answers to these questions, and have your radar tuned for the following circumstances: how far are you going (short hop versus a longer point to point), and how many are on board, plus what cargo (baggage or equipment). Why? These are your cues that gross weight is going to be a critical factor in aircraft performance, making the five questions I just raised even more critical for you to ask.

Look, there are plenty of safe aircraft and pilots available to fly you around if that’s what you had in mind. Those pilots are the ones who have good answers to the above questions ready for you as soon as you ask. Be sure that you do ask, and when the answers are satisfactory–and only when they are: bon voyage.

Flying the B-2 Stealth Bomber: an audio interview with Bill Flanagan.

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