Archive for the pilot Category

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

amazon order button

 

Hard Blue Redemption

Posted in air travel, airline pilot blog, airliner, airlines, flight crew, pilot with tags , , , , , , , , , on September 26, 2014 by Chris Manno

5am

Slap that alarm in the dark; AGAIN … now it’s on the floor. Damn. Fight your way out of the amnesia of sleep, gradually rejoining the world: damn again–realize you’re not home, this isn’t your bed, your stuff and consequently, not your day. That’s the Original Sin of air travel: you sold the day, wet-leased it, and your flying skills to the airline whose uniform is strewn in a trail leads from the door of the hotel room, across the floor and to the bed you’re finally rising from, stiff, un-caffeinated and rumpled, inside and out. You bought the ticket–you take the ride.

Darkness in a time zone east of your own is a double-whammy: it’s early, earlier still from the time change, and it’s only a charcoal gray dawn as night relents but grudgingly. And listen: rain, but not only rain, wind-whipped and cold-slung pellet rain, one of the reasons you don’t live in this “there,” one of the many “theres” far from the “here” of home, but also with too many good reasons why it isn’t home: like early season pelting freezin’ rain. Be glad you’re not waking up as First Officer, who’ll have to do the exterior preflight.

Light? There … on; sit. Good dog. And there’s another flash in the back of your mind, a cobalt pilot light ever glowing, growing: sky. Flight. The reason of the day, for the day sold to the owners of the jets you get to fly. The sky, blue as the speck in your mind, the gas blue sheen but a down payment, earnest money, underwriting the rest of the day in the blue.

Around “there” (check the nightstand before acknowledging where exactly “there” is–the phone book has more than once corrected a faulty assumption: “Oops, Cleveland, not Columbus”) the gears of life will turn differently for a hundred and fifty other early rising souls who’ll converge with you on the boxy stacked concrete airport. For them, “here,” your “there,” is home. They’re leaving home, you’re just leaving “there.” You wish the best for them and their “there,” wherever that may be.

Wrestle with aerodynamics from your first waking moment: the Venturi effect of the shower sucks the Saran Wrap-thin hotel shower curtain inward to mat against the body you’re trying to wake with trial-by-needles of always “too” hotel bath water: too hot, too cold (no in between), just be done with it.

Double-bag the in-room coffee maker: regular plus decaf equals stout yet blah but passable brew. Reassemble the uniform, throw everything back into the bag with five minutes to spare before show time. That’s both literal and figurative: the show time for the crew, the “AIV” (Ass In Van) time to leave the hotel, plus showtime for the non-crew. They will either to ignore you (my fervent hope) or engage you, which will go all kinds of wrong unless you hide behind a phalanx of flight attendants who are professional at “friendly, especially before an entire day of thoughtless and often rude passenger behavior.

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Through the airport, selective eye contact. You don’t need to hear anyone’s tale of terror and the plane allegedly falling thousands of feet and blah blah, whatever. And you definitely don’t want to hear any guy’s (why is it always men?) explanation about why they’re not a pilot, because there are too many damn good reasons why you shouldn’t be a pilot but you refused to give in. And there were too many in the Air Force pilot chase–including you, at times–who were scared shitless in some of the flying but didn’t quit, and even some who died in the trying and flying anyway. So let’s avoid that eye roll.

Silver tail: there she is. Heart skips like a first date: she’s beautiful, here for you, yours all day. Let’s get to work.

Morning light struggles with tumbly dark clouds tacking the sky like schooners on a gale. Sheets of rain rake the Tarmac and the big tail bucks the gusts, rocking the jet. A cup of coffee, a bar of something with a side order of precision: weights, power settings, instrument departure route, climb and cruise. Certify that it’s correct–get your phone out and call for more fuel: DO IT. You never regret that later.

The slow trundle aboard the ark continues under the background music of the tower frequency and an electric monotone issuing clearances; wait for your own. Verify each point. Scan the sky, eyeball to eyeball, what’s it really doing? You have the weather report, but you don’t fly on paper. Who’s winning the fight for the sky?

Cracks of indigo and slats of sunshine joust in the heaving sky as morning clears its throat making way for noon. It’s the early blue that’s best, a dark, hard blue promising so much more than an evening sky that’s mostly a grudging, sighing concession to an overpowering night. Savor the taxi out, careful, slow, watching the sky fight itself, clearing, tearing up the rumpled angry cloud banks and flinging them east like a dissipating surf boiling away against a rocky shore.

At the right moment (at last!) it’s time to climb; pour on the coals, ride the thunder, ascend, climb. Through the clouds then above, let them all fall away with the earth, somebody else’s squabble now. Salvation in flight, above the dirt and rocks and concrete and asphalt and hotel shower curtains, time away, not here but there but now away; suspended between here and there by the salvation of flight.

There’s the hard blue redemption of a sky that deepens the higher you fly, going to black straight above. Quiet crystalline cold, smooth; the big jet cruises with ease. High enough for now, Icarus, perched in the blue, halfway to there. Savor the flight while it lasts.

 

Now you can own a piece of JetHead:

cvr w white border

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

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

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

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

amazon order button

The Big Girl and What You Don’t Know

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now you can own a piece of JetHead:

cvr w white border

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

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

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

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

amazon order button

Inflight Diverts: Costs, Compassion & Common Sense

Posted in air travel, airliner, airlines, flight crew, passenger, pilot with tags , , , , , , , on May 20, 2014 by Chris Manno

Want to see an airline crewmember’s blood boil? Show them this report from the IATA convention in Madrid today:

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Well, okay. I realize that diverts are expensive. But there’s more.

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What’s so bad about that? Everything. First, in flight, nothing is “simple” about a restrained passenger (I’ll get to that below). But worse, besides the cost priority, this next consideration is one steaming plate of wrong for many reasons:

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Where to begin! Let’s sidestep the completely inappropriate “passengers would rather get to their destination” priority and look at the big picture.

First, perspective. The IATA is an industry group comprised of air travel-related businesses, including airlines, travel agencies, and related travel businesses who act as  an advocate to promote the airline industry.

As an airline captain, like most, I share the common goal of supporting a robust airline industry. It’s over priorities that we diverge: the IATA seems largely focused on costs, while crewmembers are focused on–and held accountable for–the safety of the flight and all aboard the aircraft first and foremost, THEN cost.

Here’s where those priorities clash.

Yes, diverts are expensive, among other things: they require quick, accurate and decisive action from the flight crew amidst a field of dynamic and ever changing variables and constraints. In that regard, cost is in the crew decision mix, but obviously it is an inappropriately high priority in the IATA mix.

Here’s where the blood boils in the flight crew veins. Consider the passenger first: what medical conditions are present? What allergies/reactions are in play? What vulnerabilities (meds required, in use, over/under-dosed), physical stress of “restraint” (psychological, cardiac, stroke), impaired breathing/circulation (what if the “restrained” vomits into his taped-shut mouth?), what intoxicants (legal or otherwise) are active, what mental impairment, or other behavior triggers are latent or evident? How secure and for how long is the restraint durable, feasible and reliable?

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The fact is, airliners are NOT designed with restraining seats. Will “duct tape” and belts or whatever is handy last for the duration of the flight–never mind will the person survive–or will they break free and the situation escalate:

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Now, the crew, and let’s be real: any experienced flight crew member will eventually (or has already) considered the historically accurate picture of personal consequence that consistently plays out in cases of passenger injury, illness and restraint. Walk through it with me firsthand:

Attorney, in court/deposition: So, [crew position], please for the record state your qualifications to restrain a passenger, your medical experience to monitor and assess the restrained, your law enforcement authority and experience in safe restraint, monitoring and supervision of restrained passengers, your skill at ongoing assessment and specific background of restrained, and your ability to determine how long such restraint is tolerable physically and medically appropriate?
You: [go ahead–answer …]

That’s got every red blooded crew person’s blood simmering, but here’s where the boiling point comes:

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That’s right: for the IATA, the above court scenario is secondary to the cost of a divert.

Walk with me on diverts for a moment, will you? Last night, on my flight approaching Boston’s Logan Airport.

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Weather closing in, winds presenting near-limiting crosswinds on wet, short runways, crowds waiting to land and take off. Heavy metal transatlantic birds on the tail end of their fuel curve, inbound. We are too–we have required loiter fuel, but that’s all. Like everyone else.

Two hundred miles out, I calculate fuel burn for divert to Providence, Albany and Hartford. I get the current weather for each. I assess the current weather pattern and how it will affect each. I calculate the fuel required to divert while enroute to Boston for each of the three divert options, plus the fuel required to divert from a missed approach at Boston, which is significantly higher for each.

This gives me the data I need to make a decision: when and where do I pull the trigger, based on fuel requirements, to divert, and where to? Make the best plan, fly it.

Notice my consideration of $6,000 to $8,000? It’s really not part of the picture at 40,000 feet and 500 knots–nor should it be.

Now return to the restrained passenger. Would you figure in your complex decision matrix the $8,000 against the unknowns of securing the situation, much less the life of the restrained and those around him, never mind the in-court answerability you WILL provide at zero miles per hour on land, a completely different, hindsight-based inquisition afterward?

I’m glad the industry lobby and support group focuses on costs in order to keep the very fragile, complex airline profitability mix viable. But I’m even more grateful for my airline’s 110% support of my many divert decisions made over 23+ years (and counting) as a captain.

Divert because a passenger was “restrained,” or rowdy? If only diversion were that simple. Despite the simplistic analysis of those with neither responsibility nor accountability, it definitely is not.

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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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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

fd1

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.

Xwind

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?

AIPTEK

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.

Manhattan

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.

AIPTEK

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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Malaysian 370 and the Land of Oz.

Posted in airline pilot blog, airport, airport security, jet, passenger, pilot with tags , , , , , , , , , , on March 19, 2014 by Chris Manno

Since we first considered here what didn’t happen to Malaysian Flight 370, there’s been a virtual flood of “theories” proposing what did.

The problem is, all of them start out with “it’s possible that” (rather than “the facts indicate”), from which a thinking person could only conclude what “might” have happened–with no better chance of knowing what actually did. Worse, once the boundaries are stretched to include “possible” and “might” as operative terms, you no longer have an investigation at all; rather, you have a piece of creative writing.

So much of what has been advanced as “theory” lately falls into that category, and those who are not airline flight operations insiders are most vulnerable to what is no doubt their good faith desire to find answers. But, with neither the technical background nor the aviation experience to separate what’s plausible from what isn’t, the results obscure the very truth they search for in the first place.

Malaysian authorities brief the press.

Let’s start with the most recent red herring “released” by Malaysian authorities–”the big left turn,” which supposedly “proves” that the turn was deliberately programmed into the flight computers, presumably by someone with nefarious intent.

In a word, that’s meaningless. There are just too many active and passive ways for “the big left turn” to be executed, even with no “programming” by what they insinuate was a rogue pilot. For example, look at the photo below:

fms

The letters to the left are all navigation waypoints, composed of four or five character words representing geographic navigational fixes. Notice the waypoint “PROUD,” followed by the word “then,” which is atop the five empty boxes?

Below that, see the words, “Route Discontinuity?” That is the aircraft’s Flight Management System (FMS) telling me, the pilot, that I haven’t told it where to proceed after PROUD. In other words, there’s a break in the route and if I don’t fill those five empty boxes, the FMS will execute a big left turn (or right, depending on the shortest distance due to winds) and backtrack along the route to the points it came from.

And that’s just one possible, passive real time cause for “The Big Left Turn” so many theorists–including the Malaysian authorities and a news-starved press corps rushing to fill dead air–inexplicably point to as proof of some sort of deliberate, diabolical course programming.

Also, for some unfounded reason, the Malaysian authorities insist that “such a drastic turn could only be done by the autopilot coupled to the Flight Management System.”

Power control is key to airspeed.

Absolute nonsense. Daily, flight by flight I and hundreds of airline pilots hand fly all manner of climbs, descents and turns at all altitudes and speeds. That’s what we do.

Which brings me to the newest red herring that has the press panting and Malaysian authorities puffing up: the captain’s flight simulator video game. Supposedly, they’re going to search the game’s memory to see if the captain had “planned or practiced programming or flying” the Dreaded Big Left Turn.

Seriously? A captain with 18,000 flight hours needs to “practice” a left turn, or rehearse the FMS direct track to a waypoint? Which leads from the ridiculous to the absurd: no career pilot would need or want to “rehearse” a task that is on the level of an average person turning left into their own driveway. Even worse, accepting that the Malaysian authorities are investigating this as a serious clue is to accept that such a fundamentally meaningless red herring even bears investigation.

Once you do, it’s down the rabbit hole: “might” and “could” substitute for “did,” “assumptions” displace facts, which leads to conclusions that hold water like a sieve. Meanwhile, as the Malaysian authorities proffer useless leads, contradicting themselves with their own red herrings, inconsistencies and half truths–while the real investigative trail goes cold, and gets old.

What would motivate Malaysian authorities to divert public scrutiny to such empty yet showy “revelations?” Could it be to deflect attention from their top to bottom mishandling of the incident since the first minute: if, as the Malaysian authorities finally admitted, their military radar detected an unplanned, unauthorized penetration of their airspace by an uncommunicative jet at 35,000, why did the Malaysian Air Force not scramble fighters to intercept this very clear violation of their airspace and threat to their population at large?

Malaysian Air Force F-18

If they had (yes, their Air Force has fighters and they are guided by the very radar that detected the straying airliner) no one today would be searching for Malaysian 370–because they would have followed it and determined their course and intentions.

It would seem less embarrassing for government and aviation authorities to paper over that glaring failure with sideshows like a crewmember’s flight simulator, or which pilot spoke last on the radio, or a mysterious Big Left Turn–which is probably why they’re doing exactly that.

And into the dead silence left by a complete lack of real evidence, come the voices of those who propose creative theories whose flames are fanned by social media with the nonsensical equivocation, “well, nothing else makes any more sense,” or “you can’t prove this didn’t happen.”

For example, some pundits propose there “might” have been a “fire,” which “could possibly” explain the transponder being “off.” Not “turned off,” in this scenario seemingly validated mostly by the way Hollywood portrays cockpit electrical failures: sparks, lights flicker out like in your house during a thunderstorm, then someone barks at a radio, “Ground control, come in please! Omigod–it’s dead!”

But a Boeing jet is not like your house, nor a Hollywood make-believe cockpit. There are multiple power sources and current routings, all designed to swap sources and even types of power to vital equipment–especially to communications and safety gear, including radios and firefighting systems.

And even if there were a fire, a turn toward land and an immediate descent with a mayday call is as instinctive to pilots as breathing and, in my Boeing jet–just like theirs–under most conditions I can set it up to perform the descent and level off safely even without me maintaining consciousness. That’s the way airliners are designed to fly, that’s the way professional pilots fly them.

And as my colleague Jeremy Giguere (he pilots The Big Kahuna, the Boeing-747) notes, Swissair 155 had a fire that destroyed the aircraft–but they talked with controllers for a full 15 minutes as they headed for land.

Fire? Sinister flight path reprogramming? All come under the venerable pilot term “WAG,” which translates to “Wild Ass Guess,” which is exactly what it sounds like.

So let me be clear: I don’t know what happened to Flight 370–and nor does anyone else. That’s because there are no facts from which to draw conclusions and until there are, I won’t attempt to wring fact from fiction.

To do so is to enter the Land of Oz where trees throw apples and winged monkeys dart about the sky, and Dreaded Big Left Turns plus Fire “possibilities” create a chaos that obscures what really ought to be a quiet, diligent search for facts and truth, when or if ever they are discovered.

Despite the shameful Malaysian bungling and the pointless social media circus following this puzzling tragedy, I believe in time the real facts will come out. Then a properly conducted investigation will yield a probable cause that will allow the aviation industry and flying community to make air travel safer.

The 200 lost souls and the loved ones they left behind deserve nothing less.

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