Archive for the weather Category

Summer Weather, Flight Delays and YOU.

Posted in air travel, airline, airline delays, airline pilot blog, airport, fear of flying, flight crew, flight delays, passenger, travel, travel tips, weather with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on May 29, 2013 by Chris Manno

fll sunsetYou can see the weather plain as day. But it’s miles away, right? How could that cause flight delays? Or worse, on a day that’s clear at the airport–yet your flight shows a one hour or longer departure day. Why?

Think big–or at least think far: miles translate into minutes in the air, and unlike your car on the freeway, we’re not creeping along under the storm–we have to get through it. At altitude, sure, we can go around weather or sometimes, even over a storm. But there’s the problem on take-off and landing: we are too low to do either.

First, let’s look at departure:

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Sure, the weather is nearly twenty miles away. But in flight time, we’re talking about maybe three minutes. Then what?

Normally, there are at least six eastbound routes available, but as you can see, due to the weather that extends from the north to the south, even twenty miles away, there are only two routes available to go east: straight north, or straight south. And guess what? They’re the same ones that will have to be used for the inbound aircraft–and they’re already in the air, many for over three hours inbound from the east coast, or up to nine hours from Europe. Guess who rightfully has priority on the clear routes?

Here’s more bad news for your outbound schedule:

lowgn4All of the departures–like the one pictured in above, and depicted on the navigation display with the radar image above–have very specific instructions for headings, altitudes and even speeds. But with the weather blanketing the area, no jet can comply with these very orderly instructions, so instead, air traffic controllers have to issue all headings and altitudes individually to each aircraft, checking to be sure that weather doesn’t interfere.

So the Air Traffic Control system must space jets by ten, sometimes ever twenty miles in trail to allow for the individual handling required, which means that instead of the usual interval of thirty seconds to a minute between launches, now takeoff will have to be 2-3 minutes in between.  You’re number ten for take-off? Count on at least 30 minutes, maybe more–especially if the weather arrives over the field while you wait.

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So, rather than have a traffic jam at the end of the runway waiting to take off, ATC issues all aircraft an “EDCT” (Expect Departure Clearance Time), or “edict,” as the acronym is typically mangled by crews, or even “wheels up time” in more common usage. This can usually mean an Air Traffic Control imposed delay on your pushback from the gate of forty-five minutes to an hour or more.

That presents another problem: while a delayed flight is held on the gate, the next aircraft scheduled for that gate will be delayed as well, either in the deplaning of passengers or the boarding of its next segment. At a major hub for any airline, there aren’t enough extra gates to make up for flights that must be held on their departure gates. If you arrive at the terminal and notice about double the normal amount of passengers milling about–that’s why: their outbound jet is waiting while a delayed flight sits on the gate, waiting for its EDCT time to roll around.

That’s what happens on the ground–here’s what happens in flight–which actually contributes to the confusion and delays on the ground.

wx radar arrivalSee the racetrack pattern near “CAPTI?” That’s where we’re going to be holding, hoping the weather clears within our allotted holding fuel, which is about 45 minutes. The airport is under the blob of storms at the convergence of all the lines.

The jet we’re flying is being ardently awaited at DFW by 160 passengers who plan to fly on it to LAX after we deplane our Dulles passengers at DFW. But, we’re now on our way–diverting–to New Orleans because DFW is still closed and won’t open for at least an hour.

Add to that the fact that my copilot and I started our flight day at 12:35pm. We leave New Orleans at 11pm, but have to fly all the way to Abilene before we can turn back to the east around the scythe of thunderstorms bisecting Texas. What’s normally a one hour and ten minute flight turns into two and a half hours, pushing my first officer to a 14 hour flight duty day, landing at 2:15am.

Not sure what happened to all the LAX-bound folks, whether they got a crew to fly the leg or not, or what happened to the connecting passengers on our flight arriving after 2am.

All I know is that this promises to once again be another season of crowded skies, summer storms, bone-achingly long flight days and above all, a challenge to everyone’s fortitude and patience. Now that you know the “what and why” of the weather story–maybe you could explain it to the guy seated next to you, wondering why everything is so messed up because of a little old storm?

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Breadcrumbs in the Jetstream.

Posted in air travel, airline pilot, airline pilot blog, weather with tags , , , , , , , on February 22, 2013 by Chris Manno

Used to be that in your first few hours of acrobatic flying that you had to consider how a meal would taste not only going down–but also coming back up later. Never, ever forget or underestimate the return trip.

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Just like scout camp: on the way out, remember that tree, the rock formation–picture how it’s going to look coming back on your way home. So flying eastbound, you keep in mind everything germane to your westbound return.

Isobars in the back of your head as you’re outbound. Big kink in the jet stream over Arkansas, and you know what that means: lesser wave to surf eastbound, but lesser tide to buck flying west. But you can already tell what’s going on after about thirty minutes of flight. As you expected, the big dip pivots over Arkansas where it’s mixing Gulf moisture gathered from the south with the coldest air from the north.

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Messy. But no worries eastbound–we’ll top it, for now. Other eastbounders won’t and it doesn’t hurt to pass the word back: looking better toward Walnut Ridge outbound to the northeast. The moisture’s making its stand here in southern Arkansas and looks to be planning to stick around. The kink in the jetstream isn’t going to sheer off the tops because it’s weaker–100 knots versus 150-160–when it courses straight out of the west.

Which means, for our return leg, bet we’ll need the southern arrival while this troubled air mass beats up the northeastern cornerpost into DFW. And since we can see that the jetstream velocity is less, no real problem coming back high in the 40,000 foot range instead of ducking under.

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Air Traffic Control relays the National Weather Service warning that already rolled off the datalink printer in hard copy: level 3 thunderstorms with hail and possible tornadoes over Texarkana. Which is right below us. And no kidding–our radar shows the hook-like purple edge that I’m sure we’ll read about in the morning paper: somebody seven miles below is looking at a wall of towering cumulus and likely, a twister screwing itself into the earth west to east.

But it’s all quiet up here. Ground stuff, groundling speed and flying dirt mean nothing at altitude–but the whole ugly mess gets stored away for future reference westbound. Which starts on the ground in the east.

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The old trusty Farmer’s Almanac of the sky thinking, the intangible notion my friend and the ultimate aviator Randy Sohn like to call “salt,” and I hope is “air sense:” no delays outbound, no crimp in the airway from planes deviating south. We’ll approach from the south, but will plan for at least one big reroute within the last 200 miles because the mess over Arkansas isn’t dissipating no matter what the National Weather Service predicts.  So here’s the fuel load that will work–ain’t what the system planned,  but it’s what I want. And what we’ll get.

Hours later, at 38,000 feet, the change comes: “Fly direct Little Rock for the arrival.” What? Could the ugly mess be moving south, and that fast?

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Here’s the direct Little Rock view: is it really moving south fast enough to justify the extra mile to double back to the north? If not, we’re throwing ourselves into it with fuel we don’t want to waste. If so, who’s not glad we have extra fuel on board? Thank you Farmer’s Air Almanac brain and Randy’s salt, we have the burn available–because the thunderbumper gang is moving like a freight train. Here’s a picture five minutes later and the storm has raked itself ten miles south:

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Remember, we’re just looking at the tops, radar auto-tilting down, and the ridge of thunderstorms is thundering like the mounted cavalry across central Arkansas, slashing and burning like Sherman on the march. We have plenty of cruise fuel and again, a silent, smooth ride high above the fistfight of Gulf moisture and the northern jetstream. Ringside seats. Quiet, smooth ride. Follow the breadcumbs, leavened with salt. Amen.

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That didn’t end well at the surface. But, that’s why we try to pass so quietly above. And why no one on board is any worse for the wear or wiser for the passage. Which is why we fly jets in the first place, right?

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Jet Wake Turbulence: Distance Ain’t Enough.

Posted in air travel, airline, airline pilot blog, airliner, jet, jet flight, passenger, pilot, travel, weather with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on January 19, 2013 by Chris Manno

Sneaking up behind me, are you? Here’s an infrared view you might need to heed: not the hotspots, but powerful the twin horizontal corkscrews of air current swirling off the wingtips of my jet. They’re wily, dangerous, and not to be trusted.

According to the Flight Safety Foundation, the vortices from a jet can have an internal rotation of up to 300 feet per second and often extend between 2 and 10 nautical miles behind a jet aircraft. The twin tornadoes–that’s literally what they are, horizontal but spinning powerfully–sink at a variable rate, between 300 and 500 feet per minute to an altitude  between 500 and 900 feet below the aircraft’s flight path and can persist for three or more minutes depending on the meteorological conditions.

That’s the problem, but hardly the full situation. Add to this hazard the closely constrained flight path of jet traffic in terminal areas. For instance:

SFO Q bridge

Approaching from the east, you’ll have a traffic stream from the west as well converging on the same runway complex. Not unusual as far as airports go–except that San Francisco International has less than the standard distance separating the two parallel runways. The FAA has waived the normal lateral separation, but you’d better keep that in mind nonetheless because that also means less than normal separation from the vortices of the aircraft next to you. Remember the outward spreading motion of those two tornadoes?

747 BAThis guy could be your dance partner all the way down final–and if he’s next to you, you aren’t entitled to the separation you’d get if he were ahead of you. Mostly, ATC will “advise” you to “use caution” for the heavy on the west runway, workload and time permitting–but they don’t have to.

And time and workload may not permit any advanced warning, and adverse weather can shroud the entire scene anyway:

SEA 16CLook at the inset on the bottom right corner: Seattle (one of my favorite destination cities!) has three parallel runways grouped together, and you won’t be told which of the three runways you’re landing on until you turn base to final about three minutes from touchdown. Would it make sense or even be possible to keep you informed of the heavies on all three inbound tracks? Add to the mix the typically obscured Seattle visibility, plus the added workload of programming and validating the FMS  sytem approach waypoints at the last second demanded by the late runway assignment and is there a possibility of situational awareness overload, on final approach: was that a heavy in front of us? Or on the outboard runway?

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Bring that back to San Francisco, where the standard runway separation is “waived,” like in MSP and many other cities. Now you’ve got a “buddy” laterally whose wake turbulence is drifting outwardly–just as yours is–and just because he’s not a “heavy” doesn’t mean he can’t roll you.

The ICAO worldwide “recommendation” for separation between a “heavy” and a “medium” following aircraft  (say, a 747 and a 737) is 5 NM (9.3 KM); between two heavies, 4 NM (7.4 KM). But the wild card not even mentioned in the separation rules is configuration and maneuvering: simply put, a “dirty” jet (flaps, gear) creates a nastier wake than a “clean” jet, and maneuvering distorts weight. That is, if I level off my 160,000 pound 737 with an addition one-half “G” force, I add to the effective weight another 40 tons of effect. And we’re a medium jet–imagine a heavy maneuvering dirty adding to his effective weight and wake.

That’s the science, now here comes the art. You know the reported winds at the field, but that’s a red herring: your encounter with wake turbulence won’t happen on the field. You need to be aware of the winds on approach, at your altitude. If the lateral wind at your altitude is blowing into the other jet’s wake, here’s what can happen: if the drift equals the outward spread momentum of the wake–and you have to figure the “dirty,” “maneuvering” wild cards mentioned above–the effect will either be to move the wake away more rapidly, or freeze it in place till it dissipates. Which is it?

You can’t see wake turbulence. You can’t be sure where it is, or know it’s strength based solely on the aircraft designation. And sooner or later, you’ll find yourself in it despite your best, most diligent precautions. What are you going to do, captain?

dusk b

For a true jethead like me, the first answer is always speed–but not so fast (pun intended): you’re configured with restrictive maximum flap speeds. If you’re in a final configuration with 40 degrees of flaps, you’re limited to 162 knots max. But the second instinct is valid: power.

throttle bugeye

But power alone is only part of the answer: what you’re not doing is going down. Why not? Because we know the vorticies are sinking. If we remain level or climb, we’ll escape the effects. What are they?

The Flight Safety Foundation survey of hundreds of wake turbulence encounters reveals uncommanded roll in trailing aircraft of up to 45 degrees at altitudes below 1,000 above the ground. One thousand feet is another magic number at my airline: stabilized approach  (on speed, on altitude, power set) is mandatory from 1,000 feet to touchdown. On glidepath–not above or below; not accelerating or decelerating, power set to flown speed and stable. And certainly wings level.

Which brings up the next problem of two major headaches you’ll instantly own. First, the right amount of counter-aileron, even if applied prudently, in many jets will bring up the wing spoilers to drop the low wing rapidly, inducing adverse drag, requiring more power.

Second, the option of climbing or even flying level is constrained by the published missed approach: protected airspace may be below you if you are above the missed approach altitude. And laterally, not only is there often parallel traffic, there’s also dangerous terrain you must always monitor and stay clear of:

MMMX ILS DME 5R

If you encounter wake effects in a level portion of the approach segment, prior to the aircraft ahead descending, at least you know his vortices will descend eventually below you and in this case, you normally feel the “burble” which now cues you: if the winds are keeping his wake aligned with your flight path, on glidepath you’re likely to fly into the tornadoes again when you’re slow and configured with speed-restricting flaps. Now look at the “mileage separation:” still think distance alone is enough? Still committing to the glidepath?

All of that doesn’t even consider the added, inevitable spoiler in every approach: weather. There’s more than terrain and aircraft for you to avoid in a very constrained airspace.

photo-17

There’s really only one good answer: up. And “up” may be a s simple as “no more down,” meaning a stopped descent or a slight climb to exit the effects. In any case, if you’re below 1,000 feet you’re no longer “stable” per the mandatory requirements. If you’re above 1,000 feet, you’ve just been cued that the mileage interval, given the meteorological conditions, nonetheless has left you vulnerable to the adverse effects of wake turbulence–and you’re not going to proceed.

Which means, in the immortal words of my old friend the Chief Pilot at my airline addressing my 1991 class of Captain’s “Charm School” (officially, “Captain’s Duties & Responsibilities”) as we sat rapt: you’re going to “get the hell out of town.” Amen.

dvt3

Back in the cabin? Expect the usual complaints about the delay for the second approach, plus a regular dose of exaggerated “there I was” tales about their wake turbulence encounter. So, don’t tell them–if you’ve done your avoidance and even escape properly, they’ll never know you even had a problem, which is the ultimate goal anyway: detecting and avoiding the problem in the first place.

The end result is, what they don’t know won’t hurt them, because you won’t let it. And that’s kind of why you get the privilege of flying the jet in the first place, isn’t it?

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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.

fat duo FX

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.

perf 1FX

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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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.

JetHead Live talks with Meteorologist and Pilot James Aydelott

Posted in airline pilot blog, pilot, podcast, weather with tags , on February 29, 2012 by Chris Manno

Aviation weather, flying and more, with

Meteorologist & Pilot James Aydelott


To download and save, Click Here.

We talk live with

Ed Rasimus, co-author of “Fighter Pilot” and veteran of 250 combat missions over North Vietnam in fighters.

March 7th–don’t miss it!

Older JetHead Live podcasts are available free on iTunes, just click on the icon below.

________________________

After the storm: fly home–but not so fast.

Posted in air travel, aircraft maintenance, airline delays, airliner, airlines, airport, flight, flight crew, jet, jet flight, night, pilot, weather, wind shear with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 26, 2011 by Chris Manno

After the divert to Wichita Falls, time to gas and go: Flight Dispatch says DFW is accepting arrivals. That’s all we needed to hear–we’re refueled and refiled with Air Traffic Control. As soon as we’re released by tower, we’re in the black night and headed south to DFW at 280 knots.

Would be flying faster, but 280 is the best turbulence penetration speed and though the ride’s not overly bumpy, the latticework of cloud to cloud lightning straight ahead promises roughness. We’re making a beeline for one of the four arrival corner posts for DFW at 10,000 feet.

Things will happen fast on a 70 mile flight, and the First Officer is flying: he’s sharp, and that allows you as captain to oversee all of the preparation, the checklists, the navigation and most importantly, the radar. Approaching midnight, we’re now 12 hours into our pilot duty day, but regardless, there is still the same roster of tasks to be accomplished–and they don’t care how tired you are, they must be accomplished correctly.

Getting a good look at the current radar sweep and things look ugly. The cells have broken up and are scattered like mercury all over the place. The DFW airport arrival information is automated: weather, winds, runway–all printed out from the on-board data link printer. The DFW info says landing south–so you set up frequencies, courses and descent altitudes in both sides of the Flight Management System, as well as both pilot panels. While he flies, you brief the approach.

Have to swing wide around storms–request a descent to get below scud blow-off you can’t see on radar, but which you detect because it’s blocking the pattern of ground lights you know should be Denton. As soon as we begin descent, the master caution light glares in front of your face, along with a pressurization clue. A quick glance at the pressurization control panel above the F/Os head shows we’re holding cabin pressure fine, it’s just that we never reached the programmed cruise altitude and the computer is confused.

“Off schedule descent,” you say, punching off the warning light. Reset the cruise altitude to 5,000, which is lower than where you are, to let the computer recalculate and catch up.

“Radar vectors to 35 Center,” says the air traffic controller. Dammit–we set everything up for a south landing per the DFW info.

“ATIS says DFW landing south,” you say, making sure there’s absolutely none of the annoyance you feel in your voice.

Pause, wherein you can imagine the controller saying to someone the ATIS is wrong. “I’ll check on that, but plan north.

Redo the courses, rebrief for the F/O, reinsert the proper approach in the FMS and extend the centerline for intercept. Complete the checklist down to configuration, validate the Heads Up Display Data. Staring at the lights of The Ballpark in Arlington miles south, doing the math on descent rates versus final turn altitude based on a left turn thereabouts. Looking good.

A loud snap as the autothrottles kick off. “I’ve got them back on,” you say, reaching up to reinstate the system. F/O nods, concentrating on flying.

Now ask yourself why they tripped off. No failures annunciated–they wouldn’t have reinstated with an internal failure. And it’s not that choppy. Has to have been a power interruption. Glance up–sure enough, there it is.

The left generator bus source is gone. Is it the generator or the bus that’s failed? Regardless, we’re flying with only one electrical source–the right generator. Not good.

First instinct is to start the Auxiliary Power Unit (APU), a small jet engine in the tail that can provide electrical power and pressurization air–but wait.

If the fault is in the left electrical bus, adding the APU generator could either cause a fire, or take down the APU generator. Be patient.

Although you know the right generator has assumed the power load–so the bus must be okay–why take chances?

“We’ve lost the left generator,” you say, reaching for the Quick Response Handbook. “I’ll take care of it. “F/O nods.

The procedure confirms what you deduced. Within a couple minutes, you have the APU running and power restored. Follow the QRH procedure exactly; better to have two electrical sources–if you’re down to one, if it fails, it’s going to get dark and ugly: flying with limited instruments and systems on 30 minutes of battery back up. In the weather, at night. We can do it–but would rather not.

Left base turn from an angling downwind. Mike’s doing a good job–he sees the bad angle and is slowing and calls for dirtying up with flaps and gear. The runway’s coming into view on my side. Good altitude and speed; the intercept of glideslope and course will be fine.

Tower calls the winds “130 at 18.”

Dammit. The limit is 15. With the 50 degree offset, we’re close. Legal, but you don’t like flirting with limits. Even on a long runway.

“Continue,” you say to Mike’s inquiring look–he’s done the math too. But you’re just about decided to abandon the approach. But no need to rush anything. Rushing is never good.

“I’ll rebug you to 40″ you say, changing configuration as required by the tailwind, “and brakes 3.” He nods.

At a thousand feet, it’s clear that the tailwind is unstable and variable–you can tell from our ground speed versus the airspeed.

No good. “Let ‘s take it around,” you say. He nods, adds power–the descent stops.

“Here comes flaps 15,” you recite the litany for him,”positive rate, gear coming up. Missed approach altitude set.”

“American 245 is on the go,” you tell the tower.

“Fly runway heading, maintain two thousand,” says the tower.

Fine; nearly there–reset the throttles from N1 to speed, reset both FMC from climb to capture. Reset both course windows and MDA–because we’re going to land south. Reprogram the FMS for the 17s.

“I’m going to teardrop you out to the east, then bring you around for a final to the south,” says the controller. “Can you do that?”

Eyeballing the radar: nastiness to the northeast, but there’s some room.

“Give us five miles,” you answer. No need to rush–make this correct, hit every step. F/O nods. “Then turn us back in.”

Slowing, getting dirty. Left sweeping turn.

“Do you see the runway?” asks tower. You do–you give a thumbs up to Mike. He nods.

“Affirmative,” you answer.

“Cleared visual approach, cleared to land, 17 Right.”

Confirm the Right runway freqs, MDA and courses set. “I’ll bug you back up to 30,” you say, changing configuration again: don’t need a whole lot of drag without the tailwind and with a possible wind shear. Mike nods.

Glideslope is rough. You’re on a hair trigger to go around again–there’s plenty of fuel to hold or go north to Oklahoma City or south to Austin. Be alert, be patient.

Increasing wind; good sign–but it has to stay within controllable limits. Mike’s doing a fine job wrestling the jet onto glidepath. The Boeing is a steady machine–an MD80 would be a bucking bronco in this.

Below 500 feet–you’re call: it’s stable enough, we’re good. If Mike wants to go-around, we sure will, but we’re good.

Over the threshhold, Mike puts it down; speedbrakes deploy, he yanks in full reverse, the jet slows.

“Nice job,” you say, taking over as we slow to 80 knots.

After landing checklists, taxi in. Careful, do the job right all the way to the chocks. Engine shutdown.

Passengers deplaning, our shutdown checklists complete. You’re writing up the left generator in the maintenance logbook, a mechanic is already on the jetbridge waiting.

“You can take off, Mike,” you say, “I’ll finish up here.” Meaning you’ll do the final “after all passengers have deplaned” checklist items to power down the aircraft. That’s a courtesy you do–you’re the captain, you leave last. He did a great job tonight–respect that.

We fist bump, he leaves.

You finish up: packs off, recirc fans off, cockpit power off. Grab your bags. Slip out of the gate area past the 160 passengers who have no idea what transpired between Wichita Falls and their safe landing a few minutes ago. Nor should they–that’s what they pay you for.

Fresh air feels good, outside waiting for the employee bus to the parking lot. Nearly 1am, got to get home and get some rest–flying again tomorrow.

Summer Storms, Airline Flight, and YOU as Captain.

Posted in air travel, airline cartoon, airline delays, airliner, airlines, airport, flight, flight attendant, flight crew, flight delays, jet, jet flight, passenger, pilot, weather with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 22, 2011 by Chris Manno

Well that’s going to be trouble, your air sense tells you as you wing westbound.

Because you have to turn around and come back once you reach LAX–and this stuff, you can feel it: it’s growing. In a few hours, it will stand between you and “homeplate”–DFW for you–and it will be your job to thread the needle between, above and around the towering wall of what will be full-blown thunderheads by the time you return.

But the weather-guessers say the storms will stay south and west of the Jethroplex, right?

Yeah, my ass. Sorry–been fooled before. Now, we deal with gut feel and radar. Forecasts? Farther out than a couple hours–pretty well useless. Keep flying.

LAX, first stop: got to have a cup of the strong Brioce Bakery coffee. Kind of crave it flying to LAX. Westbound passengers happily herding off; First Officer about his business on the ramp, catering, cleaners. You?

Stout cup of Brioce and radar, your best friend. Which helps you set up your next best friend: jet fuel.

But here’s where your air sense–and 17,000 flight hours–comes in: the storms forming up and marching west to east aren’t really a front passage. Rather, they’re a boundary collision that the cold front is barely strong enough to move. Those storms will stagnate wherever they form–my best guess–so there’s not going to be a quick close-then-open, 40-50 minutes of holding.

Hedge your bets: approach from the northwest in fact, route north over Albuquerque and see if you can beat the frontal passage, or be positioned to slip in immediately after. Plus, from behind the squall, all of your divert options will have a clear path. So in this case, northern route, an hour of holding fuel, see how it plays out.

The first round of bad news comes up on the data link printer in Arizona: “0300 DFW tempo 1ovc tstm lgtctcctg 34012g25 29.77 prsfr.”

Duh: “airport expecting one hundred overcast around 10pm in thunderstorms lightning cloud to cloud, cloud to ground; winds from the north gusting to 25, surface pressure falling rapidly.”

Trouble in front of the front. Cross the Rio Grunge eastbound, nice tailwind rocketing the aluminum tube across the ground at 500+ miles per hour.

My F/O is smart, sharp, quick. A good asset in forming a plan, then a backup, then another. I like options. I choose my words carefully: “Hey, you want any coffee? I’m buying?”

I like the way Angela makes coffee, the old-fashioned DC-10 technique: a splash of club soda on the bottom of the pot before brewing–eases the acidity, gives a smooth flavor. Hell, no rush here–I hate redoing stuff. The radar picture won’t be too well defined until about 300 miles out, even better at 160. Have a cup of Boeing brew and relax.

Okay, now we’ve got something to work with. Did I mention how much I love the 737-800 radar? It has its own GPS system, always plotting where it is–and it knows the terrain everywhere it finds itself and miracle: it screens out ground clutter–and does its own tilt for each range. What you see is what’s there–how cool and smart is that?

This picture is looking southeast. The blob over HIKAY is the nasty storm cell headed for the airport. As I figured, we’ll either beat it, or the airport will close–and it did as we approached 100 miles out. We expected that.

The good news is that we’re assigned a holding pattern over Wichita Falls. Sheppard has a couple of long runways and jet fuel available. Once we’re established in holding at 33,000 feet–a good altitude for fuel economy–I call the Sheppard tower on another radio: how late are you open tonight? How late is the fueler open?

Eleven o’clock for the tower, all night for the fueler. It’s just after 10pm. We’ve got fuel for 40, maybe 50 minutes of holding, then we need about 4,000 pounds to fly north to Oklahoma City.

But we’re right on top of Wichita falls/Sheppard. I can see it–perfect weather. No additional fuel for the divert–we just spiral down.F/O concurs. We start setting up navaids, approaches.

Our holding racetrack--right over an excellent divert spot.

DFW approach updates the airport re-opening projection: midnight.

The mass exodus begins from various holding stacks because no one has that much loiter fuel. Most on the north side are heading for Oklahoma City.  “Put Wichita Falls on request,” I tell the F/O, as we continue all divert prep and logistics with our dispatcher in Fort Worth.

We exit the holding stack northbound with a descent clearance, all of the divert notifications and nav system reprogramming done, approach briefed–we’re way ahead. The winking lights of two jets above us in the pattern suggest what I’d be thinking if I were them: “Smart bastards–first into Sheppard, first for fuel, first out.”

Yup.

Sheppard Approach: “Plan runway 33 center.”

Me: “Unable.” The center runway is 150 feet wide; our wingspan is around 130. The left runway is 300 feet wide–but the Air Force is using it for night traffic patterns in my ex-girlfriend:

Tough darts, wingnuts: when it was me in the Air Force flying the White Rocket, I’d have said tell the civilians to get lost–we’re busy here. Now, with 160 passengers and a crew of 7 on board, I think differently.

I’m doing the math, checking the descent rate and speed and distance–it’s all coming together nicely, “in the slot” as we say. Over the threshhold, follow the HUD cues projected before me on the glass; little narrow-gauge skid marks from smaller jets slide under the nose, then touchdown.

Clear the runway, set the brakes for a minute–whip out my cell phone and call the fueler, “Landmark Aviation.”

“How much fuel do you need,” asks a friendly voice. We have 5,800 pounds on board, I’d wag 3,000-4,000 to get to DFW, 3,000-4,000 more for delays. Plus some more thousands for peace of mind and the unexpected, two factors that usually don’t work well together.

“We need 12,000.”

“No problem, taxi on down.”

Tight maneuvering on narrow taxiways and a small transient ramp, but slowly, carefully, watching the wingtips–we park. I see the lights of two other airliners approaching from the south. Hah! The fuel truck is already here.

First Officer is outside, doing the exterior inspection. I’m on the phone with dispatch for a clearance plan, on the radio with tower for a proposed launch window, then with DFW approach for an expected route, then the phone again for current DFW weather.

My fuel guess is pretty good: dispatch wants us to have 15,000 pounds of fuel–we have 17,500. I love jet fuel.

Me signing for six tons of jet fuel.

Behind us, a Super-80 waits, an Airbus waiting behind him. I chat with the MD-80 captain in the quaint Wichita Falls terminal–he needs to have flight plan faxed to him; we printed ours on our on-board data link printer. I considered for a moment suggesting the dispatch send his to our jet, but I’m not even sure that’s possible. And we’re ready to blast off.

Supposedly, the terminal folks are on their way back and they’ll fire up the FAX machine for him and his 140 passengers. Too bad you ain’t on the Boeing, I thought but didn’t say.

Carefully, point by point, we check our route, then our performance data. Never mind that it’s nearly midnight, 11 hours into our workday–every single detail will be checked. I will see and he will crosscheck every number put into the performance system.

We start engines, a ground man pulls the chocks and salutes: clear to go.

I have a better idea. We sit with brakes parked and accomplish all pre-takeoff checklists so that I don’t have divided attention taxiing out over the mini-sized taxiways.

Tower clears us for take-off. One last check of numbers–the runway, the rotate speed, the weight, the power setting, all check out. Stand up the throttles, all exterior lights on, punch the take-off power button on the throttles and she leaps forward with a growl.

Off the nose, black sky, more storms; cloud to cloud and cloud to ground lightning weaving a brilliant latticework to the south, where we’re going. Dead ahead, more spot decisions, plans, backups, numbers, radar and ultimately, maybe a cup of coffee to go for the drive home once we navigate the weather gauntlet.

But nothing’s set in stone; we’ll just see what’s what when we get to DFW. The coffee and DFW will just have to wait, but I’m patient, and careful. All in good time–despite all pressures to the contrary, all passenger and crew urgency, fatigue; I tune it all out. Every step carefully, thoughtfully–that’s what summer flying is all about.

Quite a light show in the DFW terminal area, and the hurdles spring up one by one, then in droves. Weird, but I kind of like the challenge. But that’s another story.

The “Whys” of Airline “Ground Stops” For Passengers

Posted in air travel, airline delays, airliner, airlines, airport, flight crew, flight delays, jet flight, passenger, pilot, travel, travel tips, weather with tags , , , , , , , , , , on April 23, 2011 by Chris Manno

For many passengers, flying is an unfamiliar, sometimes confusing experience made all the more so by the lack of understanding of inconveniences like ground delays.

Often it seems such take-off delays are arbitrary (the sky is clear and blue; let’s go!) and unfounded–but if you understood the reasons behind departure delays, you could at least keep your blood pressure low and your patience intact.

The most common–and often dreaded–delay term you might hear regarding your take-off is “Ground Stop,”  which means you are not being allowed to take-off or more succinctly, your flight is stopped on the ground at your departure airport.

Why?

Multiple reasons. The most common is that the destination weather is such that the the number of inbound aircraft the Air Traffic Control can sequence is restricted or reduced.

Why? Well, the most common problem is a low ceiling and visibility that requires expanded spacing between aircraft.

Why more spacing? Because if we as pilots can separate ourselves from other aircraft visually on an approach and landing, we need only five miles of separation. If we’re flying in reduced visibility, that separation requirement at least doubles to ten miles. That cuts down the number of arrivals possible per hour.

But it could also be a beautifully clear day and capacity could be limited by winds. If the wind velocity or even gusts approaches the crosswind limitation of most aircraft–normally around 30 knots–then some runways may be unusable.

Why? This happens at DFW now and then because of the seven runways, five are oriented north-south, two are northwest to southeast. Doing the math, two runways rather than seven handling arrivals will of course mean delays.

The Ground Stop is a temporary way to shut off the flow of inbound aircraft until such time as either the limiting condition dissipates at the destination field–and that could be the low ceilings and visibility, winds or a thunderstorm. The last problem–a storm–can also cause a ground stop for your destination even after it passes.

Why? Sometimes it becomes a question of real estate: if a storm at your destination has stopped their outbound aircraft from taking off, there often is simply no room to taxi and park a slew of inbound aircraft. This is particularly true at small, congested airports like LaGuardia and Washington Reagan, but even large airports like DFW can become gridlocked as well.

And if the condition slowing things down is icing, there really is no point in allowing too many aircraft in.

Why? Because once an aircraft is de-iced, a take-off must be accomplished promptly or the deicing fluid loses its effectiveness and the plane needs to be de-iced over again.

What about when you’re told there’s an “outbound Ground Stop” for your airport? Rare, but it happens.

Why? From a pilot standpoint, the airport isn’t exactly “closed.” But the problem becomes the departure corridor: if the radar controllers can’t find a clear path for departing aircraft, they simply don’t allow any departures. But sometimes when your airport’s weather is fine, the departures from another nearby airport might cause a temporary shutdown of your airport’s departures.

Airways crammed into the east and northeast.

Why? Well, as in the case of JFK, Newark, and LaGuardia, or Baltimore, Washington, and Dulles, or Chicago O’Hare and Midway, DFW and Love Field, or San Francisco International and Oakland and San Jose, and LAX and any of the dozens of airports there–if one field has bad weather, particularly thunderstorms, their inbound and outbound aircraft have to maneuver off of the normal routing in order to avoid thunderstorms. Air Traffic Control will wisely limit the number of new aircraft added to the mix.

On-board radar display: no take-off clear path.

Really, a Ground Stop makes sense when you think about it. Because the limiting condition at your destination would still exist whether you take-off or hold on the ground. So the problem with allowing the take-off even though the landing field is restricted is that you end up with a larger risk of delay.

Why? Because if the delay inbound is absorbed in the air, that means holding. If holding time is projected to be over a half hour or maybe even forty-five minutes, the end result will be a diversion.

Why? Well, because there’s only so much fuel we can carry en route since every aircraft has a maximum landing weight. If you add an extra hour’s worth of fuel–about 10,000 pounds on my jet–but then it turns out that you don’t need it to hold enroute, you could easily be too heavy to land. Guess what happens then: you will get to hold until you burn off the excess fuel, which is a tremendous waste and will guarantee that some connecting passengers’ next flight will depart without them.

Plus, in my pilot mind, after about forty minutes of holding, my air sense tells me it’s time to find a better place to land. It’s simply not prudent from a pilot standpoint to arrive at an alternate without extra fuel for contingencies there. And if we do have to divert, depending on how long my crew and our duty day has been, the FAA may mandate that we’re done flying for the day–which means you are too, wherever we are.

But all of that can be avoided by holding on the ground at our departure airport, burning no fuel. As frustrating as that may seem, the alternative is actually worse and really, taking-off without a good probability of being able to land at your intended destination doesn’t really sound like a good idea, does it?

I have to say, some crewmembers don’t even understand all of the Ground Stop factors I just explained and certainly, most passengers don’t either.

But the wise passengers like you who understand this “big picture” explanation of the dreaded Ground Stop can just take a deep breath, nod wisely and be confident that they’re on the optimum route to their destination.

Time and Space in the Passage Place.

Posted in air travel, airliner, airlines, blind faith, flight, flight crew, jet, life, passenger, pilot, weather with tags , , , , , , , , , , on January 5, 2011 by Chris Manno

There will be time, there will be time
To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet;
There will be time to murder and create,
And time for all the works and days of hands
–T.S. Eliot

The Greeks saw time as a two headed monster: chronos, which is the moments ticking by, and kairos, which is the moment, the “aha” sledgehammer of revelation. Funny how one you count, the other you live. Chronus is the abacus and the sliding of beads; kairos the realization of self–and yet kairos takes a back seat to chronus in life as in flight.

Unless you fight it. Let me explain.

Here comes the god Chronus. The price of jet fuel is up 3.3% this week, up 9.6% over last month, and a whopping 26.3% over December of last year–with the price of oil rapidly rising as we speak. My life–and your flight–is counted in air nautical miles per pound of fuel; ANPP, as we call it.

I don’t care about gallons, because they mean nothing in the lift equation, which is what gets our eighty ton freight train into the air. I don’t care about dollars as much as I do minutes, which is what moves us from here to there.

Can’t argue with physics, chronus’s relentless thug. And while I know can’t forget chronus’s digital constructs of “now” and “then”  orchestrating the results of “where” and “when” . . .

. . . I have his relentless data stream from a dozen satellites crunched by another dozen on-board processors populating the abacus with characters accurate down to a ridiculously small margin, claiming “here is where and when you are breathing out and in.”

He’s got a picture for those who would track us, constructed from the ionic backscatter bounced off our riveted hull and scooped up by a scythe-like radar arc sweeping relentlessly, converting us into a dot inching across a black glass pancake.

And he has a cartoon for me that converts our 160 bodies of blood and bone into a white triangle on a magenta line, ever forward-facing, with a numerical count of the seemingly silent action of our passage.

And if it weren’t enough to reduce sky and earth to formulaic characters interacting in sums and differences, the twenty-first century chronus presents me a with a combined image of both the digital abacus and the dirt below–all in one cyber-mirage.

“See?” barks Chronus, dog that he is. “Wasn’t I right all along?” Yeah, he’s tidily accurate to within a few feet, even after a few thousand miles aloft. As if that were all that mattered: the counting of the beads. The passage of time. Like the passage itself didn’t matter. You just sit there–I’ll drag everything by you, tell you what you need to know, never mind seeing or the gods forbid, being.

And that’s exactly where chronus is a liar and a thief. He wants to bottle you up like a genie inside your head. He wants you to overlook your own being in favor of a place ahead or behind; he wants you to live in the “then” and forget the “now.” Use your head and not your eyes. And this is what he’d have you do:

Pretend you are elsewhere. Not notice the “here”–be all about “there.”  The time between here and there is of no consequence and in fact is best left alone or if need be, avoided with the deliberate distraction of Inflight Entertainment or digital connections (chronus has ‘em, right?) that reach beyond where you are (inflight wireless connections!) in favor of where you wish you were. He’ll tell you that what matters is solely what you can quantify, what you can calculate, what you can reduce to figural representation.

What a crock. He has no soul.

What chronus would desperately like to hide is the reality that your time spent in passage is a passage itself. And like poetry, that’s not something you’re supposed to “get” –it’s what you’re supposed to live. Kairos is all about the eyes and the heart–not the mind and the head.

It’s the burning lip of death on the horizon, as the day heaves a last sigh that endures for a thousand miles through a long, long flight hour. Would be convenient to ignore the approaching sunset–hard on the eyes, isn’t it? But it’s underway regardless, a portent of the future painted in our “now.”

It’s Arizona sneaking into New Mexico on the dragon breath of a west wind, looking more like an uber-pastel than a omnivorous cloud of stinging dust.

Or consider–and look (LOOK HARDER, my T-38 instructor pilot used to say) at the aquamarine jewel embedded in the jagged Sierras.

Doesn’t cost you anything–give it a long look, and contemplate the deepness of blue, above and below and ahead. And aren’t we lucky, miles above the wall of thunder beating up the plains states right now? Enjoy: this is included in the price, because it’s not just the passage of time or miles–this is your life cruising by with the hands of the clock. We’re way too fast for the storms, but of course, not the clock.

But for kairos, that’s less important. In the moment of revelation, of living out the beauty of the passage, the limitations of time and place mean little.

But missing the moment means everything.

Flight–like life–is the intersection of kairos and chronos, and the trick is to balance the two: one endures, one is simply endurance. If you can’t tell the difference, or if you can and just need a reminder, it’s time to fly.

If you look–if you bother to look–the revelation is there for free: flying, in passage, where you really ought to “be.”

*****

I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.

I do not think that they will sing to me.

I have seen them riding seaward on the waves

Combing the white hair of the waves blown back

When the wind blows the water white and black.

We have lingered in the chambers of the sea

By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown

Till human voices wake us, and we drown.

–T.S. Eliot

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