Flying the Fuel Mule to Seattle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hello, Idaho.

Hello, Idaho.

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

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

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Fried Sky with a Side of Regret.

Posted in air travel, airline, airline industry, airline pilot, airline pilot blog, airliner, flight, flight attendant, flight crew, jet with tags , , , , , , , , , , on March 29, 2014 by Chris Manno

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Night falls slowly, painfully on the flight deck westbound. Chasing the sun but losing, sunset grudgingly unfolds in slo-mo, Pat Summerall running color commentary: “Oh my, that’s not how it’s supposed to happen.” A burning lip flecked with cobalt, shafts of charcoal stolen from the blue promising a stormy beating for a landscape miles away, yet you know, feel, what you can’t see. Darkness comes in withering shades and declining latitudes, searing the horizon, azure overtaking the florid arc as if the smoldering, sighing sun just didn’t give a damn anymore.

Entropy flies in the cargo belly: chickens–baby chicks breathing through air holes in cardboard cartons, never imagining themselves winging 500 knots across the ground–and radioactive material (aft compartment), tagged bags and other stuff, plus a tissue sample on dry ice rushing to doctors on the sunset coast, deciding if someone in the eastern darkness can live or die, or so the cargo folks told me.

Not really more sanguine upstairs in the pressure hull defying the -60 degree stratopause inches away, with a meager partial pressure of oxygen that would instantly start the blood bubbling and the gas escaping crushed lungs in a fog. Never mind, eyes on the prize, 250 degrees true, beyond the jagged threshold of the Rockies and Sierras. Less than an hour to go.

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While I’m ten stories forward of the aft jumpseat confessional, I’m aware of what’s unfolding nonetheless. One just left her husband, the other just got left. Forward galley, well he’s an old friend, a gay guy with a good head on his shoulders and compassion enough to care how hard relationships, same sex or otherwise, can be when the wreckage piles up.

And we both have Old Testament faith in flightcrew clannishness: we’ll get through whatever together, day, night, a few thousand miles or continent, even an ocean away; the jumpseat and crew van and the gawd awful bidsheet that binds us hot forges a flightcrew stronger than we could ever be alone. So we never really are–and the two pros will smile and work that coach cart, they’ll do the giving that they always do, with stronger hearts regardless of the weight they’re bearing.

Me, up front, I’m just the timekeeper, shoveling coal to stoke the boiler fire and constantly questioning the course I’ve set: can we get the chickens and tissue and broken hearts and shattered dreams to the far coast with fuel burn I counted on? Does the X-Ray vision of the radar and the wind plot say that the wedding gown carefully, almost religiously stowed in the forward closet will make it timelessly to the reunion with the soul-sister maid of honor waiting to pick up the bride in the City by the Bay?

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Flex. Breathe, flex again; crank the rudder pedals back, unfold the six foot scrunch another inch, strapped in just the same. Breathe. Force the HEFOE litany carved in stone an age ago: “hydraulics, electric, fuel, engines, oxygen,” amen. Simple, my part as captain is: keep us flying forward, rightfully, safely. Be the faceless guy in the locomotive cab of the wailing freight train, dragging an ice trail across the night sky, contrails silhouetted in moonlight like silver rails against a shadowy landscape thundering below: dusk left and right, darkness behind–we sail on ahead nonetheless.

Crossing the last waypoint before arrival and descent, claim that inward smile: job done, promises kept; plans worked, fuel plenty, brides, chicks and heartbreak alike–delivered. From here it’s only about negotiating the descent, the approach, landing and taxi in. Cake. And folks will either be happy or not, but you did what you promised them. Chicks will either recognize a new coast or they won’t, someone in New Jersey will get good news (I hope) or bad, and somebody’s big day will lead to a lifetime of heartache or not. And the heartbreak cabin crew will be replaced by another eastbound, instantly bound by the Gilligan’s Island of flight crews: castaways, for better or worse, on a thin air island eight miles above and a world away.

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Yet in the end, it’s not regret, really, that darkens your sky, but in a way it is: can’t be sure how any of what we landed just now turns out afterward, though I’m not sure I’m supposed to know. Back off; take a deep breath and set out once again on the ironclad litany for the eastbound flight, the homeward leg. Regret can wait; another worthy ark of eastbound hope and dreams and everything in between sails on at brake release and pushback in an hour. Claim a breath, a moment of peace, then get your head back in the game: details, captain, and promises you must keep for the hundred some souls on board.

Keep ‘em, every one, defy the sunrise alone. Careful, truthful, the sky is the footpath home.

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LGA: Landing on LaGarbage.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Long JFK runway.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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:

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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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Malaysia Flight 370: What Didn’t Happen.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

“We don’t really know.” Seriously?

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

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

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

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

Asiana crew flies into seawall on landing..

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

“Hijacked”–by the copilot.

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

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

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

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

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

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

. . . a week later: still nothing.

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Winter Flight Delays and YOU.

Posted in air travel, airline, airline delays, airline pilot, airline pilot blog with tags , , , , , , , , , on February 9, 2014 by Chris Manno

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The news media covers the weather-induced flight delays relentlessly from the outside viewpoint, posing as a passenger would, facing headline-grabbing (isn’t that their stock in trade?) shipwreck-castaway-snowmageddon-apocalyptic disaster. They play it as if everything should operate normally, snow or no.

Fine–enjoy the hype, especially from the outside of the aviation profession, from the perspective of urban legend, unreasonable expectations (sure, airlines should operate like clockwork regardless of polar temperatures and contaminated surfaces) and shrieking sensationalism.

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But here’s the inside look at the very real challenges, risks, and safety constraints the news media doesn’t want you to consider.

First, you personally, as an airline pilot and captain, hate the news of a winter storm.  Because of the flight delays? Cancellations? No–it’s simpler than that: just getting to the airport is a challenge on iced-over roads, never mind getting home twelve hours later–barring cancellations–when the roads are even worse.

Put that out of your mind, and leave an hour earlier for the ice-afflicted slide to the airport, adding to what you already know will be a twelve hour day. Park the car facing south, at least, hoping the north wind will coat only the back window with an inch of ice to scrape off after midnight when or if you manage to transit 3,000 air miles and return. Fat chance–on the ice, and the return.

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Finally in Flight Ops, where Defcon 3 reigns: they’re almost out of standby flight attendants to assign to flights in place of delayed or diverted inbound cabin crews. Now they’re breaking up enroute or just arriving crews and reassigning them to outbound departures.

Which means, as the day goes on, more cut-and-paste flights and assignments for more crew members. That recital your kid’s in tonight? Birthday, anniversary, or just plain day off? Fugghedaboudit–you’re going elsewhere, with an indeterminate return time or even day.

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Your jet is coming in from South America where it’s summer, so no problem, right?

Wrong: it will still be delayed, metered in with all arriving flow times, and summer aside, the jet will need to be de-iced anyway: the on-board fuel has been cold-soaked at altitude to about minus 30 degrees, and when that cold-soaked wing hits the moisture laden winter overcast and precip, there will be plenty of ice, especially on taxi in and after parking. Add another 45 minutes, at least, to your flight day.

And you know that de-ice is anything but simple. First, all jet intakes and cowls must be clean and uncontaminated BEFORE you even get to the de-icing pad prior to take off. Who certifies that?

Uh, YOU: get outside and stick your head into both engine inlets to be sure they’re clean. If not, add another 45 minutes to get the engines de-iced so you can taxi to get the aircraft de-iced. And get back downstairs afterward to be sure the procedure was done properly before you try to start one of those $5 million dollar engines.

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The rate of precip is specified in the official weather report, but official weather reports are hourly, and we live (and answer for) the effects in real-time: YOU determine the precip rate and type (snow, freezing rain, ice pellets) and decide which de-ice procedure and fluid will be required.

Then, assuming you have made your way from the gate to the de-icing pad, YOU determine the “holdover time,” or effectiveness time for the de-icing, which again depends on the conditions (temp, precip, rate of precip) so YOU can determine how long you can wait for take off and still have an uncontaminated airfoil.

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Now, consider the surface, both taxiways and runways. All takeoff performance is based on a dry or wet runway, but iciness throws in a curve ball. You have to account for the drag of slush on acceleration, plus the loss of brake effectiveness on any icy runway.

Once again, the field weather report contains the “official report,” but “official reports” don’t fly airplanes, and they are hourly, not instantaneous. You know the limits (slush, snow and ice maximums) as well as your jet’s tolerance and required corrections to your performance data.

Do the calculations for all possibilities: based on the official report, based on what you see, based on conditions worsening. Know all three and be prepared to execute accordingly.

Know that cold-soaked engines behave differently, oil and hydraulic fluids need time and circulation to achieve design viscosity. Be alert for binding flight controls, before and even after de-icing, where melted ice can trickle into dry bay areas and refreeze quickly.

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Taxi gingerly, knowing that iced taxiways are inconsistently slick and your eighty ton tricycle will not stop if one side has traction but the other wheels five yards away do not. Probe the turns with the nosewheel first before you commit the main gear in a turn.

Run up both engines periodically to 70% to verify proper operation, carefully, so as not to blow away a smaller jet behind you, and with consideration for the traction as you do.

Trust but verify: as you taxi, see what’s actually happening on the runway. Is it uniformly clear? Is it draining? Are other jets kicking up rooster tails from their nosewheel on takeoff roll, indicating pooling? Are there contaminated areas? How does the last third look, given that in an abort you’ll need full braking there? How does the first third look, since you’re primary and critical acceleration will be there?

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Taxi out with flaps retracted so as not to get slush or ice sprayed up under the wing and onto the flaps–they may jam on retraction because of the close tolerances, and will take extra de-ice time if they’re contaminated.

When you FINALLY taxi out, get ready for de-ice: engines shut down, bleed air from the APU off; ground crew on headset tells you the de-ice fluid mix (or asks you what type you need), then certifies afterward that the jet is clean and you start your holdover clock based on what you have determined is the max time (usually minutes) to wait for takeoff (that’s why de-icing is normally done at the runway rather than the gate).

Now restart engines, reconfigure with flaps and slats, check flight controls, final weights, final speeds, final corrections based on NOW (your three pre-calculated options) and your go/no-go decision.

Power control is key to airspeed.

Take the runway, hold the brakes, power to 80% and scrutinize all the instruments: go.

Climb out is a relief, at least partially: you still have to turn around at the coast, then fly back into the snowed-in airport after enduring even more inbound metering delays.

But the worst, ultimately, is yet to come: the drive home, if and when you return, once you thaw out your car. That, however, is 3,000 miles from now. Worry about that then, get home as best you can–with this weather, they’re going to need you to fly tomorrow, too.

Actual photo from my 2.5 hour, 30 mile drive home from DFW after a recent winter storm.

Actual photo from my 2.5 hour, 30 mile drive home from DFW after a recent winter storm.

How to NOT land at the wrong airport.

Posted in air travel, airline, airline pilot blog, airliner with tags , , , , , , , , , on January 14, 2014 by Chris Manno

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As a pilot, you’ve landed at airports around the world at least a thousand times in many different aircraft, day and night. So, are you confident? Relaxed? Sure?

Hell no, and with good reason: there’s just too much at stake. Passenger safety, professionalism, your career.

So you’ve spent that career–over three decades, and counting–as a professional pilot, trying diligently to NOT land at the wrong airport.

Here’s how.

It starts a thousand miles prior to landing, and it’s a mundane yet essential procedure. In the chocks, preflight, do it: you read the navigation waypoints from the screen displaying the route of flight in the jet’s navigation systems (there are two, backing each other up) out loud, while the First Officer reads both the paper flight plan and the Air Traffic Control system printout (you read it silently as a triple back up). They must match.

The last waypoint entry MUST at least be a runway at your destination, preferably an approach, too, but at the very least, a landing runway. This will be essential later.

Everything must match (ATC clearance, nav system route of flight) and so must the enroute distance in order for the fuel calculations to be valid. So once again, you MUST have an accurate final fix, preferably a runway.

Even at this preflight step, there are mundane challenges: tired? Long day? We’ve done this a zillion times before, in fact just last night? We’ll put in the final waypoints later, because we’re not sure which runway they’ll be landing on?

Don’t give in. Do every nitnoid step, every time. Route, mileage, verified. Period.

The same human factors challenges recur at the top of descent: almost done, tired, end of the work day, we’ve done this often.

Fight it! Verify the landing runway, and be sure it’s correct, complete, and active in the nav system.

On approach, be wary of the siren song from Air Traffic Control, especially at night: “Do you have the airport in sight?”

If you say yes, you’d better be 100% sure, but even then–the best answer is no.

Why? Because if you acknowledge visual contact with the runway, the next clearance you’ll get is “Cleared visual,” meaning radar service terminated–fly to and land on the designated runway.

Why? I mean, why accept that clearance rather than maintain radar tracking of your position and altitude from the ground controllers monitoring you and, as importantly, the other air traffic around you?

Can you really identify and verify other aircraft and ensure separation–at night? Why would you?

Just last night, landing at DFW, something I’ve done a thousand times, we refused the visual clearance.

Why?

Because a thin and broken under cast obscured at least half of the ground references we’re dependent upon to confirm our position–and that’s at an airport I’ve flown into since the eighties, much less some small, out-of-the-way airport I seldom see. Regardless, there’s no point in speculating or trying to visually orient ourselves with half of the usual landmarks obscured, especially at night.

Plus, why not give our passengers the benefit of Air Traffic Control radar keeping us clear of other aircraft?

Finally, having done due diligence a thousand miles back, we know the distance remaining (there’s a mileage countdown displayed in six places in the cockpit, including in my heads up display–if we’ve put the landing runway into the system) so that if we only accept the clearance after we’re vectored onto a final approach segment, we’ll know exactly how many miles to go before touch down–if we constantly check it.

Using the three to one ratio of a landing glideslope, we know that at 1,000 feet, we’d better be no farther than 3.3 miles from touchdown.

If the “distance remaining” indicates significantly more–you’re at the wrong airport.

If you’re under radar control, that won’t happen. If you’re on a published and verified segment of the instrument approach, that won’t happen. If you’re monitoring the distance remaining to the valid touchdown point, that won’t happen.

Tired happens. Get-home-itis happens. Routine happens. But god forbid the perfect storm of those human factors, plus poor visibility, unfamiliar terrain, and a failed procedural navigation process (the mundane stuff cited above) all comes together.

As with so many things in aviation, it’s not necessarily the big, spectacular failures that bite you in the ass. Rather, it’s the simple, tiresome, mundane everyday stuff that must be attended to–or, the results can be headline news, and not in a good way.

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