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.

Jet Flight: Elephants, Leggoland and the Paper Swan.

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

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The final moments before flight are an indeterminate gap of time and space left for you to carve out intervals of facts and process; cold, smooth and regular as the steps of a cathedral.

It’s a lazy roll around the corner and onto the runway, engines breathing smoothly the dragon’s breath of gale-force jet exhaust. Ghostly green alphabet soup of the Heads Up Display projected on the glass floats before your eyes, as if inside your head and maybe it is, dutifully reporting headings as the nose swings left.

Layers deeper in consciousness ticks the chopped litany that paces the solemn climb up the cathedral steps: a quick review of the new rejected take-off procedure (speed brakes before reverse!), weights (double checked) winds (no hazards, anticipate roll), target thrust setting, a final scan for birds, amen. Time, like fuel to the twin jet engines, flows in a slow meter like a dirge now, but soon to give way to a thousand degree war cry.

He sat hunched slightly forward in the wheelchair as if stating in body language that he really didn’t belong there, and maybe he didn’t. He flips one hand idly, grins, and says, “Hardly the place for an old airline pilot, isn’t it?”

Keeping to yourself is one thing, but you can’t not talk with him, he’s very old and he deserves your attention.

And what place, you have to wonder: the airport? The wheel chair?

“There,” he says, pointing to the destination displayed behind the agents. The Rust Belt; no place for anyone, much less a guy seemingly in his late eighties, especially in winter.

You laugh. “No kidding. Why not Florida? Palm Springs? Phoenix?”

His face twists into a frown. “No,” he says. “No elephant dying grounds. You have to go back to where you came from, at least one more time.”

A wheelchair aide shambled up, shirttail hanging out, and grabbed the man’s ticket without asking, poring over it.

He seemed not to notice. “It goes so fast,” he said, looking straight ahead, as if talking to no one, every one. “So damn fast.” The aide pushed the wheelchair away, oblivious.

 

You briefed a static takeoff for a reason: short runway. Stand on the brakes, hard, because the high takeoff thrust setting will want to scrub the fat tires squatting under eighty tons of plastic and metal and fuel and people clean off the runway.

“Cleared for takeoff.” Now a clockwise circle, starting at nine: start the elapsed time counter, up and straight ahead (no bird flocks ahead and above), to the overhead panel for all four landing lights switches and twin wing illumination light switches, to the nose landing light switch, drop your eyes one last time to confirm the thrust setting.

Verify the first navigational fix and altitude. Shove the throttles forward, confirm the prediction on the N1 gage and when the actual thrust touches 40%, toggle the thrust lever and let the autothrottles pour on the coals.

“Looking for 98.7,” you say methodically, orchestrating the hand-eye-mind convergence of takeoff thrust dutifully set by the autothrottles, engines thundering and shaking the airframe and you release the brakes just as it peaks; the jet leaps forward, you get that reassuring seat mash feeling as you sail through eighty knots, the first checkpoint, then a hundred thirty  in just a handful of heartbeats.

You have the countdown of runway distance remaining in the ghost script on the glass and in your mind, the airspeed too; the third dimension is the runway end rushing at you ever-faster as you accelerate; geometry in your head playing out the triangulation of stopping versus shrinking distance remaining versus minimum flying airspeed.

Calmly, scanning for the big five that will require a lightning abort action, filtering only for those, living the three dimensional compression of distance remaining, speed gaining, and the commitment to flight the instant one outweighs the other.

Pull back, carefully, rise, climb; pull more, match the pitch to the green ghostly hieroglyphics claiming your peripheral awareness; she rockets upward at max power. Nothing but blue sky.

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One leg of a turnaround done, one to go. Walking up the jet bridge, trying to be invisible among the passengers deplaning, headed wherever it was that had them aboard the jet. Some connecting on, some gone as far as they will. You just need a new flight plan, maybe a cup of coffee. Then back into the cockpit, head for home.

Your mind’s elsewhere anyway, negotiating the algorithm of fuel and altitude time and speed and …

A blur, knee high, rushes past and then turns to face you.

“Fast,” the tyke says, tufted red hair a coppery flame atop a stumpy little candle. “Goes so fast!” He makes a zooming motion with his hands.

Keeping to yourself is one thing, but you can’t not talk with him, he’s very young and he deserves your attention.

A woman with a rusty bob and an armload of carry-on bags catches up to the boy, breathless. “Sorry,” she says, “he likes it when it goes really fast on takeoff.”

“You should go to Leggoland,” carrot top says. “We’re going to Leggoland.”

“No,” you say, “No Leggoland for me. I have to go back to where we came from, one more time.”

Mom flashes a harried smile, grabs his little hand and leads him tromping up the jet bridge. “Goes so fast,” he says. The one hand free of mom zooms. “So fast.”

Maybe. Might depend on if you’re looking forward or backward, whether you’re going home, or “there,” even if “there” is home one more time. Elephant dying grounds or Leggoland, It goes so fast, so damn fast.

Hold that thought. The enduring solemnity of nighttime cruise at altitude will be the perfect place to fold those truths like an origami swan, end to end in half and again, then hold it before squinted eyes.

For now, though, the flight in between matters more.

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The Annual Pilot Beating

Posted in air travel, airline, airline pilot, airline pilot blog with tags , , , , , , , on December 19, 2013 by Chris Manno

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Awful House, 4:30 am.

Try to decide which is worse–the two roaches scurrying around the condiments, or the lame-brained guy in the paper hat, prattling on about his guts while you try to eat.

“You ever get that real sharp gut pain,” he asks, “where all of a sudden you really have to go to the bathroom super bad?”

Must be cancer, I want to say but don’t. You should get it checked out.

What I really don’t want to do is chat here at the buttcrack of dawn while I’m trying to cram one last run-through of the memory items I’ll be expected to recite for the oral exam prior to the simulator exam: “Passenger switches–on.”

What the hell is a “passenger switch?” Actually, that should read “fasten belts switch,” because that’s what you need in a rapid depressurization. Boeing obviously misprinted the step, but since Boeing published the procedure, if you don’t recite it their wrong way–it’s wrong.

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And there are pages and pages of numbers, stats, limits, operating procedures and legalities, all fair game for the oral exam. Experience proves that the best defense is a good offense:

Question: what’s the crosswind limit for a Category 3 approach?
Answer: 15, but that may be further reduced by the runway condition to 10 if the RCR is less than good, which brings the requirement for an Autobrakes setting of 3 or MAX.

Answer more questions before he can ask them.

And pay with cash here: the guy at the register is either an ex-con or a heroin addict; the neck tattoos and shaved head could go with either.

The 05:30 “Stump the Dummy” (me) session goes as planned: two hours that are part instruction, passing along new or revised procedures, as well as asking questions–and me over-answering as a defense. That worked, because now we’re on to the simulator check. Today we have one of the new, most advanced “boxes,” with all-electric motors (no hydraulic carnival ride) and the most advanced digital visual with Google Earth displays.

And for me, a windfall: there was no line first officer scheduled for my sim–so I get a “seat filler.” That means an instructor, and today it’s Bev. She knows the aircraft systems and procedures inside and out–because she teaches them every day.

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This first part, planned for around two hours, is termed by the FAA a “jeopardy event.” That is, if you don’t handle everything correctly, you lose your flight qualification. No pressure–just your ability to make a living at stake.

We start with a low-visibility take-off: fog and a visibility of 500 meters. Brief all the usual stuff, plus the extras: Localizer frequency tuned and identified, specified usable within the threshold, HUD set NP with correct runway length, runway heading set. Of course, a question before takeoff:

Evaluator: what’s the limit for the take-off alternate?

Me: 330 miles or the lowest minimum at the departure field for a single-engine return, which is 300 feet, and the present viz is 500.

Over answer–good defense.

Once “aloft,” we return to set up for a Category 3 landing, which is through weather to the lowest limit of my qualification, which is 50′ and a visibility 300 feet.

“Take the airplane,” I tell Bev, “I have to make the new FAA-ordered PA about electronic devices.”

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“Good job,” says the evaluator. Maybe he thought I’d forget–the change only came out this week–but I didn’t. We hit all of the marks to set up the approach, then fly it carefully to a landing under an indefinite ceiling and 1/8 mile of visibility.

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Then, through the magic of flight simulators, the computer slingshots us back out on final to fly the approach again, this time to a low-altitude missed approach. That’s a two-part test: you have to prove that you can do the maneuver, no easy task at 50′ and marginal visibility, and you have to prove that you can discern when to go-around and when to land.

Hand-flying the approach, near the ground, at 50 feet: nada. I punch the go-around power toggle on the throttles and we pitch up aggressively, away from the runway.

“Flaps 15 . . . positive rate (means we’re climbing) gear up.”

We’re climbing like a scalded cat, I’m watching the speed increase so I can safely call for configuration changes and NOT overspeed the flaps as we rocket skyward.

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All is well through flaps fifteen, flaps five, flaps two; Bev, ever the excellent First Officer, warns me: Houston, we have a problem.

A glance above my head to the flaps display panel shows a trailing edge flap segment stuck extended. The jet wants to roll, I won’t let it.

In Cat 3 conditions, especially below 100 agl, a go-around can mean ground touchdown regardless, so naturally it’s done with full TOGA power and pitch.

That compresses the procedure, and split flaps disrupts the cleanup, yet the power (and thus over speed and altitude bust potential) remains high. Throw in the fact that by design, all 737-800 go-arounds are hand flown, and the missed approach was deliberately chosen because it has a 2-step level off, first at 3,000, then a turn and a climb to 4,000.

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Will you remember the 3,000′ hold down, especially at max power, with cleanup disrupted?

Again, you slow down and prioritize: I’m thinking level off and speed control. We’re forced out of our normal litany for cleanup, but we’ll claim the time and space we need–not rushing–to accomplish everything. I tell Bev “Declare an emergency, tell tower we’re going straight ahead at 4,000.” Why fight the 3,000′ level off? She concurs.

Then we have to set up an RNAV LOC which must be flown with LNAV VNAV, but you have to recognize that VNAV doesn’t sense a flaps 2 landing and will put you below the 168 KIAS Vref for flaps 2.

Also, with  a runway visual range less than 4,000 feet, the runway is technically wet (better not miss that) and landing distance with a 168 KIAS Vref will be critical.

Which leads to the ATC controller trying to induce us to take a pattern turn to crosswind, I refuse because we have too many checklists to do. That leads to the instructions to hold present position, left turns, which I could also refuse, but I do know that’s a test too: can you set up holding on the fly? And will you remember that “present position hold” sets up right hand turns, which must be changed or you end up in the wrong airspace.

In holding, Bev and I work through all abnormal flaps and emergency landing checklists; I go to school on the adverse roll moment the autopilot is obviously fighting to be ready for the hand flown final, recall from experience that a flaps 2 landing will be at high speed and power must go to idle uncomfortably early or you will float and the wet landing distance will eat you alive.

And don’t forget to modify the standard LNAV-VNAV procedure with “speed intervene;” some might try flying it with autothrottles off, but that’s flirting with the Asiana screwup in San Francisco, with the added challenge of marginal weather with an abnormal configuration. Think that might be distracting?

Throttles idle over the fence, decent touchdown, reverse and ABS. Bev counts down the airspeed as we roll out. Final question: “Would you taxi clear?”

Me: “No. The runway’s already closed for the emergency.” And it will need to be checked by the airport managers before reopening anyway.

Check Airman: “Well done, jeopardy part is complete. Take ten minutes, I’ll set up for the second half.”

Done. The next two hours will be advanced training: stalls, engine failures, tailwinds into short fields, engine failures with high flap settings on short runways, double engine failures; all just good training. The Check Airman is one of the best and I lucked out getting him for an evaluator and Bev as a seat filler.

And when the advanced training is complete, back to the real world and the real jet. Good for another nine months or ten thousand miles–whichever comes last. I think a cup of coffee is in order, maybe something to eat–I will find both, my better judgment dictates, anywhere but the Awful House.

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A “simple” aircraft change? You tell me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You tell me.

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

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

Crap.

“Where?” I ask.

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

“Any adverse engine indications?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Well,” I ask, “what do you think?”

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

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

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

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

So I’ll shortstop this by calling Flight Dispatch.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Can I ask you a question?”

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Back to the present.

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

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

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The Flight of the Pilgrims

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But first, I can share a pilgrim moment myself.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DFW ramp dusk

Jet Fuelishness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

737 landing crop

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

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

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

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

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

sunset contrail

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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What to tell the new captain?

Posted in air travel, airline pilot blog, airlines, pilot with tags , , , , , , , , on October 25, 2013 by Chris Manno

cockpit night

We’d flown together as crew so many times over the years, on both the MD-80 and the 737, that the cockpit was pleasantly quiet. That’s as it should be, below 10,000 feet, when all talk in the cockpit is required to be exclusively flight-related. I’m a big fan of the quiet cockpit, at all altitudes. That’s just me.

But near level off, as we settled in to cruise: fuel, good; center tank still above three thousand pounds, both boost pumps on, fuel burn only slightly behind (typical in climb), things slow down. Hydraulics, electrics, oxygen (how many years of HEFOE checks?), standing by for clearance direct to Wilson Creek if the Air Force restricted airspace isn’t active.

“What are you flying next month?” he asks, matter-of-factly. Over the years, we’d already covered the “where do you live,” kids, sports; all the regular stuff.

“Next month? I’m flying all Orange County turns; Wednesday, Thursday Friday.” Kind of get hungry thinking about the John Wayne-Orange County Airport: “Jerry’s Wood-Fired Dogs,” mega-brats that’ll get you through three thousand air miles stuffed to the gills. Great turkey burgers, too. “How ’bout you?”

jerrys composite

“Actually,” he says, still deadpan, “I’m checking out on this.”

That took a while to sink in, but what that means is, he’s upgrading–checking out, in pilot-speak–as captain on the Boeing.

That’s fantastic, a monumental lifetime achievement. Excellent news, and bad news just the same: he’s one of those dependable, journeyman, professional first officers who’ve been keeping me in one piece since I “checked out” as captain back in 1991. I’ll miss his excellent work.

“Great news!” I tell him, and I mean it. He’s been waiting for twenty years and now finally, the pinnacle of our airline pilot career is within his grasp. “You’ll do great! And you’ll be an excellent captain.”

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I know he will be, too. And there are about 5,000 hard lessons I’d like to share with him, stuff I’ve learned, often the hard way, from wearing four stripes myself for the past 22 years and counting. But one of the biggest lessons I’ve learned is to keep my mouth shut.

“I’ve watched the Part One CD-ROM they sent,” he says off-handedly. Part One is the FAA-approved legality manual for our flight operations. The captain’s authority and responsibility resides therein. “And,” he adds, “the CD-ROM for the HUD.” The HUD–Heads Up Display–is the cosmic imagery projected on the glass only in front of the captain, displaying a myriad of performance and navigation data for assimilation while looking outside and flying nonetheless. Takes a lot of getting used to.

Maybe I could comment? Don’t want to be pushy.

“The trick to the HUD,” I say casually, “I’ve found is this: you have to learn which 20% of the data” I point to the Primary Flight Display, which is repeated in the HUD projection, “you need to maintain in symmetry in your peripheral vision. And the addition 20% like the Flight Path Vector and energy trend that you need to look through and maintain. The the other 60%, you need to ignore, but know where to find instantly when you need it.”

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Let that float.

“That’s good,” he says. “I’m looking for any advice you can give me.”

Well there are a thousand hard-earned, hard-learned lessons he’ll need to know. Those times in flight where the options shrink, you’re dealing with crap unforeseen but real as a heart attack. The regs let you do things they’ll hang you for later–if you survive. You’ll wish you had more fuel, more time, more airspeed and a do-over–but you won’t.

And afterward, you’ll sit stunned in a crew bus and exchange a glance with another captain, words unspoken, but looks saying holy shit, I can’t believe we pulled that off and I’ll never let myself get talked into that again. You won’t be sure where his First Officer is–or yours, for that matter–at that moment. But without the responsibility, the authority, and the direct charge for the lives and the fifty million dollar jet, they probably don’t have permanent creased countenance of heavyweight concern looking back–and forward–as they head home.

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Whoa, mule: not so fast. You think you could have taken all that in twenty-two years ago when you first pinned on captain’s wings? Go easy.

“Well,” I say, carefully, “If I could give you one piece of advice, it would be this: make an effort, a real effort, to say ‘no’ often and firmly.”

I let that hang in the air for a minute. He’s nodding slowly, looking at me intently.

“Because I have to say, honestly,” I continue deliberately, “I’ve had more regret over what I’ve said ‘yes’ to than I’ve ever had over saying ‘no.’

And we’re biased as captains towards ‘yes.’ We want to make things work, we’re confident in our ability, we want to best all challenges, prove how good we are, that we’re worthy of the rank, the authority, the profession–especially when you’re brand new in the left seat.

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It’s actually harder to say ‘no,’ and start with yourself: we cannot, will not rush to get there, to get home, to get paid, to make connections. A hundred and fifty-nine passengers and other crew get that luxury–we don’t, as captain, and we’ll answer for it if we cross the line for all the wrong reasons. Say ‘no-go’, refuse a clearance restriction (especially a climb), say go-around, divert, refuse the fuel load (I have NEVER been hassled for asking for more), refuse the maintenance fix, even the aircraft, if you believe that’s right.

Our airline’s Chief Pilot will back you 100% if you’re trying to do right, to be safe, to be smart–by saying ‘no.’  And though it’s usually simpler and easier to say ‘yes,’ you’ll wish you hadn’t a thousand times over at 40,000 feet and 500 knots when you’re looking for salvation–and you’re it.”

Quiet again. He’s thinking. He knows I’m not kidding–and I’m sure as hell not. Welcome to the fraternity, the exclusive realm of complete authority, total accountability, and a challenge every day more than equal to the rewards and satisfaction that go hand-in-hand when you get it right. Maybe not perfect, but right–every damn time.

I smile to myself, thinking back, thinking ahead. He’ll do great, I know, probably better than I ever did.

And so it goes: check the fuel burn, the nav accuracy, the time over the next waypoint. Looking back is fun, but forward is where we’re headed. Time to earn those stripes, yet again.

Back Camera

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