Archive for airline cartoon

Malaysian 370 and the Land of Oz.

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

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

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

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

Malaysian authorities brief the press.

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

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

fms

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

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

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

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

Power control is key to airspeed.

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

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

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

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

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

Malaysian Air Force F-18

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.”

DFW C-2

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

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.”

AIPTEK

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.”

DSCF2859

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.

Back Camera

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

Motion Lotion: What’s the Commotion?

Posted in air travel, airline, airline pilot, airline pilot blog, airliner, flight crew, flight delays, jet, jet flight, passenger, pilot, travel with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 27, 2013 by Chris Manno

“The only time you can have too much fuel is when you’re on fire.” –Anonymous Pilot

Those are words to live by, in the flying business–but jet fuel is expensive. In fact, it’s just about the largest expense in the operation of the airline, which is why it makes sense to use fuel as sparingly but sensibly as possible. But as a passenger, what’s it to you?

Well, for starters, this:

tstm day

Do we go around it? Above it? Through? You won’t like the last option, but fuel is the double-edged sword in this fight: more means we’re heavier, which limits our climb. Plus, going around the weather will burn more fuel, limiting our options at our destination:

fms crz

We’re at 36,000 feet now, which is just about the optimum altitude. “Optimum” is a moving target: as you burn off fuel enroute, the jet gets lighter and the wing can handle a higher altitude, which means the engines can operate at a lower thrust setting, thus saving fuel. We’re within 200 feet of the max if we climb to 38,000 feet to top the weather. We can wait till the “max” readout shows “380,” or really, from experience, we know that in the time it takes to request and receive the clearance, plus what we’ll burn in the climb, we’ll be at the correct weight. But, there’s always a catch.

410

The airspeed tape on the left shows us a very narrow operating range at the top end of our altitude capability. That is, your range of acceptable airspeed is from about 212 to about 245. The “chain” above that shows the area of high speed buffet, meaning parts of the aircraft, above that speed, will begin to go supersonic. More importantly, though, in my mind, is Mach tuck: swept-wing jets tend toward a pitch down near the high speed limit, and guess what a pitch down does: your high speed becomes even higher. In a jet, particularly a passenger jet, if you don’t recover aggressively and immediately, you will not be able to stop what will become a dive.

On the bottom of the tape is the yellow line we call “the hook,” which is the slow speed stall. If you go below that speed, your airfoil will stall, and you will fall.

PFD coffin corner

So, at 38,000 feet, we have very little margin between the high and low speed buffet, requiring extreme vigilance on our part: turbulence, mountain wave action, or a drastic updraft of any kind can push us beyond either speed limit. Which is also part of the balancing act the captain must perform:

pfd coffin corner 2

I insert a slower Mach number in order to cruise more toward the middle of the range between the high and low speed limits. That, too, though, will affect our arrival time, won’t it? But that’s a balance I feel can be maintained, knowing that we’ve picked up some direct routing already. I’d rather sacrifice some time (and really, fuel) to gain a better pad between any adverse effects (mountain wave, thunderstorm up drafts, windshear, clear air turbulence) that could push us into either boundary.

And, I’ve already checked: the winds at the higher altitude are more favorable. To be even more accurate, I’ve requested a data-linked update to our flight management system, updating the projected winds the computer is using to calculate the times, distances and fuel burn it displays because what we data-linked into the system on preflight hours ago may not still be accurate:

fms crz wind update

The photo makes it hard to see, but the new, uplinked wind speeds are highlighted, all I need to do is push the “EXC” (execute) button and the entire nav calculation will be updated in a matter of seconds.

Climbing early has taken us out of more headwind earlier, so I believe the ETA will be largely unaffected. This hunch is borne out as we progress in our flight:

flt prog 1

We cross Pocatello, Idaho (PIH) six minutes ahead of schedule and up 700 pounds on fuel. If, however, the higher altitude winds were less favorable, we’d end up with the same result by going around the weather (more miles at regular cruise Mach)  as by climbing above the weather (less miles at a slower speed). The latter option is better, fuel-wise, as you can see from the fuel log above. But we’ll do whatever is safest and most optimum first, and worry about timing  later. Plus, if we don’t have what I consider a comfortable high speed-low speed margin at the higher altitude–we’re not climbing, we’ll just have to fly the additional miles (and minutes) around the storm.

It’s not just air miles between us and Seattle–it’s a constant balancing act of time, fuel, altitude and route. It all goes on steadily, quietly but relentlessly in the cockpit, but we all share the payoff in the end.

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Flight Crew Talk: The Beatings Will Continue.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

phone cockpit

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

sunset contrail

Un-Pilotish: Just Say No.

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

STAR TW

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

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

410med

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

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

STAR TW direct

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

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

unable 3

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

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

MFE 31

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

Unable? My ass: can do!

OAT 1

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

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

fuel mc

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ramp d

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Dear Santa: The Airline Pilot Wish List

Posted in air travel, airline, airline cartoon, airline pilot blog, cartoon with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 9, 2012 by Chris Manno

December 2012

Subject: Wish List

From: Blog, JetHead

To: Claus, Santa

Sir:

As you know, it’s that time of year again. How about if we go ahead and stipulate the facts from last year: no, I haven’t been “good,” whatever that is, and neither have you so let’s drop that subject.

DFW-LAS-DFW 001

And yes, I have more than I probably deserve, what with a good gig in the Boeing left seat, seniority to be a little picky (still flying the all-nighter, Fatman? Bummer.) trip-wise.  So this year, on my Wish List, I’m asking for less:

IMG_2391

For starters, how about a little less “ice fog?” I know, for you it’s “no big deal,” Rudolph, red nose, blah-blah-blah. But for me, it’s a Category III approach hand-flown to a fifty foot decision height (admit it: you’re cheating with the “red nose” crap, aren’t you?) which is no easy trick. Yes, I do appreciate the HUD you sent me on the Boeing two years ago . . .

. . . but despite the cosmic technology, less ice fog, more VFR this winter, please.

Also, less “fine dining.” I’m not talking about in flight, like this:

food

Or the usual Pie in the Sky that I keep eating to see if I can grow an ass as fat as yours:

pie

Instead, I’m referring to the more typical “in airport” fine dining like this:

mac d 2

This is more the norm for “fine” airport “dining,” and it’s all too familiar to have not enough time for anything other than a five minute “shove a burger down your throat” experience at an airport food court between flights. Or worse, depending on the layover hotel and the local weather.

Which is another thing an airline pilot could do with less of: layover hotels.

motel hell 3

I know you never do overnights in hotels, but those of us who do at least 150 days a year would appreciate a little less. Because depending on the location, the foraging for food can become pretty grim as well.

dump 3

Got Imodium?

In fact, there’s the main thing all flight crews would like less of: less hotels, lines, vans, crowds, airport “security,” bad nights of sleep in noisy hotels, scant food, long hours and if you’re still with me, here’s the one thing we all want more of: home.

Because on Christmas, just like every holiday, birthday, anniversary or significant milestone any family ever dreamed up, there will be flight crews in the air or worse, stuck on the ground in “that hotel,” wishing for a little more home and a lot less away.

I know, Fatman, that isn’t the deal: flying means away–a lot. So just knowing that of the things I want less I’m going to get more and more; and the things I want more I’m going to have less and less (what are we up to now, 19 flight days a month?), we’ll just forget about your “list,” I’ll behave as awful as I always do this year, and we’ll call it even.

Thanks for nothing,

JetHead

P.S. When are you going to learn how to bid?

santa all nighter

A Pilot’s Eye View Part 1: The Way I See It.

Posted in air travel, airline, airline cartoon, airline pilot blog with tags , , , , , , , , , on October 17, 2012 by Chris Manno

If you’re a pilot, you probably see things about flying differently.  And it starts first thing in the morning.

Not so much looking at what’s in the local area, because you’re not spending any time there, right? It’s what’s happening across your route of flight that matters. There are other jets in the air transiting the route now, and their reports will affect the route, altitude and speed of your flight a couple hours from now, so you at least want to know what’s up and what the route planning for your flight is based on.

Okay, NOW you pay attention to more than just the road: which way is the prevailing surface wind? There are cues everywhere, but the most obvious and the most significant is, which way are the planes taking off?

And you’re headed north; they’re taking off south, means a longer departure with a big turnaround, so a longer outbound flight, right? Bad news?

Actually, no, it’s good news: you’re coming BACK from the north, so landing south will save you a few minutes on the go-home leg. That’s key.

Double check your gate. Of course, the smart pilot (or smart passenger) has even more current gate and flight information on a smart phone:

Just getting around the giant DFW Airport (the entire island of Manhattan could fit within the airfield boundary) takes time, but the payoff is in the sight of your jet from the Skylink train. I never get tired of spotting “my jet” from afar.

It’s a good feeling, knowing the jet’s fueled and ready to do your bidding for a day, to cross a few thousand miles and return to earth a workday later.

Now, I’m not a big “outside guy,” meaning I’m not a First Officer so the aircraft external inspection–we call it “the walkaround”–is not my preflight duty. But I’ll take you downstairs just this once.

You’ve got your head in the nose gear well–tow bar’s hooked up, ready for pushback. The red streamer is the pin in the steering bypass valve: the power to the tiller in the cockpit is disabled during pushback because with the cockpit nosewheel steering powered, any rudder movement will be transmitted to the nose wheel at about 3,000 psi of hydraulic pressure. They’ll show you that pin right before you taxi so you know your steering is enabled once again.

Now here’s a really cool feature that ought to make anyone who ever flies anywhere stand up and say, “I love Boeing jets.”  Seriously, this is amazing:

Your head’s now in the main wheel well, in the center of the fuselage–just look at the green light: that’s Boeing’s pure genius at work, it’s a nitrogen generator that fills the fuel tanks as they empty with inert, non-flammable nitrogen gas. Will not burn or explode no matter what happens in or to the fuel tank. How smart is that? And what a safety feature.

Okay, below, that’s the “vacuum zone” marked out in red: if that engine is running, you don’t want to be anywhere near the red zone, as it will literally suck you off your feet and into the engine. I’ve seen these CFM-56 engines create such a vacuum ahead of the intake that moisture from the concrete swirls up off the tarmac in a swirl and into the engines.

Here’s one main gear strut:

This is the main set of “sneakers” for the jet: they’re inflated to 200 psi and will roll up to 190 mph on some take-offs.

Really got to love the fat Boeing wing. And it sits higher off the ground than the MD-80′s spindly wing–after 10,000+ flight hours in the MD-80, this thing looks huge. Stay heads-up on the ramp: there’s ground traffic zipping every which way around your aircraft, and with hearing protection in use, you won’t hear them coming.

And watch out for jet blast from other aircraft adding breakaway power to start their taxi or pivot. See why I don’t come down here that often?

And back around the left wing . . .

Okay, satisfied? But while the exterior inspection is going on, here’s the captain’s biz you need to attend to. The flight plan, which, as you were already thinking about, will have a lot of assumptions based on the early flyers–which may or may not be valid now.

So you think fuel numbers based on your best instincts: winds? Ride? Weather enroute?

It’s all about creating and preserving options, and that’s all about fuel. Trust your instincts–if you think you need more, you do. Get it.

There’s the info sheet for the cabin crew–they’ll program that into the Boeing system that makes the PA’s with the video of the safety demo.

Seems impossibly calm and quiet when the jet’s empty, doesn’t it?

But it won’t been empty for long. The caterers have been here . . .

All’s well below and in back, so now it’s at last time for you to head into the flight deck.

First thing, get the dual Inertial Reference Units cooking. They’re just about at eye level when you step into the cockpit.

Next, stow your suitcase in the cubbyhole behind your seat:

Kitbag slides in beside the seat–no, there’s not much room, but it is what it is.

Now sit yourself down:

Get the instrument lights up:

Time to fire up your side of the cockpit: lights, displays; IRUs to align, comm cords, headset, pertinent paperwork; get the official weather off of the printer and make sure it agrees with the take-off performance planning–if not, adjust the plan. Consider the wind and the power setting.

A glance around the cockpit, scanning panels and at once you know every switch is where it should be or if not, you set it where it needs to be:

Now, you’re ready to go. Once the First Officer is settled in, we’ll check all of the navigation and performance data in the Flight Management System, verify the flight route clearance and waypoints, then run the checklists to get this 170,000 pound machine with 166 people on board into the air.

That story will be part two, coming soon.

What’s it like to be a flight attendant at a major airline?

What kind of lifestyle and career comes with a position as a flight attendant?

We get first person answers from a career flight attendant: the ups and downs, the joys and pains.

Next, on JetHead Live!

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Open Skies: Any Mouse, Anywhere.

Posted in airline pilot blog with tags , , , , on September 11, 2012 by Chris Manno

Wide-eyed and wide open, as only a child’s mind could be; the question took me by surprise: Who is any mouse?

One of those million dollar moments that last no longer than a nose print on glass. No rush, savor the welcome into kid world.

Not sure what you mean. Can you tell me more?

You know, like when a saying is from “Any Mouse.”

Smile. Don’t let the snowflake melt. Ah, yes. Any mouse–what do you think it means?

Well I always think of all those mice running around; could be any mouse, anywhere.

So it is–really. Ah, those faceless, nameless whiskery-little scurrying creatures.

Used to be that when you flew from DFW to say, Seattle, you knew where you were going.

The route in the air was defined by points on the ground: you knew what you’d see, you knew where it was. Cleared direct Amarillo. No matter where a pilot was in the United States, you knew knew right away which way and how far that was. But no more.

Now it’s any mouse going anywhere:

Where in the wide, wide world of sports is KD45Q? Somewhere along the way to KA36W?  Where in the heck is that?

Smarter mice than me decided we now had the lightning-fast processing capability and invisible bandwidth to sever the journey from the landmarks. They redefined location, uprooting geography of place and replacing location with instance:

The airways give way to free flight; a thousand feet of vertical separation, closing speeds of a shotgun blast: honk and wave, see ya. Because now it’s about mice scrambling every which way, from one grid square to the next: any mouse, anywhere. Everywhere.

The five character identifiers are derived from a grid overlaid on the globe: “K” means USA, “D” means Denver Center’s airspace. But the other three characters, the digits? Mice scampering as they will, orchestrated by precise computers and directed by the crossroads of half a dozen satellites.

Sure, the ground references of days past are still down there–the front range of the Rockies will still bump you like railroad tracks; the Mississippi still runs a jagged course below whether you notice or not. But they’re no longer significant in what we’re doing–only in where it’s happening and that only incidentally.

In the cabin, no one realizes that their journey is unhinged from the places they know. No one could care that the brains of the journey discounts any place they ever valued–it’s just business, managing physics. Mice, midway to somewhere–never mind that the helm is set and the sails filled with anywhere. The electrons don’t care.

It’s all much cleaner now. In a way, it’s kind of what air travel’s all about, isn’t it? The journey seems to matter less, if at all; the “now” paling before the robust “next.” But like a trip to KD45Q, it means little the instant “next” becomes now–so off we scurry. Any mouse, anywhere but here; any time but now.

My little friend’s brow furrowed, face pinched. Little hands upraised. That seems so sad.

What does? What’s sad?

Anywhere. Because it’s just not home.

I think of the thousands of miles I’ve flown, the years away, bound from somewhere, halfway to anywhere.

We agree: no, it’s just not home.

And the big conundrum is not why there’s always a “next” or a somewhere else, or even how how to get back, because we do that eventually. The real question is why we ever left in the first place.

Airport Insanity: The Things You Hear.

Posted in airline cartoon, airline pilot blog, cartoon with tags , , on August 5, 2012 by Chris Manno

Airport insanity has a lot to do with the craziness you hear–and I’m not talking about things passengers say. Yet.

Butt first and foremost, I’m talking about what passes for official “information,” and one set of “officials” are repeat offenders:

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

That’s right: it’s the “security” people. And the noise they makes repeats itself throughout the secure side of the terminal, dozens of times every hour:

“All liquids must be in three ounce or less containers . . .”

Plus other “information” the passengers clearly already know–or they wouldn’t have made it through the security checkpoint. Why are we constantly dunned with the instructions we’ve already complied with? Is there just not enough noise and chaos without the irrelevant instructions for what we’ve already accomplished? Where does this insatiable need to tell people what to do after they’ve already done it come from?

Or the other standard announcement, “Passengers should monitor bags at all times to avoid carrying objects without their knowledge.”  Never mind the fact that this literally means without the objects’ knowledge, not the passenger’s. Either way you look at it, the announcement makes no sense: if it’s without your knowledge, how can you prevent it?

Excuse me, but are things going on without your knowledge?

Now, on to the airlines.

It’s once again obscuring the significant with the obvious, with classic PA announcements like, “This will serve as a gate change announcement . . .”

Who cares about “this,” when the important information is the not the announcement itself, but rather the information? Is it really vital to describe the medium (see photo above) in order to convey the information? Would the added verbiage be confusing to the average passenger, much less one with language or hearing impairments?

And speaking of excess, here is my annoying favorite: “This is the last and final boarding announcement . . .” Is it just me, or is that kind of redundant kind of–like this sentence? Is there a distinction between last and final that is germane to the information that the aircraft door is about to close?

You were warned.

To summarize, the announcements not only add to the noise and chaos in the terminal, in a real way, they make information more difficult to come by because the user has to decipher the announcement in all of it’s useless bluster from the important information.

And I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the passengers’ contribution to the chaos.

No no--you're not in the way . . .

No no–you’re not in the way. Much.

I guess there are those who are too comfortable with the environment, at the expense of everyone else both in it, and working in it:

It’s not that questions are the problem. Rather, it’s the volume of questions, which can be separated into those that need to be asked and those that really should be understood: there is plumbing in all airports, which includes bathrooms. No one working in the airport except the perhaps janitors might have the locations memorized. Rather, they–we–take on faith that there must be bathrooms somewhere, one as close as the next. But you want the closest, you say? Again, who keeps that information handy and really, does anyone besides you need to know about your urgency? Times wasting–go find it.

And in the interest of complete disclosure, I have to admit that sometimes I’m part of the communications breakdown myself:

I know; I hate when I get like this.

Maybe it’s just the nature of air travel: too much information, good and bad, floating around aimlessly. So I’m going to propose a vow of silence henceforth: no more crabbing on my part about communications, too much info, too little info and everything in between.

Well, maybe one more . . .

You have to admit, there are some things you really don’t want to know.  And at the airport, it’s probably best to just find some things out on your own.

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