Archive for airline pilot blog

Airliners & Missile Defense: A Pilot’s View.

Posted in air travel, airline, airline passenger, airline pilot, airline pilot blog, airliner missile defense with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 24, 2014 by Chris Manno

US Army “Spyder” missile launch.

 

After an apparent missile strike brought down Malaysia Air flight 17 over the Ukraine with senseless, tragic loss of life, public focus has included possible defensive systems for airliners. From my perspective as an airline captain, I believe the discussion is good, but in my opinion, fruitless.

First, my disclaimer up front: I’ve never flown any aircraft with defensive systems, and I haven’t flown a military aircraft since my last flight as an Air Force pilot in 1985. Even then, our strategy was simple: avoidance of threat areas.

So what I know about aircraft missile defensive systems is from three sources: discussion with engineers who design such defensive systems at Raytheon and Lockheed-Martin, former military pilots who did evade missiles in flight, and industry publications such as Jane’s Aircraft and Weapons and Aviation Week & Space Technology.

That background, plus my 29 years (and counting) of uninterrupted flying as an airline pilot lead me to the following questions, for which I find no good answers:

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1. Who? As in, who would operate such defensive systems, not only in cruise flight, but as importantly, in the low altitude structure on approach and departure when both the crew workload and vulnerability to even shoulder-launched missiles is highest? A passive system might (heavy on the “might”) do an adequate job detecting an impending missile threat (launched, launch-ready, or targeted) but then who–especially on a two-man crew, will analyze the threat and devise the defensive tactics to defeat the weapon or tracking system?

Some analysts point to the industry-standard TCAS (Traffic Conflict Avoidance System) as an example of an already operational avoidance system, but that overlooks one major flaw: TCAS is designed to detect potential flight path intersections of two flying bodies, then to compute and issue avoidance instructions to each. Besides the fact that one party in the impending collision–the missile–will not respond to avoidance instructions, the fact is, for the other aircraft, the instructions would be insufficient to avoid a missile. That’s because TCAS conforms to the design limitations of the airliner, stopping short of any maneuvering loads that would damage or destroy the aircraft.

So, who on board the airliner will be operating any defensive systems that would monitor threats, analyze incoming missiles or antiaircraft fire and devise evasive tactics? In a word, it can’t/shouldn’t/won’t be the two whose full attention better be on the approach or departure.

 

2. What? As in, what defensive systems? There are some systems designed for large aircraft that mask the infrared signature of the engines to foil heat seeking missiles. But, as in the case of MH17, the missiles weren’t heat seekers anyway. They were radar guided, against which heat-masking is largely ineffective. The simplest countermeasure against radar guided missiles might be chaff, which is essentially shredded foil that is ejected when a missile launch is imminent or in progress to disrupt targeting radar returns, but step two after dispensing chaff is to aggressively vacate the airspace the missiles were targeting. That brings us back to the limits encoded in TCAS: design limitations to prevent damage or structural failure preclude anything other than lumbering maneuvers in the air, hardly sufficient to avoid a missile traveling near the speed of sound.

3. Where? As in, in flight (see above) or on the ground? Regarding the latter, consider the recent destruction of 9 passenger jets on the airfield by terrorists in Karachi, Pakistan. Even if there were aircraft-based defensive systems, the fully-fueled, barely maneuverable or even parked jets are sitting ducks for explosive destruction–with hundreds of innocent lives at stake.

Which brings us the recent FAA ban on flight into Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv. In my opinion as just one individual airline pilot, that FAA restriction was a mistake, for a couple of good reasons. First, I believe it was an over-reaction by the FAA that contravened the airlines’ own internal safety and security analysis and strategy. Worse, the one-size-fits-all restriction was hasty and clumsy, creating economic and political liabilities for our most staunch ally in an already volatile region.

 

I don’t advocate unthinking flights into a dangerous area, I just believe that the individual airlines are fully capable (and unceasingly, painfully aware of liability) when it comes to determining whether or not to continue airline service.

I’m fully informed on the risk of what is typically an unguided rocket (vs. missile, with a guidance system that could be defeated) being lobbed by dumb luck onto the airport. But the risk assessment should be left to the individual airlines to evaluate and resolve with sensible policy.

Passengers, of course, can decide for themselves whether to fly or not–but crewmembers are assigned to flights. I believe they should be given a choice whether or not to fly into a hostile area, but that’s a completely different decision level way below the FAA blanket ban and its attendant political and economic liability to the host nation.

4. Why? This is a “big picture” issue: why even discuss defensive systems for airliners, beyond the “warm fuzzy” (recall the short-lived “office parachutes” that appeared briefly after 9-11) even if unfounded, when we realize–as with my last Air Force squadron–that avoidance is the only way to make a large aircraft safe when any offensive weapons are in use.

Again, while the FAA is prudent to issue air route restrictions (route were modified/restricted–not prohibited) over war zones like the Ukraine, blanket bans such as the Tel Aviv landing prohibition are senseless and politically, reckless.

Let airlines, passengers and (this should be ensured) crew decide what risk makes individual sense. And leave the missile defense to the pros, which in the case of Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport, certainly the Israelis are the best in the world. It would be my personal choice to fly there myself for that reason, and I’d rather both pilots were focused on civilian flight duties when we do.

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Air Travel: 3 Simple Ways to Make Your Summer Flights Easy

Posted in airline, airline cartoon, airline industry, airline passenger, airline pilot, airline pilot blog, airliner, airlines, airport, flight, flight attendant, flight crew, jet flight with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 9, 2014 by Chris Manno

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Summer time air travel can be stressful, but there are practical and simple things you can do to make your trip easier. Here are my top 3 simple ways to make your summer air travel as efficient and low stress as possible.

1. Information: install the smart phone apps for the travel services that apply to your trip (airline, hotel, rental car) and take a few minutes before your trip to set them up with “push” notifications so you will automatically be notified of gate changes, delays and even rebooking. If you’re notified of a delay by the airline, having a hotel, rental car or resort app installed will put you in touch with those important services quickly and easily. Your pharmacy’s smart phone prescription app can speed you through the refill process in a distant city, or transfer prescriptions in many cases.

 

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Many airline apps let you rebook instantly, avoiding long waits in a customer service line, and can outline your options quickly without you having to navigate a website. Best of all, you can beat the rush when re-booking is necessary. On some airlines–American Airlines is one–you can use the airline’s app and website in flight through the on-board WIFI for free.

On taxi in, when you’re cleared to use your cell phone, you will be notified–if you authorized “push” notifications–of your next gate accurately if you’re connecting, or your baggage claim if your travel is complete. The gate agents pull that info 10-15 minutes before your gate arrival, and we print it out in flight 30-40 minutes prior to landing. But your “push” notifications will be more timely and accurate than the other two sources.

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You can delete any travel apps you don’t need later, but while you’re on the move, there’s no quicker or more accurate way to get the answers you need to your immediate travel needs. Install the apps, know how they work, and use them to stay ahead of the crowd–especially in case of cancellations, delays or gate changes.

2. Survival gear. First, count on none of your basic needs being met: food, water, shelter. Provide all three yourself. First, food: if you can’t buy something in the terminal to take along–and often you can’t–better have whatever compact, long shelf life calories source you can pack: power bars, granola bars–whatever you prefer that will stave off hunger.

Ditto for water: you “can” get water on board, but the question is when, and sometimes, how–are you in the back and they’re starting the beverage service from the front? Or vice versa? Or is it too turbulent to safely move about the cabin for passengers or crew? Just have a liter of bottled water handy per person, then don’t worry about it.

Finally, “shelter:” dress for the trip, not the destination. That resort-wear will not keep you warm in a chilly cabin, particularly on long flights. And here’s a crew secret: your flight attendants are active, working, and blanketed in layers of polyester. Who do you think calls us to ask for changes in the cabin temp? If they’re melting under the uniform layers, you’re going to wish you weren’t in shorts and a tank top, because we’re more likely to hear “cool it down” than “warm it up” from our working crew in back.

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3. Consolidate: all vitals and valuables in one hand-carried, locked bag. Medication, documents and here’s the big one–valuables, like your watch, wallet and any jewelry MUST go into this one locked bag BEFORE security. Why would you ever–and I see this all the time–put your wallet, watch, cell phone and other valuables into an open container on an unmonitored conveyer belt? Why not consolidate them all and then after you’ve successfully passed through security screening, retrieve your items from your locked bag?

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And locked is the key: if you’re pulled aside for additional screening, do you want all of your valuables laying out in the open, outside your reach and often, out of your sight? Even if that one locked bag requires extra screening, the lock ensures it will only be searched in your presence.

The final part of “consolidate” applies to your personal belongings: do NOT disperse your items all over your seat area. It’s a sure way to leave an item on a plane, a fact that is borne out by the number of passports, wallets, personal entertainment devices, tablets, keys and phones that turn up on overnight cleaning of aircraft. If you leave valuables, much less valuable documents like a passport, in the seat back pocket or anywhere else, you’ll likely never see them again. And speaking of “seeing” them, the normal climbs, descents, banking and on landing, braking will cause whatever loose items you may leave or drop on the floor to end up rows away. Even if you check your immediate area before deplaning, some items might have vanished. So don’t scatter your belongings about! Return items to your hand carried bag immediately after use or when not in use.

Face it–air travel is stressful as it is, but a lot of stress can be alleviated by these three steps. Information is king when you’re departing, trying to connect, or are changing plans on the fly due to delays or cancellations. Get the apps, set them up, and use them. Stay hydrated, fed, and warm to ease the physical stress. And finally, move smart: consolidate your valuables and do not let your personal items become strewn about your seating or waiting areas on board or in the terminal. Inflight forces will help them slide away, or if you leave them inadvertently, chances are slim that you’ll ever recover those items.

Follow these simple steps–and have a good flight and a great vacation.

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Flight Crew Like You: The Airline Cartoon Book Now Available

Posted in air travel, air travel humor, airline, airline cartoon, airline cartoon book, airline pilot, airline pilot blog, flight crew with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 2, 2014 by Chris Manno

Finally, collected and published, the JetHead firsthand cartoon view of air travel, airlines and flight crews:

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Here’s the insider, behind-the-scenes look at the world of airlines, air travel and flight crews!

This all-original cartoon collection takes you inside the flight crew world on the flightline, flying trips, facing the ups and downs of flight crew life from an insider’s perspective. The 74 pages of cartoons in this collection are must-haves for anyone who is an air traveler, a frequent flyer, or a crewmember–or hoping to be!

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Inflight Diverts: Costs, Compassion & Common Sense

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s where those priorities clash.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Sex On The Plane: Felony and Filth.

Posted in air travel, airline pilot blog, airliner, airlines, flight crew, passenger with tags , , , , , , , , , on May 12, 2014 by Chris Manno

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Sex on the plane is a disaster from a flightcrew standpoint, plain and simple. This isn’t a  question of morality, which is none of my business. Rather, it’s a question of the captain’s responsibility and accountability for everything that happens in flight. So forget the nudge-wink-“stays in Vegas” marketing and “mile high club” mythology promoted by aging pinky-ring lotharios like Virgin Airlines CEO Richard Branson. Contrary to the fantasy, reality includes both filth and felony.

Consider the situation objectively and the problem becomes clear. First, the aircraft is a sealed environment with little personal space and nearly zero privacy. The latter fact alone should discourage behaviors that would lead to arrest and indecency charges in any other public place, but it doesn’t. And there’s an even darker side.

An NBC News report cited a recent increase in sexual assaults in flight. FBI agents say these crimes are difficult to prosecute because upon landing, potential witnesses scatter and are difficult to locate for testimony.  Neither the FAA nor the NTSB keeps track of these crimes statistically, making organized prevention difficult. Adding to the challenge is the reality that a darkened aircraft, particularly on late night flights, is tough to monitor, especially with an average ratio of one flight attendant per 50 passengers on a full flight.

 

There’s little personal space between airline passengers, often strangers, and many times the victims are asleep at the time of assault. Frequently these cases involve unaccompanied minors with little ability to defend themselves and on a full flight, in the air, there’s literally nowhere to go to escape. According to FBI Supervisory Special Agent Drew Ptasienski, victims of inflight assaults have also pretended to sleep through the attacks and this coping strategy may make an assault appear consensual to nearby passengers when the situation is really anything but.

Flight attendants are prepared to handle assault reports from passengers in flight, and the cockpit crew is more than willing to have federal law enforcement officers meet the aircraft on landing to investigate every case. Nonetheless, many assaults go unreported due to the shocking effect they have on the victims. According to Ptasienski, “Victims are so shocked they’re being assaulted, it takes them awhile to process it.” By the time they do, witnesses are dispersed and evidence gone.

Clearly, there needs to be a viewpoint shift among passengers in particular, to see “intimate” behavior in flight as completely unacceptable, consensual or otherwise: in many cases, passengers assumed what they’d witnessed was consensual, but in reality was a predator assaulting a victim. Yet if all passengers immediately reported every instance to the crew, no matter how things “appeared,” (a simple chime of the call button will bring assistance) the risk would be reduced for all potential victims.

Although such a strict and uncompromising vigilance and action would likely deter sexual assault in flight, such customer awareness runs counter to some marketing strategies. For example, according to a recent Slate article, Virgin Atlantic promises “a more intimate flight” than other airlines, and Virgin CEO Richard Branson encourages passengers to flirt and hook up on board:

Seriously? Consider the fact that a Today Show scientific analysis  rated the aircraft lavatory as the “second germiest place” you’ll ever experience–virtually a flying outhouse, a mile high Petri dish–and rethink the “romantic” aspect.

Consider also the question of what behavior should be tolerated by nearby passengers, especially when faulty assumptions can mask criminal actions, as noted above. Definitely, at least on the part of the crew, zero tolerance is essential, because notwithstanding Virgin’s claim that their crews “are not the type to interrupt” an amorous romp on the plane, after-the-fact accusations, questions of legal age, STDs, and unfortunately, drugs or alcohol will have to be accounted for by those responsible (read: the crew) for the safety of all aboard.

Then the question would be, why didn’t the crew intervene? Why did the crew allow this?

 

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Ironically, despite the cheesy Virgin ad campaign, the reality for frisky Virgin passengers can be anything but romantic. Worse, the “more intimate flight” and such leering Branson “mile high club” marketing may backfire on an airline if a liability suit regarding an in-flight assault lands in court. Ultimately, airline crews have zero tolerance for any behavior on board that violates the law and victimizes any passengers. Flight attendants work hard to spot threats in the cabin, including human trafficking and illegal, threatening behavior.

But that’s not enough: two crucial changes are vital. First, passengers need to be both aware and intolerant of any such activity on board, never assuming that it is consensual. All incidents must be brought to the crew’s attention immediately.

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And second, airline marketing strategy needs to evolve (most have–but not all) from the sniggering throwback sexual innuendo to less risky, more proactive and twenty-first century intolerance for a potential felony masked as “intimacy.” If Richard Branson wants to encourage membership in “the mile high club,” he should advertise hotel rooms in Denver.

Sex on the plane? More than just indecency in a public seat or a filthy lav–although it is every bit of that–worse, it’s a real threat, with real victims: see it, report it, stop it. Anything less makes you part of the disaster.

 

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Flying Then As Now

Posted in airline, airline industry, airline pilot, airline pilot blog with tags , , , , , , , , on May 5, 2014 by Chris Manno

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Aw, hell, it’s a beautiful day; so why not go down onto the flight line instead of just right into the cockpit for a change? Bright sky, gleaming jets, the sun climbing its early arc from a not too warm, still fresh and breezy morning toward what will be a hot, dusty dry pre-afternoon. The perfect, clear, preflight moment.

Clomp down the jet bridge stairs, and try not to face plant on the spike-grated steps grabbing the soles of your dress shoes (the ramp crew would love it) as you descend to the tarmac. Feels  so familiar: jet exhaust and the smell of kerosene mixing with the light scent of leaked Skydrol, engine oil, maybe even a spattering of propylene glycol dripping out of drain masts, souvenirs of previous departures from up north.

Over it all, the warm, dusty signature Texas breeze, dry, easy but mustering strength for a gusty day later, a spring promise well kept. And the scent and the sky and the sun and the wind; feet on the ramp, moving among metal giants at rest but ready for flight. There’s that same old “this is mine” feeling, this is my world, my jet, fueled, ready for me to climb in, strap it on, then bring the beast to life and launch off into that indigo canopy above.

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Flashback: tromping around on the Air Force flightline in flight boots, heading for sleeker, faster, more treacherous jets. The flight boots were a wry realization: we’d all been foot printed because, the laconic tech who did that job told us, chances were good that given the nature of the jets and the type of flying, whatever was in the boots was most of what they’d have to identify us by in certain cases.

Whatever: we were immortal. Tromping out of the life support shop loaded with crap–a chute, helmet bag, leg board; tail number of your assigned jet inked in ballpoint on your palm, along with “step time:” the briefed “step to the jet” minute coordinated with everyone else involved. Give a glance at the sky to see if those pattern altitude winds are anywhere near what the weather-guessers forecast. Probably not.

The alcohol swab you used on your oxygen mask to clean it before leak-testing it still burns your fresh-shaven face, letting you know you’re alive, despite the early hour. Hoist yourself into the converted dump truck with bench seats that slowly trolls the flight line, sad and slow as Eeyore, pausing to pick up pilots just blocked in after a flight, taking others like us out to our jets. Exchange a grunt or a pleasant obscenity with a fellow aviator also loaded down with flight gear. But even then, as now, before morning flights, always preferred general “shut up” before flying, like a silent meditation before church.

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Never was–am–nervous about flight. Just prefer less earthly clutter on my mind, mostly calmness, zen, before the orchestra strikes up. And then in my mind the relationships of time, distance, speed, angles, rates, thrust, pitch and roll all come out of the woodwork like ghosts in a darkened dance hall: we all know our places and how this waltz interlocks into a kaleidoscope of motion. Think it, live it, do it.

Like a blind date: you know what she looks like from her picture, but seeing the jet–your jet–from afar, then close up; it’s the best: we’re going to do this. It’s all coming together, and when it does, there’s going to be speed, thunderous noise, power, altitude, and no gravity. You can look for my boots later, I don’t give a damn: we’re going to this dance.

Something about touching the jet, as you walk around it, visually inspecting, really matters. Because just like a any thoroughbred, you’re going to pat her flank before you just throw a saddle on and cinch it up. Used to always pat the underwing vortilon on the Maddog; many a fueler watched with mild disinterest, ramp denizens familiar with pilot touchstones. Not sure why I did, maybe just because I always did, reassuring me that she was metal, and her that I was not.

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Now I just walk under that bigger, fatter cambered Boeing wing, too high to touch even if I wanted to. Admire that clean, shiny leading edge that tapers outward then flows gracefully up into the seven foot winglet on each wingtip. Love the big, gaping scoop of engine cowl around the clattering fan section of the high-bypass engine, blades windmilling loosely, soon to be centrifugally taut at 30,000 RPM just at idle. They gulp air so powerfully even during taxi that you’ve seen them suck puddles, even just moisture, from the concrete in twisty tornados swirling right into the engines.

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Around the towering, gleaming (new paint job) tail, then under the left wing, always with one eye open for the dozens of ground carts and tractors scuttling around the ramp like a jailbreak. You could get run over down here. Enough; time to mount up.

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The cockpit is always home. Everything there is spare, utile, functional, and state of the art. Some pilots call climbing in “building their nest,” hooking up comm cables, adjusting straps and rudder pedals and seat position. I don’t call it anything, I just strap in. My favorite copilots have little or nothing to say as we piece together the dozens of technical steps required to go fly: performance, navigation, systems. What needs to be said is rote, a litany, more like gears and cams than conversation, and I like it just fine that way.

“Step time” becomes push time, the canopy clunking closed and locked gives way to the forward entry door thunking shut, locks engaged. Then the cockpit door bolts shut; talk on the crew interphone to the ground guy unseen below. Release the brakes, clear the tug driver to shove us off the gate, onto the ramp, cleared to start. She comes to life, engines spinning up, fires lit, hydraulic brawn ready, thrust available when you call for it.

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With the tug disconnected, the crew chief holds up the nose steering pin, red “remove before flight” streamer attached, for you to verify that hydraulic steering is back under your control; you flash the landing light, he snaps you a salute, then the ground crew hops on the tug and trundles back to the gate.

Give ‘em a minute to get clear, then call for the flaps to be extended, flight control checks, then taxi. Beautiful morning, promising a stellar, clear spring day, one you almost hate to miss. But then, as she rolls in response to your nudge of jet thrust, with a squinty glance above, you notice the chalk lines of contrails arcing east and west, north and south.

Thoughts of the day, the earth, springtime, and anything below five miles and five hundred miles per hour somehow seems less relevant, even less real. It’s all about getting and being up there again, precisely, as perfectly–and in my case, as quietly–as possible.

Granted, she’s more of a draft horse than a thoroughbred, but there’s tremendous power and grace in her nonetheless. And these days we realize we’re mortal, boots or dress shoes–but we really don’t give a damn about that either.

It’s a kinder, gentler type of flying, especially with 160 warm bodies aboard. Burnished, polished smooth by the thousands of hours in the air, but then as now, and ever, what really matters is flight.

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Malaysian 370: More Loss Ahead.

Posted in air travel, airline pilot blog, airliner, flight crew, Malaysian Air 370, Malaysian Airlines flight 370, MH 370 with tags , , , , , , , , , , on April 14, 2014 by Chris Manno

At least as important as finding the wreckage of Malaysian Flight 370 is uncovering the facts that caused the disaster. But based on the real-time performance of the Malaysian Aviation Ministry as it has unfolded since the jet disappeared, there’s little hope that the facts aren’t just a deeply buried and even less likely to be recovered than the missing jet, because of three cold, hard facts: politics, incompetence, and liability.

First, the political factors that mortgage the Malaysian investigation of this tragedy. Most of these center around the Malaysian Acting Minister of Aviation–a post left vacant since May of 2013–who is also the appointed Minister of Defense,  Hishammuddin bin Tun Hussein.

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Hussein’s official resume  lists neither aviation nor military experience or expertise, and his primary qualification to hold both titles appears to be largely that he is the son of Malaysia’s third prime minister, Tun Hussein Onn, and the nephew of Malaysia’s second prime minister, Tun Abdul Razak. He is seen as a likely successor to his cousin, Prime Minister Najib Razak.

Hussein has built a political career as the icon of nationalism predicated on race, and the symbolism of the native garb so prominently displayed during the initial phases of the MH 370 investigation are his trademark:

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The above photo was taken at a speech he gave at the 2005 United Malays National Organization, as Hussein waved the traditional Malay “keris” in a fiery call for Malay racial solidarity (his cousin, the present Prime Minister, is seen applauding in the background), earning him the derisive nicknames Hishammudin Tauke Keris (“The Keris Merchant”) or simply as Hishammudin Keris (“Hishammundin Keys”) in the Malaysian press. Hussein defended his usage of the keris, saying it was meant “to motivate the Malays” and that it “is here to stay,” denying that it was a symbol of Malay supremacy.

The early opportunity to politically brand the authoritative spotlight in official press conferences with the racial purity signature quickly gave way to more sensible and less political garb in subsequent press briefings, but both the intent and the liability were clearly set forth on day one of the investigation: politics will be at the forefront of the MH370 investigation.

Hussein has the dual political liability stemming from his two ministry titles, Defense and Aviation. First, given the fact that Malaysian military radar detected MH370’s rogue turn that penetrated Malaysian sovereign airspace without clearance–indicating a possible 9/11 threat to the nation–why weren’t Malaysian Air Defense Forces sent to intercept and investigate?

 

Had Hussein’s Defense Ministry handled this routine (in the west) airspace alert and scrambled interceptors, they would at least know where MH 370 was headed, and perhaps how and why. With Hussein directly in the political hierarchy topped by his cousin the Prime Minister, the military intercept fiasco has been downplayed by Hussein and his Ministry of Defense.

But even more liability accrues to Hussein in his responsibility as Minister of Aviation. The regulatory function of a national aviation agency must encompass inspections, compliance, licensing, and accident investigations.

 

In modern aviation regulatory practice, the accident investigative arm–the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) in the United States–operates independently from the regulatory, licensing and operations inspections agency, the FAA. This is fundamental to fair and objective accident investigation: the NTSB must not be subservient to the agency that is liable for the failures leading to an accident.

Not only does Hussein’s Malaysian Aviation Ministry not have such a vital separation between key branches, but in fact, most of the Malaysian aviation oversight structure remains unstaffed and vacant, as the Malaysian Ministry of Aviation’s own organizational chart clearly shows:

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Unfortunately for the entire world demanding unbiased and thorough investigation of the MH370 disappearance, this is where objectivity collides with liability–both political and financial–as well as incompetence: in a nation whose national airline operates state-of-the-art jetliners worldwide, the Safety and Compliance leadership positions are largely vacant? What does that say, in retrospect, about the competence of not only the regulatory function of the Malaysian Aviation Ministry, but also the air carriers certified–including the national flag carrier–regulated and inspected and certified by the Ministry of Aviation?

Further, what does the direct linkage to both the sitting Prime Minister and his heir apparent create in terms of political incentive to meter and constrain the flow of investigative facts while that nation’s credibility declines as the investigation is filled with, as Reuters described, “misinformation or conflicting reports” from the agency charged with both certifying competence and investigating  failures?

With no firewall between the agency liable for the regulatory failures and the investigative body responsible for discovering and reporting such faults, with the national leadership embedded through family relations in both the governance and the liability in both the MH370 disappearance and the ongoing investigation, what chance is there that the unvarnished truth will ever be discovered or divulged?

FDR

Because even if the Digital Flight Data Recorder and the Cockpit Voice recorder are ever recovered–and that’s a hope that grows dimmer by the hour–the final authority over the data transcription will not be the aircraft manufacturer, nor the data units’ manufacturer, nor the NTSB.

In fact, the investigative findings and all supporting data belong to the Malaysian government–until and unless they elect to turn over the data and investigation to a third party. Given the political and personal stakes involved, the chances of a fair, factual and unbiased investigation seem as lost to the world as the jet itself.

Malaysia Plane

Flying the Fuel Mule to Seattle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hello, Idaho.

Hello, Idaho.

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

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

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Fried Sky with a Side of Regret.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

cockpit night

 

LGA: Landing on LaGarbage.

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

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

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

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

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

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

AIPTEK

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Long JFK runway.

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

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

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

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

AIPTEK

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

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

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

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

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