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Malaysian 370 and the Land of Oz.

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

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

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

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

Malaysian authorities brief the press.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Power control is key to airspeed.

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

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

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

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

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

Malaysian Air Force F-18

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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How to NOT land at the wrong airport.

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

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

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

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

Here’s how.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jet Flight: Elephants, Leggoland and the Paper Swan.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

sunset undercast

The Annual Pilot Beating

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

awful house

Awful House, 4:30 am.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Answer more questions before he can ask them.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Over answer–good defense.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

cockpit night

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

throttle bugeye

The Flight of the Pilgrims

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But first, I can share a pilgrim moment myself.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Common Sense Descents

Posted in air travel, airline pilot blog, airliner, airlines, flight crew, jet, passenger, pilot, travel with tags , , , , , , on October 18, 2013 by Chris Manno

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Getting 75 tons from cruising 8 miles up at 500 miles per hour down to walking speed at sea level is dependent upon one ever-changing three-point triangle.

That is, the dynamic relationship between altitude, distance and speed.  This relationship is as closely interrelated as a balloon animal: squeeze any one part, and the other two expand.

Descent planning, including mandatory crossing restrictions stipulating specifics in all three parameters would be simple if the triangle of altitude, distance and speed remained fixed. But it seldom does.

Here’s the simple, unrestricted problem: descend from 41,000 feet to sea level. Simple problem, simple math: a comfortable descent rate could be achieved in an idle power, clean (no drag, like spoilers) glide at 290 knots airspeed using the 3:1 rule 3 times the altitude in thousands to lose, or 3 x 41 = 123 miles.

Descent 1

But, here’s the first modification required: the max speed below 10,000 feet is 250. So, you have to allow more miles to decelerate from 280 to 250, plus more miles from 10,000 feet to touchdown because the descent will need to be shallower to keep the speed to 250 knots or less.

Yes, you could add drag in order to maintain the descent rate at the lower speed. But we’re planning the descent efficiently, fuel-wise, and also for passenger comfort: steeper descent angles and rumbly drag devices aren’t as comfortable as a clean descent. Plus, you’ll want to hold drag devices in reserve for when Air Traffic Control (ATC) tosses an unexpected restriction your way.

So anyway, now we have a straight line distance of 133 miles (I added 10 to slow down, remember?) for a clean descent. 290 nautical miles per hour is roughly 4.8 miles per minute. Couple that with a clean, idle descent rate of about 2,500 feet per minute.

The next problem is, however, the straight line. Most of the STARs (Star Terminal ARrivals) multiple lateral segments between a series of points, seldom in a straight line. What happens if you’re issued a revised clearance that shortens the route? That could easily shave off 20% or more of the flight distance, which also shortens the number of miles over which you can attain the descent. So, there’s the balloon animal: shorten the distance and you must increase the descent rate in order to cross the assigned point at the assigned altitude.

UKW STAR

What to do? First and easiest is to increase the speed, which will allow a higher rate of descent. That’s half the reason why I don’t plan descents at speeds over 300 knots–there’s no capacity to add speed if needed to increase the descent rate and accommodate the descent crossing restriction in light of the reduced miles available.

UKW STAR b

The other half is the ride: in the back end of the 737-800, particularly near the tail, all aircraft motion in turbulence, due to the stretched fuselage, are felt more intensely. If you encounter any choppiness at that speed, folks in the back could be tossed about pretty dramatically. Why risk that? Plus, if you plan a descent at 320 or 330–as the on board flight management computers often suggest–and then have to slow because of turbulence, you’re definitely not making your crossing restriction. Now you’ll have to call ATC and ask for relief–that screws up their traffic flow and means an off-course heading and as a result, a delay for you.

So how do you accommodate the shortened distance in real time? First, as soon as you execute the shortened distance in the Flight Management System (FMS), the system will recognize that the 3:1 calculation–the balloon animal of time, distance and altitude–is all out of proportion. The FMS just throws up its hands and switches from “Descent Path” mode to “VNAV Speed,” meaning it’ll hold the speed steady, you figure out how to get back to the descent path.

bug eye cockpit

So I switch the FMS to “level change” mode, meaning I want it to go after the altitude at the max rate with the speed set–then I set a higher speed. That achieves the best rate until, due to the higher descent rate, you re-intersect the normal path. And there’s where you must be on top of the ratios (speed, rate of descent, distance) in order to refuse a descent clearance you know you can’t rationally make.

That seldom happens with a shortcut route clearance, but often will happen if you’re restricted to your cruise altitude past a rational “top of descent” point. Therefore, you have to constantly be aware of the max descent available (with drag and higher speed), sensible (given the chop reports), tailwinds, which rob you of descent mileage, and be ready to refuse an altitude assignment that doesn’t fit those criteria. That only comes from keeping all of the ratios in not only accurately in your head, but also in the jet’s real time performance.

When any parameter changes, as they often do, you have to know how or if you can rationally accept or, even more difficult sometimes, refuse a clearance. I used to fly with a guy who specialized in “creative” refusals: when asked if we could cross a particular waypoint at a certain altitude that was mathematically (and balloon animal-y) unreasonable,  he answer, “We can, but we’ll have to leave the airplane behind.”

Better, I think, to manage the ratios, know what’s practical, plan ahead, and say “no” where required. Anything less, to quote Captain Randy Sohn, a revered name in the pilot world, “Would be considered bad form.” When it comes to balloon animals and jet descents, that just won’t do.

737 a wide

Count the beads, fly the prayers.

Posted in airline industry, airline pilot, airline pilot blog, flight crew with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on September 10, 2013 by Chris Manno

bug eye cockpit

Call me Ishmael, the words tiptoe through your mind, as R-I-A . . . A-N-I-H-C slides by in the plate glass mirror of the terminal ahead. Sit silently, moving eyes only as the Boeing monster ahead actually lumbers by behind your own forty foot tail fin. Eyes on the door warning lights overhead: all out, like Holmes and Ali, hit the canvas till the smelling salts 1,500 miles hence. You can’t see the ground crew, but the disembodied voice below respects the red beacons top and bottom flashing warning: these engines will come to life and suck you off your feet if you get within 25 feet once we light the fires.

 cfm56 1

Rolling backwards, slowly, that’s pushback; feet on the rudder pedals pulled up close, shoulder straps cinched up too, c-clamp headset and lap belt holding a grip on you as if parts might fly off otherwise. Cockpit cozy—everything tight, like maybe if you’re spliced into the jet like a hybrid sapling, you’ll be just one more limb with only a slight scar to distinguish where you end and the jet begins. With both engines running, she’s awake and coursing with her own power; hydraulics, electrics, pneumatics, like a track star stretching through the flight control check; 3,200 psi of hydraulic power limbering flush metal control surfaces, flexed, ready for the blocks.

Pythagoras rules the necessary headwork at San Francisco International: wind howls from the west, runways an “X marks the spot,” one into the wind, one broadside. Toss in the crossing restriction due north to top the Oakland departures and the up-vector of the algorithm dominates: spend less time on the runway, lazy upwind spoiler floating into the slipstream to counter west gale flirting with the left wing, nosewheel scrubbing like chalk on a blackboard. More power, max power. Less time convincing the wings to stay level and the nose to not slew into the wind as the rudder bites the air.

IMG_0367

Quiet in church, dammit: no yack, not only because there’s a voice recorder you’ll have to listen to if anything goes wrong and there’s anything left of you. But more than that, show a little reverence for the litany, the monk’s beads you count but more importantly, account for the prayers they represent at about seventy tons at a hundred and fifty miles an hour. A sinless ascension is key, so recite the litany but live the prayers: you know what the jet can do, was designed to do—that’s the formality of the testament, chapter and verse, engineering, modeling, physics and formula.

Ah, but the reality of life in The Garden is nonetheless imperfect. Sunday’s counting of the beads—you have to!—gives way to Monday’s nose pointed down the runway. Would it kill anyone’s budget to put a windsock at the runway take-off power point? Never mind; just the tail bucking tells you all you really need to know. Climb the stairs one at a time, pause at the landing: planned weight, closeout weight, FMS weight; so it is written. Speeds set for max power, no assumed temp; dry runway, PFC overlay, verified, amen.

TPS

The Airbus rolling down the slab ahead fishtails as its rudder cuts against the crosswind, upwind spoiler pops like a shirt untucked; she springs off the ground and the aileron joins the spoiler and the nose swings left; going up, Mr. Tyler? We’ll do our grand jete somewhere prior to the intersection that a jumbo is rolling through right now. Hang on—she’s gonna buck.

The last note of the antiphonal challenge and response gives way to silence with the brakes held fast, heads bowed: rejected takeoff, engines only after 70; throttles smoothly to idle, spoilers, max, then and only then, full reverse, let the ABS work. Shoulder harnesses stay on as a sign of our abiding faith that if any disaster occurs after liftoff, our salvation lay in the Bay—literally—and believers plan to survive without a piece of the glareshield embedded in their skull.

Cleared for takeoff, a confirmatory glance at the FMS power setting, say it out loud, stand up the throttles, toggle the TOGA button and they shoot forward. Max power is definitely way forward, arm-wise, and a good, seat-mashing acceleration. No rookie here, running around with a shirt tail hanging out, no spoiler float due to a cloddish “I think this is what I might need at 80 knots” instead of flying it like it’s supposed to be flown, wing controls only when and as much as you need.

Power control is key to airspeed.

It’s a tussle, not quite a wrasslin’ match, thanks to boosted ailerons, but still—she ain’t happy as a high-speed tricycle and neither are you, but patience, fly; more patience. She leaps off the runway when you let her, you’re surprised at how much aileron tug on the leash is required to keep her head out of the roll she wants to do. But who’s flying whom? Do what you need to do.

Fog spills through the San Francisco Bay and tumbles between the city and Tiburon across the channel like a ghostly wrap in the fading sunlight. Steal a glance, savor it, then pay attention to the crossing restriction, the cleanup of flaps and slats and setting climb power and rate. Church is over for now, beads stowed as the earth falls away.

Nose to the blue, darkening to the east where the day expires like a prayer unsaid.

There will be beads to count, words to be read, a service in reverse as the miles spill down through the hour glass. We fly till then.

sunset 1

A certain darkness on the flight deck.

Posted in air travel, airline, airline pilot, airline pilot blog, airliner with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 30, 2013 by Chris Manno

BA 747

Nothing wears a pilot out like watching the other guy fight the jet. And nothing degrades flight performance like the inevitable outcome–the jet wins, as it should.

This pointless tail chase arises out of two competing malignancies. First, there seems to be an inborn reluctance to consign more and more vertical and lateral (read: climbs, descents, and navigation) maneuvering to flight management systems. Part of that, I believe, comes not only from a reluctance to acquiesce to the reality that in most cases, the automation can do a better job than the humans, but in a real sense, from a backlash against the encroaching automation subsuming what used to be mostly art.

fms crz

Hogwash, in both cases. Because not only has such resistance to the encroachment of technology been going on since the Wright Flyer gave way to the Curtis Jenny, (when we first started getting CRT flight directors rather than the old mechanical gages, the crusty old guys swore they “didn’t work worth a damn” and distorted their vision), there’s also the incontrovertible fact that technology has made the airline industry the safest it’s ever been.

Ground Proximity Warning, Windshear Detection, terrain and weather escape–all possible because of the integrated software and hardware now part of the wraparound design technology inherent in the new jets.

lufthansa 747

The second, darker factor in the resistance playing out on flight decks worldwide is more insidious, but no less troublesome. That is, an undercurrent of frustration and dissatisfaction, most that has little or nothing to do with the technology that becomes the focus of the bad ideas. Specifically, there’s a generation of professional pilots who have seen their retirement wiped out, pay slashed, career stagnated, base (and thus domicile) closed, job moved or in thousands of cases, eliminated; families torn apart, a suicide rate grown to 4 times the national average, and promotions eliminated, reversed or in so many cases, downgraded.

When those factors are the undercurrent of the profession, they don’t simply vanish when the gear retracts.

AIPTEK

The end result, the “kick the dog” outlet–knowingly or not, often becomes an opposition to standard operating procedures. Not necessarily blatant, but distinct: “These autothrottles don’t work worth a damn!” (Yes they do–and more smoothly and efficiently than you) or “This descent profile is bullsh!t” (No it’s not–and it would have saved the thousand pounds of fuel you wasted descending and flying level fifteen miles early).

This seems consistently evident in the case of pilots busted back from captain due to job cuts, or pilots forced from larger to smaller aircraft for the same reason: they hate–and fault find endlessly–in their “diminished” circumstances.

Which leaves a crew flying a complex jet with a few “I know better” techniques born of resistance to the new, nostalgia for the old, and a self-righteous need to pay back some of the huge bloodletting in an increasingly anemic career field.

Any step outside the normal operational profile throws a two-headed onus on the other guy. First, there’s the WTF paralysis as you try to figure out what the “new” technique is. Second, there’s the very complicated and moving target that is return to the normal profile–either from the computer’s design or more rudimentary airmanship. Are we getting there? How, when or even, if?

DSCF3175

All the while, there hangs in the air the unasked, unanswered but certainly prescient question: when push comes to shove, will professionalism necessarily trump resentment?

So far, the industry-wide results speak for themselves–yet hardly create any assurance that they will continue to do so. I’m fortunate to fly in a Flight Department where Standard Operating Procedures rule the operation, period. And they always will, in my cockpit.

But with constant downward pressure on pilot pay, airline profitability, flight manning, and ultimately, the profession under siege, the unasked question may eventually provide its own answer, and my guess is, it ain’t gonna be pretty.

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.

IMG_2531

Summer Weather, Flight Delays and YOU.

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

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

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

First, let’s look at departure:

wx radar departure

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

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

Here’s more bad news for your outbound schedule:

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

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

flick

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ramp DFW

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