Archive for airlines

Flight Crew: Some Things You Just Don’t Get Over.

Posted in air travel, airline, airline industry, airline pilot, flight attendant, flight crew, pilot with tags , , , , , , , on November 14, 2014 by Chris Manno

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Sidelong cross-cockpit glance: yep, it’s a flat top, ex-USMC style, and the bushy but gone gray Magnum PI mustache suggests a time warp. Better times? Easier times? He laughs a lot for a guy on the razor’s edge of disaster. I say nothing.

Ahead cumulus knots itself into towering stacks, each with a cirrus blow-off pointing like a banner to where the fleet’s headed. Same place we are, or so the anvils point. I’m thinking an upwind end run around the billowing, full-sail armada. He’s talking about our Chicago layover tonight.

His wife, a flight attendant, met us at our connecting gate as she passed through the airport. Something in her eyes matched the foreboding that weighed heavy as the tide on my mind. Pleading? Hurt? Wary? I couldn’t tell–yet I know what I know: My Darling Bride, also a flight attendant, flew with her yesterday. And I knew his wife–flew with her many times–before they were married. Then she was bright in the sense of Christmas lights, tiny scattered points of happiness gleaming everywhere. Not any more.

“Takes two to tango,” his words tumble in a snippet from what is more of a forced chatter, or so it seems. I guess if you’re talking you never have to listen. But in the tango of time and fuel, in the dance altitude and storm clearance, may I cut in?

 

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“I’d say left,” my mouth says. It’s his flight leg, but my jet. He’s flying the plane, but I signed for the damages. Upwind is longer, but smoother, safer. The shorter way is too uncertain, could put someone through the ceiling.

“We can top it,” he suggests, sweeping a hand out flat, as if showing a planar space between our altitude and the boiling cumulus rising ahead. Ah, there’s a thought. Climb another two thousand feet to max habitable altitude for the weight–which puts you into the coffin corner where the difference between high-speed buffet and low speed stall is a handful of capricious knots. If there’s any turbulence, those knots stop the tango and freestyle. Good luck.

His wife had mechanically recited to mine the all-too-familiar litany. “We just bought our ‘captain’s house’ … he wants me to quit flying … he can hold captain in Chicago … get a crash pad there …” In the jumpseat confessional, all is forgiven, but there will be penance nonetheless. Ahead, lightning licked the bruised-blue cloud bases, promising a fresh evening hell for Kansas and eventually, Illinois.

“Let’s take it over the top, direct,” he says with finality. “Stay on time.” Unsaid, but mentioned earlier: “she gets in an hour ahead of us.” Gentleman that he is, he doesn’t want her waiting. She flies for a different airline, but even after working her way over to our terminal, she’ll still have time to kill.

The thing about fiery cumulus and boiling sky is this: you really don’t know how it’s going to turn out. Never mind about the paper algorithm of options and assets, timing, clearance and margins, in real life, you just never know.

I key the hand mike. “Center, we need twenty left for weather.”

He slumped a little. Peeved? The perfect plan set back a few minutes? Can’t tell. Doesn’t matter. We swung wide upwind.

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I glance at the cloud tops, anvils aglow with the molten sunset. Some storms seem to fade, to lose their fire when the heat of the sun goes away. But this towering mess seemed the type that would thunder ahead regardless.

“Some things,” I say, “Some things you just can’t get over.”

Deaf ears. He was already hundreds of miles ahead, prattling on about Geno’s and where they’d watch the mind-numbing circularity of NASCAR (“She gets it–and me!”) inside The Loop.

Shouldn’t be in too much of a hurry, too far down the road, I thought to myself. Some things you just never get over, and really, you probably shouldn’t try.

 More? Read on. cvr w white borderThese 25 short essays in the best tradition of JetHead put YOU in the cockpit and at the controls of the jet.

Some you’ve read here, many have yet to appear and the last essay, unpublished and several years in the writing,  I consider to be my best writing effort yet.

Own a piece of JetHead, from Amazon Books and also on Kindle.

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Your Pilot Isn’t Thinking About Your Connection–and That’s Good.

Posted in air travel, airline, airline cartoon, airline delays, airline industry, airline passenger, airline pilot, airline pilot blog with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 7, 2014 by Chris Manno

 

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There’s a blessed silence in the cockpit right before pushback, immediately after the number one flight attendant reports “cabin ready,” and slams the cockpit door securely shut. Before that, the usual boarding chaos filters through the open cockpit door, the clatter of catering the forward galley, ramp workers stepping in to deliver some cargo paperwork, maybe some aircraft maintenance techs wrapping up required service or repairs.

But the noise and activity isn’t all that ends with the door slam. We call it “sterile cockpit,” an industry-wide concept rooted in the best Crew Resource Management (CRM) practices that dictates all non-flight essential conversation ceases in order to focus solely on the prescribed, often complex procedures required to fly the jet.

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In other words, leave all distractions behind and keep your head in the game. And I take that concept a step further–I clear my mind of everything except procedures (there are a multitude) and situational awareness: he’s moving, we’ll wait … wingtip clearance here … wind shift, at least for now … we’re heavier than planned.

Not just sterile cockpit verbally, but mentally as well. When you’re moving eighty tons of metal and a hundred sixty warm bodies, there’s no room for distraction. My airline (like most, I assume) has done a good job of minimizing outside considerations through the basic premises from which the pilot-in-command operates.

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For me that means I’ve “pre-worried” about the extraneous considerations–both yours and mine–and for the good of all, I’ve put them aside, compartmentalized them, and now look beyond them. When I say yours, I mean your down line connection, your time schedule, your reason for flying whether business or pleasure. Mine often overlap yours–my days off, my family plans, my important events, even my own physical stress of time zone shifts, late hours that could creep later, and my pay considerations.

Doesn’t mean these concerns are invalid, unimportant or dismissed–they’re just not on my mind as I balance crucial flight variables as they unfold. They’re fully addressed in the basic premises of our airline operation, stipulated in a hierarchy a passenger might not like, but which makes the most sense for a safe flight operation:

First, safety, second, passenger comfort and third, schedule. Yes, your connection, even your arrival time, is in third place. Just remember, I have similar personal concerns and I’m putting them completely aside as well. Here’s why.

A recent Flight Safety Institute report highlighted one of the factors that contributes to the comparatively high accident rate per flight hour experienced by air ambulance operators. One factor mentioned was the very real life or death pressure perceived by the pilots: if we don’t land on this spot, at this time, regardless of circumstances, a life may be lost.

That’s a very vivid and understandable urgency that would be difficult to put out of a pilot’s awareness. Nonetheless, the air ambulance operators with the lowest accident rates are the ones who’ve put CRM at the forefront, refocusing on flight safety limitations as a governing principle and setting aside all else.

 

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Now, your kid’s birthday, your business or other event, yes, they’re important–so are mine. But they aren’t life or death, are they? But as flight distractions, whether it’s an air ambulance or an air carrier, they could easily become exactly that.

From the moment we push back, the clock in my captain’s mind runs on weight, not minutes: how many pounds of fuel do I have, which translates into the ability to remain aloft. So, when you (or maybe a commuting crewmember, to be fair, asks “can we fly faster to make up time,” the real question in my mind is “can we afford to gamble by shortening our available fuel duration, and to what purpose and at what cost?” Less holding time available at our destination, maybe requiring a more stressful approach? No way.

scat vomitThe answer to “purpose” would be to shave off 5 to 10 minutes–hardly worth it–at the price of degrading our ability to arrival delays because of an increased fuel burn for speed. The question “can we top this weather rather than circumnavigating the area to save time” brings the opposite answer: maybe, but the more prudent option is to avoid–so we’ll spend the extra time (sorry about your connection–and mine) to do that.

And if you think we as pilots don’t have crucial connections, think again: besides losing pay in a misconnect, there’s more. For many crewmembers, even a ten minute late arrival can mean the difference between getting home or spending a night in a hotel at their own expense and losing a day with family. Sure, I eliminate that worry by not commuting, but crew base positions are determined by seniority–junior pilots and flight attendants can report to work and receive the official notice, “as of next month, you are based a thousand miles from home.”

That all needs to wait outside the cockpit door. Inside, we must focus on the vital flight considerations that trump all distractions.

Again, arrival time–and connections–hang in the balance, but that’s a distant third place behind safety. So yes, I’m not thinking about your connection–and you should be glad. Because that’s exactly what you’ve paid me for, and you deserve no less than the safest, most professional flight, no matter how long that takes.

 Fly the jet firsthand: cvr w white borderThese 25 short essays in the best tradition of JetHead put YOU in the cockpit and at the controls of the jet.

Some you’ve read here, many have yet to appear and the last essay, unpublished and several years in the writing,  I consider to be my best writing effort yet.

Own a piece of JetHead, from Amazon Books and also on Kindle.

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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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Impress your flight crew with your airline insider knowledge–

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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!

Available now on Amazon–just click the link below.

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 Here’s a sneak preview of just a few of the cartoons in this book:

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Get your copy now–just click the button below:

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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 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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