Archive for aviation

The Epistle oF light.

Posted in air travel, airline, airline pilot, airline pilot blog, jet flight, night with tags , , , , , , , , , , on July 30, 2013 by Chris Manno

orion

The Orion Nebula contains a very young open cluster, known as the Trapezium due to the asterism of its primary four stars. Two of these can be resolved into their component binary systems on nights with good seeing, giving a total of six stars.

The basic framework for the moving target that is flight comprises an architecture of anchors and change: weights dictate speeds which prescribe duration and altitude. The wooden stake in the ground, sure as the tenuous GPS alignment reluctantly tolerating the gusty wind bucking the 40 foot tall rudder assembly, will be ancient history as soon as we move. But to know where we’re going, we have to know where we started from.

The stars of the Trapezium, along with many other stars, are still in their early years. The Trapezium may be a component of the much larger Orion Nebula Cluster, an association of about 2,000 stars within a diameter of 20 light years. Two million years ago this cluster may have been the home of the runaway stars AE Aurigae, 53 Arietis, and Mu Columbae, which are currently moving away from the nebula at velocities greater than 100 km/s.

737 night

And drawn as moths to the flame, pairs and singles, Noah’s children march aboard, halfway to somewhere, their presence now a light reflected forward, as meaningless in the here-and-now as the two-by-two was in the pouring rain, boarding the ark: it’s all about the retelling later.

A nebula is an interstellar cloud in outer space that is made up of dust, hydrogen and helium gas, and plasma. It is formed when portions of the interstellar medium collapse and clump together due to the gravitational attraction of the particles that comprise them. The gravitational forces between particles is directly proportional to the their masses, remember?

“Now” is a moving target, mortgaged by “then,” which in the preflight cockpit is more about “there:” the air nautical miles divided by pounds of fuel burned per each. The symphony of electrons conjures an opus of transformation: if everyone plays his part, there will be a smooth harmony of fire, speed and distance, underscored by dollars transferred and spent, buoying steel and fuel, blood and bone, suspended across the night sky like the fiery tail of a comet from here to there.

When a star burns through the last of its fuel, it may find itself collapsing. For smaller stars, up to about three times the sun’s mass, the new core will be a neutron star or a white dwarf. But when a larger star collapses, it continues to fall in on itself to create a stellar black hole.

It’s always the “after” from which meaning is made. For the ark, that’s arrival. For the pilots, that’s enroute, the record inscribed across the night sky, 500 degree exhaust gas boiling away at -55 C ice crystaline air, backlit by the moonlight as a spider web across the star-flung dome. Keep the fires burning.

Black holes formed by the collapse of individual stars are (relatively) small, but incredibly dense. Such an object packs three times or more the mass of the sun into a city-sized range. This leads to a crazy amount of gravitational force pulling on objects around it. Black holes consume the dust and gas from the galaxy around them, growing in size.

And for those left behind, like those yet ahead, the unseen passage is one of either anticipation or regret, of bidding welcome or goodbye, of time spent or lost. You can’t not feel the diminishing weight of both, lighter the farther and higher you go. No hands hold you, just wings and lift, time and tide, fire and ice in balance. Passage.

Orion’s light is either a promise given or a wish fulfilled, depending on where you see it and when. At light speed, the trapezoid assigned to the mythology, the murky nebulae burning within, left home in the time of Alexander the Great, overtaking you at 41,000 feet a couple millennium later. Either way it’s a lie–a now from then, seen light years away; then as if now.

al great

Just like your flight: you’ve crammed a million footsteps into the counting of minutes rather than lifetimes, footless, seven miles high, an ark sailing on a rolling tide of time and place, borne of fire, trust, hope, and light.

For those in the back, the metal ark is but conveyance. For you, more an arc inscribed across the night, more than passage but less than permanence. Like the silent, obedient constellation, the gas blue light won’t matter until it’s examined in retrospect. You live in the passage, grant the flight its own universal time and space, its million shards of where and when and ultimately, why. But it’s never about “there,” for you. Only leaving there, and flight across darkness: night, the shadow of life, then home, the nexus oF light.

cockpit night

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

Tales From The Flight Deck

Posted in airline, airline industry, flight, flight attendant, flight crew with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 23, 2013 by Chris Manno

dc10 frontBack in the day, you’d slide that DC-10 electric seat forward in the copilot’s position and hunker down for the long haul: 9 hours from DFW to Paris on a good day with favorable winds. But more than flight time or miles or fuel flow and track routing, pacing was the order of the day: you’re going to be sitting here all night–don’t be in any rush to do anything.

That was over twenty years ago–closer to twenty-five. And the captains in those days had at least that many years with the airline in order to have advanced seniority-wise into the widebody left seat ranks, rarified air in any airline. So we’re talking what–a half century into the past, into the flight memories and aviation lore to be shared in the cold, dark, midnight sky over Greenland and the Atlantic?

Always liked flying with Bob C., now deceased, but who in those long hours at altitude would relate memories of flying wing for Iven  Kincheloe over the Yalu River during the Korean War. Barely hanging onto his wing, trying not to get killed . . . he was a madman . . .

connieBut tonight’s story hour would come from a different source. Dick B. had flown Super Connies for TWA before quiting to take a job with my airline when I was still in pre-school. “A better deal,” he’d always say, “although flying plumber on the Connie was a heck of an education.”

Plumber. Or, in more correct parlance, flight engineer. Back in the fifties, he’d say, the airline biz was a whole ‘nother animal. Of course, we all still say that: when were you hired? Ninety-one? Well, all through the eighties this airline was a blast . . .

Still, even with a grain of salt or two, the Kinchloe or Connie stories were a welcome relief from the doldrums of midnight cruise across the pond.

Tonight Dick was holding forth about the early Connie days, back when the Cold War was heating up; the days when a lot of guys like Bob were just out of the Air Force after the post-Korean War draw down. Guys like Dick had never served, so he’s been able to spend his early years on the engineer’s panel instead of hanging onto Iven Kinchloe’s wing for dear life.

Those were the days of Kruschev bellowing about the demise of democracy, and Sputnik, and the nuclear standoff. In the midst of it all, both countries at least made a show of diplomacy. That’s where Dick came in.

Besides the well-known “red phone” from the Kremlin to the White House, other lesser gestures intended to defuse the Cold War took place as well.

aeroflotAeroflot would be allowed one flight a day into “Idlewilde Field”–later renamed Kennedy International–in New York City, and one U.S. carrier would be granted a landing slot in Moscow. A small but meaningful attempt at detente. The U.S. flag carrier granted this Moscow route was, of course, TWA; and the aircraft making the maiden flight was the Super Constellation. On board was one very young, excited flight engineer named Dick.

It was common knowledge that the Aeroflot aircraft would be packed to the gills with spying equipment like cameras and other electronic data gathering devices. Maybe that’s why Kennedy was chosen as the landing base by the U.S. State Department: nothing to overfly, no way to take spy photos out there in the Long Island hinterlands.

But in the spy vs. spy paranoia of the Cold War, the Connie crew just knew they’d be spied on once they landed in Russia. So, Dick told us, when the crew reached their layover hotel in Moscow, they made a pact: they’d all search their rooms for the listening devices and spying equipment they knew had to be there. Dick tore apart his room and found nothing–but in short order, his phone rang: the lead flight attendant had found a mysterious metal canister under her bed.  Aha. Be right down with my tools.

The good flight engineer grabbed his tool bag and hustled to the flight attendant’s room, already packed with the captain and the rest of the crew, with the bed shoved aside, mysterious, gleaming canister in the center of the floor.

Carefully, using a crescent wrench adjusted for the odd caliber of the nuts on the bolts ringing the canisters, the engineer removed each bolt carefully. Suspense built with the last bolt . . . deep breath, lift the canister . . .

Nothing.

But within minutes, there was an angry voice at the door, fists pounding, and footsteps rushing down the hall and towards the room. The crew prepared for the worst.

kgbInstead, it was the maitre d, enraged, plus the hotel manager. As it turned out, the flight attendant’s room was above the main dining room. Instead of disabling a sinister spy device, the crew had unwittingly removed the anchor plate for the chandelier in the dining room.

Oops. maybe Kruschev was right–maybe Americans were the real crazies, despite the world famous pictures of him pounding the podium with his own shoe at a televised news conference. And my question, though I didn’t ask, is whether the red phone on Eisenhower’s desk rang shortly afterward, with a demand for payment for one smashed chandelier and maybe a buffet line.

But those days, and those pilots, are now long gone. Now, in the left seat, it’s pilots like me remembering them, but also our own early days with the airline and the adventures that span thousands of air miles.

And when it gets dark, and quiet, and dull on the flight deck at 41,000 feet a thousand miles from anywhere, it’s time.

Did I ever tell you about that time in London when the police picked up the entire crew walking down the middle of the street at 3am?

And so it goes . . .

cockpit night

How Big is the Sky?

Posted in airline, airline delays, airline industry, airline pilot, airline pilot blog, airline pilot podcast, airline podcast, airport with tags , , , , , , , , , on April 13, 2013 by Chris Manno

cockpit panoThe cockpit is a solemn place in the pregnant pause between preflight and pushback. Always, like a deserted island where everything’s already been said: checklists done, preflight complete, systems verified, amen. Plenty more details and decision points ahead, but nothing to worry about now, because the litany of procedures, numbers, actions, maneuvers and control inputs are etched in your mind like an inscription in granite. Thinking about the details is unneeded; knowing what’s to come and when is like running a hand over the inscription without reading the words–and that’s enough for now.

“You have a visitor,” the number one flight attendant breaks the reverie, ushering a school-aged boy into the cockpit. He looked to be maybe seven . . . eight? Dutifully wide-eyed behind thick glasses, a woman–must be his mom–hovering behind.

“C’mon in,” you say. “Are you the new copilot?” You jerk a thumb toward the F/O. “Because he’s pretty useless. You can do a better job–you ready?” Covertly, F/O gives you the finger. You smile.

left seat

The young man shakes his head in silence. “Go ahead,” mom prompts. “Ask him.” Then she adds, “He’s usually a chatterbox; loves airplanes. I think he’s a little overwhelmed.”

Good thing I’ve been such a smartass–that doesn’t help. “Sure, ask away,” you say. Stuff about airspeed? Controls? How we operate systems? He fixes you with a flat stare like he was looking right through you and into your heart.

“How big is the sky?”

Now there’s a question I’ve never been asked. And I’m not even sure how to answer.

“Yeah, Captain,” a smirking F/O echoes, “You’ve spent about thirty years in the sky. Just how big is it?”

freefall

Hard to say. Seen it when it wasn’t big enough, plunging straight down with a tangled parachute, cows below coming into focus faster than I ever wanted. Had to get a reserve chute out before finding where the sky ended and the earth began and even then, hit like a ton of bricks as if both earth and sky wanted to teach me a lesson about leaving one for the other.

38Other times, the boundaries hardly mattered; gravity, the speed of sound–just mileposts on the way to somewhere higher, farther, faster and more furious than anything else in the thinnest parts of the sky. Those times felt like you were bigger than the sky itself, bulletproof and immortal.

But then you’ve seen it, too, when it was too large, swallowing up a past or a future, a passage never to be undone.

Because when it is, the sky is mute but bears the passage anyway, indifferent: coming back? Gone forever, though you thought not.

casket 1

There’s a road through the sky for that too. Too big, too far, but crossing the blue was a choice to be borne nonetheless. And if the sky were time, you’ve seen it too short, knowing some folks are making a one way passage . . .

old-young

. . . while others are only now setting out on their first. We’re all in the same sky, big or small as it is. You can ask the question, but the answer depends.

“I mean,” a small voice breaks into the suspended moment of thought and silence. “I mean in case we fall.” Big eyes, in all seriousness, all seven or eight years looking ahead and asking.

You just can’t worry about that. In fact, it wouldn’t matter anyway–we all go where we must, take the sky as it comes, cross it where we can, while we can. With those close to us or alone, however we must. Shepherded by mom today, shepherding his own tomorrow.

At the speed of sound on his own, without wings if he wants (bad idea, trust me), to new worlds and old, forward as we all go through the blue till it dims to black.

Smile. “We won’t,” you tell him. “You won’t, and we won’t. So let’s go fly.”

He thinks about it for a moment, his eyes searching, but not on me; elsewhere, maybe finding a place for the idea, judging for himself the size of the sky ahead of him. Mom gives me a look: what, knowing? Ponderous? Then a smile, steering him by the shoulders back to the cabin.

Couple more minutes and it’ll be time: seal it up, push it back, light the fires and taxi, then take off.  How big is the sky?

Well, let’s go find out.

cockpit sunrise

Airline Pilot Confidential: The Teddy Bear Incident.

Posted in air travel, airline delays, airline pilot, airline pilot blog, airlines, airport, airport security, flight crew, flight delays, passenger, unaccompanied minors with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on March 23, 2013 by Chris Manno

flashIt’s the middle day of three back-to-back turns–pace yourself.

In fact, it’s the second leg of the middle turn, Dulles International, 7pm–time to get out of town: the elephant walk of international widebody jets commences shortly.  If we can push back even five minutes early, we can beat the line–and the wake turbulence delay.

prflt docsUse the captain’s invisibility cloak: the ability to do most pre-flight planning on the smart phone. Check the weather, the route, the fuel load. Add more fuel. Sign the release with a touch of the screen, then send a hard copy to a gate printer, all from the cockpit. Wait for it to finish printing then slip into the terminal discretely, invisibly, to pick up the paperwork, avoiding the gate chaos directly. Don’t make eye contact, don’t invite hassles, complaints, requests, anything that delays the door slam and brake release to get ahead of the fat boys headed for the runway. Still have to fly to DFW, drive home–then back out to do the turn again tomorrow. Minutes from pushback, be invisible now.

But wait. Out of the corner of your eye, you see it: a teenage girl, on her phone, tense; next to her, what could only be her younger sister in tears. No parents, no adults, just the agent telling them both, “You either board now, or you’ll have to fly tomorrow.” That sends the little one into big sobs.

timer 3Less than fifteen minutes till push. Can you maybe say you didn’t see any of this? But you did.

“What do you need?” you ask the older, maybe sixteen-year-old sister.

She puts the cell phone down for a second, plaintive. “She left her backpack at security.”

Sigh. The agent is looking at you pointedly, his eyes saying we need to board now and shut the aircraft door. But from the tears in the young girl’s eyes, you pretty much guess what’s in the backpack. I consider taking the youngster back through security–but then think better of it.

IAD 3

We’d have to run to the center of the terminal, down two escalators, onto the train to the main terminal, up two more escalators, then find the security checkpoint that might still have the backpack–then retrace our steps, before departure time in fifteen minutes. Not going to happen.

I catch the older sister’s eye. “You have some ID?” She nods. “Let’s go.” I head off at a fast walk toward the mid terminal; “Wait here!” she tells her little sister, and the agent slumps the message damn you captain. Big sister’s on my heels, asking, “Can we do this?” Just shrug; “They’re not leaving without me.”

IAD 1

We tumble down the two-story escalator two steps at a time, shoving past others like obnoxious travelers. I envision people watching, trying to figure out why an airline captain in uniform is running away from a teenager in hot pursuit. I also remember the miles I ran that morning before flight.

IAD 4

Even though the automated voice is warning that the doors are closing–do not delay this train–I do anyway, holding the door as she jumps aboard. “It’s got all her school books,” she says, out of breath. Right: I have a big picture of a fifth grader hauling a load of schoolbooks on spring break.

“No worries,” I say, “It could happen to anyone.” She nods. “Special guys in there?” I ask casually. She smiles sheepishly.

I don’t care: that’s a very real tragedy for a youngster, losing all the stuffed guys that mean the world to them. Not on my watch.

We spill out of the train on the far end, then WAIT: this will take us to baggage claim and out of the secure area–we need the TSA checkpoint! We dash back through the closing exit doors, then push through the boarding passengers and out the other side.

Two sets of identical escalators–both going down. Means we have to rush up the steps–but which ones? “Which security checkpoint did you use?” I ask. She looks confused; they are identical, not sure how one could really know anyway. “Let’s try this one,” I say, rushing the steps.

security-den

We reach the TSA supervisor’s stand. He shakes his head. “No pink backpack here–try the other side.”

Figures. We run the length of the concourse and arrive at the opposite checkpoint. “You’re lucky,” a cheerful TSA agent in a pressed blue shirt says, “we were getting ready to send it to lost and found.”

Identification checked, signatures. She sees me eying her sister’s backpack. “Uh, we need to start putting a nametag on this, don’t we?”

I nod. Lesson learned. It’s confusing, especially kids traveling alone. “I was on the phone with my Mom,” she says, “hoping we could get someone to drive out here and pick up the backpack.”

“No worries,” I say, in my mind’s eye picturing the waves of 747s and A-340s pushing back, lining up for takeoff.  “Anyone can lose stuff at the airport, especially at security.”

We retrace our steps as fast as we can, me feeling the morning miles, my friend feeling and looking relieved. At the gate, she hands the backpack to little sister who still looks mortified.

They rush down the jetbridge to board. I walk, telling the agent “Just charge me with the delay.” He gives me a glare that says I was going to anyway, which I answer with a smile that says I don’t care.

IMG_2870

The elephants already started the parade and we squeezed into the conga line. Sure, I’d have some explaining to do a thousand miles or so west. But no one missed their connection in DFW, no one was unduly delayed; and most importantly, no one’s little world collapsed with the loss of everyone they loved. That, to me, matters a lot.

Because we don’t just fly jets–we fly people. That, and the occasional special bear.

The Pilot Poser: Silence is Golden.

Posted in air travel, airline, airline pilot, airline pilot blog, flight crew, pilot with tags , , , , , , , , , on February 15, 2013 by Chris Manno

You’d only know this if you’d been in the cockpit of an airliner. And I have been–for almost 28 years now.  Over 21 of those years as captain.

nose

Sooner or later, you’ll have to fly with “that pilot:” the one who is impressed with himself, and more importantly, his impression of himself. The “self” he assumes others see, but in real life, something else is apparent.

Seriously?

Unfortunately, “that guy” craves recognition. May have the awful bumper sticker on their car proclaiming “My other car is a Boeing;” they need to be seen in aviator sunglasses (never owned a pair), have to wear a gawd awful watch the size of Flavor Flav’s clock (flight attendant bride gave me too nice a tank watch for me to ever wear the cliche), and of course, off duty they dress like the calendar says the present year minus twenty. They can be ex-military (if anyone asks, I always answer, “No–I was in the Air Force;” big difference.) or all-civilian types; regardless, the arrested development crosses both borders.

Worse than “the pose” is the time warp they cling to. They’re mired in the “Married With Children” Al Bundy “There I was . . .” thing, yammering on about the glory days (Al was always telling his dusty-ancient Polk High School football team stories) and here’s why it’s BS: even though the median pilot age at my airline is probably 50+, you’ll see the stickers on the kitbag of the military squadrons they once belonged to–even though they haven’t flown a military jet since the pilots now actually flying those jets were in diapers.

“There I was . . .”

Sigh. It’s going to be a long trip. They tend to emphasize appearances, which really only matter in public–which is actually the last place I want to be “a pilot:”  I prefer, as do most of the pilots I respect, to be mostly invisible in public. Here’s where I’d rather be an actual pilot:

IMG_2391Where it actually matters. Where other actual pilots respect you for doing a good job, for knowing your stuff, for being dependable. Behind the closed and bolted shut (thank god) cockpit door, where all that really matters is how you perform.

And at that, too, there’s a further preference:

“Can we have a little ‘shut up’ around here?”

Archie Bunker said it best. There’s just not a whole lot of yapping that needs to go on in flight. My favorite type of First Officer is the person who says little, who concentrates on what needs to be done. Don’t want to be lectured about politics, or harebrained and ill-informed (pilots are always the last to know) investment and stock market schemes. Or, God forbid, religion, which somehow is always associated with extremism, anti-feminism, home schooling and weird “Yearning for Zion” cultism.Odds are overwhelming that there’s an oprressed, decidedly frumpy and tired spouse at home dealing with your plentiful “offspring.”

Want to talk baseball? Maybe. College football? Sure. But please God, don’t trap me on the flight deck with the Rush Limbaugh wannabe who’ll parrot whatever was most recently on NPR (the sure sign of geriatric “lost the will to live”–and think: listening to NPR) as if it were original thought. And labor-management strife? I’ll say it out loud: this is neither the time nor the place . Besides, you’re preaching to the choir. Take it up later with your dog who might not mind hearing you rant.

night cockpitIt’s a relatively small space up in the pointy end–and nothing makes it seem more cramped or the hours longer than a large and ceaseless yap. Captain or First Officer–and I’ve been both–nobody needs to be a blast fence (see “labor-management strife” above), comic foil or sounding board for the other person also locked into the cockpit.

So, outside the cockpit, feel free to go for “the look,” the pose, whether you’re a pilot or not (probably worse if you are–get over it). Walk the walk, yack the yack (NPR and union parrot talk); knock yourself out. But inside, respect the inner curmudgeon lurking in the the quiet, uniformed figure in the other seat. The best pilots, or at least the ones I’d want fly with, are all about quietly doing what makes good air sense rather than yapping about it. And the key word is, quietly.

AIPTEK

Jet Runways: The Long and Short of It.

Posted in air travel, airline, airline pilot blog with tags , , , , , , , , , , on January 26, 2013 by Chris Manno

And that’s what it looks like, landing a jet on a short field which, for a transport category jet, John Wayne-Orange County (SNA) certainly is. But the video tells nothing about how it’s done, much less how it’s possible.

Besides, landing is the easy part–taking off, unless you plan to spend the rest of your life there, is the complex and more difficult maneuver. So here comes a discussion of the long and short of it.

First, consider landing–which isn’t really the more difficult challenge. Rather, stopping sixty tons of metal, fuel, flesh and bone in the allotted distance is, and taking off is more tricky than landing. Why? That’s a question of physics more than anything. Here’s a relic from the olden days:

brake chart DC8

The wily flight engineer had to enter the graph with the jet’s landing weight, speed, the airfield pressure altitude and compute the millions of foot-pounds of brake energy that much be dissipated after touchdown. See why? It’s all about choices: on landing, you have a choice that you don’t have on take-off, which is, don’t stop.

On landing, you’re in flight and can continue–go around, divert, find a longer runway; set up for a different approach. On take-off, you don’t have the option of continuing a flight you have yet to achieve, and you’ll be likely to be much heavier on take-off (fuel, which gets burned off enroute, right?) than on landing, minus one key option–staying in the air.

You have to stop. And on many runways, you have little space in which to do that.

sna 10-9 a

So you’ve seen the primary challenges: weight, speed, and distance. Now for the wild cards, which are tailwinds and runway surface conditions. If you are at your threshold speed, say 150 KIAS (Knots Indicated Airspeed), but the wind is directly on your tail at 5 to 10 knots, your tires will hit the runway at 155 to 160, and the brakes will have to absorb the kinetic energy associated with that, not the 150 threshold speed.

The Byzantine brake energy chart above assumes a standard coefficient of friction, but if the runway is wet or worse, the coefficient of friction will be reduced as will brake effectiveness.

IMG_0124

And now let’s throw in the hardware curveballs: what if one or both reversers fail to deploy? Or if an engine fails, that reverse thrust is lost as well. And if the wing spoilers fail to deploy, or the antiskid fails, or any tire blows, reducing your braking capacity by 25% per tire.

These are all contingencies that must be dealt with, and on take-off roll on a short runway, they come at you fast because you’re using a higher power setting to lift more weight of the short runway: faster acceleration means less reaction time before you’re committed to flight because stopping in the runway remaining isn’t possible.

Plus, lest you think the remedy is a longer runway, don’t forget the “Pressure Altitude” factor in the DC-8 Flight Engineer’s hands above:

MMMX ILS DME 5R

Mexico City has a 12,000 foot long runway–more than twice the length of the SNA runway–but at 7,500 feet on a good day; if the temp hits 90, as it often does, MEX becomes an engineering nightmare for stopping and for taking off. Ditto Denver International. And (told you it was more complicated) if you’re not taking off but rather trying to abort on the runway, with any of the variables, wild cards and curveballs above, you’ve got a real mess on your hands.

So how is it done? It all goes back to being a junior high school boy, when the primary question in life was this: how much can I get away with?

So the first thing to do upon level-off, after we’re at cruise altitude and can finally get a decent estimate of our enroute fuel burn and thus arrival fuel weight, is haul out this chart:

landing distance

Calculate the predicted landing weight–takeoff weight minus enroute fuel burn–then determine the “Landing Distance” we’ll require. The bottom three lines include the degrade factors for tailwind and no reverse thrust–have to add those factors as well. Keep that number in mind to recheck before descent: if we’ve burned more fuel than planned, the margin gets better. If we’ve saved fuel by favorable winds or routing, the figures are wrong. Plus, we really won’t know for sure if the runway is dry, wet or icy until we’re much closer in.

Aircraft manufacturers, in compliance with FAA standards, have computed the Landing Distance chart very conservatively: they figured only about 75% of the actual brake effectiveness; they normal include zero reverse thrust.

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Boeing jets have excellent autobrakes which can smoothly and easily apply Max braking, and do it evenly: if you’re landing with a lot of rudder input, you’ll have one leg extended and one bent back–try applying both pedals equally then. And antiskid computers apply the braking evenly on both gear until sensing an incipient skid, keeping the pressure just below that point, something humans can’t really perceive.

So, on landing, know before the wheels come down on final what the maximum weight for conservatively landing on a runway is, plus the adjustments to make in your head for the variables of winds and runway surface conditions. It’s best to have as wide a margin between our weight and the max, the most realistic, with conservative additives, estimate of  what the jet and the runway can handle.

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Takeoff is a similar max calculation, with a twist: what’s the maximum speed to which you can accelerate and still stop in the remaining runway? Same wild cards, curveballs and technical factors in play: winds, runway surface, equipment failures–including those that help us go (engines, high lift devices, flight controls) and those that help us stop (hydraulics, engines, reverse, tires, brakes, antiskid, electrical power).

Again, it’s coming at you fast on take-off roll because you’re accelerating and using maximum power for the adverse conditions. In the split second of a go or abort decision, you’d better discern if what you’re aborting for will compromise your ability to stop (see parenthesis in the above sentence) or eliminate your ability to fly–and you’d better be right.

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LaGuardia, just prior to brake release.

Prior to applying takeoff power, review for myself the abort procedures that you must correctly do in the proper sequence (throttles idle, speed brakes, reverse thrust, brakes) and the dividing line: after 70 knots (considered the high speed-low speed dividing line), we’ll abort only for the mandatory items, which you also have memorized.

So we don’t even release the brakes till we have the big numbers pow-wow: planned weight, actual weight; takeoff power setting, N1 engine reading, V1 speed. You have to see it on the paper copy, on the glass (the FMS control head), on the flight management display (same numbers) and the Primary Flight Display, which is also repeated in the Heads Up Display projected on the glass in front of your face.

Now we’re ready to go–or, stop, as the case may be. Clear your mind of everything but the important stuff, know where you are in relation to each factor as speed increases and runway decreases, and be prepared to recognize developing situations and the proper options to handle them.

And that’s the long and short of jets and runways. Let’s go fly.

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Jet Wake Turbulence: Distance Ain’t Enough.

Posted in air travel, airline, airline pilot blog, airliner, jet, jet flight, passenger, pilot, travel, weather with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on January 19, 2013 by Chris Manno

Sneaking up behind me, are you? Here’s an infrared view you might need to heed: not the hotspots, but powerful the twin horizontal corkscrews of air current swirling off the wingtips of my jet. They’re wily, dangerous, and not to be trusted.

According to the Flight Safety Foundation, the vortices from a jet can have an internal rotation of up to 300 feet per second and often extend between 2 and 10 nautical miles behind a jet aircraft. The twin tornadoes–that’s literally what they are, horizontal but spinning powerfully–sink at a variable rate, between 300 and 500 feet per minute to an altitude  between 500 and 900 feet below the aircraft’s flight path and can persist for three or more minutes depending on the meteorological conditions.

That’s the problem, but hardly the full situation. Add to this hazard the closely constrained flight path of jet traffic in terminal areas. For instance:

SFO Q bridge

Approaching from the east, you’ll have a traffic stream from the west as well converging on the same runway complex. Not unusual as far as airports go–except that San Francisco International has less than the standard distance separating the two parallel runways. The FAA has waived the normal lateral separation, but you’d better keep that in mind nonetheless because that also means less than normal separation from the vortices of the aircraft next to you. Remember the outward spreading motion of those two tornadoes?

747 BAThis guy could be your dance partner all the way down final–and if he’s next to you, you aren’t entitled to the separation you’d get if he were ahead of you. Mostly, ATC will “advise” you to “use caution” for the heavy on the west runway, workload and time permitting–but they don’t have to.

And time and workload may not permit any advanced warning, and adverse weather can shroud the entire scene anyway:

SEA 16CLook at the inset on the bottom right corner: Seattle (one of my favorite destination cities!) has three parallel runways grouped together, and you won’t be told which of the three runways you’re landing on until you turn base to final about three minutes from touchdown. Would it make sense or even be possible to keep you informed of the heavies on all three inbound tracks? Add to the mix the typically obscured Seattle visibility, plus the added workload of programming and validating the FMS  sytem approach waypoints at the last second demanded by the late runway assignment and is there a possibility of situational awareness overload, on final approach: was that a heavy in front of us? Or on the outboard runway?

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Bring that back to San Francisco, where the standard runway separation is “waived,” like in MSP and many other cities. Now you’ve got a “buddy” laterally whose wake turbulence is drifting outwardly–just as yours is–and just because he’s not a “heavy” doesn’t mean he can’t roll you.

The ICAO worldwide “recommendation” for separation between a “heavy” and a “medium” following aircraft  (say, a 747 and a 737) is 5 NM (9.3 KM); between two heavies, 4 NM (7.4 KM). But the wild card not even mentioned in the separation rules is configuration and maneuvering: simply put, a “dirty” jet (flaps, gear) creates a nastier wake than a “clean” jet, and maneuvering distorts weight. That is, if I level off my 160,000 pound 737 with an addition one-half “G” force, I add to the effective weight another 40 tons of effect. And we’re a medium jet–imagine a heavy maneuvering dirty adding to his effective weight and wake.

That’s the science, now here comes the art. You know the reported winds at the field, but that’s a red herring: your encounter with wake turbulence won’t happen on the field. You need to be aware of the winds on approach, at your altitude. If the lateral wind at your altitude is blowing into the other jet’s wake, here’s what can happen: if the drift equals the outward spread momentum of the wake–and you have to figure the “dirty,” “maneuvering” wild cards mentioned above–the effect will either be to move the wake away more rapidly, or freeze it in place till it dissipates. Which is it?

You can’t see wake turbulence. You can’t be sure where it is, or know it’s strength based solely on the aircraft designation. And sooner or later, you’ll find yourself in it despite your best, most diligent precautions. What are you going to do, captain?

dusk b

For a true jethead like me, the first answer is always speed–but not so fast (pun intended): you’re configured with restrictive maximum flap speeds. If you’re in a final configuration with 40 degrees of flaps, you’re limited to 162 knots max. But the second instinct is valid: power.

throttle bugeye

But power alone is only part of the answer: what you’re not doing is going down. Why not? Because we know the vorticies are sinking. If we remain level or climb, we’ll escape the effects. What are they?

The Flight Safety Foundation survey of hundreds of wake turbulence encounters reveals uncommanded roll in trailing aircraft of up to 45 degrees at altitudes below 1,000 above the ground. One thousand feet is another magic number at my airline: stabilized approach  (on speed, on altitude, power set) is mandatory from 1,000 feet to touchdown. On glidepath–not above or below; not accelerating or decelerating, power set to flown speed and stable. And certainly wings level.

Which brings up the next problem of two major headaches you’ll instantly own. First, the right amount of counter-aileron, even if applied prudently, in many jets will bring up the wing spoilers to drop the low wing rapidly, inducing adverse drag, requiring more power.

Second, the option of climbing or even flying level is constrained by the published missed approach: protected airspace may be below you if you are above the missed approach altitude. And laterally, not only is there often parallel traffic, there’s also dangerous terrain you must always monitor and stay clear of:

MMMX ILS DME 5R

If you encounter wake effects in a level portion of the approach segment, prior to the aircraft ahead descending, at least you know his vortices will descend eventually below you and in this case, you normally feel the “burble” which now cues you: if the winds are keeping his wake aligned with your flight path, on glidepath you’re likely to fly into the tornadoes again when you’re slow and configured with speed-restricting flaps. Now look at the “mileage separation:” still think distance alone is enough? Still committing to the glidepath?

All of that doesn’t even consider the added, inevitable spoiler in every approach: weather. There’s more than terrain and aircraft for you to avoid in a very constrained airspace.

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There’s really only one good answer: up. And “up” may be a s simple as “no more down,” meaning a stopped descent or a slight climb to exit the effects. In any case, if you’re below 1,000 feet you’re no longer “stable” per the mandatory requirements. If you’re above 1,000 feet, you’ve just been cued that the mileage interval, given the meteorological conditions, nonetheless has left you vulnerable to the adverse effects of wake turbulence–and you’re not going to proceed.

Which means, in the immortal words of my old friend the Chief Pilot at my airline addressing my 1991 class of Captain’s “Charm School” (officially, “Captain’s Duties & Responsibilities”) as we sat rapt: you’re going to “get the hell out of town.” Amen.

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Back in the cabin? Expect the usual complaints about the delay for the second approach, plus a regular dose of exaggerated “there I was” tales about their wake turbulence encounter. So, don’t tell them–if you’ve done your avoidance and even escape properly, they’ll never know you even had a problem, which is the ultimate goal anyway: detecting and avoiding the problem in the first place.

The end result is, what they don’t know won’t hurt them, because you won’t let it. And that’s kind of why you get the privilege of flying the jet in the first place, isn’t it?

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Winter Flying: Faith and Defiance.

Posted in airline, airline pilot blog, flight, flight crew, flight delays, jet, passenger, pilot, travel, weather with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 13, 2013 by Chris Manno

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I can’t decide if winter flying is is one long act of defiance, or shorter acts of combined faith. On a cold January day with an icy, raggedy ceiling and needle-like freezing rain rasping against the fuselage on taxi-out, on board it’s a steady 75 degrees. People aboard reflect the destination, not our departure point–and act of faith on their part requiring an act of defiance on mine.

fat duo FX

It’s actually a worthy challenge, bringing all of the details to a successful conclusion: flight planning, routing, de-icing, preflight, taxi-out and pre-take-off de-icing. There’s a puzzle to assemble, jagged pieces of holdover times for de-icing fluid, precip rates and types–you know what’s reported, but you deal with what’s actually happening–and it’s up to you to account for the difference. Take-off performance degrades; weight limits based on the restrictions of leaving, but with due diligence to the weather conditions 1,200 miles south.

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Boeing has given us a marvelous machine that will wake up encased in ice, but in a matter of minutes will operate from the ice box to the tropics. Not magic–just a lot of grunt work by a lot of people.

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It’s a lot slower, but more than the temperature is involved: there are more requirements, plus people and machines work slower in the cold. As they should be expected to do, but which often results in frustration for those whose involvement is limited to riding the jet rather than trying to fly it safely. Sorry.

But eventually, we get to this:

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Again, that’s going to be slow, too, by necessity. But be patient: the destination must be worth the trip, right? But inevitably, the factors a passenger plans to escape by air don’t make that escape easy.

Half the battle is getting into the air–where the other half is usually just as challenging. Again, the same crud that you want to escape packs a punch from the surface to the stratosphere. We’ll deal with that, too, at 300 knots, or maybe 280 if it’s bumpy. Already told the cabin crew to remain seated till I call them, when I’m sure we’re in safe, stable air. More griping from passengers, I know, but they’re not responsible for not putting a crewmember through a ceiling panel.

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This is how it might look if anyone checked ahead (I did) so it wasn’t surprising face to face, really. Which looks more like this, and nobody’s getting to paradise till they work their way through this frontal line.

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Eventually, we win: the further south we go, the more miles we put behind us, the weather–and the escape–become reality. You begin to get a glimpse of paradise with your 320 mile digital vision. The 20-20 eyeballs show the passage from land to water, a sure sign of warmer days for 160 souls on board, patient or not.

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Soon it’s all blue, with ghostly outlines below that carve the indigo into brown and green, lush islands poking above the mild, warm seas.

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Nassau, the Bahamas, straight ahead. Power back, begin the slow, gentle glide from seven miles high to sea level. More islands slide silently below the nose. Never tire of seeing the parade of blues, browns, greens; paradise.

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Where’s the snow now? The icy grip of winter? Escape–by the lucky hundred and sixty aboard, each with their own getaway plan, winter runaways we eagerly aid and abet: someone has to break free, to teach winter a lesson.

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A world away, if only but the blink of an eye in a lifetime, it’s nonetheless an eyeful. I’m happy for those who’ll stay, at least for a while.

IMG_1390Welcome to Nassau. For me, it’s a few moments of sunshine and sea air on the ramp while ground crews unload cargo, reload, refuel and get us turned around and ready for launch back to the north. Too soon, in a way, but not soon enough in another: this isn’t my escape–it’s my job.  From which, for the vagabond pilot, home is the escape. Will be back here, back and forth, all winter.

IMG_1388He’s headed home, too, a longer way back, but with a couple hundred aboard not facing the cold quite yet. But likely missing the scenery shrinking below as we climb and arc away to the north.

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So long to paradise, hello radar scan; fuel burn, overwater navigation, peaceful cruise until you face the enemy line you already slipped through once today. Still there, waiting. The sun gives up, slips into the muck and so do you, both promising another trip around the globe another day.

IMG_1391There’s the final act of defiance, or maybe faith: through the choppy, sleet-streaked darkness, at 200 knots, toward the runway you better know is below the 200 foot ceiling.

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Then it’s all about home, after appeasing the winter gods (“We brought at least as many back from paradise–you can ruin the rest of their season, plus make them wistful for the tropics the rest of the year!”) yet again. A healthy respect goes both ways; careful defiance, faithful flight. Starts again tomorrow.

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Un-Pilotish: Just Say No.

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

STAR TW

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

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

410med

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

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

STAR TW direct

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

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

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

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

MFE 31

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

Unable? My ass: can do!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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