Archive for passenger

Flying the Fuel Mule to Seattle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hello, Idaho.

Hello, Idaho.

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

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

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Fried Sky with a Side of Regret.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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LGA: Landing on LaGarbage.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Long JFK runway.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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Winter Flight Delays and YOU.

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

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The news media covers the weather-induced flight delays relentlessly from the outside viewpoint, posing as a passenger would, facing headline-grabbing (isn’t that their stock in trade?) shipwreck-castaway-snowmageddon-apocalyptic disaster. They play it as if everything should operate normally, snow or no.

Fine–enjoy the hype, especially from the outside of the aviation profession, from the perspective of urban legend, unreasonable expectations (sure, airlines should operate like clockwork regardless of polar temperatures and contaminated surfaces) and shrieking sensationalism.

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But here’s the inside look at the very real challenges, risks, and safety constraints the news media doesn’t want you to consider.

First, you personally, as an airline pilot and captain, hate the news of a winter storm.  Because of the flight delays? Cancellations? No–it’s simpler than that: just getting to the airport is a challenge on iced-over roads, never mind getting home twelve hours later–barring cancellations–when the roads are even worse.

Put that out of your mind, and leave an hour earlier for the ice-afflicted slide to the airport, adding to what you already know will be a twelve hour day. Park the car facing south, at least, hoping the north wind will coat only the back window with an inch of ice to scrape off after midnight when or if you manage to transit 3,000 air miles and return. Fat chance–on the ice, and the return.

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Finally in Flight Ops, where Defcon 3 reigns: they’re almost out of standby flight attendants to assign to flights in place of delayed or diverted inbound cabin crews. Now they’re breaking up enroute or just arriving crews and reassigning them to outbound departures.

Which means, as the day goes on, more cut-and-paste flights and assignments for more crew members. That recital your kid’s in tonight? Birthday, anniversary, or just plain day off? Fugghedaboudit–you’re going elsewhere, with an indeterminate return time or even day.

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Your jet is coming in from South America where it’s summer, so no problem, right?

Wrong: it will still be delayed, metered in with all arriving flow times, and summer aside, the jet will need to be de-iced anyway: the on-board fuel has been cold-soaked at altitude to about minus 30 degrees, and when that cold-soaked wing hits the moisture laden winter overcast and precip, there will be plenty of ice, especially on taxi in and after parking. Add another 45 minutes, at least, to your flight day.

And you know that de-ice is anything but simple. First, all jet intakes and cowls must be clean and uncontaminated BEFORE you even get to the de-icing pad prior to take off. Who certifies that?

Uh, YOU: get outside and stick your head into both engine inlets to be sure they’re clean. If not, add another 45 minutes to get the engines de-iced so you can taxi to get the aircraft de-iced. And get back downstairs afterward to be sure the procedure was done properly before you try to start one of those $5 million dollar engines.

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The rate of precip is specified in the official weather report, but official weather reports are hourly, and we live (and answer for) the effects in real-time: YOU determine the precip rate and type (snow, freezing rain, ice pellets) and decide which de-ice procedure and fluid will be required.

Then, assuming you have made your way from the gate to the de-icing pad, YOU determine the “holdover time,” or effectiveness time for the de-icing, which again depends on the conditions (temp, precip, rate of precip) so YOU can determine how long you can wait for take off and still have an uncontaminated airfoil.

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Now, consider the surface, both taxiways and runways. All takeoff performance is based on a dry or wet runway, but iciness throws in a curve ball. You have to account for the drag of slush on acceleration, plus the loss of brake effectiveness on any icy runway.

Once again, the field weather report contains the “official report,” but “official reports” don’t fly airplanes, and they are hourly, not instantaneous. You know the limits (slush, snow and ice maximums) as well as your jet’s tolerance and required corrections to your performance data.

Do the calculations for all possibilities: based on the official report, based on what you see, based on conditions worsening. Know all three and be prepared to execute accordingly.

Know that cold-soaked engines behave differently, oil and hydraulic fluids need time and circulation to achieve design viscosity. Be alert for binding flight controls, before and even after de-icing, where melted ice can trickle into dry bay areas and refreeze quickly.

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Taxi gingerly, knowing that iced taxiways are inconsistently slick and your eighty ton tricycle will not stop if one side has traction but the other wheels five yards away do not. Probe the turns with the nosewheel first before you commit the main gear in a turn.

Run up both engines periodically to 70% to verify proper operation, carefully, so as not to blow away a smaller jet behind you, and with consideration for the traction as you do.

Trust but verify: as you taxi, see what’s actually happening on the runway. Is it uniformly clear? Is it draining? Are other jets kicking up rooster tails from their nosewheel on takeoff roll, indicating pooling? Are there contaminated areas? How does the last third look, given that in an abort you’ll need full braking there? How does the first third look, since you’re primary and critical acceleration will be there?

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Taxi out with flaps retracted so as not to get slush or ice sprayed up under the wing and onto the flaps–they may jam on retraction because of the close tolerances, and will take extra de-ice time if they’re contaminated.

When you FINALLY taxi out, get ready for de-ice: engines shut down, bleed air from the APU off; ground crew on headset tells you the de-ice fluid mix (or asks you what type you need), then certifies afterward that the jet is clean and you start your holdover clock based on what you have determined is the max time (usually minutes) to wait for takeoff (that’s why de-icing is normally done at the runway rather than the gate).

Now restart engines, reconfigure with flaps and slats, check flight controls, final weights, final speeds, final corrections based on NOW (your three pre-calculated options) and your go/no-go decision.

Power control is key to airspeed.

Take the runway, hold the brakes, power to 80% and scrutinize all the instruments: go.

Climb out is a relief, at least partially: you still have to turn around at the coast, then fly back into the snowed-in airport after enduring even more inbound metering delays.

But the worst, ultimately, is yet to come: the drive home, if and when you return, once you thaw out your car. That, however, is 3,000 miles from now. Worry about that then, get home as best you can–with this weather, they’re going to need you to fly tomorrow, too.

Actual photo from my 2.5 hour, 30 mile drive home from DFW after a recent winter storm.

Actual photo from my 2.5 hour, 30 mile drive home from DFW after a recent winter storm.

The Flight of the Pilgrims

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DFW C-2

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

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

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

But first, I can share a pilgrim moment myself.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DFW ramp dusk

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.

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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.

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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

Passengers Removed for Non-Compliance: A Pilot’s View.

Posted in 9/11, air travel, airline industry, airline pilot, airline pilot blog, passenger, passenger compliance with tags , , , , , , , , , on June 10, 2013 by Chris Manno

Kicked off: 100 Jewish students were asked to leave an AirTran flight headed for Atlanta from New York last Monday

You probably read the headline, which made the news more because of the students’ baseless allegation that they we’re removed from their flight because they were Jewish. (Read the story: click here)

But let’s go beyond that smokescreen and look at the real issue from a pilot’s viewpoint–because it was a pilot’s responsibility to have them removed for non-compliance with crewmember instructions.

There are two issues here: electronic interference from handheld devices in flight, and equally important, compliance with federal regulations and flight crew instructions. First, let’s look at electronic devices and their possible effect on a flight.

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Let’s go to the heart of the matter: landings. Why? Because this is the phase of flight during which the instrument guidance is arguably to most vital: you’re dealing with limited or practically speaking, no visibility as you attempt to land (versus taking off, when you’re climbing away from the terrain) and are therefore very dependent on your instruments for crucial guidance about pitch, roll descent rate and altitude.

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Pilots are dependent upon the information gleaned from an array of very sensitive electronic signals generated both on the ground and on board, which provide critical safety and navigation parameters for an approach. Would a handheld device somewhere in the cabin affect these signals or worse, put out signals of it’s own that would interfere with aircraft systems?

Engineers say “maybe,” which is secret engineer (god love ‘em, they’ve built us some fantastic air machines) code for “we can’t rule that out.” Do you as a passenger want that “ruled out” as your flight approaches the concrete on instruments at 160 mph?

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A typical counter argument we often hear is this: “Sure, fly-by-wire (meaning, no direct cables to controls but rather, electronic servos) aircraft like the Airbus could be susceptible, but your average passenger jet actually does have cable controls, which are not subject to electronic interference.”

But the problem is, even those aircraft with direct control linkage, when operating on autopilot, are then controlled by servos that are susceptible to electronic interference. A stray signal can–and has–created a spurious autopilot input and when aircraft (fly-by-wire or control cable) are within feet of the ground, that interference can be disastrous.

Big picture answer, from the pilot perspective: we work hard to eliminate all variables in the safe approach to poor ceiling and visibility landings. We HAVE to ensure the validity of the data that substitutes for our own visual cues in order to land in marginal flight conditions, or we simply can’t–or won’t–land.

Which brings us to issue number two: compliance with federal regulations and flight crew instructions. And let’s get back to the youth group in question. Complaince is a binary–you either do, or don’t. There’s no room for “we think it’s okay to have our cellphones on in flight–so we won’t comply.”

They clearly don’t understand the binary nature of compliance or more importantly, the equally black and white nature of my options as a pilot, given the circumstances: I have to ensure the flight is operated in full compliance with all federal regulations (“cell phones and personal electronic devices off for taxi-out and take-off”), just as I have to–as noted above–be confident in the integrity of the instrumentation upon which I base our ability to safely fly.

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To make matters worse, albeit simpler, in today’s air travel environment, the issue of compliance is even more cut-and-dried than ever. Used to be, if we had an non-compliance issue, I could personally go back and explain the situation and gain the compliance we need to satisfy the ironclad regulatory and safety requirements mentioned above. Those days ended on September 11th, 2001. Now, pilots will by regulation (if not common sense) stay on the flight deck and simply enforce whatever the cabin crew requires to ensure compliance, period. Rule one in that dilemma is don’t take off with a problem you don’t want to handle again in the air or on landing.

There again is the simple binary: comply, or don’t fly.

Student group boarding the AirTran flight in Atlanta.

I don’t wish the kids involved in this incident anything other than better experiences in the future, although given the regulatory and safety explanations above, I can’t find it anything other than disappointing that some of them would try to make this an ethnic or racial incident.

In fact, summer time is all about student travel, often in large groups, and most are very well-behaved. I’m glad to be taking them on the first or last leg of their adventure. But maybe the primary lesson that needs to come before–and during–the educational experience is one regarding mandatory compliance with legitimate instructions: comply, or don’t fly.

And now they know why.

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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.

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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

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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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