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Flying Then As Now

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Jet Fuelishness

Posted in air travel, airline pilot blog, airliner, airlines, airport, flight crew, jet, passenger, pilot, travel with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 15, 2013 by Chris Manno

I’ve always agreed with the pilot maxim, “The only time you can have too much fuel is when you’re on fire.” But, as with all things in life, there’s a catch: first, you have to be able to lift the weight into the air, and second, you have to be able to bring the tonnage to a stop on landing.

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Two simple requirements, or so it would seem–yet nothing could be further from the truth. Let’s look at the second requirement: stopping distance.

All month I’ve been flying into John Wayne-Orange County Airport in Santa Ana. That’s by choice–I like the  typically favorable weather, plus the lack of ground traffic that makes for a quick in and out. Plus, the food options from Gerry’s Wood Fired Dogs to Ruby’s awesome turkey burgers rival the Udon, Cat Cora and Tyler Florence options at San Francisco International. But I digress.

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Today I’m flying the 737-800 from DFW to Santa Ana (SNA) and approximately 2 hours from takeoff, I’ll call Flight Dispatch and ask, “What fuel load are you planning today?” And he will say, “I don’t know.”

That’s because the flight planning system won’t issue a fuel load until one hour prior. I realize that–but as crew, we show up one hour prior and by then, the fuel is already being pumped into the jet. I want to shortstop a problem unique to SNA. That is, fuel is really expensive at some California airports, including taxes, airport assessments and surcharges. So it does make sense to “ferry” some fuel into those airports.

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That is, if I need an arrival fuel of say, typically, 5,200 pounds in order to have divert or go-around options at the destination, we fuel up to that total, then add “ferry fuel,” or an additional upload so as to require less refueling, buying less with the added fees, taxes and cost for the return flight.

Problem is, SNA has a fairly short runway (5,700 feet, versus 13,000 at DFW) making stopping distance is critical.

So, while extra fuel saves money on refueling (yes, you have to figure that it does exact a higher fuel burn inbound because of the additional weight), we still have to have a sufficient stopping margin.

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In all cases, the maximum landing weight of the jet based on the structural limit is 144,000 pounds which, on a dry runway, requires 5,300 feet out of the 5,700 feet available to stop. I discount headwinds, which are favorable, and simply disallow tailwind corrections: at 144,000 pounds, I require zero–I’m not even trifling with a 400 foot margin touching down at 150 knots.

So my effort in calling Dispatch is to intervene in the numbers game: do NOT plan max “savings” ferry fuel until you know what the zero fuel weight (passengers, cargo, empty jet–everything BUT fuel) is.

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Then subtract the zero fuel weight from 144,000 (max landing weight), deduct the planned enroute fuel burn and see what is left over–THAT , minus 2,000 pounds as a safety buffer (mine personally), and you’ll have a reasonable ferry fuel load.

The problem is, by the time I get to the jet, the “planned” fuel load–which doesn’t include the above calculation, because the zero fuel weight isn’t firm yet–is already aboard. If I do the math and find that we’ll be arriving weighing over the max landing weight, I have two choices: defuel (bad choice) before pushback or fly lower (dumb choice) to reduce the landing weight.

Both are bad options: if we defuel, that fuel must be discarded–trashed–because quality assurance standards wisely say you cannot take fuel from one aircraft’s tanks and meet the purity standards for another aircraft. So that’s money in the trash, plus a guaranteed delay to accomplish the defuel.

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The “fly lower” option works, but look what we’ve done: to “save” on return fuel, we’ve wasted thousands by flying at 24,000 feet versus 38,000 or 40,000 feet, just to squeak in under the maximum landing weight. And it’s bumpier and noisier down there among the cumulus clouds.

I always choose the second option, although I don’t always like landing at the maximum structural limit of the airframe on the shortest runway in the system. But, at least we can save the absolute maximum fuel for the return, rather than simply defueling into the trash.

On a longer runway, say LAX, stopping distance wouldn’t be a consideration, but the 144,000 pound limit is simply universal: doesn’t matter where you land, 144,000 pounds is max allowable. I need to intervene in the mathematics before the fuel goes on the jet outbound.

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The second, problem: the return. Dispatch may shave the arrival fuel to 5.0, which is sufficient, but there’s a catch. He’s planned us at a low altitude (29,000) because of chop reported in Arizona at the higher altitudes. If he’s right, at that lower altitude (FL290) I know from 38 years as a pilot that there will be both flight deviations for spacing or weather, or a choppy ride anyway.

So here’s what I personally do: I add another thousand for additional time and distance flexibility in case the turbulence forecast is correct–but I also plan to climb immediately to 39,000 feet to see for myself if the ride is choppy. That’s because I’ve just flown through that airspace inbound and know firsthand what the winds and the rides are, whereas the Dispatch and even the ATC reports are hours old. Plus, and again, this is based on over 22 years as an airline captain, I know we’re taking off at dusk and the entire thermodynamics of the air mass will change dramatically.

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So based on intuition, I’ll do the climb to 39,000 and “take the hit:” the early climb will be heavier and burn more fuel versus a later step climb, but my gut feel says we’ll regain that amount and more by cruising the longer time at the higher altitude. Notice I didn’t say 41,000, because I’m claiming a little pad because of the narrower range between high and low speed buffet at the max altitude. Plus, this time of year, surfing the jet stream at the higher altitudes will get you 510 knots or more across the ground. That’s the pay dirt of efficient flying.

Also, if I’m wrong, I did add the fuel pad up front. But I bet I’m not. The alternative is to fly lower (noisier, crowded, more weather) and experiment with the step climb–which burns fuel, too, and if you have to come back down because the ride’s bad, you’ll wish you hadn’t. But in the worst case, we’ll still land at DFW with a comfortable fuel pad.

And if I’m right, we’ll save a couple thousand pounds eastbound at the higher altitude and land fat on fuel. Fuel is time, to me, so nothing could be more important than more fuel.

Unless as I noted above, you’re on fire, or more realistically, as I’ve just explained, you’re trying to achieve the best outcome as efficiently as possible. Anything less is just plane fuelishness.

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Count the beads, fly the prayers.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Power control is key to airspeed.

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

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

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

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

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Motion Lotion: What’s the Commotion?

Posted in air travel, airline, airline pilot, airline pilot blog, airliner, flight crew, flight delays, jet, jet flight, passenger, pilot, travel with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 27, 2013 by Chris Manno

“The only time you can have too much fuel is when you’re on fire.” –Anonymous Pilot

Those are words to live by, in the flying business–but jet fuel is expensive. In fact, it’s just about the largest expense in the operation of the airline, which is why it makes sense to use fuel as sparingly but sensibly as possible. But as a passenger, what’s it to you?

Well, for starters, this:

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Do we go around it? Above it? Through? You won’t like the last option, but fuel is the double-edged sword in this fight: more means we’re heavier, which limits our climb. Plus, going around the weather will burn more fuel, limiting our options at our destination:

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We’re at 36,000 feet now, which is just about the optimum altitude. “Optimum” is a moving target: as you burn off fuel enroute, the jet gets lighter and the wing can handle a higher altitude, which means the engines can operate at a lower thrust setting, thus saving fuel. We’re within 200 feet of the max if we climb to 38,000 feet to top the weather. We can wait till the “max” readout shows “380,” or really, from experience, we know that in the time it takes to request and receive the clearance, plus what we’ll burn in the climb, we’ll be at the correct weight. But, there’s always a catch.

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The airspeed tape on the left shows us a very narrow operating range at the top end of our altitude capability. That is, your range of acceptable airspeed is from about 212 to about 245. The “chain” above that shows the area of high speed buffet, meaning parts of the aircraft, above that speed, will begin to go supersonic. More importantly, though, in my mind, is Mach tuck: swept-wing jets tend toward a pitch down near the high speed limit, and guess what a pitch down does: your high speed becomes even higher. In a jet, particularly a passenger jet, if you don’t recover aggressively and immediately, you will not be able to stop what will become a dive.

On the bottom of the tape is the yellow line we call “the hook,” which is the slow speed stall. If you go below that speed, your airfoil will stall, and you will fall.

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So, at 38,000 feet, we have very little margin between the high and low speed buffet, requiring extreme vigilance on our part: turbulence, mountain wave action, or a drastic updraft of any kind can push us beyond either speed limit. Which is also part of the balancing act the captain must perform:

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I insert a slower Mach number in order to cruise more toward the middle of the range between the high and low speed limits. That, too, though, will affect our arrival time, won’t it? But that’s a balance I feel can be maintained, knowing that we’ve picked up some direct routing already. I’d rather sacrifice some time (and really, fuel) to gain a better pad between any adverse effects (mountain wave, thunderstorm up drafts, windshear, clear air turbulence) that could push us into either boundary.

And, I’ve already checked: the winds at the higher altitude are more favorable. To be even more accurate, I’ve requested a data-linked update to our flight management system, updating the projected winds the computer is using to calculate the times, distances and fuel burn it displays because what we data-linked into the system on preflight hours ago may not still be accurate:

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The photo makes it hard to see, but the new, uplinked wind speeds are highlighted, all I need to do is push the “EXC” (execute) button and the entire nav calculation will be updated in a matter of seconds.

Climbing early has taken us out of more headwind earlier, so I believe the ETA will be largely unaffected. This hunch is borne out as we progress in our flight:

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We cross Pocatello, Idaho (PIH) six minutes ahead of schedule and up 700 pounds on fuel. If, however, the higher altitude winds were less favorable, we’d end up with the same result by going around the weather (more miles at regular cruise Mach)  as by climbing above the weather (less miles at a slower speed). The latter option is better, fuel-wise, as you can see from the fuel log above. But we’ll do whatever is safest and most optimum first, and worry about timing  later. Plus, if we don’t have what I consider a comfortable high speed-low speed margin at the higher altitude–we’re not climbing, we’ll just have to fly the additional miles (and minutes) around the storm.

It’s not just air miles between us and Seattle–it’s a constant balancing act of time, fuel, altitude and route. It all goes on steadily, quietly but relentlessly in the cockpit, but we all share the payoff in the end.

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Pilot Report: 737-Next Gen Heads Up Display.

Posted in air travel, airline, airline pilot, airline pilot blog, airliner with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 5, 2013 by Chris Manno

hud aaFirst Officers love to derisively grumble about the captain being a HUD cripple–meaning he can’t make a decent landing without the “HUD”–Heads Up Display.” Fine–count me in: I swear by the device.

HUDs are standard now on the Boeing 787 and I’ll bet there’s less grumbling from F/O’s for one good reason: now there’s a HUD on their side as well in the 787. On the 737-800, the HUD is only on the captain’s side.

I’ll admit that I had my doubts too when I first started the transition from MD-80 captain to 737 captain. How could Flight Management computers, ILS antennas GPS and symbol generators reliably synthesize a runway display before my eyes despite clouds and weather obscuration? Worse, without any ground-based approach aids, how could the jet’s computers and satellite receivers pinpoint our position close enough to allow for safe descent and approach–completely in the blind?

I’ll also admit, like everyone else learning to use the HUD, I was swimming in symbology and information at first. Add to that the transition from traditional round dial displays on the MD-80 to the more advanced flat-panel displays on the Boeing Next Gen jets and you have a real spaghetti bowl of information swirling in front of you and in the case of the HUD, it’s all in ghostly monochromatic green, compared to the color-sorted original display on the instrument panel that is reproduced in the HUD:

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But eventually, two things happen. First, you stop swimming in the symbology. Second, you learn after dozens of approaches in the clear as well as in the blind in weather that the system is reliable.

The first part, stopping the swimming is not as easy as it sounds but the trick is this: you have to embrace the theory of the flat panel display above that gives you a symmetry of information: airspeed tape on the left side, altitude tape on the right. Compare the two readouts between the photo of the information on the photo above, then on the HUD display above that. Note the markers indicating speed limits–we call it the “chain,” showing max speeds for configuration. That shifts as you change configuration–say, add or remove flaps.

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On the instrument panel, you see the chain in a different color–up top on the HUD, it’s all ghostly green. So two things have to happen. First, you stop looking at colors and discipline yourself to see and heed shapes–but that’s not all. Second, you learn to not look at the side  displays, but rather, incorporate shapes into your peripheral awareness. That is key: peripheral sense. keep both tapes, airspeed and altitude in your indirect awareness, alert for the shapes on each giving you cues to the restrictions. In the case of speed, it’s minimums and maximums (the “chains” counterpart on the low end is the “hook,” or stick shaker limit). In the case of altitude, same thing: level off or descent minimums, or climb level off points, or clean-up altitudes.

You don’t look “at” the HUD information, you look through it but incorporate the information as you go. I once counted all of the possible display symbology and counted nearly 60 pieces of information displayed. You could get lost trying to follow every piece of information, but the key is to just absorb whatever you can from the periphery as things change. Let’s put this into motion on an approach:

(note: the above is an embedded YouTube video. If your browser won’t animate it, just click here to watch)

Notice the slowly decreasing altitude on the righthand tape while the airspeed on the left remains stable. The radio altitude  is counting down near the center–obviously that’s important and so that information is near center of your focus and incidentally, near the touchdown point. The compass rose below the display shows the course track, but the only thing you care about is alignment–again, you’re simply maintaining symmetry by keeping that peripheral information lined up.

This video is slightly different from the 737-800 I fly in that there’s no “flare” cue in this depiction: that’s simply the word “flare” that anunciate above a line that appears indicating where to put the nose for a smooth touchdown. Also, the word “idle” annunciates to suggest when to remove power as the autothrottles pull back for touchdown.

The Flight Management System data-links in the runway data so the HUD target the touchdown accurately.

The Flight Management System data-links in the runway data so the HUD target the touchdown accurately.

The dot in the center of the aircraft symbol is the desired path, the symbol surrounding it–if you’re successful at keeping them aligned–is the “flight path vector,” a symbol indicating where the aircraft is aimed despite the apparent orientation. That is, in a crosswind, you may be canted 20 to 30 degrees to one side or the other, but the FPV shows where you’re actually headed.

This video stops at touchdown, but the HUD does not: when you select detail level 2 or 3 and the ILS antenna supports it, the HUD gives you a runway remaining countdown and centerline steering information–which can be very useful in low-visibility landings and take-offs :

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At my airline, we fly the HUD to the lowest minimum certified, as opposed to other Cat 3 certified aircraft that “autoland.” We never autoland–rather, with the aid of the HUD, the captain hand-flys every minimum visibility approach. Now that I have over a thousand hours in the 737-800 left seat, yes, I’m a “HUD cripple”–and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

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Breadcrumbs in the Jetstream.

Posted in air travel, airline pilot, airline pilot blog, weather with tags , , , , , , , on February 22, 2013 by Chris Manno

Used to be that in your first few hours of acrobatic flying that you had to consider how a meal would taste not only going down–but also coming back up later. Never, ever forget or underestimate the return trip.

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Just like scout camp: on the way out, remember that tree, the rock formation–picture how it’s going to look coming back on your way home. So flying eastbound, you keep in mind everything germane to your westbound return.

Isobars in the back of your head as you’re outbound. Big kink in the jet stream over Arkansas, and you know what that means: lesser wave to surf eastbound, but lesser tide to buck flying west. But you can already tell what’s going on after about thirty minutes of flight. As you expected, the big dip pivots over Arkansas where it’s mixing Gulf moisture gathered from the south with the coldest air from the north.

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Messy. But no worries eastbound–we’ll top it, for now. Other eastbounders won’t and it doesn’t hurt to pass the word back: looking better toward Walnut Ridge outbound to the northeast. The moisture’s making its stand here in southern Arkansas and looks to be planning to stick around. The kink in the jetstream isn’t going to sheer off the tops because it’s weaker–100 knots versus 150-160–when it courses straight out of the west.

Which means, for our return leg, bet we’ll need the southern arrival while this troubled air mass beats up the northeastern cornerpost into DFW. And since we can see that the jetstream velocity is less, no real problem coming back high in the 40,000 foot range instead of ducking under.

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Air Traffic Control relays the National Weather Service warning that already rolled off the datalink printer in hard copy: level 3 thunderstorms with hail and possible tornadoes over Texarkana. Which is right below us. And no kidding–our radar shows the hook-like purple edge that I’m sure we’ll read about in the morning paper: somebody seven miles below is looking at a wall of towering cumulus and likely, a twister screwing itself into the earth west to east.

But it’s all quiet up here. Ground stuff, groundling speed and flying dirt mean nothing at altitude–but the whole ugly mess gets stored away for future reference westbound. Which starts on the ground in the east.

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The old trusty Farmer’s Almanac of the sky thinking, the intangible notion my friend and the ultimate aviator Randy Sohn like to call “salt,” and I hope is “air sense:” no delays outbound, no crimp in the airway from planes deviating south. We’ll approach from the south, but will plan for at least one big reroute within the last 200 miles because the mess over Arkansas isn’t dissipating no matter what the National Weather Service predicts.  So here’s the fuel load that will work–ain’t what the system planned,  but it’s what I want. And what we’ll get.

Hours later, at 38,000 feet, the change comes: “Fly direct Little Rock for the arrival.” What? Could the ugly mess be moving south, and that fast?

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Here’s the direct Little Rock view: is it really moving south fast enough to justify the extra mile to double back to the north? If not, we’re throwing ourselves into it with fuel we don’t want to waste. If so, who’s not glad we have extra fuel on board? Thank you Farmer’s Air Almanac brain and Randy’s salt, we have the burn available–because the thunderbumper gang is moving like a freight train. Here’s a picture five minutes later and the storm has raked itself ten miles south:

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Remember, we’re just looking at the tops, radar auto-tilting down, and the ridge of thunderstorms is thundering like the mounted cavalry across central Arkansas, slashing and burning like Sherman on the march. We have plenty of cruise fuel and again, a silent, smooth ride high above the fistfight of Gulf moisture and the northern jetstream. Ringside seats. Quiet, smooth ride. Follow the breadcumbs, leavened with salt. Amen.

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That didn’t end well at the surface. But, that’s why we try to pass so quietly above. And why no one on board is any worse for the wear or wiser for the passage. Which is why we fly jets in the first place, right?

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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.

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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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