Archive for the life of an airline pilot

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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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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What to tell the new captain?

Posted in air travel, airline pilot blog, airlines, pilot with tags , , , , , , , , on October 25, 2013 by Chris Manno

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We’d flown together as crew so many times over the years, on both the MD-80 and the 737, that the cockpit was pleasantly quiet. That’s as it should be, below 10,000 feet, when all talk in the cockpit is required to be exclusively flight-related. I’m a big fan of the quiet cockpit, at all altitudes. That’s just me.

But near level off, as we settled in to cruise: fuel, good; center tank still above three thousand pounds, both boost pumps on, fuel burn only slightly behind (typical in climb), things slow down. Hydraulics, electrics, oxygen (how many years of HEFOE checks?), standing by for clearance direct to Wilson Creek if the Air Force restricted airspace isn’t active.

“What are you flying next month?” he asks, matter-of-factly. Over the years, we’d already covered the “where do you live,” kids, sports; all the regular stuff.

“Next month? I’m flying all Orange County turns; Wednesday, Thursday Friday.” Kind of get hungry thinking about the John Wayne-Orange County Airport: “Jerry’s Wood-Fired Dogs,” mega-brats that’ll get you through three thousand air miles stuffed to the gills. Great turkey burgers, too. “How ’bout you?”

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“Actually,” he says, still deadpan, “I’m checking out on this.”

That took a while to sink in, but what that means is, he’s upgrading–checking out, in pilot-speak–as captain on the Boeing.

That’s fantastic, a monumental lifetime achievement. Excellent news, and bad news just the same: he’s one of those dependable, journeyman, professional first officers who’ve been keeping me in one piece since I “checked out” as captain back in 1991. I’ll miss his excellent work.

“Great news!” I tell him, and I mean it. He’s been waiting for twenty years and now finally, the pinnacle of our airline pilot career is within his grasp. “You’ll do great! And you’ll be an excellent captain.”

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I know he will be, too. And there are about 5,000 hard lessons I’d like to share with him, stuff I’ve learned, often the hard way, from wearing four stripes myself for the past 22 years and counting. But one of the biggest lessons I’ve learned is to keep my mouth shut.

“I’ve watched the Part One CD-ROM they sent,” he says off-handedly. Part One is the FAA-approved legality manual for our flight operations. The captain’s authority and responsibility resides therein. “And,” he adds, “the CD-ROM for the HUD.” The HUD–Heads Up Display–is the cosmic imagery projected on the glass only in front of the captain, displaying a myriad of performance and navigation data for assimilation while looking outside and flying nonetheless. Takes a lot of getting used to.

Maybe I could comment? Don’t want to be pushy.

“The trick to the HUD,” I say casually, “I’ve found is this: you have to learn which 20% of the data” I point to the Primary Flight Display, which is repeated in the HUD projection, “you need to maintain in symmetry in your peripheral vision. And the addition 20% like the Flight Path Vector and energy trend that you need to look through and maintain. The the other 60%, you need to ignore, but know where to find instantly when you need it.”

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Let that float.

“That’s good,” he says. “I’m looking for any advice you can give me.”

Well there are a thousand hard-earned, hard-learned lessons he’ll need to know. Those times in flight where the options shrink, you’re dealing with crap unforeseen but real as a heart attack. The regs let you do things they’ll hang you for later–if you survive. You’ll wish you had more fuel, more time, more airspeed and a do-over–but you won’t.

And afterward, you’ll sit stunned in a crew bus and exchange a glance with another captain, words unspoken, but looks saying holy shit, I can’t believe we pulled that off and I’ll never let myself get talked into that again. You won’t be sure where his First Officer is–or yours, for that matter–at that moment. But without the responsibility, the authority, and the direct charge for the lives and the fifty million dollar jet, they probably don’t have permanent creased countenance of heavyweight concern looking back–and forward–as they head home.

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Whoa, mule: not so fast. You think you could have taken all that in twenty-two years ago when you first pinned on captain’s wings? Go easy.

“Well,” I say, carefully, “If I could give you one piece of advice, it would be this: make an effort, a real effort, to say ‘no’ often and firmly.”

I let that hang in the air for a minute. He’s nodding slowly, looking at me intently.

“Because I have to say, honestly,” I continue deliberately, “I’ve had more regret over what I’ve said ‘yes’ to than I’ve ever had over saying ‘no.’

And we’re biased as captains towards ‘yes.’ We want to make things work, we’re confident in our ability, we want to best all challenges, prove how good we are, that we’re worthy of the rank, the authority, the profession–especially when you’re brand new in the left seat.

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It’s actually harder to say ‘no,’ and start with yourself: we cannot, will not rush to get there, to get home, to get paid, to make connections. A hundred and fifty-nine passengers and other crew get that luxury–we don’t, as captain, and we’ll answer for it if we cross the line for all the wrong reasons. Say ‘no-go’, refuse a clearance restriction (especially a climb), say go-around, divert, refuse the fuel load (I have NEVER been hassled for asking for more), refuse the maintenance fix, even the aircraft, if you believe that’s right.

Our airline’s Chief Pilot will back you 100% if you’re trying to do right, to be safe, to be smart–by saying ‘no.’  And though it’s usually simpler and easier to say ‘yes,’ you’ll wish you hadn’t a thousand times over at 40,000 feet and 500 knots when you’re looking for salvation–and you’re it.”

Quiet again. He’s thinking. He knows I’m not kidding–and I’m sure as hell not. Welcome to the fraternity, the exclusive realm of complete authority, total accountability, and a challenge every day more than equal to the rewards and satisfaction that go hand-in-hand when you get it right. Maybe not perfect, but right–every damn time.

I smile to myself, thinking back, thinking ahead. He’ll do great, I know, probably better than I ever did.

And so it goes: check the fuel burn, the nav accuracy, the time over the next waypoint. Looking back is fun, but forward is where we’re headed. Time to earn those stripes, yet again.

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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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Holiday Air Travel Tips 2012

Posted in air travel, airline, airline pilot blog, airliner with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 2, 2012 by Chris Manno

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This year we’re going to do the holiday air travel tips different, for one good reason: leisure fliers never do what airline industry insiders recommend. Don’t know why; maybe travelers already know everything, maybe they don’t care—maybe they just don’t like to be told what to do.

Regardless, since air travelers so often seem to do the exact opposite of whatever the airline industry recommends, here’s our new approach:

–Don’t prepare ahead of time. Nada—no collecting your travel info (flight numbers, departure times) in one handy place. Rather, have a bunch of papers with boarding passes, itineraries, receipts and even hand-scrawled notes, cram them into your bag somewhere and pull them out, act confused and look for someone (and there are PLENTY of airport staffers ready help you!) to untangle the mess for you. Much easier than having your act together and your travel information at your fingertips!

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–Bring your dog, and let the dog out of its kennel in the airport public areas! Everyone loves your dog, no one is allergic to your dog, and other dogs won’t react adversely to your taking “just a little break” out of the required carrier, on or off the plane, right? And do ignore whatever “business” it does on the floor because “It’s no big deal” and the airport has “people to handle that,” of course. So no one else in the airport could possibly worry about health hazards.

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–Don’t pack sensibly. In fact, just bring everything that fits into your suitcase—never mind sorting out liquids or cosmetics; those will be sorted for you by the TSA. That’s what the screening is for, and the passengers in line behind you aren’t in a rush to get on their flights anyway.

–Do not put your name inside your luggage! If you do, once the flimsy luggage tag is torn off, the airline will know who owns the suitcase, rather than sending it on a Disney-worthy odyssey to the Land of Lost Toys. You want that, don’t you?

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–Rely on the airlines for your basic caloric needs. Food has been plentiful on the airlines since about 1965, remember? So why shouldn’t you expect in the course of your 6 hours of travel that the airline will cater a meal for you? Don’t bring non-perishable snack for yourself and please, don’t bring water aboard the plane. Some nutty people actually have reusable water containers that they fill up after security, then bring them on board to ensure their own hydration. Crazy, right?

redneck–Dress like a bum or a heroin addict. That makes it seem natural to all the service personnel that you’ll encounter that you have high expectations, even with questionable taste and hygiene, and so they’ll be ready to work closely and cheerfully with you. Please wear your headphones, have your music jacked up so that when the Flight Attendants ask you if you’d like a beverage, you can say, “What?” for the thousandth time in their very long day.

–Once you board the aircraft, hog all of the overhead bin space near your seat. Realize when the flight attendants announce on the P.A., “Overhead bins are shared space—please place one small hand-carried article under the seat in front of you,” they don’t mean “you” as in you. Rather, it’s the “Smokey the Bear” type “you:” like only “you” can prevent forest fires,” which doesn’t mean you personally, right? That’s everyone but you—and they know it. Act like you don’t even hear the P.A. as other passengers struggle to get their items stowed.

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–Once your flight reaches your destination and parks at the gate, as soon as the seatbelt sign is turned off, do not remain comfortably seated. Rather, immediately jump up and either stand uncomfortably hunched over because of the overhead bin, or crowd into the aisle even though the door isn’t even open and you’re not going anywhere anyway until all of the passengers in front of you have gathered their belongings and moved up the aisle. Why wait? Cram yourself into the aisle.

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There, now you have the latest “do’s” and “don’ts” and it’s up to you to sort out one from the other. Hope this new way of passing the information registers in a useful way but regardless, when human nature takes over and the “me first” priority rules the day, at least you’ll have a tall tale about your awful trip to regale your friends with. Bon voyage!

Special Note: as of today, JetHead has had 300,915 visitors.

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Ask an Airline Pilot

Posted in air travel, airline pilot blog with tags , , , , , on August 13, 2012 by Chris Manno

Have questions you want to ask an airline pilot but don’t have one handy? Or you notice that they’re busy with pre-flight duties (thanks for noticing and for not interfering) so you don’t say anything?

Here are the questions I get asked most often, with the best answers I can come up with:

1. Do personal electronic devices interfere with aircraft systems?

Answer: Here’s what you have remember about aircraft systems and electronic devices. First, many handheld or personal devices create an electronic signal, particularly if they have a cord of some type. Aircraft systems are constantly seeking out specific electronic signals from everything from Global Positioning Satellites to ground-based antennae for communications and navigation.

Further, even within the aircraft, there are electronics creating and transmitting electronic signals between systems for both navigation and control of other aircraft systems–including flight controls. It’s important that only the required signals are received by specific on-board systems and yes, extraneous electronic impulses can interfere with those required for control of various navigation and control functions.

Most have backups with non-electronic signals. For example, on the 737-800, the engines are controlled by an advanced solid-state dual system we call EECs. For every throttle movement, the EEC computers are sending impulses to the fuel control based on hundreds of minute electronic inputs from computers, sensors, instrumentation, and pre-programmed performance parameters. Worst case, though, if there is an interference problem or a failure, the system reverts to a “dumb” mode, simply using the old direct throttle and hydro-mechanical linkage. So in this case, any electronic interference is not a major problem–just an inefficiency.

Ditto in the approach mode: the aircraft navigation systems are receiving and displaying course and altitude data from ground-based antennae. If there’s a conflict or interference, we simply don’t use the data. That only changes the minimum descent altitude which again, is an efficiency issue: might have to divert if we can’t descend below the weather.

A final and more important consideration is in play though, when it comes to personal handheld devices during critical phases of flight. That is, the personal attention of the passengers–which needs to be directed to the crew. Not watching a video, or typing a text message, or listening to music. In critical phases of flight, passengers need to focus on and attend to the instructions of the crew.

2. How fast are we going on take-off and landing?

Answer: Well, it varies based on aircraft weight and flap configuration, but you can pretty much figure in a large jetliner that both the take-off and touchdown speed will be between 130 and 155 miles per hour (of course we use nautical miles per hour for our calculations). The jet will normally fly about ten knots shy of the computed take-off speed, but that is a minimum that doesn’t ensure maneuvering speed margins.

Speeds on takeoff and landing are always a spectrum of choices for the pilots. On take-off, we consider the climb gradient required due to obstacles or terrain ahead. More flaps offers a higher climb gradient and a lower take-off speed. A lower flap setting requires more runway for take-off but most likely can allow for a reduced power setting, important points for engine life and even noise considerations.

The short runway at Santa Ana's John Wayne Airport is always a performance challenge for both take-off and landing.

On landing, the higher flap setting allows for a slower approach speed, which is key when landing on a short runway. An interesting point you may not realize is that by design, the profile speeds for the stretched aircraft like the 737, 757 and 777 are artificially boosted to keep the nose position relatively low through both the take-off and landing rotations. That’s because the geometry of the stretched fuselage leaves a critically small margin between the tail and the runway on both maneuvers: in the 757, you have about 18 inches between the tailcone and the runway on take-off rotation and landing flare–not really much clearance. The higher approach speeds keep the nose lower.

Of course, upon landing on a short field like Santa Ana or even Washington Reagan or LaGuardia, the last thing you want is excess speed to absorb in stopping. No worries though: Boeing has given us the toughest landing gear and brakes in the air today.

3. Are most landings done by automation?

Answer: No. In fact, very few are, for a couple of good reasons. First, the ground based antenna must be kept free of any obstructions, and that specification and guarantee is only provided in very low visibility, which in itself is unusual. I mean that literally too: the airport physically ensures that no ground traffic of any kind–airport vehicles or aircraft–taxies by the antenna while an aircraft  is using the signal for landing guidance.

If the antenna isn’t specifically certified as free from any interference, the landing will not be automatic. Also, a special crew certification is required for autoland, and not all aircraft are equipped to do it: MD-80s, 757s, 767s and 777s  can all autoland if the correct conditions exist. But the 737-800 I fly does not have the capability to autoland. Rather, we have the cosmic Heads Up Display that allows me, the captain, to land with no ceiling and only 300 feet of forward visibility:

I can “see” the runway through whatever weather shrouds the actual runway–because the GPS system synthesizes a runway which exactly overlays the actual runway and I’m watching it all the way down. So at least in the 737-800′s I fly, you’ll never have an autoland and will always have a hand-flown approach and landing. And even when I flew the autoland-capable MD-80, I’d perform maybe one or two actual autolands per year. So the answer, generally speaking, is no, aircraft aren’t normally landed “automatically.”

Whatever the visibility, the Boeing-737-800 at my airline is landed by hand.

The last question that goes with the group of “most asked” I won’t even answer, and I usually don’t when inevitably, someone has to ask: “Where is the   nearest bathroom?” The answer is, “I’ve answered the important questions above–I’ll leave this one up to you.”

Podcast: JetHead Live with Astronaut Mike Mullane

Posted in podcast with tags , , , , , , , on January 18, 2012 by Chris Manno

What’s it like to ride over 4 million pounds of explosive thrust into earth orbit? Three times?

What’s the future of U.S. manned space flight?

All this and more as we go one-on-one with Astronaut Mike Mullane, author of New York Times acclaimed book, “Riding Rockets.”


To download or listen with your own audio player:

JetHead Live with Astronaut Mike Mullane

_________________________________________________________________

Next week on JetHead Live:

What’s it like to fly the Boeing 707, 727, 737, 757, 767, and 777?

To find out, we go one-on-one with a pilot who’s flown them all–Boeing Instructor Captain Mark Rubin.

The Annual Pilot Beating: A Love-Hate Thing.

Posted in flight training, pilot with tags , , on September 17, 2011 by Chris Manno

On take-off roll, a few knots past (of course!) maximum stopping speed, the left engine started to surge and compressor stall. I knew it as much from feel as from the engine instrument stack, although I glanced at it anyway. Trip the autothrottles off–don’t want them screwing with the power setting, chasing the N1– “Continue” I say to the First Officer who is making the take-off.

Without a word, he continues the climbout profile, even as I tell him, based on the gages, “Left engine failure.” We wait; no rushing, although I did call the tower, “Flight 914 declaring an emergency, we’re going straight ahead and will need a downwind at 4,000 feet.”

“Climb and maintain 8,000 feet if you can,” comes the answer. Shrug. Why eight? I think I know.

Sure enough, just prior to the base turn, lights flicker out, then emergency power shows a Christmas tree of warnings. Double engine failure. Flight 914 is now a 139,000 pound metal glider.

I’d started the Auxiliary Power Unit right after the first failure–kind of a reflex–having it ready to cover the lost generator once we reached a safe altitude. Good fortune; I connected both electrical distribution buses to the spun-up APU, then executed the rote memory items for double engine failure.

But what’s not a memory item is hard to forget: a windmill start is not likely at pattern speed. Descending at best glide angle means a slow speed and shallow descent, windmilling start requires more smash and a steep descent–not really comfortable at eight thousand–but necessary to get at least one engine running. Do it.

Sure, the APU is running, but what are the chances of pulling off that bleed configuration switcheroo correctly while attempting the double restart (hack the clock each time, remember?) and watching the ground come up to meet us?

My F/O is a Marine–you can always count on them, solid in every situation, and he’s no different–and it’s clear he doesn’t like trading the altitude for restart speed. I don’t either, but I’m doing the three dimensional geometry just as I know he is: about three times the altitude is the glide range. We’re good for way more than we need and in fact, gauging the distance and altitude I bet we’ll need some drag to get down to the runway. But trading off the altitude for restart leaves you no options. The Boeing is an energy miser–flies all day with that big wingleted wing and only grudgingly slows or descends.

“Give me at least 250,” I say, going through the restart procedure on both engines. Sure, the left one failed and might have internal damage, but it’s better than nothing. F/O lowers the nose a little more. Rotation on the dead engines picks up.

Over my left shoulder I’ve got the runway in sight. I want to say screw the restart, I’ll take it and deadstick it in. I have great faith in this excellent Boeing wing, with or without engines.

“I’m getting some N2 on two,” I say. Grudgingly, it’s coming back to life. Anything’s better than nothing.

Minutes later, we touch down and I brake us to a stop. “Excellent,” says the evaluator, one of two on board in the full motion simulator.

Yes, I know it’s a sim; but I also want to know how the jet flies under all conditions and what the timing, control feel and workload is like. Nobody’s willing–me included–to try this in the $60-million dollar jet, so we practice in the $5-million dollar simulator.

This is the second half of my every nine month beating. The first half is an evaluation: a line flight with various problems (mechanical, weather, legality, performance) thrown in. Prior to the two hour sim is a two hour “briefing,” which is one part information and two parts oral exam for you–and don’t stumble on any of the three full pages of memory items, never mind the hundreds of operating limitations numbers. Do it all  correctly and the two hours the flight examination portion is complete–then on to the second half, advanced flight maneuvers. In total, it’s a very slow-creeping six hour oral and flight exam.

The Inquisition: the oral exam before the simulator checkride.

And if you screw it up–which is to say, below standard in any area of standard procedure, emergency procedure or regulation; botch any maneuver, and your license is suspended.

We progress on to the final two hours of vital practice with windshear escape, mountainous terrain escape, inflight upset (pitch up, invert, recover without ripping any parts off the jet) and various fires and failures.

Every nine months, an airline pilot’s license and virtually, his career, is on the line. Every six months, the flight physical adds more jeopardy: beyond just the physical exam itself there’s the EKG that is data-linked directly to FAA Headquarters for analysis–they’ll make a determination as to whether you retain your medical certificate or not for another year.

Can’t worry about that stuff. Can’t do anything but dread the every nine month simulator beating and exam–but also, you have to welcome the opportunity: I want to practice the emergency procedures in real time, sharpen my reactions, test my judgment under pressure, my ability to problem-solve with complex and multiple problems. It’s a confidence builder, a necessary beating in order to lift an eighty-ton jet off the runway with 167 souls on board with complete confidence in my ability to get the jet and the folks back on the ground safely come whatever challenge.

That’s the price and the privilege of being an airline pilot. The smart pilots know you can’t have the latter without the former and though it never makes the ordeal easier, it does make the privilege all the better in every way.

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